Rosewater

A Fable III fanfiction

Chapter One: Mourningwood


She'd first drawn his eye at the Mourningwood Fort, a woman traveling with Walter. Short, tousled red hair and intelligent eyes did not mask the determination on her face. The hammer strapped to her back and the pistol belted to her hip told of combat prowess; an easy smile and a cheerful greeting had spoken of an innocence that was rare in this day and age. He had allowed himself to eye her curves with an oblique glance; she wore trousers and high, buckled boots, capped with a bodice that flaunted a trim torso and long, muscular legs.

In the dim afternoon sunlight of the Mourningwood, she was, in a word, glorious.

He had been revving up his most charming smile, aiming to be shot down as fast as possible, when the words had tumbled from Walter in a rush. "And of course you know who I have with me, Swiftie. The Princess was no longer safe at the castle, and I've brought her with me."

"The Princess?" Ben blurted, before he could stop himself. "I thought her hair was a light brown, and she would be more – I dunno, royal?"

She winked at him, her bright red hair glinting in the watery sunlight. "I'd like to think I have this incognito business down pat if you doubt who I am. Let's see if I can convince you."

She drew herself up to her full height, chin raised as she leveled a commanding stare at him. He swallowed, his heart in his throat, because she matched the portraits of the royals he remembered as a lad. She had her father's look about her – and King Sparrow bred true.

That brought the flirtation to a screeching halt. She was out of his reach, and he knew it. He might not be the bottom rung, but he was damned close. He coughed into his closed fist to regain his composure, flicking his eyes between Walter and Swift. They had been too busy discussing strategy to notice his discomfiture, and he was glad of it. He threw himself into the discussion, flinching only a little when she came to stand beside him, hand on a hip as she looked over Swift's crude map.

"And Captain Finn will be happy to show you the mortar. I daresay it's easy enough to pick up," said Walter, causing Ben to start.

He'd been too busy trying to wet dry lips with a tongue that felt like sandpaper to pay attention; as the other two men crooked twin brows in askance, he murmured something in an affirmative, jerking his head at the stairway. She followed him with a blasé smile, climbing the steps two at a time as they made their way to the mortar.

"So, your highness, what brings you to our neck of the woods?" he asked.

"Please don't. I'm Eleanor, not my title. Besides, Walter wants me to be a soldier for now, see how the other half lives." She smiled again, and he returned it, without thinking.

"Eleanor. It suits you." Of course it does, dolt, it's her name.

She laughed. "Mother seemed to think so. Most just call me Ellie."

"All right then, Private Ellie, let me introduce you to the mortar, and to Private Jammy."

Jammy had been his usual cheerful self, telling the Princess (Ellie) how to use the mortar. She picked up on it with surprising speed, almost besting his record with her first go. She grinned at him, her face covered in soot, as the last hollow man exploded to powder. He had never seen anyone getting such enjoyment out of blowing hollow men to bits. It was charming, really.

No, it isn't. She's the Princess, and you know better.

He tugged on his curling blonde forelock that was forever getting into his eyes, making a show of his appraisal of her. Her grin faded, an uneasy look as he hemmed and hawed.

"You'll do," he said at last, his smile warm for her as Private Jammy nodded in agreement. "To be honest, I haven't seen shooting like that since ol' Swiftie decided to give it another go."

She laughed, a rich, throaty sound that sent a spark sizzling down his spine. "I'm glad I make muster, then. I'd hate to be outshot by my own troops. It wouldn't do for the public image. I'm supposed to protect my people, after all –"

"Hollows in the trenches!" came the cry, and her face hardened as she turned back to the mortar. Ben slung his rifle from his shoulder, kneeling next to her and picking off stragglers.

The fighting this time was brutal, more vicious than any attack before it. Despite the mortar and the ranged support on the walls, the splintering of the wooden doors could be heard below. A shuddering crack rocked the walls of the fort and he stumbled, sending his shot wide and ripping an oath from his lips.

