Caught Between Kingdoms: Part Nine
"But I'm not the cause of this!"
A kick in the side from Lady Evelyn shushed him instantly. His beak chattered angrily as his puffy eyes swept up to meet hers. The lack of empathy in her face made his ears fall back.
"Really... I'm not," he gasped, pain creeping up his sides.
Bradley's wiry tail bristled. "You must think me to be stupid, little guy. Well, I ain't. Us farmfolk have more upstairs than you think."
Really now, Farmer? I'm seriously starting to doubt that.
The King began to offer the farmer consolation for his suffering, something about providing him a new life in the city. Agris begrudgingly accepted the offer, apologizing to Emma—whoever that girl was—more than a couple of times.
Setarian uttered a low grumble, brushing strands of purple fur out of his face. He scanned the room for some inkling of support, any friendly face. A few appeared to be apathetic at best. It would be a desperate attempt at best to plea for their help, but what other choice did he have?
"Please." He systemically turned from one knight to the next. Few even twitched an ear in his direction. "You have to believe me here! I trained with Jeran for months, even suited him for combat; you know I wouldn't do this!"
Come on, someone defend me!
Most of the knights in the room seemed more captivated by the King's freshly polished shield than his desperate pleas. When at last one Ixi, a middle-aged knight with a long pepper-colored beard turned to him and mouthed, "I'm so sorry, Serian," Skarl could not help but laugh.
"See how many allies you have?" he mocked, drumming his claws on the golden throne. "I hope you enjoy your stay in our prison hold. Perhaps some time alone will help you to reflect on your actions."
Setarian could no longer control his emotions. The bitterness returned; he could feel the old him slipping out.
"So that's it, then?!" Setarian rushed forward, almost breaking free of their hold, "you're just going to throw me into some cell to rot? Lord Kass would have been merciful. Lord Kass would have been kind." Skarl bared his teeth, but Setarian continued to shout. "He was right all along. You are nothing but a hateful tyrant!"
"You little brat!" The King jolted to his feet. His plate of turkey drumsticks crashed to the ground.
"What?" Setarian said while a crowd of the King's men held him down. "Are you afraid of the truth?"
"GUARDS!" Half of the room had their weapons drawn now. "Throw him somewhere where I'll never have to see his face again!"
Lady Evelyn tried to clamp his mouth shut, but he retaliated by biting at her fingers. Three guards held him down and began to drag him away. Setarian kicked and screamed, but they easily overpowered him.
"Is there something wrong with my face?" Setarian felt every need to snark the king now. It felt so good.
"In fact, there is!" Skarl roared, drawing a sword of his own. "I should have banished every one of your kind after that foreigner made a mockery of my kindness!"
It became hard to hear over the shouts.
"What?" Setarian stopped struggling, which made him that much easier to grapple. "Explain yourself, Skarl!"
"Tch, insolent pest." The throne room doors creaked open as Skarl waved on guards to protect Bradley.
As a chorus of shouts reached the hallways, Setarian felt a sudden wave of dread.
Oh no, what have I done?
If nothing else, he was grateful that neither Jeran nor Lisha had seen him carted off to the dungeons. It would have broken his heart.
Three guards thrust him into a cell, but not before binding his front paws in tight shackles. Once they reached his destination, they grappled him against the wall and locked metal bindings against his back legs. Lady Evelyn stood by to make sure the bindings were plenty tight.
"If you behave, we may let you free in a few years," she said matter-of-factly.
Setarian had remained silent since Skarl's final comment in the throne room.
I'm assuming you think I should be grateful. How thoughtful of you.
When he did not respond, she gave a curt nod and turned away. The guardsmen followed as the cell door shut. Silence followed. Candle light flickered from the guard's post a few cells away. Water dripped from above and splattered on the tiles next to him. After they had left, Setarian glanced around his surrounding in a miserable daze. The occasional mushroom peaked above the moldy floors and rust lined the walls. It smelt of death and decay.
Is this to be my fate? To sit here idly for the rest of my days?
Perhaps this was some sort of fated punishment. That he could no longer run from his misdeeds. He pulled tightly on the rings that held his legs to the ground, wanting so desperately to break free of them.
"I had changed..." he whispered under his breath. "So why must I suffer now?"
After hours of quiet, he could hear the occasion whimper from the other prisoners. One even jangled his chains back and forth, repeating the words, "Kass will save me, I am one his chosen ones," as if some sort of spell could summon him here. It sent a shiver up his spine.
All of a sudden, his ears twitched at the sound of screams. Familiar screams. They were coming closer.
"No! Please no. I didn't—I didn't do anything wrong! Please don't lock me away, I'll do anything!"
