Not even a fence kept the slaves in. Mounted on tall, stern-looking horses and brandishing their coiled whips, the slave drivers stood as the only obstacle to freedom. With desert on one side and the Red City miles away on the other, Divya knew that was enough to keep the slaves trapped and afraid. But without the masters…
The first one to spot Divya barked something at her in a cruel, growling voice, and he cracked his whip menacingly, but Divya did not give him the chance to use it. Riding past him a mere ten woman-heights away, she made her easy shot, and the master crumpled to the ground.
Quickly, the others realized the threat, and the one foolish enough to charge her made ten strides before Divya brought him down. The rest filed hurriedly into the great stone house.
The slaves watched, astonished, and a few of the braver ones hurried up to Ashish and Divya.
Ashish turned to Divya and patted the rapier at his side. “Go to the other farms. I’ll finish what you started here.”
“You? You can barely speak their language.”
“My great-uncle was a chieftain. I have leader’s blood in me.”
Divya decided not to argue. “Good luck.”
On her way to the next plantation, she abruptly realized that she felt no fear, neither for herself nor for headstrong Ashish. It seemed that her old self, that foolish battering ram of a girl, was alive after all—not merely alive, but in open rebellion.
With Parul’s speed and her aim, the slave drivers never stood a chance. At the next plantation, the slaves were quicker to catch on, and one of them presumed to mount a felled overseer’s horse and ride up to Divya. A tough, grim-looking old woman, with brute’s arms and a back that looked like it could never be straight again, the slave nonetheless rode with confidence.
“There’s a rebellion in the Red City,” said Divya. “Gather everyone you can and join them.”
“We know of the rebellion,” said the old slave. “When they’re finished with the lords, the thugs will come to cut us down next.”
“That’s not true. You’ll be allies.”
“By right, this is their land we’ve worked on. They do not forgive that easily.”
“But you’re only slaves! What do they blame you for?”
Two men stumbled to a stop before the horsewomen, and the healthier of the two faced the old woman. “Let’s do it, mother,” he said. “I don’t care what they think of us. This is the only chance we’ll ever have to pay the masters back. Let’s take it.”
“As soon as they realize what I’ve done,” said Divya, “the soldiers will come for you. If you start immediately, you can reach the city before they catch you.”
“No.” Her voice was a bitter growl. “First, we remove these collars.” She raised a finger to her sons. “Get the trimmer, and gather everyone. We’ll end this day bare-necked, as free men and women.”
The men obeyed, hauling a great, blunt set of pruning shears out of a sun-baked brick hut. With dangerous haste, the sicklier one snipped away the other’s collar, then did the same for the eager servile crowd that swarmed around him.
Looking ahead, Divya searched for guards and slave drivers on the next farm and saw none. Apprehensively, she spurred Parul across the row of stones that stood for a boundary, casting her eyes around while an arrow sat ready on her string.
More exploration revealed an empty dugout that smelled of filth, a torn old canopy that threw halfhearted shade onto some dusty rugs and a surprisingly small lord’s house that produced no light and no sound. When at last she dared to dismount and investigate the house on foot, she saw a half-eaten meal spread out on rich red and purple blankets, but no one to eat it, nor anyone to serve the food, wash the masters’ feet or clean up after them.
Climbing out onto the roof of the house, she peered as far into the heat-warped distance as she could see, and it was plain that the third farm ahead had become a fortress. Soldiers, mercenaries and slave drivers with bows stood in a defensive ring around a rich cluster of homes. Lone horsemen, obviously couriers, galloped away. Not even rugged, fiery old Parul could match their pace.
Clearly, her fun was over. Turning back to the city, Divya hurried Parul back into the buildings, away from the vengeful eyes of the slave-masters.
Chaos ruled the stone streets. Armed peasants stepped aside to get out of her way, and she could sense the eyes of hundreds more peering out their stone windowsills, wondering when the killing would end. In the square, where shouts and threats had risen through the hot, tense air, there now rose smoke and fire. Parul grew skittish underneath her, and Divya prepared herself for anything.
Closer into the square, she saw fire, ruin and torn bodies. It was the bloody harvest of a victory, but Divya could not tell whose. The queen’s great mountain of a throne had been toppled, but where was that rebel leader standing in her place, howling about land? Divya’s hand tightened dangerously around her bow.
Something cracked behind her, and woman and horse startled in unison. A moment later, with her bow halfway drawn, she stopped, recognizing a scruffy blond face.
“Divya!” said Ashish. “Get in the side street! Hurry!”
Murmuring reassurance to Parul, Divya steered her into an alleyway and up onto a spacious patio hidden from view. Parul’s hooves clopped over a fresco of some long-dead king.
“We did it!” declared Ashish, hurrying out onto the patio with her. A few fierce-looking rebels surrounded him, their stolen swords bloody.
“The slaves are coming,” said Divya. “A few of them. The slavers reacted quickly, and they banded together. But I freed a few score first.”
“The slavers… they’re not coming here, are they?”
“No. There aren’t enough of them for that.”
Ashish grinned. “Then we’ve already won. We got the queen, Divya. She’s dead.”
“I know. I shot her.”
“I mean her and all the guard. They know she’s dead, and now they’re in a panic, just what we hoped. The rebel are all causing havoc around the temples, and they’ve pillaged the warrior’s camps.”
A smile tugged up a corner of Divya’s lips as the girl inside her shouted with glee.
From an archway above them, feet scuffled loudly, and a rebel who looked even younger than Ashish peered down over the edge, shouting something in the desert tongue.
One of Ashish’s companions translated, “He says there are people coming. Outsiders. A few on horses, and more behind them. Dozens of dozens.”
There was a pause. “We’ve met them,” said Divya.
