Kane plodded along, his hands and feet tied to that of his friends, his comrades. His fellow prisoners. Cian rode his horse at the front of the company, never turning to look back once. Not that Kane wanted him to. After all, they had said all that needed to be said, and that was that. He could die now without having anything unresolved between himself and his brother, right?
It still felt like there was something between them. Something that needed said, before... Kane shook his head, inwardly berating himself. There was always the chance that they could make it out of this alive. If Cian really did have a large amount of pull in the White Kingdom, maybe he could save them. It was their only shot.
Kane felt a tad more optimistic now. He marched along with the others, trying to ignore the sores on his feet and the pain which spiked in his shoulder every time Dion behind him took a step. Kane’s hands were tied behind his back, pulling on his injury, and that same rope connected him to Dion. It was not an ideal set up, but then Kane hadn’t expected it to be.
All of a sudden, the trees began to thin, and through them, Kane could see the sparkling white buildings of the White Kingdom. The city which surrounded the White Castle was paved in white marble, its buildings gleaming and its people well clothed. Kane remembered being one of those people so many years ago. He remembered standing with Cian along the side of the road, watching as prisoners were paraded by. He had certainly never expected to be the one being stared at. Oh, how things had changed.
Along with those memories flooded the less happy ones. Kane remembered huddling down on the cold stone for more than one solitary night, with only Cian for company. He remembered going hungry for days on end, begging for scraps. And, worst of all, he remembered the fight. The fight that had caused years of separation between Cian and Kane. It all came flooding back with startling clarity.
Kane stood in his workshop, his muscles rippling as he sanded the chair he was working on to a carefully smooth finish. He ran his hand along the wood, feeling its texture. Just a little more and it would be finished and ready to sell. Kane hadn’t even heard Cian come up behind him.
“I need to talk to you,” Cian said, looking grim.
Kane straightened, wiping the sweat from his brow. He took off his gloves and bunched them in his hands. The two of them made quite a pair; one tall, dark and intimidating, and the other slightly shorter, more muscled, and with a light good humored air. But they were brothers, sticking together even after becoming orphans. Nothing could tear them apart.
Or so Kane thought.
“Sure,” Kane replied easily. “What is it?”
Cian fidgeted, which was unlike him. Usually, he was still as stone when he wanted to be. “I...I’ve decided to join the White Army.” For a very long moment, Kane blinked, but said nothing. Growing more agitated, Cian prompted, “Say something.”
“What is there to say?” Kane said, unable to keep the hint of accusation and anger out of his voice. “The White Soldiers are the reason we’re orphans, Cian, you know that.”
Cian nodded solemnly. “Of course I know it. How could I forget? But those days are gone. I’m not doing this to serve the White Soldiers, I’m doing it to serve the Queen.”
“It was her soldiers who killed them.”
“But not under her orders,” Cian protested.
“You don’t know that.”
Cian was silent for a moment. “Kane, you’ve seen her ride through town. You’ve seen her kindness first hand. She gave us food, clothing. Hope. Would you not have me repay her for all of that?”
Kane’s mouth was set in a hard line. “I saw her. I saw an intricate facade. I saw an act.”
“You don’t know that,” Cian parroted.
“Impudence doesn’t suit you.”
“Nor cynicism you.”
Kane clenched his jaw and glared at his brother. Cian met his glare with one of his own. They were at an impasse. “Cian, listen to me. There is something off about that woman. Can’t you sense it? The way her soldiers will do anything for her. Do you really think that’s out of loyalty, or do you think it’s out of fear?”
Cian shook his head. “You’re being narrow minded. You don’t want me to go, so you’re trying to turn me against her. It won’t work.”
“Open your eyes, Cian!” Kane pleaded, raising his voice. “Do you really want to become one of those mindless servants just to repay the White Queen one insignificant favor that vanished from her mind just after she rode away? Please, Cian. Don’t do this.”
