Chapter 004: An Unlucky Escape

“I’m sorry, but I’m still a bit skeptical… Why would you go out of your way to help  a stranger?” Isabelle laughed at my question, unlocking the front door. 

“If you’re that worried, you can go ahead and find your friend on your own. I’ll stay right here.” She turned around, smirking. “But I sure hope those men don’t come looking for you.” 

“Fine…” I sighed. “I get your point.” 

“Then it’s settled!” I liked to pretend that I had at least some insight into how people acted. In a way that I knew what their true intentions were. But Isabelle was impossible to read. She kept an impeccable poker face, but my eye was untrained. Either way, I had no choice. She was my best bet on finding Gavin before the other men found me. 

We backtracked to the alley where we initially separated, but Gavin was long gone. After that, we headed to the main street market. It was teeming with hundreds of people, the volume something I still wasn’t used to. Isabelle claimed that normally it was twice as crowded. 

“A shadow of what it used to be. It’s sad, really.” Isabelle sighed as we searched, but I wasn’t sure how to respond. I couldn’t relate to what Traug was like when it was truly booming, so I decided it better to keep my silence. After half an hour of shuffling up and down the cobblestone path, it was obvious that Gavin had fled elsewhere.

“Where were you guys heading?” Isabelle asked. Of course! I shook my head, angry that I hadn’t thought of it earlier.

“The north gate!” The creature growled as I smacked my forehead.

“What was that?” Isabelle asked. Had she really not noticed the strange bulge in my vest? I cradled it gently, soothing it back to sleep. 

“Don’t worry about it. Let’s head for the gate.” 

Luckily for me, she decided to drop it. We headed for the north gate with haste, but the guards were still on the back of my mind. What if they were waiting for me, and had captured Gavin? I quickly dismissed the notion, and followed closely behind Isabelle.   

The brigand guardsmen were nowhere to be seen, and the gate was staffed by only one man. 

“Something’s wrong. There’s always three men posted at this gate.” Isabelle was on edge, weary of her surroundings. I was skeptical at first, but as we came closer to the guard, something seemed oddly familiar.

“Isabelle, it’s alright. That’s him!” Although he wasn’t dressed in his trademark iron cuirass, Gavin’s lanky stature was one of a kind. He stood lazily, leaning on the oversized halberd he’d mysteriously proccuerd  in the last hour. 

“Gavin!” I called out, the guard looking towards me. 

“Fyn? Oh, thank God!” He exclaimed in a whisper, his attention snapping to Isabelle. “I only just lost them. We need to get moving. Who’s this?” 

“Sir Gavin… It’s been a while.” Isabelle smiled sheepishly, but Gavin couldn’t seem to place her. 

“Do I know you?” I could almost see the veins of frustration popping in her forehead as he squinted, removing the oversized salet. 

“Gavin, it’s Isabelle!” 

“Isabelle…?” He was thinking so hard by this point you could see the steam rolling from his ears. 

“Clark’s daughter?” Gavin’s eyes widened as the realization flooded over him. 

“Oh my, the last time I saw you, you were just a little girl!” His genuine surprise wasn’t doing him any favours, the young lady still quite upset. “Um, what have you been up to all these years?” 

“Funny you should ask…” Before they could reminisce, the five men appeared in the street, looking straight at us. They didn’t look impressed. 

“Oi!” They called out, now pointing. It seemed another three had joined them, looking even less friendly than the others. “Don’t you move, scum!” 

“We’ll continue this later. If you’d both please follow me!” Gavin and Isabelle ran towards the gate, heading for the infamous Eldergrove on the other side of the drawbridge. I chased after them, Gavin kicking the gate’s crank as he passed. It came crashing down harshly, Isabelle pulling me through by a hair’s width as the portcullis grazed my back. 

“Stay on your feet! Don’t stop!” Gavin called back, Isabelle and I recovering quickly. The scaled creature had fallen out of my vest, crying out. The men’s eyes widened as I scooped it back up, taking off after Isabelle. The creature seemed injured, whimpering as we fled into the trees. 

