“Drop the bow.”
Cian pressed his knife against the rebel’s throat. Through the veil of dirty blonde hair, he couldn’t see whose throat it was, but the little rebel traitor had identified him as their leader, which was all that mattered, really. Slowly, the man released the tension in his bowstring and set it on the ground. Cian kept the knife pressed tightly.
Logically, Cian had assumed that in order to be the leader of the rebels, this man had to be their best fighter, their strongest and smartest. Therefore, Cian hadn’t taken him on alone. After Keaton had informed him of their most likely course of action, Cian sent seven men to sneak up behind the rebels hiding in the woods, and two to take out the ones by the fire. He himself had taken their leader, with one soldier trailing behind as back up. The final soldier was, of course, guarding Keaton. The plan was perfect, and the best part was that it was going incredibly smooth.
That was until Cian turned the rebel leader around. His eyes held the lean, hungry look of a predator, bent on survival and sparkling with intelligence. But that wasn’t what made Cian’s hand falter. He knew those eyes. He knew them very, very well. The rebel leader smiled, not seeming terribly bothered by the knife under his chin.
Cian breathed, “Kane. Kane, what are you-” There was a crash of leaves behind them. It was his back up. If his soldier saw him let a prisoner go- Cian spoke quickly. “I’m going to turn my head. Knock me down and run,” he hissed to Kane.
The black soldier crashed into the clearing and Cian turned towards him, letting the dagger drift away from Kane’s skin ever so slightly. Kane took advantage of the opportunity, knocking the dagger away and sweeping his feet out from underneath him. Cian fell hard, cracking his elbow on the log as Kane leaped over him and raced into the woods.
Cian was humiliated, but it was worth it for his younger brother. He hadn’t expected to find Kan-
A sharp cry and a thump sounded from the other direction. The black soldier whose name Cian couldn’t remember lowered his bow and looked triumphant. “I got him!”
Cian scrambled to his feet. “You what?” he demanded, concern passing for shock. He ran that way to find Kane collapsed on the ground, an arrow in his shoulder. Kneeling over him, Cian winced in sympathy as Kane groaned with pain. He whirled on the soldier. “You idiot! You could have killed him,” he growled, forgetting himself.
“I-I thought-” the soldier stammered.
“We were supposed to take them alive, if at all possible,” Cian said to cover his concern. Inwardly, he berated himself. There was a reason why he didn’t let his emotions show. They had a tendency to mess things up. “If the leader of the rebellion dies of blood loss before we get him back, do you think the White Queen is going to be very happy?”
“Go get some bandages ready. I can get him down to the clearing,” Cian said. With a nervous nod, the soldier scampered off. Cian turned back to Kane. “We only have minutes,” he whispered. “They’ll send someone up to check on me.”
“Cian,” Kane muttered. “It’s been so long.”
Cian nodded, throat tight. “I never thought I’d see you again. I thought you’d left for good.”
“Well, I did, didn’t I?” Kane said as Cian helped him into a sitting position. “I went to the Black Kingdom, but you know me. Trouble finds me.”
“Quite,” Cian muttered. He examined the wound. “I’m going to have to pull this out.”
Kane looked a bit pale, but he nodded bravely. He snatched a stick from the ground and put it between his teeth. At his nod, Cian grabbed the shaft of the arrow and pulled hard. Kane grunted loudly, his eyes squeezed shut as hard as he could. And then it was over. He spat out the stick. “Thanks,” he managed. Cian ripped off the bottom of his own tunic and pressed it against the wound to soak up the blood. Probably to distract himself from the pain, Kane said, “What was that about the White Queen? And why are you dressed in black?”
“Incognito,” Cian replied. “The war you’re fighting is really against the White Queen. She’s controlling the Black Kingdom. The Black Queen has no power. I shouldn’t be telling you all of this.” He paused. “You should go. You should run.”
“I can’t leave my men. I can’t abandon them,” Kane said.
“You’re too damn noble, you know that?” Cian said angrily. “Save yourself! I can say you knocked me out with a rock or something.”
Kane managed a smile. “It’s nice of you to offer. I’m actually surprised after...Well, after what I said to you last time, I was certain you hated me.”
“I do hate you, but you’re still my brother.”
“I can’t run. It’s not my nature, I’m sorry. A few minutes ago? That wasn’t running, that was escaping. But this, abandoning my men...” He shook his head. “Sorry.” Kane looked towards the forest wistfully. “I’m so sorry, Naida,” he whispered. Cian didn’t ask.
With his good arm over Cian’s shoulder, Kane was able to walk out of the forest and back to the clearing of the rebels’ camp. The black clothed men stood with their swords drawn over eight of the rebels, their hands and feet tied. One was bleeding from the side of his head, and another had a swollen eye.
“One of them committed suicide, sir,” Meckin, second in command, informed Cian. “There was nothing we could do.”
Cian nodded brusquely. “It can’t be helped.” He set Kane down less than gently, keeping up with appearances. “Bandage him,” he ordered, voice devoid of emotion.
