Caught Between Kingdoms: Part Four
Redemption no longer seemed to matter. Each step seemed like a mile, each minute stretched on for hours. And after much time had passed where he was walking alone, his body was chilled to the core. With so many years of service, it seemed unreal that Lord Kass would charge him of treason. After all, who else did he praise for having such a strong swing and an undying allegiance? One day he was the favored General of an impenetrable city and the next, a wanted Eyrie.
Seeing that his men wanted to hunt him down, going back to the Citadel seemed, for now, quite impossible. On the other hand, each time he pictured the Lupe farmer, a surge of guilt battered his already worn out mind. A tear always rolled down the farmer's face. The doll hiding within his pocket flopped back and forth as if shaking its head in disgust.
"Perhaps I have done a wrong." A mist of warm air expelled into the air. It seemed to dissipate almost instantly. And perhaps all I know is wrong as well.
One paw gave way as he tumbled to the ground, beak chattering and his body violently shivering.
Move! His mind shouted, but he could not. Come on, Move! Even raising his head towards the cloudy sky seemed like lifting a ton of bricks. The darkness seemed to grow more and more powerful the longer he lay. Maybe being captured was not such a terrible fate after all.
As the night began to overwhelm him, a sudden burst of light fell from the sky and twirled as if dancing to some sort of ancient melody. It pirouetted upon the Eyrie's beak and bounced into his eyes, now closing slits. It burst within every fiber of his being. Instead of being painful, it felt warm and soothing as a quietly burning hearth. The ache in his shoulders still remained; only the weariness seemed to fade.
Soul set ablaze by a sudden burst of life, the Eyrie jolted from the ground and turned about. Nothing was there but the empty, lonely night.
"What in Neopia just happened..." he breathed, swishing his tail back and forth anxiously.
He began to walk forward as the first rays of light spread over the horizon; a pallet of colors marched across the sky. Albeit a welcome surprise, the light made him feel a certain dread. He drew in a tense breath. Feeling dew drops on his feathery wings, he felt weighed down, heavier. On top of everything else, the soldiers were surely following not too far behind him, even if they did not know it. Without a weapon, shelter or stable footing on two legs, he would not last long. 'Easy prey,' they might say.
From many Intel reports, a long list of known Meridellian "safe houses" protected the last of the Meridellian rebels living on the outskirts. The untrained ones, at least. Targeting such places would typically be the norm, but given the current emergency involving his "treachery," such grievances could not compare. After some deliberation, however, only one place truly stood out as a haven: Meridell, the last enemy stronghold. The city they had pledged peaceful relations to in the preceding years. How ironic it seemed that the city where that wretched king resided would ultimately be his salvation. Sighing in disgust, he continued on, angry thoughts buzzing in his mind.
Hours of non-stop traveling took quite a toll on Setarian. Still, rest no longer seemed like a priority, only survival. By the next evening, the General's ears perked up at nearly anything, whether a rustle in the wind or even the distant calls of a Whoot.
In the last remaining minutes of daylight, at a time when only a few rays still peaked over sloping hills and scattered into an array of stars, the outline of a magnificent white castle peaked above a grove of lush trees. In a matter of minutes, torch light illuminated an otherwise dark city. With little trouble and probably a great deal of luck, the Eyrie managed to slip by the gate without a problem.
Wobbling slightly, he weaved through a maze of dilapidated homes until he found one that contained an old stable. A light push opened the door, which creaked loudly at his entry. Musty hay and bedding lining the cobweb covered barn. Only the sounds of occasional squeaks—hungry Petpets, he hoped—could be heard. While perhaps the barn's accommodations paled in comparison to even the lowest manner of citadel homes, it provided shelter and more importantly, a place to finally stop and think. And only one thought could come to mind:
Will Lord Kass even forgive me? What can I do to make amends for my misgivings?
He pushed away the hay (gagging only a couple of times) to create a barren, but less grungy, bed. Lying upon the ground, he tossed and turned, finding no place even remotely comfortable. With a huff, his eyes closed, but he remained in a half-asleep daze.
It only seems like a matter of time that a Meridell spy—which is basically all of them—will turn me in for some sort of reward...
