Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and violence.
The world fell away.
Everything was going well—surprisingly well, actually. All that had gone wrong was easily amended and all that could still go wrong hadn’t, and Rieka was beyond relieved.
Then the one thing Rieka hadn’t once imagined in their plan’s long list of faults had occurred.
“Rieka?” the woman said.
The feeling rushed back into Rieka’s bones, too harsh and too sudden. She stumbled a step forward, her eyes taking in every detail. Since the two years she had been away, Tanya had hardly changed. Other than the decorative gown she now wore, cinched at the waist with a beaded rope—so different from the trousers and tunics she used to wear—she looked the same. The same light brown hair braided in a crown around her head. The same round face and large, blue eyes. Except, instead of looking upon her with kindness, they were narrowed in suspicion.
“Rieka, what are you doing?” Tanya accused, stalking closer. The others shifted from the corner of Rieka’s eye, only the prince understanding Tanya’s words.
Rieka opened her mouth, then closed it. Tanya was here. One of the only people Rieka had truly regretted leaving. By the time she knew she was no longer accepted, anger and hatred had been all that was left for her friends and family. Except Tanya.
“You were banished,” Tanya said, her delicate brows lowering. “What have you done?”
As a child, it was always the two of them. Tanya and Rieka climbing a tree. Fishing in the river. Practicing with wooden axes. Then they had grown, and Tanya had begun to wear dresses while Rieka had donned armor. But even then, it was the two of them against the world. Until the day her dishonor had been announced and Tanya had watched Rieka go. No parting words. No tears of goodbye. Rieka hadn’t hated her for it. Tears were a weakness.
Tanya reached out and grabbed Rieka’s shoulder, jolting her. Despite the dress and her painted face, her grip was strong. She had grown taller than Rieka, though her shoulders were narrow, her hips lean.
“What have you done?” she asked again, her voice hard. Foreign. It was then that Rieka noticed the small red cap upon her head, her braided hair circling it. It was the symbol of a woman married.
The blood drained from Rieka’s face. She had been gone for two years and so much had changed. Tanya was… Tanya was married. And there was no kindness or sentimentality in her friend’s face now. She would turn and reveal them without a hint of guilt. Rieka knew because Tanya was the perfect Styrkish citizen. Loyal, determined, and strong. Everything Rieka was not. It was no surprise the matchmaker had so soonly wed her.
Rieka opened her mouth once more. To beg or make excuses, she didn’t know. Then she spotted Kai directly behind Tanya’s form, and her heart dropped. Before she could call out, the hilt of the prince’s dagger—Rieka didn’t remember him giving it to Kai—collided with the base of Tanya’s skull, a dull thud sounding. Rieka was too shocked to catch her as she crumpled.
They stood there panting, staring down at Tanya’s unconscious form. Rieka’s chest heaved as though she had just run for hours. She met Kai’s gaze. “What have you done?” she snarled.
Kai’s brows arched in surprise. “She was going to turn us in,” he said, his shoulders stiffening.
“Glad we brought you along, friend,” Ren said, patting Kai’s arm. “Now, let’s get out of here before we meet another friendly face.” He shot a glance Rieka’s way but didn’t ask questions.
“We can’t just leave her!” Rieka hissed, waving a hand violently in Tanya’s direction. With her face relaxed in unconsciousness, she looked as kind and beautiful as Rieka remembered. Her heart splintered.
That small red cap on her head was secured so tightly it hadn’t even fallen into disarray when she had collapsed. It stood out like the moon in a starless night, reminding Rieka of all she had missed. All she had been torn from. Who had Tanya ended up marrying? Rieka hoped it wasn’t some toad-faced councilman. In their childhood, Tanya and Rieka had laughed about the old, warted faces of the men on the Chief’s council. But judging by Tanya’s colorful, beaded gown and her presence in the fortress, Tanya was now on that council.
“You’re right,” Ren said sarcastically, snapping Rieka from her reverie. “Let’s just tie her to your back and bring her with us!”
“She’s—” Rieka paused, then restarted. “We—”
“We have to go.” Unlike his previously light tone, Ren’s voice was hard. He came around to face Rieka and grabbed her shoulders. “She will be fine. But we need to leave before she wakes.”
