Asha sat on the log, huddled in a tight little ball, her hands shaking, tears streaming down her face, her eyes staring into nothing. Mr. Dark and Dangerous was sitting on the log across from her, his hands on his knees his face completely stoic.
And then Asha realized where she was. She blinked her eyes, shaking the tears off her eyelashes and saw him staring intently at her. “Got what you wanted? Is this what you wanted to see?” She was on her feet now screaming at him, her eyes red and puffy. “You wanted to know what I’m doing here. Well you got to hear every fucked-up bit,” she finished in a whisper. And suddenly Dark and Dangerous was on his feet, right in front of her.
He unsheathed his dagger from his belt and grabbed her arm, pulling her close so their faces were inches apart. Asha’s breathing quickened and her heart started pounding. Even she wasn’t quick enough to stop him if he decided to plunge that dagger into her heart. He grabbed her arm and slipped the dagger in her hand. Her eyes flickered up to his, confusion lighting them.
“You take that anger. That frustration. That grief. And you take it to the person who caused it.” He stepped back, his hands in his pockets. “I’m going to take you somewhere you can get justice.”
He turned around and headed deeper into the forest, whistling a bouncy song often sung by maids. “Names Lorcan by the way. You can stop calling me Dark and Dangerous.” He looked back at her with a smirk lighting his lips.
He took her to the place she would now call home. Introduced her to the people she would consider her family.
Asha owed her life to Lorcan.
“Okay. Our goal is to save people.” Ina said, slamming a map down on their makeshift table. Ina found the rebel group when she was a dirty, malnutritioned, terrified 15-year-old. After training with Lorcan for five years, she was one of the most feared fighters on the continent. It’s her warm hazel brown eyes, long golden hair, pink lips, and perfect complexion that makes her the most dangerous. You wouldn’t think she knew how to remove your head in two swift moves. She was like an older sister to Asha and took care of her like one.
“This is where we want to go.” Ina pointed to the most southern corner of the map of Sarinami. Vincent nodded from next to her. All of us were in front of them watching intently. They were laying out the battle plan for their next rescue mission. They tried to save as many people as they could while they worked on getting to the big fish – Rione.
“I heard a couple of the soldiers from the troop in the camp a few miles away talking about raiding that town next. There are some grave robbers there.” Vincent glanced down at his hands, blinking rapidly. “She’s going to decimate the entire town.” Everybody was silent but nobody was surprised. This is what she did. She destroyed everyone when only two were at fault.
Vincent was the most charming out of the lot of them. He came to the camp two years ago as an orphaned 10-year-old. Rione’s henchman had gone through his little village and hacked everyone to pieces. The soldiers made him watch as they cut up his mother and father, all the while telling him it was going to be even worse for him. The only reason he escaped was because the soldiers were drunk and high and he could slip away unnoticed. Conlan had found him in the woods five miles from his town sobbing, panting, and almost passed out from exhaustion. His blonde, almost white hair was matted and covered in blood and his bright blue eyes were dead and filled pain only someone who witnessed something horrific could have.
The worst part was that his parents and countless others were punished because one of women in the town decided to speak out against the abuse of her husband. Rione decided the entire town was corrupt. It didn’t matter to Rione that the poor woman had to live every single day in fear. All that mattered to her was that this town wasn’t perfect. With a village as small as that, everyone had to have known what he was doing to his wife. And it took her months to speak out against it. This meant, the entire town was just as much to blame for her husband’s actions. In the beginning, Rhione had good intentions. She wanted to rid our country of evil. She wanted to put an end to domestic abuse, murder, and poverty. But slowly, that turned into an obsession with making her people perfect - to where only the rich and powerful could follow her rules.
