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Wol’s camp!

Leoshine gazed dumbfounded at canvas walls. She sat sideways, propped up by her arm while her legs curled under brown blankets on a wooden pallet. A strand of her light brown hair tickled her cheek. When she lifted her arm to brush it away, the muscles in her back spasmed and she winced.

Ancient wood smoke, mingled with the smell of new canvas and dry leaves filled the chilled air. A large fire crackled nearby. Men’s voices sounded from all around, near and far, laughing, coughing, spitting, murmuring.

Leoshine touched the corners of her mouth, remembering the gag her brother had tied to silence her through the tunnels and alleys of the town. After I leapt into Wol’s arms from ao Kevath’s window. The thought took her breath away. I wanted to leave my master’s room. I wanted to see Mother. She swung her legs in front of her and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders. Resham, ao Kevath’s servant, would have placed a cup of his broth in her hands by now, if she woke in that room.

Grotesque shadows cast by the firelight danced on the canvas-wrapped poles that met high overhead. A plate of bread and fruit sat on a hinged-legged table beside her. The head of her sleeping pallet butted against sacks and boxes piled waist high around the perimeter.

Her arms and legs ached from being tossed from one horse to another as Wol and his gang had carried her into the wilderness. They had changed horses more than three times. How far can a horse run without rest? How many days did we travel? Twice Wol took the sack off her head to give her water and let her relieve herself – once in the Domelight, once in the dark. He always put the sack back on, even though no one would recognise her in the forest, in Oxikobh territory. All the forest looks the same. It wouldn’t matter how much I saw; I would never find the town on my own. Even if I had ao Kevath’s map with Wol’s camp marked in a far corner, near Dome Engine One, it is just a picture.

A brighter light hissed as it approached. Darker, more defined shadows raced up the walls of Leoshine’s tent. A shrill woman’s voice tweaked Leoshine’s memory. But Giffshine is in …

Wol hissed back. “Comes from you sending her to him.”

The next moment, Leoshine’s older sister burst through the tent wall and dashed to embrace Leoshine.

“Leotjie! Leoshine! You are safe.” Giffshine’s strong arms clenched Leoshine close. Mother-cloth brushed Leoshine’s cheek. Furs and amulets tickled her nose. “You’re safe now. Don’t worry. The Gol monster can’t hurt you anymore.”

Tears splashed from Leoshine’s cheeks onto Giffshine’s torn shoulder sleeves. “How did you get here? Aren’t you …?” in ao Kevath’s prison? Leoshine didn’t know if she was supposed to know what happened to her family. Best hold my tongue.

The tent wall flapped open again and Wol entered with the hissing lantern. He placed it on the table beside the food then stood by the tent door with his arms crossed over his chest. Leoshine’s eyes adjusted to see the solid shadow Wol cast on the background of dancing flame shadows from the outside of the tent.

“Anything for you, Leotjie.”  he had reassured her as he looked up at her from the courtyard outside ao Kevath’s window.

Thoughts of her family had overwhelmed her reason. She knew she couldn’t trust him. Yet she jumped into Wol’s arms thinking he would help her climb back into ao Kevath’s room.

Leoshine inhaled. An amulet of thong-bound gallalla feathers tickled her nose. Giffshine’s breath stank of wild herbs and fungi. Some of the pelts she wore had not been fully cured.

By jumping to Wol, I gained this embrace with Giffshine.

At what cost? Leoshine’s back spasmed again.

The day ao Kevath had arrived Mother took her daughters and household women into Oxikobh territory. Leoshine last saw her sisters in an Oxikobh hole. I was taken to ao Kevath.

And then she visited ao Kevath’s room. Leoshine saw again the gallalla egg rolling in Giffshine’s palm. Giffshine’s gift, which was Wol’s message that he would rescue her. I didn’t tell ao Kevath. I was a traitor from that moment. She struggled to free herself from the amulets and tooth pendants that hung around Giffshine’s neck.

Giffshine gazed at Leoshine with soft eyes and led a tear off her little sister’s nose with her thumb. “Such a long time. I have thought of you every day and night, looking for a way to save you, hoping you remembered to be brave. Look! I brought you a present.” From the folds of her flowing robe, she brought out a stiff leather rectangle with ties down two of its edges. She dangled the rib-brace Father had made his youngest daughter wear after his return from Aeolia.

