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