Vince was taken in their little group and taught how to fight but his real talent lay in being able to sneak around undetected. He had a way of melting into the shadows that allowed him to go around completely unnoticed. Conlan always said everyone had a secret talent or a gift. It was just about homing in on it and cultivating it to be extraordinary. Nobody knew how Asha became such a skilled fighter. She could kill even the biggest and toughest of brutes with only a flick of the wrist. Whoever has faced her in battle has never lived to tell the tale. And that’s the way she would keep it. She didn’t want Rione to know what she was up against.
Nobody, not even the most important people in her life knew how she became so skilled. Asha wanted to keep some things to herself.
“This town is called Greyfort. There are approximately 300 people. We need two days to warn the town of the coming troops, and three days to get them far enough to be safe from them.” Vincent said, his eyes following the lines of the map.
“How long will it take the troops to get there?” Conlan asked rubbing his elbow. This was his tell. He only did that when he was nervous, when he thought something wasn’t going to work.
“The troops should get there in two weeks time. Maybe a few days sooner,” Ina said. “There are fewer troops this time. Rione is learning from her previous mistakes. We can’t estimate exactly how long they will take.”
Lorcan spoke up from the back, “So that gives us less than a week to get to Greyfort and try to evacuate the entire town.” The rebel group shuffled around. That was asking a lot. Granted, they had done more for far fewer people, but that almost cost all of them their lives. Rione’s forces had almost tracked them down. Asha was the only reason any of them got away. She managed to create a diversion that led her entire army off the edge of a cliff.
Conlan took a deep breath. “We shouldn’t take this case. It’s too risky.” Everyone’s heads snapped up. Vincent let out a little gasp. Everyone spoke up at once.
“What are you talking about?”
“We can’t just let them die!”
“What the fuck Conlan?”
Conlan sighed and shook his head. “I know. It’s awful. But we can’t. It’s not safe. We need to focus on the big picture.”
There was a beat of silence before everyone started talking all at once.
There was a flurry of movement and Conlan was in the front. “We almost died last time.” He bellowed, glaring at everyone. “We can’t risk something like that again.” The rebel group stopped talking at once and stared at Conlan. He had never raised his voice since any of them had been there. Never once lost his temper so quickly or violently.
“Last time we tried something like this, Vince almost had his leg blown off. Asha barely made it out there alive. And Lorcan was comatose for three days. We weren’t sure he’d ever wake up.” Nobody forgot that. It was the most terrifying three days of all of their lives. Lorcan was like Asha’s big brother – the only thing missing in her old life. He was like a father to Vince. After losing his first one, he wasn’t about to lose his second. Asha remembered running from the troops. She could hear them calling after her. Hear them yelling every disgusting, vile, filthy thing they were going to do to make her suffer. They were going to skin her alive. Cut her open until she begged for them to stop. She was completely alone. Asha felt like she was a kid again, hiding in the closet, not sure when the troops would find her and make good of their promises.
Lorcan barely remembered anything at all. He had gotten blasted from the ground trying to protect Vince from a bomb the troops had planted. It was a bad day from the start. Ina had gotten wind that the troops were stowed away only a few hundred feet from their camp so the entire rebel group was on guard. Nobody got a wink of sleep that night. They were going to try to protect a village of no more than 200 people – should have been child’s play. But they had only beat the troops by two and a half days. Vince was trailing the troops to make sure they were on schedule and if they were going too fast, he set up some roadblocks. His favorite thing to do was steal their clothes and personal effects and scatter them across the forest. It took them hours to find everything and some even left their things behind. Pretty much their only way of getting new clothes.
Ina, Conlan, Lorcan, and Asha only had one day to warn every one of the impending attack and convince them the safest thing to do was fight back. It wasn’t easy. It was barely doable. There was always one who decided it was a good idea to surrender. That Rione might show mercy to those who confess their faults - she always promised that if people would confess their sins, they would be shown mercy. It’s usually they who died first and the most horrific death. Lucky for them, the news of Rione and her cruelty had made it to this village and most of them were prepared with supplies for this exact situation. Ina and Conlan went to the houses and warned people of the attack while Asha and Lorcan looked for a place to take the villagers.