Leoshine never understood his reason, but she had obeyed him through what remained of her childhood which lasted until ao Kevath arrived. Father only told her that she was special, different from her siblings.

Leoshine blushed and lowered her gaze. ao Kevath’s servant, Resham had taken the brace away. Her fist rose to cover her chest while her other hand grasped her wrist in the Myxolidian gesture of request. Father told me to obey Resham and ao Kevath, but they uncovered me. Now Giffshine wants to cover me again? I don’t understand.

 Leoshine felt the Aeolian dress Resham gave her slide over her skin. Where did Giffshine get this brace? Is it the one I wore or a new one? Do I want it back?

She curled her fingers around the neck of the Aeolian robe and felt the glass ball and intricate chain that Resham had given to her. A sob erupted from deep inside her. More sobs followed, faster and faster.

Giffshine pulled away. “Come now, let’s get you changed. You can’t wear those clothes anymore.”

Leoshine’s breath caught again. The Aeolian cloth wrapped her warm. Nothing equaled it. “What does it matter as long as I’m warm?”

Brown cloth spilled from a package in Giffshine’s lap. “Mother wove this before they put her in the dungeon.”

“Dungeon?” Leoshine gasped and made it sound like a question.

“Where the Gol king sent Father and Mother. In chains! Me, too, but I’m too clever for him.”

Leoshine felt her stomach twist. “Hillashine!” Their middle sister had been confined to ao Kevath’s mother’s palace for the duration of her pregnancy. Her success in birthing a live child after her Rite of Womanhood would bring favour and blessing to her whole family. But am I supposed to know?

Giffshine sniffed. She herself had failed to birth a live child after repeated Rites of Womanhood and curled her lips off her teeth at the thought of babies. “Hillashine carries the child of her man. The Gol sent her to the Gol queen.” Giffshine stood up. “Don’t worry, we will keep her baby safe from the Gol just like we rescued you.”

What about Hillashine? Leoshine grasped Giffshine’s hand and was pulled to her feet. What will Iliana do with Hillashine’s baby?

Leoshine lifted a corner of mother’s dress in Giffshine’s arms. So many times in ao Kevath’s room, she had longed for the feel and smell of Mother’s fine linen. But Mother cursed me. She thinks ao Kevath took me without the Rite of Womanhood. Leoshine remembered meeting her servant, Gorphaline in the kitchen, and Resham in Mother’s weaving room. Both confirmed her mother’s malediction. But ao Kevath never touched me. I am not cursed!

“Mother?” Her voice squeaked.

Giffshine smirked. “Yes, she has to pretend, too. I will tell her all about you and she will be so happy! She will keep her guards thinking we are being good. It’ll all work out, Leotjie, you’ll see.” She held out Mother’s dress. “Are you sure?”

“I’ll wear the brace. And I’ll wear this dress over …” She tugged at the Aeolian skirt.

Wol’s hand snatched the garment. “I told you she’s learned their ways.”

Giffshine stuck her tongue out at him but did not retrieve the dress.

She squinted one eye at Leoshine, who quailed inside. Together her older siblings could overrule her. They might beat her.

Leoshine remembered Resham’s intimidation and how she wished she could defy him. She straightened her back and felt the muscles settle into place. “I only want to be warm.” She cocked her chin at Wol.

He threw his hands in the air and huffed, “Hurry up, Gif.”

Giffshine heaved an exasperated breath and made a face at Wol. “I can’t stay long. Let’s make it safe for you to get the brace on.” She grabbed the edge of the pallet. “Come help me drag this to the middle.”

Together they tugged and shoved until the pallet lay in the centre of the tent. Giffshine stretched up to her full height and stuffed blanket-edges between the sloping poles and canvas, creating an inner room all around Leoshine.

Wol did not move to help. He shifted his weight to one leg and recrossed his arms. Twice he snorted or puffed air through his nose.

Giffshine ducked under the blanket curtain to enter the sanctuary she had created around Leoshine’s sleeping pallet. “I can’t stay. I must get back to the dungeon. That stupid cat-like Gol servant thinks I’m inside and out of his way. Ha! I come and go as I please.” Her teeth flashed and her eyes glinted. “But I have to play his game a little while longer.”

Leoshine undid the front clasps and peeled the Aeolian dress down to her waist. “You mean Resham?” She knew he was the keeper of the prison. He is sort of cat-like, sneaking around on soft paws.

