Fergus Underhill crept as silently as he was able through the stone hallways, cringing at every echoing sound his enormous feet were making. The skies remained dark outside but Fergus knew that dawn was fast approaching and he would not have too long before the castle was bustling with servants. Bow in hand and arrows slung on his back, he squeezed through the back doorway of the kitchen and greeted the brisk, morning air with a heavy sigh. The cold hit him immediately, brushing icy fingertips against the exposed skin of his face and hands and causing them to turn a bright shade of pink. Adrenaline shot through Fergus' veins at his exposure to the air as he gazed at the misty, dark forest to his left. No other competitor would have thought to get in some archery practice this early, he hoped. Fergus had to make sure he was one step ahead of the rest of the players on this day.
It was more difficult than he thought picking his way around the scattered tents in the field. The four players in The Games were supplied with lavish rooms in the castle, but the rest of their clans were forced to weather the elements outside in their tents. Patches of yellow, blue, red, and green covered the grounds like an elaborate quilt. Fergus stepped lightly around a yellow tent – which was emitting loud, snoring sounds – and almost tripped over the hairy feet that stuck out of the end.
He finally did reach the closure and sanctuary of the woods, stepping into the canopy of orange, red, and yellow. He took his bow in hand and stole through the forest, keeping to the shadows. The smoothness of its wood against his rough hand offered reassurance in his abilities, and when he pulled his first arrow right through a falling leaf, he became even more confident.
As he shot at more randomly placed targets (a few more leaves and five tree trunks), the events of the last few days began to weigh on Fergus like the thick, forest air around him. The journey to the castle on the cliff was definitely a long one (five days by boat and three on horseback) and as much as Fergus loved to travel, he had been more than anxious to arrive at the castle and see the princess – the person his father had promised he would marry.
"Don't worry yerself, Fergus," his father had said. "Those royal-types tend to be a bit standoffish, yes, but you are the strongest and bravest in the kingdom."
Oh, Fergus Underhill had never doubted this. His strong stature towered above the other players, and he definitely knew that his bravery was not to be trifled with. Fergus had rode into the courtyard with his head held high and a self-assured grin on his face. But then he had entered the great hall in its splendor and had laid eyes on her: Princess Elinor.
His self-reliant grin had faded, his eyes had widened, and his once confident posture shriveled until he was no more than a little boy. The princess was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, sitting with wide, cautious eyes like a doe examining her surroundings. His father had hence warned him that beauty was fleeting, but Fergus found it very hard to tear his gaze away from her, especially when he was introduced.
For the entirety of the feast, he had stolen quick glances at the royal table where Princess Elinor seemed to be forcing smiles with those lush, pink lips of hers. Just as Fergus was gathering the courage to go up and ask for her favor in the first task (he had never had to gather courage for anything in his life), that Macbeth boy was already out of his seat and conversing with her. Fergus could not make everything out, but he most definitely heard Macbeth say the words "beauty" and "favor". The wee sneak. Buttering up the princess with hollow compliments and then immediately asking her favor? How was that for treating a lady? And not even wishing the girl a "many happy returns"? Fergus may have not been an expert on etiquette, but he knew how a lady should not be treated – and on her birthday, no less.
Another one of his arrows dug into the trunk of a tall aspen. The corners of his mouth turned upwards slightly – there was absolutely no chance of losing today's challenge. As he was still congratulating himself, something swished past his right ear and sunk into the pale wood of the tree directly above his own arrow. Fergus spun around, bowstring pulled back for battle, as he laid eyes on a dark-haired, broad-shouldered man.
"Apologies," the man said in a voice as smooth as mead, although not a note of actual regret escaped his lips.
"Macbeth," Fergus greeted, nodding his head tersely. "What brings you out in the woods so early?" Although he knew exactly what.
Macbeth stroked the string on his own weapon, hands so calloused against the sharp edge of the string. "Same as you, I expect." His tone was jeering as if to say, "What a dim-witted question to ask. Why else do you think I am out here? To enjoy the scenery?" Fergus held his ground, refusing to give in to the part of him that wanted to finish Macbeth right then. "After all, how can the princess choose her champion amongst a band of unpracticed fools?" Not waiting for an answer, Macbeth took careful steps through the underbrush towards the aspen and pulled his arrow from the bark. He held the point up to his face, grey eyes narrowing as if studying something only he could see. His eyes wavered from his arrow to Fergus' – no doubt sizing up the competition.