Only Conlan showed his face, everybody else had hoods covering everything except their eyes. It took them months to figure out the best defense against the troops - they quickly formed a two part plan. First, to fight back the troops, and second, to run as far as they possibly could. They would run to neighboring villages who were normally welcoming to survivors, some would stay in groups and fend for themselves in the forest, and some would find a new pot of land or an abandoned village to start fresh.
Usually every villager has a group of skilled fighters. Lorcan’s job is to teach them basic skills to fight against the queen’s army. Lucky for them, she usually sends her weakest people to take down villages like this. Asha and Vincent’s job was to set up traps around the surrounding areas of the village to slow down the troops and make it easier for Lorcan’s group to take them on. And Ina and Conlan’s job was to round up the other villagers and get them prepared to run. The hardest part of their job were the idiots who changed their mind last minute to beg for mercy from Rione. If they managed to get to the army, they would expose the location of every villager - and the rebels couldn’t let that happen. In their three years, they’ve only had to take violent action against two people. Both of them thought Rione would let them free if they told her everything. They only made it three steps before Conlan had an arrow through their hearts. It was gruesome and horrible, but if he hadn’t hundreds of villagers would have died a horrible death.
Everything was going according to plan. Lorcan was having the time of his life. He usually dreaded small towns because that usually meant just one hunter who were just skilled enough to hunt and usually opted out of fighting the soldiers. But this time, he was lucky enough to get a family of 3 who were trained in combat and were willing to put their lives on the line to protect their village. The father, James, was taught how to fight from his father who learned from his father before him. And then James taught his wife and daughter. “For a time like this,” he said when Lorcan asked him why he taught his family to fight. They weren’t nearly as skilled with different weapons, but James’ daughter Evelyn, almost had Lorcan pinned. Asha couldn’t help but feel a surge of pride and gratitude, even for people she never knew. She walked up to James while he watched Lorcan and Evelyn practice hand to hand. He watched his daughter grapple with a man a foot taller than her and smiled with pride.
“It’s good you can smile at a time like this,” Asha said from next to him, her eyes trained on Lorcan and Evelyn. Her form could use some work but she was dedicated. Everytime Lorcan had her flat on her back, she bounced right back up and was at it again. James looked at her, his brown eyes shining. “She is everything I wanted her to be. She is dedicated and persevering. What more could a father want?” He turned to Asha, smiled, and touched her shoulder, “You and your group have done more for our village than anyone ever has. If we make it out of here alive, you will always have allies.” Asha suddenly felt herself fill up with hate. How dare Rione? How dare Rione persecute these people without meeting them. Good people who just want to live their lives. The village had been targeted because a young boy stole a loaf of bread from a group of travelling royalty. It was a bad crop year and he had been trying to feed his starving little sister. But it didn’t matter to Rione. Her world was in black and white.
In just one day, Conlan and Ina had finished rounding up the villagers and they were long gone - hopefully far enough so the soldiers couldn’t catch them, Lorcan had shown James’ family a few tricks to taking on the soldiers best they could - they would fight until they couldn’t anymore. When they were done, Asha and Vincent had set up a hiding area for them in the woods. Asha and Vincent had set up traps and bombs along the perimeter of the village. They had nets that would hoist the soldiers into the trees, small explosives lined up past the nets, trenches dug so soldiers would fall in, and trip wires set up as a last defense. The queen’s army was organized and had a great formation - which usually ended up being their downfall. The traps took care of most of the soldiers because they were trained to never break formation, and then the rebels could take on the rest at least until they surrendered.
When Vincent told them the troops were an hour away from the village, the rebels and James’ family sat and waited. Everything should have gone smoothly. But Asha could feel something wrong in her gut. The soldiers should have been caught in the traps by now, but they didn’t hear the normal snapping of wood and yells. When Asha glanced at Lorcan, she could tell he felt it too. James glanced at the rebels, questions in his eyes.
