The small party moved through the woods. Jeric still could not use his arms, and their progress was slightly erratic as he staggered occasionally. One of the dragons would nudge him from behind if he came too close to falling. They came to a small drop-off.
“Down,” ordered Zerjerik. They dropped down at the lip, looking over a small trail through the woods. Jeric wished he could lay flat on his stomach, but knew he would never get up again if he did. He settled for kneeling behind a shrub. They waited.
They heard the drum first. A regular marching beat. But it wasn’t accompanied by the thud of many feet Jeric expected. Soon the drummer came into sight, followed by the marchers. It wasn’t the military regiment Jeric expected. Every one was a woman. He held perfectly still, terrified someone would see him and he would be hauled back to the tent of his torture.
The group passed underneath them. When the last woman was past, he sighed. Christalos turned to him. “I presume that wasn’t a group looking for you?” He stared. Was this dragon humor?
“No. I think we are looking for a regiment or two of the Empire, and perhaps my father’s valet or mine.”
Christalos bared her teeth. “It was a joke, young one. But it is good you know what your father might send.”
“If we move to the north, we might find them before they could find us.” Christalos just looked at him. He wondered what he had said wrong. Christalos jerked her head and she and Zerjerik moved off slightly. He started to follow, but Zerjerik shook his head. He heard whispers, then a nod from Zerjerik.
They came back and Zerjerik spoke. “Good thinking, young one. We will move north and find the humans looking for you.”
Every day they slipped a little farther north. Jeric suspected one or both of the dragons was using psychic sensing to decide on the direction of travel. They’d be heading one way, then suddenly a different direction. Jeric slowly regained the use of his arms, although he could not lift them above his head.
Sohata regretted allowing Syma along more each day. She would not let them travel in a straight line, as armies were meant to do. She had them ducking and dodging along little paths and byways. This was the way of women, not of men. If he complained, she only laughed and said, “But we are hidden, are we not?” And he would concede that they were hidden, they had seen no one since they left the city, and let her tell him which way to go. He hoped they would find Jeric soon, and end the need for secrecy.
On the third day, the grasslands began to turn to forest. A tree here, a tree there, and soon there were trees all around. Sohata had grown up in the forest, but he had lived so long in cities and plains that the closeness of the trees, their living greenness, made him nervous. He thought he could hear the trees breathing. He took a deep breath, to calm himself. He didn’t want to jump at the rustles with the others watching, though he felt he might jump out of his skin at the next rustle. He almost yelled when he heard “Halloooo!”
Who was calling them? Syma had done such a good job hiding them, he hadn’t expected this. He gestured everyone down. The army men dropped when his hand did. Ven and Vetaya were a little slower. He had to pull Syma down. Her arm felt odd under his hand, soft and pliable. He hadn’t touched a woman since Jeric’s mother died at his birth. He snatched his hand away. Syma turned and smiled happily at him, he would have called it a grin on a younger woman. He glared at her.
“Hallooo!” The call came again. “Prince Sohata, we come in peace with your son!” His training kept him down. Maybe it was a trick. Someone shifted behind him. He rolled silently and glared at the rustles. It was Vetaya. He held a finger to his lips. Vetaya rolled his eyes but lay back down. He would have a talk with him later, if they lived.
“Father. It is you.” Sohata looked up, unable to believe his ears. Jeric was standing in front of him. “They said it was you, but I didn’t believe you would come for me yourself.” Sohata stood. He hated being at a disadvantage.
Miranda didn’t know what to do. She had helped string up that boy in the afternoon. She had meant to come back and let him go when it got dark, but she couldn’t get away. If Janaya weren’t watching her, it was her tentmate, Sarai. She hadn’t realized when she agreed to this with the dragon that she would be watched all the time. How could she find out what was going on if she never got away by herself?
Lying on her cot, thinking about that poor boy hung up by his arms, and how this wasn’t the grand adventure she thought it was going to be, she began to cry. The tears ran down her face and glistened in the moonlight coming in the crack in the door. As she cried, she realized that the breathing from Sarai’s cot was calm and even. Slowly, Miranda took in a deep breath and rolled over. No movement from Sarai’s cot. Miranda slid her feet out from her blanket and onto the ground. She sat up. Each movement made her heart pound and her stomach turn over, but Sarai never stirred. Miranda slid her boots from under the cot and shook them. She certainly didn’t want a mouse in there right now. Nothing came out and she slid her feet inside. One breath at a time, one moment at a time, she slipped to the tent opening. Still no movement from Sarai. She could hear nothing from outside, either.
She opened the tent and slipped out. She couldn’t hear footsteps. The guards must be on the other side of camp. Silently she moved through the camp in the shadows. It seemed an eternity before she came to the central tent, but when she looked at the sky the stars had barely moved. She came around the side of the tent, expecting to see the boy hanging there. Nothing moved in the clearing. She came closer, thinking he was in the shadows. The post was empty in an empty clearing. She swallowed a gasp.
She must get out of here before she was discovered. They would think she had done it if they found her here. She turned and walked straight into someone’s chest.
Arms went around her, holding her close, and a voice rasped in her ear, “Come back to the scene of the crime, did you, dearie? I found him gone an hour ago and I’ve been waiting here ever since. No point going to The Leader without someone to blame.” A hand slid down to her bottom and squeezed. “I see what he saw in you. I wonder what you saw in him, that skinny brat.” The arms pushed Miranda away and spun her around. Her arms were pinned behind her back, and she was marched around to the front of the tent.
Her captor called out, “Great Lady, the boy is gone, and I caught the one who let him go. Arise from your resting place, O Beautiful One, and see what I have caught.”
A sleepy voice called back, “You had better be right this time, Tamara. I don’t want to deal with a false alarm.”
“Don’t worry, Great Lady. The culprit is right here.”
The front of the tent opened and The Lady stepped out, fully dressed and perfectly coiffed. “Well, you do have a captive, Tamara. Well done. Why, it’s the new recruit. You were a spy, after all.”
“Oh, no, Lady. I would never do that. I was just stretching my legs taking a turn about the camp. I know nothing about the boy. I haven’t seen him since the afternoon.”
“Somehow, I don’t believe that. But no matter. You can take a turn on the post. That should cure you of nighttime wandering.”
Tamara’s face fell. “But Lady,” she whimpered.
“Tamara, I’m not allowing you a personal prisoner, and that’s final.”
Tamara’s grip on Miranda relaxed with her disappointment. Miranda saw her chance and thrust her arm sharply back, catching Tamara in the breastbone with her elbow. The older woman doubled over, wheezing. Miranda leaped forward, intending to hit The Lady over the head and escape. The Lady was too fast for her, and grabbed her upraised arms and forced her to the ground. Kneeling on Miranda’s throat, The Lady looked down at her new prisoner and smiled. “I do like a feisty girl. Perhaps you are right, and the post is no place for you. You will be my personal slave, instead.” Swiftly she tied Miranda’s hands behind her back and shoved her in the tent. “Don’t come out until I tell you to.”