Flynn stumbled as he was tossed against a storage shed, back in the darkness of the camp and out of sight. Not that anyone would notice anyway, apparently. He caught himself and straightened, tugging his jacket back into place with every ounce of dignity at his disposal, before turning to the Stabbingtons.
They were far closer than he'd expected, looming over him and looking even more murderous than usual.
"Where is it?"
"Where's what?" Flynn asked.
The nearest Stabbington punched him, a rock hard fist embedding in the flesh of his gut. His stomach recoiled and he could feel his last meal surging to escape. Gasping, he tried to double over, but a solid hand on his shoulder kept him upright, pinned against the storage shed.
He closed his eyes and with a grimace fought down being sick. His anxiety tasted so bitter that it was making things difficult.
One of the Stabbingtons bent forward to leer right into Flynn's face. "Where is it?"
"Your eye? How should I know? You should really keep better track of-"
Another punch, this one landing slightly to the left of the last so even more of him would be bruised, so he could feel that same first bite of pain all over again. This one landed close enough to the gash in his side that he felt the blood drain from his face. He felt his knees give out and he would have fallen to the ground if he wasn't held tight against the shed.
"The battery, Rider." He could feel the Stabbington's breath on his face, and he cringed and pulled back, but there was nowhere to go. His discomfort seemed to please the Stabbingtons. A smirk rolled through every word they spoke. Their excitement hung in the air like a second layer of smoke.
They'd been waiting to pummel him for days.
"All we care about is the battery and if you knew what was good for you, it'd be all you cared about too."
"You have no idea how true that is. I should really listen to you guys more."
The Stabbington frowned at him. "Where is it?"
"I hid it."
The Stabbingtons shared a look, then grunted at each other with a series of short jerks of their heads.
Flynn found himself snapped around, his face smashed against the shed, held there with a hand on the back of his head. The other brother searched him, finding nothing but a few maps, some matches, a handkerchief, and some coins. They grumbled to each other as Flynn grimaced and tried to earn his face enough freedom that he could breathe without inhaling the solid layer of smoke that had plastered itself over the shed.
They shoved his head against the wall again and released him, and he turned to see them pocket what little money they found, toss the maps away, and glare at each other.
They didn't speak, but Flynn could follow their brotherly conversation well enough. If the battery wasn't on him, then it must be in the tower. They didn't seem to care about why he would leave it behind or why he would leave the safety of the tower, but whys were not part of their job.
"Tell us how to get in," one ordered.
Flynn pushed himself straight once more, forcing every ounce of his rising nerves into a tight ball, using it to power his way through the next few moments. His fear was his own, private battery, the energy skittish and unpredictable.
The Stabbingtons waited as he raised an eyebrow and checked that his throat would work before he spoke, his words even and unconcerned. "Well, I could do that, but I'm not sure you'd really like it once I did."
They gave him blank stares.
"You see, there's a dozen rebels in that tower. They're armed to the teeth and they have more dynamite than I've ever seen in one place before. Pretty impressive stuff. And you know how rebels are. Kinda twitchy. Kinda trigger happy. I could show you the way in, but they'd blow this whole valley sky high without a second thought. You'd be dead. I'd be dead. The battery'd be buried under five tons of collapsed tower."
One Stabbington rolled his eyes. "Like we believe that."
The other scoffed. "There aren't any rebels."
"Quit wasting time."
Flynn sighed, which, given the new bruises burning their way into his stomach, stung like crazy. He lifted his hands in a gesture of surrender. He managed just enough of a smirk so they would notice it and think he was trying to hide it rather than drag it up by the roots.
"Of course. You're right. There's no tricking you two brilliant gentlemen. Gotta try though, you know. Yeah, you're absolutely right. Did the whole thing entirely by myself." He looked around at the destruction of the camp, his chest swelling with pride (which hurt and almost made his breath catch before he pushed on). "I single handedly took down most of Corona's forces: their air fleet, their chameleons, their camp. Pretty impressive, don't you think? Yep. I'll tell you how to get in, and you two go on up. You shouldn't meet any resistance at all. Scout's honor."
This confused the Stabbingtons.
Flynn focused on keeping his smirk in check.
The brothers scowled at each other. One grunted and shook his head. The other chewed his tongue and nodded. They decided that this story was definitely a lie, but they didn't mind murdering a dozen fictional rebels.
"Tell us how to get in."
"Just getting in's not good enough. The battery's still hidden in there and you two will never find it."
His back hit the wall again before he realized the blow was coming.
"You need my help. You'll never get past the booby traps without me and my friends will never let you in alone. You may be well armed and blood thirsty, but they've been planning this for years and they've dug in deep. You need me or you'll never get the battery."
The Stabbington in his face glared. Flynn clung to his cool, emphasizing his point with a smirk and a patronizing nod of his head. If they killed him, Rapunzel would die.
He couldn't let that happen.
"You need me alive. And it might serve you better to get on my good side. Just a suggestion."
