Caught Between Kingdoms: Part Eight
Setarian bolted up. His arms slipped from the headboard. A web of sheets tangled about him as he fell to the ground, coughing in a plume of dust that bloomed from the ground.
"Who told you," he gagged, eyes tearing up from the debris, "that I was a Darigan?!" He frantically pulled at the tangled mess, but it only seemed to wrap him tighter.
"I believe you just did." Jeran drew his blade and held it at the ready. "I've fought many Darigans with similar styles, many more than I care to admit. At first I thought it was a fluke, but I just wanted to make sure."
Neither of them moved. Setarian drew in shallow breaths as the cloth prison tightened its grip on him. The dull ache left from his morning of training sores returned with a vengeance, especially by his chest. It magnified with each pound of his heart. His gaze shifted about the ground, but only a chair—out of reach—and a smattering of worn upholstery could defend him now.
I played right into his trap!
"What now?" Setarian finally gasped. Thoughts of imprisonment and torture swirled through his head. His stomach knotted up as a swell of nausea ran through him.
When Jeran would not answer, Setarian laid his head to the ground, eyes shutting. His paws would not stop shaking. Thoughts of the citadel filled his mind, the happy ones, but the warm, welcoming glow of each candlelit chandelier morphed into images of enraged Meridellians, their torchlight blaring in the night. They slung insults that struck him worse than any piercing sword as he knelt in chains at the feet of King Skarl. The King held a sharpened sword and an even sharper smile as he raised the blade, ready to give a show to the many gathered in the city square.
"Of all the situations I've trained for, nothing could prepare me for this." The knight's voice quivered. "And yet..." He laid the sword upon a dresser.
Setarian found himself too shocked to speak. The pity in Jeran's voice did not help, either.
"I'm sorry for scaring you," he started weakly. The floorboard creaked loudly when he shifted his weight towards the metal bed post. Setarian jolted back at the sound. "I saw that same shade of bright blue in your eyes when we first found you."
"I'm... I'm not..." But there was no use denying it. And that, Setarian felt, is what hurt the most. He could feel his cheeks redden and covered his face in shame.
"In all honesty, I should turn you in, but..." Setarian could feel his heart pounding. He tried to think of some sort of counter maneuver, some escape plan. Nothing came. "I'll give you one last chance: convince me why I should not tell the king."
"What?" Jeran's gaze fell squarely on him, but darted towards the sword when there was no response.
"You heard me, Serian. Convince me well."
The former general struggled to find the right words, but the pressure made it hard to think. Trustworthiness? Loyalty? No, those would never work. Jeran wasn't that gullible.
"Yes. But have you changed enough?"
His eyes stung. "Of course." If only that were true. "Of course I have."
Jeran opened his mouth to speak again, but not before licking his lips. "If you swear fealty to my king, Serian, I'm sure he would not deny you."
Setarian finally managed to snake his way out of the sheets. His beak pressed together tightly.
You know I can't do that, Jeran. Not with all that he has done to wrong my—the Darigan people. No doubt you're judging my response based on my accursed color changing eyes, too.
"I... I'll pledge my loyalties to you, Jeran. Your king has named me a squire to you, and I intend to carry out that duty." He chose each word carefully. "And before you say anything, I will pledge the loyalty same to your sister and her friends, if need be."
Jeran's mouth twisted to the side as if pondering. He then picked up the blade in silence. Setarian jumped back and slammed into the bookshelf causing a few of the smaller books to fall on him.
"For Skarl's sake, Serian! You know I'm not going to hurt you, so come over here."
Setarian's legs stiffened. He forced himself to step forward with painful precision, but his gaze did not move from the decorated blade.
"Place your paw on the hilt, below mine." Jeran's steady paw firmly grasped the blade as he lowered to his knees to be on eye level with "Serian." The blade faced downwards and its point touched the ground. Setarian had a strong urge to grab the blade and retaliate; it made him feel sick to his stomach. After thrice Setarian pulled his paw towards and away from the blade, he did as ordered. "Now, I want you to swear to me on your honor that you will uphold this promise. That no one of Meridell shall ever feel betrayed by your actions, including King Skarl."
That oaf too, huh?
A familiar voice rang in his head as his eyes rolled. "A warrior without his honor is nothing," it said, a message Setarian heard all too many times. The late Lord Darigan always used to stress the importance of honorable fighting technique. Lord Kass made no such distinction.
"I'll do it," he muttered, tail curling around his back legs.
"Say it again and mean it. I can tell when you are lying."
"I swear," Setarian said coolly, wincing from the knight's harsh words. "But in return, you will say nothing of this to anyone else."
"On my honor."
Jeran's shoulders slumped as he drew the sword away. The blade made a soft chink as he laid it across a wooden dresser more than four feet off the ground. Intricate words written on its metallic surface shimmered in the dim candle light. The knight made his way to the bed and sat there, massaging his temples.
