Author's note: this story is a midquel to the series "Caught Between Kingdoms," but is written as a standalone short story. To get a better idea of going on, I recommend reading Caught Between Kingdoms first.
The clash of oaken swords echoed in the castle courtyard.
"Good!" called a blue Lupe in Meridellian plate armor. "Your swings are improving!"
"Of course they are, Jeran," responded his sparring partner, a lavender-furred Eyrie of half his size. His bright blue eyes gleamed in the sun like icicles. "Would you expect anything else from me?"
"I suppose not," he admitted with a shrug before stepping into a fighting stance. "Now let's try those blocks again."
Nodding, the Eyrie readied his wooden weapon. Instantaneously, the opposing blade came upon him.
Clack. A successful block. The Eyrie pushed his blade back with a thrust. It returned back, jabbing forward. Clack! Splinters flew from the impact.
Jeran pivoted, never missing a beat. A quick diagonal slice narrowly missed the Eyrie's face. He stumbled back. A stone caught his paw and sent him reeling into the crunchy summer grass.
"You put—" he coughed, "you put that stone there!"
Jeran laughed, offering him a paw. Serian turned his head from the gesture. "Why would I do that, Serian? Even if we were fighting in a tourney, it wouldn't be honorable to sabotage my opponent."
Serian rolled his eyes, picking himself off the ground. "Yeah, yeah, you and your honor..."
The Lupe exhaled. "You know, honor's a pretty important part of being a knight—"
"Oh, Sir Boooorodere!"
Both knight and protégé perked their ears up at the sound. Jeran turned to meet the breathy, high-pitched voice while sheathing his practice sword.
Racing on all fours was a green Kougra with a chewed right ear. She had claimed the scars were from bite marks—a "Petpet attack" to be exact—but hardly anyone believed that story. Her knee-length skirt and oversized shirt brushed against the recently trimmed grass, making a sort of loud, grating sound. From her neck dangled a satchel. It whipped from side to side with each bounding step. She narrowly avoided the sword rack.
Tripping over a paw, she collapsed at Jeran's feet. Various plant matter and dirt fell forward from her coat and covered the knight's sabatons.
"Oh gosh! Oh gosh! I have so much news to tell you, Jeran!" she breathed, panting heavily from the ground.
Serian backed away with a disgusted groan. The knight placed a paw on her shoulder, face full of dutiful concern.
"What is the matter, Lady Mara-lee? Did something happen in the garden again?"
It was always the garden.
"How did you know?" she started. When he did not reply, she took a different approach. "Oh, wait, did someone tell you what I found?"
The knight shook his head.
"Well, there was this HUGE Flankin hiding by the King Skarl centerpiece." With some effort, she rose to her knees and showed the two of them how "huge" it was with her paws. "The thing was a monster, I tell ya'! A real Neopian killer!"
"Ah...." Jeran sucked in his breath before sparing a pained glance over at Serian. His arms were crossed. "I'm sure that must have been quite startling for you. If you'd like to watch us train while you recuperate"— Serian shook his head—"I'm sure my squire would not mind the company."
A stamp of the Eyrie's paw showed his opinion of that.
"Oooh, I just couldn't do that, Sir Borodere! I know you have lotsa important knightly things to do! Don't you worry about me none. Besides, there's a far more important reason than a big bug for me to come by today."
"Really?" he blurted, before covering his mouth and starting again. "What is it you'd like to tell us, my Lady?"
"You know," she began, "I just love it when you call me 'Lady.' It makes this simple farm girl feel so special. But yes, sir! This is something I dug up today by that big ol' oak tree outside the castle wall." She unwound the satchel from her neck, nearly tangling herself in it a few times. "Oh, and so you know, King Skarl wanted Dragonbuds planted out there. They're shade flowers—really pretty ones at that."
Now he was interested. "May I see?"
"You want to see the flowers? No, silly! They're in the ground alrea—"
"I meant the satchel. My Lady. I would like to inspect it, please."
