Chapter 2

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One of the guards knelt to unlock the crude, hammered down cell door. He didn't notice me grinning right beneath the bars until one of his knees touched the ground. He leapt backwards in fright.

"Hades breath!" he cried. "What the hell are you doing?"

His mate cackled and kicked dirt at me, sending a spray of dust and grit at my face, forcing me to look away.

"You gutless bull," the other said, his accent lilting strongly of someone common born from Argos. "You quiver looking at your own feet."

I kept my face downturned, watching their shadows touch my leg.

"Shut it," scoffed the jumpy one, rattling a key into the lock.

"At least we don't need the rope," said the cocky one, throwing aside the rope they'd meant to offer me so I could climb out. If I'd refused, the alternative was to be buried alive.

Jumpy flipped up the bars covering my cell like the lid on a snake box, leaning far over to give it a good, quick shove. I struck with one small fang.

I sank the dagger into his neck. Hot blood pattered my cheek when I wrenched it free; he followed the knife's rough tug and tumbled into my cell, bashing me on his way past with gruff, grasping fingers and choking swings.

"Fuck!" cocky yelled, his voice muffled beneath the roaring in my ears.

I kicked out of the cell, rolled across the hard-packed ground, and launched at the other soldier. His eyes gleamed with that rush of madness and fear all people flush with when forced to fight or run. His eyes grew large, he braced for collision, his arm tensed to beat me down.

I will not die.

We fought like rutting boars—bashing at close-quarters, panting and grunting to avoid the keen edge of my dagger. He did not quite match my strength or speed; he focused so hard on staying alive he could barely utter a cry for help. Even so, he did not go down.

I swung for his armpit, feeling terror creep higher into my chest as the reality of what was happening grew bolder and blacker each second. He had to die, I'd condemned him, as he would have condemned me. All of them. They had to die, or I died.

He caught my wrist, twisted it hard, and my fingers went limp around the dagger. He snatched it and slashed—cutting deep into my cheek. My scream signalled the end for Polynices' army.

I was a soldier worthy of recognition. I would not promise victory for any king. The only victory I wanted was my own. I would not die because Polynices decided I must. I felt it all as hot as the blood coursing over my jaw, as I had when I bested Alcaeus—when I fought for my own self-worth.

I grabbed the man in front of me with hands like talons and wrenched his head around his neck. I took his sword and turned against the warm morning breezes to look at the soldiers running to investigate my scream.

#

My black ringlets had mostly fallen from their pins, half plastered to my sweaty, blood-crusted face. A third of Polynices' men lay wounded or dead behind me, their bodies marking a sporadic path leading to the royal tent. The sun glared on my back already, not yet close to its midday zenith, shining white hot over the chaos I'd created.

I found Polynices marching to and fro, yelling himself hoarse in an attempt to organise his men against me. The far side of the camp was still preparing to follow out whatever strategy Polynices and his generals had devised in the night.

Many had tried to rush me as I made my way through the tents, but as I picked up armour and another sword along the way, they grew less confident—rushed me in twos and threes, then hung back, hesitated enough that I did not grow tired. So by the time Polynices laid eyes on me, his men did not swarm me at once—they saw what he never could. I was worth every promise made on my behalf. Defeat was not written in my name, it was in his nature.

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