We found Eliah in the woods outside town.
“Where’s Quill?” she demanded.
“Not here,” I replied. “We need to move.” I swung onto Hook’s back and spun him east.
Eliah didn’t ask for more explanation. We moved as fast as we dared through the woods. It was tough going in the dark, and Eliah needed gaps big enough for two horses since she was leading Quill’s horse, Brimborren. Portions of the wood were thick with underbrush and struggling through took much longer than I would’ve liked. We pressed on, hearing no pursuit but not daring to stop until we’d put as much distance between us and the burning prison as we could. The moon was just dipping into the tree line when Ayglos and I scented a stream and headed for it. It was only about eight feet across, and inarticulate, but it was clean enough. We dismounted and watered the horses. The water’s attitude turned nearly giddy when it felt our touch. Not many nymphs in the Empire any longer and the water was lonely.
When the horses were settled, I sagged against a tree and slid to the forest floor.
“Are you going to tell me what happened?” asked Eliah.
“The prison was empty,” said Ayglos. He summarized our short and fruitless search while I stroked the roots of the tree and tried to think around the cavernous absence of Quill.
“So you set the prison on fire?” Eliah was incredulous.
“It was the best way to hide what we took.”
“Is it? It can’t be that hard to deduce what you’re after.” Ayglos didn’t answer right away so Eliah continued. “Did you find anything about the plans, at least?”
“We have the name of the clerk who is probably falsifying the records. We didn’t end up having time to go check the warehouse.”
“Because you set the prison on fire.”
“Because we set the prison on fire.”
“Do I have to remind the two of you how bad it would be for us if the Empire discovered those plans?”
Ayglos groaned and I felt rather saw him slump down onto the dirt and try to get comfortable. He was tired. We were all tired. “If they think anything, they’ll think this is about the prisoners.”
“His name was Frete, he stays on 3rd street, and he reports to Captain Argeant Dremmal,” I said.
Leaves rustled as Eliah settled in between us. “We’re going back?”
“I think we have to,” I rolled down the tree and lay down in the dirt next to Eliah. “But we’ll make a plan in the morning.” I sounded half dead, even to myself, and Eliah reached out and felt around until I gave her my hand.
She pulled my hand over to her and laced her fingers through mine. “Quill can take care of himself,” she said softly.
I nodded, even though she couldn’t see me. I was too afraid my voice would break if I spoke. We were warriors, we were no strangers to peril. But…but the Empire terrified me. And the Empire had Quill even if they didn’t know what they had. He was gone, and I didn’t know where he was or if he were alright. Nothing had ever hurt as much as this hurt. Tears streaked down my temples and soaked into my hair. Eliah kept a strong hold on my hand. The last thing I remembered was her thumb gently stroking mine.
The sun rose in a cold, gray, dawn. I was hungry and sore from sleeping on the ground. Above my head, the bushes were rattling futilely as the horses stripped their remaining leaves. When I sat up, I saw that Ayglos was in the stream already, standing perfectly still hunched over the water, bare to the knees and elbows. Clearly, he thought he might catch something. Or was at least hungry enough to try.
I brushed dirt and leaves off and moved toward the stream but stopped when Ayglos flicked his eyes at me prohibitively. With a sigh I turned away and looked around. The trees here towered and were sparse enough for a solid thicket of bushes and young trees. No wonder we’d had so much trouble bushwhacking our way through in the dark. Eliah was fussing with the pile of tack. She gave me a weary smile. “I think I heard mooing in that direction,” she jerked her head north. “If there’s a farm, I may be able to steal or barter for food. Maybe clothes, too.” Eliah hoisted a bridle and started toward the horses.
“You’re going alone?”
“Until we know if throwing water on new people is standard procedure for everyone in the Empire, I think that’s wise. Besides, you’re dressed like a border guard.”
I followed her and twisted my fingers into Hook’s mane while she bridled her horse, Finndrel.
“At least let me come close enough to watch.”
“They’re farmers, Zare, not bored soldiers on border duty.” Eliah walked back for a saddle. “Or at least, I hope so.”
“I’d rather be sure. One person to rescue is enough for me.” I moved to the other side of Finndrel and helped with the buckles.
Eliah snorted. “And leave our intrepid fisherman in the woods alone all covered in stripes?”
Ayglos was still crouched in the stream. A grimace twisted my lips.