Setarian fell back against the floor and lay there, panting. It was a wonder that he could move after previous hours of training and nearly being turned in by Jeran.
"We have a rough training regimen ahead of us, Serian. You best get some sleep."
After some grumbling, Setarian crawled back under the sheets and attempted to shut his eyes. Long after the shallow snores of his roommate had filled the chamber, he stared blankly at the plaster walls, preoccupied by the nightmares he would likely have. The sun began to rise and he knew the night had been less than restful. Setarian shook off a daze and stared up longingly at the sky as the sun's rays filled the room with warmth and brightness. He shuddered as light touched his face.
So unlike the Citadel, he thought, as Jeran stirred.
"Did you sleep at all?" asked Jeran in a groggy voice. Puffs of his fur stood on end. With a couple of pats and a quick combing, it fell neatly into place.
"All night." Setarian avoided eye contact.
"Nice try," Jeran rubbed his eyes as he leapt out of bed and grabbed his garments. The grin he cracked did not amuse Setarian in the slightest. "You slept just as much as I did based on how messy your fur is. And regardless of how sleepy you and I are, there's much work to be done."
"Who's tired? Certainly not me, Jeran." His eyelids see-sawed as a brisk but squeaky yawn escaped from his breath, reminiscent of a sleepy Psimouse. Jeran could not help but laugh. It proved difficult not to throw a punch at him, but the warm covers clung desperately to his fur.
"If you say so, now get yourself ready."
Setarian groaned in protest, causing Jeran to slide back the chamber curtains. Light poured onto the Eyrie's face, causing him to slide to the side. The cot tipped, sending Setarian tumbling to the ground and cursing under his breath.
"We start training within the hour!"
Months passed where, from sunup until midday, Jeran would teach and Setarian would follow. Almost every day, Kayla would hand him yet another healing potion, but not before gasping at his increasingly abundant bruises. She always felt the need to hug him during each treatment, saying the owies would be gone soon. As much as he wanted to shout in retaliation, it was difficult to stay angry.
After a while, Lisha came down from her study and watched them practice. At first, she seemed to be occupied the entire time, usually reading material related to dispelling curses or dark magic. Setarian found her choice in reading material to be odd, but never questioned it, passing it off as the King's required reading. In time she put the books down long enough to scruff Setarian's head after a job well done and even asked to spar on occasion. Though her strikes did not hit nearly as hard as Jeran's did and more than often were not executed well, she understood and named every block and lunging strike. Jeran found himself telling the two to stay on track; neither seemed to hear that command.
"You dance well," Setarian would often snark, especially when she fumbled a technique, "but the spinning may be a bit much."
With a decisive hmph she would drop the sword and drew her Wand of Supernova, a magical instrument with a purple, star-shaped icon on its tip. Spells would fire left and right as she claimed it difficult to practice between hours of study. One time she froze Setarian's tail with an especially powerful blast; it took hours to completely thaw out.
"I wanted to try out a new spell," she had said nervously, leafing through a book about counter curses. "How was I to know it would work this well?"
"And yet you don't know how to reverse it?" Ice wrapped around his fur; when touched, it sent a painful chill down his arm.
He often asked Lisha to teach him a thing or two more about learning magic, but she always came up with creative excuses. The best one was when she said there were no magical instruments around in the castle that would work well for a trainee. Not even a minute later, a young mage walked over to Lisha and asked the same thing. There was, of course, no way to avoid the truth, and she gave Setarian a sheepish grin when he raised a brow.
The Aisha's probably just jealous of my talents, he found himself thinking, although he knew better. Or she's probably still wary of that magical incident before. It was the second one, he decided, but remained persistent.
One month into the sessions, Setarian began to fight solely while balanced on his back legs. It took a lot more bruises but he learned to be a proficient fighter, even with a strength disadvantage.
It seemed almost too good to be true.
An entire season of warmth and summer rains had passed before Setarian grew to Lisha's shoulders. Jeran could still overpower him with his strength, but Setarian could parry him much more effectively than before, albeit he would tire quickly. Size, he also found, could be used to his advantage. A smaller, faster target proved difficult to hit.
The first time Setarian managed to strike a palpable hit, Lisha clapped despite Jeran's raised eyebrow and quizzical smile. In her left hand the words "Curses and Cures" jumped from a tattered book's front cover. She snuck peeks at its pages between their practice sessions and occasionally scruffed Setarian's fur. This time, she stopped after a few strokes.
"Hey, Serian?" her head was tilted towards him, but she had a sort of serious, no-nonsense smile. "Is that purple fur growing on your face?"
"What did you say?" He stared at her, stunned.
