Chapter 36: FORTIS
Captain Jonathon James of the now defunct The Hampton Chase and his first mate Daniel Juba, the rounded stomach, somewhat balding pirate of the Waters of Cornwall, emerged from the forest to the clearing of the village to find- nothing. No one. Not a soul was in sight. During their walk, JJ was almost sure that once they arrived at the village, he would see a group of the villagers, lighting their torches, sharpening axes, collecting their castle storming tools. He had visions that in the clearing of the town, everyone would be assembled, forming a circle around a hype man. One of the leaders of the village would be in the center, talking about how they were going to-
“Storm the castle!”
And everyone else would raise their weapons; their swords, their bows, their torches, and shout “Aye!”
“Behead the children!”
“Take Springborough for ourselves!”
“Aye, aye, aye!”
But, the sounds of this community bloodlust, this party of greed and venom only echoed in JJ’s head, for as they came to the clearing, the sun’s final embers in the clouds above, there was no light guiding them home. There was no crowd chanting. There was nothing in Fortis but several dwellings that seemed to be melting because of the rain last night, footprints everywhere, and one random dog, tied to a spike in the ground, who panted excitedly when seeing actual humans. Jage began to walk toward the dog, a grey and black spotted companion animal who didn’t look threatening at all when Juba yelled behind him, “Freda!” and ran to, what Jage had to assume, was his own hut.
The dog was friendly enough. The rope it was tied with wasn’t in the least frayed around the spike in the ground, and the boy had to assume that, once the dog was tied, it simply laid down and waited to be untied. So, JJ did just that, untying the dog and letting it free. The dog didn’t move. It simply sat there some more, its large tongue hanging out of the side of its mouth, staring up at the pirate captain. JJ looked back down at it, now unsure of what to do.
“Where are your people, boy?” Jage asked, not really sure what sex the dog actually was.
The dog looked over its shoulder toward the village, and before JJ convinced himself this was a symbol of where the people ended up, Juba came from that direction, a piece of parchment in his shaking hands. He was having trouble reading whatever was on it due to the fading light. When Jage approached him, the dog followed to the boy’s side, and he absent-mindedly pet it as if they had been traveling partners before.
“What is it?” Jage asked.
“From my wife, saying that the people were packing up to head toward Springborough. That everyone had to go. Anybody left was going to be considered a traitor, so she had to go. And that she was sorry. And she hopes to see me again.”
“We didn’t see anyone,” Jage reflected.
It was true that they had neither had seen or heard anyone in the forest other than the two guards with Jimmy’s bones. But, the forest of Fortis was exceptionally large, taking up half of the island. It was why the Queen hid her cottage in it, for only wanderers and people that knew the specific trail would ever find the cottage. (Well, and a murderer, let’s be honest.) And there were several other myths that surrounded the forest as well, as they couldn’t be unproven by the sheer scope of the landscape. It was said that somewhere in the forest there was a petrified forest, and that is where the Warlock lived. The Warlock, people said, was a man who dressed in a hood and talked with the trees, or at least had been seen as such. Him talking with the trees made others believe the trees were alive, but only when no one was around, and since the forest was so large, there was usually nobody around anywhere at any specific time.
The forest being so vast was also the reason that the Village of Fortis was able to grow so large without Springborough knowing. And why people could hide in the trees, and in the ground, and in the random cave that Juba told Jage about. And apparently, the forest was so large that two people could walk right past an entire village, an entire army, and not realize it. This was the most concerning of all.
“I must tell you, Juba, while I did not know what we were going to do when faced with an army, it worries me more now that we missed it.”
“We could double back, catch up with them from behind. I’m sure all those people traveling could not be too quick.”
“I don’t know how they’d react to us coming from behind them like that.”
“To be fair, Captain, the old ones, Murray, Bud, Beverly, are good pirates because the ship moves them. I doubt they’re very nimble on foot.”
“Are they really going to force the women to fight? Like your Freda?”