“That’s one name for him.” Giffshine sneered as she wrapped the brace around Leoshine’s chest and pulled the ties. “Listen, we might not get back to the way the town was under Father, but we’ll make sure it is even better, right? You’ll play your part, won’t you? We must do what is best for everybody. Why Leotjie—” Giffshine leaned around Leoshine’s shoulder “— I think you could have the most important part. Would you like to help?”

The world blanked to a fuzzy grey. Iliana told me the same thing when she tickled my lips with the stick before the banquet. Even the women fight to make me something in their plan!

Giffshine tugged the Aeolian dress up over the chest brace. “How does this fasten?” She flapped her hands at the Aeolian clasps.

Leoshine sank down on the pallet, her arms clutched over her breast, fingers entwined with the clasps. She strained to hear her sister through a hammering in her head. The Aeolian dress sagged in the front, ill-suited to having the brace underneath.

 Giffshine’s grinning face receded. The flap in the blanket wall ruffled as she left.

“No! Wait!”Leoshine jumped up and parted the blanket curtain. It was just like Giffshine’s visit to ao Kevath’s room when she brought the gallalla egg, over before she said anything about Mother.

Shadows leapt around the empty tent.

“Giffshine!” She ran to the tent door. “Take me with you! I want to see Mother!” No, wait. Do I want to go to the dungeon? In the act of parting the tent flaps, she ran into a solid figure.

“Leotjie!”

Wol. Leoshine stumbled backward to the inner blanket wall. Her fingertips and toes tingled as she scrambled to fasten the Aeolian dress clasp at her throat.

Wol’s eyes glinted. He walked over to the plate of bread and fruit she had noticed when she awoke. “You didn’t eat what I gave you.” He took a bite. “So pleased to entertain such an exalted person in our midst.”

She turned her back, holding her breath. Her throat burned. Touching him brought back memories of the ride to the camp.

Wol waved a chunk of bread in his hand in circles. “Make yourself free among us, I promise no one will hurt you. Go wherever you like. You won’t get far.”

I wanted to be rescued. Leoshine thought of how she had waited for her brother to come. I wanted to leave ao Kevath and go to Mother.

Wol stepped closer. He grasped her shoulder and turned her toward him. The caress he drew with his thumb, down on the bridge of her nose, over her cheek, back to her ear, finished with a flick that brought her chain and pendant from hiding. His eyes snapped with questions. Leoshine knew better than to answer them.

She smiled up like Father had smiled at the Overlord, like a dog at its master. Her right hand lifted and hovered, but she resisted the urge to tuck the necklace back into her collar. Instead, she tugged with both hands at her chest brace and blushed.

Wol shoved her away from him, grabbed the lantern, and swept out of the tent. Leoshine staggered back through the inner blanket wall and dropped onto the pallet. She stared at the blankets and swallowed the rebellion in her stomach.

The cavern of her heart clanged empty without her sister. Hollow and cold. Confused and unable to weep. I wanted rescue. Warm embraces! The thought came in a shrunken voice. I wanted to get away. But not like this.

ao Kevath is coming soon to this place. He is going to fight Wol. She wrapped her blanket closer and thought of the war council ao Kevath held with his generals. How long ago was that? When will he get here? What will happen when he meets Wol?

Father made a treaty with ao Kevath, but Giffshine said she was too clever to be his prisoner. She called him a Gol monster —a word Wol had invented in their childhood for his imaginary pig monsters with spears sticking out of gaping wounds all over their bodies.

Who is ao Kevath? His laughing blue eyes danced in her memory. His touch, as he taught her to mount her horse, warmed her arm again.

ao Kevath … In moments of severe fatigue or the profound despondency he sometimes fell into, she had heard him tell Resham to use his name, not his title. Avram …

The old way is dead. Leoshine’s lip quivered. Every muscle in her body tensed around the blanket clutched in her hand. Giffshine is making a new way with Wol, different from ao Kevath’s “new way.” Whose way is best? They all want the same thing – rule over Myxolidia – but they do it all wrong.

Fire crackled nearby. The shadows leaped and subsided as logs were added and burned down. The brace dug into her side when she lay down on the hard pallet. She rolled up the edge of her blanket for a pillow. Every footstep, every cough and barked command in the camp, seemed to fill her tent. The tear-soaked blanket scratched her cheek and her lips when she rubbed it back and forth over them. She pulled out her glass pendant and rubbed it back and forth on them instead.