Number 20 – Fortitude
The walls around the town were impossible to pass. Tall, imposing, thick and grey, they shielded the people within all too well.
Not just the people.
There had been a time, long ago, when she and her brother had lived inside those walls. Had scampered through the market place and played in the shadows of the castle. Had darted around the guards and used their small, quick fingers to get silver to pay for food. Sandy was most likely still in there, somewhere, with her big golden dog, feeding the kids who acted out the same scenes they had, once upon a time.
It had been spring when they had been approached by the Wolf, a tall imposing man with broad shoulders and a thick beard. He had been standing in the shadows, watching the then teenagers as they darted between the crowds gathered for the hanging.
As they moved past him, he reached out, grabbing both of them by the scruffs of their necks and drawing them close to him. They could smell the staleness on his clothes, the rankness of his breath, but both listened when he whispered.
"Do you want to do something good with your lives?"
"Like what?" her brother had said, frowning at the man. He was always the thinker, the one who planned ahead and mapped out the consequences of their actions in his mind.
"Good question. Never blindly obey," the man said. "Lesson one. And I'll answer your question, boy. Do you want to stop seeing the people starve while their king fattens?"
The boy's eyes darted around as the jeering started. They were bringing the prisoner to the block.
"I do." The girl's voice was strong, and her brother nodded his agreement.
"Good. You know the woods outside the walls?"
"The King's Wood," the boy muttered. "Everyone knows it."
"You'll find horses there. Ride them into the hills. A woman with bright hair will be waiting for you. Don't stop riding until you see her. Understand?"
Again, they nodded.
"Good. What have you taken today?"
The boy frowned. "Why should we tell you?"
He chuckled. "You're learning. Anything valuable?"
The girl reached into her pocket, took out a thick golden ring with a red jewel embedded in the centre. "Got it from that man's pocket," she said, gesturing to a man wearing clothes marking him out as a noble, standing with the others of his kind.
He laughed again. "Quick fingers. Fast runners?"
"Then run." He pushed them, watching as they ran into the crowd. "Thieves!" he cried. "Thieves!"
The nobles quickly checked their pockets, voices crying out when they realised they were missing most of their possessions. The two teenagers slipped in and out of the crowd, as the guards' attentions focused on them. Seeing the faces of the nobles, they went after the siblings.
But they hadn't lied when they had said they were fast.
They split up, leaving the crowd from different directions and heading for the walls of the city. They got out easily enough in the confusion, met up on the edge of the woods and ran for the horses. Neither of them said a word as they leapt onto the saddled animals. They had been easy enough to find, and the pair turned them towards the hills.
Neither had ridden before, but the horses were easy enough. Later, once they had settled in, they would find out how difficult it was to ride a horse that didn't take to them like these two had, these two picked specifically for their ease.
The boy was silent as the woods rushed past them, but the girl let out whoops of joy, hair flowing behind them. They met with the woman, who helped them down from the creatures and led them to the other side of the hills, to the caves there where others waited.
When the sun began to set, the man arrived with the prisoner.
As he entered the cave, he crossed straight to the two, eagerly eating the meat they had been given.
"Welcome to the rebellion, kids. Things get harder from here."
X X X
And they had. They had trained and worked hard, farmed and hunted and scoured the forests for food. There hadn't been a day since they had joined Wolf and his men when they had stopped. They trained and sparred and took part in skirmishes with the guards in the King's Wood.
They attacked supply caravans on the road, took the gold and silver from nobles travelling and distributed them among the nearby villages. And they had the scars to prove it.
She had them criss-crossing her back, had a few on her stomach, and relished in the moment when the men she was fighting realised she and her fellow fights were women. He had a fair few marks on his face and neck. The brother and sister had become a strong team, but still there were days when she wished they could give it all up, wished they could turn their back on the rebellion – and the people – and just carve out a home for themselves somewhere.
She shifted the bow on her back and turned towards the entrance of the cave.
Wolf stood there, arms crossed, eyes fixed on the walls of the city.
"Ready to do a lone mission?"
She had been with them for five years, and every day she had longed to hear him say those words. Now, at nineteen, she was finally getting the chance.
She gave a curt nod.
"There's a very special carriage coming," he explained. "From the city. The king is sending his son to meet his new bride, along with all the gold and silver meant for his daughter-in-law-to-be's father." A strange grin crossed his face. "The price he pays for compliance."
"Aren't they scared yet?" she said. "Sending his son out…haven't we attacked them on that road enough?"
"He will have a lot of guards," he replied. "But I think…no, I know you're good enough and fast enough with that bow that they will not be a problem."
"Will be fine with it. He has his own work to do." He took a step closer to her, finally drawing his eyes away from the wall and fixing them on her. "I won't be around forever. I need someone to take my place. And most of my men are growing old with me." He sighed. "I'm sending your brother out soon, to get some new recruits. I want to see how well he does with that task. He's…intelligent. Strategic. He more than has the mind of a leader."
"He always has."
