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Jeran's Wish: Part One


by dreagoddess

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The sun was shining, birds were singing, and the forest was full of peace.

     Until, that is, two young Neopians came running through, laughing and shouting at the top of their lungs. One was a Lupe, armed with wooden sword and shield and a painted spear slung across his back. The other was an Aisha, clad in clumsily-made wooden armor and wielding a plastic wand against the other. "I'll get you, Jeran!"

     "Not if you can’t catch me!" the Lupe called back, lengthening his strides to quickly outdistance his sister. He stumbled into a clearing and skidded to a stop, staring with wonder at the fallen stones. "Ruins! Look, Lisha!" He leapt to the top of one of the crumbling walls, waving his sword in the air. "There was a castle here, with knights and a king and dragons to fight!"

     "And wizards!" the little Aisha shouted, waving her toy wand.

     "Always wizards." Jeran grinned at her and jumped down, hanging the sword in a little loop from his belt.

     "It’s perfect! Let’s play hide and seek. There are so many places to hide out here!"

     Jeran laughed. "All right, if you want to. But I'm hiding! You count at that tree over there."

     "You always get to hide first," Lisha pouted.

     "That's because I'm your *big* brother and you're my *little* sister." He grinned again. "You can hide next. I promise."

     Lisha grumbled, but scurried over to the indicated tree and began to count slowly and loudly. Jeran hurried to look for a hiding place, knowing she'd start skipping as soon as she got tired of counting. He spied a rock with blue flowers growing behind it that looked almost like his ears poking out from behind, so he grinned and passed it. There was a likely-looking tree...Perfect! The hole was just the right size for him, and Lisha would waste her time by the rocks. He settled down to wait, chuckling to himself.

     His knees were starting to hurt, and Lisha still hadn’t found him. Even if she'd been fooled by the rocks, she should've come *close* to finding him by now. Jeran sighed and poked his head out of the hole in the tree. "Lisha?" This was getting boring. "Lisha!"

     He started back the way he'd come, calling for his sister and looking around. "LISHAAAAA!" Jeran suddenly realized he should’ve been looking at where *he* was going too, as he tripped over a branch in his path and went sprawling. The wind was knocked right out of him, leaving him flat on the hard stone floor for a long moment.

     ...That wasn't right. Why was there a stone floor in a forest? There hadn't been *that* much of the ruins left. Jeran shook his head quickly to clear it and scrambled up, his claws scrabbling on the stone as he retrieved the little sword and shield he'd dropped. It *was* a stone floor. And stone walls all around him. And...This could *not* be happening. Jeran walked slowly to a window across from him and looked out. There wasn't a forest in sight. Instead there was...a huge castle, with a drawbridge, surrounded by rolling farmland and tiny little houses clustered about that looked nothing like *his* home.

     "Where AM I?" he whispered, staring in helpless shock at the scene before him.

     "A good question." The harsh voice behind him made Jeran jump with an undignified squeak and spin around to face the speaker. That was *real* armor, shiny and emblazoned with a strange crest he’d never seen. The head that poked out from atop it was a grizzled old Kougra, more gray than white and crossed with a few bold scars that stood out even beneath the fur. Jeran clutched his own sword tightly in front of him, wide-eyed and shaking. In later years, he'd come to recognize the amusement in the knight’s face at the young cub trying to defend himself with a wooden sword. But for now he was only terrified. "A better question might be, what are you doing here?"

     "I -- I don't know."

     "You should know better than to sneak into the castle for a prank, cub."

     "It wasn't a prank!" Jeran protested, stung. "I don't even know *how* I got here. I was just...out playing in the woods. And then I was here."

     The Kougra scratched his chin thoughtfully. "In Illusen's woods? Strange place to be playing."

     "I didn’t know it was anybody's woods, sir. We were just playing."

     "And who’s we? Have you an imaginary friend, then?" Now even a scared Jeran could recognize the humor in the old Kougra’s blue eyes as he looked around the hall. "You seem to be alone to me."

     "...I don’t know where she is now. And I d-don't know how to get HOME!"

     "Easy there, cub. We'll find your way home. Just come with me."

