* * *
They say a lot of choices led to this.
I squeezed through an arrow slit and scrambled up the castle wall. The winds were good tonight, fortunately.
King Skarl's choice to send his knights after our orb.
My mother was so happy before the knights came. She had a handsome husband and her first child was on the way. She says the land was so green and healthy, it was like paradise. If you wanted something to eat, you could pick a piece of fruit right off a tree and no one would care. The fruit would be so juicy, it would satisfy both hunger and thirst, too.
There were no rations back then, no children carefully hunting rats, none of the hateful things you have to do to survive now.
All because we had the orb.
Lord Darigan's choice to hunt the thieves down.
Then the orb was stolen. Crops withered, rivers dried up, and everything fell down. Mother was still pregnant, too, and she cries sometimes about that. About how the rest of her wasted away, but her belly kept growing ever so slowly. About the sacrifices my father had to make to see that she and the baby survived.
She says that when the food supplies ran out, there were less and less petpets in the city. Gradually, they all went away. Except for the drackonacks.
They didn't used to come into the city, Mother said. They were too nasty for us to allow them into our perfect little world. Little brutes that'd bite the hand that fed them as soon as the food it was given.
Whip-eared Krjalk raises the creatures for the table. He says they're better eating than the bruised, rotten food the Meridellers give us.
Our choice to follow him.
I was born weeks after we set out to find the orb. I was a scrawny little thing, just a bag of purple fur and bones. But I had something else, something that came to define 'Darigan' across all the lands that we entered.
I had wings.
They aren't much. Just little bits of skin stretched into a membrane. I can't even properly fly without a good wind or a huge meal. The people of Darigan have wings, though. Not all of us, but enough of us that people always remember the wings and the color purple.
It makes living in a floating citadel a lot easier, too.
It took us years to find the orb again, years to reach Meridell. We wandered across the face of the world, always searching. For something.
The older ones needed life to return to the way it was before - no starving and no winged youngsters.
The younger ones, though - we needed a home. A place where you could look out the window and see the same grounds every day. A place where you could visit the locals without catching some new disease. A place where there wasn't a hole in your belly that you could never fill because there wasn't enough food to do so.
One of those aisha dandies from Meridell once commented that we don't have any crypts.
What's a crypt?
Meridell's choice to hold onto the orb.
They wouldn't give it up. They had everything that we had had before they stole the orb and they all but flaunted it in our faces. Everything was so green it hurt your eyes, and the people! They were hateful in their healthiness.
I would have taken a knife in my hands and tail to fight for the orb. Lord Darigan, though, sent the best ones into the fray. Even a half-starved skeith hits harder than me, and a half-starved techo doesn't stay half-starved for long.
In the war, I worked as a messenger. Even as an adult, I was a bag of skin and bones, so when I got a decent meal in me-
I was fast.
No one could ever quite catch me on the way down from the citadel. The general always made sure us messengers were well-fed so we could cover the distance to the field entirely on the wing.
The nastiest, dirtiest, hardest part was getting from the field back to the citadel. That's when the Meridellers stood the best chance of catching you, and they knew it. They caught me once, too, and once was all they needed.
The mynci ambushed me while I was climbing a good, tall tree. I didn't have any messages, unfortunately, or I might not have reacted so stupidly. Or maybe I would have. It burned, seeing what Father must have looked like in the prime of his life. Seeing what I should have looked like.
I had almost killed him when someone stuck a sword through me.
His choice to help me.
I woke up days later in a field hospital set up inside the castle walls. One of the knights had gotten the idea in his sorry head to haul me back. No one seemed to care when I got up and walked away from there. They just took over the bedroll I'd been on, cleaned it up, and put one of their own wounded down.
It hurt to walk, though - I still had a half-healed hole in my belly. I stole away from the hustle and found a nice tree to fall asleep under.
Didn't get a chance to sleep much. Some draik guards all dolled up in plate showed up and hauled me off to the dungeon. It's got nothing on Master Vex's, but it wasn't pleasant, either. The cold was the worst. No one else in my cell to curl up with, so I just pulled my wings close and huddled miserably.
Cold means winter and winter doesn't mean a lot of good to us these days. It's hard to find food then.
Later, someone came and dragged me out of there. Back into the light and warmth. They left me in a small set of rooms that belonged to the knight who had brought me to the castle. He's a nutcase of a kougra. Never had a squire before I came along. Says he never wanted a squire, it would just slow him down.
I didn't know all that, though. I just knew it was warm and soft where they left me. So I curled up and went to sleep. Food is sleep, sleep is food.
It was night by the time I woke up and the knight had come back from wherever. He was a huge orange kougra, broad-shouldered and lots of muscles. I look like a boy next to him, never mind that I'm a grown man.
He grinned at me when I woke up. Maybe he was trying to be friendly-like, but after you've been on the receiving end of Anaitas's grins, you learn not to trust a smiling kougra. Especially not one that's bigger than you. "So," he said. "What's your name, kid?"
"Nice name. Hand me that rag next to the bed, will you?"
That's most of what Kay said to me throughout the war. Hand me this item so I can repair my armor, take care of my sword, patch up the hole in my clothes. I don't have time to talk right now, I've got to get going because they're attacking the south now-
Do you know how frustrating it is to be someone's prisoner when they all but ignore you?
Vex's choice for peace.
When our troops came to ransack the castle, one of the draiks locked me in Kay's rooms. Guess he thought it would make it harder to find the orb. Not that I knew where the artifact was or anything useful. The guards only let me wander the corridor between the dining room and Kay's rooms at the best of times. I barely got to talk to anyone, even the little kids that roamed around.
Two days later, the war was over. It just ended. No one ever explained why or how Meridell came to be the one in charge again. Kay almost got his throat ripped out when he entered his rooms again, but he didn't appear to care much. Just grinned at me.
He said that he'd obviously left me alone for too long, and now he'd take me with him to help the realm. Got to repair from the war. Rebuild buildings. Replant crops. Explain to everyone involved that yes, the war is over, put down your weapons and get on with your lives.
So he did. We traveled across the length and breadth of Meridell, him, his mount, and me. He never let me out of his sight except when we were in a town. The townsfolk watched me for him there. He's got a monstrous bow, too, and he's a very good shot. One of those javelin-sized arrows through me and I'd be worrying about ever breathing again, much less escaping.
The worst of it was whenever we came back to Meridell proper. You don't find a lot of other Darigans away from the citadel, but they're all around there. It can get nasty if you're a Darigan in Meridell's colors.
Krjalk cornered me one time. No idea how he got over the castle walls, but that's Krjalk for you. He shredded the tabard Kay had stuffed me in and growled at me. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it. Satorus all dolled up like a Meridell squire? I called Xezbeth a liar to her face."
"You think I like it? They won't let me go, Krjalk." I looked at him with fully opened eyes while my tail slipped behind me to grab the knife in the small of my back.
"A likely story." One black-clawed hand grabbed hold of my tail and squeezed. "Why would they bother keeping you? Unless you're afraid to come back and they feel like they owe you something." He snapped his teeth too close to my face and broke my tail. "Don't let me see you in those colors again, Satorus."
None of the guards seem to care any more that I carry knives. I guess they will come morning, but I'll be long gone by then.
A/N: For those of you who are interested, Krjalk is a Darigan aisha, Anaitas is a Darigan kougra, Kay is an orange kougra knigget, and Satorus is a Darigan mynci. Xezbeth is a generic Darigan creature at the moment and may have a defined species someday.