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A Hero's Journey: Squire

by precious_katuch14


Chapter 1: Cavall

     “The young Blue Cybunny ran as fast as his legs could carry him through the woods, thorns and branches ripping at his clothes and fur as he did so. His surroundings were a blur through tearstained eyes, and a burning stench irritated his nose.

     He didn’t look back, but neither did he watch where he was going, which caused him to trip over a sharp rock jutting out from the grass. The Cybunny fell into the dirt with a grunt, grazing his palm against a log and dropping something small and gold onto the ground. As he scrambled back onto his feet, he stared at the medallion emblazoned with an elaborate, curly “W” over a diamond and with a sword vertically bisecting it. He stared hard at it as though it were a slice of Poisonous Jelly.

     With a sigh of resignation, he bent down to pick up the medallion and slid it into his pocket before glancing over his shoulder. A huge plume of dark smoke and bright flames rose from behind trees and tall hedges, causing the air to ripple with heat.

     It was enough to send him running again, without any care for where he would end up, as long as it was far from these woods and far from the fire.

     * * *

     “Cathton, it’s time for your lessons. Put down that book.”

     Cathton frowned but did as he was told. After inserting a bookmark into its pages, he slid a book entitled One Hundred and One Favorite Meridell Folktales back into the shelf and stood up from his armchair. The Blue Cybunny couldn’t help but gaze longingly at the view outside his window; it was a beautiful sunny day, with Beekadoodles calling to each other in the trees and the summer flowers in full bloom.

     The view was obscured by the branches of a large oak and vines that crawled up the glass pane.

     “But I was reading about Cavall and the Order of the Crokabek,” he couldn’t help but complain to the royal Cybunny who gestured for him to follow her. “Besides, didn’t we have math after breakfast?”

     Lady Elesia Wincott shook her head imperiously. “Of course we did. But that was basic math, which all children must learn. Today, you’ll begin your accounting lessons.”

     “Accounting? I thought that was something only Father did. Not me.” Cathton lowered his head as they passed through a long hallway filled with numerous portraits of noble Neopians dressed in varying degrees of elegance and splendour. It always felt like they were all watching him, various generations and branches of Wincotts watching his every move.

     “Yes, but you’ll grow up to be like your father one day, won’t you?” said Elesia, stopping at a door with a brass knocker shaped like a Cyodrake. She lifted its claw and knocked three times. “That’s why you must learn. When he and I are gone, you will inherit the Wincott fortune, and you must learn how to guard it – our life’s hard work.”

     Cathton gave her a sceptical look, but quickly straightened his posture when the door before them opened to reveal a royal Usul, tall and imposing, a crown perched jauntily on his slick black hair. The young Cybunny tried to meet his gaze and failed; there was always something in his father’s eyes that made him want to shrink and run.

     “There you are, Cathton,” he said gruffly before sweeping an arm into his study. The purple velvet curtains were drawn over the window on the left wall, the entire right wall was a cluster of shelves that held both books and various knickknacks, and several swords were mounted on the wall behind the large mahogany desk. “Come in. From now on, you’ll be learning math in the morning, and accounting in the afternoon.” Lord Lotham Wincott saw his son’s face fall but paid it no heed. “You need to know these things. There are terrible people out there who want to steal from us, to cheat us out of our hard work, like Meridell’s tax collectors.”

     “But Father, I read that tax collectors collect money for the kingdom. For its crops, for its army, for – “

     Lotham snorted. “Do they really, or are they just stuffing their pockets?” He traded a look with his wife and shook his head before crossing his study to pull a smaller polished table with Kazeriu patterns engraved into the legs toward his desk. Elesia followed him to choose a comfortable chair for the table. “The world is cruel. It will only use you, to take our fortune or destroy our family.”

     The Usul began to select several leather-bound books from the shelf before facing Cathton gravely. Elesia ushered their son into his seat at the little table.

     “You’re our only heir,” added Lotham. “We don’t want anything to happen to you.”

     * * *

     Cathton slid down the banks of the Lightwater River, below the old wooden bridge, without a care for the mud that spattered onto his shoes and clothes. Looking up, he strained to listen for whatever snatches of dialogue he could make out over the clattering and the rolling of a wagon that held several large metal buckets of – judging from the splashing and the dripping onto Cathton’s head and ears – water.

     “…see that fire…”

     “Maybe a forest fire…”

     “…the Wincott mansion?”

     “Call the knights!”

