Naida wasn’t sure how much longer she could take it. She wiped the sweat from her brow as she readied the axe for another swing. Her arms were burning, but that wasn’t the issue here. She didn’t think she could chop one more log with the knowledge that every penny she might have earned for this wood was suddenly going straight to the Black Queen’s hoard.
Not that anyone had any money to spare for wood these days. They either chopped it themselves or dealt with the chill of fall. Naida exhaled and let the blade fall, cleaving the log in half. She glanced at the pile she’d chopped and figured she had stacked as much as she could carry anyway, so she set the axe on the ground. Pausing for a brief respite, Naida took a seat on the stump on which she had been chopping. She ran her fingers through her long brown hair, twisting it deftly into a braid that fell over one shoulder. Leaning her elbows on her knees, Naida looked towards the city.
The Black Kingdom wasn’t was it once was. She remembered the market a little over a year ago, bustling with people, money changing hands, fresh produce on display on colorful shelves. There was gorgeous cloth, little honey sweetened cakes and jewelry all for sale. Now, no one had the coin for those luxuries.
Nobody knew what had caused the change. One day the Black Queen was the hero of her people, and the next day she was their bane. Some called her mentally disturbed, others said someone angered her beyond recovery. Whatever it was that made her snap, things started to go downhill from there. They had never turned around.
Now, there were guards roaming the dead, silent streets, and anyone who didn’t pay their taxes or didn’t support the Black Queen was thrown into the castle jail. Naida sighed. Her family would scrape by this month, but they would have to tap into their food money. Again. But that was okay. It was all okay. They were all alive and together, and they had something to live for.
“Hey,” a familiar voice said quietly, stepping into the clearing. Naida turned with a smile on her face.
“Kane,” she breathed. They met in an embrace and he pulled her tight, not seeming to mind the fact that she was soaked with sweat. Naida and Kane held hands as they took a seat on the stump, which was easily wide enough for the both of them.
“How have you been?” he asked. “The guards been giving you any trouble?”
Naida shook her head. “I’ve managed to blend in pretty well. But that’s not important - how about you? Staying out of trouble?”
Kane grinned and rubbed his stubbly chin with a twinge of embarrassment. “Me? Stay out of trouble? Never.”
She hit him playfully on the arm, but then her smile dimmed. “No, but really. Is everything okay for you...and the others?”
Kane stopped smiling as well. “Someone was after us the other day. Several someones, actually, but we didn’t see who they were. They picked a few of the group off at a distance - Lorano and Brenton didn’t make it,” he said solemnly. “Heath was injured, but he made it out of there. The rest of us did too. Ran like hell, but we made it. It’s been over a week; we think they gave up.”
Naida squeezed his hand. “You know I love what you’re doing and support you all the way, but do you have to be the one to do it?” she asked, biting her lip. “One of these days you’re not going to be so lucky.”
Kane draped an arm across her shoulders. “I wish I could just stay here with you. Right here. Forever,” he said. “But we both know I have a job to do, especially after Klein...I’m the leader of the rebels, Naida. I can’t very well quit, no matter how much I want to.”
“And do you want to?” she asked, looking at him with wide hazel eyes. He hesitated long enough to give her an answer. Naida sighed and leaned her head against his shoulder. “I want to say that I hate it when you take such risks, but I can’t. That’s why I love you, after all. You’re one of the only ones who’ll stand up for what’s right.”
“Oh, there are many, many more who will. I’m just one of the few in a position to express it,” Kane answered. “They don’t have any control over me.”
Naida closed her eyes for a moment and gathered up the courage to ask a question that she had been thinking about for a while now. “What happened to your family?”
Kane took a while to answer. When he did, he spoke slowly, deliberately. “I don’t know what happened to my parents. When I was younger, my brother took care of me, with our neighbors helping us out until we were old enough to do simple chores for money.”
“I’m sorry,” Naida muttered.
“Don’t be,” he replied.
