The shouts to raise arms faded quickly. Jova tensed, an electric buzz in her arms. It wasn’t as if the conflict had been violent and brutal and ended quickly; the conflict hadn’t happened yet. An eerie silence hung over their corner of the jungle, and the thick foliage around them seemed to muffle the interference of the outside world.
Jova’s hands tightened around the wooden pole, and she edged towards the wagon entrance, keeping one hand to the floor to make sure she didn’t accidentally fall out.
“We are merely passing through!” shouted a voice from outside, one unfamiliar to Jova. His accent was neither that of a templeman nor of a fieldman; it could have been a mountainman’s, but Jova couldn’t be sure. “We mean no harm!”
“Prove it,” came Janwye’s angry growl.
“Janwye, you are being rash,” said Bechde’s voice, soft but close. “Lay down your arms.”
“Only if they lay down their weapons first.”
Quietly, Jova slipped out from the wagon tarp, turning back and putting her finger to her lips for just a second before sliding out. She hoped Alis understood. More than that, Jova hoped it was the right advice. The cautious plan was to stay still and quiet, but perhaps Alis was safer if she went to find help, or found something to defend herself with…
Jova shook her head. The girl was four years old. The idea that she would even stand a chance if things got violent was ludicrous. It was Jova’s responsibility to protect her, and Jova’s alone.
“You understand if we hesitate,” said the perhaps-mountainman. “We are weak from travel and you outnumber us five to one. We have cause to fear, not you.”
“Words from a snake,” hissed Janwye. Jova heard venom in her voice, thought, not in the stranger’s. What had these people done that had angered her so?
“Janwye!” shouted Bechde, aghast. “You forget yourself!”
“I am a free woman, now, Bechde,” said Janwye, and she sounded so angry that for a moment even Jova was afraid. “You cannot command me as you once did.”
Jova heard a sharp intake of breath, and then she heard Bechde’s deadly whisper, “Free you may be, Janwye, but this is still my caravan. My envoy. My people! You will lay down your weapon, or I will teach you the consequences of freedom.”
A pause, and then Jova heard the clatter of a lance thrown onto the ground. The girl relaxed, straightening, although she did not let go of her own weapon.
“Quele! Cropper!” Bechde shouted, raising her voice again. “Tell the men to put their weapons down, there is no cause for worry.” To the strangers, she said, “My apologies. I don’t know what caused my friend such a conniption, but please, let us amend ourselves to you. Something to eat? Drink perhaps?”
“No, Bechde!” shouted Janwye, angry again. “I draw the line here! Leave them alone, fine, but we shall not waste one second wining and dining them when we have places to be, friends to watch out for.”
“Your temper is still quick, Janwye,” said Bechde. “Has the Lady Summer touched your tabula? What could they have possibly done to offend you?”
“They lie,” was all Janwye said, and she stomped away, her boots thudding heavily on the jungle floor.
There followed a helpless silence, and then the man said, “We just told her that we were from the Seat. The draft’s come again, and Banden’s men have come kicking down doors and taking our tabula. We, all of us, traveled to get away from that. Nobody wants to fight a war in Alswell-.”
“War? In Alswell?” And suddenly Bechde’s voice was tense, too. “There is no war in Alswell.”
“There is now, friend,” said the refugee, hoarsely. “The plainsmen turned. A survivor from Shira Hay, he came back, he told us all—the duarchs slaughtered every fieldman in the city. Now they’ve marched on the fields, pillaging and burning and Ladies know what else. I didn’t think they had it in them.”
Bechde didn’t say anything for quite some time. Then, she said, very softly, “Find the woman alsknight named Quele. She’ll get food, water, anything you need. Thank you for the news.”
“You’re all from- oh, Ladies, I didn’t realize. I’m sorry! I’m sure everything…” The man trailed off into silence as Bechde walked away.
There was a little laughter left in the lady’s voice as she came back to the wagon. “Our little protector,” she said, patting Jova on the head. “Thank you for keeping us safe, Jova. We’ll get you a proper weapon soon. You’ll need- you’ll want it, I’m sure.” And she plucked the wooden staff from Jova’s hand.
“Proper weapon?” echoed Jova. “What was I holding?”
“In Alswell, we call these parasols. They’re for keeping the sun off your face, but I’m sure you could have skewered a bandit or two with it,” said Bechde. Jova recognized the exhaustion in her voice, the attempted mirth: it was the sound of someone who was doing her best to smile when inside she was breaking.
“Bechde,” said Jova, slowly. She rubbed her shoulder, trying to find the right words to say. “It’s OK to be sad.”
Bechde choked back a sob, and Jova heard her sit heavily on the edge of the wagon. Jova sat next to her, and put a hand on hers. She didn’t say anything. There was nothing for her to say.
There was movement from behind her, and Jova said, “It’s OK, Alis. You can come out now.”
And the three of them sat together, each nursing their own little wounds. Jova held each of their hands, and took a deep breath. What was there to say, that could heal the cuts and bruises that no hand could touch?
“Lady Fall bless us, we give you thanks,” said Jova, and she felt Bechde grip her hand just a bit tighter. “May we be wise, and in this game of worlds fortune be with you.”