"Your stunned silence only proves my point, Underhill," Macbeth murmured.
"And what point is that?" Fergus did not want to ask the question – he knew it only made Macbeth feel empowered. However, Fergus' tongue was usually one step ahead of his brain and the words had left his mouth before he could stop them. Of course, Macbeth did not answer, but smiled that smug, all-knowing smile that made Fergus want to tackle him (one less competitor to worry about.) Macbeth slipped the arrow back into its quiver and sauntered deeper into the woods, leaving an irritated Fergus in his wake.
When he was sure that Macbeth was gone, Fergus yanked his arrow from the tree, took careful aim, and hit his target – an apple hanging from one of the tallest branches. The apple snapped off its perch and thumped to the ground, spraying bits of juice as it crashed. Fergus left the arrow where it was and stomped off.
The courtyard was abuzz with excitement as the clans packed up their tents, put out their campfires, and readied themselves for the morning's festivities. Fergus had made it back just in time to see his father speaking with one of the other clan leaders. When he caught his son's eye, he excused himself from the conversation and made his way over. It was like watching a bear lumbering towards him, heavy footsteps falling with thumps on the grass. Full-grown men scurried out of his way in fear of getting crushed.
"Are you ready for the task, my boy?" He asked it in a whisper, although his voice was so bass-like that heads still turned.
Fergus straightened his shoulders and nodded. "Aye, father."
Underhill smiled proudly. "Get some practice in?"
Fergus scanned the field again, senses heightening from the adrenaline filling his veins and causing him to feel everything with intensity; the ground trembling beneath his boots, the silky air on his fingers, and the taste of sweat on his lips.
"May want to focus up, Fergus."
Fergus glanced around, only just realizing that the merry voices of the men had died down to a hush as a new crowd of people came through the grounds. A line of servants holding the DunBroch flags high marched ahead of the royals: the king, the queen, and the princess with her lady-in-waiting. It was quite easy for Fergus to catch a glimpse of the royals, for he stood head and shoulders above the rest of the clans. The king and queen strolled side by side, nodding courteously to their adoring onlookers. Even though the Games were being held outdoors, this did not stop them from dressing in their very finest trappings lined with gold, silver, and jewels.
"Could feed an entire village for a year with just one of those rings," Fergus said in an undertone. His father shot him a look of distain.
Fergus' derision was soon forgotten when Princess Elinor, trailing her mother and father, came nearer and nearer. She dressed more simply than her parents, although not un-princess-like. Her hair, pulled back in two long braids, reminded Fergus of darkened embers against her fair, fair skin. Her forest-green gown was simple, but elegant, and complemented her eyes wondrously. She glanced around the crowds of people, not as poised as her parents. Rather, Elinor's eyes were so wide, they reflected the golden light of the rising sun and those dark, brown orbs darted about the crowds with slight apprehension. Fergus could not help but imagine a graceful doe stepping cautiously through the grass, staying to the shadows. How could such a beautiful creature not want to be seen? As if she felt his hard gaze on her like fire, the princess glanced in his direction.
Fergus barely flinched when greeted suddenly by a wild bear, but he flinched now as those doe-like eyes landed on him. In that single moment he felt surprise and just a little bit of panic, but in the next moment she had crossed his path and had followed the king and queen to their elevated seats.
Fergus stumbled forward, only just realizing that the competitors were lining up before the thrones. He jogged to his place and straightened his shoulders, shaking the dimness he had just felt and attempting to look confident. Just to be safe, though, he refrained from looking in the princess' direction.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I apologize profusely for this late, late update! I have been getting ready for college and life has been hella hectic. I promise that updates will be more frequent from now on! Thank you oh so much for the favorites and comments! Your support means more than you know.
P.S. I should also say that I rewrote this chapter at least twice until I came out with the finished product. I had it from Elinor's perspective (what I was going to do for the entirety of the story) but then I remembered a review from someone saying how they hoped Fergus' POV would be in here somewhere. What a great idea! I loved it. Hence, this.