"I will not see the world I want in my lifetime," he said. "And I doubt you or your brother will, either. But I feel confident enough that you will draw this world closer to the ideal than I could ever have dreamed of." He reached out, his hand landing on her shoulder and squeezing gently. "Go see Cara. She has some new clothing for you, and weapons, too."
"Believing in me, believing in my brother."
He grinned, revealing his missing teeth, lost in countless fights. "I saw something in both of you, that day. And you helped me save my cousin. There was no faith needed, just plain sight. Now go. The caravan travels at dawn."
She nodded curtly before heading into the cave, seeking out Cara.
X X X
The thread was simple, an old trick but effective. She crouched in the tree, one hand against the truck, her bow in the other, eyes fixed on the road. After a while, she heard the familiar sound of hooves, pacing along the track, joined by the wheels rolling against the dry earth. She reached into her quiver, withdrew an arrow and put it against the bow, pulling it back.
Her body stilled, her breath stopping. She counted, slowly, as they came into view. The thread stretched from her tree to the tree opposite, low to the ground. It wasn't something they used often, for fear that the guards would catch on. But when the plan was to leave no soul alive…
Except the prince, she reminded herself.
The horses moved forward, and soon the first two were tripping over the thread. She fired, as the other horses, behind the carriage, reared up and threw their riders. The arrow hit its mark, a clear head shot, and he was dead on the ground as she fired the next arrow.
One, two, three, four…she counted, but now the other four riders had got to their feet, swords out, eyes searching for the location of the arrows.
This should not have been a lone mission.
But she had been trained for this. She could take on at least three of the rebels in training, could best them with speed alone even if she didn't have the strength. She fired another arrow, but the guard ducked.
She pulled the mask over her face and leapt down, knees bending as her feet hit, up and standing straight as the first guard came for her.
Beneath the mask, a grin stretched across her face. Clearly, the others thought that just one guard would take care of her. On top of it, the other three were busy trying to stop their horses from running away.
The bow was on her back, her sword in hand, and she swung through the air as the guard came. He had to duck to miss the slash, but soon returned with his own strike. She blocked it easily enough, and the fight began for real. The swords clashed and clanged, and as always, she was faster. The strength behind her swings wasn't enough to knock his sword out, but the pure speed was enough to keep him on his toes.
She darted from side to side, sword meeting his again and again and again. Up, down, left, left, right, up…
Growing bored, she slashed and parried, driving him backwards until his back came against a tree. The horses whinnied and neighed, as she brought the flat side of her sword down against his hand. He dropped his steel, and his eyes locked on her covered face.
His head flew off, landing at the feet of the men still trying to control their horses.
The last three came at her at once, and she had just enough time to sheath her sword and jump upwards. Her hands grasped the low hanging branch, and she swung herself, bending her feet and snapping them out to hit two of the men in the head. They both fell back, smacking onto the ground, but she knew they'd be back up.
She dropped, grabbed her sword and swung it in the air, just in time to meet the flashing-in-the-sun-steel of the third guard. He growled, lips curling back as he pushed towards her. Her foot caught on a root and she stumbled back, but somehow, by some miracle, kept the sword back with her own, regained her balance and, quick as a wink, managed to draw her sword back and slice it through the air, catching the man's waist.
He grunted, staggered to the side, and did the most stupid thing he could have done at that point.
He let his sword arm drop.
The swoosh of steel through air filled her ears, before it met with the softer sound of cutting flesh. The copper smell of blood surrounded her, as the sword sliced through another neck.
The smell was the kind that lodged in the back of your throat, but she was all too used to it by now.
She whirled, not raising her sword in time. She felt the blade on her arm. A sharp breath whistled through her teeth, her training kicking in harder to block out the pain.
It had been one of the first things she had learnt.
The swords moved quickly, she moved faster, dodging each blow now rather than deflecting it. They were both on her, the horses forgotten and gone, rushing through the woods to who knew where.
They were tiring, and fast. It wasn't all down to her; they would have been up early, getting ready for their 'trip', then riding from the city through the woods on constant alert…
She ducked down, knees bent, close to the ground, and swept her sword. It caught them both, and suddenly they were falling backwards, screaming as she stood, both now footless. She stepped forward, standing over them with her chin up, the point of the sword against the neck of the first guard.
"Long live the Rebels," she whispered, before pushing the sword forward. The man's mouth opened and closed like a fish, before remaining open, blood filling it and pouring out. The second man squirmed on the ground, until she drove the sword into his chest.
As she pulled it out, she realised she had forgotten one very important factor in the whole exercise.
Her head snapped up, her gaze landing on the carriage.
The door was open, the carriage empty.
Slowly, she moved forward, intent on searching the carriage and grabbing what she could. Maybe he had run. Maybe the prince had thought he would not make it out alive, or had clicked into the idea that she was going to take him back to the rebels. One thing she was sure of, he would have been scared.
So maybe he was, right now, on his way back home.
It didn't matter.
She just needed to make sure she got the jewels, gold, silver…anything on offer. She glanced at the remaining two horses, attached too tightly to the carriage to have made an escape. There was, at least, that. She didn't think it would be too difficult to drive the carriage back to the bottom of the hills.
