I shouldn’t have been looking over my shoulder; I should have been running. Those two horsemen had overcome our little roadblock faster than they were supposed to. My foot caught on a stone and I stumbled. Thinking a few choice words, I staggered and dove toward the side of the road. I just had to stay out of reach long enough to get to the river. I smashed blindly into the underbrush. The light from the soldiers’ lamps didn’t penetrate far into the woods, but I couldn’t wait for my eyes to adjust. I ran with my arms outstretched, hoping I wouldn’t hit a tree. “Don’t trip, don’t trip,” I panted to myself right before I rammed straight into a bush. I flailed to the side, trying to get around as the horsemen closed in noisily. As I struggled clear I could see more of the forest—but that was because the horsemen behind me carried lanterns. The golden light flashed on the trees and made me think of the long thin teeth of an angler fish closing on its prey.
A heavy weight hit me from behind and I pitched to the ground with a cry. Caught like a little fish. Hands grabbed my arms, pulling them roughly behind me while a knee crushed my torso into the earth. I struggled vainly as the soldier twisted rope around my wrists. I could barely breathe under his weight. Horrible thoughts chased themselves through my head; I thought of the fate of the circus girls, and then of the irony of my capture on a mission to free my family. There was no way they could engineer another rescue before Dalyn. I wondered if I would die, or worse, if I would live in captivity enduring who knows what horrors.
“Do you have her?” The other soldier was mounted still.
“I’ve got her,” grunted my captor as he finished tying. “Get up!” he commanded, lifting his weight off me and picking up the lantern he’d dropped in his efforts.
I pulled my knees up under me and rolled to a sitting position. Spitting dirt out of my mouth, I tossed my head and looked up at them defiantly.
Both soldiers stopped in surprise and stared at me for a moment. Then the mounted soldier said, “She must be related.”
My captor sent him a quick look then turned back to me and growled, “All the way up.”
Related? I stood, shaking the leaves and dirt off as I did. Had they spent a great deal of time looking at my sister, then? Anger stirred in me and quickly overwhelmed my fear. I flinched for my daggers, but they were out of reach.
“Who are you?” demanded my captor.
“I am Zare Caspian of Galhara, your last prisoner,” I snapped.
The mounted soldier whistled. “How many more of them are there?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I replied, “We are ghosts who walk the night carrying retribution for our city and doom for the Nether Queen. You cannot contain the Galhari. You cannot stop us.” What was I saying? Another time, I would have been frightened by the fire inside me, by the violence radiating from my soul. But I didn’t have time for that. It was all I could do to keep from flinging myself at the soldiers in some ill-conceived and useless manner.
My captor snorted and jerked me close. He pushed his face close to mine. I lifted my chin and met his gaze.
“You are a just a girl without land or title. Very much flesh and blood,” he whispered the last words with a leer and then pushed me away, turning to mount his horse.
Seething, and impotent, I watched the soldier tie my rope to his saddle. I must not remain their prisoner.
The soldier remounted and turned his horse back toward the road. “Now, walk,” he ordered.
Both soldiers nudged their horses forward and I walked as ordered. No point in getting dragged or trampled. I wished fervently that I had knives hidden in other places—a wrist sheath perhaps—so I would have had options. The soldier yanked on the rope and I stumbled, nearly falling into a bush. I shot a glare over my shoulder at him. He smiled wickedly.
There was crackling in the underbrush like a couple more horsemen were coming our way. Probably sent to aid their comrades. Not that they needed it. I snarled inwardly and tried to think of something, anything, I could do to get out of this mess.
Just then a draft horse burst into the circle of lamplight and slammed straight into the soldiers’ mounts. I gasped as I recognized Sinker, with Jemin on his back, sword in hand.
I was yanked forward as the horses churned—but not before I caught a glimpse of Hook and Quill barreling in. Swords flashed as Quill and Jemin engaged the soldiers. The horses pranced and turned while I ran and dodged to keep up. If the soldier’s horse bolted I was going to die gruesomely at the base of a tree. The thought moved me to action. I flopped on my rear and tucked my hands under my legs to move my bound hands in front; then I jumped sloppily to my feet. Darting between horses and blows I reached the side of the soldier who had the other end of my rope. He saw me a moment too late. I caught his elbow and pulled savagely, throwing my body weight to the ground. He twisted out of the saddle with a yelp of pain. His horse shied as he fell and then it bolted forward. I had no chance to react as the horse hit the end of the rope and kept running, wrenching me off the soldier and dragging me after it. I tumbled on the end of the rope like a fishing lure in the wind. I was vaguely aware of Quill shouting after me as bracken flew in my face and I bumped along pondering the irony of the situation. I supposed dying from the very bolt I was trying to avoid was a little better than dying in the prison I’d rescued my family from.
Then I slid to a stop and was lying face first on the dark forest floor. This was it, then. I hadn’t noticed hitting a tree so it must’ve been quite a thorough bashing. So far death wasn’t too bad. I wondered if the stories were true about a tunnel with the light of Eloi at the end.
“Zare!” Quill’s voice was right above me, and a second later I felt his hands on my shoulders and back. “Zare, are you alright?” his voice was thick with concern.
At his touch, I startled and opened my eyes. I could see the faint outlines of vegetation in the darkness. I realized my hands were stretched out before me, still, and there was no tree. I wasn’t dead. I pulled my arms in carefully, they ached but weren’t broken.
“Are you alright?” asked Quill again, gently supporting my shoulders as I pushed myself up and turned slowly to a sitting position.
“I think so,” I said. The shakiness of my voice surprised me.
He whipped out a small knife and started cutting the rope off my wrists. “Is anything broken? Can you stand up?”
I took inventory while he worked. Fingers and toes responded on command, I didn’t appear to have any gaping holes anywhere. As soon my wrists were free I touched them and winced. Rope burn. “I’m ok. I think I can stand,” I said.
In the dark, I couldn’t see his face, but I sensed the relief flow out of him and for some reason I wanted to cry because of it. “Come on, we need to keep moving.” Quill stood and reached down to help me to my feet.
The world spun as I rose and I leaned heavily into him. Quill hooked one arm around my waist and I dropped my head on his shoulder, struggling to regain control while he fussed with the horses. Horses. I picked up my head. I could make out the soldier’s mount standing docilely next to Hook.
“You stopped the horse,” I said stupidly.
“It was absconding with my princess,” replied Quill. “I couldn’t allow that.”
He’d saved my life. I was seized with a wild desire to kiss him. But I didn’t. He shifted me around to Hook’s side and boosted me into the saddle with such care I could been snuggling into bed.
“Now we go help Jemin,” he said, mounting the other horse and turning back the way we’d come.