“Chance? Chance, wake up!”
He was roused by Nóe’s panicked whisper. “Wh- Nóe, what’s up?” Chance launched himself off of his travel matt and scanned the clearing. No one was there, and the fire was doused in a hurry. Breixo must have taken Arlo away while Nóe waited up for Chance.
The night was dark and only the dim crimson embers gave off light. The canopy was just dense enough to choke out the stars and the moon.
Nóe’s piercing blue eyes were wide as he brought a shaking finger to his lips. “The Solitaries found us and are camped outside the cuff of the forest,” he whispered weakly. “We have to make way to Mogan’s Leap if we’re thinking about escaping with our heads attached to our necks.”
Chance quickly pulled his jerkin over his linen shirt and tugged his boots on, not caring to tuck his black trousers in them. His life was at stake.
I should’ve left when I had the chance, he cursed himself. As he and Nóe quietly stole through the forest, he tied his shoulder-length hair back with a leather scrap. His heart pounded against his chest as they made way through the underbrush and shrubbery.
To them, Solitaries only meant trouble. Once, a man from their team, Tennyson, was found loafing off right in parameters of the elite encampment, and he was dragged off to the dungeons and they never saw him again. Not that they missed him… he wasn’t a tough kind.
Still, Chance remembered Breixo’s words about him being a Solitary, and he wondered if it was true. He imagined himself showing his face to the companies. Would they remember him and let him go? It was worth a try.
No, I’m not ready for that. What if I learn something I wish I hadn’t? I can’t forget again.
His heart pounded tenfold. He couldn’t possibly come up to a Solitary and say, ‘Hey, I used to be one of you but I devoted my life to crime and no consequence! Don’t lock me up!’
He shook his head and continued through the shrubbery.
“Does Breixo know what he’s doing?” hissed Chance. “Mogan’s Leap is an ideal outpost. We’ll as good as dead if we camp out up there right now. Even if we go deep enough, they’ll see us.”
There was no answer.
Chance looked around. Too dim to tell if Nóe was even by his side, much less listening to him.
“‘Found him, Captain! My Queen, I found him!”
An arrow whizzed past Chance’s cheek and embedded itself in the knothole of the tree behind him. He let out a startle and dove into the shrubbery. A deluge of arrows followed, and he crawled through the briars to avoid them.
“Fflam oer!” spat one of his assailants. He could hear them coming through the trees and they reloaded their crossbows.
Fflam oer is right, thought Chance as he scrambled towards Mogan’s Leap.
“In the shrubbery, Shay! Cairbre, follow!”
A longsword chopped through the briars and followed Chance’s legs. He yelled his protests and leaped out and into the open, but he ducked under another arrow and ran headlong towards the mountainous hill.
A hooded Solitary dropped out of the trees and landed like a cat in front of Chance, making him come to a screeching halt. The soldier, named Cairbre, pinned him and tied his hands together quickly.
“Let me go now!” Chance hollered. “I didn’t do nothing!”
“Oi?” His captor rose an eyebrow as he caught his breath. “So why’d you abandon camp when y’heard us comin’?”
Chance pursed his lips. “I used to be a Solitary,” he mumbled, though it was too weak to be believable.
Cairbre let out a short ‘pah’. “What a liar!” He took off his hood and forced Chance to his feet, positioning his bound hands behind him in iron cuffs. “Lieutenant, how’d Sergeant Braeden find this sneaky little fish?”
“Shut your mouth!” Chance earned himself a slap upside the head. “Aye, Lieutenant Niall?”
The tallest hooded Solitary, arms crossed, scrutinized Chance. “B’yond me. Has his ways, h’does. Shay, send word to the captain. I’ll check in on Sergeant t’see. Cair, take our new guest…” He punched Chance’s shoulder hard - “To Her Highness.”
He got two strong ‘yessirs’ and one ‘I wish you’d leave me out of this’.
Chance looked up, seeing just tens of feet from him, the white face of Mogan’s Leap. He squinted and saw, just enough, the dark shape of Breixo, simply observing. Nóe and Arlo were beside him, watching at a careful distance the betrayal below them.
His blood boiled. Chance roared and fought against the iron cuffs in which the Solitaries tried to confine him.
“Breixo!” he hollered like a madman. “Breixo, you conniving mutt! Watch what you’ve done to me for yourself, you flea-bitten backstabber! You most deserved widower! I hate you!” His last sentence was brought forth uneven and choked with the tears in his throat. His vision was blurred with emotions of betrayal and fury as he was dragged away by the Wing Company.
Breixo listened to his daring cries with his ears wide open and his mouth tight as a bowstring. He watched the kidnapping from Mogan’s Leap only tens of feet away. From his vantage point, he could see and hear Chance a little too perfectly. He winced at the term ‘most deserved widower’ and had a mind of saving Chance to apologize.
He stayed absolutely still.
He was flanked by Nóe, who was solemnized by the sight, and Arlo, who clutched his toy soldier close to him and sniffed.
“You’s b’yond cruel, Beray-shaw,” Arlo announced through a tight throat. He glared hatefully at his leader, fists shaking at his sides, before he found there was nothing he could do to the taller, older, more powerful man, so he ran out of sight into the forest.
Breixo didn’t try to stop him. Rather, Nóe, who would do anything to stand up for his brother’s honor, launched off after him, tight-lipped. Breixo stopped him with a firm hand on his collarbone and an ashamed shake of the head. Nóe frowned with concern, but returned to his brother’s side.
