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Authors: Breeana Puttroff

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BOOK: Leaves of Revolution
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~
Twenty-Eight
~
Callum

C
OME ON, ZANDER. Hold it together.
He’d been chanting that mantra inside his head for the last hour, and it was working – mostly.

The twenty-six men under Callum Haddon’s command hadn’t been much of a match for the much-larger battalions led by Maxwell and Dorian. The battle had been over almost before it really got going. Zander hadn’t even fought.

 All that was left was waiting for the help Quinn had promised in a message while keeping watch over the captured officer, Callum Haddon, and two other guards who’d surrendered.

“Still not a word from Callum,” Dorian said, coming up the hill to where Zander was sitting with Max. “Not even a threat that we’ll be discovered by other troops in the area.”

“Are all of the men prepared for another encounter?” Max asked. He was still in obvious pain, but one of the army healers had given him something to make him more comfortable. The healer had decided Max’s injury could wait for Nathaniel or William to do the more delicate work. Removing the whole arrow was a risky procedure that could cause damage, so he’d just broken off the ends and stabilized Max’s arm.

Max was ridiculously calm and focused for someone with part of a weapon embedded in him. Zander, on the other hand, couldn’t say that he was handling the situation well at all. It reminded him too much of going through this with Ben, even if Max’s injury wasn’t as severe.

There was another soldier from Eirentheos who had been shot in the back. The healer was attending him now, and Zander couldn’t bring himself to go anywhere near them.

This whole becoming-a-guard thing was starting to seem like a terrible idea, at least at the moment. Having a few good thoughts about strategy in no way qualified him for combat.

Of course, so long as he was here there was nothing stopping him from trying to get answers out of Callum Haddon … yes, that thought was better. Anger was much easier than – whatever it was he’d been feeling. In fact, he was going to go and have a chat with Callum right now.

He heard the commotion just as he walked down the hill toward where the prisoners were being held – the beating of hooves against the ground and the shouts of new voices. His sword was out before he looked up, but when he saw who it was, he turned and continued down the hill.

The newcomers were more of Quinn’s soldiers, led by Kian. He shook his head. Unless something had changed at Tobias’, sending Kian here left only Marcus and Ethan back guarding Quinn and Samuel. There were other soldiers, too now, of course, but none they could trust as implicitly as those who’d escaped from the castle with them.

Thinking about
that
kindled his anger into something closer to rage. Linnea was there too – her safety compromised along with Ben’s unborn child’s.

He didn’t bother putting his sword away before he strode through the circle of guards surrounding the spot where Callum Haddon was tied to a tree.

It wasn’t until he was inside the circle that he realized he’d been half-expecting resistance from those guards, to be denied access to the prisoner. But, of course, none of them had the authority to challenge him.

What had Quinn been thinking promoting him to an officer?

“She really is just a delusional child, isn’t she?”

The greasy sound of Callum’s voice caught him off-guard; from all accounts the man hadn’t spoken the entire time he’d been in custody.

“Excuse me?”

“The little girl who thinks she can run a kingdom, but promotes an ignorant apprentice to third rank.” He scoffed. “It’s a terrible waste of lives to stage this useless…” The man didn’t get to finish his sentence before the flat edge of Zander’s sword met his jaw.

Zander wasn’t fazed by the insults directed at him; those weren’t the problem. “In Philotheum, you’ll speak respectfully when you refer to the queen.”

Callum snorted, giving a sideways glance to the sword. “At least I’m giving you a chance to play with your new toy before a proper king comes to take it away.”

“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow. “Are you expecting to watch that happen today?”

The small falter in the man’s expression lasted only half a second, but it was long enough to tell Zander what he wanted to know. There were no more troops lurking nearby – Callum was on his own.

“Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you right now,” Zander said.

“If you were capable of guarding a true ruler, you’d have done it by now. Instead, you’re playacting like the rest of them. Your little princess doesn’t have the stomach for executions, and she apparently selects guards too ‘noble’ to act in anything other than self-defense, so I’ve no doubt I’ll be back at the castle in time to drink wine at Tolliver’s coronation.”