"Oh!" her face flushed. "I'm always getting confused. Here ya' go!"
From being bounced around so much, the weather-worn leather now frayed in multiple places. Only a thin layer of material held together its hide strap. Jeran's gaze focused on the insignia woven into its front surface: a golden marrow. He traced a finger on the design in silence.
"This belonged to Sir Agris."
"Did it? Then why's that letter addressed to you? Was he some sort of archivist too?"
One of the Lupe's ears twitched as his head tilted.
"How would you guess such a thing?"
Jeran stared at her unblinking for almost a minute. He then set out to unsnap the latch. Inside sat a highly decorated piece of parchment. It rested snugly in the center compartment. Based on how crisp the letter appeared when unraveled, it seemed that someone had only recently broken the seal. Carefully he removed the parchment from its resting place. In the mean time, Serian edged closer, hoping to find some answers. Before the Eyrie could get a good look, Jeran tilted it away from view and began to read in silence.
Every desperate attempt to read the letter proved futile for Serian. Even so, the emotional after-effects of the letter were obvious. Jeran's paw fell limply to his side, still clutching the age-stained paper. His shoulders sagged. Never had Serian seen so much sadness in a Neopian's face. Some of it, he could tell, was directed at him. It made him feel uneasy.
"I think that's enough training for one day, Serian." Jeran stared, unfocused, towards the castle walls.
Mara-lee looked concerned. "Did I... did I do something wrong?"
"No, no," he assured her, although his weak wave said otherwise. "I'm glad you brought this to me."
"You're a terrible liar, Jeran," shot Serian with a grimace. "There's something bothering you. Tell me what it is."
Instead of responding, Jeran snapped open the bag and carefully placed the letter in front of a large stack of parchment. He stared long and hard at the contents inside before closing it once more. Based on the glance Serian managed from the ground, handwritten words covered each page.
"It has been a pleasure, my Lady," he said with a stiff bow before turning to Serian. "I request a few hours alone in my chamber today. There is a straw practice dummy near the apple trees"—he gestured towards the spot—"that you will use to test your upper cuts and vertical slashes. Tomorrow we will review these techniques, so I expect your full cooperation."
Without another word, Jeran turned towards the castle and strode away, an unreadable knot of emotion expressed on his face.
Ears turned back, the squire padded after him. "What's wrong?" he inquired, trying and failing to keep up with the knight's hurried pace. "This isn't like you at all!"
The old wooden doors responded with a creak and sighed before shutting, leaving the two face each other in the confusion. It hardly seemed fair to leave the half-eared Kougra alone, especially when her apologetic shouts were drawing undesired attention to the small courtyard.
"What was that about?" Serian threw his arms into the air, flinging the practice blade into the sky. It narrowly missed his head coming back down.
"I reckon it was me." A tear dribbled down her cheek. "I lied, Serian. It might surprise you, but I have a habit of, shall we say, modifying the truth. It's bad. I know it is."
Unsure of how to respond, she continued her lengthy apology, admitting that the bag had been found days before.
"They're his personal letters," she said, whispering hoarsely into Serian's ear. A shiver passed through his spine from the sudden closeness. "He wrote them for Lady Lisha back when she was missing."
"She was miss—"
"But you never heard any of this from me." Her sing-song voice seemed to carry further than usual. "You know how much I love to garnish the truth!"
Distant murmurs of agreement only reinforced her claim.
"Right. So what you're saying is..."
"It's our little secret! Isn't that fun?"
Serian rolled his eyes and looked at the Meridell logo emblazoned on his tunic. "It's a good thing I know a thing or two about keeping secrets then."
Above them came a young, feminine voice. It echoed throughout the courtyard like a dinner bell, but full of concern.
"Is everything okay down there?" the voice asked. It was coming from Lisha's study.
Serian raised his head to meet the sound. Mara-lee ran around to face Serian, waved her paws, and shook her head with a nervous grin. "I'll tell you in a bit. Wait for me up there, Lisha."
Just as she tried to reply, Mara-lee cut her off.
