Morning came, and at dawn, I sneaked out of bed, dressing before any of my grandparents woke up. Carefully, I inched past their bedroom where they lay in each other’s arms, pausing for a moment to look on the slumbering couple. Although they were both extremely healthy for their age, I tended to worry. So, driven by the fear of losing the only family I had, I checked on them during the night as a mother regularly checks her sleeping newborn babe to see if it is still breathing. I laughed to myself when I saw how Grandpa’s hearty snoring ruffled the curls in Grandma’s gray hair. No wonder her hair was always a mess when she awoke.
Holding my sandals in one hand, I tiptoed across the wooden floor to the kitchen, stirring the dying embers in the hearth and laying on a new log for Grandma to burn for breakfast. Once outside, I shut the door to the hut carefully, before putting on my sandals and flying through our little yard towards the empty streets.
With hardly a body in sight, I made it to the Wall surrounding the Capitol in no time. Once through the North gate, I left the main road and pulled myself up onto the steep, grassy bank that followed the course of the highway. The palms of ferns bowed their leafy heads as I passed as I walked through the bushes, remaining hidden from sight under the cover of the broad tree trunks. I had to walk about a mile before suddenly coming upon Boja. Not seeing him hidden among the thick leaves of the forest floor, I almost stepped on the man before he gave a warning yelp. Crouching beside him, I joined Boja as he watched the road like a hawk – on the lookout for the wagon.
“Any sight of it,” I asked in a hoarse whisper.
“Not yet,” He replied, shaking his head.
“Yahi did say that the cargo was supposed to be passing through this morning?” I prodded.
“Why so early,” I pondered aloud, yawning, “Wouldn’t it raise questions – seeing traders going about at such an hour?”
Boja glanced over at me sadly. “This is business that nobody talks about,” He muttered scornfully, “It’s not mentioned among the civilized. The others are buyers.”
I nodded slowly. Looking about, I squinted across the street till I could make out Yahi up among the tree branches. “I’ll make sure everyone is in position,” I said before cupping my hands around my mouth and whistling out a shrill bird-call. Another replied, then another and another, all coming from different trees hanging over the roadside.
Just then we could hear the squeaking of wagon wheels coming from around a blind corner.
“Get ready,” I whispered to Boja, drawing my knife.
A covered wagon came in sight. Its driver was wearing a long, black hood that cast a shadow across his face. Two men marched alongside with hands resting on swords that were strapped to their sides. Neither of them looked like professional guards, but more as if the village baker and blacksmith had been paid extra money to watch a suspicious-looking wagon. Both looked tired and much put out that they had to walk.
The wagon was just passing us by when I raised my hand to my mouth and gave another sharp, piercing whistle. Immediately, Yahi and Ja jumped out from their tree that hovered over the roadside and landed lightly upon their feet in front of the cart, blocking the wagon’s path.
The driver pulled sharply upon the reins, bringing the horses to an abrupt stop. “Out of the way!” He yelled crossly.
“Not without an inspection,” Yahi replied coolly.
“This wagon is only to be overlooked by the Municipal Officer,” The driver declared gruffly.
“Do you have a pass?” Ja inquired politely.
The man frowned, his black, bushy brows scowling fiercely at the two insolent fools that continued to block his way. “What pass?” He asked, raising his whip ever so slightly.
“The Officer is a busy man,” Ja explained, “He occasionally posts some casual inspectors to check certain carts before they pass through the gate. Helps to redirect the riff-raff.” He ended with a grin.
While Yahi and Ja were distracting the driver, Boja and I sneaked down the bank, being careful to approach the guards unseen. Just as we reached the back of the cart, the one that looked like the baker turned back and caught a glimpse of the tail-end of my braid.
“Bandits!” The guard cried in a panic, drawing his sword and beginning to slash it about clumsily in wide, wild circles. Giving Boja a nod, we each leaped in front of either men and quickly disarmed them with our own blades. The cart started forward as the driver whipped the horses, but Yahi already had a strong grip on their bridle and stopped them. Blowing a wisp of hair from my face, I knocked the heavy baker onto his knees and pulled his arms behind his back.
