Chapter 009: The Deception

With the majority of the rebellion’s military might injured or fallen in Grave’s assault, only Beatrice and myself were left in fighting shape. Harold chose to ignore my plead, staying behind with the other remaining force. I couldn’t blame him for his decision, but I wasn’t happy about it. If he’d given up on the princess’s cause, what could be said for the other survivors? He was a leader among them, and inspired the people with hope for a better future. Without him, the dying flame would be suffocated before it had a chance to truly breathe.

Beatrice and I aimed to set out the next day, doing what little we could to prepare for the journey. The rebellion lacked any reliable supplies, most either burned or ransacked during the last assault. Despite that, we made due with what was available. The journey to the Forgotten Fortress was far, the countless patrolling brigands forcing us to tree cover in an attempt to avoid their unwanted attention. We were mostly successful, at least until we neared the fortress itself. The last mile of road was packed full with brigands. Bandits, and highwaymen. Some leaving and most coming, the congestion reminding me of Traug’s marketplace, but it came with its own unique set of anxiety. Ash was shaking, trying his best to burrow in my hair.

“No wonder the scouts couldn’t get close. They’d have been dead the minute they rounded that corner…” Beatrice and I were both trying to quickly adapt to the unforeseen circumstance, attempting to brainstorm some kind of plan.

“How are we supposed to get you inside the walls if we can’t get you down the road? There’s no way we can sneak past all of them…”

“Unless you didn’t have to sneak…” I could see the wheels turning in her mind, but I was lost.

“How would you do that?”

“Come here for a second,” I helped her unfasten one of her pauldrons, then unbuttoned my own vest. “Let’s get this on you…,” She grunted as she pulled the undersized fasteners over my head. As she helped me don the armour, it finally hit me.

“Here,” She grunted as she tore the right sleeve from my shirt, dousing it in water and rolling it around in the dirt. She spotted my face with mud, then tied the sleeve around my head like a bandana, effectively hiding Ash underneath.

“There! Now you look like a proper brigand!” She admired her work for a moment, nodding her head. “Wait.” She lifted her hand, pulling something from underneath her leather cloak. “I almost forgot I had this.”

Beatrice held Gavin’s bronze sword. I’d completely forgotten about it after I’d been captured, thinking the bandits must have stolen it. “Graves dropped it when he fled the camp that night. Uncle Gavin’s carried this thing for as long as I can remember. Get it back to him, okay?” She handed me the old sword, and I fastened it to my hip.

“Actually, he gave it to me…” I grinned sheepishly, and her eyes widened.

“No way… That was a family heirloom. Why would he give that to you?” At first I was upset, but I understood where her feelings came from. She’d known Gavin her entire life, after all.

“He told me that I had ‘more heart than any knight he’d ever squired’.” I crossed my arms, raising my eyebrows. She rolled her eyes, shooing me away.

“That’s debatable. But now isn’t the time to argue about this. Good luck!” Before I could say goodbye, Beatrice vanished into the brush. So it wasn’t that she couldn’t sneak past them; it was that I couldn’t. I shook my head, laughing.

‘Do you really think this is going to work?’ Ash sounded worried, but at least he was shaking less now.

“I don’t think we have much choice. Shall we?” I stood from my crouched position, completely visible to the herd of bandits polluting the path. None of them seemed to take notice as I slid into the crowd, not even worth a second look.

That last mile of the journey felt like weeks. Most of the men were twice my size, breaking out into random fights as we walked. I’d nearly been caught by a stray hook a few times myself, but managed to avoid any major trouble until we made it to the fortress. It was once I arrived at the gate, I noticed the one person I didn’t want to see; Graves. He was walking a few groups ahead of me, and wasn’t very perceptive of the people around him. My stomach shriveled the second I saw him, forcing my focus to break.

‘Fyn, you need to calm down!’ Ash pleaded. ‘He’s definitely going to notice if you keep fidgeting like this!’

“Okay, okay! Sorry!” The brigand ahead of me looked back, glaring. “Haha, sorry!” I smiled apologetically, the giant rolling his eyes as he turned forward. Graves continued to look straight ahead, the Forgotten Fortress finally getting closer.

The rest of the journey was more of a game of hide and seek, ducking everytime Graves looked over his shoulder. He could feel something off, and likely could smell my fear. Despite my constant worry, we managed to pass through the entrance without incident.

The gates stood twenty feet tall, the fortress itself surrounded by a moat. An open drawbridge invited us in, leading to the huge courtyard. In its center was a makeshift coliseum, hundreds of brigands seated in it’s shoddy stands. It was impressive, it’s wooden walls standing at least twenty feet tall. The hold’s stone walls stood even taller, dwarfing the coliseum in comparison. I was certain the Forbidden Fortress was even more formidable than the Marble Keep itself.