     Not sure what else to do, Jeran followed. And wondered uneasily if he’d ever see his sister again.

*****

Sir Togran -- for that was the Kougra's name, and he was a *real* knight, which made Jeran want to pelt him with a million questions as soon as he found out -- took his find downstairs as he questioned the pup. Jeran answered the questions as best he could, thought he thought he confused Togran more than anything. He couldn't say where his family was, since he didn't even know where HE was. None of the names he could think of to tell the knight seemed to register at all, and he could only stare blankly when Togran asked him if he liked to count potatoes.

     Jeran was worried he was frustrating the knight, and he was positively *aching* to ask his questions by the time Togran led him into a massive room full of long tables, ovens, and wonderful smells. His stomach rumbled, reminding him that they might be in a castle, but here was a kitchen and he hadn't eaten in too long.

     Togran looked down at him and chuckled. "I've never known a cub your age who couldn't eat at all hours. I see I was right."

     He looked up as an Usul with hair as white as Togran's own bustled over to them, looking down at Jeran curiously. "And what have you brought into my kitchen, Togran?"

     "A foundling, Maera. This seemed the best place to put him while we work out what else to do with him."

     "The poor little pup!" Maera smiled at Jeran warmly. "Well, we'll find a nice corner for you, and some of my potato pie."

     Jeran looked up at the old woman shyly and asked her nervously, "Do I have to count the potatoes first before I can eat them?"

     ...He had no idea why Togran threw back his head and roared with laughter. Maera’s lips were twitching, but she just guided Jeran to a stool in the corner and set a plate full of delicious-smelling food in front of him. His nose twitched at the wonderful smells, and all other thought disappeared as he eagerly ate.

     When he finally finished and took notice of his surroundings again, he noticed with a pang that Sir Togran was gone, and with him the answers to Jeran’s million and one questions! Jeran sighed and looked around, his eyes lighting on the kindly old Usul cook working at a table nearby. He slid carefully off his stood and made his way over to her, trying not to notice the delicious odors. "Umm...Maera?" he asked tentatively, not sure how to address her.

     She looked down and smiled at him, though her quick fingers didn’t pause in kneading dough. "All finished? Or were you hungry yet?"

     "No ma’am. I mean, I’m finished, ma’am. It was wonderful. I just...Where did Sir Togran go?"

     "He’s a busy man, our Togran. The king’s most trusted knight. He has many things to do, of course. I know he was going to try to find someone to get you back where you belong."

     Homesickness swelled Jeran’s throat shut. He didn’t belong anywhere, not here. It didn’t seem so bad when he was awed by Togran, but without the knight’s presence he felt...well, like a small Lupe with a wooden sword thrown into a land of *real* knights, and not a clue what to do there. He swallowed hard and pushed all that out of his mind. He *would* find a way home, and he’d better find plenty to tell Lisha about when he got there! "What should I do until then, ma’am?"

     "Restless?" Maera smiled warmly at him. "Go play in the courtyard if you like. Just don’t go far."

     "I won’t!" Jeran promised eagerly, running out in the indicated direction. He took a wrong turn or two and had to retrace his steps, but eventually ended up in a courtyard full of sunlight and rich green grass. If he didn’t think too much about the castle surrounding him, he could *almost* think he was back playing knights and wizards with Lisha. Drawing his sword, Jeran charged into a fierce battle for king and country with a battle cry on his lips.

     He’d dispatched five enemy knights and was locked in pitched battle with a dragon when a noise suddenly attracted his attention and he looked up...to see three *real* knights standing at the entrance to the courtyard. Sir Togran wasn’t one of them, but they were all attired in the same armor with the red and blue crest on the chestplate. And they were all watching him with varying degrees of visible amusement. The Eyrie was managing to keep a relatively sober expression, save for laughter lurking in his eyes, while the Gelert and the Techo were leaning against each other in attempts to control their laughter. Jeran felt blood rush to his face and tried to hide his little sword and shield behind his back. "I -- I didn’t think I was in anybody’s way…Maera said I could stay out here..."

     "You’re not in our way, pup," the Eyrie told him, glancing briefly at the other two before coming forward. "We were just coming here to train a bit, but we didn’t mean to interrupt your, ah, battle."

