In the shadow of the keep, inching across a ridge of dry earth against the hill, Caron found a cave.

It was thin and low, picked out from the rock around it by the rising sun.

By now, Hanson and Rob were found, packs and all, and had been marched along the high earth road to the castle gate. They were secure in some cell or another. She’d find it. Rob would complain about being abandoned in a dark, damp dungeon, but Hanson –

Hanson trusted her. He’d wait forever. The weight of that made her feel so very small.

She got down on her knees, and crawled into the darkness.

Caron didn’t need her eyes open to see where she was going, but she did it anyway. The rock pressed in around her, dragging at her clothes, cutting her skin. There weren’t any webs to stick to her, hair and wool and skin, because no spider went where there was no prey. Every now and then there was fresher air, from some invisible fissure or hole to the outside.

She was alone in black nothingness, and suddenly quite afraid.

What if her Sight failed her? What if she was lost in this tunnel forever? What if she died here, lonely and terrified and broken? Hanson would never find her here. It was too small for him. He’d get caught three minutes in and struggle to get out, let alone any deeper. Rob could Find all he wanted, but if they couldn’t get to her…

Space around her. A small chamber. She rolled onto her back, spreading her arms to touch the walls around her. She breathed steadily, in and out, letting it calm her sleepless, frayed nerves. The air would get thin in the next stretch, for a little while, but here a slightest breeze caught her hair. Caron closed her eyes and slept.

:-#-:

The tunnel came out into a dusty store room, the hole hidden by cobwebs and boxes. She barely squeezed through. On her feet for first time in hours – days? – she wavered, exhausted. Her stomach rumbled. Her mouth felt dry as a drought. She had to find fuel.

It was night again. The hallways of the castle were cold and dark, only guards crossing here and there. There were hours before the cook would rise for the new day’s work, but first she angled her way to the laundry.

No amount of Sight could hide her if she stood out this much.

:-#-:

It was nearly dawn by the time she found the dungeons, dressed in someone else’s tunic and skirts, head down and covered with a scarf. The guards were asleep in their chairs, snoring rattling their beer glass. She slipped passed them, caked-in, dried marsh mud on her boots making her every step silent. Down into the depths of the dungeons, torch-lit and murky.

There weren’t doors but barred gates, too thin for more than a hand to reach through. She padded down to the furthest, past three , and stopped.

“Go away,” Rob muttered, curled up in his cloak in the corner. “Can’t torture me if I don’t bite.”

“You can’t do anything but bite,” she said quietly.

He jerked awake, caught in the cloth, and tumbled over. He stared at her. “Caro!”

She held a finger to her lips. “You’ll be out soon,” she said, and padded back one cell.

Hanson was already there, hands curled around the bars. “When?” he said.

“Soon.” She laid her hands over his. Her cool, his warmth. “All part of the plan.”

“Stupid plan,” Rob hissed.

“Be careful,” Hanson said, the same way another man might say I love you. She swallowed. The way another man hadn’t.

“The prince is next to you,” she said. “He sleeps too deeply. Wake him. We don’t have long.”

Hanson nodded. She let go, fingers somehow reluctant to obey, and padded back up the row of cells. In the very first was a lump of cloth, arms, and legs that were, if you squinted, two sisters.

She left the way she came, stepping gracefully over one of the guard’s legs.

There were two ways to cause chaos quickly. The first was an escape of the most prized prisoner, and the second was a fire. She walked, making herself seem so very small, to the store rooms by the kitchen.

A fire in the granary or the expensive lamp oil would work best.

:-#-:

Caron stumbled out of the castle, coughing fitfully. Smoke billowed out of the windows above. Who would’ve known that setting light to the oil would create an explosion? Or that it would blast out the hidden door to the great hall and set the straw-strewn floor alight?

She smiled.

But not for long. People were yelling. Soon they’d see her, and grow suspicious. She cut left, through the billowing clouds, eyes stinging fiercely. For all smoke rose and the fire would be put out soon enough, the prisoners would still be moved.

