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24-The Wall

24-The Wall

 

As we gathered on the stone bank of the Tryber a horn started sounding deeper in the city. Its voice mingled with the garrison drums like a wolf’s howl with a stampede. There was no time to waste. I counted my women quickly, and located the two swimmers. “It’s time, into the river.”

They obediently sat down on the bank, then scooted into the water. I passed them the lantern pole and turned to Olena, “Help get everyone in, and get a firm grip on that pole—I’ll keep an eye out for Jemin.”

Olena nodded, looking relieved to have something to do, and turned to help organize the other girls into the water. They shivered but didn’t complain as they re-entered the Tryber. Their hands were pale against the stone banks as they kept one hand on the shore and strung the lantern pole between them with the other. They reminded me of the picket line of circus animals when we made camp. The girls on the other side of the pole were a little too far to grasp the bank, the swimmers took that side and showed the others how to tread water.

I kept watch. Shortly, I saw Jemin’s bulk slip into the open and head toward us. A thick coil of rope was draped across his chest. He eyed the fallen patrolmen as he crossed the open space and stopped to pick up one of the swords before joining me where I stood above the others. “Keeping a low profile, I see,” he commented as he arrived. “Is everyone alright?”

I grimaced. “Trouble finds me,” I spread my hands, “We’re unharmed. How’d your project go?”

Jemin gave me a grimace of his own. “Well, you heard the horn. I set a fire, so I think they’re sufficiently distracted for the time being. I stole this rope from a shop I passed on the way. We’ll need it to get over the wall. Are we ready?”

“Yes, and I got us a tow line of sorts, so we should be able to do this crossing in one trip.” I motioned for him to go to the back of the line of bobbing heads. He did, and lowered himself into the river with surprising grace. I took my place at the front of the lantern pole. Twelve people—well, fourteen—crowded close around a seven-foot pole, was not the most hydrodynamic raft in the world.  But the Tryber felt warm to me, compared with the night, and I was sure I felt the river quiver with excitement as I shoved off the wall. With the help of the three other swimmers we began the slow crossing of the wide, dirty, lazy water. I wished we could just take the kindly river all the way out of the city—but that gate was also shut and guarded after the fire at the forges. Jemin and I were going to be hard pressed to get us out the way we were going, there was no way we’d survive an attempt of either the land or water gates.

We reached the western side of the river without incident. I lingered in the comfort of the water while Jemin climbed out and helped all twelve women out into the chill night. I wondered darkly if any of them would fall horribly ill from this rescue. We had to succeed. So at least if they fell sick they would be free and sick rather than dying in an uncaring cell. When everyone was out I reluctantly left the Tryber, giving the grimy river an affectionate farewell. I had never thought, when I had jumped in to rescue Quill, that I would ever willingly enter this river again much less be sad to leave it.

This side of the river was mostly residential, and mostly poor. Jemin led the way now, and I brought up the rear. He set an even, brisk pace—it would hardly be taxing if I hadn’t been swimming for two hours and then fighting. Jemin made only cursory checks for patrols at cross streets, so we made good time through the deserted streets. I wondered if any of the Gillenfolk peeked out of their houses and saw us, probably speculating what all the din at the garrison was about, and how it would affect them. It was hardly cheerful thought, but it kept my mind off the burning in my lungs, the cold on my limbs and the weariness making my body leaden. Finally, we saw the city wall rising before us and we stopped with a row of houses between us and the wall. Jemin motioned for me to follow him and we slunk the rest of the way, arriving in the shadow of a dilapidated old building right next to the wall.

Like most of the Bay Cities, Gillenwater had been a prosperous city state, and had a great wall encircling it. The wall was thick enough for three horses to ride abreast on the top, and it had guard houses built in so the wall guards didn’t even retire to the garrison for their rest. Happily, city walls are built to keep people out, not in. From our hiding place, I could see a set of stairs going up the wall. I could also see guards at the top—some facing in, thanks to the drums. I rolled my lips together. I was starting to get used to this battle thing again, but this fight could be my last if we made any mistakes.

“They will be watching the stairs,” said Jemin, softly, “But that spot there, where the guard house jags out, looks climbable. I’ll go up that way. I need you to be a distraction.”

I nodded. “Drunken damsel?” I asked.

A smile showed through Jemin’s dark beard. “Good start—we need to knock heads but not raise an alarm. Go get the girls and make sure they are ready to get up the wall and over as soon as we’ve a window.” He slipped the coil of rope off his shoulder and onto mine.

I went back the way we’d come and found the twelve women waiting in a huddle. I transferred the rope to Olena’s shoulders and reminded them all to take the first chance to get up the stairs. Then I led the way back, this time favoring stealth over speed. I was impressed with how little noise we made when we weren’t rushing—just the faintest scuffs and breaths reached my ears. They gathered in the dark shadow of the crumbling building. Olena and I exchanged a serious look, then I slipped off to make my distraction from a different place. I moved the opposite direction from the guardhouse where Jemin planned to climb up and stewed about how on earth to make a sufficient distraction to turn heads, but not too many heads. We couldn’t afford to put the whole wall on alert.

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