What remained of the night passed in a blur of olive and pine trees. I mostly remember the scent of the earth, and those horrible little vines which trail along the ground solely to trip unsuspecting travelers. I gave away my curtain to one of the smaller girls for whatever warmth it could offer. I remembered no color, and only a vague surprise when I realized I could see the trees I touched. The world crept into gray, then eventually grew brave and donned green, then all at once the sun covered the forest in brazen gold.
Even though I felt dead, I lifted my face to the sun’s touch and let myself smile a little. We’d been out of the city for hours and were still alive, and still free. I looked at the women, nine were my circus girls, three I didn’t know before last night. My girls were dirty, pale, one or two were sniffling after a cold night in damp clothes, but their eyes were bright with freedom.
“I have never been so glad to see the sun,” whispered Olena, pausing to look around. Her eyes fell on me and she reached for my hand. “Thank you.”
I squeezed her hand and said nothing. It was a miracle, I noted, that we’d gotten this far. I wasn’t about to take credit for that. We walked all morning without a rest. I think Jemin was afraid that if we stopped at all we would never start again. So while our pace dwindled and hunger began to rear its head, we kept on. It’s not as if we had any food anyway. I remembered mournfully the supplies we’d left at the little inn in Gillenwater…and my donkey! When I remembered Line I spun as if to go back for him before realizing it was impossible. I hoped the tavern keeper would be good to him.
Our pace was such that it was afternoon when we reached the dancing little stream that would lead us to the camp. We all knelt gratefully on the stream’s banks and drank our fill.
Jemin made us cross over to the other side before following it south. “In case they bring out their hunting hounds,” he explained.
I didn’t think they would if they hadn’t yet, but one never knew. We’d only been walking an hour or so more when one of Quill’s scouts hailed us. Another twenty minutes and we walked into the little camp by the gorge. The score of men loitering around the glen leapt to their feet at our approach. Everyone looked stunned.
The awkward silence was broken by Gabe—the circus strongman—who pushed several men out of his way and ran across the stream crying, “Adva! Adva!”
One of the acrobats threw out her arms and ran to meet him. “Gabreal!” When they met, Gabe scooped the slight acrobat into his arms and collapsed to his knees weeping. She wrapped her arms around his neck and cried, too.
Then suddenly my brothers and Balleck were splashing across the stream and I realized that I was still at the back of the group and Olena was with me.
Jemin realized it, too, and quickly held up his hands, “Lady Zare is here!”
I grabbed Olena’s arm and pulled her forward. The others made way and we met our kin next to Jemin in a gasping mess of suffocating embraces—family first, then friends. My brothers and Balleck, who had obviously been worried, were now alarmed that they had not been worried enough, but were giddy that we’d turned up anyway. In all the excitement even Balleck gave me a fierce embrace, and I was pretty sure that Ayglos kissed Olena. For several minutes there was nothing but hugs and exclamations as they greeted all the circus women—and even the girls they didn’t know—with warmth and rejoicing. Returning to Olena and I, they fell upon us again.
“Zare—what has happened?” demanded Ayglos, after my bothers had crushed me with a second round of affection. “Your clothes are damp—is that blood on them? Are you alright? How did you get the women back? And where are our parents and Nadine?”
I swallowed. “They were already gone.” I felt so very many things, but at this moment I felt more like crying than anything else. “May we have food and sit down?” I asked weakly.
This set off another flurry of activity as the rebel soldiers hurried to help the women across the water, make places for them to sit, and bring out cheese, dates and bread for us to eat. Namal guided me over to a spot near a large rock where I saw Quill standing squarely, his arms crossed. I sat down on the ground without waiting for a bedroll and curled my fingers into the scrubby grass. Sitting down: The only thing better would be laying down.
Namal sat down beside me.
“Welcome back, my lady,” said Quill, lowering himself to the ground.
“Thank you.” I watched him—he was favoring his wounded leg but making a real effort to use it. My eyes narrowed. “No one changed your bandage while I was gone.”
“And yet I still live,” returned Quill. “It appears that you had an eventful scouting mission.”
I nodded, I felt like a pound of sand was in my eyes. “I lost my donkey.”
Namal looked at me incredulously.
Quill’s face twisted as he tried to stifle a laugh. “For a start, anyway,” coughed Quill as Ayglos, Jemin and Vaudrin joined us.
I felt a smile tug at my lips.
Jemin handed me food and I fell upon it without mercy. The others waited patiently as Jemin and I ate, and when we were done Namal said, “Report.”
I arched a brow at him, but Jemin began to relate the whole story—starting with our arrival in the city, the opinions of the people, and the plans we made to find out the lay of the garrison.
When he got to the water tunnel everyone looked sharply at me—but for different reasons. Quill and Vaudrin, at least, looked at my brothers also, with the revelation that they were also half-blooded. My brothers’ eyes bored into me and I could already guess their reproaches. Yet with our mother a prisoner, secrecy about our blood was almost certainly pointless. I returned their looks tartly, and then gave my attention to Jemin just in time to hear him say, “When Lady Zare returned she brought one of the kidnapped women back with her through the tunnel, and then spent the next two hours extracting all the others. I have not heard her portion of the tale.”