“He needs to cool off, Nóe,” he muttered indignantly. “How bitter is the aftertaste of revenge. He… he wanted to leave us, and… I just found myself too prideful, but… Nóe, I can’t organize myself just yet. My mind is in so many places, and I’m so confused.”
Nóe studied Breixo. His jaw was set firmly, tightly. His eyes never left the forest. “Something’s plaguing your mind, brother,” he mused. “Are you guilty?”
It wasn’t an attack. It was an observation. Breixo rolled his shoulder, an action he did whenever he had an emotion he wished not to display.
You wouldn’t believe, Breixo thought, tearing his gaze from the Solitary caravan passing by.
Chance, no matter how much he didn’t want to admit it, was another brother to him in some ways, while in others he had every nerve to kill him. He decided the Solitaries would do a good enough job of that. Only, now Breixo noticed the silence let his guard down and doubts and regrets crept into his heart and clutched it with their icy fingers. He felt nauseated with sadness. His vision blurred with hot tears, but he covered it up by running a hand over his face. He sighed deeply to hide his uneven breathing.
He made the wrong decision listening to his impulses and setting Chance up to be arrested.
“That queen runs a corrupt government and military system,” Breixo said with a tired sigh rather than voice his feelings. He buried his heart and conscience to survive them and faced Nóe. “If they were this easy to sway into payment, then traitors are a given, like Sa’di. When they’re treacherous, they follow any party but their designated authority. Once they mutiny, we could easily influence officials and generals. See, little brother, war and strategy is all patience and aloofness. Never reliance, but waiting, like a wolf.” He smirked in spite of himself as a notion rose above his conscience. A fiery feeling of independence. He didn’t need Chance to be the strategist; he was one all on his own.
“I taste power, Nóe.”
His brother grinned along with him. “I feel it.” Indeed, he stood taller with confidence in Breixo’s plan. Promptly, a frown spoiled it. “And Arlo?”
Breixo shrugged. “The queen’s a waif-lover. Arlo may come in handy.”
Footsteps alerted the two of a new presence. He assumed it was Arlo coming back to apologize, but instead, it was a deep sapphire cloaked and hooded Solitary. Gold stitching on the right shoulder of his jerkin showed authority in the army. A rough red beard covered his jaw, chin, and lips. The glint of calculating green eyes hid underneath the hood.
“Braeden,” Nóe acknowledged with a nod. “Your payment’s here.” He tossed the Solitary a pouch of drauffyrch.
The sergeant caught the pouch effortlessly. “That’s for getting the boy off your hands,” he scowled. “What about keeping y’and your brother and that waif outta ours? Once me men see you here they won’t think twice. If I protect you I’ll get locked up.”
Nóe frowned and glanced at Breixo. He didn’t look back, but he nodded. He still watched the road. The younger rolled his eyes and pulled two drauffyrch out of his own pocket.
“Hope it suffices,” he said with no actual interest.
Braeden smirked and caught them as Nóe tossed them. “Pleasure doin’ business.”
Breixo said nothing, but nodded. “Leave. Your prisoner’s probably met your queen by now.”
“Let me go! You’ve got the wrong man! They’re back there, those backstabbing warlocks! They’re Údaens, the treacherous kind!”
Caislín listened closely while Cairbre dragged a shaggy blonde into the clearing. She had no clear image of his face, but she knew he was a fighter until death. Shay had reported to Aloysius, who stood beside her. She listened closely over his shoulder to his description.
“It ain’t clear, but by firelight, we’ll pinpoint ‘im, I’m sure. Said he used to be a Solitary. ‘Is camp was Údaen, Moghar-dül land type. Three others had to ‘ave camped down with ‘im, judging by the grass indentations. We’ll go after ‘em.”
Aloysius nodded. “Thanks, Shay. Tucker down and stay down. We’ll distribute a few more Solitaries by a week.”
Shay smiled weakly. “Appreciated, sir.” He bowed to Caislín. “Majesty.” He paused. “So I guess this search wasn’t all that eventful, aye, Highness?”
She rose an eyebrow and smirked. “We’ll see soon, Shay. Tell Cairbre to bring him to the fire.”
Shay gave his brother a holler, and Cair pulled the prisoner forward. “No, no, no! Stop it! Breixo, I swear I’ll find you!”
Who’s Breixo, she thought stoically. She sat straight by the fire, legs crossed. Cairbre shoved the prisoner onto his knees in front of the queen and punched the back of his head. The criminal grunted and was shut up.
“Remove his hood,” Caislín ordered.
Cairbre nodded and ripped off the leather hood of the criminal’s jerkin.
His face was cut up from briars and Cair’s rough hand. His eyes were blue and hatefully glinting in the firelight. His hair, messy and roughly cut, was thick blonde and falling in front of his face. His cheeks were pinched, but he was quite handsome.
Caislín felt as if she were punched in the stomach.
“Who are you?” she breathed.
He pursed his lips. “Got nothin’ to say to you, got nothin’ to prove to you.” His voice was low and like a whisper. “You and your kinda monarchs ain’t my company!”
Caislín’s eyes shifted to Cairbre. “Free his left hand.”
“Oi, what’s this for-” The criminal protested as Cair confusedly did as he was told. He forced the left hand forward and presented it to the queen.
On his ring finger was a simple silver band stamped with an eagle.