“Fortune be with you,” echoed Bechde.
Jova squeezed Alis’s hand. “Say it with us, Alis.”
“Fortune be with us,” said the little girl, carefully and slowly, and Jova smiled.
“Close enough,” she said, and she turned her head to listen to the camp. A buzz seemed to travel around the camp as the news of the refugees spread. Jova felt the same questions stir in her head that the people of the caravan were no doubt asking each other. Where did they go now? What came after this?
Bechde rose. “I’ll need to talk with my advisors. The other alsknights, the minor farmers. We have some…planning to do.” She took a step, before suddenly she turned around. She embraced Jova, a tender, motherly embrace.
Jova stiffened, more than a little surprised, but after the shock had passed she embraced Bechde back.
“You have been with us for but a few days, darling,” said Bechde. “And yet I feel as if I have known you all my life.” Bechde sniffed. “I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but you are very much like the daughter that was taken from me.”
“Thank you, Bechde,” said Jova. “You…you’ve made leaving my mother easier.”
Bechde cleared her throat, and she patted Jova’s head again. “I must be going now, before the rumors get too out of hand. I will find you later, once the talks are over!”
Jova nodded, and waved in Bechde’s direction. She stood, holding Alis’s hand—the little girl was too short to let her arm hang while she stood hand-in-hand with Jova and had to hold her arm higher to meet Jova’s—and clicked her tongue to get a better picture of the state of the camp. Her concentration was broken when she felt Alis flinch beside her and heard her whimper.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” said Jova, immediately. She had forgotten how scared it had made Alis the night before, and hurriedly bent to hold Alis’s hand between hers. She gave it a comforting squeeze, like Ma used to do. “Look, it’s just a noise. See?” And Jova clicked again, right in front of Alis’s face.
The girl said nothing. A pensive silence stretched between them, and Jova licked dry lips. How was she supposed to read the girl’s emotions if she wouldn’t say anything?
Just to drive her point home, Jova clicked one more time, exaggerating her expression on purpose. Her face drawn long, her lips pouting out in a ridiculous circle, she clicked a few times in Alis’s face, and to her delight the girl let out one small giggle. “See?” said Jova. “Nothing to be scared of! Are you scared, Alis?”
Alis didn’t say anything. Jova waited for a response, but none seemed to be coming.
“Did you just shake your head?”
Again, no response.
“Don’t just nod your head, say yes.”
“Yes,” said Alis, and it amazed Jova how the girl could say a one syllable word that slowly and carefully.
“Well, you have to say that out loud from now on, OK? Say yes or no, don’t just shake or nod your head, OK? Because I can’t…I can’t see all that well, so I need you to say these things out loud for me. Can you do that, Alis?”
There was a couple seconds’ silence, before Alis remembered herself and said, “Yes.”
Jova smiled. “Thanks.”
As Jova stood, Alis took her hand once more and asked, “What’s under that thing around your eyes?”
“Why, my eyes, Alis,” said Jova. A little white lie couldn’t hurt, could it?
“Can I see them?” asked the girl.
Jova paused. “I’m afraid you can’t.”
“Because my eyes hurt right now, Alis,” said Jova, in her best placating voice. “And I can’t take this blindfold off or else they’ll hurt even worse.”
“How’d your eyes get hurt?”
Jova, who had once wished that Alis would talk a little more, was now beginning to wish that the girl would stop. “In an accident, a long time ago.”
“What kind of accident?”
“I don’t really remember all the details,” said Jova, vaguely.
“Was it like the accident my friend had?”
“The friend I left behind!”
And the smile vanished from Jova’s face. She remembered a child’s corpse, face swollen, flesh distended, lying in that clearing while Alis cried over the body. It was hard to stay jovial after that. “I don’t know, Alis. I don’t know what kind of accident your friend had.” She paused. “Do you feel OK talking about this?”
“Yes,” said Alis, although she didn’t say any more after that.
Jova squeezed her hand. “Come on, Alis, let’s go talk to some of my friends.” As they walked away, Jova couldn’t help but wonder if ignoring the issue was the best way to deal with it. She was just a kid. She didn’t know how to talk about things like death and loss to another child. For the first time, the unfairness of the situation dawned on Jova. Any other child her age would have been teasing and taking advantage of this little girl, not caring for her. If Jova was like any other child her age, she would have done the same, but she had grown up in the company of adults that had always watched out for her.
Jova wondered what would have happened to little Alis if she hadn’t found her. Like Bechde had said, the wilds were a dangerous place for a child. What might slow, thoughtful Alis have become out in the jungles of Moscoleon? Who else would have found her? Hag Gar Gan slavers, that roamed the jungle borders?
She shuddered. Jova promised herself that she would never let the little girl live either of those lives, slave or wild. She had seen the effect it had on her parents, the phobias and fears that had rooted in them. Most people thought one was mandatory, but Jova knew that there was a better way to live. She had lived it herself. It was what made her take Alis under her wing, instead of leave the girl out in the wilds to die.
But to be honest, Jova wasn’t sure if this was a crusade she could accomplish.