"I-I'm coming with you!"
"No. You are not." He spun a lock of plum fur behind his pointed ear. About facing, he marched towards the castle while wearing a deep frown. He flicked his tail as he walked away. "Have fun with your plants."
She tugged on his arm, pulling him back. He wheeled around and slapped the dirt-covered paw. His face contorted into a snarl.
"Unhand me, peasant!"
Her paws jetted back to her mouth as her eyes welled with tears. Serian shied back, letting his Noil-like tail wrap about his leg.
"I—I'm sorry," she stammered, paws shaking, "I just... I just don't wanna get in trouble. I know I shouldn't have peeked, but I got curious."
Serian cursed under his breath, squeezing his forehead between three fingers.
"Alright, alright! Let's just get out of here before the whole of Meridell is watching."
Not even four steps into the castle, Lisha was standing there, book in hand. She wore a simple button-down shirt and skirt and as always, thick-framed red glasses. Her arms were crossed and posture staggered.
"You really have to learn to control that temper of yours," she sighed, fiddling with the pages of her book. 'Dark Faeries of Neopia' it said on the ornate, purple cover. "I could hear your shouts from half a castle away!"
He rubbed at his cheek and looked away. "It's... not an easy habit to break, I'm afraid." It looked like he wanted to say more based on his glare at the gardener, but he held his tongue.
"So... Is something wrong?" she urged. "I thought you and Jeran were training today!"
"Well..." He glanced at the gardener, who noticeably stiffened at the question. "Our session ended a bit early today because... it-was-hot-outside. Jeran wasn't feeling too well. Best bring a towel up to him just in case. Or two."
"Oh." She sucked in her breath. "Come on, let's go and see him."
"You need towels?" asked Mara-lee. "I can get some for you."
"I'll go with her," Serian offered suddenly, doubt written on his face. Lisha responded by puckering her face and gently placing a paw on the Eyrie's shoulder.
"We're going together, Serian. There's something you're not telling me, I can tell. And we're good, Mara-lee," she added with a cheerful smile, "but thank you anyway!"
Serian deflated. "If I must."
She nodded before waving him along. Mara-lee scurried behind the sulking Serian, thumb pressed against her lips. Lisha gave the Kougra a funny look, but shrugged it off and continued her ascent up the spiral staircase where some of the city's most elite knights lived.
Meridell's insignia adorned the wooden door to Jeran's chambers. A brass knocker made in the likeness of King Skarl hung proudly from the middle left quadrant. Lisha grabbed hold of the metal ring and tapped it against the metal surface below.
Not even a second later, Jeran responded, "I'm a bit tied up right now, but I'll be downstairs later to sup in the banquet hall if you'd like to speak then."
"It's me, big brother!" she called.
Jeran sounded noticeably relieved. "Oh! Hello, Lisha. I'll be right there." From inside, the floorboards creaked. The door swung open and his smile faded instantly.
"I told you to practice, Serian."
"Oh, he was," Lisha said. Serian pawed the ground nervously. "I asked him to take a break. Anyway, are you feeling alright? Serian said you were sick."
He gave the Eyrie a curious look before saying, "I'll be fine, Lisha," and mussed the fur on Lisha's head, "but thank you for caring."
She wouldn't take no for an answer. "Tell me what's up, Jeran. I wanna help."
"There's..." He sighed. "Alright. You all can come in, but nothing that is said here can be repeated anywhere else. Is that fair?"
Mara-lee "eeped," but nodded anyway.
Even though Jeran had been away from the practice field for some time, he still wore the same plate armor from before. A chair had been pushed away from his workbench. Carved into its side was a golden marrow. Instead of a quill and parchment, however, a pile of old letters laid across its smooth surface. Jeran showed the group his treasure in silence.
Each letter began with the words Dear Lisha.
From the pile, he removed three notes. He handed them to Lisha to read, which she did aloud.
She paused for a second as most Neopians do when asked to read their own names. "I won hide-and-go-seek. I think I found the best hiding spot ever! Castles are cool.
