Very little trumps the feeling of unease when waking up in an unfamiliar place, having your wrists bound in a heavy rope. It’s a horrible experience, something I wouldn’t wish on my own worst enemy. As the fog in my mind lifted, I noticed Ash’s absence. I’d made a promise to keep him safe; what if I failed before I even had the chance to begin? I crawled to my feet slowly, my head pounding as I stood.
Shouting echoed through the camp, but it was gibberish that I couldn’t comprehend. The men were rowdy and rugged, dressed in remnant garb of those who’d fallen victim to their schemes. It didn’t take long to deduce that I was trapped in the middle of a bandit camp; I was a noisy traveller being punished for not paying attention. I sighed, searching for Ash as best as I could from a cage.
It was only a camp in definition; several bedrolls and a bonfire hardly make for a proper ‘camp’. That meant it wasn’t permanent, and I might have a chance of escaping on my own.The men seemed to be gathered in a circle around the bonfire, cheering and waving frantically. Watching them made me uneasy, their movements and expressions unnatural. I was genuinely curious about what was in the center of that circle, my stomach churning at the realization it very well could be Ash.
“Hey!” I started shaking the wooden bars, but the attention of delirious bandits was a difficult thing to catch. “Oi!” I continued more aggressively. Not even a glance. I kept it up for a stretch, until my arms had turned into wet noodles.
“Dammit…” I felt like I had no options, like cattle stuck in a corral. Helpless. I hated that feeling.
“Ash!” I screamed at the top of my lungs, my voice cracking. That caught their attention. They didn’t look angry so much as they did confused. From within the circle ,a little scared creature came running through the bandit’s legs towards my cage. Relief flooded over me at the realization that Ash had survived. But in the same breath, I couldn’t help but wonder how.
He jumped up on the cage, panting like a tired hound. The bandits followed him quizzically, to which he responded with a surprisingly hostile growl.
“That thing yours, boy?” One of them asked. His eyes were painted black, and his head shaved on both sizes. His patchwork armor was the heaviest of the lot, as was his physical build. The others seemed to respect his authority, or maybe they were just intimidated as well.
“Y-yes.” I stuttered. I’d never been more fearful in my life, my heart beating out of my chest.
“What the hell is that thing? Some kind of monster?” Ash managed to slip between the cage’s narrow bars, taking his place at my side.
“I-I don’t know…” I tried my best to speak confidently, failing miserably. The bandit donned a toothless grin, taking note of my apparent fear.
“I think we should eat it!” The giant stuck his arm through the bars, reaching for Ash. I scurried into the corner, met by a wall of grasping hands. I cried out as they latched onto my arms, Ash growling once more.
“Look at that! Little gaffer’s trying to protect him!” The bandit bellowed to his lot, but I could feel something off in Ash. His scales began to glow faintly, along with a surge of heat emanating from his body.
All of us distracted by the giant’s laughter, the incoming rain of arrows went unnoticed until it was too late, a chorus of pained screams erupting from the bandits. From the outskirts of the camp, well armed rangers pushed inside, engaging the brigands with blades. The leader cursed, retreating into the bush before they had the chance to capture him. One of the rangers attempted to give chase, but a strong hand stopped him.
“Leave him be…” I could tell it was a woman’s voice, but her body was blocked by her friend. Her tone was strong and respectful, a voice belonging to a leader. “He only prolongs his suffering.”
The woman stepped out from behind the other ranger, and I was baffled. She stood relatively tall, and couldn’t have been much older than I was. Her features were smooth and sharp, hinting to noble blood. There was no way she could be…
She knelt down beside the cage, Ash cowering behind me. Her gentle smile was intoxicating, making me a little light headed. Her eyes were a fierce silver, framed by loose, auburn locks.
“Are you okay?” She asked sincerely, but I was at a loss for words.
“It seems like he’s had a concussion. Should we take him back to camp?” A tall man stood behind her, clad in steel plate. His golden hair stretched to his shoulders, but his eyes were a cold steel blue. He looked unimpressed, and I couldn’t blame him. I didn’t come off as ‘impressive’.
“That might be best. What’s your name?”
“I… Umm…” Speak, you idiot!
Ash seemed more relaxed now, the woman cutting down the cage door. “Fyn. My name’s Fyn.” Finally!
“So you can speak…She smirked, laughing.
“We aren’t truly going to take him back, are we?” Her escort asked, shocked.
“He’s obviously hurt. We can’t just leave him-”
“Princess, please! He’s common rabble!” The blonde man argued, the woman’s face twisting in anger.