After perhaps an hour of sleep, the blinding sunlight startled him awake. He groaned. Accursed Meridell sunshine. Why must it be so bright? If the hay did not inch his skin, he might have stayed there longer.
Well, there aren't pitchforks and torches after me yet, he thought in a sleepy daze, still remaining on one side. While picking off bits of rotting hay from his face, thoughts of a frighteningly long dream danced in his mind. One look at his small, talonless paws said otherwise.
It'll take a miracle to save me now. He shook his head, watching clumps of dirt fall to the ground. It seems the only way Kass will accept me is if I do something spectacular, like take down King Sk—
"That's it," he whispered. "If the king is eliminated, Meridell will be without an heir. The kingdom will fall and will be easy prey to Lord Kass."
After raising up and brushing off any noticeable filth, he started to sneak through the city. Carts filled with all sorts of goods raced down the cobblestone paths as if possessed. Peddlers sold everything from bottles to flowers and even wooden swords. They sounded off like sirens all around him, begging for a sale. Never before had Setarian seen so many non-Darigans in one place. It sent shivers up his spine. In order to avoid eye contact from curious locals, in particular the overly aggressive salesmen, he stared towards the ground as if following the path of some unseen insect.
Any one of these civilians could recognize me. If that happens... His head shook, chasing away such thoughts.
He may have continued along his way if not for a sudden detour. Between two shops stood an Usul woman carrying a basket of brightly colored flowers. The flamboyant colors of her patchwork dress seemed faded after years of being washed out. Long, oval ears were wrapped by a striped headscarf. Her most striking feature, however, were a pair of blue eyes of a shade just a hair lighter than his. She stared vacantly towards the castle walls. As Neopians passed, she hardly paid them heed besides an occasional unenthused sales pitch. Setarian stared at the woman, fascinated by her every move.
"Are you interested in buying a flower, little one?" The line seemed mechanic, as if every passing child heard something similar.
Setarian shook his head, still intently focused on the elaborate weaving of her outfit. A sudden touch on the shoulder broke his trance as her face, young but worn, came close to his. His heart began to pound.
"...You have our eyes," she whispered, ignoring the calls of an interested customer. "It is not often that I see someone with such eyes." From the inside of her basket she removed a dainty white flower with a long, twisting stem. "Such an occasion deserves a gift, don't you agree?"
Setarian looked away, but out of the corner of his eye, he could see the paw retreating.
"You don't want it?" she asked, a twinge of sadness in her voice.
"I-I-I..." Something about this woman seemed strangely familiar, which was odd, given that they had never met.
"Is 'I' all you can say?" She chuckled lightly, a smile creeping across her face. A paw extended below Setarian's beak and cradled it, causing him to flinch. "You have nothing to fear in me," her silky voice cooed. "Now, little one, could you perhaps tell me your name? I would love to know."
Just as the General opened his mouth to speak, a rather upset looking Kiko bounced up between the two of them.
"Hey, you!" the Kiko shouted into her ears between bounces. "How many times do I have to tell you that I want to buy some flowers? Given how old and dirty your clothes are, it looks to me like you could really use the money!"
Setarian felt a tugging sensation in his heart as if it were being squeezed. Tension built up in his body and erupted. One of his paws latched onto the Kiko's arms and gripped it tightly.
"You would do best to leave this woman alone," he roared, blue eyes blazing like a blizzard. "Or better yet, first give her an apology, then all of the money you have on hand."
She brought both of her paws up against her mouth in shock, dropping the basket to the ground, but said nothing.
"And if I don't?"
"If you don't by choice, I'll take it by force."
The Kiko laughed. "Really? I'd love to see you try."
As if a wire snapped within Setarian's brain as he tackled the Kiko head first, pushing him against a pile of scrolls. Both coins and nearby Meridellians scattered in all directions. The Kiko backed up against a shop front. His eyes were wide with fright. Before Setarian could pounce again, he bounced away down the winding roads, whimpering for help. No one but the mildly curious seemed to be around. The impassive glances of various Neopians viewed the scene from afar, but all of them continued on their way without comment.
