“They took your parents and Nadine,” replied the firespinner.
I stared at Balleck for a second, gripping his forearms as if that would change his news. “Are you sure? All of them?”
He nodded. “I’m sorry, Zare.”
“Did they know who they were?” It was a desperate chance. Maybe they took them for a different reason.
Balleck broke my grip and spread his hands, “The captain called them royal—is that true?”
I bit my lip and nodded. My knees remembered their weakness and I found a wagon to lean on. Balleck followed. “You’re a princess, aren’t you?”
I nodded mutely. Such as I was, yes. I leaned heavily on the wagon, my hands on my knees. Panic like in the square roiled inside—and then dissipated. The feared thing had happened. I didn’t know what to do or feel. Ayglos and Namal emerged from the bracken. Jumping to my feet I ran to them. “They took them!” I blurted.
“Took who?” asked Namal, the sensible fact-finder.
“Our parents and Nadine,” I answered. “We have to get them back!”
“They took some of the girls, too,” added Balleck. “Olena among them.” He looked at Ayglos, who clenched his hands.
“Where is Remko?” asked Namal. “Has anyone seen him?”
“Boitumelo has him.”
That didn’t sound good. The three of us turned for the red covered wagon, clambering our way through the upturned caravan till we reached the physician’s rolling kingdom. Namal climbed in first, then Ayglos, then me.
The wagon smelled like blood. That old, familiar war smell. Boitumelo was kneeling over Remko on the floor of the wagon. The physician’s sleeves were rolled up and he was holding a wadded up sheet tight against Remko’s side. The sheet was stained red. He looked up when we entered. “Praise God you’re alright,” he exclaimed, relief flooding his face.
“What happened?” asked Namal.
I pushed past my brothers and dropped to my knees next to Boitumelo. I pressed my hands into the stained sheet at Remko’s side to help staunch the blood. The bald head of the captain of the guard gleamed with sweat. A lump was forming on his temple.
“Mbali, get salve for his head,” said Boitumelo gently. He turned to Namal, “The soldiers started taking girls—they found Nadine, and were going to take her, too. Then your father interfered, then Remko interfered.” He looked down at his hands which held the gory sheet tight against the guard. “Remko would not let them take him, but they were too many.”
“Will he live?” asked Ayglos.
Boitumelo looked up again, his brown face strained. “He may.”
I returned with salve for Remko’s head. If he survived whatever Boitumelo was hiding from us, his head, at least, would feel alright. I began gently applying the medicine to Remko’s shiny temple, taking comfort in the doing.
“Is there anything else to do for him?” Namal asked. He and Ayglos lingered uneasily at the back of the wagon.
“I must stop the bleeding,” explained the doctor. “Then I will see if he needs to be sewn together. It was a clean thrust, and a good sword.” He tipped his chin at Remko’s head. “And a good pommel, too.”
“Then we will leave you in peace,” pronounced Namal, lifting the back flap of the wagon. “Zare, come find us when you are done.”
My brothers were not at home in the physician’s workspace. Their discomfort amused me—not that I ever wanted to be a doctor like Boitumelo, but I did not mind playing nurse when I could look away from the worst of it. Thanks to the siege of Galhara I was actually quite good at nursing blind. Still, this was harder than nursing the archer—Quill—the night before. This felt more like the siege—instead of hope and a good deed, it was loss and failure. Nadine had a better stomach than any of us, she should be here. Nadine. I rolled my lips together. Focus on the task at hand.
The bleeding did stop, and Boitumelo did have to stitch the wounds closed. Remko flailed a little, but didn’t wake up. I ended up splayed across the big man, trying to hold him down while the doctor worked. Once Boitumelo was finished with that awful work I climbed off and helped him with the bandages. Remko was too big for us to move off the floor so we slid blankets under him for padding and a rolled sheet under his neck for support.
“How did you get him in here?” I asked, after we finished panting our way through building a bed under the bodyguard.
“Two of the stage hands helped,” Boitumelo rocked back on his heels and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “They are off helping the Circus Master now, I believe.”
“Do you think they will come back and punish the circus for hiding us?” I asked quietly, fidgeting with the blankets.
The doctor shrugged. “They may. I’m sure the Master will be keen to move on once he’s sure he has everything.” Boitumelo gestured, “Come, clean up. You must go to your brothers. There is much to decide.”
Once we washed up I left the doctor to watch Remko and went in search of my brothers. It was past noon, now, and the sun was casting long shadows with the trees that lined the road. Most of the mess had been cleaned up and the wagons which had left the road were struggling to get back on it. Some were cockeyed in ditches and the draft horses had to be unhitched while all the circus strongmen worked to move the wagon back onto good ground. I found Balleck leaning on one of the covered wagons watching the festivities.
“Not helping?” I asked when I was close.
He looked up and managed a smile even though he mostly looked tired and worried. “I’m busy,” he replied.
He straightened. “Waiting for you is hard work.”
My eyebrows shot up right along with my heartrate. “Oh?”
“Quite all consuming. Follow me.”
Balleck lead the way down one more wagon to the wagon in which we carried the Circus Master’s prize leopards. It was a boxy wagon drawn by the two most reliable draft horses the Circus Master had. The sides opened to expose huge barred windows so the cats could have fresh air while we traveled. The sides were closed now and Balleck stepped up to the wooden door at the front and knocked.
“Balleck, what are we doing here?” I had always liked the cats, but the Circus Master didn’t exactly encourage people to interact with them. Their wagon was painted with big letters reading, “Terror of the Wastelands” with a little illustration of the cat killing a knight in armor—just in case those who couldn’t read were tempted to touch the leopards.
The door opened and the Circus Master peered out.
“I bring Zare,” said Balleck.
The Circus Master squinted past Balleck at me and nodded. “Very good, come in, Zare.” He opened the door a bit more and stood aside slightly, “Balleck, are the wagons ready to go yet?”
“Not yet, Master,” replied Balleck, “There are two still being righted. But they will be on the road soon.”
“Let me know the moment they are safe and hitched. We must move on from this place as soon as possible.”
I climbed the two big steps up into the leopard wagon and looked back at Balleck. He gave me an assuring look before bowing to the Circus Master and heading back to his post.
“Come on, Zare,” chided the Circus Master gruffly, “Fang and Seyba are in their den, you needn’t worry.”
I stepped past our tiny Circus Master into the dark innards of the closed up cat-wagon. There were skylights in the wagon ceiling which laid bright bars across the straw littered floor. I could see my brothers and Quill sitting in close conference. They weren’t talking anymore, but were watching me. I walked in and joined their little circle. The Circus Master followed and also took a seat in the dust.
Namal smiled and spread his hands a little, “No one would look for people in this wagon. Seemed like the best place to meet.”
I nodded and looked around. I had never been inside the leopard’s wagon, and had no idea where the leopards could possibly be. Where was their “den,” and how closed off was it? Did they mind?
“How is Remko?” asked Ayglos, interrupting my distraction.
“We stopped the bleeding and closed the wound,” I replied, bringing myself back. “He’s resting now, he hasn’t woken up.”
There was a brief silence as they took in the news. Remko was family. Though we all knew his purpose was to give his life for the king, it was never supposed to come to this. He had made it through the siege—only to be stabbed in exile because some soldiers decided to steal people. It wasn’t fair.