“Who are your friends?” asked Alis, her questioning only dissuaded momentarily.
“We’re looking for Janwye now,” said Jova. “She-.”
“What does she look like?”
Jova sighed, long and deep. “I don’t know, Alis.”
“How can she be your friend if you don’t know what she looks like?” Despite the way she said it, Alis didn’t sound accusatory at all. She sounded genuinely curious. It was an innocent question.
“My eyes have trouble like that. I know what she sounds like, though. She talks very fast, and very loud, and asks all these questions, all the time- kind of like someone I know,” said Jova. She poked Alis in the side, and to her surprise the reserved girl shrieked and giggled. “She’s not all that ticklish, though,” said Jova, grinning, and she ducked under Alis’s defenses to prod her again.
Alis tumbled over, laughing, and Jova mock-wrestled with her in the leaves, glad that she at last knew for certain that Alis was happy.
They twisted and rolled on the jungle floor, until Jova bumped into something hard and sturdy. At first, Jova thought she had hit a tree, but that thought was quickly disproven when the “tree” yelped and shouted, “Ow!”
Jova rose to her feet immediately, brushing off her coza. “I’m very, very sorry,” she said, quickly, and beside her she heard Alis mumble something like an apology as well.
“Not to worry, not to worry,” the man said, gruffly, and Jova recognized his voice as the refugee who had talked to Bechde. “Children will be children.” He paused. “Children. I didn’t realize there were children here…”
You don’t realize a lot of things, it seems, Jova thought, but she didn’t say it out loud.
“There’re children here,” muttered the man, under his breath, at a volume Jova had learned people thought she couldn’t hear them at. “Ladies Four, if we didn’t lose them…”
“Is something wrong, sir?” Jova asked, hesitantly.
“No, nothing’s wrong,” said the man, far too quickly to be true. “I’ll be off. Erm. Mind your step in the future, child!” And he stomped away, hurriedly.
“Strange man, wasn’t he, Alis?” said Jova, and Alis, breathless, said something that sounded like a yes.
They kept walking, taking the time to recuperate. Jova walked in the direction she had heard Janwye go, keeping her ears pricked as she passed through the camp. Janwye could not have gone far. Jova wanted—needed—to see how she was taking the news. Knowing Janwye, the volatile fieldwoman might do something drastic.
As they walked through camp, Jova’s keen ears caught snippets of conversation. People were worried; people were afraid. Jova just hoped that worry and that fear wouldn’t touch Alis. It was strange, how having something to protect gave her such purpose.
Inevitably, Jova’s thoughts turned to her eyes, to the blindfold. What would happen when Alis found out? Jova knew she could not keep it a secret forever; she would be caught, while she was sleeping or washing the blindfold or simply didn’t have it on. Perhaps Alis would leave someway, somehow, before Jova ever had to tell her secret.
Jova realized with a shiver that this was how Roan must have thought when he first met her. She found herself holding Alis’s hand so tight it must have hurt, and shakily let go. She missed Roan: the old Roan, the guardian Roan, not the missing and aloof and absent Roan.
And just as she was thinking of him, she heard his voice.
“Janwye, I am trying to warn you! We must leave now! There is no further to go,” snapped Roan, angrily. “The journey was a noble effort, but it is over. What are these things to us and our order? They mean nothing now.”
“You don’t mean that, Roan, I know you don’t mean that!”
Jova did not dare approach them. She took Alis’s hand and skulked away, her back pressed against a nearby tree. She did not know if she was in sight or out, but she did not want to get any closer.
Roan took a while to answer. Stel reared underneath him, screaming and nickering. “Perhaps not. But even so, there is nothing left for you to do. How can you prevent something that has already happened?”
“If I cannot stop the war, then I can help win it!” shouted Janwye. “We won’t go to the Seat, anymore. We’ll go to…to Hak Mat Do! The pyramid lords will help us! If they won’t, then you can rally the clans again! You are one of the Hag Gar Gan, Roan!”
“You are speaking foolishness, Janwye,” said Roan. “Please, listen to me! We must go now!”
“Why, Roan? What are you so afraid of?”
“In your anger, you were blinded,” said Roan. “Did you really think that a man would not notice he was talking to a fieldwoman, when he was surrounded by alsknights, by slaves, by western wagons and the finery of Alswell, unless he had something else to worry about? His words, however true or false they may have been, were bait, to let himself in under your protection. He has more immediate concerns than Banden Ironhide and his conscriptions in the north.”
Janwye’s voice had lost its edge, to be replaced by confusion. “What are you talking about, Roan?”
“When I rode ahead—when I strayed off the path—I am seeing them with my own eyes. I know their strategies, their tactics. They have sent their bait out, and now they lie in ambush.” Roan began to talk very fast, as if he had planned this part out. “I will find Jova, the animals, whoever else can escape without notice, but you must leave now, alone. If the whole camp moves at once, they will be alerted, and strike, and we shall all be lost.”
“Who’s going to strike? What do you mean, Roan?”
“You do not need to find the Hag Gar Gan, Janwye,” said Roan. “Their slavers are already here.”