“Just stay put and try not to get into any trouble. I’ll be back soon.” She sprang into the saddle and turned Finndrel north. I saw her glance linger on Ayglos and caught the look that passed between them before she urged Finndrel away.
Clearly I’d been distracted the summer to have missed this thing growing between my brother and my friend. Picking up the saddle bags from the prison, I carried them back to the patch of dirt where we’d slept and emptied them. I selected a map of the southern portion of the Empire and spread it out before me. “La Carvahal…La Carvahal…” I traced my fingers over the ink as I searched, starting at the crossing near Falletta and working out. When I found it, I sucked in a breath. This would not be easy.
A shadow fell over me and I caught the scent of the stream as Ayglos dropped into the dirt beside me.
“Did you catch anything?”
He held up a tube of fabric and I grimaced when I realized it was his sock.
“Some crayfish.” He shook his sock, the weight in the toe showing the fruit of his labors. It was a pretty good haul considering the size of the stream and the fact that he’d been fishing barehanded. “That stream is so lonely I think she helped me more than she should’ve.”
I wrinkled my nose. “I don’t think I’m hungry enough to eat something that’s been in your sock.”
He grinned. “I washed it first, you baby. But since I did the fishing, you can build a fire—what is it?”
I point to the map, “La Carvahal is five days north.”
Ayglos stilled. Five days north would take us straight toward Dalyn, Hirhel and the heart of the Empire. “If the prison was full, there’s at least fifty people, probably more, being transported. They can’t move that quickly. They’d either be on foot or in wagons. Maybe we can overtake them.”
I nodded. Namal would have our heads for going that deep into the Empire. Assuming we succeeded. Ayglos didn’t mention that, which I appreciated. But there was something else that I had to bring up. “If it’s that far away, we need to find the plans or find a lead to them before we leave.”
Ayglos pulled the map toward him and leaned over it. He was quiet as he considered, and I stared at the stream. The sun was well up in the sky and it glittered on the water. Birds flitted through the brushes, their song mingling with the chatter of the stream. Quill’s chances were better than most people’s wherever they were going. The trail for the plans was here and Quill’s predicament didn’t change the fact that we couldn’t afford for the Empire to find out what they had. Irony twisted my lips. I couldn’t afford for the Empire to figure out what they had in Quill.
“I think you’re right, we have to go back to the border crossing first.” My brother knocked his shoulder gently into mine. “I know it’s frightening, Zare, but she has no reason to connect Josue Marisola with any rebel activity, much less with you.”
I patted his foot, the blue stripes on them still faintly visible. “Fear isn’t about facts. It’s about the worst that could happen.” I stood. “I’m going to collect wood.”
When Eliah returned, we had a small fire going, and Ayglos had just tossed the crayfish onto it. Eliah slipped off Finndrel and walked toward us, a sack dangling in her hands. “What’s this? Did you catch something?”
“Crayfish,” said Ayglos.
“Three bites for reach of us,” I added, teasingly. “A true feast.”
“Well,” Eliah sat down and opened her sack, “I faired rather better.” She produced a loaf of bread, and then, with a dramatic flourish, a small wheel of cheese.
“Such bounty!” I cried.
“Show off,” said Ayglos, but he was smiling.
“I’m not even done.” A smirk painted triumphant on her face as she pulled cured sausage out of the bag and held it high like a hero who had vanquished a foe. “I also have feed for the horses.”
Ayglos shifted closer to her, his knee bumping hers as he leaned close to look into the bag. “How did you make out so well? You weren’t gone all that long.”
“I was gone for at least a couple hours.” Eliah started tearing the bread into chunks. “They were just regular farmers who had a draft colt with the manners of a boar. I gave everyone a lesson in how to be civilized to each other. They were very grateful. They would feed us again if we needed it—they were hoping I had a few months to spare.”
“May the gods bless Eliah and her way with horses,” I said.
While we ate, Eliah told us that there were in fact cows just a little further north. It appeared to be a small farming conclave. We’d ridden east and north last night and would need to go southwest to get back to the outpost. Ayglos and I were still dressed in our stolen uniforms. The soldiers we’d left in the alley had doubtless been found or worked free of their improvised bindings. Chances were the outpost would have increased patrols and the guard.
“I learned something else from my farmers,” said Eliah, “I met their cousin who works in the laundry for the garrison.”
“How does that help?”
She smiled, “It means I know where in the outpost the laundry is done, and I know when they all take a break for lunch.”