Ballad of the Faerie's Champion: Stagnation - Part Three
Gary was relieved to see the towering spires of Brightvale castle rising up over the horizon. He had been born in Brightvale City, and seldom left it for most of his childhood. For him, the city was home.
But it was clear that the purple Uni whose back he sat astride did not feel the same.
"Back to the land of books and petty politics," Ohu drawled. The massive, shaggy furred Uni sighed, his chest expanding between Gary's legs as he did so. "Though maybe Valrigard can find something in one of those dusty old tomes to teach you some strategies for handling ambush situations other than 'I'll be a meatshield while someone else runs off to get help.'"
"'Ey, I didn't hear you offering any better ideas," Gary pointed out irritably. But his knight master was only slightly ahead of them in the formation, and realizing that the Draik could probably hear every word that was exchanged between Bori and Uni, Gary deflated. "But aye, I coulda handled it better."
"'Hey' and 'could have,'" Ohu corrected. "Grammar, squire."
"I've been trying," the Bori grumbled. "It's just hard y'kno- you know. It's how I've talked all my life."
The Uni grunted. "At any rate, you've got a good head on your shoulders. You just need to learn how to use it."
"Aye, I get it," Gary replied, ears flattening.
He glanced around to where Ayame was following them, her Uni almost as bulky and shaggy-coated as his. According to Ohu, who had been born in Abyssal Acres, all Unis from that holding looked that way. The shaggy fur helped them with the cold and wet, and their size was good for forcing a path through thick mud. It was clear from Ayame's expression, however, that the ride was extremely uncomfortable for her. Gary's height made him a good match for his exceptionally large Uni, but the Kougra was much more petite.
Normally this wouldn't have been as much of an issue, since ladies usually rode sidesaddle. Unfortunately for Ayame, it was far too dangerous to perch so precariously on a Uni's back when they were flying. Instead the Kougra was wearing a pair of lady's flight breeches, and was riding astride like the knights were. However, while knights practiced riding all the time, and in fact some of them practically lived in the saddle, a fine lady such as Ayame had very little experience riding. And the journey between Abyssal Acres and Brightvale City was some hours.
"You alright, m'lady?" he asked tentatively. Though he'd exchanged words with the noblewoman a few times before, and had in fact been protecting her when the Werelupes attacked him, he wasn't sure to what degree he had the right to address her informally. Certainly she didn't seem to stand on ceremony much, but Valrigard or one of the other nobles might chide him for it. But Illusen had asked him to keep an eye on her...
To his relief, the Kougra smiled. "I'll survive. Though I imagine that I'll probably be sore for a good long while. It's my own fault for not practicing more."
"Least we're almost there," the Bori replied, gesturing to the castle. "You can have a hot soak once you get settled at the castle."
"It's a little more complicated than that, Garrett," Valrigard put in, making Gary jolt in surprise. The Bori hoped he hadn't said anything imprudent. The Draik sighed as he went on. "As non-noble military personnel you have a permanent residence in the castle barracks, so for you coming back to the castle from a mission is as easy as walking into one's own house. Since she was not announced in advance, our lady will have to have an official audience with His Majesty before the process of setting up a guest room in the palace can even begin. And there's no telling how long she'll have to wait for him to see to her. In the meantime she'll have to stand in the audience chamber until the king arrives- however long that may take."
Gary winced. As often as being the penniless son of a brickmaker had worked against him in his life, the Bori was glad he hadn't been born a noble. Having to make everything into a sort of ceremony seemed like a very tiring, boring way to live.
"It can't be helped," Ayame said with determined cheer. "I knew that this wasn't going to be a vacation. I'm here for my people, not myself. You needn't look so affronted on my behalf, Garrett."
The squire coughed, feeling his face grow hot under his fur. He'd forgotten how blunt and forthright Ayame could be. "So what about us? We gonna escort her in?"
"The prince will accompany her, of course, seeing as she's his guest," Valrigard replied. "But nothing of import will be discussed today so none of the rest of us are needed. You and I have other business to attend to, my young squire."
Gary's fur bristled slightly with excitement at that remark. What could Valrigard mean?
"Well, see to it that this business doesn't distract you from seeing to our needs," Ohu drawled. "The lack of hands makes it difficult to comb dried mud out of our fur, and I'm sure all of us could go for some echtooh melon and a hot pease porridge!"