There was a rustling sound behind him – someone else had entered the circle, but Zander didn’t take his eyes off Callum.

“I think you overestimate
my
desire to be noble, Mister Haddon.”

“You’re arrogant for such an inexperienced guard,” Callum said. “Oh, yes – I know all about you. The child caused quite a stir among her guards when she brought in a ranked apprentice whose only claim to fame is the murder of a guard much more respected than you’ll ever be. And it’s
Sir
Haddon to you. My true second rank certainly outweighs your imaginary third. I will quite enjoy watching you get what’s coming to you – you and the girl and Stephen’s brats, including this one here I should have handled myself when I had the chance.”

Now Zander knew it was Thomas who’d come to stand beside him.

“No matter,” the man continued in his cringe-worthy drawl, “I’m sure he’d rather be a guest of
honor
when his sister marries a real man.”

Zander laughed out loud, though the feeling in his stomach was as far from humor as anything could get. Though Thomas was at least three feet to the side of him, Zander could
feel
how rigid his body had gone. “If you think King Stephen would marry his daughter off to that man, you’re the delusional one.”

“Oh, I think Stephen will have to consider whether withholding a perfectly respectable marriage is worth hundreds of his people dying of water disease and shadeweed and … well, it’s not really any of your concern. You won’t be around to see it anyway. I’ll take pleasure at making those arrangements myself.” He looked at Thomas. “I wonder if Tolliver will give me a turn with his new bride in exchange for my little discovery today of your location here?”

In the next instant, Zander’s sword saw its first real use. It wasn’t a decision. Nothing went through his mind as the blade went through Callum’s throat. Later, he would discover that he didn’t even have a real memory of the event itself – only of the man’s body slumping forward, shock frozen on his face.

It felt like a very long time – hours, maybe – before he was able to move his legs again, though he would be told that only seconds had passed. When he did finally turn toward Thomas, the only thing that registered in his frozen thoughts was that Thomas’ sword was also drawn, the tip only inches away from where Callum’s head had hit the ground.

Zander’s sword fell right next to the body. He didn’t retrieve it, he just walked away; the circle of guards parted to let him through without comment.

Dorian found him sometime later – possibly days later; he still had no concept of time. He was perched on a boulder in a darkened spot of the woods, his knees tucked up under his chin, his mind blank as he stared at the large gray bird sitting silently a short distance away.

The bird took flight when the older guard disturbed the silence of their space, though she flew only a few feet, landing again next to him on the rock.

 Dorian cleared his throat. “Earlier today, Callum Haddon ordered an entire village destroyed because he believed they were concealing a safe house for the Friends of Philip. Over half the Philothean troops under his command turned against him or deserted him when he told the soldiers to round up the children of the village and put them all in the basement of the home he said he suspected.”

“It wasn’t a safe house, was it?” The voice coming from Zander’s throat didn’t even sound like his.

“I don’t think so. My information is second-hand and incomplete right now. I heard all this from one of the Philothean soldiers we captured.”

“One of the ones who
didn’t
abandon him. Who stayed with him, even after he did that?”

“He’s young, Zander.”


I’m
young. What difference does that make?”

“He has a wife and a small daughter. Callum threatened them if he defected.”

“You don’t even know if that’s true. Why wouldn’t one of Quinn’s soldiers
say
something
to her about being threatened before joining the other side in a coup?”

Dorian’s boot made a scraping sound against the ground, though he didn’t take his eyes off Zander. “I don’t know. It could be a lie. But he’s not an active threat to us right now, so the most I’m willing to do is keep him under arrest. Decisions can be made later. We’ll see what the other soldiers who were captured today have to say once we all get back to camp.”

“Soldiers plural?” Zander frowned and climbed off the rock. “I thought only the two survived and surrendered.”