     The Blue Cybunny waited until all of them had passed. Once the bridge was empty, he clambered back up onto it, getting even filthier in the process and wincing at his grazed palm. Catching his breath, he glanced at the retreating backs of Meridell’s firefighting force, which consisted of two Unis pulling the wagon, a Techo, and a Skeith.

     At least, he thought to himself, he wouldn’t have had to tell those Neopians about the fire. They already knew. Hopefully, his parents had escaped the blaze, but he was unsure. They had been inside the mansion when the fire started.

     He sniffed, rubbing the back of his hand across his eyes, and leaving a trail of grime on his face. Then he turned and walked briskly across the bridge in the opposite direction from the fire. The outlines of villages, shops, and the distant castle loomed before him, and a pit formed in his stomach.

     * * *

     ”You want to go outside?” Elesia asked incredulously, glancing up from where she was rearranging a wide selection of jewelry into several ornate boxes. Nearby, a candelabra’s flames flickered near drawn curtains with gilded cord. “It’s not safe for little Cybunnies like you, Cathton. There are robbers, thieves, criminals, and all manner of nasty folks out there.”

     “Is the world really that bad?” he asked, his gaze fixed on a beautiful necklace made of interlocking gold rings and an amethyst pendant. He did not look up at the royal Cybunny until she spoke again.

     “We want to keep you safe from people who would use you to get their hands on the Wincott fortune, and then throw you away.” She lifted the necklace that had caught Cathton’s attention with slender fingers. “You may not understand now, but when you’re older, you will.”

     Cathton continued to watch his mother but didn’t meet her stare; she seemed to have eyes for her jewels instead of him, anyway.

     “Maybe there are bad people in the world,” he said steadily, “but if that’s all there are, how can there be stories about heroes and knights and people helping each other?”

     “The real world is far worse than in your storybooks.” Elesia dismissed his words with a wave of her hand before stashing the amethyst necklace into a silver chest.

     The Blue Cybunny opened his mouth to object, but instead, he gasped loudly when he realised why the pendant had been bothering him ever since he saw it.

     “Isn’t that Aunt Yvi’s necklace?” he blurted out. “She hasn’t come back to teach me for three weeks now.”

     Elesia paused, blinking. Then she shut the chest with a decisive snap. “This? Why, yes, it is. She gave it to me for safekeeping.”

     Cathton’s brow furrowed as he pointed to a silver bangle studded with topaz and a carved letter “M”. “And that’s Doctor Morti’s. When he was giving me my check-up, I remember asking him about his bracelet. He said a good friend gave it to him. He was such a nice Xweetok…”

     Her eyes widened a touch, and she knotted her hands together. “Doctor Morti had a debt to us he had to pay. He paid with his bracelet.”

     “I never knew he borrowed money from us…still, the bracelet was very important to him. Why would he give it up easily?”

     “He didn’t have the money. That’s all.”

     “You could have talked this over,” Cathton said, tucking his hands into his pockets so his mother didn’t see him ball them into fists.

     Elesia smiled, but there was something in her smile that unnerved him. “Your doctor was a…shall we say, a special case. I hated to tell you this, but your father and I caught him trying to steal from us. We stopped him in time, but to make sure he never did it again, we decided to send him a message.”

     The Blue Cybunny frowned. “By taking his bracelet.”

     She shrugged. “I told you everyone is only after our fortune, Cathton. Your ‘nice’ doctor turned out to be a petty thief. We made sure he never darkened our doorway again.”

     “But he was telling me he was living a good life, with a house near Meri Acres with his Scorchio friend…he doesn’t need to steal from anyone.”

     “That’s what he wanted you to think.”

     Cathton frowned. “I don’t believe it.”

     “You don’t?” Her intonation rose, but her face remained even.

     “No.” Cathton’s voice grew louder, and he clenched his hidden fists more tightly. “And I saw Father’s accounting books. He charges interest on top of the cost of the dubloon metal you import from Krawk Island. There’s so many entries for dubloon metal when we don’t even get that much. You tell me you and Father help sell land in Meridell, but is that all? And there are erasures – “

     The royal Cybunny narrowed her eyes and whispered, “You read your father’s accounting books?” She took several deep breaths, calming down only when Lotham stepped into her study.

     “What’s going on?”

     Cathton turned to face the Usul before Elesia could speak. “Father. What do you and Mother do, really? What is it that gives us so much money? Why does Mother have Aunt Yvi’s and Doctor Morti’s jewelry? It’s been a long time since I saw either of them…”

     Lotham opened his mouth and closed it, trading a look with Elesia, who just said, “He read your accounting books. Did you leave them lying around?”