“Hand me some rope,” I called out.
Koulow appeared, creeping out of a bush and throwing us some twine as he approached the wagon to pull back its cover. I quickly tied the guard’s hands together and then his feet before leaving him to join Koulow. There at the bottom of the cart sat a bunch of women – their hands were bound and their mouths gagged. Their eyes were filled with fear.
I pulled away my mask. “Hi – don’t be alarmed,” I said, putting out my hands, palms facing up, and keeping my tone soft when speaking to the women, “We’re here to help you.”
Getting into the cart, I began to untie each one. Once their hands were free, they hastily pulled back the cloths that covered their mouths, red lines forming on across their cheeks where the strips had been. Their wrists were red and charred from the rough ropes.
“Where are you all from,” I asked them.
“Most of us were taken from our families to settle debts,” One girl answered, her clear voice ringing among the silent, shivering women. Turning to face me, I saw that she had fiery eyes and raven hair. A strong, vibrant spirit that burned deep within seemed to pulse through her little body, and though small, she held her chin up high letting us know that she was the leader of this pathetic, sad group.
“How far away is your village?” I asked her, “Can you get back safely?”
The girl poked her head out of the cart and looked around. “Where are we?” She asked.
“Just outside the Capitol.”
“Yes, we can get back.” The girl looked among her fellows, who all nodded eagerly.
I grabbed a bundle from Boja. “This is filled with food that we have gathered for you,” I explained, handing the bundle to the raven-haired girl, “I hope that there is enough for you all.”
“Where were they taking us,” A young girl, who looked to be only fourteen, asked in a trembling voice.
“To the Capitol’s brothel,” I answered, before adding hastily, “But don’t worry – you’re safe now. However, you must hurry.”
“Why are you helping us,” The leader asked warily.
“Have you ever heard of the ‘Protector’,” I asked her in reply.
All the girls’ faces brightened suddenly at the sound of that familiar name, so often told in bedtime stories.
“He sent you to save us,” The raven-head asked incredulously.
I gave her a smile. “Yes,” I said, “He did not wish to see innocent, helpless girls sent to such a horrible place.”
Koulow and Boja began to help the girls crawl out of the cart. The leader clutched at the bundle I’d given her as I pointed out directions. After the girls had stretched and gotten their bearings, we parted, they with some of Yahi’s most trusted men to protect them along their way.
“Yet another successful mission,” Boja said, placing both hands behind his head.
“It was very well done,” I agreed, “Excellent job my merry men.”
“What should we do with these…?” Yahi gestured towards the two troubled guards that lay tied up next to the wagon’s side.
I looked about me. “It’s the main road and someone is sure to come upon them shortly. Let’s leave them some food and they can wait till help arrives.”
“Great! Now how about we all stop in town for a drink,” Ja asked. The others laughed and murmured heartily in assent.
“I’d love to,” I said, “But I have to go home. Grandma doesn’t know I’m out and I have to help gather more herbs this afternoon.”
Boja glanced up to gaze at the sky. “Well, you’d better hurry,” He said, “It’s nearly noon now.”
I looked up and saw that my right-hand man was right. Dawn had already turned to midday.
“Oh no!” I muttered with an irritated grimace, “Grandma’s going to kill me!”
I turned back up the road and started to break into a run.
“Wait!” Yahi’s yell brought me to a halt.
“What?” I called back.
“If you’re in a hurry – take a horse,” He gestured to the horses that were still hitched up to the wagon, their driver bound and gagged against his will. “He won’t be needing them.”
“Yahi, you’re brilliant,” I said with a sigh of relief as I unhitched one of the horses and mounted upon the animal bareback.
“But of course,” Yahi admitted with a proud smirk.
Giving him a grin, I kicked the horse’s side and was off at full gallop.