Rieka stared at Tanya for a beat longer, then nodded absently, her body moving on its own accord. Ren took that as agreement and steered her out of the foyer and towards the tower.
As they climbed up to the top where they would descend down the side of the wall and into the outer forests, Rieka’s mind blurred until all thoughts became veiled by a haze; the details of the fortress that had been so sharp before becoming muted. She floated high above herself, watching as they hiked up each step.
“You need to focus,” Ren’s voice sounded beside her. “Just until we are out of here.”
Rieka nodded mutely again, but she attempted to hurry her steps. To instill the urgency she was meant to feel.
There were six floors to the main fortress, and it was at the fourth that they passed a door leading into the protruding walls and were instantly noticed by a passing guard.
“Shit,” Ren hissed when the guard called out for them to stop. He wasted no time in any other words before bolting up the stairs, leaving them all to follow.
“Come on!” Ren ordered, his form disappearing around a bend of the spiraling staircases. After a breath of hesitation, Rieka and the others followed.
Footsteps pounded behind them, followed by more Styrkish orders to stop. Rieka chanced a glance over her shoulder to see three warriors on their heels, hands upon their weapons
It was silent but for their gasping breaths and pounding footsteps echoing through the stone tower as they scaled the steps. Rieka began to slow despite the hours she had spent exercising for this exact purpose. The prince was far worse off. He was heaving behind them, his breaths sharp. She had no doubt he was a shit athlete, but with the armor weighing him down, his steps were all the slower. Both she and Kai reached out to pull him along, practically dragging him between them.
They passed an open door, and Rieka glanced to her side to find another line of guards rushing towards them. “Shit!” she barked, shoving the prince up. Before she could follow, Kai kicked out a leg, his foot slamming into the lead guard’s chest. The man was shoved back into the hall, stumbling over the guards at his back. Rieka lurched forward to pull the door shut before dashing after Ren and the prince, who were already half a story above them.
She got a total of three steps before the door could be heard opening again. She glanced behind her, but Kai placed his hand between her shoulders, urging her forward.
The pounding of the guards’ feet echoed through the tower, drowning out the sound of her heavy breathing. Their proximity was the only fuel that kept her legs moving.
Finally, when her thighs had gone numb from exhaustion, they reached the top of the tower. Ren was crouched before the door, his pins lodged in the lock.
“Hurry,” she ordered, the guards’ footsteps growing nearer.
Ren cursed, one of his pins slipping. Rieka spotted the head of a guard.
Brisk air flooded over her and she spun on her heel and bolted through the open door. Once they were all through, Ren slammed the door shut and held himself against it. Kai joined him, bracing his legs as the first guards slammed against the door from the other side.
Ren’s hand fumbled in his coat, his body jolting with each attempt the guards made at shoving the door open. He cursed colorfully, and Rieka started forward to help.
“Duck!” Kai shouted.
Rieka managed to lower her head just before the blade of a sword struck her neck.
“Fuck!” she barked, scrambling away from the guard that patrolled the enclosed bell tower. In an instant, she had her axe unsheathed, resting in her palms. She backed away from the man, watching his steps just as he watched hers. They circled around the large bell, Rieka keeping her back to the narrow walls of the tower. If he managed to set the alarm, all of the fortress would know of their presence, and they would be shot instantly as they slid down the side of the wall.
He made no move to attack, so she glanced towards Ren and Kai. Ren was looping chains he had swiped from the dungeons through the door handle and the torch mount directly beside it. The clamps were still attacked at the end, and she vaguely wondered how she hadn’t seen him hide them within his clothes. Kai had his arms braced against the door, his teeth gritted. The prince had rushed to the broad opening that looked over the edge of the wall and was tying a long rope around one of the parapets.
There was a shift against the stone, and Rieka leapt away, avoiding a swipe from the guard’s broad sword. She returned it with a swing of her axe, but her attack was slow. He easily dodged and began circling her.
The axe that had seemed comforting before now felt foreign in her palms. It had been so long since she had last held one like it. Or any weapon for that matter. The balance of an axe was one that took ages of practicing to perfect, and once she had believed herself to be nearly perfect.
