With a deep breath I began to sum up the exploration of the garrison. Telling the story made me feel like my actions were very reckless. I winced as I related my impulsive strike on the men in the girl’s room, and made sure to prominently mention Olena’s news that our family had already been moved. They already knew about the harrowing escape through the tunnel so I didn’t dwell there. My brothers could well remember the unpleasantness of such a project, and the others would never know anyway. I tried to gloss over the skirmish with the patrolmen at the river, and summed up as quickly as I could our getting over the wall and crawling to the woods. I was relieved when Jemin stepped in again to relate his side.
Jemin explained his diversion, that he had gone to the main road and—using those sad remaining sheaves of wheat—lit a fire in the street roughly the shape of a prancing horse, the old seal of Gillenwater.
Quill and Vaudrin were both nodding. “It is too early to involve Dalyn publicly, and under the circumstances implying Galhara’s involvement would be unwise also,” commented Vaudrin.
“Does anyone in Gillenwater actually oppose the Nether Queen?” I asked.
“None love her, but few would have the courage to stand up to her without some great aid,” replied Jemin. “Perhaps the burning horse will give them courage.”
“Perhaps,” said Quill, “But we should move on from this place immediately. If the garrison searches the countryside, we need to be farther than half a day’s walk.”
I felt despair rising in me as I realized there would be no rest. “But we have walked all night, I don’t think the women can keep going like this.” I couldn’t go on like this.
“They have to,” said Namal, looking at me compassionately, “But they can take turns riding Sinker—he can likely carry three at a time.”
A sigh escaped the depths of my being. “Very well. But I would like to change my clothes.” I picked up the hem of my very humble homespun, which was looking even worse after the night of abuse I had given it.
“It will take a little while to get ready to leave, so you have time to freshen up,” Quill looked to Vaudrin. “Have the men get ready, we leave within the hour.”
Vaudrin rose and immediately set about the business of recalling their scouts and sentries.
“Come on, Zare,” Ayglos stood and offered me his hand. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
I took the hand up gratefully, and Ayglos led me over to where our packs sat in a tidy pile at the base of a tree. He located mine and handed it to me. I deposited my crossbow and daggers on the ground to take the pack. I rummaged for a clean tunic, trousers, and a linen wash cloth, then ducked behind a larger tree to shed my filthy clothes and shoes. I scrubbed myself quickly, then with a shiver slipped into the dry clothes. I had forgotten what dry clothes felt like—and just how much warmer they were than damp! There was no help for the shoes, and damp shoes were better than nothing. Wadding up my rags I came back around the tree. Ayglos was waiting.
“At our next stop I want to burn these,” I held up my bundle. “They are not worth—nor likely to survive—the effort to scrub the blood out.” I stuffed my distasteful wad in the pack. I wished I could leave it under the tree, but if it was found then the Nether Queen’s soldiers would know they were headed in the right direction.
“How are you?” Ayglos asked, searching my face with his green-flecked eyes.
I shrugged. “Exhausted.” I picked up the leather belt and sheathed daggers and strapped them back around my waist. “And I already feel naked without these.”
“You’re not wounded?” he prodded, pulling out one of our cloaks and draping it around my shoulders. “Or otherwise scarred?”
“Not wounded. If you mean mentally scarred…I don’t know yet.” I sat down and pulled my knees up. “I think I’m fine, but I’m too tired to know for sure. I don’t think I killed them all—there are a couple that I just knocked out. Is that bad? Should I have killed them?”
My brother looked at me, tenderness radiated from him like heat from a hearth fire—a welcome refuge after being out in a storm. “Not necessarily—even if they recognized you, they might not want to own up to being so thoroughly trounced by a seventeen-year-old girl.”
I smirked. “Some girls my age are already ruling kingdoms or raising children, it’s not such an insult.” Though, not many girls my age were running around with knives and swords.
Ayglos smiled, then said, “I guess we always forget that you lived through the siege, too.”
I cocked an eye at him. “And that I fought by your side.”
“Yes, and that you fought by my side.”
“And survived just fine,” I added, “Valiantly. Better than you, even.”
Ayglos prodded me with his foot. “Don’t push it.”
I grinned and closed my eyes. “I wished for you often, never fear.”
He had beaten me in every single duel we had ever fought. Usually I pretended that wasn’t the case because it was more fun that way. “Wake me up when we’re leaving,” I said.
“Of course.” I heard him walking away as I gave myself to the dark of my eyelids
When Ayglos shook my shoulder I swore that no time had passed—and I was nearly right. It had only taken Quill’s men a half an hour to get ready. Even with finding cloaks for all the girls. It appeared that they simply existed in a state of being able to pick up and run at a moment’s notice. My horses, Sinker and Hook, were standing in the center of the glen, and Gabe was boosting women onto Sinker’s back. I smiled at the women but went straight to the horses and let them sniff my hands. They remembered me. They’d better. I scratched Hook’s neck, and he relaxed into my touch just as much as I into his.
Quill approached. “You should ride, my lady,” he said.
“I still have legs,” I countered, “You’re the one who needs to ride.”
“I will, later,” He stopped next to me. “Jemin and the red-head—Olena?—told me of your deeds. You have earned a ride.”
I was puzzled. “Didn’t I tell you my deeds?”
Quill smiled and arched his eyebrow, my heart flopped. “An abbreviated version, yes. Jemin expounded on your inventiveness, and Olena on your prowess—taking on three men with naught but your daggers and a broken bottle after swimming for two hours with barely a break.”
“Olena killed one of them,” I corrected.
“And playing a ghost to haunt the men on the wall,” his smile broadened to a grin. “I wish I could have seen it. Jemin said you gave him a bit of a turn himself.”
I looked down, then at Hook’s ears. My cheeks were warm from Quill’s praise and I didn’t know what to say. Princesses should know what to say, but my ingenuity was apparently spent for the time being.
“Did you know that this week should have been the Feast of Maten?”
“Maten?” I furrowed my brow. I had forgotten about that feast. The mountain cities observed this feast, it had to do with the man and woman—Maten and Nelia?—who lead the mountain cities to victory against a warlock. “Maten died,” I said slowly, “because he took the warlock personally to the gates of hell…and then didn’t make it back?”
“And after helping the cities rebuild, she disappeared. They say she left to find him, that she roams the earth to this day looking for him.” Quill’s eyes were sparkling. “She had dark hair like you, as the story goes.”
My ears couldn’t get redder as I discovered that the feeling of accidently achieving something incredible felt awfully similar to nearly falling off a cliff. I shifted uncomfortably. “I didn’t know that.”
“Jemin also told me that you overrode him and kept him from sacrificing himself to cover your escape. I am grateful to you for preserving one of my best men. There aren’t many your age—man or woman—who would have performed so well. Were you not born with rank, I would gladly give you one,” Quill bowed at the waist, “Rest a little, and later I will ride. It’s not a short journey to Dalyn; you’ll get your chance to walk.”
If he was going to insist, I wasn’t going to argue. My spirits bolstered, I mustered enough energy to jump on Hook’s back—rather less gracefully than usual—and once we were underway I nodded off to the rhythm of his walk. Maybe Eloi hadn’t forgotten us.