I followed the crowd into the stands, finding a seat in the upper rows. The construction was shoddy, even worse the the colosseum’s walls. With each step, the creaky boards feigned collapsing at the slightest misstep. Once I was finally seated, bellow in the arena were two bandits, locked in combat. It reminded me of the ones that circled around Ash back at the small camp as I watched them mindlessly bludgeon each other with clubs.

‘They tried to make me fight rodents, but I’d just eat them instead. They didn’t like it very much.’

I jumped at his voice, still not used to him listening to my thoughts.

“You just about gave me a heart attack, Ash!” I clutched my chest, sighing. “Either way, I’m glad they didn’t do anything worse to you!” I let out a muffled laugh, but the joy was short lived. A heavy hand found it’s way on my shoulder, gripping it firmly. I looked next to me, finding Graves grinning ear to ear.

“Looks like I found a little shit in our midst…” I could see the sharpened steel in his other hand. “Don’t say a word or I’ll sink this blade six inches into your skull. Besides, I don’t think you want to miss the next fight…”

Graves pointed to the coliseum, one of the bandits fallen and being dragged into the fighter’s quarters. The other cheered, flailing his arms above his head in victory. A few other bandits ushered him from the arena, struggling to force him with the crowd still chanting. Moments later, Graves directed my attention to a destroyed tower above. “That there, is Rian’s throne. I think he’s gonna speak for us.” The man showed his rotting teeth, my mind racing back to the day before.

“His name’s Rian?” A middle-aged, black-haired man emerge from behind the throne. He was donning the plate mail of an Elder Knight, the plate itself black and trim silver. There were only three in the entire Kingdom, and this defector was one of them. He stood on a small, wooden platform that jutted from the broken tower, overlooking the entire fortress.

“Welcome, my friends! Today, we have something special in store that many of you have traveled far and wide to see!” The crowd roared, chanting the Bandit King’s name.

“Fighting today, is a very close friend of mine. He was once my mentor, and taught me all he knew in the ways of Knighthood! Please welcome fallen Paladin Gavin Warwick!” Graves nudged me, cheering frantically.

“That’s the knight you were with, right?” Sure enough, Gavin emerged from the fighters quarters, clothed in a worn tunic and armed with a blunt sword. He looked injured, an exaggerated limp in his left leg. I tried to stand, but Graves pushed me back down.

“I told you not to move!” He whispered, pushing the knife into my side. “We wouldn’t want you to miss the death of your precious Gavin!”

I could feel the hellish heat surging in my back, but what was I supposed to do? I still wasn’t entirely sure how to activate it, let alone fight against a thousand armed bandits. I watched in horror, dreading what might come from the opposite corner.

“A returning fighter and fan favorite, this will mark the Behemoth’s hundredth fight!” The crowd cheered wildly, the noise overwhelming Ash.

A hulking shadow emerged from the darkness of the fighter’s quarters, and it took only seconds to recognize who the figure belonged to. The stranger from my first ‘vision’, with the golden septum ring and all! Bull was even larger in person, standing infinitely taller than Gavin. He was still dressed in the same purple vest, his offwhite pants stained in dirt and blood. The giant cracked his knuckles as he clenched his fists, grinning wildly. The rumoured leader of the bandits was nothing more than a prisoner, held against his will just like all the others.

I could feel Ash stirring when he emerged, practically vibrating.

‘That’s him! That’s the bull!’

Before I could stop him, Ash leapt from my head, using the other spectators as stepping stones to the arena. Both Gavin and Bull looked up in confusion as the scaled creature made his way to the arena. Graves jumped in surprise, and I knew I had to act quickly.

I shoved the man aggressively, knocking him off balance, allowing me just enough time to flee. I jumped onto the level’s railing, the boards bending as I landed. I was too heavy to follow Ash’s example, leaving me with only one option…

With one great leap, I flew over the brigands like a bird overhead. It felt like I was hanging in the air as I jumped, until I started to descend. In that moment, it appeared that my plan wasn’t very well thought-out.

Certain that I was about to break something as I tumbled over the coliseum walls, a pair of outstretched arms caught me before I connected with the hard ground. Gavin shook his head as Bull laughed heartily, setting me down on my feet.

“What the hell were you thinking?” Gavin sighed, a slight smirk surfacing near the edge of his mouth.

“I’m guessing you must be the infamous Fyn…” Bull’s voice was incredibly deep, nearly shaking the earth underneath us. “Now… are you ready, Quicksilver Knight?”

I was in shock, unable to produce a coherent sentence. Brigands began flooding the arena, screaming in fits of rage. Gavin pulled the sword from my side, discarding the blunt edge.

“I’m glad you aren’t dead!” The knight’s grin reflecting his resolve.

I was fully panicked, watching as hundreds of bandits rushed towards us. For the third time in a short period, I was certain that I was about to die.

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