“Here. There may be more. The other thing our prisoner told me is that the attack on the village was interrupted by more of our troops. There was some kind of conflict there – the reason Callum had so few men when we found him today was because he lost so many in the first battle.”

This story finally brought Zander all the way back to reality and he realized he’d been more than a little selfish and useless walking off like this. He truly was failing at being a soldier. Now he noticed the hard line of Dorian’s mouth, and the tense muscles up the sides of his neck.

“Were there … injuries on both sides?” He couldn’t even bring himself to say the other word. He knew that he and Dorian were both thinking about who had been leading the other troop of soldiers today.

“From what little I understand, yes. I don’t know any details. Thomas said William was waiting back at Tobias’ to see what he could do, and Nathaniel hadn’t returned, so we need to get Max there.”

Zander swallowed back the taste of bile in his throat and took a deep breath. If Dorian could hear this news and still function – so could he. “Well, let’s go then.”

~
Twenty-Nine
~
Max

 

BY THE TIME THEY were close to Tobias’ house, Zander had discovered another difference between driving his truck and riding Ember. At home, when he was upset, he’d often taken off in his truck, cruising through the mountains with the radio blasting, but it had never calmed him as much as the reliable rhythm of the horse underneath him.

Even the sharp chill of the air that had descended on them felt cleansing, clearing his mind and steadying his nerves.

Okay, so maybe he wasn’t exactly calm. He was composed; all traces of the emotions that had led him to walk out of the situation before were gone, replaced with determination to get to more help. Killing Callum had been somewhat impulsive, and there might be consequences for it later, but the man would never have given them useful information, and he was too dangerous to take chances with.

The biggest concern right now was that Max’s condition was deteriorating rapidly – the hard motion of hooves on ground that brought relief to Zander’s nerves brought only pain to Max.

Max was riding with Thomas, doing his best to stay balanced despite the grievous injury to his arm. For the first part of the trip, they’d tried to go slow and prevent jostling him, but when slow didn’t seem to help, anyway, they’d decided to just get him back to Tobias’ as quickly as possible.

Max’s own horse wasn’t making the journey.

They’d messaged for more help again – hoping that William or Nathaniel would be able to get to them sooner rather than later – but so far those requests had gone unanswered. For the moment, Zander preferred not to wonder why. He was sure he would find out as soon as they reached Tobias’.

The weather wasn’t helping. The dark gray line of clouds that had looked so ominous on the horizon earlier were much more threatening piled over their heads. Only a light layer of snow coated the ground right now, but if the rapidly decreasing temperature of the wind was any indication, things were about to get much worse.

The first signs of chaos appeared even before Tobias’ massive property came into view.

No snow stuck to the ground on this path – it was too beaten down with tracks from people and horses.

At first, the return of their group seemed to go unnoticed by the guards hurrying on horseback back and forth between Tobias’ home and the camp of soldiers a short distance away. Zander didn’t like it; how could they keep Quinn safe with lax security?

 But before he could get really annoyed, a whole group of guards appeared suddenly from the trees, riding down and blocking their path. Even the soldiers who’d appeared to be ignoring them stopped and turned around to scrutinize.

He nodded in approval. That wasn’t a bad plan at all – a quick glance behind him revealed that his entire traveling party was surrounded.

 “Sir Dorian! Sir Zander!” The guard who spoke was one Zander recognized.

“What’s going on here, Rhys?” Zander asked.

Rhys shook his head. “I don’t know everything. There was a battle with some of Tolliver’s troops at Dorvale Village earlier. Many injuries – villagers and guards, too. Most of our healers went out to Dorvale to help, but the worst injuries were brought back here. Last I heard, William was working to save one guard.”

“And Nathaniel?”

“Hasn’t returned from Valderwood.”

“Do you know who the guard is that William is treating?”

The quick flick of Rhys’ eyes to Dorian and then back to Zander told him everything he needed to know, and it was all he could do not to lose his composure and be sick right there.

Dorian saw it, too. His body grew so stiff he could have been a statue on horseback.

