A bit of a blast from the past, but I wanted to see what watercolor did with fire. This is Balleck.
A bit of a blast from the past, but I wanted to see what watercolor did with fire. This is Balleck.
Movement caught my eye and I spun. To my right, a ragged curtain fluttered from the second story of a rundown building. The curtain looked pale and mournful, a ghost of how things used to be in Gillenwater. A ghost. I paused and looked down at my homespun. Then I ran across the street to the building and began climbing its dilapidated side. When I reached the curtain I tangled my fingers in its shreds and tugged until it came loose with a dull crack. I slung the rags over my shoulder and climbed back down to the street. I took off toward the wall at a quick jog; I didn’t dare look back to see if anyone appeared at the window I’d defrocked. When I reached the end of the street I stopped. There wasn’t much to the curtain, but what there was I spread across my shoulders so it hung from my arms like robes.
Drawing a deep breath I drew myself up and stepped out into the lane between the houses and the city wall. All the dance lessons from my childhood and the days and days of practice with the circus served me now. I moved as lightly as laundry turning in the wind. My arms rose and floated out by my sides as if on their own, and I glided smoothly across the ground. It was easy enough to imagine myself a heartbroken ghost haunting the wall, and to make my expression one of vague sadness—I just had to remember how cold I was and how much further we had to go. Also that I had to keep the men on the wall from noticing thirteen people climb the stairs.
Suddenly afraid that no one on the wall would notice me, I let out a long moan—loudly.
I felt ridiculous.
An excruciatingly long moment passed and I hazarded turning my face toward the city wall. To my relief my gaze met one of the inward-facing soldier’s. I didn’t flinch, but gave him a deep mournful look and slowed my floating walk.
He tapped the soldier nearest him and that soldier turned around to stare also. I slipped to a stop and faced the city wall and swayed in the night breeze as I imagined a ghost might. Out of the corner of my eye I saw another man turned around, then another.
I was also vaguely aware of Jemin at the edge of my periphery. He gained the top of the wall and choke the first soldier he reached. My heart quickened. I wanted to watch Jemin but daren’t. Focusing on the soldiers before me, I raised one hand and moaned imploringly. The men on the wall looked thoroughly unsettled. I raised my other hand and moaned again.
I caught a glimpse of the girls darting to the stairs. This was the hardest part—and how was I supposed to get over? I grimaced inwardly; my father was right about my ability to get into trouble.
I lowered my hand to my side in a slow fluid movement—as if my arm were made of paper and drifting down as fast as it could go. Most of the men on this stretch of wall were watching me now. I moved back a step, and searched the faces of the soldiers as if despairing of help. They stared back at me, some looked nervous, some frightened, and one or two looked sad.
I was pretty sure the girls were up the stairs and hiding in the shadow thrown by the guard house.
I took another floating step backwards. Then, since I couldn’t afford to back into a wall and betray my solidity, I pivoted until I was pointed at an alley and started gliding down it. I kept up the drifting movement until I reached a cross street and could duck out of sight. Once around the corner I jerked off the ragged curtain and rolled it up. Tucking it under my arm I ran down the street and turned down the next alley toward the wall.
Some of the soldiers were staring searchingly at the alley I had disappeared down—others were talking amongst themselves. I darted across the open space and made the stairs without attracting attention. When I reached the top of the stairs I saw that the guard at the top leaned awkwardly on the guardhouse—unconscious, or dead. I crept past him and found Jemin crouched in the doorway. He gestured for me to enter the guardhouse.
The guardhouse had one torch flickering in a corner—though I saw sconces for more. There was a tall, thin window—probably only two feet across—facing the outside and Olena stood by it with six of our rescued women. This explained where Jemin had managed to hide so many people. I hadn’t thought of hiding inside the guardhouse. Jemin followed me inside and took up a position next to the doorway, ready to pounce on any soldier who happened by.
One end of Jemin’s stolen rope was tied to an empty sconce and the other disappeared out the window. I noticed three more inert soldiers in the corner. Olena gave me a grim smile as one of the other girls got started climbing down the rope. I felt a horrible weight in my stomach. So many to go—I had cut my ghost act too quickly. The first girl disappeared from view and immediately another hopped up on the ledge. She grabbed the rope ably and spun lightly into the darkness beyond. As soon as she was gone from view another took her place. Acrobats. The number of women in the guardhouse dwindled quickly as the circus performers took on something they knew how to handle—rope and heights.