"I'm so sorry," responded an older male voice as he struggled to keep her still. "Sometimes even I question the King's decisions."
"If you question him, speak against him!" She approached Setarian's cell. In the darkness, he could see nothing but her icy blue eyes turned towards what he assumed to be a guard.
Setarian's heart sank.
How many others will suffer for my mistakes?
"I'll speak to him," the outlined figure said as he released her into the cell. Setarian recognized the voice as the bearded Ixi who apologized on Skarl's behalf. "In time, the King will calm down. Before then, I trust Serian will hold his tongue so as not to endanger this poor young woman's life." He sighed gruffly. "By the faeries, to imprison someone just because they look like another... he wasn't always like this. Please treat her kindly, Jenna."
The Usul prisoner spun around and tried to escape from the cell door, but he had already shut it tightly.
"I will, Sir," said a much younger, female voice. She had apparently helped move the prisoner into the underground hold. "And so will the other men. There is no honor in harming an innocent Neopian."
Then why didn't you speak up before, I wonder...
"Don't leave me here," begged the Usul, dropping to her knees. His footsteps stopped for few moments before he continued to walk away. "Please don't leave me here..."
The guard offered her food and drink, but she refused. She wept in the darkened room for almost an hour. Setarian could scarcely keep himself from doing the same. When she finally stopped, her eyes flicked to him. He turned away.
"I was right. You don't have our eyes."
He had to shut his eyes. It was too painful to look upon her face.
"I never meant for any of this to happen."
"And now it has," she responded, walking closer to him.
Setarian pushed himself against the wall. His tail wrapped around his legs.
"You can do whatever you want to me, flower girl," he said as she approached. "Throw your punches; kick me if it makes you feel happier."
A tense moment passed when nothing happened. The moment he felt her touch, Setarian recoiled, preparing himself for the worst. Her dainty fingers cupped around his face. He tried to look away, but she would not let him. The guard's footsteps approached their cell as a dim light penetrated the cell. She must have been worried. That or curious, perhaps hoping to see some kind of a show. He assumed it to be the latter.
"Look at me," she said. "Look at me, Stranger."
Setarian cracked his eyes open. Many more wrinkles lined her youthful face than before. It was hard to wonder what strife she had seen since their last encounter.
"What would that do?" she asked in a tired voice as her grip softened, but she would not let go. When Setarian tried to turn his head away, she directed it back to face her. "Violence will never be the answer. It never was."
If only that were true.
Out of the corner of his eye, Setarian could see the outline of a red Lutari wiping a paw in front of her eyes. She turned away in silence and paced down the hallway. If she was crying, it was hard to tell.
"Now tell me, Stranger, as we steal away in a stone prison wasting our lives away, what should I call you? You may call me Marielle, as I prefer not to be called 'flower girl.'"
It proved difficult to say anything. His throat felt dry and scratchy from the stale air in the cell. When she would not let go, he opened his mouth to speak, but not before motioning her closer. He spoke so quietly that his voice scarcely carried.
Marielle gasped and drew away. "Come again?"
"... You know what I said."
"But that's impossible."
"A lot of things are."
She backed away as her eyes become a deep shade of blue. An outline of her hand covered her mouth.
"I had a baby brother with that name," she began, as if hardly believing it herself. "He would be eighteen now, had he survived."
But I'm eighteen.
Setarian's raised an eyebrow. He could feel his pulse quicken.
"Tell me more."
She looked surprised.
"Please. I want to know more about him, if only to pass the time."
Marielle bit at her finger, but relented. "After my Father had passed away from the Great Plague, Mother was all but broken. She did her best for me, and danced for Skarl morning and night. You might have even seen the statue he had built of her in the garden. But fancy statues and praise did not keep us fed. Of course, everything changed when Mr. I'm-Actually-A-Good-Guy came." She snorted. "When this Darigan promised to take care of her, of me, I knew it to be a lie the moment I laid my eyes on him."
"...Because he was a Darigan?" Setarian could feel a flush of anger.
She cast her eyes downward. They then sat in silence.
I thought you were better than this, girl.
"He should have known that no ruler would ever approve of their marriage. Even if he was kind, even if he meant to move into Meridell and support us... it could never be."
"Not a good mother then, was she?" he said with a snide grin. "To choose a Darigan as her husband." She wheeled around, slapping him across the face.
And here I thought you were a pacifist... Looks like you have some fight to you after all.
"You have no right... no right to say that." Marielle turned to see her reddened paw; a look of remorse crept over her face, but she continued to speak anyway. "She allowed herself to be exiled to give me a home here. And my brother... my poor, sweet brother. There is no way they survived in the wilderness together."
His voice dropped to a low grumble, still feeling the sting. "But what if he did?"