After every coin had been picked up, Setarian presented them to the Usul all while balancing on two legs. Instead of being thanked with abundant compliments and joy, as he imagined, her face was twisted with sadness. Her eyes glittered with the same intensity that his did, but they seemed to reflect specks of auburn amidst otherwise blue seas.
"I was mistaken. Perhaps we do not have the same eyes after all."
The coins clattered to the ground.
"But he was being cruel to you for no reason! Surely that merits a reason to strike back?"
"So eloquent for one so young," she began with a hushed chuckle, placing a few of the fallen coins into a small quilted coin purse. "He too must have reasons for being angry; war does terrible things to all affected by it." Her head turned towards the castle, brow furrowed.
"I can tell you are not of this land and its conflicts," Setarian stated while she turned back, "yet you harbor no grudges for either side?"
Her gaze again traveled towards the castle before she shrugged, blue eyes dimming. "Why choose to hate when all sides have suffered? We are all Neopians, after all, no matter our origin." She remained silent for just a moment, staring directly into Setarian's eyes. "Cup your paws, please."
Setarian did as he was told.
"These are for you, mysterious stranger." A pile of gold coins fell into the Eyrie's paws. As the last coin dropped, she turned away and immersed herself in a crowd of strangers. "Maybe one day we shall meet again."
Setarian bolted after her, but she was nowhere to be found. Instead, he stood face-to-face before two sternly faced guards, both of which guarded a castle entrance. Both stood at least two feet above him. One appeared to be an unkempt blue Skeith with a fuzzy beard, the other an orange Draik bearing a small and relatively fresh scar across his eye. The Skeith's eyes fell upon Setarian as the soldier let out a loud belch.
Setarian's fur was matted and covered in hay. He attempted to pick out some of the grim, but his efforts seemed futile.
"What are you looking at, street trash?" he growled.
Tempting as it seemed to claw the guard's eyes out, the Eyrie remained relatively calm after biting his tongue. It seemed wrong to attack the guard when that Usul woman could still be around. Well, that and a slim chance of actually claiming victory against a trained warrior without a weapon. Quickly, he let both shoulders drop and attempted to hide a scowl. The inner cogs of his mind began to turn, scheming as they did.
"Hello there," responded the General in his sweetest sounding voice. He bowed slightly, as per habit and formal Darigan custom. "I am searching for someone. Do you know where I might find them?"
The two of them turned to each other with eyebrows raised and let out hushed chortles. Setarian could hear them whispering words such as "trash," "dirty," and "riddance." A chill shot through his body as they spoke, but he attempted to feign ignorance. It was getting exceedingly difficult not to hate them, however.
"Who might you be looking for, little runt?" asked the Draik with a grin, leaning a paw against his chin. "Your Mother? 'Cause we haven't seen her."
Feh, Setarian spat, eyes narrowing. They won't be laughing for long. A plethora of different torture methods came to mind. Images of their screaming forms brought Setarian such glee that a low, maniacal chuckle escaped. Quick to notice his mistake, he promptly changed tactics. Based on their suddenly apprehensive looks, however, they would not be an easy sell.
"Ah..." he started, attempting to cover up the previous seconds, "I just wanted to tell King Skarl a funny joke is all." Their faces soured. "That's why I was laughing—really."
The scarred solider started to say something just as the Skeith's paw jetted out in front of his buddy's face.
"I'll take care of this," he started, before turning to 'this.' "Look, kid." Setarian refrained from hissing. "If you want an audience with the king, he's busy worrying about raising the marrow taxes without causing a city-wide riot. And... last time I checked, he was out that way." A hairy claw pointed towards a far off field. The General eyed him suspiciously, but said nothing. "Hey, if I'm wrong, you can take it up with our military commander."
When Setarian would not move, the Draik began to slide his right claw towards the baldric riding along his waist. All the while, his steady leer made Setarian uneasy. He remained silent by biting down upon his tongue.
"Well, kid, what are you waiting for—an escort?" The Skeith crossed his arms another, increasing his defenses. "Or are you too stupid to understand what I just said?"
