Chapter 005: Unexpected Allies

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. 

“I… Uh…” 

“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?” 

“Gavin Warwick-” 

“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.

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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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Chapter 003: Peculiar Creatures & Friendly Strangers

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? 

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Chapter 002: A Whole Lot Of Heart

Hello everyone! So to get everything caught up, I’ll be posting part 2 and 3 over the next couple days to get caught up with the story so far on reddit. If you can’t wait any longer, link is here: Part 2

Now without further ado…​

I tried asking him about the ‘meeting’ afterwards, but Gavin refused to speak of it. ‘A squire’s job is to listen,’ he claimed belligerently. I knew he was just trying to avoid the conversation, but I was in no position to push any further. Afterwards, I learned that the King had invited us to join him for a lavish dinner, as well as provide a proper bed to sleep in for the night. I was astounded by his generosity, curious if this was how he treated all of his Knights. 

We had an hour to prepare for the meal, and Gavin’s habit of cleanliness was absurd. Being raised on the farm, table manners were not a priority,  and as the youngest of four siblings, you had to fight for your food. Those more ‘animalistic’ tendencies, as Gavin liked to put it, embarrassed him on more than one occasion. This, however, was by far the most drastic case.

Once he was finished cleaning me up, a butler escorted us to the dining room, which was just as large as the audience chambers. The longest table I’d ever seen sat in the center of that room, with at least twenty chairs on either side. My jaw must have been hanging wide open, because Gavin’s elbow was buried in my side before I realized what I was doing myself. 

“Get a hold of yourself…” He whispered in a hushed, angry voice. Like a father scolding his child. I was tempted to argue, but I managed to hold my tongue as I reminded myself of where I was. Remember Fyn, you’re supposed to be respectful! 

The butler took us to our seats, strategically placed at the table’s center. When we finally sat down, I hadn’t noticed that the King and Queen were already seated at opposite ends of the table. I was unsure as to why, but Gavin didn’t seem to question it so I kept quiet. Although I was a tad anxious, things seemed to be going alright. That is, until the food arrived. 

To be fair, it had nearly been a day since we’d last eaten, in which I was scolded for my lack of table manners as well, but by that point I was completely famished. It was like I went into a gluttonous trance, all three of them watching in horror as I devoured the thick pork loin like it was still attached to the boar. It was the kind of thing you try to look away from, but find yourself glancing back constantly despite your best efforts to refrain. Even with their inadvertent staring, it was the best meal I’d tasted to this day. 

“What the hell is wrong with you…” Gavin sighed as we retired to our nightly quarters. The rest of the meal had carried on without incident, save for a few concerned looks from the King and Queen, and a parental-level death glare from Sir Gavin. Thankfully he didn’t bother shouting; after I came out of that trance, I was embarrassed enough without his ridicule. The rest of the night was filled with an awkward silence until sleep finally found us. 

Morning arrived much more quickly than I’d anticipated; I’d always dreamt of sleeping on a feather mattress, but never did I imagine how comfortable it really was. Unfortunately, Gavin couldn’t relate to my gratitude. He’d grown up in this kind of extravagance. I didn’t know at the time, but was the son of a noble lord, providing him with the wealth and power of his family’s estate. As much as his attitude bothered me, it was the type of thing you couldn’t hold against him; after all, he’d never known anything different. 

“Come on, Fyn. We’re burning daylight!” The knight was already clad in his steel armor, a long, leather cloak fastened to his pauldrons. He was even sporting his ornamental scabbard on his waist, decorated with colorful jewels and intricate etchings. The sword it housed was unfamiliar; not the old, bronze blade that he’d been wearing the day before. 

I was still dazed as I sat up, my vision blurry from sleep. “I’ve never seen that one before. Have you always carried it with you?” 

“I have…” Gavin pulled the scabbard free, releasing the gleaming steel from it’s home. “My father had it smithed when I was first knighted.” He replaced it on his waist, but his face was long. “I never thought I deserved such an ornate blade, but I must confess; I’m worried, Fyn.” 

“Worried?” 