Kass did like to mention that my Mother died on the Citadel's steps, that he had spared me as a babe out of mercy, but... that's all I know of her. Come to think of it, he only said my Father was a lieutenant, and dismissed my other curiosities.
"What do you mean?" She seemed perplexed, but so did the guard. Her candle cast a long shadow along the wall. Setarian broke out of his thoughts and stared at her, his ears flattening.
"That foreigner you mentioned." Her face twisted with grief at the mention of him. "Was he a Darigan lieutenant?"
She gasped. "How would you—"
"Know that a guard is listening in on our conversation? Just a hunch."
Or maybe that guard—Jenna, was it?—is just terrible at being stealthy. That long tail of hers probably does not help...
The guard's shadow jumped before she stuck her head into the cell with a sheepish grin.
"Do you thirst, Marielle?"
"Actually, yes, I do." In the dim light, her clothes looked even more faded then before. Patches had been added since they first talked those many months ago. "You would not happen to have some water, would you?"
She rubbed the sleek fur on her arm. "I don't over here, but I could call for someone to bring it to you?"
Marielle bowed. "It is nice to see that honor still exists among Skarl's men."
The guard's eyes swiveled between the hallway and the prison hold. "Give me thirty seconds. I'll have a servant bring it here soon."
She shut the door forcefully. In that moment, Setarian mouthed, "I'm him," to which Marielle could only stare. "I have to be."
He formed each syllable slowly in hopes that she could understand his silent message. "A curse."
Instead of being happy, as he imagined she would be, the Usul's ears fell back and she shied away, crouching further into the darkness.
"How do I know I can trust you?" She eyed him incredulously.
She walked to the cot in the back of the closet-sized cell without another word and sat there, cradling her bushy tail. He could hear her sobbing.
For Kass' sake, why do I make everything worse?
When a servant entered the cell, Marielle forced herself up, drank a glass of water, and sat back down. The Lutari stared in at Setarian until his head hung down in silence.
"I'll see if something can be done about your bindings, Serian. Until I receive word, my hands are tied—"
Setarian glared daggers at her.
"Oh gosh. I didn't mean that." She smacked her forehead, closing the door behind her. "I-I'll leave you two in peace."
Hah! Some peace this is. Who are you kidding?
Some of the other prisoners began to speak in the hushed hours that followed. One of them claimed "favoritism" and repeated the word in a gravely drawl. Marielle did not move an inch. And for the next week or so—at least, it seemed that long—she did not speak another word to him. After a while, the servant would come into the room with a plate of food only remove the untouched morsels hours later.
Marielle had once brought an apple from her plate and held it by his mouth in silence. He looked up at her, only to see her face an unreadable knot of emotion. He leaned in to take a bite, then another, until the overripe mush had stained the white fur on his neck. Few of the rations made it to him. 'King's orders' the Lutari would say with a pained shrug, her eyes all but avoiding his.
His cellmate managed to sleep after the third night. By the sixth, Setarian found some semblance of rest against the wall.
On the seventh night, a green miasma filled the hallway and poured into every room. It was between cat naps when Setarian spotted it. He tried to speak up, but his throat was too dry to utter a sound. He jangled on the metal shackles to no avail; he did not have the strength to move them much at all. As the fog entered his lungs, he felt sleepier than he had in weeks. It was a desperate battle prying his eyelids open, but they eventually shut.
The next thing he knew, a light was shining on him, bright and beautiful. It only went a few feet around and stopped abruptly before the cot where Marielle slept. He shook away the tiredness almost instantly and focused instead on the small crouching figure in front of him. It had light yellow fur and long, stalk-like ears. Two circles of glass shimmered in front of its eyes.
She placed a finger against his beak and spoke in a low whisper.
"I cast a sleeping spell on everyone in the dungeon and a ward of protection over us." She was shaking. "I'm not used to maintaining two spells at once. It's... kind of painful."
"W-why?" Setarian croaked. His throat burned from speaking.
She let out a high-pitched whine before holding a potion over his beak. "None of us think what the king did was right, but if he knew that we helped you... he would probably throw us out."
Setarian could guess which "us" she meant right away, especially after all of Jeran's knightly friends abandoned him. She tilted the potion and the liquid slithered down his tongue. It tasted like grape.
Same old Kayla...
He coughed as the last of the potion reenergized him. Setarian sighed deeply before talking again in a low, hushed voice. "Why are you so kind to me, Lisha?"
"Why? Because I'm your sister, that's why."
He shook his head and laughed lightly. "That's not what I meant." Her head tilted as she winced. "You were so kind to me when we first met. Why?"