      “Son. Listen,” Lotham began slowly, rubbing his temples as he crossed the room to stand beside his wife, a hand on her shoulder. “We weren’t kidding when we said people are out to get the Wincotts. They’re all jealous of our hard work and what we have. There’s nothing wrong with protecting ourselves and our property. It’s our right.”

     “But taking Doctor Morti’s bracelet that he said was important to him? And charging a lot of interest? Not paying taxes? That’s – “

     “Enough, Cathton!”

     Lotham’s tone made the young Cybunny take a big step back from his parents.

     “You’ll learn when you’re older,” whispered Lotham through gritted teeth.

     After a moment of hesitation, Cathton shot back, “I’m already learning accounting! Isn’t that old enough for you?” Trembling, he went on, unable to stop the words pouring from his lips. “D-Don’t think I haven’t n-noticed when s-servants s-suddenly disappear without saying goodbye, or when D-Doctor Morti n-no longer showed up for m-m-my n-next appointment. Or…Or when you’re teaching me…teaching me, how you’ve avoided paying taxes…for years – “

     “Go to your room, Cathton,” Elesia interrupted him, her voice shaking with anger. “Do you think you’re smarter than us? Do you think you can survive in that cold cruel world without us teaching you, keeping you safe? Be grateful that we’re doing everything we can for your future!”

     “We’ll talk about this later,” said Lotham, with an edge of finality. “When you’ve cooled down and thought about what you’ve done. Now go!”

     The Blue Cybunny glowered at them but remained silent before bolting out of Elesia’s study, tears stinging his eyes. He meandered through the maze of corridors, seeking the path that would lead him to his spacious bedroom, but hesitated in what he had called the Hall of Wincotts, with the long line of portraits of relatives who seemed to watch him constantly from their gilded, elaborate frames. He looked at the portrait of a faerie Koi that was Aunt Yvi, a kindly old lady whose only accessory was the amethyst pendant that his mother now held in her hands, who had come to tutor him but suddenly stopped showing up…

     He stamped his foot and rounded the wrong corner toward the great oak front doors of the Wincott mansion. With a huff, he threw open the oak doors without a care for the ensuing noise, and successfully ran past the gardens and the pond and the hedges that protected the mansion, his heart beating in his ears. Cathton did not know how, but at last, he was leaving the mansion he called home, but which was really a prison.

     What he didn’t know was that as he escaped, thinking of his parents and their mansion and the possible life he could have if he hadn’t been born a Wincott, the great prison he had just escaped would suddenly burst into flames.

     Cathton was torn between continuing his flight and running back to at least check if his parents would be able to escape, but the blaze was so big, so suffocating, that the chances of his parents coming out of it alive were…

     * * *

     As he walked along the cobblestone streets of Meridell on shaky legs, Cathton licked his parched lips. He wanted to ask for a cup of water from anyone, but he was afraid of being found out as a Wincott and blamed for all his parents’ shady dealings, or worse, sent back to them to be imprisoned once again, assuming they survived the fire. He looked down at his shirt, vest and short pants, which had all been damaged and soiled by his flight from the woods. His cravat was a mess. Sliding his hand into his pocket, his fingers closed against the medallion with the Wincott insignia.

     Logic told him to throw it away, get rid of any connection to his family. Blinking back tears, he loosened his grasp and left it in his pocket. Besides, there may come a time when he would need it. But he’d rather not dwell on that now.

     Maybe he could find a well he could discreetly draw water from, but he had never used a well before. He glanced around; a green Bori was peddling fresh produce while a pink Lenny started picking out some delicious tomatoes, a group of Kacheeks stepped out of a tavern with bottles of grape soda, and shopkeepers called out their wares and prices for any passing Meridellian – or tourist – who cared to stop by. Since a few Neopians were clad in ragged clothing or had a fresh coating of dirt, Cathton barely drew any attention as he walked through the streets. He reached out to tug his cravat off and stashed it into his other pocket, where part of it hung out like a dirty handkerchief. As he did so, he accidentally bumped into an elderly red Elephante who was buying a loaf of bread from a smiling purple Mynci.

     “S-Sorry,” the Cybunny mumbled, lowering his head.

     “It’s – “

     The Elephante looked down at the small, pitiful form beside her who had left a muddy stain on her dress. Her face creased in worry. “Oh, dear. Are you all right?”