The Eldergrove was the oldest forest in Sevestia, it’s ancient evergreens stretching hundreds of feet into the sky. It was full of vibrant history, the more religious of Sevestia claiming it as a holy land. The summits of the Frostpeaks were deserving of every bit of praise they received, setting an amazing backdrop to an impeccable testament of nature the Eldergrove evergreens were. However, it’s sacred beauty failed to deter countless bandits from taking residence deep in the bush, preventing many of Gaia’s disciples from making the pilgrimage to the First Tree. Gavin said he made the pilgrimage in his youth, claiming the tree was ‘magic’. I could hardly imagine anything more impressive than the great trees before me. 

The distraction of new scenery faded as the scaled creature yelped once more, like the cry of an infant. Gavin glanced back as we sprinted deeper into the brush, Isabelle confused. 

“What was that?” She asked, winded. 

“Gavin, we need to stop. He can’t take it anymore.” I pleaded, the knight sighing deeply as he slowed his pace.

“Fine. But we can’t stop for long. There’s no telling how close behind us they are, and even I can’t fight seven men at once.” Isabelle rolled her eyes as he bragged, and I probably would have laughed under different circumstances.

We veered down a remote trail, hidden from plain sight behind the thicket’s cover. It turned out Gavin’s pilgrimage was more useful than anticipated, having a vague knowledge of the land. We took refuge near a secluded brook, careful not to leave a trail for our ‘friends’. I set down the creature near the water, Isabelle’s eyes widening. 

“What the hell is that thing?” Her voice jumped an octave, her seemingly calm demeanor shattered. “Fyn, what is it?” 

“We don’t know.” I squatted beside it, stroking it’s back. It seemed to press into my hand, enjoying the attention. “Those men were after it.” 

“Hold on. You’re telling me that entire debacle was because of this… thing?” She looked at Gavin in outrage, but was only given a shrug. “And you let him?!” Isabelle grunted angrily, looking for an answer.

“We couldn’t just leave him behind. You saw those guys; they would have hurt him.” 

“So what!?” She barely let me finish speaking, practically screaming. “You’d risk both of your lives for some little vermin?” 

“That’s enough.” Gavin interjected. “You might as well have left a sign if you keep this up.” 

“I’m sorry, it’s just-” 

“I said enough!” It was the first time I’d heard Gavin yell, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t put me on edge. “It doesn’t matter at this point. Fyn made a decision, albeit stupid, he’s stood by it. And I don’t know about you, but I’d like to see what is so important about it that a band of brigands masquerading as guards would chase us down for.” 

Neither Isabelle nor I spoke after that, and that was fine by me. It would probably just have led to a pointless argument. Honestly, I was just relieved that he took  my side in the matter, even if he called me stupid. My father had said much worse in the past, so I could live with it. 

“Have you figured out why it was whining?” Gavin asked.

“I’m not sure. I could have just been squeezing him too tightly.” I examined him as he drank from the water, his temperament completely changed from when we found him in the alleyway. He seemed happy now, away from the cobblestone roads with dirt under his feet. He looked up at me with a peculiar grin, jumping into my lap. “Maybe he was just thirsty?” 

“He’s really warmed up to you.” Gavin stated, a shadow of a smirk on his face. Isabelle rolled her eyes with a scowl, sitting down on a nearby rock. “What are you going to name him?” 

“Name?” I hadn’t even considered it, if I was being honest. Things had happened so fast that my only focus was keeping him safe. “I get to name him?” 

“I’ve spent my fair share of time around pups, and I’d say that one’s chosen you as it’s master.” The scaled creature gallivanted around, nipping at my hands as I tried to pet him. 

“I mean, I guess you’re right…” 

Naming things is difficult. You’re responsible for choosing the title that something will be known as for the rest of its life, which becomes an especially heavy burden when you’re unsure what that ‘something’ even is. It wasn’t like I could just name him ‘Spot’ or ‘Rex’. It was too mundane, and he didn’t have any spots. As we sat, watching the creature quizzically, it let out a small cough accompanied by a small poof of grey residue. We all jumped back, startled by the discovery.

“Was that… ash?” Gavin asked aloud. In that moment, it became obvious. 

“That’s it.” I jumped up, exclaiming. “From here on, you’ll be known as ‘Ash’!” The little creature galloped around approvingly, making a croak-like noise from the bottom of it’s throat. 

As we celebrated his naming, I didn’t notice the somber look that Gavin and Isabelle shared, or hear the soft footsteps of the approaching group. I felt something pinch my neck, like a bug bite. Seconds later, I had fallen to the ground beside Ash, who was standing over me protectively as my vision quickly faded.

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