The other Unis all chorused their agreement, and Valrigard chuckled, smacking his own mare's neck indulgently. "I've been at this long enough not to forget something like that. You'll all be spoiled like a kadoaties, I promise."
* * * * *
By the time the Unis had been scrubbed down and fed, Gary was exhausted and filthy. He doubted the shirt he was wearing would be salvageable even if it was soaked in a vat of bleach.
"Seems we brought half of Abyssal Acres home all over ourselves," Valrigard remarked with dry humor. "Go wash up and get changed, then meet me outside the barracks."
"Yes, sir," Gary replied with relief. He darted off down the hallway towards the training wing of the palace, where pages and squires not out with their masters lived. The last thing he wanted was to make a bad impression on the residents of the palace by wandering around covered in mud and sweat.
When he emerged from the bath, however, he found a surprise waiting for him on his bunk- a set of mail shirts in his size, with wing slits hewn into the back. No surprises there, with as much as Gary had been growing vertically in the past few years the local blacksmith knew him by name and probably had his measurements on file. If Valrigard had sent word ahead the smith could have easily fashioned a few mail shirts to get the squire by until his others could be adjusted.
But more surprising was a fresh set of tabards lying on the bed beside the chain mail. Up until now, all of Gary's tabards had been green and gold, with the Brightvale coat of arms on the front. This one was deep, dark red, sporting a red shield rimmed with yellow. Emblazoned on the shield was a brown tree on a curved yellow field.
It was the house colors and family arms of the Pyrfell Bay duchy. Valrigard's home fief. The Bori felt like something had become caught in his throat as he picked up one of the new tabards. It was like in that moment, it suddenly became real. After three long, humiliating years of waiting, he really had his own knight master. He could finally wear the colors of a fief instead of the generic Brightvale shield.
He quickly pulled the mail shirt on, wincing a bit as the heavy links weighed down on his delicate wings. Then he took one of the new tabards, and slipped it on over the mail shirt. He darted over to the washroom again, to comb through his hair before meeting up with Valrigard- and to admire the look of the red Pyrfell Bay shield against his pale blue fur.
Satisfied that he was presentable, the Bori walked out into the hallway to find his master waiting for him- as well as a pair of strangers. The Draik looked up when Gary emerged, and gestured for him to come closer.
"Squire, these are the Brightvale Royal Historians," he said, gesturing to the duo. One was an aging striped Ogrin woman, and the other a starry Lupe boy who couldn't have been older than thirteen or fourteen.
"Hello, lad," the Ogrin said cheerfully, reaching out a hand for the Bori to shake. "My name is Ethel Sallashta. And this lad is my apprentice, the newest prodigy out of the Academy. He goes by Xeln Hawkins."
Gary took the Ogrin's hand in his own, wondering what she and her apprentice wanted with him. He was mildly disconcerted by the way the Lupe in particular was looking at him- as if he were a particularly intriguing specimen of beetle under a magnifying glass.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma'am," Gary replied, taking particular care with his diction. The last thing he wanted was to come across as an uneducated street bum to these educated people. "My name's Garret Diamonte."
Valrigard's tail swished, and he folded his arms. "Mrs. Sallashta and Mr. Hawkins are here to take care of a formality that needs to be addressed now that we've finished our business at Abyssal Acres. As historians, their job is to chronicle all major events in the country, so they'll be asking the both of us a few questions about what happened."
"Your account is of particular value to us, seeing as you were one of the ones to discover the presence of Werelupes among the bandits," the Ogrin added. "And then there are the... interesting changes that were wrought on you but Lady Illusen. I'm sure someone at the academy will be interested in exploring the potential ramifications of this magic."
Gary desperately hoped that Ethel was wrong on that point- the last thing he wanted was to be someone's science experiment. The starry Lupe was still staring at him, an odd expression that Gary couldn't quite name on the younger Neopian's face. The Bori couldn't help but wonder if elsewhere in the palace, Ayame was undergoing similar scrutiny by King Talren.
"Keeping everything written down seems like a good notion to me," Gary replied diplomatically, trying to keep his tail from twitching with his nerves. Taking a deep breath, he asked, "Where do you want me to start?"
To be continued...