"Think your adult plumage will be purple?" Her legs bobbed back and forth over the grass. Despite her shaking arms, she extended the jovial display for some time before saying another word. Setarian eyed her with confusion.
"You seem to be growing in some orange dots as well," she observed, pointing them out systematically. "I'll bet those will be freckle spots."
"Purple..." His ears fell back as he imagined his one lush, deep purple plumage. It almost seemed like a previous life now, one that could not have been his. He recalled the name General Setarian, the banished official who would be destroyed if ever found by Kass... or any of his supporters. Setarian could feel Lisha shaking him gently, asking if he was alright.
"I'm fine," he lied. Lisha rarely read his emotions like Jeran could. "And perhaps I will have purple plumage. We shall see what fate will be dealt to me."
"Okay, little brother, enough chit-chatting." Jeran swung his sword about and waved towards Setarian with two fingers, now pointing at the ground. "We have work to do!"
Setarian stood up from the grassy ground, chuckling under his breath. "Alright, alright."
From the corner of his eye, Setarian spotted two Meridell guardsmen and a female knight. Both of the guards were wearing heavy mail and even heavier scowls. One was a tall and lanky red Kyrii, the other a short and plump orange skinned Kiko. He recognized the knight, a green Ixi with tightly cropped blonde hair, from some of Jeran's past training sessions. She rarely smiled. Heavy plate armor decorated with the king's seal held firmly against her muscular frame. Setarian backed up towards Jeran, practice blade gripped tightly against his chest.
"Is something wrong?" Jeran asked, turning to meet the gaze of the approaching trio. "I'm in the middle of a training session with my squire."
"Yes, my Commander." She gave the others a pointed wave while speaking in a detached monotone. Her flat expression scarcely changed as the two castle guards broke into a run towards Setarian. "King's orders. I truly am sorry."
They muscled forward and attempted to grab Setarian's shoulders. He sidestepped them and slapped away their approaching armoured hands.
Lisha covered her mouth with her paw before shouting at them, "Harm him and I'll tell King Skarl!" but that hardly garnered a response from them. "My brother is your commander!" she followed up, to which they pushed her aside. Only when she threatened to dish out double of what was done to Serian did they shake their heads in disapproval.
"That would not be wise, Lady Lisha," the female knight said.
"What is the meaning of this?" Setarian and Jeran growled in unison.
Setarian sprinted around Jeran, jumping above their attempted grabs. Once he even doubled back by bouncing on the shorter guard's head. The Kiko swiped at Setarian's leg and narrowly missed, but the damage was done. Setarian landed awkwardly on his left knee and felt pain shoot up his entire side. When the lanky guard went to make a grab at him, he responded with a forceful slap of his sword that landed on the guard's face. While the Kyrii writhed in pain, his accomplice gripped Setarian's shoulder so tightly he screamed in pain and collapsed to the ground. Jeran attempted to stop them with his command, to hear the entire story, but they kept saying, "king's orders" and nothing more. The racket caught the attention of various Neopians who stared out of castle windows, perplexed by the scene below.
"The King wishes to see Serian in a private summons," the stationary knight finally said. She stared through Jeran as if he was not there. "He asked that you and Lisha not be present."
Jeran looked completely dumbfounded, and he shook her lightly as he spoke. "Not present? Are you kidding me?! You chased down Serian—my squire—like some common criminal. On what grounds is he being summoned?"
"I'm afraid I cannot tell you, Jeran. Much as I wish I could." The Ixi bowed her head as she peeled Jeran's paws away. Her right paw now rested on her sword's pommel. She looked towards Setarian impassively and said a few token words on his behalf. "Forgive me in advance for anything that might happen to him."
Setarian did not take this news well. He flailed wildly from their grasp and hurried to stand after pushing them back. He eyed the guards wearily as he scooped up the blade and pointed it towards Jeran's heart and then back again at the others. "You told them, didn't you?" Jeran responded with a look that one would swear reflected a physical wound.
"You know I would never..." Jeran spoke slowly and his voice seemed to crack with each word. "Serian, whatever caused this, know I never played a part in it."
For Kass' sake, stop giving me those puppy eyes, Jeran. And Ixi, stop looking at me like I'm cargo to be hauled about. I'm a living being!
Setarian stamped the ground, spitting upon it with disgust. "Fine, then, I'll believe you for now. But if I find any reason to think otherwise..."
Meanwhile, Lisha darted amidst the chaos and gripped Setarian's paw. He scarcely had the time to stop himself from hitting her with the sword.
"Drop the sword," she pleaded. This is just going to make things worse..."
He shook her away, but she refused to move.
"Stay out of this, Lisha," Setarian asserted. "I don't want you hurt in the crossfire."
She huffed. "I'm not going anywhere."
