Fort Arcton stood on the edge of the darkening forest, a heavily fortified structure built off the ruins of a small castle from the early ages of Meji. A single road led south toward the King’s Road, the stone highway paved at the beginning of the reign of King Silvano Viteri. It was one of the last forts before the mountains began, the end of the military’s reach. The fort stood near a series of small hamlets which relied upon the army for their food, trading their game and wood for grain and other supplies from the far-off capital to keep their families fed and warm. That had been the norm until the fort’s commander decided their materials were worth more than a few rabbits and sticks. Soldiers patrolled around the walls, lighting the troches for the night watch. Unaware of the eyes watching them from the edge of the dense forest. Four men crouched behind the tangled brambles, the youngest watching the soldiers from their position. All were dressed in ragged clothing covered by well-worn armor, each carrying a weapon and a sack. One examined the crossbow in his hand, glancing at the boy on watch. “What’s the plan, Enzo?” His bright green eyes flickered momentarily from the building to his companion, “They’ll be changing the watch soon; one guard per station instead of two. We use the limited light to our advantage and get to the nearest entrance.” “Are we sure this is a good idea?” another asked, his pale features showcasing his uncertainty, “There’s more guards than there were yesterday. They’ve been changing shifts in a blink. Why not wait one more night?” The man with the crossbow, Colm, scoffed, “And wait for yer neighbors to starve? If you can’t handle this boy, go home.” “I can handle it,” the boy retorted sourly, glaring at the ground. Enzo turned to watch the other boy from beneath his dirty red locks, his expression unreadable. Alec had only joined their group a week ago, the son of one of the nearby hamlets that was suffering. He’d begged their help in exchange for his service in their cause. Enzo would have gone regardless, but gaining fresh blood for the ranks always helped. Tonight would be Alec’s first mission with them. It was only natural he be nervous. But they could not afford mistakes today. Enzo stood, “Colm, Emmett, find the stores and get as much as you can. Get yourselves out at the first sign of trouble. No heroics today.” “Right,” Emmett replied, taking the order as his cue to take out the lone guard standing beneath a nearby torch. Colm followed with fierce grin, “Time to let the bastards have it.” Enzo started toward the fort, slinging his bag over his sloping shoulder. “Wait,” Alec whispered, “What about me?” A moment of silence passed before Enzo twisted back to look at the boy, “Either follow me or go home. I cannot afford to waste my time worrying about you. Can you do this or not?” “I-I,” Alec stuttered, glanced around uncertainly. “Yes or no.” He muttered something incomprehensible under his breath then answered, “Yes, I can. Lead on.” Enzo nodded, continuing on into the open with Alec on his heels. Tonight they did more than exact a payment for the people wronged. They would begin to gather material for their counterattack against the military overlords. It had been years since they’d said they would step down. Corruption was beginning to take hold little by little. This fort was one of many stories. Enzo refused to sit by while these men starved the people for the little pocket change they could find. The rebellion had been raised to win the king his throne back, but Enzo only cared that the people could win their rights back. The pair passed through the inner walls behind Emmett and Colm. A trail of unconscious guards marked the way for the two boys, the work of Emmett no doubt. Enzo had never met a man more effective in a fist fight. Enzo broke away from the trail after a few minutes, heading off toward the barracks. They’d spent a week sizing this place up for this hit: memorizing the layout, patrol patterns and security measures. Enzo retraced the path to the armory, taking pains to avoid the soldiers in the halls. Alec trailed close behind, his eyes swinging around wildly. They came to the door within minutes. Enzo ran up to the guard, slammed a knee into the man’s stomach and covered his mouth. Using his free hand, he chocked the man until he collapsed. Enzo crouched down, pulling the key from the man’s limp body. “Keep watch,” he whispered to Alec, unlocking the door and slipping inside. Alec stood with his back to the wall, “W-will do.” Enzo worked calmly, taking a moment to examine the contents of the room. The amount of weaponry was