Talk to you soon!
Lisha looked up from the page in confusion.
"Read the next one," he urged.
She held the next letter, written in far less shaky hand, with greater ease. Still, she stumbled when reading over her own name.
It's been a year. I don't know where you are, but I miss you. Sir Agris says I'll make a good knight one day. I hope so. Being a squire is tough!
Write back soon,
Tears started to fill her eyes, but Jeran remained silent until she read the third note. At this point, Serian rested his head against her shoulder.
"D-dear Lisha," she began, making a fist so as to steady herself.
"I'm starting to think of my old life as a dream. It's been so long now that I've been here—almost five years today. It's not like I don't like it here, I do. I just wish you could be here too.
Sir Agris says that the letters I leave in the old oak tree disappear every day, so I guess that means you're getting them. I hope so.
I wonder if Mom and Dad have forgotten me"—She paused to wipe a tear from her eye—"...Or if my friends from Duskendale miss me at all.
If you ever do get this letter, please try to write back. I just want to know that you are happy.
Your b-big b-b-brother,
It took some time before Jeran could speak up again.
"Lady Mara-lee," he started, "how many of these letters did you read before bringing that satchel to me?"
She hung her head in shame.
"... As I thought. But why?"
She shook her head.
"I've forgiven you," he said gently. "I'd never want to make a lady sad. If only to put my mind at ease, please tell me."
"Because..." she looked him straight in the eyes as she spoke, "because I'm so ordinary. No one wants to hear about some gardener, but a knight? I found those letters over a week ago, I'll admit. I just couldn't help myself—I was so curious. I promised myself I would stop with just one letter, but they... they were so beautiful, so honest. I couldn't... I couldn't stop reading them. I did my best to hide my emotions when handing them back to you, but I—"
"Couldn't hide the top soil and fingerprints that had gotten on almost every page?"
He forced a smile. "It's fine, my Lady. Once more, however, I ask once for your silence. These letters are very personal to me."
"I won't speak a word more."
"It is much appreciated, my Lady." He coughed lightly. "Might I ask for a few moments of privacy with my sister and adopted brother?"
"O-of course." She ducked out of the room without another word.
Meanwhile, Serian had guided Lisha to Jeran's bed. Twice he held out a handkerchief for her eyes. His gaze now wavered between the siblings.
"Serian, Lisha, I feel I owe you both an explanation."
This prompted Lisha to wipe away her tears and act tough once more. "I'm ready."
"Right." Off by itself, a lengthy, hand-written note stood out from Jeran's written confessions of before. Even from far away, the penmanship looked vastly more refined. He picked up the note and held it for a while. "You recall in my letters that a Sir Agris had trained me."
They both nodded.
"He was the first Meridellian to take me under their wing after I arrived here. Most of the others treated me with scorn and distrust. I mean, I was an outsider of sorts, so I guess it only makes sense."
"Wait," interrupted Serian. "You? An outsider? But, but, you're their champion!"
"I am now, yes, but it took many years to prove my worth..."
It was Lisha's turn to be curious. "But why was Sir Agris different?"
Jeran shrugged. "Sir Agris was first a farmer before becoming a knight, an ordinary Neopian without familial titles or great land claims. He understood what it was like to be the underdog, I guess."
"And the letters? Jeran, I never... I never knew that... you wrote to me."
Jeran looked out the window as the sunset painted the sky a million colors. Light reflected from his armor and onto his fur. "I figured as much. Once Sir Agris was gone, the letters built up in the tree's hollow untouched for weeks on end. It sounds silly now, but since I was transported to Medieval Meridell right around that tree, I thought it might have some magical ability—some sort of power to let me communicate with you. I just wonder why Sir Agris played along with my fantasy for all of those years."
"Maybe he just wanted to make you happy?"
"And I missed you too. We searched and searched for years to no avail. If not for that history museum... who knows if I ever would have found you again."
Serian looked perplexed, but his stares did not propagate an explanation.