“Harold, that’s enough!” Her voice boomed. “Have you forgotten what it is we’re doing here?”
The knight kneeled apologetically, bowing his head in shame. “My apologies, Princess.”
“How many times do we have to go over this?” She sighed, shaking her head. She turned her attention back to me, Harold pouting.
“I’m Beatrice. A pleasure!” She ducked through the cage, cutting me free of my binds. Ash growled protectively, but relaxed once he realized what was happening.
“Nice to meet you, Beatrice.” Harold scowled as I spoke, but held his silence. “So you’re the ‘kidnapped princess’ everyone’s looking for?” Her pleasant demeanor melted away, revealing hostility. Harold unsheathed his broadsword in reply.
“Who exactly are you, Fyn? You’re certainly not a knight, and you keep… interesting company…” She glanced at Ash, who returned her suspicious look with a hiss.
“Don’t worry, I wasn’t planning on fighting you…” I glanced at Harold uncomfortably. “But you’re right. I’m not a knight, and the rest is a long story.”
“As long as you agree too leave us in peace, we will not harm you.” Harold sheathed his blade, Beatrice exiting the cage.
“Wait, hold on! I, uh, have a favour to ask…” She looked back with a raised eyebrow.
“And why would I want to help you, sympathiser?”
“Wow, wow. Let’s back up here a little here. I’m not anything. I’m just a squire.” Her eyes widened, more mockingly than anything.
“You? A squire? Who squired you?”
“Uncle Gavin?! You mean he’s here?” Now I was surprised.
“Gavin’s your uncle?”
“No, not exactly…” She looked at her feet, relieving a painful memory judging from her mournful expression. “He’s… Was… a family friend.”
“Well, he and the woman I was travelling with were captured as well, but they aren’t here.” I gestured around, the only cage in the camp being the one I’d been trapped in. “I don’t know where he is, but please; can you help me rescue them?” I felt like I was begging, but what else was I supposed to do? I had nobody else to call on, so it had to be her. The princess we were supposed to retrieve.
“I’ll help you, but only on one condition.” A devious smile spread from cheek to cheek. “You abandon your squirehood and join the rebellion.”
“Wait, what?” I could have sworn I misheard her. “You want me to what?” Beatrice shrugged with a faux innocence, Harold shaking his head with a demeaning grin.
“I think I was quite clear. I’ll help you save Uncle Gavin, but only if you join me.” She crossed her arms, her face stern. Her words spun around in my brain like a tornado, weighing if I had any other options.
“Fine. I’ll join you.” Ash looked up as if he knew what I had said. Beatrice extended her hand with a smirk of approval.
The only chance I had of rescuing Gavin and Isabelle was working with Beatrice, regardless of what ‘side’ I was on. I felt no loyalty to the King, but I didn’t have any qualms with the renegade princess either. My only loyalties were to Gavin himself, and I wasn’t about to let him rot away in some bandit camp. I accepted her hand, wearing a grin of my own. I could see Harold in the background scoffing, terrible at hiding his feelings.
I learned quickly that the rebels were on the losing side of a war with the wandering bandits of the Eldergrove. They had a decent amount of support, but they weren’t military trained warriors. Ideology only gets you so far, and doesn’t help much in a competition of physical strength. Beatrice was growing tired of the conflict, annoyed by the manpower she wasted with warding off endless bandit raids.
“That man who escaped, his name is Graves. He used to serve on the High Council of my father, before he was banished from the knighthood.” She said as we walked towards the rebel camp. Ash had made himself comfy, sitting atop my head.
“Why was he banished?”
“Rumour has it he’s a cannibal, but I honestly have no idea. I do know that he looks a lot worse than he did five years ago.”
“He may be our enemy now, but he was a fine knight when he served.” Harold interjected. “I… I was his squire.”
“I’m sorry. That must be difficult, seeing him like that…” I trailed off, thinking of what might become of Gavin and I.
“No. He’s not the same man as he was. He’s gone feral, like a rabid hound.” The strong knight looked down at his feet shamefully. “It will bring honour to his family, once I kill him.”
Harold may have claimed that he felt nothing, but his eyes told a different story. At the very least, he missed his old master.
“So Graves, is he the leader?”
“He’s not.” Beatrice replied. “In actuality, bandits have no ‘leader’. But the man they follow, his name is Bull.” She said his name in disgust, spitting.
“His name is Bull?”
“It isn’t. Nobody knows what his real name is. I’ve never even seen the man in person. But the way the captives talk about him like he’s a monster.” As she spoke, chills ran down my spine. “He’s more beast than man, and eats the hearts of those that stand against him.” Beatrice sounded fearful as she spoke, and it didn’t suit her.
