You Scratch My Back...
“What happened?” James barked. “My wedding is in a few days, and the only gift I desired for the most, the gift to bring this kingdom gold and prosperity, simply ran away? Hmph. From my esteemed general no less.”
“A startled horse can trample over a bull if it wanted. I wasn’t going to stop it by jumping in front of it.” Tanner replied with stoicism, his helmet cradled just beneath his armpit.
“I sort of wish you had tried.” The prince pouted as he circled around a large table with a map taking up every inch of it. There, it showed a very thorough drawing of Rees, from the five states led by respective lords, the forests to the west hastily scribbled down with detailed yet grossly exaggerated monsters dwelling within, as did others to the south and the sea to the east. To the northern regions stood inaccurate representations of mountains, and just south of those stood the crowning jewel to the Piermont Family, the Capital, which was by far the most colorful and extravagant place on the board. James stopped and stared at it longingly, as if Tanner’s blunder had doomed them all. “What would Father say if he’d was well enough to hear this?”
“Your father would know when to try again. It’s not as if the kingdom’s gone.”
“She may as well be.” James snapped. “You know as well as I do Green Folk can be tricky creatures. They can turn invisible at will. How else do you think they hide their endless treasures from us?”
“They are indeed tricky sir, but I don’t think they can turn invisible, let alone the other magical qualities you so readily suggest. Not in the traditional sense at least.”
“What do you mean?” Tanner smirked as he stepped forward, eyeing the dark forests on the map.
“That night of the Coffin Spawn attack…”
“Oh yes.” James’ childish demeanor faded as a more confident man appeared. Chest extended and shoulders back, and strode around the table in a more noble manner. “I can’t wait for it to be stuffed and hung. How the dukes and lords will love it.” The drastic shift in the young, spoiled man could only make the general exhale through his nostrils for a moment in annoyance.
“Uh, yes. What I was getting at Your Highness, was that girl who survived it.”
“Yes. Have you seen her at all lately?”
“I can’t say I have.”
“And the only one around her to ‘save’ her from that Coffin Spawn was Bernard, the same man who helped the Green Folk escape.”
“What are you saying?”
“Put it together My Lord.” James brought a hand up and scratched his chin, his eyes narrowed as he hummed for a moment. With a blink he looked back up to Tanner.
“Impossible. The maid that night was the Green Folk.” The general smirked, finding humor in the amount of time needed for the prince to peace it together.
“That means…to escape she infiltrated our own servants, summoned a Coffin Spawn to act like it was going to kill her, and manipulated Sir Bernard to do her bidding, by first making him seem heroic. My gods. I even saw them together before the games began.” Tanner simply nodded in response. “I want you to see if Bernard has any signs of bewitchment.”
“And if not, sir? Should he have simply cooperated on his own?”
“Kill him. He’d be a traitor to us all and detrimental to the future of Rees’s wealth.”
“Yes, Your Highness. Thank you.” With a bow and a turn, Tanner put his helmet on and slapped the visor back down.
“Tanner.” James called out. The Eagle General stopped just as his hand touched the door, where he barely looked over his shoulder to the prince. “Don’t think this revelation sets you free. I want that Green Folk.”
“Of course, Your Highness. It will be done.” Tanner growled before leaving James to ponder his next move. Ignoring the Kaiser Guard standing outside of the chamber, the golden knight walked briskly down one corridor after another. He paid no mind to the relatives of the Royal Family, who always had so little to offer him by means of conversation. A lazy and useless lot really, prancing about in nice clothes and petty arguments of allowance.
After some time, he came to a familiar door, which also had black-armored knights standing before it. Without a word they stepped aside and allowed Tanner inside. There, sitting with a children’s fairy tale book in hand, was Bernard at his table. He glanced up for only a moment before looking back down at his reading.
“Ah. Tanner. How’s freedom treating you?”
“You know as well as I do that none of us are free. Not in this life.” The general removed his helmet and sat down across from the elder knight, his cold stare fixed on him.
