I was not as good with the ropes as the other circus performers—by a long shot—but I managed to make it down without destroying my hands or falling. The scrubby grass at the base of the wall had never been so blessed.
I stepped back from the rope and waited for Jemin to descend. He was better on the rope than I was, and I was thoroughly impressed as the burly man descended with grace. When his feet touched the ground he turned and surveyed our surroundings grimly. I turned, too. An open space fell away from the walls for about a hundred feet—give or take—then a bramble of forest started. If we were further south, by the main gate, we’d see a road leading to the red-fenced festival grounds where the circus had camped not so long ago. By now it had to be three or four hours after midnight, the moon was low and shadows were long. Even in darkness, the open space could easily undo us. I turned my head to look back: The women lined the wall like a relief sculpture. A soulful portrayal of determination and desperate times.
Jemin touched my shoulder, “Listen carefully, lead them north a little ways. When I have set fire to the rope, wait for the alarm on the walls, then cross the open space. Once you are in the woods follow the moon due west, while you have it, anyway. You will eventually come to the stream, or to our patrols, and from there find the others.”
I stared at him for a moment, not understanding. Then anger burned through me; he intended to stay behind as a distraction. “No.” I struggled to keep my voice low. “Where will you go? If they catch you, they may torture you and find out about the rebellion!”
Jemin pushed something into my arms, I looked down and it was one of the sideways bows I’d seen on the bridge the night I rescued Quill. “Have you ever used a crossbow?” he asked.
“No.” It was heavier than I expected. I ran my hand over the smooth wood and metal. A leather carrying strap dangled from either end.
“Here is the trigger,” he guided my fingers gently—taking care that the crossbow was pointed at the ground. “And here are quarrels.” He handed me a hefty pouch.
“Jemin,” I grabbed his arm with my other hand, “Please—we can just crawl across the grass. We don’t have to raise an alarm at all. They don’t know we went this way. It’s dark and getting darker.”
Jemin shook his head skeptically.
I lifted my chin. “We crawl,” I said with finality. He was the experienced soldier, but I was a princess, and I gave him a look that invited no argument. “You can go last if you wish, and if they raise a cry, then you can set as many fires as you like to turn them off our trail.”
Now it was Jemin’s turn to stare at me a moment before understanding. Astonishment, irritation, and then resignation paraded across his face like the ornamental fish in my grandfather’s water gardens. “Very well, my lady.”
The plan was passed down the line of women, and I led the way again. I strapped the crossbow to my back and tied the quarrels to my belt. My curtain I draped over the crossbow. Getting down on my belly I began to crawl away from the wall on my elbows and knees. I daren’t look back and show the whites of my eyes to the wall, I had to assume the others followed. The quiet of the grassy space was both comforting and discomforting in that way. I set a languid, irregular pace. For one thing, I was exhausted and it was a relief to slow down. For another, I hoped if we moved slowly enough no one on the wall would notice human lumps in the grass. Though, with reduced speed came increased cold. I rolled my lips together and tried to focus on the touch of the scratchy short grass and the scent of dirt rather than the bite of the air on my damp skin. One hundred feet takes an eternity to crawl, and some part of my mind suggested perhaps we could just sleep in the grass and escape later. I reached the edge of the forest and had to finagle a bit to get through the scrub without rattling hundreds of dry branches. But suddenly there was a little screen between me and the watchful wall and I scrambled to my feet taking deep breaths of the woody air.
I had about three breaths before the first of the girls wriggled through the bracken, and at the same time I heard shouting on the wall.
The girl gasped and wriggled faster, popping up next to me, her eyes wide with fear. I slung the crossbow around and pointed it at the wall—uncertain of the weapon’s range or my purpose. Another girl cleared the bracken and joined the first.
“Don’t rush!” I heard Jemin’s voice wisp up from the open space as another girl reached the shrubs.
The hustle on the wall got louder, I noticed torches springing to life and men converging on the guardhouse we’d left. I couldn’t tell if they had found the rope yet, or had jumped to the right conclusion about its use. Though, they couldn’t possibly miss the rope for long. The alarm spread along the wall, jumping from one torch to the next till a ring of fire stretched as far as I could see in either direction. Vaguely I heard Jemin’s soothing tones again urging the creepers to stay slow as they slithered into the cover of the wood. At the last, Jemin dragged his bulk through the bushes—with some delicate maneuvering and assistance from the girls who held branches out of his way.
“Where are the others?” asked Olena beside me.
“Are we missing someone?” I looked around, trying to count.
“No—the other rescuers.”
“Oh,” my cheeks heated, “The others are half a day’s walk.”
“And we need to get going,” Jemin broke in, “now.” He turned and started west into the darkness of the forest. I gestured for the girls to follow him—quickly before he disappeared from view. I waited to bring up the rear, and Olena lingered with me.
“You came alone?” she asked again. “Is Ayglos alright?”
“He is,” I promised, but I could feel the skepticism radiating from Olena, even though I couldn’t see her face. “We weren’t expecting to be able to rescue you tonight,” I confessed, “Otherwise Ayglos and Namal would certainly have come with us.” Weren’t intending to rescue tonight, more accurately, but so say it that way made me sound so impetuous and possibly unfeeling. Feelings, though, are what got us here.
“I’m glad you did,” replied Olena.
I nodded, wrapping my ams around myself for warmth. “Me, too.” Then Olena and I walked as close as we could manage while dodging trees and brambles. Jemin set a steady, fast walk, and I could feel warmth starting to grow again in my core. The night sounds of the forest swallowed our movement and my mind started to slow down. My consuming occupation became staying upright and not walking into anything.