The group looked at the trio with a mixture of hatred, amusement, or annoyance. However, they didn’t tell them anything. They had a long march ahead of them as the distant border wall came into view. “Avery, have you been to the Empire?” Desmond asked tried to redirect Navara only for her to throw it right back. “She’s been sleeping for a long time! Of course she hasn’t!” She wanted to slap this stupid bookworm again, but she didn’t want to make him too stupid.
. . . . .
Hours later, the group broke through the tree line of the sea of pine trees. They were greeted by the golden glow and warmth of the sun. An open field, nearly half a mile long, welcomed them. Avery noticed the field was manmade the moment she saw it. The grass was cut short and any vegetation had been cleared away to leave only an open green field leading up to a massive brown granite wall. Directly ahead of where they had emerged from there was a large archway with a thick wooden door braced with rusted metal. On either end, the wall stretched out farther than the eye could see with towers rested every mile or so along the wall.
However, most of the wall seemed to have fallen into disrepair as there were portions carved out by past assaults. Some towers were collapsed. There were even gaps in the wall where monsters had broken through before. Looking at it, Avery felt that the country must have been poor if it couldn’t keep its security measures up. Desmond saw Avery’s hood turning left to right and then the confused look. Of course, it had to be about the state of the wall. No one who saw the wall and didn’t ask about its poor state.
“My father… Doesn’t put much thought into the Forbidden Forest’s wall. He concerns himself more with women, war, and gold. He leaves monster matters to the Monster Hunting Guild and mercenaries.” Desmond also glanced at the wall. He didn’t want to admit he too hadn’t thought much of the Forbidden Forest. He had only heard the tales of what it was like. Now that he had finally seen a glimpse of the dangers hidden here, he felt it was the most glaring issue of all.
He was about to continue talking until a bell chimed from where the gate was and people began to pool onto the wall. They took up positions every five feet with bows in their hands. They were nearly halfway to the gate and Avery could tell the soldiers wore iron armor sets with simple wooden bows. Most of them didn’t even have a complete set. A single knight took up the top of the archway. Plated in golden armor, he seemed to glow in the sunlight – obnoxiously.
It was a middle-aged man, but already graying, he glared at the group before calling out ” Hold your fire! It’s the Royal Expedition! Hold your damn arrows!” He barked at the nervous soldiers on both sides of him. When he figured they finally got it through their minds, he barked again. “Open the gates!” The gates creaked so loud, the birds in the trees behind them took to the air in fright as it crawled open. The gate was fully open by the time they reached it and what welcomed Avery was the sight of a once majestic keep.
A sprawling plaza welcomed them in with people scurrying about from one thing to another as they went about their day. Or should have if the dying pig of a gate hadn’t assaulted their ears. Soldiers came down from the wall using stairways on either side of the wall and helped take the majorly wounded from the lesser wounded. Most of them ignored the uninjured. Only a few spared a glance at Avery, Desmond, and the others as they pushed them aside.
It wasn’t until the man in the golden knight began pushing soldiers aside while barking for them to move and calling them a variety of insults that even Avery felt offended by. “Move you fucking scum!” By the time the man reached them, he had left a pint-size path in the sea of soldiers that had rushed forward to take care of the wounded. The man cared not if they were injured or dying, just pushed them aside to get to Prince Randol.
The man stood even to Avery. “Shorter the man, shorter the temper.” The thought floated into her mind as she glanced to the two princes on her right while Navara hid behind Desmond. “Ah, I apologize to my Lord. I have given you an unsightly display. Please, let me lead you to the Medical Wing so we may see to your wounds.” Avery had to hand it to the short man. He sounded like a respectable person when he kissed ass, but Avery saw Randol was not buying any of it. Ter’yut, who had been at the back of the group assisting, heard the commotion and came over. “What’s the problem?” Ter’yut was the only non-human soldier there.
The short man turned to bark at the orc until he looked up at the burly green man who towered over him with a menacing scowl that made him freeze up for a minute. After he got over his initial shock, he growled at the big man. “Don’t fucking worry about it, monster!” Ter’yut took the insult without even blinking. His eyes locked on the puny human before him in a stalemate of wills. Desmond and Navara had been completely ignored, to their relief. They slipped away into the crowd while Randol was wracking his brains on how to deal with this troublesome idiot.
“Why are you yelling?” A lovely voice cut the tense air like a hot knife through butter. Avery stepped in between the two men with a sigh. “No fighting.” Directing those words to Ter’yut. She wasn’t trying to through her weight around, but honestly, she could tell from the way Prince Randol hadn’t said something, this man had some weight behind him as well. So she could only say something to Ter’yut. The orc was a sensible man with high regard of people he fought with from what she had seen.