"We'll tell you the full story eventually, Serian, I promise. More importantly than that, there's one more thing I need to show you both. It's... too painful for me to read out loud. I hope you understand."
With a shaky paw, he handed Lisha the letter. Serian hopped onto Jeran's bed and read over her shoulder.
Let me first say that I am sorry.
Sometimes, to save the ones you love, great sacrifices must be made. The Darigans are a brutal people. Since our first discovery, they've become more and more direct with their acts of vengeance. This time it is personal.
I hope that Emma will be okay. They said it will be an even exchange.
My fellows will tell you that I fought nobly, that I did my duty as a knight of Meridell. This will not bring me back. You might see this letter and feel a pang of sadness. Do not mourn me, Jeran, for I have lived a life filled with honor and shame, of great triumph and great destruction. Often have I wondered what would have become of Meridell had my quest for the golden orb failed. Could our city have been spared from its years at war? Did I bring our peaceful country a fate far worse than plague and withered crops? Such answers will elude me to my end, I fear.
I only wish that I had the time to give you back these letters in person. They would have shown you, as they have shown me, the astounding progress that you've made these past five years as my squire. In that short time span, I saw a kind-hearted child grow into a chivalrous and noble adult.
I hope your "Lisha" is real. Really, I do. Although I never quite understood your desire to write to her every night, I accepted it as part of our routine. Whoever or whatever this "Lisha" is, she must be worth the effort.
You'll do great things one day. I'm proud of you.
Your friend and mentor,
Sir Daniel Agris
When they both looked up at Jeran, he had a paw covering over his eyes.
"This... was his room. King Skarl granted most of his belongings to me after his Father only wanted claim of his sword. Even after all of this time, I still never learned what happened to him—King Skarl would not tell me. However, I"—a clinking sound resonated from his armor—"However, I think it's for the best. That I remain ignorant."
Serian continued to flit his eyes to and from the letter. He was shaking. Lisha seemed overcome.
"Serian." The Eyrie pounded a fist against the bed, startling Lisha from her daze. "Come over here. There's something I want to say."
"About me?" he grumbled, "or about my people in general?"
"You're always so defensive," he retorted, before pointing to the spot abutting his chair. Begrudgingly, the Eyrie jumped down, glaring as he did. "Now let me tell you a secret, alright?"
"What is this abou—"
"Just do it, Serian."
Jeran bent down to the Eyrie's ear and whispered, "I'm sorry, Serian. It was wrong of me to project my anger at you earlier. You probably don't even know who Sir Agris was... and I know there are plenty of good Darigans out there—like you. I just hope you can forgive me."
The Eyrie snorted.
"This time," Serian responded aloud. "This time."
Jeran clicked a response before resting a paw on his head.
"Right. Well, I think that is enough stress for one night." He pushed together the letters in an even pile and slipped them back into their hideaway. "Perhaps an evening in the banquet hall would do us all some good. The summer marrow festival is tonight, I hear."
"Oh, so we can watch King Skarl out eat half of Meridell?" Serian cackled, to which Jeran could only respond by blowing a puff of air against his bangs.
"Hey, Jeran? Serian?" Lisha called, breaking the silence. The two of them turned back. "Do you think we could read those letters again together?"
"But don't they make you sad, Lisha?" asked Jeran.
"A little," she admitted, "but you put so time into them. It's only right to give them the reading they deserve. We could even make it a family bonding activity!"
Serian groaned, causing Jeran burst out laughing. "I think that's a great idea, Lisha."
"Let me guess, because of my boundless enthusiasm?"
"Partly, but on a more serious note... it's only right for you to know more about us. We might not tell you everything just yet, but we're a family now. On that note, I hope you'll tell us more about yourself eventually as well."
"Fine..." he relented, "and maybe. But what shall we call these nightly sessions of fun and wonderment?"
Lisha drummed a finger against her chin.
"How about 'Dear Lisha?' or 'Lisha's Letters?'"
Jeran smiled faintly.
"I think 'Dear Lisha' would be perfect."