One of the men set to it as Cian took off his helmet, tucking it under his arm and studying the ones they had captured. These were the people whom is brother trusted, and trusted him in return. They looked like nothing more than a ragged group of starving farmers; how had they escaped Haverforth?
Cian wasn’t sure whether or not he should be glad that Kane had survived this encounter. They would now have no choice but to bring the rebels in front of the White Queen, and she wasn’t exactly known for being merciful. Cian’s stomach twisted with dread. Maybe if he asked the White Queen for a favor... It was Kane’s only hope.
Silently, Cian cursed fate. It seemed unforgivably cruel that after leaving their rift grow so wide, the brothers should be brought together like this. As enemies. If he was being entirely honest, however, it was primarily his fault for the rift in the first place. No, Cian corrected himself. It was the White Queen’s fault. If it hadn’t been for her, he wouldn’t have joined the White Army and wouldn’t have pushed Kane to join as well. If that hadn’t happened, they might have never separated, and Kane might not be facing his death at the hands of Cian’s master.
It was a cruel world.
“Get them on their feet,” Cian commanded. “We can cover some ground before it gets dark.”
Each soldier grabbed a prisoner and hoisted him to his feet. They struggled; some went limp, and some kicked out, but in the end they gave up. As Meckin marched by with Kane, Cian shared a look with his brother. He shook his head ever so slightly, as if to tell him what they both already knew. Their relationship had to be kept a secret. This meant that their time for catching up was over; they couldn’t risk talking in private again. It would simply be too suspicious.
Cian lingered as the last of the men filed out of the clearing. He watched them go ahead, feeling the twisting pit in his stomach. The triumph with which the memories of every other successful mission shone was lacking now. How could he feel any sort of accomplishment at capturing his own brother? A twist like that would effectively ruin anyone’s day.
Having taken long enough, Cian moved to set after his men when a twig snapped in the woods behind him. He turned, eyes scanning the tree line, but he didn’t find anything or anyone. It could have been an animal, he thought as he headed off down the path. Nothing to worry about.
An arrow whizzed past his arm, missing him by a good six inches, but burying itself in the ground. The shaft stuck out of the dirt, still quivering, and Cian looked at it dumbly. He spun, looking for the shooter, but, again, he didn’t find anyone. Even though the archer obviously wasn’t very good, Cian decided not to take any chances. He left the clearing at a run.
Naida blinked back the tears in her eyes. She lowered the bow, her hands shaking so badly that she hadn’t been able to notch a second arrow after the first one had missed so terribly. If only she had asked Kane to teach her archery...
She couldn’t hold it in any longer. Naida sunk to the ground, her back against the large trunk of a tree, and dissolved into sobs. Kane was gone. He’d been captured. The worst part was that there was nothing she could do about it. Nothing.
His captor’s face was burned in her mind. That thin man with the stern face and black hair. Those narrow, slanted eyes seemed to radiate ruthlessness. Naida could picture every shadow on that cruel face and she hated it so, so much. She hated him so much. She could have sworn that he had smirked as he turned away. He wouldn’t be smirking if he were in Kane’s position.
Naida angrily wiped away her tears as regret flooded her mind. If only she had be faster, stronger, more courageous, more accurate. If only she hadn’t hesitated so long to follow Crow and Kane through the woods, she might have gotten there before he was captured. Maybe then she could’ve saved him. As it was, Naida arrived just as the ambush of the rebels finished up, and she had seen the brutal efficiency with which the Black Riders moved. It was foolish to think she could have bested them with nothing but her slightly dull axe, but still the regrets sprung to mind.
And when she scooped up the bow from the rebel who had committed suicide and aimed it at the man, Naida hadn’t actually expected it to hit. But if only she had aimed a little better, had remained a little more calm, and been a little shaking less...
Naida jumped up, alarmed by how much time had passed while she had been wallowing in her own self pity. Of course she was sick with worry about Kane and distraught with heartbreak, but she still had a family waiting for her to bring wood for the night. As she picked her way back through the forest, Naida’s thoughts ran wild. She wasn’t naive enough to think that Kane had any hope of coming out of his predicament alive, save by escaping, which was unlikely. Therefore, the man in black who had hurt him, had captured him, had roughly discarded him in the clearing was the one to blame for his death. Naida fixed his face in her mind. She would never forget it.
And, she swore to herself, he would pay.
They had been walking for hours by the time night truly fell. Cian had allowed his men to sleep, volunteering himself to take first watch. The prisoners were tied together; they wouldn’t be causing any trouble. The flame of the tiny fire flickered, threatening to die out, so Cian tossed another stick onto the pile.
He didn’t mind taking watch. After all, he was feeling much too brooding to sleep. In the orange glow of the fire, Cian could make out Kane’s face as he leaned against the back of a sleeping man. His eyes were open. Cian met them for a moment, wanting to say something, but not finding any words. Perhaps that was for the best; he had no idea whether the others were really sleeping yet. The danger of being overheard was too real.
Kane risked breaking the silence, but only for one short, whispered sentence. It was only a string of words, but they hit Cian like a pebble shattering glass, tearing him up from the inside.
“I don’t blame you.”