It was past noon when the land dipped down again, the Cymerie flashed into view between the trees on our left. She was wide here, and inviting. Idly, I watched the sun glinting on her waves as we rode. The ridge swept up in front of us and before we could climb it a voice hailed us from the top. “Milady, Captain!”
We looked up and saw the familiar frame of Vaudrin silhouetted against the sky.
“Well met!” cried Quill.
We urged our horses up the steep embankment. Vaudrin was waiting for us at the top with several of Quill’s men.
“We were worried that you hadn’t made it out,” said Vaudrin, “We were setting out to find you.”’
“We ran into some trouble,” replied Quill, dismounting and clasping Vaudrin’s hand in greeting. “Did you get the royal family?”
“Yes,” Vaudrin nodded. “I will take you to them.” Vaudrin turned to me and offered me a hand down. I didn’t exactly need one, but I accepted the gesture and slipped off Hook.
“They’re here?” I asked him, breathless.
Vaudrin nodded again, “Yes, milady, follow me.” Jemin took Hook’s reins and followed behind Quill and I as Vaudrin led the way through the woods. The men fell in behind the horses. Vaudrin was talking, mostly to Quill, “The men are covered in cuts and bruises, but mercifully no broken bones or deep wounds. We’re drying out well enough.” He lowered his voice, “The king may have cracked ribs, though, and appears to have been beaten some before we got to the river.”
I was desperately eager to see my family, and suddenly afraid that they would not be as I remembered them. My heart quickened as we came to more of Quill’s men and then the rest of the camp opened up before us in a small clearing. I found them immediately: Off to the side, my mother and sister were sitting next to a prone figure and my brothers were hovering nearby. I choked and ran forward, leaving Hook’s reins dangling in the breeze.
My mother was on her feet in an instant and caught me in her arms. I felt Nadine put her arms around us also and we blubbered words of greeting, breathing in each other’s scent and holding on. After a few heartbeats my mother held me at arm’s length. “Zare, my darling girl, safe and sound and so beautiful!”
I could say the same about her. Silver twisted through the dark hair that waved about her face, loose and unruly from her troubles, but breathtaking anyway.
“You’re leaner than a whippet, has there been no food?” she asked, some concern edging into her face as she looked me up and down.
“We’ve been running a lot,” I said. Reaching out I clasped Nadine by the hand and returned the inspection. They were both thinner than before, too, it showed especially in their faces. But they were happy. Tears brimmed out of my soul and escaped down my cheeks. “I’m so glad you’re safe.”
“Oh, Zare!” Nadine pulled me out of Mother’s grasp and squeezed me close. “You must tell me everything. Ayglos and Namal have started, but it seems you’ve had the most excitement! I want to hear all!”
I nodded, “But only after you’ve told me what happened to you! And where is Father?”
“I’m here, Little Zare.”
My mother and Nadine stepped aside and I dropped to my knees next to my father. Zam the Great was sitting up, and Namal had just finished positioning a blanket between him and the tree. “Are you alright, father?” I choked.
His beard was longer now, and underneath he was pale, but smiling. “You should see the other,” he lifted his right arm and I ducked under it for a hug. “Remko and I were a bit outnumbered,” he squeezed me close. “I’ll be alright now.”
“These wounds are from two weeks ago?” I sat up. “How badly are you hurt?”
He grimaced. “A few well-placed kicks will do plenty to keep them from healing. The tumble in the carriage didn’t help, either.”
“Those bastards,” I spat.
“Zare!” my mother chided, but it was reflexive. She wasn’t the least bit scandalized—not after a siege and a year of living in the circus.
“How is Remko?” asked Nadine, breaking in.
At her question, my brothers and I looked at one another and wilted. It fell to Namal to explain, “He was alive when we left him with Boitumelo…” his voice trailed off into the silence of vain hope.
Nadine bowed her head and our mother put her arm around her shoulders. I touched the hilt of Shiharr. Shiharr and Azzad, Remko’s spectacular gifts. I was so accustomed to the weight of the daggers now I had almost forgotten about them snugged to the small of my back. I traced the pommel with affection. Even if Remko had not survived his wounds, I had no doubt that he had gone to God.
“Your majesties,” Quill bowed, “I’m sorry to interrupt.”
“Quilleran Rydderick,” said my father.
Quill paled a little. “Your majesty,” he bowed again.
My father regarded him sternly and I shifted back a little. He wasn’t really going to yell at Quill for this whole mess, was he? It wasn’t his fault we’d hidden in a circus that just happened to be at Gillenwater the night they struck.
“According to my sons, we owe our lives to you and your men,” continued my father gravely.
Quill blinked, evidently as unprepared for that statement as I had been. “As I owe my life to your family,” he managed finally. “I would likely have drowned or been captured if your daughter had not intervened, and later prevented me from dying of my wounds.” He gestured to me, and then to Ayglos and Namal.
“Nevertheless, I am eternally grateful,” my father inclined his head. Every inch a king in his rags and scraggy beard. I was proud. “Now, what were you interrupting about?”
Quill swallowed, “Your Highness, we need to keep moving. If possible. There is still the chance that we were pursued from the road. We will have to sneak you into the city—we’d like to do so tonight if possible. My men and I have already been gone too long.”
“How have you explained your absence?” asked the king.
“For most, we were a large hunting party—our three best hunters did indeed stay behind to hunt so we will have something to show on our return. Others were on leave or feigning illness,” explained Quill. “We will slip you into the city tonight if we can, and ourselves make a public return tomorrow with our game.”
My father nodded. “Very well.” He looked up at Ayglos and Namal, “Come, help me up.”
I scooted out of the way as my brothers stepped forward and helped my father get gingerly to his feet. Nadine picked up the blankets and folded them.
“Do you think you can ride?” Ayglos asked.
My father grimaced. “Movement of any sort sounds difficult,” he replied. “But we would certainly move faster if I rode.”
Jemin was already leading Hook forward. The burly man knelt and offered his knee to help the king mount. Hook wasn’t a huge horse, but pain still emanated from my father as he stepped up and pulled himself on board. It was several long moments before he straightened even a little in the saddle. Quill’s men busied themselves getting ready to go, and we royal children tried not to stare with worry at our father.