“Yes.” The knight walked over to an east-facing window, the sunrise peaking just over the horizon. “His majesty obviously lacks faith in me if I was his third choice. Did you know he and I grew up together?” 

“You hadn’t mentioned it, sir.” 

“It’s not something I like to share. We’ve grown apart over the years, but we were close when we were boys.” The vacant look in Gavin’s eyes suggested his mind was elsewhere, reliving a distant memory. “He used to tell me that once he was inaugurated, that I would serve as his Commander General, and sit as his head advisor. That was nearly twenty years ago, now.” 

Gavin turned from the window, with his old bronze sword in hand. It must have been sitting on the sill, waiting for him.“What he’s done for us over the past day- that’s not something he would do for an ordinary knight. That’s something you do when you’re send somebody on a hopeless errand.” 

“I know that you’ve only been my squire a month or so, but I want you to take this. The path ahead will be dangerous, and you need to be able to defend yourself.” He passed me the old blade, but I was hesitant. “Come, now. This was once my father’s blade, the blade that won him the favor of the last King. Take it.” 

“Hold on one minute.” Even I was surprised by the volume of my voice, but I could no longer hold my silence. “If this sword has so much sentimental value, why would you give it to a fledgling squire? I haven’t earned that honor, Sir.” I was expecting Gavin to become angry with me, but he just smiled, laughing quietly. 

“Fyn, I could have taken on any boy in this kingdom as my apprentice. I’ve been apart of the Knighthood for many years, and have taken on many squires. Each of them has been from some royal clan, only ever in it for the glory. They never cared about our kingdom, about the people who make Sevestia what it is. But you- you may be a lazy, pigheaded boy, but you have more heart than any knight I’ve ever squired.” Gavin was smiling widely now. It was a side of him I’d never witnessed. He was prideful, but not in an arrogant way. 

“I know that all you’re after is a post with the Castle Guard, and that’s a respectable position. But hear me when I say this- you’re destined for so much more than guard duty. And that, Fyn, is why I squired a peasant boy from the farms. So, in my eyes, you deserve this sword.” There was so much passion in his voice, that it was impossible to mistake his words for lies.

My life has never been easy, and it was true; I was lazy, and pigheaded. Not to mention naive to how the world truly worked. But Gavin – he gave me a chance to prove that I was more than a lazy farmhand. He gave me a chance to prove that I had more worth than what my father told him when he took me. And with him putting that much stock in me, that much faith, I wasn’t about to let him down. For the first time in my life, I was hopeful. Hopeful to become something more than a Castle Guard. I accepted that sword, and fastened it to my belt promptly. 

“Now that that’s all sorted, don’t we have a princess to save?”

Chapter 001: Awkward Introductions

The first installment of my web serial, Chronicles of Sevestia. I will be updating weekly, so please be sure to subscribe!

For more of my writings, be sure to check out my reddit: https://www.reddit.com/user/SevereDifficulty

The summer sun was high above the coastal city of Traug, tirelessly beating down on it’s residents as the hours slowly went by. A handsome knight found himself excitedly skipping down the city’s main street, through the famous marketplace and towards the gates of the Marble Keep. Heads turned as he passed, scolding him as he forced his way through the crowds. But how could he not, especially after a summons from the King himself? It didn’t excuse his ridiculous bravado, but at the very least it made his elated state understandable. At least, that’s how I tried to justify Sir Gavin’s peculiar personality. 

Now I know it might not seem like it, but Gavin meant well. Even with his nose stuck high in the sky, his heart was in the right place. He cared about Sevestia, and the people who called our noble kingdom home. He just had a funny way of showing it. 

Not far behind, a skinny teenager frantically chased after the knight, receiving the majority of  the public’s flak. He didn’t mind though. He looked up to Gavin as a hero, and was honored to even have the opportunity to serve him as his squire. That young man was none other than myself, Fynieas Zef. Bright-eyed and full of wonder, I was like any other 16-year-old kid, unwitting to the true nature of the world. And let me tell you, it made dealing with Gavin’s ‘angry entourage’ a hell of a lot easier. I was bombarded with a flood of spit and garbage that day, but not even that could keep Gavin’s excitement from infecting me. 