A minute passed in silence, with only the soft rustling of the trees to break the stillness of the afternoon. Kane’s chest rose and fell in steady breaths. Naida could feel the strong muscles under her hand, reassuring. “Is your brother part of the resistance?”
Kane almost laughed. “No. He chose a different path.”
Cian strode into the castle with purpose. He outranked almost every soldier here, and since they had all come from the White Kingdom, they knew of his reputation as the White Queen’s favorite. No one would cross him here, or so he thought.
“I wasn’t given orders to supply you with armor and horses,” Czar Salvatore said with a scowl. He was a short man, but that didn’t seem to affect his impossibly large estimation of his own importance. As proof, he walked with a gold plated staff to make himself look imposing. The effect was diminished by the fact that it was markedly taller than he. “If I supply you, my own men might run short.”
Salvatore was technically in charge of running the Black Kingdom, and whether by his small stature or his tendency to be ignored, he turned out to be rather good at hiding behind the figurehead of the Black Queen. Needless to say, Cian wasn’t about to be intimidated.
“Why would the White Queen need to give you orders when she is sending me? I am her orders,” Cian stated flatly. “I don’t care about your men, and I outrank you. You will do what I say, and you will do it without protest. Understand?”
To his annoying credit, Salvatore stood his ground. “When the White Queen put me in charge here, she told me to take orders from no one but her. You don’t look like a Queen,” he said, looking Cian up and down, “but I could be mistaken.”
Cian’s face flushed involuntarily, though it was luckily hidden under his helmet. He drew in a deep breath. Don’t punch him, he told himself. Salvatore smirked at his own wittiness. Don’t punch him.
Cian punched him. Salvatore doubled over, clutching his gut as Cian put two strong hands on his shoulders and pushed him against the wall, his feet a good six inches from the floor. Staring into the man’s watery eyes, Cian said in a firm, threatening voice. “Let me make this quite clear. I outrank you. You will do whatever I say, and if you don’t, I will personally ensure that you are publicly beaten with this stupid staff of yours.” He paused for effect, tilting his head in mock consideration. “And I might have you exiled under charge of insubordination, just for good measure. Do you understand me?”
Salvatore’s eyes were wide. His gaze darted around the room like a trapped rabbit, as if suddenly realizing that they were not alone, but in the presence of several men under his command. His face flushed red in humiliation. When he spoke, it wasn’t hard to tell that he was furious, though his words alone didn’t show it. “I understand. Sir.”
“Good,” Cian said, releasing him abruptly. Salvatore fell to the floor and stumbled to catch his balance. “Now outfit my men with armor and give me a dozen of your best horses. If we’re feeling favorable, we might return them. Eventually.”
Salvatore picked up his staff from where it had fallen to the floor and quietly fumed. He didn’t even attempt to mask his anger. Snapping his head towards a young man standing nervously by the door, he nodded once. The man hurried off and Cian allowed himself a smug smile underneath his helmet.
“Master Cian, sir!” an advisor called, running into the room. “Master Cian, one of the rebels has turned himself in. He offers the location of their camp in return for protection and food for himself and his family.”
Cian almost smiled. This was just too easy. “Tell him we accept. Get him outfitted and ready to go. We leave as soon as possible.”
He couldn’t wait to see the joy on the White Queen’s face when he presented the rebels which she hated so vehemently. It would be glorious.
Naida had dozed off against Kane, but her head snapped up when someone came crashing into the clearing.
“Kane!” Crow cried. He was out of breath. “Hawk was on look out- he spotted a dozen Black Riders headed straight for us!”
Kane jumped up, Naida following just after. “How did they find us?” he asked as he started towards the woods. Crow shook his head helplessly. Kane cursed, tossing a look back at Naida. In a voice not to be argued with, he said, “Go home.”
Naida snatched the axe up from the ground. “No. I can’t, not while-”
“Please, Naida!” Kane snapped. “I don’t have time to argue. I need to know you’re safe.”