Setarian could no longer remain silent. Under normal circumstances, he would have gladly fought both of the guards and imprisoned them for the rest of their miserable lives. "I don't believe you," he spat. "And although watching you both publicly punished by your commander—Jeran, I'm assuming?—seems rather tempting, I'll pass."
"Why, you little brat!" shouted the Draik, drawing his blade. The Skeith only growled in response. "I'm sure Skarl wouldn't mind if I took care of you now. Trash like you only breathes to default to the enemy side." His eyes scanned Setarian's small form. "As a matter of fact, given how filthy you are, you would fit right in."
The General bristled.
"You want a fight so badly? Let us not wait any"— tap came upon his shoulder—"WHAT?"
A wide-eyed checkered Kyrii sporting a dirty purple jacket and tattered trousers stood shaking behind the General. "I-I-I have a sword I could sell, assuming you don't care where it's from—"
"You would help him?" shouted the Draik, drawing the attention of a crowd.
"Hey, a Kyrii's got to eat somehow, am-I-right?" he said with a shrug.
Setarian smiled sinisterly, handing the merchant a few of the Usul saleswoman's gold coins. "Of course I'll buy a sword, opportunistic salesman. Thank you for your services."
As soon as the gold fell into the Kyrii's grubby paws, he dashed in the other direction while pulling a purple hood over his head.
"Now..." He turned back towards both opponents, the growling Skeith and scornful Draik, who now eyed him as if a sworn enemy. "Shall we? And just to be fair," he added in a mocking tone, standing on his shaky back legs, "you can get the first shot."
The Draik charged in almost immediately, thrusting the blade towards Setarian. The General sidestepped and attempted to parry. Their blades grazed each other.
Setarian managed to push away the blade only slightly, arms quaking. Making use of a gap, he sliced aggressively towards the Draik's torso. Luckily, his short size made weaving about the two of relatively easy, despite the uneasiness of standing on two legs.
While barely avoiding Setarian's strike, the solider leapt back, eying the opposing long sword's position and preparing a defensive counterattack.
The Eyrie whirled backwards, nearly losing his footing in the process.
"Someone, stop them!" a Meridellian shrieked, but none of them would budge.
The Eyrie jabbed towards the Draik's hand in an effort to disarm him. Somehow, it connected, but the sword did not budge. The soldier grunted angrily in response.
The soldier retaliated by crashing his blade (and around half his body weight) against Setarian's at a forty-five degree angle, knocking the sword from the Eyrie's paws. Before Setarian could respond, the blade swung back again and sliced at the Eyrie's wing joint. Setarian slammed into dusty path only a few feet from the weapon, writhing in pain.
Sparks flew from the ground where the Skeith dragged his blade. Little dots of light raced towards the Eyrie's face. Setarian rolled away, managing to grab the sword from the ground. He then fended off another of the Skeith's blows by thrusting his sword, but from the ground, this proved difficult. He quickly moved in the blade to block. The enemy weapon quivered only inches from his heart as his blade shook from the crushing power above.
The General began to squirm about, but could find no means of escape. It took all of his remaining willpower to retain a firm grip when he uttered two words that are almost as painful as throwing salt on a fresh wound:
The swordsman continued to press his weapon even closer to his heart. Moving proved impossible. The Skeith only smiled.
"I yield! I yield!" he shouted frantically. Blue orbs reflected from the guard's impassive eyes.
Setarian's back pressed against cobble roadways. Smooth stones dug into his fur. The enemy's sword grazed his throat.
"P-please...," he begged, "no more..."
"You asked for this, brat."
Setarian closed his eyes.
Just then, a voice reverberated from afar. "Stop this at once!"
The Skeith froze his advanced and twirled around.
"We have to leave," he hissed to the Draik.
"But, what about the brat—"
"I have it taken care of. If he can't remember who we are, there's no evidence against us." The Skeith quickly jabbed a shivering Setarian in the head with the back end of his sword. Metallic clanging retreated into the distance.
Head throbbing, Setarian attempted to get up, only to fall prone once again. The world spun around and faded away into darkness.
Before he completely blacked out, a blurry red and blue form stood above him.
"Quick!" it said, "I need the court's healer. And don't worry, little guy, I won't let anything else happen to you..."
To be continued...