It was only for a moment, however. Shouting broke out at one end of the square—then screams. The dancing turned into chaos and the music sputtered. Was it a bad dream? I stopped so suddenly I nearly knocked Balleck over. Firelight glinted on the all-too-familiar-helms of the Nether Queen’s soldiers as they plowed through the crowd. “Ayglos,” I choked and began casting about for my brother. Had they somehow found us?
The crowd was starting to flee the column of soldiers but I stood like a tree and mutely watched the column of glittering armor approach. I would have prayed, but after the fall of Galhara I wasn’t sure anymore Eloi would be listening. I needed to find Ayglos—where had he and Olena been when last I saw them dancing? Balleck was trying to talk to me; I realized that when he gave up and forcibly picked me up. I yelped and writhed free, sparing him an indignant look.
“We have to go,” he said firmly, grabbing my arm and towing me toward the edge of the square.
“But, Ayglos!” I protested.
“He’ll be going, too,” replied Balleck. He didn’t look back, just dragged me along with the crowd out of the square and down an alley. The column of soldiers marched straight through the square and out the other side with a purpose. They were gone. The crowd evaporated around us as all the Gillenfolk found other places to be.
Suddenly drained, I slumped against the alley wall. Balleck stood by watchfully. I was surprised and a little horrified at my panic. It wasn’t as if Narya the Nether Queen had no other enemies. She had other people to hunt besides people she thought were dead. People who only survived because she didn’t know our mother was a nymph and we could survive under water. Pulling myself together, I straightened and looked around, trying to figure out which way went back toward the circus.
Balleck touched my shoulder. “Are you ready to move on?” His tone was compassionate.
I nodded. I didn’t know how much he knew of my family, and how we’d come to join the circus. Though, it’s not like it would be a hard guess.
“This way.” He took my hand and led the way…the same direction the soldiers had gone.
I managed not to balk, and followed him with my head down. I still had my hat—somehow—it was a comfort to me even though it meant I couldn’t see worth a rat’s tail. Watching Balleck’s heels I focused on my other senses. I could hear the soldiers ahead of us, their captain shouting orders. I could smell the river behind the city smells of stone and refuse. As the smell of the river grew stronger, the shouting shifted from a sergeant’s rhythm to the din of battle. Then we turned a corner and came upon the bridge over the Tryber.
On the bridge, bathed in orange light, was a battle. A small group of men were making hard work for the Queen’s soldiers—who outnumbered them generously. The orange light was from a long building to our right which was burning like a hearth fire in winter.
I was transfixed. These were no peasant rebels, these were excellent soldiers and they fought like devils. They couldn’t be from Gillenwater, this city had been conquered years ago and her loyal garrison dismembered. I inched closer to the conflict. Three rebels climbed up on the bridge walls and nocked arrows. At some signal, the remaining rebels suddenly pulled back and fled across the bridge under the cover of their compatriots’ fire. As soon as the rebels were clear the archers leapt into the river. The Queen’s soldiers were quick to the bridge’s edge, sending a hail of barbs into the water from strange sideways little bows while others went after the larger group.
I wanted to run to the river’s edge to see what happened, but Balleck held me back. We hid in the shadow of a building while the remaining soldiers reorganized. I thought they took forever. They set to gathering their wounded and their fallen arrows and eventually moved off back through the city. I made myself wait until I was sure that they were well underway before I shook off Balleck’s hand and slunk to the river’s edge.
The Tryber’s banks were steep, and walled with stone. We crouched on the bank and looked into the dark water. At first I saw nothing. Then I heard a soft splashing. I squinted.
“There!” hissed Balleck, nearly clocking me in his haste to point.
I still didn’t see anything, but in a surge of purpose I pulled off my hat and cloak and dove into the river.
It was not a very nice river. Oh, the Tryber was kindly enough–but dirty, smelly, and rather more like a pigherder than a river. It occurred to me that perhaps I should have waited for Balleck to say what he saw before diving in.
Before I could regret my dive too much I saw him. One of the archers was struggling quietly in the water. I could hear him gasping—which he seemed to be trying to do very quietly. I swam closer and had an unstrung arrow in my face far before I expected to be heard.
“Shh! I’m here to help you!” startled, I backpedaled from the shiny point.
He didn’t take long to decide. “Then help,” he sputtered, struggling to keep his head out of the water.
I grabbed his collar. “Relax, I’ll tow you.”
There was the little matter of which shore. I had left Balleck on the city side, but we all needed to be on the far side. I opted for the far side. I could always tow Balleck across next—or he could very likely take the bridge without a single thing to fear.
I picked the far side and in moments was bumping up against the slimy walled bank of the Tryber. “Can you climb?” I asked, grasping the stone wall with one hand and holding up the archer with the other.
The archer slung one hand out of the water hooked his fingers over the top of the wall. With some effort he dragged his bow out with the other hand set it on the top of the wall. He turned his head to look at me, “Since you’re here, I’d appreciate help with the next part. Climb out.”
Since you’re here? Taken aback, I grabbed the wall and heaved myself out of the clingy river with effort. Dripping, I turned to help the archer. Happily the burning building was on the other side of the bridge from us and cast a long, dark, shadow and a nice solid roar—to hide the awkward, painful and not silent act of hauling the archer up. Once he was safe he rolled onto his stomach and allowed himself the luxury of a groan. I could have sworn I heard him mutter, “Some rescue.”
“You’re welcome.” I huffed. “That river was gross, you know, I didn’t have to get in there for you.” I thought I saw him smile. I also saw why he’d needed rescuing. A dart stuck out of his calf. My annoyance evaporated faster than I wanted it to. Turning, I peered across the river to look for Balleck. If I could avoid getting in and out of the water again, I would. I couldn’t see him and wasn’t sure if that meant he was gone or that he was well hidden.
“We need to get out of here before the soldiers come back.” Balleck’s voice came at my shoulder and I whirled—my fist snaked out in a reflex I thought I’d forgotten and cracked across Balleck’s jaw before I knew what had happened.