"'ware the doors! The hollow men have broken through!" A flash of red swept past his vision as Ellie pounded down the stairs, already pulling the hammer from her back as Marsden and Locke hove their shoulders into the door. The thick wooden doors rocked on their hinges, bursting inward with a squeal of metal as the hinges snapped, sending the men flying.

"Avo's blood, they're in," he said, reloading his rifle, his voice rising in a roar as he crossed the grounds to the rest of the men. "Back to back! Don't let them split you up! Like we drilled now, lads, look sharp for the Princess!"

Blue wisps floated through the doorways, malevolent and spreading the chill of death that preceded a hollow man attack as they sank into the ground. Rotting hands punched through the packed dirt of the parade ground, the corpses scrabbling through the earth to pull themselves up. Empty eye sockets gaped, lit from behind with the blue faerie fire as they advanced on the Swift Brigade.

He settled his rifle to his shoulder, firing in unison with the unit, sending the hollow men staggering back. New holes sprouted in skulls as the devils shuffled forward, their weapons raised.

Ben swore as he felt a rush of heat past his head. He thought it to be someone shooting too close, but then the whole group of hollow men shrank back as a pillar of flame erupted in the middle of their group.

"Magic," he said, his voice as low as his breathing as he saw the Princess advancing on the enemy, her hands alive with writhing flame and crackling electricity. The hollow men saw the new target and turned toward her, jaws dropping open with their unearthly wails echoing throughout the parade ground.

The magical energy seemed to suck something out of the air; pressure grew in his chest, his eyes watering from watching the swirling power reach its apex. She gave a snarl as one got too close, releasing the bolt that erupted around her in all directions, washing the courtyard in searing flame and the snapping sizzle of electricity.

The soldiers flinched back, but the flames did not burn them. A warm wind, uncomfortable at best, whipped past his face as the flames passed over them. He breathed in the scent of sulfur and ozone on that wind, in awe of the woman that held the line before him.

She was using magic. Against all odds, a Hero walked Albion once again.

He shook his thoughts away, determined not to disappoint. His rifle was a steady report in the fray, picking off stragglers and those that attempted to flank her as she swung the large hammer she wielded with a curious, brutal grace. She crushed skulls with hammer and pistol, firing from the hip as if she were born to it, resorting to that wicked flame spell when she was surrounded.

The unit was cohesive, a fighting force well used to each other, and they fell into step with the Princess, setting a punishing rhythm as they battled the forces of the undead seeking to crush the life in the fort. Cries of pain were interspersed with the report of gunfire, an anguished shout making him snap his head around as Private Jammy crumpled to the ground.

"Jammy!" he cried, lifting his rifle to his shoulder to fire at the offending hollow man. Its head burst into flecks of rotting flesh and bone as a pistol cracked once, then twice. The Princess set another approaching corpse aflame as she rolled out of the way of a rusty cleaver, making her way to Jammy's side. She met Ben's eyes, her own closing as she gave her head a brief shake.

The fray devolved into chaos, the roar of rifles, pistols, and the clap of magic being released sounding more and more frequent as the hollow men kept coming. His eyes were watering from the acrid stench of gunpowder, the bitter tang of it coating his tongue in a foul film. Wave after wave of the undead fell to saber, rifle and pistol and still they came, crawling over their brethren as they were sent back to hell.

A sudden reprieve in the clearing smoke allowed them time to breathe, and he looked for Major Swift. Swift was barking orders to nearby troops, and he turned to Ben as he approached.

"Report on Private Jammy, Captain?"

Ben shook his head. "Jammy's luck ran out, it seems. Poor blighter."

"Then that makes four." Swift gave a sigh. "Still, we would have lost many more if Walter hadn't shown up with the Princess."

"Yes, sir. She's shown us what for, that's for sure." He grinned, an expression that died when the major gave him a sharp look, moustache quivering.

"None of that, boy. Walter will have your bollocks."

"Aye, sir."

"More incoming!" The wisps floated through the air, chilling the parade grounds once again as they swooped for the fresh-dug graves. A rumbling could be heard as the crude wooden cross erected for Lieutenant Simmons shook loose from the soil, toppling over as the corpse dragged itself from the grave.