“Sure could use a bottle of something.” Bernard said as he lazily licked a finger and flipped a page in his book. Without much of a response, Tanner reached into the bag on his belt and pulled out a bottle of hard liquor before setting it down before him. With a wide grin, Bernard gave his thanks and reached for it, but narrowly had a finger sliced off when Tanner brought a wicked dagger down in front of the bottle.
“First, you help me out.”
“What would you need from an old man like me?”
“I think you know. You know I could have you killed for high treason after that little act of yours.”
“Aye. So why don’t you?” Tanner narrowed his eyes and smiled.
“Not so soon. You could prove useful to His Highness yet.” Bernard swallowed the lump in his throat, not caring for the general’s ominous tone.
“And…how might that be?”
“I’m interested in retrieving what you lost us, with you leading us back to the girl.”
“She’s in the woods. That’s all I know.” Bernard scoffed. “You were the one who caught her after all.”
“That I did. Well, let me put it this way then; you could use your friendship with the girl to lure her back out for us, or you could be mounted up right beside that Coffin Spawn in the bestiary of His Royal Highness. I’d also prefer if you were to be still alive for about half of your own taxidermy. You…know how they do it right?” His eyes narrowed, Bernard felt a corner of his mustache arch considerably as he closed the fairy tale book.
“Aye. I do.”
“I’ll do it, you prick.” Satisfied with himself, Tanner smiled and stood up.
“Good to hear.” He picked up his helmet and placed it back over his head. “It’ll be an honor to work with you once again. Oh, should you not fail His Highness, I promise, there’ll be a lot more where this comes from. We’ll leave in the morning.” And with that, the golden general left both the bottle of booze and his dagger, still implanted into the table.
Bernard watched him go, and waited some time before snatching the bottle and taking a generous drink from it. He winced at first, then looked back up at the door before leaning back in his chair. As he sat there, wallowing in his drink, his eyes turned back toward his glimmering suit of armor. Tall, proud, and gallant, it represented everything he once had. Now here he was, a prisoner to the kingdom he fought for his entire life, and lonely. He looked back at his bottle, knowing how temporary its relief would be for him, for that void deep in his chest he had sought to fill for so many years.
He put down the bottle and wandered off toward his looking glass, meeting the eyes of a pitiful old man. Unable to remember the last time he trimmed, he only knew of it after waking up hungover to nicks and cuts all over his face. The darkness around his eyes mirrored his life now. He appeared ten years older than he was, from his deep wrinkles to his vacant gaze. Whether he could get Eira back or not, he knew death was not long for him now, so long as James and Tanner were around at least.
With a gulp Bernard found his old shaving kit. He smiled warmly as he eyed and handled each bit like they were old friends, even the ones that had grown red with rust. Quickly he knocked on his own door, waiting for a Kaiser knight to open it and peak in.
“I request a jug of water.”
“For what? Tanner gave you a drink didn't he?” Bernard smiled.
“I need to shave.”
“I’ll do the talking.” Blade growled as he and the others made their way through a particularly thick patch of brush. With him at the lead, branches swung back and slapped Rampage and Crash as they followed. Dew splashed all over from the very early morning branches, as the cool evening had brought the little droplets onto them.
The dome-headed dinosaur, with her head hanging low, couldn’t feel the sharp sting of the bark whipping her skin as she still shuffled along behind her self-proclaimed leader. All she could think about was Crunch, and how she just stood there. He could’ve gotten better, she thought when her eyes began to water once more. Giant would have helped him.
When the three dinosaurs finally broke free from the wall of dense brush, they were met with countless more. Giant stood at the very center of the forest clearing, while numerous others either laid about or conversed, ignoring their leader as he spoke to a certain ankylosaur.
“Finn, you say?” Giant purred. “I haven’t heard that name in years. How is he?”
“Dunno. Never asked.” Boulder replied. “But I’m certain of what I saw.”