It was useless arguing, Kane could see that much. Cian was one of the most stubborn people he knew. “I am doing this,” he said firmly. “But I don’t want to leave you. In a few years, you can join too-”
“No,” Kane cut him off. He tossed his gloves onto the table beside him. “No. I’ll not be a White Soldier, not even if forced. Furthermore, I won’t live in a city where my brother is one of the people who incites fear in the eyes of children. I won’t watch it happen, and I certainly won’t be a part of it.”
Cian looked alarmed. With a frown, he asked, “What do you mean?”
“I mean, if you join the White Army, I’m leaving. For good.”
“Where would you go?” asked Cian.
Kane shrugged. “The Black Kingdom? I’m sure they could use another carpenter.”
Cian stared at him as if he’d gone insane. Maybe he had. Kane was feeling rash, foolish and angry. He was angry at his brother for abandoning him, for choosing to leave him, and this was payback. “It’s hell over there, you know that. The Black Kingdom isn’t like this one. You don’t know how hard it is over there.”
“Neither do you,” Kane pointed out. “And if the people over there are surviving okay, then what’s to say I can’t? If it was that bad, they’d all leave.”
“Kane, don’t be foolish-”
“I’m not. Go on, join the army. I’ll be over in the Black Kingdom if you need me,” Kane said snidely.
Cian looked pained. “Kane-”
With one last sad look, Cian went. There was no need for a goodbye, it was understood. Kane watched him go, feeling a pit twist in the center of his stomach. He could never remember a time when his brother wasn’t at his side, and now he was going to face a whole new life alone. The optimistic part of him thought that, just maybe, it would be for the best. The realistic part of him told him that he had just destroyed the one constant, good thing in his life, and there was no getting it back.
Kane couldn’t help the tears which welled in his eyes, threatening to overflow. Cian was gone.
When Cian had disappeared, he let them fall.
Kane hadn’t seen Cian again until he had pressed a knife to his throat. If the situation weren’t so terrifying, he might have laughed. Now, as they walked through the center of the White Kingdom and up towards the castle, Kane could feel the eyes of the townspeople on him. He saw a couple for whom he had made a whole table and chair set, and he noticed the old farmer whose cart spokes he had repaired. Bloody, face smeared with dirt, and hair grown out, Kane wondered if any of them recognized him. He hoped they didn’t, but at the same time, he didn’t regret the actions that had brought him here. Someone had to stand up to the Black Queen, or, as Cian had informed him earlier, really the White Queen. So Kane had been right, it seemed. It was all a little disorienting, but someone had to stand up to the bad guys, whoever they were. If that landed him in chains, then so be it.
Kane raised his chin and walked through the town with his head held high.
Naida gently set her little sister in her crib, hoping that she would stay asleep this time. Satisfied that she would, at least for the moment, Naida closed the door and crept to the other room, careful to avoid the creaking floorboards.
"Mother, I'm going out," she told her mother, who was stirring a pot on the stove.
"Where are you going?" Naida's mom asked.
"I told you, I'm meeting with someone who might be able to get us better prices on salt," Naida replied. "I'll be back in an hour or two; he's all the way across the city."
As she headed out the door, her mom called, "Be good!"
Naida knew that meant "don't cause any trouble." After all, the guards would have just about as much mercy for her as they had spared for Kane. Naida felt a brief flicker of guilt for having lied to her mom, but she knew she had to do this alone. This was for Kane. Naida would get revenge no matter what it took, even if it cost her her life. Naturally, as a mother, Naida's mom wouldn't understand this and certainly wouldn't support it. While she felt bad for pushing her family to the side in pursuit of this nearly impossible goal, but there was nothing to be done. Naida wouldn't rest until she saw this through.