Having rolled the dice, Ter’yut huffed at the puny knight with one last glance before walking away. Pulling her hood down, Avery turned to the man who stood eye level with her. “If you have an issue, please speak with Prince Randol or Prince Desmond please.” No bothering with any formalities other than reminding the man there were two princes here, she gave the man a soft smile. The one you gave people you thought were stupid. It seemed the smile worked though. The man only stared in awe at the white-haired beauty that revealed herself from under a white cloak. Her golden eyes captivated him as he stood still like a deer in headlights.
Seeing as he didn’t add anything, she nodded to him then nodded to Randol who gave her a thumbs up. The soldiers who stayed for the show now basked in the presence of a beautiful woman. As she walked away to follow Desmond and Navara, they parted the way for her respectfully. All of them tried to give her the most handsome smile they could muster up. Unfortunately for them, most of them didn’t have the looks. She could see now the difference between the knights and the regular footmen.
All of them were humans, but most of them had broken and or missing teeth. They were dirty and smelled bad, but you couldn’t really smell them with good ventilation in the courtyard. Even their iron armor looked the part of pitiful footmen…
. . . . .
As the night set, the keep came alive as half the soldiers came in for their dinners. Against Viscount Otto’s wishes, the puny golden man, the five dined with the rest of the soldiers in the main keep where they ate. The brown granite walls were less weathered but unpolished. Torches lit the keep with banners embroider with a golden elephant draping down the walls in-between each torch. No music filled the room, only laughter and talking. The five sat at the end of a long table towards the center of the room.
“So what was up with the short guy?” Avery asked with a bored look. She leaned her chin on her upturned palm while resting her elbow on the wooden table. The scent of ale and badly seasoned meat rubbed her nose the wrong way before dulling it. The other four didn’t seem to mind as they tore into the meat like savage dogs. “He’s the viscount of this land.” Desmond said with meat dripping from his mouth all the while. A wooden plate rested before him with that horrid smelling meat and something akin to mashed potatoes. It wasn’t potatoes. She asked.
“So that’s why no one punched him back there?” Navara asked. They may have passed through before, but he wasn’t there to greet them like this time. She wasn’t big on the titles so Desmond was stuck with the supplementary lesson. “No. He’s just under a duke. Dukes are what we call royal family who didn’t inherit the throne. He’s a vessel of my father, but he was given territory here because of his bad nature. His family is rich though, so he puts up with him.” Randol nodded. “He basically holds half the debt of the Empire in his family’s vault. Not that it matters anyway. It looks like that may end in a few minutes.”
Randol gestured towards the short man dressed in shiny silks and a large fur cape made his way towards them. His grayed hair was slicked back, his armor was replaced with a deep green tunic with golden hemming. His pants were deep red and perfectly fitting along with pristine leather riding boots that went up to just below his knee before feathering off. His leather cape was white, possibly made from mink or white fox. And his eyes were trained like a hawk on Avery. The four laughed as the man sauntered his way to the table’s edge and leaned on it.
“Hello. I do believe we got off on the wrong foot previously. May I have the privilege of hearing your name?” The viscount cooed with a sly smile and a raised eyebrow. Avery had to admit, he would have been charming with his fine features and a relatively nice body; even if short. However, he had already shown his ugly side earlier and Avery wasn’t going to humor a man who couldn’t even treat the wounded right. “Avery.” She replied coldly before sitting upright, her voice chilly and distant. “What do you need?”
Her voice sent a ripple through the keep as soldiers quieted down one by one. To them, this was the first time someone had spoken to the Viscount this way. On the fringes of the Empire, only people with the government or hunters ever came to this forsaken place. The Northern Forbidden keep was the main entrance in and out of the Forbidden Forest and everyone but the royal family needed special permission to even enter the keep. This meant no one entered without knowing exactly who ran the operations here: Viscount Otto. If the Viscount didn’t like you – and you weren’t royalty- you could lose your access through the keep.
That meant no one ever spoke rudely to him, not even his own father.
Viscount Otto also had a knack for business, legitimate and ill-legitimate. He personally had raised his family from a simple baron in the south to a powerhouse in the north. If it wasn’t for his lack of “restraint” towards those of lower statuses, he could have been an aide to the king, but he was found having the king himself in his debt. While the Viscount was ordered to watch the north, it was to keep him from running rampant in the capital or any other major hub, leaving him to lord over the Northern Keep.
The man in question smiled, his cheek twitching. The soldiers who saw it knew he was close to blowing his top and quickly vacated the area, leaving an obvious quarantine zone twenty feet. “My, that’s not how a lady should address her betters. I’ll have to teach you some manners.” That was when his face turned dark and his eyes locked onto Avery’s body with a mixture of murder and lust. “With your body.” (PF: welp, time to go flying out the window dude)