She stopped to think for a second and it obviously pained her. "You read my history book. You know that the information in those pages is great," she managed to say, gaze now fixed on the glowing wand.
"What does that have to—"
"We are from the future. My brother, my friends, even me. That book shows what would have happen... if we didn't come."
You have to be kidding me. Setarian scoffed.
"You don't have to believe me, but it's true." She fell to one knee and gripped the stone floor. Her breath became heavier. "You kept a secret from me and we kept one from you. In our time... Meridell, Darigan Citadel, those are just the names of castle ruins. They're stories to us, no less than the faerie tales of this era."
Setarian's brow furrowed, but he listened attentively.
"I grew up near Meridell's ruins. Even as a kid, I would dream of castles and knights, and think of how cool it might be to live in Medieval Neopia. Not to be a princess, mind you, but to be a knight. Brave and bold, protector of the innocent, all of that good stuff. I know it sounds kind of silly now, but it was my dream back then." The sparkle in her eyes lit up the room. Setarian forced a meek smile. "But instead of a royal court, I had a mom, a dad, and Jeran." The light around them began to wane. She spoke in short bursts. "One day, during a game of hide-and-seek, Jeran went missing. I searched for years, hoping to find him, but never looked in the right places."
She inhaled loudly and her magical instrument glowed once more. The ward shrunk in size, and it glowed dimmer than before. Her shoulders relaxed some.
"On my fourteenth birthday, my parents announced that I would soon have a new baby brother, but I still wanted Jeran. My friends and I decided to look just once more, in the grove where I had lost him so many years ago. And within an instant, we found ourselves in King Skarl's castle, three-hundred years in the past." She bit her lip. "I sometimes wonder if my parents miss us. It's not like we can write to them."
The world seemed to be spinning. Too much information, too little time. "But you came to miss him, this unborn brother of yours?"
Lisha flushed. "Well, yes."
And I was to be your replacement? Wonderful.
But Setarian could not help but feel sorry for her, this Aisha he once called a sibling. Still called a sibling. He tried to pull at the shackles, but groaned when they would not budge. Lisha removed her spectacles and wiped a paw in front of her eyes.
"Even if I am let go, Lisha," he said suddenly, already sure of the answer, "I will not have any freedom in this kingdom from now on, will I?"
"No," she said without a moment's hesitation. "King Skarl's not one to take back a decision."
"Tch, why am I not surprised..."
Setarian had then asked of news from above the dungeon keep. So far, Lord Kass had followed through with the treaty. There had been no direct hostility from the citadel lord, but the frequency of farmstead raids had only increased since Setarian's imprisonment. It came to a point where King Skarl had to send out some of his men to try and control the situation. One of the knights, Lisha was dismayed to admit, was currently missing. As such news reached the ears of Meridell's citizens, they became increasingly uneasy. A sizeable number of Skarl's forces were actively trying to keep the populous from rising up into a riot. Jeran's charisma managed to convince most of them to step down, but Skarl knew how long that would last.
Lisha then spoke of Jeran's training, of how he had acquired a new squire, and was now out in the field keeping the kingdom safe. She then mentioned the whispers the Meridellians who learned that a Darigan took residency in the castle. Bradley Agris had told the townsfolk, she reported, as many as he could. Some, she said with eyes tired and wet, held celebrations when they learned of his imprisonment. Setarian could not help but clench his paws into fists. All the while, her ward of protection had grown smaller, barely covering them both. It began to flicker, along with her strength.
"You grow weak, Lisha," Setarian said as her face twisted in pain. If he could move, it almost seemed the right moment to hug her.
"Me...? I'm as strong as ever!" she exclaimed through rasping breaths, quick to cover her mouth. He could see the whites of her bloodshot eyes as she nearly toppled over. "On the other hand... I should probably go. It would be bad... if I look tired for the special guest tomorrow."
"You mean a dignitary?" Setarian said with mild interest, wishing he did not feel so useless. "Like King Hagan?"
She flopped her ears from side to side. "No one like that. She's an Aisha with... long orange hair and a tambourine. Really pretty. Says she's here from a faraway land... and wants to honor King Skarl. Given how stressed he's been as of late," she stifled a yawn, "she'll be a welcome distraction. Anyway, I should... I should probably go."
She gave him a hug, and struggled to her feet.
Wait, didn't Kass say something about this? Setarian's eyes widened. Oh no.
"Wait, don't go!"
At Setarian's exclamation, she nearly fell over again.
"What?! What is it? Don't scare me like that, Serian!"
"If that witch is who I think she is..." he breathed, jangling the shackles, "Meridell is in grave danger."
Without warning, both of the spells disappeared, leaving the entire dungeon to hear her startled gasp.
To be continued...