The man whom she was meeting was really only about a ten minute walk away. Naida had never seen him, nor had she met anyone who had. The only reason she knew about him was through Kane; apparently they had been friends during the short time before Kane joined the rebellion. Kane had told her that if she ever felt threatened, or ever needed protection, it was to Grayson that she should go. Naida was hoping that he'd let her in. Whatever it was that he did for a living, maybe he could help her, or at least point her to someone who could. Naida arrived at Grayson's house and knocked on the door. There was no answer. She waited a few minutes and knocked again. Still nothing. With a frown, Naida went to turn away, but realized that the door had cracked open ever so slightly. She nudged it with the toe of her boot and it creaked inwards.
"Hello?" Naida asked.
There was no reply. Naida was about to scrap the idea and go home, when a thought crossed her mind. What if Grayson was laying in there, unconscious? Or dying? Or dead? Or asleep, the rational part of her brain added. Her curiosity overwhelming her concern for Grayson’s privacy, Naida went inside.
As soon as she crossed the threshold, the door slammed ominously shut behind her. Naida jumped. She found herself in a long hallway which seemed too long for the house to accommodate, at least judging by her estimate of the size of the house from the outside. Naida took another step. "Hello?" she tried again.
With no answer, Naida continued down the hallway, but stopped suddenly about halfway down. Something was off. She looked around and saw the slits in the walls just before the giant serrated blades came swinging out, ready to chop her to pieces. Naida stumbled back, the blades whizzing by so close that she felt the air’s disturbance play over her face. Heart pounding, Naida crouched low to the ground, scanning the wall for more traps. It seemed to just be that one.
Straightening slowly, her senses alert, Naida watched the slits in the wall as she leaped past them as quickly as she could. They sliced through the air behind her, but she fortunately cleared it in time. As Naida landed the jump, she stumbled to catch her balance, stepping forward without caution. Unexpectedly, her foot plunged into the decorative carpet which lined the hallway, and it wrapped around her as she slid with it into a hole in the floor. Naida tossed out a hand, grasping for anything to slow her fall, but the carpet which she grabbed simply slid along with her. At the very last second, she managed to grab hold of the edge of the hole, her one hand grasping tightly to the wooden floorboards as the carpet fell away into the depths.
Naida dangled there, her fingers straining under the weight of her body and growing slick with sweat. Just barely, Naida was able to swing her other hand up to join the first. Her upper arm muscles straining with effort, she let out a little cry as she managed to pull herself over the edge. As Naida dragged herself the rest of the way out of the hole, she silently thanked herself for chopping all of that wood; without that strength, she might not have made it.
By this point, Naida was seriously wondering what kind of place this was, and what kind of person it housed. That was twice she’d narrowly avoided death just to see this man, and if her adrenaline hadn’t been pumping, she probably would’ve been angry. Couldn’t he have visitors without trying to kill them? Naida looked behind her - there was no going back. The gaping hole was too wide to jump, and even if she managed, she’d probably be sliced to pieces before she could stop her momentum from carrying her forward. Her only choice was to keep going, to try to make it to the door at the end of the hallway.
Naida crept along slowly, watching her every step, but there were, surprisingly, no more traps. When at last she stood in front of the door, she reached for the brass handle. The moment her fingertips touched the cold metal, a shock ran through her body and Naida went stiff. She tried to move, to catch herself before she fell, but her muscles weren’t responding. Crashing to the floor, a spike of pain shot through her left arm as it was pinned beneath her.
Naida couldn’t move anything but her eyes, and these she cast towards the door as it slid open slowly. Standing in the doorway was a man whose upper torso and arms were bound with chains, wrapped around and around, iron and thick. He had a grim face laced with scars, and his neck was thick with muscles. He looked down at Naida sitting defenseless on the floor.
“You don’t look like an assassin,” Grayson stated with a frown. He almost sounded disappointed. Naida couldn’t reply, which was alright. She probably wouldn’t have known what to say anyway. He huffed, “Come on in, then.”
With that, he turned and walked back into the room, leaving Naida outside, paralyzed, but invited. Suddenly, Naida wasn’t so keen on meeting this man, but she had come this far. She wasn’t about to give up now. And so Naida lay there, waiting for her muscles to respond once more so that she could figure out just what the heck was going on.