“Something’s wrong,” Asha whispered to Lorcan, her knife at the ready, waiting for someone to come through the trees. Both their eyes were trained forward, waiting for something to happen. And then they saw a small ball shooting up from the forest, landing a few feet ahead of the rebels. They had never seen anything like this, but even the James’ family knew they had to run. James, his wife, Sage, Evelyn, and the rebels scattered in every direction just as the small bomb let out a huge blast. The explosion through them off their feet, their ears ringing, blood pouring down their wounds. Asha looked up just in time to see two more balls being thrown from the forest, landing close to the one from before.
Asha scrambled to her feet, helping Sage and Evelyn up too, her eyes never leaving the balls. “RUN.” She couldn’t tell if she had screamed it or if her voice was a whisper. But she turned around and sprinted as fast as she could into the forest. Through the corner of her eye, she saw Conlan and Ina right beside her, James’ family a few steps behind. But then she stopped short. Lorcan and Vincent. Her blood ran cold, her mind travelling a thousand miles a minute. Everything moved in slow motion as Conlan and Ina stopped in their tracks and turned around.
Tiny Vincent, limping, supporting Lorcan as best as he could as they limped to the edge of the forest. And Asha stopped breathing as she saw another bomb travelling through the air, land just a few feet behind them.
And then the world sped up. She sprinted faster than she thought she could towards them, she could feel Ina and Conlan right behind her as they got to Vincent. They had just a few seconds. Ina grabbed Vincent in her arms, carrying him to a tree for cover while Conlan and Asha each slung one of Lorcan’s arms around their shoulders and dragged him next to Ina and Vincent. Just as the bomb went off and sent them flying.
Asha had woken up two hours later, bandages on her arms. She looked around to see Vincent’s leg wrapped in gauze, red still visible through the layers, a still bloody and shirtless Lorcan lying on the ground, Conlan rifling through their pack of supplies which had dwindled to almost nothing, and Ina right beside her, poking a fire.
“Finally. You had us worried.” Ina said from beside her. Asha looked around, her mind working at a snail's pace. And then she felt her clothes. Nothing. Her knives.
“My -” she began. “Yes, yes. I know. Your knives. We had to take them out because the blast caused some of them to cut you. They’re safe and sound.” Asha wasn’t done. “Lorcan.” she murmured. Ina looked at her, her eyes unreadable. “He’ll be okay. He has to be.” Asha sat up, her head felt like somebody had dropped a tree on it. Which might have happened.
“What happened? How did they figure out the traps? They couldn’t have known we were going to save this particular village.” Parts of the blasts came hurtling back to her in flashes. There was complete silence and then she saw the ball flying through the air. They had never seen those before. They were going to have to find a way to combat those too now.
Ina shook her head, tucking it between her knees, “ We were betrayed. That was the only way. We have no idea who. The villagers are all gone. Conlan went to go look for them. It looks like James and his family escaped, but we have no idea where they are or if they’re alive.” Ina looked at Asha. She looked broken. Completely defeated.
“I know you all remember that. It was horrible - we almost lost each other. There is no way in hell I am going to risk that again.” Conlan said. He was right in a way. That day, each of them felt what it was like to lose someone all over again. They had all lost their families and found a new one. They would do anything to keep their family intact.
Conlan sighed and buried his face in his hands. “We have to plan and figure out how to get to the top. Saving a few hundred people here and there is great and we should keep doing that, but this is not going to stop unless we go right to the source. The Throne.” Asha bowed her head. Of course, he was right. But it killed her to know that there were going to be women and children begging for someone to save them. For someone to please put an end to the torture. Because they were going to torture them. They wouldn’t let any of them off easy.
“I think I might have an idea on how to at least save that one village,” Ina said. She was wringing her hands and chewing on her lip, but her eyes were confident. “I have a friend about two miles from here who might be able to help us out.”