A suggestion they weren't going to go for, but a tried and true method of bargaining was to demand something outrageous for the buyer to reject so the settling cost sounds reasonable and they can feel in control.
Of course, in this case, they were in control, but Flynn needed every bit of self delusion he could muster.
The Stabbington dropped him in disgust and stood back a step to confer with his brother again in silence. One of them cracked a grin that made Flynn's skin crawl and a moment later an identical smirk eased onto the second brother's face. They needed him alive, but only until they found the battery. They needed him alive, but he didn't need to be in one piece to give directions. He didn't need his good looks or his fingers or both arms.
They shifted their bulking stances into something more at ease, looking pleased with themselves. Even though they weren't looming over him any more, the threat was just as plain. They were cats toying with their meal. "Show us how to get in."
Flynn swallowed, the knot in his stomach growing so hard and cold it was hard to speak. "Alright. This way."
A hand on his shoulder stopped him.
"The tower is that way."
"Yes," he said, pointedly removing the hand from his shoulder. "And the tunnel to get into the tower is this way."
"If you try anything-"
"You'll break my nose, yeah. I get it."
"Don't get fresh."
"Me? I don't know if you've noticed, but my nose is amazing. Do you seriously think I'd do something to ruin my profile?" He turned his head to show off said profile, resulting in an eye roll and a shove to get him moving again, this time in the general direction of the non-existent secret tunnel.
He headed back in the direction of the siege towers, back towards the crowd and the chaos. Maybe in the smoke he could lose them, but realistically there was no way that would work. But they might then turn to the tower without him and find their own way in. If they took the battery there would be no saving Rapunzel. If they found Rapunzel there was no telling what they'd do to her - flat out murder her or torture her in hopes she'd wake up and tell them where the battery was. They might even kidnap her and use her for her weird, magic healing hair powers.
He had to not only lose them, but incapacitate them. And he was running out of time.
The smoke had grown thicker. The whole clearing had grown hot as an oven from the slow, steady burn. It felt as if the ground were boiling beneath his feet, and given the density of the smoke, it was almost impossible to see that this wasn't true.
The Stabbingtons stayed close, breathing down the back of his neck. Out of the corner of his eye, it was as if they grew taller, shadowy figures stalking him in the gloom. He couldn't hear their footsteps over the shouts, but he imagined he could. He couldn't feel the heat of their stares, but he imagined that too.
Sweat clung to him, and he couldn't tell if it was from the heat or the stress.
He decided to blame the heat and considered pulling off his coat. He'd have a better range of motion if he caught a chance to escape. He also wouldn't blend in as well.
An idea started to form in the back of his mind.
They passed the first fallen siege tower, now collapsed in a heap of charred, scraped planks and black ash. The soldiers had abandoned the ruins to move onto the next tower, still alight and crackling. They swarmed around it, throwing buckets of water and beating at it with anything they could get their hands on. Part of the tower snapped, crumpled, and collapsed, sending up a cloud of sparks, sending the soldiers nearby leaping out of the way.
For a moment they had to move through a crowd, all dark figures that blurred in and out of the smoke until their mass movements caused the smoke to clear ever so slightly.
Flynn let himself be jostled slightly to the side, and heard a grunt from a Stabbington as he was bumped as well. Now with a three step lead on the brothers, Flynn spun on his heal, pointed at them and sent up the loudest shout he could.
"Oh my God! Enemy spies! They did this! They're after the battery! Get them!"
Startled responses grew from the crowd, first one, then another. Another and another. Building in volume. Growing in confidence. Turning from surprise to anger to determination.
He had a glimpse of one Stabbington's startled face, and the Stabbington caught a hint of his grin, then the battle erupted. A mass of soldiers, whose numbers Flynn couldn't count in the chaos, surged past him and attacked like a great wave on the ocean to crash down upon the brothers, who drew their weapons and set themselves against the new threat.
All attention diverted, he ducked away, pushing past forms running the opposite direction, moving from the scene with all haste as the shouts grew and the battle crashed and burned, fading as he ran until it blended with the rest of the destruction.
Coughing and panting, he slumped against the side of a tent, once again back in the dark vacancy of the camp. He'd lost track of where he was, where he was heading, but he let himself double over, gripping at the lingering pain in his gut.
He squeezed his eyes closed and fought for control, then hissed through his teeth and straightened.
He was running out of time.
Setting his jaw, he started off again. This time maybe out of the clearing to where the generals had probably evacuated? At least out to where there was less chaos and someone could take a second to give him directions.
He made it three paces before an icy blade slid under his jaw, jerking him to a halt. He swallowed, looking out of the corner of his eye, the blade scraping against his throat.
Someone was behind him, he could feel them now, the pressure against his shoulder, the heat. They had hidden themselves in smoke.
He expected a soldier, and calmed his nerves by reminding himself that capture was exactly what he wanted.
He wasn't expecting the voice in his ear, familiar and cold and dangerous. A voice like smoke, that made his stomach sink.
"So. You've been inside my tower."