A personal summons was a huge deal, the kind of thing a knight dreamt of as a boy. It was almost a sure-fire way to get assigned to the Castle Guard, the ideal job of any knight who valued his life. Our kingdom was formidable, so working guard duty was pretty much a guaranteed cake walk, safe from any real danger. I mean sure, there were some that sought after the ‘glory of battle’ or whatever, and maybe Gavin did too. Either way, I had my eyes set on making the Castle Guard one day. 

It wasn’t much longer before we arrived at the gates of the Marble Keep, and it was just as magnificent as I’d imagined. It was the first time I’d ever been inside the city’s walls, having grown up in a small farming community twenty-some miles east of the city. It was sheer luck that I even nabbed the attention of Sir Gavin, saving me from the gruelling life of a farmhand. In short, the fact that I was anywhere near a Royal Keep had me thrilled. 

The guards posted at the entrance waved us through swiftly, expecting Gavin’s arrival. I stuck to him like glue, becoming aware of just how different I was from royalty. Everything inside the Keep’s outer walls were clean and pristine, polished and kept in perfect condition. I’d never encountered anything like it in my life, but Gavin didn’t seem at all fazed by it. He carried on like he owned the place, as I gawked at every nook and cranny. The luxury they lived in, I longed for. It was the first seed of resentment that planted itself in my soul.

Gavin navigated the winding corridors expertly, taking us straight to the King’s audience chambers within minutes. He stopped in front of the great doors, beckoning me to come stand beside him. I listened promptly, as a squire should, and he leaned close to me whispered, 

“Whatever you do, do not speak unless the King speaks to you. Understood?” His tone was quite serious, which was strange. At least, strange for the short time I’d known the man. 

“Of course, Sir Knight.” He removed his cloak, draping it over my arms. 

“Very good. Now shall we?” He smiled faintly, pushing open the heavy oak doors. 

The audience chamber was a spectacle to behold, easily fitting hundreds of people between its walls. The marble was polished to a shine, a red carpet decorated in gold trim leading to the platform where the King’s throne was placed. Braziers lined the ornate walkway, illuminating the narrow path. I followed quietly, a little intimidated by the grand display. 

The King was seated in front of us, with two guards on either side. He was younger than I imagined, his auburn hair only beginning to gray. His smile was bright and friendly as he greeted us, Gavin giving me a prompt kick when I forgot to bow. 

“Oh, Sir Knight. Take it easy on the boy.” 

“I will not, Your Highness,” Gavin argued. “ I apologize for his unfavourable behaviour.” 

“Nonsense. I’ve been told he’s only been travelling with you for a month or so. Please, try and relax.” 

“My apologies, sir.” Gavin bowed once more, and I wasn’t making the same mistake twice. 

“Anyways, onto the business at hand.” The King sat forward in his chair, resting his elbows on his knees and chin in his hands. “Sir Knight, I must admit that you weren’t my first choice for this quest. I’ve sent three of my best, and all have yet to return.” He was good at hiding it, but I saw the fear flash in Gavin’s eyes. I was worse at hiding my cowardice. 

“My… My daughter has gone missing, and I fear for the worst.” I could see the tears welling as he looked down to his feet. “The Last Knight I sent almost a month ago. They should have returned by now.” The King stood from his throne, hoping down from the platform. He placed his hands on Gavin’s shoulders, making unsettling eye contact. 

“Sir Gavin, I beg of you, please find my daughter.” 

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting of a summons from the King, but it certainly wasn’t this. I mean sure, in fairy tales this kind of thing happens all the time. But this, this wasn’t a fairy tale. I could feel the sweat dripping off my face, and the dread pooling in the pit of my stomach. 

“Of course, Your highness.” Upon hearing Gavin’s response, the King’s smile stretched from ear to ear. 

“Now please, come with me. We will discuss things further in the war room.” 

“Of course.” Gavin replied promptly. “Boy, you wait here.” I nodded, weary to speak in the presence of the King. 

To this day, I’m still not sure exactly what was said behind those doors. I often wonder if the King claimed she was kidnapped, or if she fled of her own accord. Either way, neither of us expected what awaited us in the Eldergrove.