The guards mumbled to themselves, apparently worried they might harm Lady Lisha. For a split second, Setarian thought of using Lisha as a shield and escaping. It sickened him.
"Enough of this!" Setarian shouted, drowning out any thoughts of a forced escape. "I'll come willingly if only to keep these two from being harmed. If I am to be summoned, let it be as an unchained Eyrie. I deserve this much at least."
The Ixi held up her hoof and both guardsmen backed off. They flanked him and asked that he drop the wooden sword. He gripped the mail so tightly it dug deep into his skin, but ultimately complied. A fresh layer of red made the metal-linked armor glimmer in the sunlight.
"Lead me wherever," he shot as, out of the corner of his eye, Jeran pounded the wooden sword holder with his fist.
They shuffled him throughout the castle and reached the king's quarters with relative ease, but not before various ladies and lords of the castle gave him icy glares along the way. As soon as they entered the decorated throne room, lavish red drapes billowed from each window. More so than before, the castle's floors shined in the sun's light. Portraits of important figures, one of which he recognized as Jeran, hung along the walls. Not a spot of grime or the mark of a sword slashed across the armor of the men and women around him.
They probably spend their entire day polishing armor. Even in the best of times our citadel never looked this decorated.
The King and Setarian eyed each other at the same moment. Before he could open his mouth to say anything, the guards seized him by the arms and dragged him forward. Skarl's arms were crossed. In his lap rested a golden sword.
"See that he will not escape, Lady Evelyn," spat King Skarl. "I wish for him to answer for his crimes. And see to it that Jeran and Lisha are kept out of the throne room. I do not wish for their counsel at this time."
The Ixi nodded. "It shall be done, your Grace. Both of them were informed of the situation and promised to uphold your request."
The king nodded back with a slight grin. "You remain one of my best."
She backed away from the king with a bow and stood next to Setarian. Her hardened expression did not please him in the slightest.
You're unhelpful company. I wonder if this is all just an elaborate set up.
Rage fueled his apparent bravery. Besides a quivering beak, he still appeared reasonably calm.
"Serian," King Skarl began with an even tone, but he was turned away as if facing another. His clawed hands gripped the golden throne tightly. "I want to reintroduce you with someone who you have caused more pain than you can possibly imagine."
"I have done no such thing," he growled.
At least, not in this form I haven't.
"Hah. Is that what you've been told to say, Darigan child?"
He could feel his world melting away. Little white specks danced across his vision as he slumped to the ground. It was cold.
"Jeran betrayed me."
"He WHAT?" The King's voice grew to a fever pitch as he stood up from his throne, sending a plate of uneaten turkey drumsticks scattering to the floor.
Setarian gulped and a wash of guilt swept over him.
"N-no, I didn't mean that, I—"
"You what? You mean you did not try to corrupt my finest knight by protecting your precious little secret?"
There was no use in hiding the truth anymore. The entire room seemed to be against him, ready to draw their swords at a single command.
"Who told you?" He could feel wetness around his eyes.
It's the cold floor that makes my eyes water... it couldn't be me. It's the... Oh, Darigan, I'm scared...
"Sir Agris would have been proud of you for catching this infiltrator," the King said to another Neopian in the back of the hall. Skarl's eyes seemed to soften as he spoke, his anger still very apparent, but contained for now. Setarian could not crane his neck enough to see what was going on. The guards would not let him. "You have done a great civic duty. If only you were not so elderly, I would name you a knight just like your son."
"Oh, your Highness, your offer is a mighty kind one, but I... I never meant to hurt the little fellow. I even offered him a place to stay just as my son did fer..." He fell to silence for a few seconds as he spoke what seemed to be a forbidden word given the grief in his voice. "...Emma. I may have even just let him go along his merry way, but, but... he always said he would come back. He and his little friends. To take everything I know and love away from me. And now... everything's gone. The fields, the barn, the pictures, even my son's sword. All's been lost in that fire."
Liar! I never said those things!
Skarl grunted as he ripped into the turkey leg placed in front of him. He spoke once more, but not before swallowing. Setarian found it odd that no one seemed bothered by his behavior, but dare not speak against it.
"... Come, Bradley Agris. Let our Darigan see the face of the Lupe he has wronged."
The figure was led up in front of the throne room, his blue fur scorched. He wore charred suspenders and in the front of his pocket were the remains of a doll. All that was left of his long mustache were stubs and his eyes looked hollow and lifeless.
"You... That Lupe farmer from so long ago..." Setarian could feel tears welling up in his eyes as he attempted to break away. The guard's metal armor dug into his skin and quickly stopped him from moving much. "I'm sorry... I'm sorry for what I said to you..." he croaked as water droplets hit the ground.
The farmer chuckled bitterly. "It's a little late for apologies now, little fellow. I think it's high time you pay for your crimes."
To be continued...