“Go, Dorian,” Zander said. “Take a few men with you.” He waved at four guards behind them, indicating they should follow, which they did, all of them disappearing over the crest of a hill seconds later.

Rhys’ eyes had landed on Thomas and Maxwell. “What happened?” he gasped.

“We’re two for two on battles today. Prince Maxwell took an arrow to the arm. We messaged for help, but I guess now we know why that didn’t happen.”

“Any lost?”

Zander shook his head. “Not on our side.”

“And you have prisoners?” Rhys frowned toward the back of their line.

“Yes. And soldiers still back at the battle site with the casualties – including a high-ranking officer.”

“Who?”

His heart pounded even at the thought of admitting what he’d done. Just
thinking
the name made his hands feel sweaty and weak, but he managed to choke out the name anyway. “Callum Haddon.”

Rhys’ reaction was far more normal than Zander expected. “Well that’s more good news than bad, I suppose. I’ll gather some men to go down and meet them. Will you tell Her Majesty?”

“Yes.”

 

*          *          *

 

Despite the fact that she’d been wearing a path between the windows all afternoon, Quinn heard the commotion outside before she saw it. It figured someone would arrive as soon as she stepped away for a moment to see if Will had any updates on James.

When she heard the horses and the shouting, she ran back to the front room.

“It’s Dorian,” Linnea said, without taking her eyes off the scene outside the window. “How is James?”

Quinn didn’t get the chance to answer before she heard the door burst open. A second later, Dorian was standing in front of her, his face ashen underneath a layer of sweat.

“What’s going on? I heard…”

“He’s alive, Dorian. But it isn’t good. William is doing everything he can. He said to tell you that you can go in, if you want to, but to prepare yourself first.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

She nodded and pointed down the hall, biting back her questions about whether the rest of the group was close behind and how badly Max was injured.

Linnea tapped her fingers on the windowsill and continued staring, but she didn’t say anything. Quinn went to stand next to her, taking her hand and squeezing it.

As soon as Tobias’ gate swung open out in the yard again, though, Linnea dropped her hand and bolted for the door.

Part of Quinn wanted to follow her, but the other part knew that it was best not to add to the confusion, not to turn herself into something the guards outside had to be mindful of as so many men poured in through the gate behind Thomas and Zander.

She was too worried about Max at the moment to care that it wasn’t fully safe to be seen by all of the arriving soldiers, but she knew that doing so would expose her men, too.

 

*          *          *

 

The first thing Zander saw when he rode through the gate and into Tobias’ property was Linnea, running across the porch toward them at breakneck speed. The look on her face was something he wasn’t going to be able to get out of his mind for a while – maybe ever. He steered Ember to the side and dismounted before hurrying to meet her halfway.

“He’s all right, Linnea,” he called just before he reached her.

Though she acknowledged his words with a quick nod, she didn’t stop running, and he didn’t try to interfere, he just turned to follow.

Several guards ran up to assist them as he and Linnea reached to help Max down from Thomas’ horse. One of them tried to step in front of Linnea, but Zander shook his head harshly. Her obvious need to be part of this was more important than shielding her; he could see that. “We’ve got it. Tend to the horses and the men with minor injuries, and get the prisoners secured, please,” he said to them.

Maxwell didn’t entirely agree. “You shouldn’t be lifting me, Linnea. I’m all right.”

“Keep insisting on babying me, Max, and you won’t be.”

He chuckled, though it was a weak, raspy sound that belied his insistence. So did the way he leaned shakily against Zander’s shoulder. It was obvious that he would fall over without the support.

By this time, Thomas had dismounted. “Move, short one,” he said, nudging Linnea out of the way. His height alone was probably the only reason she allowed him to slip into her place to help hold up their older brother.

Now she faced him. “You’re still a terrible liar, anyway. What happened?”

“You want to see?” He lifted the side of his purple cloak, revealing the bloodied bandages wrapped around the piece of arrow in his arm.