“So, uh, why did you attack Graves’s camp?” I needed to change the subject, or I would lose the iota of false bravado I had left.
“We were… searching for someone.” Her tone was matter-of-factly, trying to avoid the rest of the conversation before it began.
“Looking for someone?”
“I can’t speak anymore on it.” She stated firmly, speeding her walk up. Who was it she was looking for? I sighed, falling to the back of the group and remaining silent the rest of the walk. Ash whined softly, like he was annoyed with Beatrice’s secrecy himself.
“I know little guy, I know.”
When the rangers had stormed that campsite, I really thought the rebellion stood a fighting chance. Turned out that they were a small group of elite amongst the masses, the majority of its membership the unemployed, untrained, refugees of Traug. The whispers I’d overheard really were nothing more than just that; whispers.
“I know it may not look like much right now, but one day we’ll have the strength to overthrow Eldin.” Beatrice was full of conviction as she spoke, fully believing in her words. She had an innate ability to inspire, but most people feared what they didn’t know.
The king’s current regime represented stability, and Beatrice wanted to incite change. It’s a lot easier to fight change when you’re afraid of it. I didn’t understand it at the time, but most of our economic collapse was directly related to decisions the King personally made, fighting tooth and nail against his advisors. I could get into the gritty details, but all in all, it didn’t matter.
The more Beatrice spoke, the more apparent it was that Sevestia needed change. And that realization gave me an idea.
“What if you’re going about this all wrong?” You can imagine the surprise on Beatrice’s face when I made the suggestion. “You keep fighting against these bandits, but that isn’t getting you anywhere. Look at the facts; you’ve only a handful of rangers, Harold, and yourself that even know how to handle a sword. The rest are nothing more than refugees.” I could see both Beatrice and Harold ready to explode, fists clenched. “On the other hand, all the bandits know is how to fight.” Beatrice understood where I was going, but Harold exploded.
“How dare you insinuate that our force is weak? My Lady should have left you in that camp to rot you ungrateful rat!” Ash began growling, his feet becoming hot. I made an effort to appear unfazed by his insults.
“Harold, that’s enough! Let him speak!” I was growing less fond of that man by the day, his arrogant self-proclaimed entitlement an exhausting struggle.
“Thank you, Beatrice. What I was trying to say is you should organize a meeting between yourselves and Bull to negotiate a truce, and bring them into your ranks.”
“That’s absurd.” Harold didn’t give me a second to think. “I won’t stoop to the level of colluding with bandits.”
“Fine! Let’s go down that path and see what happens!” I could feel myself growing frustrated, and I wasn’t the kind to easily lose my temper. “You keep fighting with the bandits, but the fact of the matter is they outnumber you tenfold. By the end of it, your entire force will be gone with nothing to show for it.” I was animated as I spoke, self conscious of how much my hands were moving.
“The bandits ought to hate the King as well. It’s common ground to start from.”
“Fine. But then how do we organize a meeting? They know us…”
“I’ll do it.” I didn’t hesitate for a second despite every natural instinct in body telling me to shut my mouth. Both Beatrice and Harold’s eyes were wide.
“If Graves is there, he’ll know you to. They aren’t keen on talking…” Beatrice argued, but my mind was made up. I could let the fear and cowardice dictate my actions for the rest of my life, but I’d never be any better for it. Before meeting Beatrice, my only aspiration was to become a castle guard. But since listening to her speak on her passion, it sparked something. Something that I couldn’t allow fear to contain.
“So what? Maybe this ‘Bull’ is more diplomatic then the rumours state. If they do decide to take me prisoner, maybe a group of rangers will have set up an ambush…” The princess’s face lit up with excitement, but Harold was more reluctant.
“This seems too dangerous…”
“Do you have a better suggestion?” Beatrice snapped. “Fyn’s right. We’re fighting a losing battle. At least this way, if the negotiations fail, we’ll have them gathered in one place. Fyn-” she turned to face me, her worried expression making me blush. “This poses the most risk for you. If things go south, chances are you’ll end up injured. Or worse. Are you prepared to face that?” Even though she was worried, her eyes were pleading. Even Harold was scowling at this point.
“I owe Gavin a lot. If I do end up dead, just promise that you’ll save him.”
“You have my word.” Beatrice looked relieved, and Harold unsure. As they left me standing in the center of the rebel camp, she turned to me. “And Fyn, thank you for this. You’re giving these people a fighting chance.” I smiled sheepishly, at a loss for words. It always feels good to have someone put their faith in you, even if you have little faith in yourself.