     Jeran’s face grew hotter, but his eagerness overcame his embarrassment. REAL knights were about to train for WAR right in front of him? "You were going to train? Could -- could I watch?"

     "You didn’t look like you needed to be watching *us*," the Techo spoke up, still laughing but getting it under control. "Maybe we should be training with *you*."

     Jeran tried to ease the toy weapons a little more behind his back. "I was just playing..."

     "Corris." The Eyrie’s tone held a touch of warning as he looked at the other knight. "He’s just a child."

     "I wouldn’t hurt him!" Corris protested. "He wants to see knights train, Kells. Let’s do him one better. You’ve learnt how to fight, haven’t you, cub?"

     Jeran thought back over his games with Lisha, of studying Neoquest and tales of knights. "A little, I guess," he replied reluctantly.

     "See! Don’t worry, we’ll take it easy on you." Corris chuckled and took a stack of equipment from the Gelert, who was still grinning at Jeran in suppressed laughter. He pulled a practice sword out of the pile -- though at least it was metal, not wood like his, Jeran thought miserably -- and took a few quick practice swings. "Come on, then. Do you want to be a knight?"

     Jeran swallowed and brought his toy sword and shield back around in front of him. He couldn't honestly answer no; he'd dreamed about being a knight ever since he'd learned what it meant. He'd just never thought it would really be possible. He felt foolish saying so, but it was true. He'd wanted to be noble and brave and protect people -- so he set his jaw and took a fighting stance as well as he could and said stubbornly, "Yes."

     He noticed that the real knights suddenly looked like they were paying more attention; even the Gelert's long ears pricked forward a little, though he was still grinning broadly. But he wasn't sure why.

     "Let's try you out, then." Corris took one last practice swing, and Jeran tried not to tremble at the sound the metal made whipping through the air -- or at how *big* Corris looked as he advanced.

     The knight brought his sword around in an easy stroke, much more slowly than Jeran was expecting, slower than his imaginary opponents ever moved. Jeran even had time to see that even though the blade was blunt, Corris had turned the flat toward him. He stuck his own wooden sword up in the way anyhow, tilting it and swinging hard.

     Metal slapped on wood and then fell back as Jeran followed through and brought the toy sword back to guard position.

     Corris stepped back in surprise. "Hey. You're faster than I thought, pup."

     Jeran wasn't sure how to answer that. "You're slower than I thought" somehow didn't seem quite right. So he just shrugged and gripped his sword tightly, certain the Techo was about to launch the *real* attack any second now.

     Corris grinned at him and moved again, a little faster this time, his movements a little more complex. But it still seemed slow to Jeran -- his imaginary opponents had never tried to take it easy on him, or tried to give him a break in any way. So he sidestepped the knight's attack just like he'd practiced so many times, bringing his sword up as he passed and bringing it down in a hard, stinging swat against Corris' right wrist, making the knight drop his sword.

     Jeran stared at him for a moment, first in pride, then in slowly-dawning horror. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to -- are you all right?"

     Corris just stared at him for a long moment, one hand moving to rub his sore wrist. Just when Jeran was starting to get worried, the knight stooped to retrieve his sword and muttered, "Lucky shot."

     "*Good* shot," Kells spoke up approvingly. He came forward and slapped Jeran on the shoulder. "You’re a quick one."

     Jeran beamed with pleasure at the compliment. "Thank you!"

     "Whose squire are you? You don’t look familiar."

     "Oh, I’m not anyone’s squire. I just came here today." The knights exchanged a look, so Jeran added quickly, "Sir Togran found me. He told me to wait for him..." He swallowed nervously, suddenly hoping he hadn't done anything wrong.

     "Ahhh. That explains it," Kells said slowly, nodding sagely. Jeran wondered briefly exactly what it was supposed to explain. But then the Eyrie tilted his head, yellow eyes gleaming, and asked, "Care to try that move again?"

     Practice with real knights? All other thoughts disappeared from the cub's head and he cried out eagerly, "Oh yes SIR!"

     Kells laughed at the enthusiasm, but took up a practice blade and assumed a ready position. "All right, pup. Defend yourself!"

*****

To be continued...

 
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