“I don’t know what good that’ll do,” Juba said, remembering the one time he angered Freda in an argument, and she meant to throw a piece of pottery at him. The piece of pottery fell right to the floor as if she merely dropped it. From there, her threat of throwing anything was extremely laughable.
Juba turned the parchment over to see some more writing scrawled on the back, writing that seemed to be rushed, not as neat as the other side.
“This says ‘the trees are alive.’” Jage’s first mate looked at the note, not making heads or tails of it.
Suddenly, a man burst out of the trees, a hood over his head, a knife at his side, a satchel over his shoulder. He almost tripped over a vine at the edge of the forest, and the sudden sound of leaves rustling made JJ step back, his heart skipping a beat. Juba placed a hand on his friend’s wrist, as they both looked at the man who just joined them, who was out of breath from running, with sweat soaking his hair and grey mustache.
“Jack,” Juba said, recognizing the man.
The man known as Jack looked up from the ground, his chest and belly heaving from exhaustion. He rubbed his ankle where vines had cut into them. He recognized Juba, but his brain had trouble processing the blonde eleven year old next to him. It was possible that Parsell recognized Jage )but he did not right away.)
“Juba… I thought you were still at sea.”
“No, we returned yesterday. Where have you been? The mines?”
“The edge of the island.”
The mines, Jage thought, this was the man who discovered the mines, and sold the iron ore to the Baku. Jage knew all about the land south of Springborough, as it was in that direction that they sailed to find the Lost Kingdom of Gambrille, and it was Baku that everyone told him to be wary of. Because the people of Fortis had sold Baku iron ore, and the Bakuians had used it to make weapons. So the land down south was the most armed land in the known world, and Jage, who was a novice at sailing and nautical directions, was directing his boat right at it. In fact, his entire crew of pirates told him, that when they pirate, they never pirate around Baku.
“Too dangerous,” Larry had said. “The Bakuians will sink your boat just for trespassing. We’ll sail southeast, round the island, between Springborough and Delphia. Merchants coming and going from the Valley of Cherries are plentiful there. Or, between Springborough and Fornia, because why not steal from the Sanbays? Nobody cares if we anger them.”
It was because these pirates had never fully travelled the waters south that Jage was interested in seeing them, in mapping them out, in figuring out whether or not his family’s kingdom was there. It made sense to him, and maybe Baku was hiding The Lost Kingdom of Gambrille. Maybe that was what they were protecting with all the weapons, his family’s birthright of gold. Maybe the fire-breathing dragon that was rumored was really just a member of the Baku army with a device that shot flames.
Instead of finding Baku, or Gambrille, The Hampton Chase found a boat with the upper torso of a man crawling around, saying an evil storm was coming. And now, Juba and Jage found an empty village, with a grey haired man sweating on the ground.
“What were you doing at the edge of the island?” Juba asked.
“I’ve been going there during my days, watching Sanbay repair the Oak Bridge.”
“What?” Juba asked, completely at attention. The fact that the Oak Bridge was even under repair was completely new to him.
“They’ve been at it quite awhile.”
“I’ve come back to tell everyone.”
“They’re gone,” Jage said, his first inclusion into the conversation.
Parsell looked around, noticing the empty village for the first time. “The ground dwellings were empty as well.”
“The tree forts?” Juba asked.
“Too dark to see. Nobody came down to check on me, though.”
“What were you going to tell everyone?” Jage asked as Parsell stood, a man over six feet tall, the knife in his hand, used more for survival in nature than for combat looked silly small in comparison.
“They’ve finished the bridge. They’re positioning their army to cross it at dawn.”
And suddenly, as the three men stood in the middle of Fortis, between the army of Fortis and the Oak Bridge, with a strange dog lapping at Jage’s hand with its wet tongue, and Freda’s rushed scrawled note in Juba’s grasp, Larry’s words came back to Jage as clear as day-
Why not steal from Sanbay? Who cares if we anger them?