"Lieutenant Simmons, you were under strict orders to remain buried!" Major Swift shouted, gesturing with his saber.

Ben rolled his eyes. "Does no one follow orders anymore?"

"Shut up, Ben."

Another fireball impacted with Simmons's head, causing the resurrected officer to turn, facing down the Princess. His saber rose in the air as he pointed it at her, and she gave a feral grin as she smashed her way through the hollow men that moved to corner her. Though her overhand strikes were powered by enormous strength, there was a grace to it that was undeniable as she battered the hollow men back with feints and crushing blows when one separated from its fellows.

Ben covered her, picking off more of the hollow men that meant to surround her and clearing a path for her to escape the sweeping strikes of Simmons's saber as he slashed at her. She rolled under a cross chop, planting her pistol underneath Simmons's rotting jaw and firing as she leapt away. The hollow man's head rocked back on his shoulders, and he staggered. Her hammer impacted with his midsection, her gauntlet glowing with arcane power as she unleashed her magical might around her, incinerating the smaller hollow men.

Simmons growled and struck out with the hilt of his saber, catching her in the head and spinning her 'round, tumbling to the dirt. Ben shouted something incoherent, firing several shots that impacted into Simmons's broad back. The shambling hollow man turned, growling as the men concentrated their fire on him. The handle of her hammer looped around his chest, her strength lifting the hollow man clear off the ground.

"Lieutenant Simmons, you are hereby relieved of – duty," she said, grunting with the strain of twisting the hammer against Simmons's chest, the cracking snap of bone cutting through the rifle fire and cries of pain. Simmons roared as he crumbled into powder, the wisp light dying in his eyes as he was laid to his final rest. She rested her head against the handle of her weapon, worn out from the fighting. Simmons's second death marked the end of the hollow man invasion, the remaining few crumpling to the ground where they stood, their wisps fleeing.

"Well done, lass." Walter clapped her on the shoulder, and she grinned at him.

"I've picked up a few things since you've been teaching me, after all."

The sky cleared, the hollow men beaten back for another day. The Princess even helped bury the dead, which was a surprise to him – never had he seen nobility dirty their hands before today. She wiped the sweat from her brow, accepting the dipper of water that the private held out to her with a smile and a nod of thanks.

Ben should have been doing other things. He knew he shouldn't be staring. But she was fascination itself – a real Hero, just like the stories he used to read, and the tales he heard about her father. He jumped when Walter cleared his throat behind him.

"Hello, Walter," he said. His grin was guilty, even he could tell. The nervous lift to his lips didn't fool the old retainer for an instant, and the scowl he wore said volumes as he folded his arms. "Enjoying catching up with the brigade?"

"Ben, shut up." Walter glowered at him, and he felt his heart sink. He'd been caught red handed, fair and square, though. He straightened, meeting Walter's eyes. "You're keeping a close eye on her highness."

"I swear it's not how you think." The glare deepened. "Okay, maybe a little, but I swear I didn't mean any harm."

"You had better not be getting any of your clever ideas, Ben. She's too much of a lady to understand harmless flirting, especially from a lack wit like you. You'll break her heart, and she doesn't need that right now."

"How is it harmless flirting if I actually mean what I say?" This was the wrong answer. Walter fair to snarled at Ben, his lips lifting away from his teeth.

"Let me put it to you this way, Captain Finn. I will see you stripped of your rank and drummed out of the army, and then I will personally hunt you down and remove your balls. I made a promise to the King, and I will keep that promise. Am I understood?"

Ben swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing in his nervousness. "Perfectly understood, sir."

"Good." Walter turned on his heel and stalked away, casting a dark look over his shoulder at him as he went to fetch the Princess.

No, as he went to go fetch Ellie. With that mutinous thought, Ben knew he was in for a lot of trouble. He vowed to stay out of it if he could.


A/N: So this is what I've been working on for two weeks. Damn you, Lionsgate, pulling a Bioware on the only interesting character in the bloody game. Aquila will have a new chapter up tomorrow, but for now, enjoy Ben in all his silliness.