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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22. Chapter 22

    His first attack was launched barely after he finished saying the words. Some sixth sense warned Thalia, and she sprung to the side, his sword passing within a hair’s width of her body. He delivered an almost casual second stroke, which she flicked aside with her dagger.

    Then the fight began in earnest. The first two attacks, Thalia realized, had been to test her, to see what her reaction would be. He had been assessing her for weaknesses. And so far, she decided she was doing decently well at not giving him any.

    Each of them circled each other, balancing lightly on the balls of their feet. Around her, Thalia could hear the assembled Wolves cheering on their Alpha, while several mocked Thalia as well. She ignored their words, focusing on the Alpha. The wolf mask he wore unnerved her- and kept her from searching his eyes for signs of his attack. That was probably the intention of the mask, and it worried her. If she couldn’t predict his attacks, then it could, in the worst case, cost her her life. 

    Intending to end the battle as quickly as possible, Thalia struck out at him. But her eyes must have betrayed her, because he deflected her attacks easily, keeping her further away from him with his sword. For now, the advanced reach gave him an advantage, while Thalia, armed only with a dagger, was forced to keep back or be impaled. If she wanted to stand a chance in this duel, she’d have to be able to get in close, which didn’t seen to be happening any time soon. She’d have to find a way to trick him somehow. And she was already guessing that he wouldn’t be easy to trick, if he was anywhere near as devious as Ferrel had been.

     Slowly, she inched to the side. He moved to block her with obvious contempt. She couldn’t see his face or his eyes, but she imagined he was sneering at her. That just encouraged her to try harder. To fight harder. To give him a reason to fear her name. He wouldn’t be sneering at her soon!

    She pressed in close, forcing him to back off if he still wanted to keep her at range. She smiled grimly, deflecting another of his attacks. They were powerful, and he’d obviously had quite a bit of training with a sword, but while Thalia might have been less experienced, she was less orthodox and predictable, thanks to her own brand of training that she had given herself.

    Their blades locked, and held. In a brief moment, past the glimmering steel, lit by the torches, she saw his arms shaking. And that was when she allowed a wolfish smile to cross her face.

    “You’re afraid,” she whispered. “You’re afraid that I can kill you.”

    He growled in response, and their blades parted with the ring of metal. Then he went on the offensive.

    Thalia found herself deflecting a whirlwind of attacks at once. Somehow, she blocked each stroke with an iron grip. She let him beat himself against her wall for a short amount of time, before she chose to strike back. 

    Her first attack lashed out, nearly taking him in the shoulder. His eyes narrowed at the rapid fierceness of her attack. Even as he moved to block her next attack, she pulled a move that most swordsmen wouldn’t risk.

    She dropped the dagger, catching it with her bandaged hand before it hit the floor. Startled by the sudden change in direction, the Alpha was just a bit too slow. Thalia was now close enough that he couldn’t use his sword efficiently, while she had free range with her dagger. 

    The duel didn’t last much longer after that. Thalia rammed the dagger into his sword arm, forcing him to drop the sword. She forced him back, with the dagger against his throat. Finally, she stopped. Placing one of her long fingers on the mask, she flipped it off his face.

    “This is mine now,” she said quietly.

    “Please, Queen Thalia,” Ferrel’s brother murmured, breathing hard. “Spare my life. The Wolves will never come after you again. I give you my word. Let me live, and the shadow of the Wolves will be gone from your life.”

    “That’s amusing,” Thalia replied. “You think this is just about me. This is about everyone and everything I care about, not just me, you demonspawn! I am the Alpha of the Wolves now, and I will rule as no Alpha ever has!”

    She did not let him speak any further. She drove the blade up under his ribcage, and into his heart.

    “And remember that,” she whispered to his already dying body. “I am no weak princess, who lets others decide her fate. I stand for myself, and I stand for my people. I will not let your assassins reign over them any longer.”

    His eyes glazed over, and he was gone.

    She straightened, turning to look at the surrounding Wolves. Though it disgusted her, she calmly placed the wolf mask over her own face.

    Finally, another Wolf came forwards, removing his mask and revealing him to be a middle-aged man. “Hail Queen Thalia, Alpha of the Wolves.”

    The Wolves around her echoed the statement, though they echoed it quietly, and almost reluctantly. 

    Another Wolf skipped forwards. Removing their mask, it turned out to be Annika. “There’s just one more little thing that must be done if you wish to be the Alpha.”

    “And that is?” Thalia raised her eyebrows.

    Annika stepped aside, and another Wolf approached her, wieling a long brand, with a wolf’s head design. 

    Thalia hesitated for a second, and Annika spoke again.

    “You aren’t afraid are you, Alpha?”

    “Of course not.” She steeled herself for the promised pain, then nodded. “Do it.”

    The Wolf holding the brand took a piece of leather from his pocket, offering it to her. She stuck it into her mouth, and nodded to indicate that she was ready. Another Wolf came from behind her, gripping her arm tightly, and placing another hand on her opposite shoulder, to prevent her from jerking away. 

    When everything was prepared, the brand was pressed against the flesh of her arm.

    Thalia nearly screamed, biting down hard on the leather. The brand burned like the fires of hell themselves, and the pain seemed to go on forever. Tears of pain leaked from her eyes, and she tried to pull away, only to be held steady. She tried to fight, but someone from behind her gripped her other arm tightly, preventing her from driving an elbow into the Wolf holding her.

    And then it was over, and the brand was removed from her arm. The Wolves must have prepared for this moment in advance, because another Wolf came forwards, pressing a cool cloth against the burn. For the first time, Thalia wondered if some of the Wolves had actually expected her to win. 

    When all this was done, Thalia cleared her throat. “There will be new orders to the Wolves tonight. First, all those kept in the prison cages will be released. I have nothing against them. Second, the training program will be revised under my rules.”

    To her surprise, there were no words of protest. The Wolves simply nodded, obeying with utter silence. A few headed off towards the cages, presumably to carry out her orders.

    “And thirdly?” Annika said from her side.

    “Thirdly, we go pay my husband a visit.”

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