Just as she reached her hand out to touch the carriage door, he grabbed her. His arm came around her waist and drew her back, and she could feel him behind her, could feel the cold silver at her throat. She closed her eyes, making her breathing even, aware of exactly where every inch of his body was against her.
"I should kill you," he said, his breath brushing against her ear.
She had only ever seen the prince once, and that had been when she was a child.
"I should slit your throat. Cut you from ear to ear."
As he spoke, she cursed herself. She had stupid, so very stupid, and now she was going to pay the price. She had let her guard down and she would never be forgiven for it.
Unless she could turn the tables.
"Drop your sword."
She did as he said. The steel clattered to the ground.
"What were you going to use the jewels for?"
"To feed the poor."
She felt the dagger waver. "Liar."
"Why would I lie?" She scoffed, though the movement in her throat meant the knife came dangerously close to cutting her. "What use does your bride's lord have for this?" She waved at the carriage. "Really. He'll use it all on a feast to welcome the prince and the rest will go towards your wedding, right? I was just going to find a better home for it."
The knife nicked her skin, but she was able to ignore the sharp sting of pain that came with the cut. Her next steps, she knew, had to be careful. She had to get her out of this situation and make sure he didn't slice her throat in her attempt.
She counted to ten, feeling the dagger shaking in his hand.
The dagger stilled, and she swiped her foot around, catching the back of his leg and yanking. He fell back, and she whirled, wrenching the dagger from his hand and slamming her knees down either side of him, holding the weapon to his own throat.
His dark green eyes blinked up at her.
The surprise had made him stupid, but she was careful not to let the shock of who she was staring at do the same.
"You're not the prince."
His hand snapped out, grabbing her wrist and twisting. The dagger fell to the ground beside them, and she bent her head forward, biting his own wrist and causing him to yelp out and let go. His other hand went for her neck, but she threw herself back, pain stretching through her legs and back as his hand swiped through the air.
Somehow, she managed to get a hold of his hand and push it back, pinning it beside his head. She managed to pin his other hand, leaving him squirming underneath her as her heart beat fiercely in her chest.
"So the prince sent his bastard brother to do his work?" she said, faces inches from his.
When they had been children, she and her brother had somehow managed to sneak into the palace grounds. They hadn't planned to do anything, but it was her birthday and people had always talked of how beautiful the gardens in the grounds were. Her brother had taken her, planned it all out, as a treat.
They had snuck from bush to bush, her trying not to giggle as her brother kept constant watch for anyone else. She had been made to stay crouched in some roses, carefully avoiding their thorns, as her brother scouted ahead to see their way was clear.
She had seen them then.
They were laughing, both of them, using wooden swords to swipe at each other. Sweat poured off them as they appeared from around one wall, dangerously close to her. She had watched them fight, watched as they threw words and curses at each other.
"There will come a day when I won't dare beat you," one had said, as he disarmed the other. He grinned at his opponent, dark green eyes flashing. The two boys looked enough alike that she thought many wouldn't be able to tell them apart, but at that young age, she had been close enough to see their eyes, striking in their differences, and now she found herself staring not into the light blue eyes of the prince, but the bastard's green ones.
"I volunteered," he growled, struggling under her.
"Aw, still trying to make them accept you?" she snapped. From somewhere in the forest, she heard a high pitched whistle, followed by a hooting, very much like the sound of an owl. She grinned, lifted her head slightly, and whistled in reply.
She only had to hold him down for a few more moments before she was joined by a small group of the rebels. A few of the men set about to getting the carriage ready for transport, while a few crossed towards her.
"It's not the prince," she announced, letting go of him and grabbing the dagger, sliding it into her belt. "It's his brother."
"Think we'll still get a decent ransom for him?" one of the girls asked, crossing her arms as two of the rebels yanked the man to his feet.
The bastard's eyes were fixed on her, narrowed in some sign of recognition as she pulled the black cloth off her face.
In the bush, she had watched as the prince had been called back inside. He had darted away, rushing towards the voice, leaving the other to pick up the wooden swords. The twigs and branches were scratching at her, and her eyes had been watering.
She had sneezed, he had turned, and his eyes had fallen on her, before she felt her brother's arms on her, yanking her backwards and out of his sight.
"Sure," she replied, staring now at the bastard as the rebels began to tie his hands together. "We'll get plenty. Enough to feed a village for a few months, I bet."
They began to move the carriage toward the hills, dragging the bastard by the rope. She trailed behind them, whistling to herself, leaving behind the dead bodies of the guards. He would be ransomed, and returned home, and the people would eat.
And to her, right then, that was all that mattered.
A/N: Number 20 in the 100 Themes Challenge. Hope you liked it. Might be something I return to, one day. When the mood strikes me. Anyway, blame this on the fact that I've been reading a lot of Game of Thrones recently, and wanted to try something sort of fantasy-style like, but without the actual fantasy elements…or, you know, just take it as it comes and as always, leave some feedback and get your reviews returned. There's also a poll on my profile page, to help me decide what to focus on next, so if you have a moment please check it out.