She ducked back into the castle, out of the smoke, and headed unerringly inwards. Hanson would need his sword. And Rob would be a pain if she didn’t get his staff, too.

:-#-:

The armoury was silent, air filled with the smell of burning. Silent, but not empty. She stepped in, and found a man there, grizzled and grey with age. Old Handsworth had gone thin and shaky in old age. This man was solid and strong.

He had his back to her, and didn’t turn around.

“Dirty clothes found in the laundry,” he said. “The webs around the tunnel no sane soul would use, torn and tattered. Then the worst possible disaster happens. All that and the King’s pet Seer was set out on horseback with four men to guard her. Close the door, woman. Quietly.”

Caron obeyed.

“It’s good to be afraid of me, woman.” He turned. A shadow of a cruel smile crossed his face and was gone. “I’d like to have a pet Seer, myself, but you’re just not good enough.”

“I’m only afraid of one man,” she said.

“The Mage Peters.” The man grinned. “Maybe I should sell him to you.”

She held her head high, her back straight. “No,” she said. “The one who’ll be coming up here for his own sword now he’s dealt with the guards. You haven’t got long, so you should hurry up.”

The man was old, but he was fast. Three paces and he had her by the shoulders, shoved against the wall. He towered over her, fingers digging into her skin. “Never give me orders,” he snarled. “You know who I am!”

She closed her eyes, reviewing his past in a breath. “Yes,” she said.

He slapped her. She gasped, head ringing. “Say that again, woman.”

“Yes, Warlord,” she breathed.

The door creaked.

She looked up.

“And you’re dead,” she said. “I told you to hurry up.”

Old or not, he was a fool not to kill her immediately, but smart enough to turn when she said it. Turn to Hanson and his stolen sword. Hanson’s thin-lipped, narrow-eyed fury.

“Draw your sword,” Hanson rasped.

Caron slipped past, too quick for the warlord’s hand to grab her, out into the hallway. Rob stopped, panting.

“Said he knew where you’d be,” he gasped.

Behind him came a girl, barely old enough to be a woman, and a straight-backed boy carrying the second girl.

“Mistress Anhy,” the boy said crisply. “Thank you. I didn’t want to leave without them. I expect you’ve made preparations for us?”

“There’s three horses in the first little wood off the road, on the other side of the marsh,” she said, serene. Inside the room, swords clashed. She put her head to one side, then said, “Rob, be a dear and help him.”

“Bloody woman,” Rob huffed, and went in.

“Go down,” she said to the boy. “Second left, first right. There’s a door at the end of the hallway. Walk straight out the gate and keep going. They won’t put the fire out completely for another half hour, no one will see you.”

“I owe you my life,” the young prince said.

“Just apologise to your father for me,” she said, and smiled a thin, tight smile. “Go.”

They went. She turned back into the room. Hanson came up to her, bloodied sword in one hand, the other curving around her cheek.

“Don’t do that again,” he said, low. “Never.”

“I promise,” she said softly.

By the time they left, the boy and the girls were half way down the road, and Hanson was gripping her hand for dear life. She led him and Rob down into the marsh, a lone guide trailed by two silent men, walking the impossible line between sinking mud and deep pools, between their old life and the new, between the thousand-fold worlds inside her head.

:-#-:

Where they came out of the marsh, next to a fire burned out to ashes, were three packs.

Rob took one look at them and said, “Is this how our life is going to be, now? Jumping into the abyss only to find you cushioned our fall with feathers?”

He didn’t sound angry, she thought, and he wasn’t. One step closer to being the tired man she’d once dreamed off.

“You could leave now,” she said. “Walk into the sunset and never come back. Just like in the stories.”

Rob turned to look at her. “The sun won’t be setting for hours,” he said, and took up a pack.

“We could,” Hanson said.

She reached up and laid her hand against the warmth of his neck. “No, we couldn’t,” she said.

“No,” he said, after a moment. “Where to now?”

“Forwards,” she said.

 

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