“I can fight-”
She bit her lip, but conceded. “I love you, Kane. Please come back to me.”
Kane took a long look at her, much longer than he had time for. She stood in the clearing, axe in hand, her green tunic accentuating her strong arms and nice figure. Naida’s braid trailed over one shoulder and her bangs fell in her eyes. Those beautiful eyes. He looked into them as he replied, “I will. I promise.”
Naida nodded, biting her lip as her eyes watered. “Be safe,” she said, her voice quiet.
Kane gave a sharp nod of acknowledgement and went sprinting off into the woods, Crow on his heels. As they raced through the forest, Kane was silently thankful that he had lived here for so long when he was between homes, for lack of a better word. If he hadn’t, if the forest had been any less familiar, they might not have reached the rebels in time.
They got to camp just as the last of the rebels’ tracks were being erased. Dion tossed dirt on the fire pit and scattered the coals while the others hastily stuffed blankets and food in their small packs. When Kane arrived, all eyes turned to him.
“Run?” Tyrell prompted, not bothering with formalities.
Kane looked to Hawk. “How close are they? How much time?”
Hawk shrugged helplessly. “Minutes. If that.”
Kane faced the disheveled group of rebels with a grim expression. “We don’t have time to run. They’d catch us immediately. No, it’s best if we set up an ambush.” The men looked at each other, and none seemed too happy with this plan. Kane surveyed their faces. “We’re not cowards. We had no choice but to run the last time, but here - here, we have a choice. And I choose to stand and fight. To fight for Lorano and Brenton. Are you with me?”
After a brief hesitation, they raised their swords with a shout. Kane nodded, his jaw set in a hard line. He did a brief head count. Ten men, including himself. Ten tired, underfed, under-equipped men against a dozen well-trained soldiers of the Black Kingdom. He paused. Weren’t there eleven? Kane looked around. “Where’s Keaton?”
Now everyone else looked around. He wasn’t there. Kane cursed yet again. “Hopefully he’s just wandered off,” Kane said, not really believing his own lie. “Get in positions, code Rosebush!”
Dion groaned. “But I just put out the fire!” he complained.
“Start it again,” Kane said. “Crow, you stay with him. The rest of you, hide. Get ready.”
Hawk clapped his brother on his shoulder and wished him luck. Crow nodded and helped Dion gather a few sticks to toss in the hastily formed fire pit. They ripped open their packs and scattered some blankets on the hard ground, placing a small pot and some food next to the fire. Crow and Dion purposely busied themselves with the fire, keeping their backs hunched over and their heads down.
Kane hid behind a fallen log on a slightly elevated section of forest that looked down on their camp. He watched the direction in which the soldiers were most likely to come. If all went according to plan, they would see the two seemingly oblivious rebels at the camp and figure that they had been left behind as guards while the others were out. Then, they’d close in to capture the two and hold them hostage for when the others returned. At least, if Kane was leading the Black Riders, that’s what he’d do. As they entered the small clearing of the camp, the rebels would ambush, and hopefully win.
That is, if all went according to plan. In Kane’s experience, things seldom did. He kept his eyes trained on the small path through the trees, listening closely for the sound of pounding hooves. All was silent. Kane glanced over at Hawk, his eyes asking the silent question of where the Black Riders were. Hawk shrugged, arrow already notched in his bow.
They waited some more. By this point, Crow and Dion had started an actual fire, but still had their backs turned from the path. Just as Kane was starting to get worried, two soldiers appeared on foot. That explained why they took a little longer, he thought with some relief. They were sending a scouting party ahead.
The soldiers pointed at the rebels at the fire and one whispered something to the other, who nodded. They came in closer. Crow and Dion didn’t turn, but every other rebel raised his weapon. Kane readied his bow, and, even though he wasn’t a great shot, he was certain that he could make it at this distance. He looked down the shaft of the arrow and aimed at the closest man in black.
And then a knife slid against his throat, the blade as cold as ice.
“Drop the bow.”