“As you should be. Armored fellows like yourself are always so sure of themselves. Quite an asset, if you ask me. Excellent work my old friend. Thank you.” Boulder simply nodded his respects as he and his men ventured off, likely to graze some ways away from Giant’s carnivores. Blade and the others approached their contractor, who welcomed them with a warm grin. “Ah there you are. I'm delighted to see you all again so soon. I, um…might I ask where Crunch is?”
“My liege. My lord. My master.” Blade began melodramatically. This quickly caught the attention of the other dinosaurs as they perked up and looked to the baryonyx, who hung his head in his best bid to sympathize with them. “We were defeated. Bested in the very center of combat, and of which our dear Crunch has fallen victim to.”
“He…he’s gone?” Giant asked softly. “Oh…my…my dear old friend…” The giganotosaurus looked down as his heart sank, a near uncharacteristic moment for his underlings to witness. “Might I ask how he went?” His eyes came up slowly, but not before locking onto Blade’s metallic claws, when he blinked and met with the baryonyx’s eyes.
“Rex? The lad from the plains?”
“Yes. We all took him on sir, but…he’s a lot stronger than we could ever have imagined.”
“Obviously.” Giant scorned. “Have you never heard of his parents? Quite the hardy pair back in their day. But…do go on.” Blade blinked once, his heart racing in his attempts to find just the right lie to put up against Giant. Immediately the giganotosaur’s attitude had changed, and the baryonyx could quickly notice his shift in mood, as he was approached and his leader had his head cocked, so as to better hear his response.
“Well, we were scouting for the Eira you spoke of sir, when Rex attacked us. I’m afraid to say Crunch did not fare well during the battle, and I…I had to put him down sir. For his sake.”
“Is that why your teeth and claws bear a shiny sheath?” Giant growled as he stood before the baryonyx, inspecting him from head to toe and back again.
“A-aye sir. Twas the call of a fair voice, I swear.” Almost immediately Blade realized the error of his mistake when he met with Giant’s satisfied eyes.
“Oh.” He began in a faux serious tone. “And this voice simply bestowed this wondrous power upon you?” Blade, the coward that he was, swallowed the lump in his long, skinny throat, and nodded. His heart skipped a beat as Giant’s snout inched toward his, when he cocked his head.
“Show me where this power is.”
“O-of course sir.” Blade smirked. “It’s just…should we not bid our respects to Crunch.”
“Though I feel remorseful for his passing, I don’t feel as if wallowing in sadness would honor him. I should think he’d want me to investigate this voice you speak of.”
“Y-yes. Of course.” Blade looked back to Crash and Rampage, as if for his own support. Though the feeling was hardly mutual, he was thankful to have them around. Giant of course liked them more than he did him, so naturally it helped that they were Crunch’s volunteers. The triceratops must have snatched a plant on the way over, Blade noticed, as he chewed mindlessly onto a thick, dry root, occasionally giving a dry, weak cough from its bitterness.
That’s when the baryonyx glanced to the dome-headed dinosaur, who continued to hang her head. That would be one thing he would miss about Crunch, Blade realized. His ability to bring their group together under a single banner. Even the baronyx knew he was too narrow-minded for that, as a single sliver of sympathy hovered over him, if for but a moment.
“If you so care to, sir, it is certainly in this past direction, the one we came from at this very moment.” Giant followed Blade’s glance into the thickening woods before looking back to him. They stood silent for a moment, when the baryonyx felt his confidence waning with every passing second. Finally the giganotosaurus parted his snout.
“What? Do you really expect me to wander aimlessly into the forest without you ahead of me? I mean, after all, you are the new leader of your group.” As Giant’s smirk widened into a dark sneer, Hopper and Taurus appeared at both of his sides, their own sinister grins hinting at their lack of confidence in the baryonyx.
“Of course not sir. Rally your men. I’ll deliver to you that fresh water source, and the power that will come with it.”