Olena looked at me. “I sent the girls from town among the first—since they would need the most time.”
I smiled, a real smile, “Good thinking.”
When it was down to just Olena and I, Jemin stepped back from the entryway. Olena hopped up on the sill, grasped the rope and started a skilled descent. I stuffed my curtain down my tunic and jumped up behind her. I waited till Olena was halfway down, and then swung myself off the sill into the darkness.
I’m learning that wagons are extremely hard to draw–straight lines and boxes aren’t my strong suit. Though, the hardest part is the wheel. I have an embarrassingly hard time drawing wheels. I must find them boring, and therefore feel no motivation to practice so it isn’t a monster fight every time I try to draw a wagon. I should probably work a bit harder at that–because Fang and Seyba’s wagon was really cool looking in my head.
“They took your parents and Nadine,” replied the firespinner.
I stared at Balleck for a second, gripping his forearms as if that would change his news. “Are you sure? All of them?”
He nodded. “I’m sorry, Zare.”
“Did they know who they were?” It was a desperate chance. Maybe they took them for a different reason.
Balleck broke my grip and spread his hands, “The captain called them royal—is that true?”
I bit my lip and nodded. My knees remembered their weakness and I found a wagon to lean on. Balleck followed. “You’re a princess, aren’t you?”
I nodded mutely. Such as I was, yes. I leaned heavily on the wagon, my hands on my knees. Panic like in the square roiled inside—and then dissipated. The feared thing had happened. I didn’t know what to do or feel. Ayglos and Namal emerged from the bracken. Jumping to my feet I ran to them. “They took them!” I blurted.
“Took who?” asked Namal, the sensible fact-finder.
“Our parents and Nadine,” I answered. “We have to get them back!”
“They took some of the girls, too,” added Balleck. “Olena among them.” He looked at Ayglos, who clenched his hands.
“Where is Remko?” asked Namal. “Has anyone seen him?”
“Boitumelo has him.”
That didn’t sound good. The three of us turned for the red covered wagon, clambering our way through the upturned caravan till we reached the physician’s rolling kingdom. Namal climbed in first, then Ayglos, then me.
The wagon smelled like blood. That old, familiar war smell. Boitumelo was kneeling over Remko on the floor of the wagon. The physician’s sleeves were rolled up and he was holding a wadded up sheet tight against Remko’s side. The sheet was stained red. He looked up when we entered. “Praise God you’re alright,” he exclaimed, relief flooding his face.
“What happened?” asked Namal.
I pushed past my brothers and dropped to my knees next to Boitumelo. I pressed my hands into the stained sheet at Remko’s side to help staunch the blood. The bald head of the captain of the guard gleamed with sweat. A lump was forming on his temple.
“Mbali, get salve for his head,” said Boitumelo gently. He turned to Namal, “The soldiers started taking girls—they found Nadine, and were going to take her, too. Then your father interfered, then Remko interfered.” He looked down at his hands which held the gory sheet tight against the guard. “Remko would not let them take him, but they were too many.”
“Will he live?” asked Ayglos.
Boitumelo looked up again, his brown face strained. “He may.”
I returned with salve for Remko’s head. If he survived whatever Boitumelo was hiding from us, his head, at least, would feel alright. I began gently applying the medicine to Remko’s shiny temple, taking comfort in the doing.
“Is there anything else to do for him?” Namal asked. He and Ayglos lingered uneasily at the back of the wagon.
“I must stop the bleeding,” explained the doctor. “Then I will see if he needs to be sewn together. It was a clean thrust, and a good sword.” He tipped his chin at Remko’s head. “And a good pommel, too.”
“Then we will leave you in peace,” pronounced Namal, lifting the back flap of the wagon. “Zare, come find us when you are done.”
