The Queen of Krakatos sat back, staring for a long while into the small, sputtering camp fire. She glanced over to Zirchev, who puffed away at a small, thin pipe.
The Huntsman sat up straighter. “I assure you, Your Majesty—“
“And stop calling me that!”
“We’re not lying,” Katarin insisted, from her seat across the fire.
“I already told them that!” Jasna whispered, rather loudly.
“Somehow, it sounds more convincing coming from Kat,” Brynne said.
“It sounds like a story told ‘round a camp’s fire,” the queen said. “The boy could have easily lifted the armor and weaponry from Kurtar or his men.”
“Dwarves,” Zirchev corrected, causing the queen to glower at him again.
“That sword is not of the sons of Denwarf,” the shrike said. “They tend to overbalance the weaponry they make for Men. It is the work of human hands.”
“There? You see?” Jasna asked. “Goldy wouldn’t lie!”
“Impossible,” the queen sniffed. “If any man were capable of making swords to best Halav’s bronze, I would know of him, because he would be working day and night in my fortress.”
“There isn’t,” Brynne said. “Not yet. That’s what we’ve been telling you. We have come from the future, a future you and Halav and Zirchev secured.”
Petra barked a laugh. “Look around you, little girl. Werewolves and worse prowl the forests, Beast Men pour down from the mountains, their numbers increasing with each dawn. We have no intention of meeting them on the field. These settlements are lost. We will take the survivors south, and they will be put to work fortifying the city.”
“Um, yeah… about that?” Petra the Younger peered from around the shrike’s elbow. “They didn’t look very excited about being ‘rescued.’”
“Another few weeks, and the wall around Thres— Lugsid will be finished,” Brynne said. She paused, and then her eyes widened. “Oh,” she said, in sudden realization.
“Don’t you dare narrow your eyes at me, girl!” the queen said.
“They weren’t defending themselves from the Beast Men,” Brynne said. “They were defending against you!”
The queen rose to her feet. “We are at war! I will do what is needed to defend my people, and what I need now are walls of stone around Krakatos, not wood.”
The shrike stood, too, but Brynne was faster in getting to her feet.
“So you thought you’d just… come and take the people of Lugsid?”
“If I did not, then Halav would have. They have no chief, their lands are about to be overrun. They do not have weeks to finish their wall. But they can finish mine. I do them a mercy, taking them away from here.”
Brynne’s hand closed into a fist, but it did not move from her side. The older girl looked over her shoulder, locking gazes with Katarin.
“Child, you do not understand how—”
“We understand slavery when we see it,” Petra said, to her namesake. “Taking these people away from their homes, so you can keep yours?”
“Mine is the stronger of the tribes,” the queen said, “and so they must bend to us. It is that simple.”
“The strong defend the weak.”
Brynne and Justin looked at each other, for they had both spoken the same words at the same time.
“Those with power have a duty to those without,” Justin said.
The queen's lip curled. “They will survive, and they will be grateful, or we will cast them out.”
“That isn't enough,” Katarin said, stamping her foot.
“We are at war, here—“
“Which is precisely why you need to band together,” Katarin pressed.
“This rabble? Fight? If we give them their swords back, they will turn them on us,” Petra sniffed.
“Maybe you should have thought of that before you took them all captive,” Jasna said.