I didn’t think. In five steps I was behind the soldier at the door smashing the jar into his head. He crumpled beneath the force as an explosion of water soaked us both. Inside the room his companion and a dozen women gaped at me. The other soldier had Olena by the arm and had been pulling her toward the door.
“Hey!” the soldier released Olena and started toward me.
I threw the broken handle of the jar him. He ducked and kept coming, his face filled with murderous intent. It only took a heartbeat to realize just how much trouble I was in—in the middle of an enemy garrison, alone, picking a fight—I couldn’t run and for the first time didn’t have my brothers fighting with me. Oh, Eloi. My only hope was a swift and silent victory. I drew Shiharr and Azzad and leapt into the room.
The soldier cursed in surprise at the sight of my daggers. He drew his sword and swung it at me in a smooth motion. I caught it with crossed daggers to an accompaniment of womanly shrieks.
“Shut up!” I snapped as the soldier attacked again. I jumped out of the way and tried a slash of my own but came nowhere near him. Damn range difference. I would have to be clever to get around his sword. I tried a few more awkward attacks with my daggers—letting the soldier evade easily and willing his confidence to grow so he’d get sloppy. He started advancing, swinging his sword in repeated strikes which I leapt to avoid. When he brought his blade around in a particularly heavy sweep and I dove forward. I barely deflected his blow with Shiharr and thrust Azzad into his inner thigh. He cried out and blood spewed. I pressed my advantage as he stumbled and grasped at the wound. He made a faint attempt to block my advance but I overrode his sword and drove Shiharr into the soldier’s neck. He crumbled and didn’t move again.
I stood over the soldier’s body panting, Shiharr and Azzad dripping blood into the growing pool at my feet. I had forgotten the smell and sight of gore. My first kill alone, my first since the siege.
Olena broke the spell, “Zare!” She ran the few steps to me and gave me a quick hug. “What are you doing here?”
“I have come to rescue you.” Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered that, in fact, I had come to scout. It was a touch late for that now. I looked around the room, taking in the wide-eyed faces. “Is this everyone from the circus?”
Olena nodded, “And a few more from town. Is Ayglos alright?”
“He is,” I replied, kneeling to clean Shiharr and Azzad in slow deliberate strokes on the soldier’s sleeve. “And he wanted to be here.” As the blades came clean I willed myself to move on and I thanked Remko for his gift. “Where is the rest of my family being held?”
“They are gone. I’m sorry, Zare. I heard the soldiers talk—they left this morning. They are sending them to the Nether Queen.”
I blanched but stuffed my feelings back inside. I had a big enough mess right in this room without thinking about where my family was going. “Get them up. We must be quick, and silent.”
Olena turned back to the women in the room and I turned to the soldiers I had felled. The man in the doorway had to be dragged into the room—as did the broken pieces of pottery. There was nothing I could do about the puddles. I found the room key in the soldier’s hand. He was only unconscious, and I used him as a bridge to get the women out without tracking blood. Now, in the shuddering torchlight of the hallway I recognized most of the women. They were haggard looking, clothes torn and dirty. But my dear circus girls were accustomed to silence and order under stress, they lined the hall waiting for me to take the lead.
Olena was the last out of the room. She closed the door on the soldiers and I locked it. “Where next?” she asked.
Where, indeed, I wondered, pocketing the key. I could take them to the wall, but didn’t know the best way to get there and didn’t know anything about sentry patterns. Pulling Jemin’s knife out of my belt I handed it to her. “The cistern. Bring up the rear.” Then I turned and went back the way I had come, the women trailing quietly in my wake. As an afterthought I sheathed my daggers. Fighting my way out was not my first choice here, even at the head of a line of stolen women. My cheeks heated as I realized I had left my vest with Jemin, and had been openly carrying my blades on my back this entire time. What luck no one had come behind me and seen them. Hopefully that luck would hold till we could get out.
Every hallway we crossed filled me with dread of discovery. The thick quiet of nighttime felt hollow and treacherous. Our every footfall and breath was magnified in my ears till I fancied I could count us without looking back to use my eyes.
We were almost to the cistern when a soldier walked out in front of us. He was looking at his feet and had the air of someone finally done for the day. He looked up, his expression blank at first, then surprised, then irritated. “Where are you going?” he demanded.
“I was ordered to take them to the baths, sir,” the explanation popped out, and I prayed the garrison had baths and they were in this direction.
“Who ordered you, and why didn’t they send guards with you?” he scanned the group with narrowed eyes.
“The captain, sir,” I stammered, “I don’t know, sir.” I glanced over my shoulder at the women. They were hanging their heads, doing an excellent job looking downtrodden. “He said he wanted them cleaned up, sir. That’s all I know, sir.”
The soldiers’ gaze came back to me and lingered, appraising me until I felt very uncomfortable. “You had better have a bath yourself, and wash your clothes. You smell like the river and look like the butcher’s handmaiden.”
I looked down at myself and saw, in horror, that red stained my tunic in several places.
“I’m sure the cook doesn’t need reminders to beat you for clumsiness,” he sneered.
I had no idea what he was talking about. Did he think I’d spilled in the kitchen? A half dozen replies whirled through my head, but I was too taken aback to settle on one. I flinched toward my daggers but the soldier gave a little laugh.
“Don’t lose any of them, and you won’t get a beating,” he said, stepping aside to let us pass.
“Yessir,” I replied and, angling my body to hide my knives as I passed him, started off down the hallway again with my charges in tow. I glanced over my shoulder at him a few times with the pretense of keeping track of the girls. I daren’t turn down the corridor to the cistern with him around. He lingered a few moments watching us, then turned and continued on his way. Not a moment too soon. I found the hallway with the cistern, and shortly after that the stairs down themselves.
My twelve women gathered like a dust on the landing. I waited till they were all arrived and then said, “I will have to take you out one at a time through the water tunnel.”
Doubts scrawled across all their faces.
I continued, trying to exude confidence, “You will need to hide in the water until I get you all out—someone will find your room soon enough and that other soldier saw us headed this general direction.” My audience started to look very nervous. Realism is apparently not encouraging. “Can anyone swim?”
Only two cautiously raised their hands. Well, that was something at least. “You two, grab empty jugs and come with me.” I picked up a water jug and walked down the stairs into the water. The other two swimmers follow suit and I led the way to the tunnel entrance and the screen. I pushed up the screen and propped it open with the jug I had brought. “There are more grates like this, I’ll go in and you pass me the jugs.”
Shortly, the two swimmers and I had all the grates propped open. This would save me a few moments each way, at least. We swam back to the landing, where all the women were still standing. “Olena, get them into the water. I know it’s cold, but it’ll save them from easy discovery.”
Olena nodded and put her hands on the shoulders of the girls nearest her, “Come on, there are stairs, and we can hold onto the masonry.” She coaxed the group to submerge, shivering, into the cistern. Their heads looked like buoys lining the landing as each hung by her finger tips in the cold water.
I was not excited about the next part—it would have been so much easier to boost everyone over the ten-foot wall—if only I’d known how to safely cross the garrison. “Who is willing to go first?”