My brothers were not at home in the physician’s workspace. Their discomfort amused me—not that I ever wanted to be a doctor like Boitumelo, but I did not mind playing nurse when I could look away from the worst of it. Thanks to the siege of Galhara I was actually quite good at nursing blind. Still, this was harder than nursing the archer—Quill—the night before. This felt more like the siege—instead of hope and a good deed, it was loss and failure. Nadine had a better stomach than any of us, she should be here. Nadine. I rolled my lips together. Focus on the task at hand.
The bleeding did stop, and Boitumelo did have to stitch the wounds closed. Remko flailed a little, but didn’t wake up. I ended up splayed across the big man, trying to hold him down while the doctor worked. Once Boitumelo was finished with that awful work I climbed off and helped him with the bandages. Remko was too big for us to move off the floor so we slid blankets under him for padding and a rolled sheet under his neck for support.
“How did you get him in here?” I asked, after we finished panting our way through building a bed under the bodyguard.
“Two of the stage hands helped,” Boitumelo rocked back on his heels and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “They are off helping the Circus Master now, I believe.”
“Do you think they will come back and punish the circus for hiding us?” I asked quietly, fidgeting with the blankets.
The doctor shrugged. “They may. I’m sure the Master will be keen to move on once he’s sure he has everything.” Boitumelo gestured, “Come, clean up. You must go to your brothers. There is much to decide.”
Once we washed up I left the doctor to watch Remko and went in search of my brothers. It was past noon, now, and the sun was casting long shadows with the trees that lined the road. Most of the mess had been cleaned up and the wagons which had left the road were struggling to get back on it. Some were cockeyed in ditches and the draft horses had to be unhitched while all the circus strongmen worked to move the wagon back onto good ground. I found Balleck leaning on one of the covered wagons watching the festivities.
“Not helping?” I asked when I was close.
He looked up and managed a smile even though he mostly looked tired and worried. “I’m busy,” he replied.
He straightened. “Waiting for you is hard work.”
My eyebrows shot up right along with my heartrate. “Oh?”
“Quite all consuming. Follow me.”
Balleck lead the way down one more wagon to the wagon in which we carried the Circus Master’s prize leopards. It was a boxy wagon drawn by the two most reliable draft horses the Circus Master had. The sides opened to expose huge barred windows so the cats could have fresh air while we traveled. The sides were closed now and Balleck stepped up to the wooden door at the front and knocked.
“Balleck, what are we doing here?” I had always liked the cats, but the Circus Master didn’t exactly encourage people to interact with them. Their wagon was painted with big letters reading, “Terror of the Wastelands” with a little illustration of the cat killing a knight in armor—just in case those who couldn’t read were tempted to touch the leopards.
The door opened and the Circus Master peered out.
“I bring Zare,” said Balleck.
The Circus Master squinted past Balleck at me and nodded. “Very good, come in, Zare.” He opened the door a bit more and stood aside slightly, “Balleck, are the wagons ready to go yet?”
“Not yet, Master,” replied Balleck, “There are two still being righted. But they will be on the road soon.”
“Let me know the moment they are safe and hitched. We must move on from this place as soon as possible.”
I climbed the two big steps up into the leopard wagon and looked back at Balleck. He gave me an assuring look before bowing to the Circus Master and heading back to his post.
“Come on, Zare,” chided the Circus Master gruffly, “Fang and Seyba are in their den, you needn’t worry.”
I stepped past our tiny Circus Master into the dark innards of the closed up cat-wagon. There were skylights in the wagon ceiling which laid bright bars across the straw littered floor. I could see my brothers and Quill sitting in close conference. They weren’t talking anymore, but were watching me. I walked in and joined their little circle. The Circus Master followed and also took a seat in the dust.
Namal smiled and spread his hands a little, “No one would look for people in this wagon. Seemed like the best place to meet.”
I nodded and looked around. I had never been inside the leopard’s wagon, and had no idea where the leopards could possibly be. Where was their “den,” and how closed off was it? Did they mind?
“How is Remko?” asked Ayglos, interrupting my distraction.
“We stopped the bleeding and closed the wound,” I replied, bringing myself back. “He’s resting now, he hasn’t woken up.”
There was a brief silence as they took in the news. Remko was family. Though we all knew his purpose was to give his life for the king, it was never supposed to come to this. He had made it through the siege—only to be stabbed in exile because some soldiers decided to steal people. It wasn’t fair.