One rope around the waist secured Shayna to her horse, the horse to her captor’s steed, and another binding her hands to the reins. Rasheen lumbered next to her, struggling against the chains that bound him to the other soldier’s mare. Shanya urged her mount into a gallop so as to meet her abductor at the head of the pack.
“Finally decided to stop wallowing in pity, Dryad?” he spat.
“I have a name, you know,” Shayna retorted. “Not that you ever bothered to ask.”
Kadar snorted. “Why would I? In a matter of hours, you will be nothing more than a trophy on my father’s wall.”
Shayna’s hearing perked at the sound of her brother’s growl from the back of their brigade. Her stomach dipped and her breath caught in her throat, but she did her best to morph her features into a stern expression as she swiveled in the saddle to give him an almost imperceptible shake of her head.
Rasheen whimpered, but Shayna only sharpened her glare until he blinked and cut his gaze away. Attacking now would do no good. The weather was clear and they were surrounded by soldiers—running would be useless.
We can’t escape… she thought, a kernel of an idea forming in the back of her mind as she mulled over Kadar’s last words, but maybe I can strike a deal. Glancing at him again, she caught sight of the Northern Hunt Lieutenant crest on his uniform. She smiled; all she had to do was hit him where it hurt, and Rasheen was as good as free.
“A trophy on your father’s wall, hmm?”
Kadar’s brows furrowed together as he whipped to face her. “What?”
“You said my head will end up on your father’s wall when we return.”
“…And your point, daughter of the trees?”
Shanya fought to hide her smirk at the haughtiness in his voice. She had him right where she wanted him. “Well, you led our capture, did you not, lieutenant?” Careful to emphasize every syllable, she watched the soldier stiffen as the tips of his ears began to darken.
“Indeed.” The word was curt and gruff, more like a wolfish snarl than human speech.
Shanya stifled the urge to snicker at the irony of the comparison. “Then should it not be you, who receives the glory?”
“I am the last Dryad alive after all, so a chance such as this will not come again.”
He opened his mouth. Cleared his throat. Closed it again.
Shayna gave a noncommittal shrug. “Of course, I suppose it is better after all, letting your father take the blame when the magic finally fades from this land completely. Surely, the disasters will swallow your village and any survivors of the recent downpour with it.”
That gave him pause. His mouth dropped open and he turned completely in his saddle to face her. “Wh—What do you mean? What disasters?”
Shanya scowled and yanked at the reins to pull her horse to a stop. “For a race so determined to wipe out all magic on Earth, it is amazing how little you seem to know of it.”
Kadar only continued to stare and Shayna sighed.
“Dryads are tied to the land of their birth. Just as it’s prosperity keeps us living, we too keep it vibrant with our workings of nature.” She demonstrated by stretching out her hands and letting them glow green for an instant until a patch of flowers grew in the road ahead of them.
“As the last of my race, the well-being of your land rests on my shoulders. Have you not noticed the change in the weather since you murdered my kin?”
Kadar’s expression faltered. The monsoon two days before had only been the most recent of their natural disasters. Sometimes they seemed so frequent that the village builders could scarcely reconstruct homes before another storm came to destroy them. “You mean…”
“Should you kill me, you will kill your people as well.”
His eyes bulged and his mouth felt like sandpaper. “But… My father… he said…” Suddenly, his eyes narrowed. “How do I know you are not simply spinning falsehoods to buy your freedom?”
Shanya leveled their gazes. “You don’t. But is the possibility that I am a chance you’re willing to take? Is murdering your own people a guilt you are prepared to live with, Hunter?”
Kadar’s heart drummed in his ears and Rasheen snarled at his lack of response, making him jump. He looked back at the wolf, and swallowed the impulse to cower in his seat. He took a deep breath and met Shayna’s piercing gaze again. “What do you expect me to do? My father… The rest of the Hunt…”
“Will be safe,” Shanya cut him off. “I will go with you. I will stay as your prisoner and keep the land thriving as best I can—”
“If you agree to disban the Hunt the moment you are able—”
“And let the wolf go free.”
Kadar sneered and laughed a tight laugh. “And why would I agree to that?”
Shayna shrugged. “It’s your choice, lieutenant. His life. Or the lives of the Huriant Tribe.”
Kadar glowered, but gnashed his teeth and turned to the guards atop the horses dragging Rasheen. “Cut the wolf free.”
“Do not question the orders of your leader, Larel. Free him! Now!”
It took some coaxing, but finally, Shayna strained her vision until the last tuffs of his gleaming fur disappeared into the undergrowth. Then she turned and road forward. Neither of them would ever be free, but at least one of them would have their freedom.