Zander had to give her credit; her cheeks and temples went green, but only for about ten seconds before she got herself back under control. She looked at Thomas, the question clear in her eyes.

Thomas lifted one shoulder briefly but gave one shake of his head.

Zander agreed. He didn’t know how bad Max’s injury was, but it wasn’t good. And judging from both the way Linnea had looked coming out here, and the fact that she was alone, neither William nor Nathaniel was available to help right now.

“So what happened to James?” Max asked as they started helping him walk toward the house.

“He was targeted,” Linnea said. “As soon as they realized who he was, four – I won’t call them guards or men – went at him at once. One changed his mind at the last minute, which gave James at least the chance to fight back and gave some of our guys enough time to get in there and help. James and Decker Josephson were both injured – but James is much worse. They thought he’d be okay to travel all the way back here, but William said there’s internal bleeding.”

Her voice was strong and certain, but Zander saw the small tremble of her lip when she took a breath and the way her fists were locked tight. She remained steady, though, helping him and Thomas as they carried Max up the steps of the porch.

The door swung open before they reached it; Quinn stood inside ready to help as well. She’d carefully hidden any display of shock over Max’s condition. “Doesn’t your father know I could use help that
isn’t
covered in blood?” she asked once they were inside.

“Demanding today, aren’t you?” Max was so shaky and weak that Zander wasn’t sure how he could manage to affect a teasing tone with Quinn, but he did.

“What good is it to have older brothers if I can’t be demanding of them?”

“I did my best to spoil you. It just didn’t work out quite as well as I expected. But I did bring another hundred or so guards who are relatively unscathed.”

“I suppose that will have to do – so long as you promise me you’ll let William and Nathaniel patch you up.”

“I’m not going anywhere, Quinn. You look like you could use a lot more military help.”

“More than you could possibly realize. Although I was kind of serious about the covered-in-blood thing,” she said as they helped him onto a bed in Thomas’ room.

“My first piece of military advice, sweetheart? You’re in a war. Get used to the blood.”

“I’ll work on it. You try and rest. Hopefully William will be able to look at this soon or Nathaniel will come back. I could have one of the other healers come in, too?”

“No, Quinn. I think this is okay for now. James needs William more than I do.”

He wasn’t convincing, though. As Zander helped him out of his cloak, he could feel how hot Max was. Sweat pooled in the dark hair at his neck, soaking the collar of his shirt. Once the cloak was off, he didn’t lie down so much as fall back when Thomas tried to lower him gently. Landing on the mattress made him groan in pain.

“Would it be better on his side?” Linnea asked through clenched teeth.

Then there was a sound of footsteps at the door.

“Max!”

“Hey, Will.”

Zander didn’t think William even noticed there were other people in the room besides his older brother. He pushed through Zander and Thomas without a word. But then, when he grabbed a pair of scissors from his bag and began cutting up the side of Max’s shirt, he looked at Thomas. “Take the girls out of here, please.”

“I’ll do it,” Zander said, holding his hand up at Thomas. “Do you need me to bring you back anything?”

It took William a minute to respond. He already had Max’s shirt off and he was pulling out a leather-wrapped tool kit. “No.”

Zander waited until he’d closed the door behind him before looking at Quinn and Linnea. “I have to say I’m surprised neither one of you argued about that.” And that neither of them had objected to being ‘taken out’ instead of being asked to leave for themselves. “You’ve both seen worse.”

“William doesn’t need the distraction of the two of us making him nervous when he’s like that,” Quinn said. “He’s upset, then he gets worried that we’re upset. It’s just better to let him work.”

“And it got you out of there, too,” Linnea said.

He frowned. “Am I not supposed to be in there?”

“You’re not
unwelcome
in there, but don’t you think you could use a few minutes to decompress after the day you’ve had?” Quinn asked.

His stomach felt like it was collapsing in on itself as his gaze met hers.

“Well don’t look at me like you did something wrong,” she said.

“You mean something wrong like killing someone?”

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