Steel Queen

**WINNER OF 2016 RED QUEEN WRITING COMP**

Princess Thalia is betrothed to an unfamiliar prince in a foreign land. When it turns out that the prince is a cruel and harsh dictator, who seeks to dominate Thalia- or do away with her- she has to make a desperate plan in order to save her own life.


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18. Chapter 18

    It was the movement that woke her. It wasn’t a sound, more a feeling, a premonition of danger. She opened her eyes, reaching out for her weapon. And that’s when the attack happened.

    The rope she’d kept in her pack suddenly slipped around her throat, pulling her head back against the tree. She made a terrible mistake by gasping, and therefore running herself entirely out of air. She choked, reaching up to pull the rope away, but it was already too tight, and getting tighter.

    “Don’t even try,” Annika’s voice said, somewhere behind me. “I’ll cut off all your air if you do that.”

    Thalia wasn’t sure whether she should feel betrayed, or simply angry with herself. After all, she was being choked by a 13 year old

    The rope slackened, and she leaned forwards, trying as hard as she could to breathe. However, the instant she began to shift to launch an attack at Annika, the rope tightened again, and she was jerked backwards, her head slamming into the tree and dazing her.

    Annika let out a near-perfect imitation of a wolf’s howl, and several others howls responded from the woods. A minute later, Thalia found herself completely surrounded by masked figures. One took the rope from Annika, giving it a sharp jerk. Thalia let out a quiet, strangled sound as the rope cut into her throat. Spots began to dance before her eyes, and she hinged forwards, desperately trying to get in some air. And then, suddenly, the rope was gone. She nearly fell forwards, breathing in huge gulps of air. 

    Her respite only lasted a few seconds, however, and she was jerked to her feet, her hands bound unnecessarily tightly- and behind her back this time. Before she could last out, one of them kicked the back of her legs, causing her to drop to her knees, which seemed to amuse the masked figures. Thalia growled quietly to herself, but didn’t try moving. There were too many of them, all armed. And they were all around her. She looked for Storm, but his bridle was being held in a tight grip by one of them.

    Annika dropped to one knee in front of her, pushing the sleeve of her shirt up to reveal the brand mark- a blood-red wolf.

    “You’re a good liar,” Thalia said through gritted teeth. “How long did it take you to come up with that little sob story?”

    “It’s part of our training,” Annika shrugged. 

    Thalia shook her head, almost sad for this child. She could have had a whole future ahead of her, but had instead ended up serving a mysterious cult called the Blood Wolves, where lying was all part of the training. 

    Annika backed off, and another of the figures approached. “You did well,” they told Annika. The voice sounded like a man. Not surprising. She could feel him studying her through the mask.

    “Greetings, Queen Thalia,” he said, his voice dark and smooth. “It is an honor to meet you. We’ve all heard countless rumors about you, after all. The queen that will bring down the Edoran monarchy, as a matter of fact.”

    Thalia raised her eyebrows slightly. In truth, she’d heard none of these rumors, and had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. But she chose not to say that, instead opting to stay silent.

    “It is quite a shame that those rumors were wrong,” he continued. “After all, you were outwitted by a child. For all your smarts, bravery, and skills, you still cannot escape the Wolves.”

    Thalia finally chose to speak, trying to hide the fear that was beginning inside of her. “The Blood Wolves? Yes, I’ve heard of you. I can’t say I’m too impressed. An organization of shadowy assassins that hides behind myths and rumors, and sends little girls to do its work? I am less than impressed.”

    Naturally, she paid for insulting them. One of them struck the back of her head, sending her face-first into the dirt.

    “Eat those words,” the man snarled. “You are arrogant and foolish, obviously. You are our prisoner now. Insult us, and you will simply make your ordeal more painful.”

    Ordeal. That sounds pleasant.

    Thalia tried to push herself up, with little or no success. She may not have eaten her words- but she definitely ate quite a bit of dirt and grass. Finally, she was pulled back up to the kneeling position. The gesture seemed to amuse several of the people surrounding her. There were several quiet chuckles at this. 

    “Ordeal?” Thalia raised her eyebrows. “I was under the impression that you were simply going to kill me outright and be done with it.”

    “Tempting, but no,” the masked man replied. “Our alpha has ordered that you be brought to him alive.”

    “Your alpha? And who is your alpha taking orders from?” Thalia asked. “King Ferrel, perhaps? Are you going to send me back to the castle?”

    “Our alpha acts on his own orders,” the man replied firmly. “And no other’s. We are not a group of mercenaries that can be hired out. We are elite, deadly, and entirely unstoppable. No one is safe from us. Not even the rulers. Not even the oh-so-special queen.”

    “I was hardly safe inside of a castle all this time,” Thalia pointed out. “And if you are so elite, why send a child to do your work for you?”

    “It is a weakness,” the man replied. “When young ones are involved, you are unable to see the knife that is close to being driven into your back. You are too trusting, and much too open. The moment you fell asleep without watching Annika, that was the moment you were dead. In fact, you were dead the moment you let her into your camp. You would never survive in our line of work.”

    “Well, I have no interest in your line of work, so I suppose it is for the best,” Thalia replied. “But I will warn you, by taking me to your alpha, you let a lion loose in your corridors. If I must destroy you all to escape, I will do so. I will tear your entire assassin’s cult apart piece by piece, and then burn it all to the ground. Then I will leave, with ash staining my trail. Then you will realize what a serious mistake you have made.”

    “Brave talk, for one who is bound and helpless before us,” the man replied. “You have spirit, and I will admire that, but I will not tolerate more of your threats. They tire me, and are empty, with no soul to them.” He snapped his fingers, gesturing at another masked figure. “Gag her.”

    Thalia felt her head jerked back, and then a wad of cloth was stuffed down her throat, preventing her from speaking further. Fortunately, it did not cut off air flow, so she could breathe, but not speak. 

    She was guided over to Storm, and shoved onto his back. One of the Wolves sat behind her, with a sword pressed against her throat. If she made any move to escape, she would be instantly impaled, and dead before they reached their destination. She sighed, preparing herself for a long ride. But what she wasn’t prepared for was the heavy sack that went over her head, pulled tight with a drawstring, completely blinding her. 

    She let out a soft gasp of protest, muffled as it was by the gag. The wolf behind her just laughed. “Security risk. No one sees the entrance of our secret lair. And those that see in the interior never come out to tell about it.” There was a soft laugh. “You’re lucky the alpha wants you alive for now, or you’d already be dead.”

    I suppose that much luck is with me, Thalia thought with a little sigh. Fate seemed entirely against her lately. First the patrol, then the wolves, then this order of assassins, who were keeping her alive for some purpose that they seemed rather excited about. It was as if the universe was playing one massive, cruel joke on her, letting her think she was safe, then pulling another horrible disaster on her, just to keep her on her toes.

    Storm began to move beneath her. She wished she could do something other than just sit here, but the sword guaranteed that she would not be making any moves to escape any time soon. So, in silence, she waited, wondering what they could possibly want her alive for, if Ferrel had anything to do with her capture, and who their ‘alpha’ could possibly be. 

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