Ashish perked up. “They can help us! Let’s go to them! We can gather up all their strongest and—”
“Ashish.” Divya used the firm voice she always used when a bad idea seized him. “They’re not warriors. They’re farmers, and not even hardy ones.”
“Maybe…” His rapier twitched in his hand as he thought. “But we should still ride out to meet them. They could be in danger on their own.”
Without another word, Ashish disappeared into the building. A few minutes later, he reappeared around a corner, on horseback. The southerners who had followed him set off on their own errand.
As they clopped down the harsh inner-city stone streets, then the softer packed dirt, Divya saw that the royal army was even more off-balance than Ashish had led her to believe. Clusters of soldiers huddled together, hopelessly outnumbered by the mobs that swarmed the city, and men in priestly dress scampered across the bridges above, surrounded by family and servants. Outside, the mounted slave drivers were gone from the fields, with a few rich farmhouses already half-demolished, and others with their family emblems painted over by new ones the slaves had invented for themselves.
Beyond all that, a few thin, sun-beaten horsemen gaped at the city, then at Ashish and Divya.
“You two!” said one rider, excitement coloring his tired face. “You’ve been to the city! What did you see?”
“It’s time,” said Ashish, before Divya could open her mouth. “The evil queen is history, and the rebel are raising chaos.”
The riders cringed.
“Get your people in there as soon as you can,” added Divya. “It’s a good day to be a commoner.”
The two traded words, so quick and heavily accented that Divya only caught worthless snatches of it. But when the two turned and bounded back to their waiting clan, their excitement was answer enough.
The landless clan must have come closer since their meeting earlier that day, because Ashish and Divya had to wait only minutes before a human flood crested the dune ahead, a mass of careworn women, rugged men and tired-eyed children. Wordlessly, Ashish and Divya joined the march, plodding along the sand, then the freshly abandoned farmland up to the city.
The first sign of trouble came before they even entered. A girl on a high balcony aimed a finger at them and shrieked, then dashed out of sight. In no time, a mob assembled in the streets, with uncomfortably many weapons aimed at the outsiders.
“Go back to the desert!” shrilled a woman’s voice from in the crowd.
Elbowing his way to the front of the crowd, a tall man flung out one burly arm and declared, “Slaves! This is no longer your home! Leave this place.”
A man from the landless clan, old and withered but with a steely look in his eye, rode out in front of the mob. “We are not slaves,” he called back. “We are only poor hand-workers, and we humbly ask a place in your city.”
Divya cringed at the man’s display of weakness. These people seemed to want to be beaten and left for dead. As soon as she had that cruel thought, she slapped it down, but at the same time, she longed to ride out and show a strong voice to these ungrateful city-dwellers.
Once again, Ashish had the same idea. He thundered out to the old man’s side and yelled, “I am Ashish, son of the mountains, and I fought for you! Don’t you recognize me?”
The mob rumbled uncertainly, and Divya’s hopes rose.
“You!” said the burly leader. “You got Brave Adabash killed!”
“I didn’t kill him!” Ashish retorted, “He killed himself, running out into the middle like that!”
Divya snarled. That was the wrong answer.
The mob did not like it. The mob leader belted out some other incrimination, but before he could finish, an arrow arced over the front of the mob and landed in the sand between them.
The arrow made no sound, but it may as well have crashed down with the weight of a boulder. The landless clan spooked, the emaciated old patriarch turned to flee, and Ashish was left howling alone at the mob for its betrayal. Defeated, Divya turned and joined the migrants as they trudged hopelessly past the city. After a few minutes, Ashish’s righteous outrage died down, and he caught up with her.
“How?” he murmured. “How could they throw us out?”
“They are not the first people who ever rejected you,” said Divya grimly. “Nor me. Don’t be surprised.”
Ashish sighed out his despair. “I suppose you’ll want to leave these people now? Ride ahead and see what we can find?”
“I’ll think about it.” She spurred Parul to pull away from Ashish, into the thick of the strangers.
Leaving these poor wretches was the wise thing, she knew. It would get the two of them to safety faster, if such a thing truly existed. But still, something was missing. These migrants hadn’t tried to blame them for anything, nor demanded that the two outsiders leave. That was rare.
Divya heard weeping, and it took her a moment to realize it wasn’t her own. Off to her side, a woman who could have been no older than twenty-two bawled as she sat between her farm-horse and the cart it had broken on a sharp rock. Two children stood meekly at her feet, helplessly watching their mother come undone. Something crawled from the ruined cart. A third child, a girl youngest of all three, sniffled weakly, and not because of her scraped knee.
Divya couldn’t look away. She had been a daughter once, long ago and terribly far away. She’d had the whole world before her and her whole life to conquer it, and then had it all taken away. The girl in the cart cried, and the girl inside Divya cried with her.
“Girl,” said Divya, dismounting.
She was ignored.
“Girl!” she said, louder.
The little girl looked up, and Divya knelt in front of her. “Are you hurt?”
“It’s not bad,” said the girl hurriedly. “But now mother needs help carrying all of this… and us.”
Divya smirked, mounting Parul. “Have you ever ridden an amazon warhorse before?”
The girl looked clueless, but cooperated as Divya lifted her up to the saddle. As the girl’s mother lifted what she could carry from the wrecked cart, her pain-filled eyes gazed wetly up at Divya, and her lips twisted into a baffled smile.
Divya drew her fingers from her throat to her heart, an amazon symbol of trust, and when the mother and her children were walking again, Divya walked with them, a part of the crowd.
Gazing at the horizon, Divya once again thought of galloping off into the distance, then realized that she no longer wanted to. She wanted to help these people, even if it slowed her down.
“I concede the battle,” said Divya, not because she had been run out of the city, but because the girl inside her— that soft, sentimental fool— had won.
And most strangely of all, it felt good.