     Was he all right? His parents were most likely gone, and even if they weren’t, he didn’t want to return to them anymore. He was tired, thirsty, hungry, and now, homeless. But he felt like a Raindorf caught in the lamplights, unsure whether he should say yes, or say no and keep moving in search of a new life.

     His parched throat won out.

     “Do you have water?” he rasped.

     “No, but I’m sure Bertrand does. Bertrand, can you give me a cup of water?” After leaving a handful of Neopoints on the store counter, she received a full cup from the purple Mynci behind the counter and gave it to Cathton. “What’s your name?”

     “Ca – “ He paused after draining two-thirds of the cup. “Cavall.”

     The Elephante blinked. “Ooh, like in the story? Your parents must be fans of that legend about Cavall the hero. That reminds me, where are your parents?”

     He shook his head. “I don’t have any.” The medallion in his pocket felt like a lead weight as he said that. Instead, he focused on placing the empty cup onto the counter.

     “Oh. Oh dear, I’m so sorry.” She reached out a hand for him to take. “Where do you live?”

     “Nowhere.” The small Cybunny shrugged, staring at her hand. But saying “nowhere” sent a lance of pain through his heart. He had a shot at starting over, and while he thought of his home as his prison, it did have his favourite toys, his favourite books, everything he had wanted. And what of his parents? Regardless of how they treated him, he had never wanted his old life to end this way.

     Cathton, now Cavall, tried not to cry.

     “My name is Theodosia,” said the Elephante, whose hand remained outstretched toward him. “You can stay with me if you’d like. I don’t have much, and I’ve never had a family of my own, but my home is open to you for as long as you need.”

     He gaped at her.

     “Wait. You mean it?” Cavall thought of the family crest still tucked away in his grimy, torn trousers. “But you just met me, some…dirty kid on the streets.”

     “If that means one less dirty kid on the streets, so be it.” Theodosia smiled. “I’ve always lived alone. I could use some company at home.”

     After a moment’s hesitation, he gripped her hand.


     * * *

     Life with Theodosia was different from the life he had always known. She had no money for a humongous bedroom, a well-stocked toy chest, or tall shelves packed with books. What she earned from being a cook in Meridell Castle’s kitchens was just enough for her and her new charge, and her cottage on the outskirts of central Meridell was a far cry from the foreboding maze that was the Wincott mansion. Cavall had half a mind to tell her his identity just so he could find a way to help her, but he was too afraid of what she might think of him after that. Worse, she might return him to his parents or to some other branch of the family who would shut him away again.

     But at least there were no creepy portraits, rules against playing outside, or accounting lessons. Barring Theodosia’s house rules and his bedtime, he was free to do whatever he wanted and be whoever he wanted.

     ”I’m home.”

     Theodosia walked into the cottage, a basket of vegetables and cheese on her arm. She was not surprised to see the short Blue Cybunny curled up on the threadbare armchair in the living room that doubled as a dining area, his nose buried in the books that he had borrowed from the nearest library.

     Cavall looked up and smiled. The red Elephante noticed that whenever he smiled, it was never a full smile. There was always something melancholy either in his eyes or in the way the corners of his mouth moved up.

     “Hi, Theodosia.”

     Even his voice carried a world-weary tone about it, but Theodosia dismissed it as a result of Cavall losing his parents and his home at a young age.

     “I’m sorry I’m late. I spoke with Sir Auxentius, the training master for pages at Meridell Castle, that stern old Shoyru I told you about.”

     “You did?” Cavall shut the book in front of him with a decisive snap, his ears perking up.

     Theodosia nodded and beamed. “Yes. I asked him if you could begin your training as a page in the castle. You’ll be taking lessons for four years. And he said yes – it shouldn’t be hard for you to adjust if you’re this smart.” She sighed and shook her head. “You’re capable of so much more, Cavall. You can be a knight after qualifying as a squire – or a magistrate, or a councilman, or something else. There is only so much I can teach you; the masters and scholars in Meridell Castle can give you more.”

     At first, Cavall was speechless. Then he smiled again – whatever burden he carried still held him back, but it was a much brighter smile than the one with which he had greeted her.

     “Thank you, Theodosia. I never really thought of becoming a knight, a hero like the real Cavall…but I’m going to do my best. I’m going to learn everything I can.” He gasped when the Elephante went over to him to embrace him and stiffened at first before relaxing in her arms.

     Becoming a knight sounded much better than being a Wincott, anyway, Cavall reasoned to himself.

     “I know you will. You deserve a much better career than what I have. Really, if the king paid more attention to putting up more schools than expanding his castle kitchens…”

     To be continued…

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