Only, now she was fighting a trained guard who practiced daily. One that did not lack experience. It was written in his weathered face and the vicious intent directed towards her—the face of a man that had fought warriors. Killed warriors. His lips pulled back as he circled her, sword outheld.
Dread pooled in her gut. This was not a battle she could win.
“You filthy thief,” the man snarled as he lunged. Rieka parried, iron clanging. Her arms were weak and limp as he shoved his weight against her, and she ducked, scampering away. She held her axe out before her, her chest heaving.
The man swiped for her side, and she dodged, though not in time. His blade skimmed the skin between her chest and back plate, slicing through her tunic and flesh. The pain was dull, and she danced away, parrying his next, immediate strike.
The weight of the axe was already making her arms quake like rubber. It became more and more difficult to lift as she danced away from the guard’s incessant strikes. This was not at all like her underground fighting. There, she had been swift and nimble. She had taken down men twice her size without breaking a sweat. But those men were weak and untried. This guard… He was all that Rieka had once hoped to be. And had failed at becoming.
With her muscles limp, she saw the man’s sword nearing the gap above her armor, right above her collarbone. She saw and knew it would strike true.
Before his sword came in contact with her skin, the guard stilled, his eyes going wide. He stumbled forward a step. His sword drooped then clattered to the stone floor just before he crumbled.
Kai stood behind him, dagger in hand, the blade dripping red.
Rieka met his wide gaze, her expression mirroring his. Her chest heaved. She was alive, and it was all thanks to Kai. From his shocked expression, she guessed it was the first time he had killed. She stepped forward. To thank him? To console him? She wasn’t sure, but she had to do something.
“Come on!” Ren hissed, interrupting whatever idiocy was about to come out of her mouth.
Rieka and Kai went to his side. The door shook, but held against the chains that Ren had secured. “Those won’t hold forever,” Rieka said.
“I know,” Ren responded. “That’s why we need to hurry.” He scrambled to the edge of the wall and peered over the side to sparse grass below. The prince was finishing off his knots with the rope, the end hanging over the side of the wall.
When the rope was fully secured, the prince backed away, glancing between them.
“Your Highness,” Ren said with a flourish of his hand, indicating him to go first.
“We don’t have time for this,” Rieka barked, shoving the prince aside. She swung her leg over the parapet, grabbing hold of the rope. Bracing her feet against the smooth stone surface, she began the slow descent. While her arms were weak and tired from her earlier spar, they were strong enough to hold her weight as she crept down. Halfway, the rope began to bite into the skin of her palms, leaving abrasions there. The closer to the ground she got, the more she began to notice. The sharp stinging in her side; the soreness in her body; the heaviness in her heart.
Tanya’s face flitted back to mind, and Rieka attempted to shove it away. Thinking about that now was useless. Thinking about her at all was useless. None of it mattered, Rieka told herself. No matter how often she repeated those words, she didn’t believe them.
When her feet met solid ground, she backed away from the wall, quelling the urge to flee. She still had to wait for the others.
The prince soon was beside her, then Kai and Ren. They stared at each other for a brief moment, unsaid words pressing heavily upon their shoulders. It was the prince who straightened his spine and announced, “Let’s go.”
No one protested. Suddenly, a deep resounding clang broke through the heavy, silent air. The vibrations of the warning bell shook her bones as it awoke the most fortified city in the entire continent. It was a gruesome sound, much like the death knells that tolled on the day of an execution in Arlan. Any second, the guards would break through the door and find the rope. They would begin scouring the land just outside Aryotsk in search of her.
The weight of Rieka’s actions hung over her like a blade above her neck. Now she was truly a traitor of Styrka. She had thrown away all she had once held loyalty for.
Rieka placed a hand against her side, warm blood seeping through her fingers. She applied pressure, digging her nails into the sore, surrounding muscle. The painful sting that followed brought clarity to her vision and mind. That physical pain she could focus on. It was real. It had an explanation. Unlike the turmoil of emotions that swirled in the pit of her stomach. No. Physical pain was far easier to deal with.