baffling. Supplies like these could keep the rebellion stocked for years. But would have to wait for another day. Enzo walked toward the back of the room, selecting a few of the pistols that the military prized so highly. The bloody machines that had won them the war. That kept them on their thrones. He collected five pistols and a good deal of ammunition, stopping when the bag grew heavy. They would still need to escape. Overburdening themselves would only lead to trouble. He tied off the bag, considering a sword he’d spied across the room when he heard a shout. “Thieves!” Alec started, stumbling into the doorway, “Gods be good!” “Shit,” Enzo cursed beneath his breath, heaving the loot onto his shoulder, “Move!” The pair spirited away down the hall, the guard yelling for assistance. Enzo searched his memory for an escape route. Main doors were out, side entrances as well. Had to be a window, less likely to be guarded. The next hall led to a room with a window; one of the many escape routes he’d planned. Just had to get around the corner. A bang sounded in the air and white-hot pain erupted in Enzo’s left shoulder. He bit down, cutting off the scream in his throat as his other hand came up to grip the bag. Damn them and their pistols. Alec flashed him a panicked look, “Enzo!” He didn’t answer. They turned the corner, nearing the room. “Next door, open it,” Enzo commanded through gritted teeth, a sweat breaking out over his forehead. He could feel the metallic ball buried deep within his flesh, causing sharp pains which each movement. Alec did as he was told, throwing up the very next door and slamming it shut once they’d entered. Both boys threw themselves against the wood to stop their pursuer. Alec shoved a crate in front of the door, then another, forming a makeshift barricade. It wouldn’t hold long. Enzo examined the room, noting the scattered crates and barrels that suggested they’d found another storeroom. There was a small window on the far edge of the room they could use to escape but it would require arm strength. Enzo touched his wounded shoulder gingerly. This hadn’t been his first choice as an escape route. Alec stared at the door, terror fixed onto his face, “What do we do now? We’re trapped.” Enzo dropped the bag of weaponry, “Not quite.” He looked at the young boy, motioning to the bag. “Can you carry that?” “I think so,” Alec replied, clearing his throat after meeting the green gaze, “Yes, I can.” He stepped over and lifted the bag into his arms. “Good, you’ll take it back to the rendezvous point,” Enzo declared, walking toward the small window. It would take a boost for even a boy as tall as Alec to climb out. Alec rushed over, glancing up, “All the way up there?” His face tightened, determination sparking in his eyes. “I can do this, but what about you, Enzo?” Enzo knelt, creating a step for Alec, “I can handle it.” Somewhat true. “I’ve been in tighter situations.” More or less true. “I’ll be fine. Just go.” An outright lie. Alec hesitated a moment, then stepped onto Enzo back and tossed the bag out of the window. Enzo’s shoulder screamed in pain, forcing him to bite down to keep from vocalizing the pain. Alec gripped the window ledge and heaved himself up and out, dropping outside with a heavy thud. The last Enzo heard of the young man was his retreating footsteps. Enzo sat on the ground, breathing in and out slowly as the pain dulled to a throb. Blood had soaked through his clothes. Her clothes. Alone in the dark, the identity of Enzo dropped away as Talia pushed herself to her feet. She gripped the wall to keep from falling, the room tilting back and forth. She had no time to rest. She could hear the men at the door, shouting and banging as they attempted to storm the room. They’d be through in less than a minute. She wiped her forehead with the back of her sleeve, placing the leather of her bracers into her mouth as she reached with her left arm to the hilt of her sword. She paused for a breath, biting down to prepare herself. With one swift motion, she drew her sword, muffling her groan against her arm. She dropped her hand down to catch the sword before it could hit the ground, ignoring the burning of her wound. The thick, metallic scent of blood filled the air, informing her that the exertion was not helping. She took the hilt into her hands, getting into a battle stance and facing the door. Let them come, she would kill as many as she could. Escape was beyond reach; death seemed certain. Enzo was a wanted man, almost as wanted as Talia. Either would receive the death sentence upon discovery. She gritted her teeth and prepared to face whatever foe came into the room.