Our return to Traug was much more informative, with Gavin less… elated. The locals whispered of uprising, with more and more citizens fleeing the city every day in fear of a full-blown rebellion. I didn’t understand it at the time, poverty being something I thought of as normal, but Sevestia’s economy was on a downspike. The noble coffers were dangerously light, keeping the aristocratic merchants far from Traug’s renowned marketplace. Instead, they were replaced by amateur craftsmen still honing their trade, but even for the cheaper price, no one had any money to spend.
Amongst the screams of political outrage, a rumour of a crimson-haired rebel eventually found its way to Gavin’s ear. It was a well-known fact that the princess shared the same auburn locks as her father, but it had to be a coincidence.
“You don’t think it’s her, do you?” I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not, his boyish grin suggesting sarcasm, but the determination in his eyes disagreeing.
“How would I know? I don’t even know what she looks like.” Gavin laughed as I shrugged, still unsure.
We were headed towards the North Bridge, one of two bridges that connected Traug to the mainland. While it was, in fact, located on the coast, the city itself sat on a solemn island in the middle of Little Bay. The Marble Keep had been built on the island hundreds of years ago, and the city was built around it. It was the Kingdom’s western-most city, and its location made it the largest trading hub on the entire continent. That is, until the foreboding bankruptcy became an issue.
As we navigated the wide, cobblestone streets, something caught the corner of my eye in an adjacent alleyway. Initially I thought it was a dog of some sort, but it’s red, scaled hide suggested otherwise. Gavin watched in confusion, calling after me as I sprinted towards the strange creature.
It was curled up in a ball, cowering as I slowly approached. I’d never seen anything like it, tiny yellow claws sprouting from the tips of its little toes. It hissed as I came closer, revealing a jaw full of tiny, razor sharp teeth. It’s tongue was forked like a snake’s, it’s yellow eyes practically bulging from it’s head.
“Fyn, be careful!” Gavin called. His furrowed brow and uneven tone were a dead giveaway of his own first encounter with the strange, scaled creature. I ignored him, approaching it carefully.
Over the years, it seemed that animals were naturally drawn to me. I usually didn’t go out of my way to befriend them, accepting that they enjoyed following me around, but this creature was different. Something else was drawing me to it, screaming at me not leave it on it’s own. It backed as far into that corner as it could, and I could feel the fear emanating from it.
“It’s okay, little guy. I won’t hurt you.” I extended my hand slowly, until it was several inches from it’s face. I’d made the mistake often enough that if I came any closer, I might not be keeping my finger.
“We really don’t have time for this!” Gavin was standing behind me now, watching intently. He didn’t try to pull me away, so I waited for the little creature to come to me.
After several minutes, waiting was no longer an option as heavy footsteps echoed from deeper within the alley. Right as he was about to sniff my finger, his eyes widened in terror and he tried to flee, jumping into my torso. His tiny claws dug into my chest, but I held him tightly as he squirmed. He was cold to the touch, and his scales smooth like a river stone. It began to yelp, and the footsteps hastened in reply. A group of five men came storming around the corner, looking particularly unfriendly. Their garb suggested they were city guards, but even I could tell that something was off about them.
“Stand behind me, boy.” Gavin commanded. I tucked the scaled creature underneath my vest, attempting to hide him the best I could.
“We have to keep him safe.” It was something I knew I couldn’t budge on. An unknown force had drawn me to this helpless creature, and that same force was screaming at me to flee.
“Fine. But stay quiet, okay?”
The men were quickly upon us ,and the closer they came the more they looked like disguised brigands.
“‘Morning, gentlemen.” The first greeted us as his posse began looking around. “We’re on a special errand for his majesty. You wouldn’t have happened to see… a strange little creature nearby, have you?” The man looked worried, constantly checking over his shoulder like somebody was watching him close by, ready to scold him if he so much as glanced in the wrong direction. His erratic behaviour put me on edge, but Gavin seemed unfazed.
“Goodday, sir. I’m afraid we’ve seen nothing of the sort.” The knight smiled, and shrugged apologetically.
“Damn… If you do spot anything strange, please notify the guardsmen.” It was like you could see a visible wave of fear come over him at the realization he probably wasn’t going to find the creature. I contemplated giving the little guy up, but deep down I knew I couldn’t.
“Of course. Be seeing you, sir.” Gavin bid him farewell, beckoning me along. I stuck close behind, until the guard placed his hand on my shoulder, sending shivers down my spine. I looked up at Gavin and we both knew there was no hiding it now. I had to make a decision, and fast.
“You haven’t seen anything, have you boy?” Gavin shook his head, already knowing what I was thinking. As the guard’s grip tightened slightly, I took off like a spooked horse, mere seconds before I couldn’t escape his grip. Gavin watched as I sprinted down the alley, making himself a hindrance to their pursuit. I could faintly hear him apologizing as they tried to pass him, stumbling over his feet. I didn’t look back, running aimlessly through the alleys. That is, until a stranger pulled me through a hidden doorway.
I was taken off guard for a moment, the door slamming behind me quickly, and followed by the latch of a deadbolt. The stranger held their hand tightly over my mouth, shushing me as the footsteps passed. A few moments later, once they were sure that the men had passed, the stranger finally released me. With my bearings regained, I was on guard. I pulled the dull bronze blade from its sheath, but held on tightly to the creature hidden in my vest with my free hand. It’s squirming had subsided somewhat, giving me slight relief.
The stranger was cloaked in a black shroud, complete with a mask concealing their identity. I pointed the sword at them, stumbling backwards towards the doorway. I desperately grasped for any of the thousand words racing through my head, but was unable to make any kind of noise. The stranger was much more frightening than the ‘soldiers’, and the stranger’s poise made it clear that they knew their way around a blade. Instead of drawing their own weapon, the stranger removed her hooded mask.
Before anything else, I noticed her violet eyes, a color so fierce it pierced my soul. The conviction behind her gaze was astute, but retained a gentle quality. Her oaken hair was tied back tightly, and her smile was welcoming and non-threatening. She raised her hands calmly, gesturing that she was harmless.
“Don’t worry. I’m on your side.” Her voice was more cautious than kind, but at that time my trust could be easily won. “Just put the sword down, and let’s talk this out.”
I studied her for a moment longer before deciding if she was telling the truth, and finally sheathed my sword. “If you’re on ‘my side’, who exactly are you?” She smiled sheepishly, shrugging.
“This is a little embarrassing, but I saw those men chasing you and figured you could use a hand. My name is Isabelle-” She extended a hand promptly, startling me a tad. I jumped back and she giggled. “I’m sorry!”
“I-It’s fine…” I could feel my cheeks turning red as I extended my own hand. “I’m Fyn.”
Her grasp was firm and even, nearly perfect. “A pleasure, young man! Now before we continue, we should check on your friend, no?” In all the excitement, I’d nearly forgotten about Gavin.
“Right! Of course!” I sighed, following her to the store front. The creature had curled close to my chest, taking refuge in my grasp. It was strange; never had I experienced an animal warming up to me so quickly. I felt connected to it, a feeling I was unfamiliar with. In that moment, I swore to myself I’d keep that scaly little creature safe, no matter what kind of danger pursued it. If I didn’t watch out for it, who would?