There hadn’t been much to discuss by the time I joined the little counsel in the leopards’ wagon. My brothers had already resolved that a rescue attempt must be mounted as soon as possible, and Quill had already convinced them that the best way to do that was to find his unit.
Besides the royal family, several of the women from the circus had been taken as well. We, of course, resolved to rescue them, also. In gratitude for freeing the women, the Circus Master agreed to keep Remko and the remainder of our household in his care. Not that it was any great sacrifice on the Master’s part to keep them. Most of our household—surviving servants and courtiers from Galhara’s destruction—had made themselves quite useful to the circus in the ten months we’d been a part of it. The Master was still taking the circus to Magadar, and at a much faster pace than he had originally intended. He had no wish to toy with fate or the Nether Queen’s moods. Realistically, we were three or four days ride from Hirhel, the Queen’s home city. But ravens made the trip faster, and if the garrison commander felt this little incident deserved a raven to the Queen then the circus really needed to be anywhere else.
Once all was decided we returned to Boitumelo’s wagon and Namal put the doctor in charge of the Galhirim remaining in the circus. My brothers and I said goodbye to our unconscious Remko in turns. Namal first, then Ayglos, then I. It was a silent, painful goodbye—and almost worse to watch than to do. We all wanted to pretend he would be alright, but very air of the covered wagon seemed to tremble with certainty that we would never see him again. I kissed Remko’s bald head and whispered a prayer. Not that prayers had saved Galhara.
Boitumelo stopped me as I turned for the wagon’s exit. “Take this, Mbali.” He thrust a leather satchel into my hands. “To keep you whole. Never give up hope.”
“Thank you,” my voice trembled. I threw my arms around the doctor to keep back the tears trying to choke me. I didn’t even know what was in the satchel.
Boitumelo held me close for a moment, then pushed me back. “Go. Be strong, be secret, be safe.” He smiled and touched my face, then shooed me out of the wagon.
Then we left.
Balleck and one of the hands, Gabe, had been waiting for us outside the physician’s wagon. Olena was Balleck’s cousin, and Gabe’s wife had been taken. They half begged, half insisted, on coming with us. So we were six when we set off. The circus finally had all its wagons back on the road and rolled away behind us giving a happy impression of progress as we walked back the way we had spent the day coming.
It was midafternoon when we started. We walked right through dinnertime and past the sunset. A pasty slice of moon rose and lit the road as we trudged south and west. Even at Quill’s limping pace, we’d probably be back at Gillenwater before sunrise. I wasn’t sure what we intended to do there after another night without sleep. I stole a glance at Balleck walking beside me in the darkness.
Balleck saw me watching him and gave me a small smile.
I looked back at the road, hoping the meager moon hid my cheek color half as well as it hid the contours of the road.
Ahead, Quill stumbled. Ayglos reached out to catch him. “We need to stop for the night,” said Ayglos, firmly.
I hurried up alongside in time to see Quill nod his head. Even in the moonlight his face was pale and haggard. I noticed blood seeping through his bandages. Of course he was haggard. His determination—and our crises—had made all of us forget that wounds need time, not use. “I will need a fire for light to change your bandages,” I announced.
I had expected Quill to protest the fire, but he didn’t. Our little company moved off the road into a small, clear area and began to set up camp. Balleck, our fire master, quickly built a small fire while the others spread out bedrolls. I waited for Quill to lower himself to the ground and plunked down next to him with the satchel Boitumelo had sent with us. It was a medical kit—even better equipped than the little pouch of salves I already carried. Quill flinched and gave me a look of protest when I reached for his arm.
I lifted my chin, “Not a choice.” I’d learned more than one thing from the doctor. I softened my look, “I’ll be gentle.”
He grunted and looked away. I got to work. His arm, though bearing the bigger slash, was doing well. I had it cleaned and re-bandaged quickly enough. The hours of walking, however, had done his calf no favors. I heard him suck in his breath sharply as I gently washed the wound. This was no doubt the source of the haggard face. Little wonder. “We’ve got to do something about this leg,” I muttered, more to myself than anyone else. He couldn’t do this again tomorrow.
Quill picked up his head to look back at me.
“It needs rest to heal,” I explained, applying a liberal helping of salve. The last thing he needed was an infection. I shuddered to remember what those looked like.
Before Quill could reply, Namal got to his feet and produced the holy book. I had forgotten we were pilgrims; of course we could have a fire. He began to read a passage from the songs of mourning.
I rolled the bandages around Quill’s leg and listened to the dolorous cadence of the mourning song. I felt a strange resonance with the song—I had always known there were mourning songs in the holy book, but perhaps I had never read them. The resonance made me uncomfortable, like the ground shifting under my feet. Namal finished and sat down. Ayglos produced way bread and salted meat and started to pass them around. Finished with Quill’s leg, I gathered up the medical supplies and put them back in my pack, tucking my holy ponderings in with them.
“Milady,” Quill reached out a hand to stop me from getting up, “Why did you pull me from the river?”
My skin tingled where he’d touched me. “It was the right thing to do,” I replied, then gave him a stern look as I got to my feet, “Now don’t go over doing things and dying anyway.”
I moved over between my brothers and sat down on my bedroll. I caught Balleck’s eye across the fire and smiled. He prodded the logs and winked at me. The wink didn’t hide that he was as tense and weary as the rest of us. Gabe, who sat next to him, stared at the fire with unseeing eyes, chewing his bread so absently I thought Ayglos could have given him a stick and he wouldn’t have noticed. Poor Gabe. Ayglos handed me food and water and I ate quietly, listening as the men determined an order of watch. I didn’t mind that they forgot to include me.
They might as well have.
As the night deepened, I lay awake remembering every detail of the day, over and over. As if that would make it easier to grasp that we’d been uncovered at last—our new life snatched barely a year old. Remko was almost certainly dying, though no one wanted to say it. Our parents and our sister were almost certainly doomed. All because soldiers were cads. I wouldn’t blame it on the rebels or Dalyn.
I made a face in the dark. We needed him—and we needed him in as good condition as we could manage. Walking was no good for his leg, and not even strong Gabe could carry him all day. We should have asked the Circus Master for horses.
Horses…Horses and olive trees surrounded Gillenwater like a skirt on a dancing girl. I rolled over to wake Ayglos then thought better of it. A few hours of sleep would make Ayglos much easier to convince.