“I just want someone to care!” The queen gestured to the people in the shadowed streets. “They wouldn’t have to suffer so much.”
“Is that why you started donating?”
“I didn’t know what else I could do.” She shook her head. “No one in the castle wanted to help the villagers. They said the people needed to learn to self-sustain, but how could they?”
I looked around at rickety houses and makeshift shelters crowded amongst each other. “They’d need the right tools to even think about sustaining themselves, but everyone’s so desperate.”
“They fight for survival instead of working to improve things for everyone.”
“Exactly, maybe if we found the roots of the problems here, we could start from the ground up.”
Alexandra sighed, hanging her head. “There are so many problems. Hunger, poverty, sickness, crime… Where would we start?”
I knelt down, raking my hand through the dirt. “From the ground up. Maybe if we commissioned farming tools from the blacksmiths, more people could start growing food.
“It’d be a good start, getting the village to farm for food.” Alexandra took my hand. “I’ll talk to the advisors about hiring out a few members of our staff to help get the villagers started.”
“That’d be wonderful! There’s one problem we haven’t even mentioned, though.”
She shivered. “I was hoping you wouldn’t.”
I nodded at the wall surrounding the village. “We know the castle’s safe, but we can’t leave the villagers to the hounds if the wall is damaged here.” I touched a part of the rotting wood. “It’s falling apart, and it’s only a matter of time before the bloodhounds want in.”
She came up behind me, placing a hand on my shoulder. “I need to protect my people, but you heard Marion. It’d take soldiers to fight off any hounds.”
“What about fixing the borders? There has to be a part of your staff for construction and repair for the castle, right?”
She nodded as we neared the gates to leave the village. “That’s true, but I’d never put them in that kind of danger.”
“Speaking of danger, you ladies back for round two?” Four hooded figures blocked the exit.
I brandished my knife. “We don’t have anything for you this time, so why don’t you just crawl back to the holes you came from?”
“I’m supposed to take this from the queen’s new work dog?”
Alexandra stepped forward. “How dare you speak of her that way?”
The group laughed, and the leader stepped closer to her. She backed away, but he ripped the scarf off, revealing her face.
“See fellas? I knew it.”
“Wonder what kind ransom we’d get for her.”
I swept Alexandra behind me, slashing at the leader. He dodged, and all four men took out knives of their own. Alexandra gripped my arm as they closed the gap between us. Two men broke away from the pack, charging forward. I used their momentum against them and knocked one to the ground as I twisted the knife away from the other. I swung at the other man as he rose from the dirt while the other two cornered Alexandra.
I heard the men laugh as she revealed her blade. I knocked the unarmed man unconscious with a blow to the head and sliced at the legs of the other man with both knives. I broke away from them, running toward the hooded leader as he neared her. He towered over her trembling frame as he grabbed a fistful of her hair. I charged him, but his last minion kept me away, slashing at me with his blade. He made wide, quick moves to keep me from getting to her as the leader yanked her head back. I froze as I saw his blade come close to her throat, but she kneed him in the groin at the last moment, arching her knife to catch him in the shoulder. She shoved his away as the last conscious goon sent me sprawling to the ground.
“Shoulda been paying attention to yourself.” His knife flashed before he jabbed it into my stomach.
My breath hitched as searing heat bubbled from the wound. Alexandra pummeled him from behind, knocking him out with one last blow to the back of the head. When he fell, she dropped to her knees beside me, placing her fingers around the knife to cover the wound.
“Hold on, Zinnia. Oh, God, please, hold on!”
I shushed her, grabbing the knife in my stomach. I gritted my teeth, hissing as I yanked it out. Alexandra’s hands fumbled to cover the wound completely.
“What are you doing? You’ll only bleed out faster.”
“It hurt too much to keep the knife in.” My hands trembled as I untied my apron, ripping it in half from the hole. “Here, we can use this to hold me over ‘til we’re back home.”
She nodded as she worked to bandage the wound. I winced as she knotted it.
“It’s okay, let’s go before we have to fight round three.”
She helped me to my feet and offered to have me lean on her, but I declined. Alexandra wrapped her arm around my waist anyway, holding me up as we made our way back to the castle.
“I’m not saying I could win a race, but you can let go. I can walk by myself, you know.”
Tears streamed down her face as she shook her head. I wiped them away and smiled, placing my hand over the bandages.
“I’m hardly an invalid. Just a flesh wound.”
“You could’ve been killed if that man had better aim.”
I gave her a sideways hug as she continued to help me walk. “I wasn’t gonna die and leave you to fend for yourself. Four on one isn’t a fair fight. I just wanted to reach you in time. I thought-”
She cut me off with a full embrace that stole the breath from my lungs. She pulled away when she heard me wince, taking her position to help me with the last leg of the trip back.
“You thought of protecting me first, and I can’t thank you enough for that. I’m not going to lose you, not when I’ve just found you.”
I chuckled as we entered through the garden. “You don’t to worry about that. I’m a scrapper, remember?”