Tressida sat in a stall reading a book stolen from the Horseguard library, her long legs folded beneath her. The stalls were empty. There hadn’t been horses in the park in her lifetime, nor that of her Gran. Still, she imagined she could smell them. Since the Horseguard had left two sennights before, Tressida often put her nose up to the saddles and bridles hanging neatly in the tack room and inhaled deeply. But the only scent was of the oil used to keep the equipment in good condition.
To what end remained a mystery. Rumor had it the horses were dead, or had abandoned all hope of being called, although a few people in Lerom believed they would return and save everyone. Gran among them.
And Tressida, too. She wanted to join the Horseguard and someday become captain. It would not mean much without the horses, but it would be something. Better than lying in bed awaiting the slumbering sickness.
Sida closed the book, clapping dust into her face. She sneezed and laughed at the same time then rubbed her nose. The day grew dark, or darker, to be precise, because the ever-present clouds meant the day never truly became bright. She should get home. Tonight, they would celebrate the anniversary of her birth seventeen years before, and Gran had promised something special.
But a few more pages wouldn’t hurt. Gran rarely returned from the palace before full night. Tressida let the book fall open. The chapter delineated, in fascinating detail, the correct method to groom a horse, along with all the different brushes and combs needed. She had found the equipment and practiced the movements on one of the many statues around the park. As beautiful as they were, they were cold and hard. She longed to feel the warmth of a real horse.
Other chapters covered feeding, hoof care, exercise, and one, her favorite, different methods for braiding a horse’s mane and tail. Her own hair was currently braided in rows along her crown. People looked at her askance for the strange style, but she did not care. Would a horse’s hair feel the same?
Gran called her fairy-headed for such thoughts. But fairies were no more thick on the ground than horses. She stretched her legs and stood, having grown stiff from sitting. If there were horses here, the stalls would be bedded with deep straw to protect their legs. She’d learned that from the book, too.
What she wouldn’t give to lie down with a horse, to snuggle into the sweet straw and match the rhythm of her breath to the horse’s—
“Sida!” Gran’s shout made her jump.
Gran never yelled.
She never left the palace kitchens when working, either, let alone came looking for her. How did the old woman known Sida had been spending her days in the Horse Park?
Gran knew things. Things she never explained.
Tressida tucked the book under her arm and trotted to the sprawling barn’s entrance. A breathless Gran nearly knocked her over.
Gran never moved faster than a sedate walk.
She always had an air of serenity about her and kept her hair scraped tightly into a bun at the base of her skull. Today, two bright spots colored her cheeks. Several strands of hair had escaped. And by the goddess, were those beads of sweat on her high forehead?
Gran grabbed Tressida’s arms. “Sida, you must leave.” She paused to catch her breath. “Now.”
“Leave? What are you saying—”
“Do not question me, child. We have spoken of this. You remember?”
Tressida nodded. Truthfully, she had only ever humored Gran’s instructions about escaping the city for she had never believed she would need them. She expected to peacefully die in her own bed of the slumbering sickness long before any need to make a run for it arose.
She grasped Gran’s shoulders, still straight and strong despite her age. “What are you talking about?”
Gran dragged her toward the nearest gate to the lower city. There, she paused, listening. Tressida did, too, but heard nothing.
“They come.” Gran pushed the heavy iron gate. It swung out silently, the horses worked into the design momentarily seeming to leap free. “Stay to the east and away from the main avenue.”
“Who is coming?”
Gran shook her hard enough to rattle teeth.
Gran never used force. A cold knot of worry formed in Tressida’s belly.
“Derrians. They come to take the city, likely the whole country.”
Hope unraveled the knot. “They bring the horses?”
“Foolish girl,” Gran hissed. “Do you listen to nothing I tell you?”
Gran’s eyes, usually placid blue like the sky reflected in one of the palace ponds, took on the cast of a storm cloud, surging as if pushed by wind. That, more than the yelling and running and dragging, snapped Tressida out of complacency.
“Tell me what to do.”
The creases in Gran’s forehead eased. “Beneath the trunk in your closet is a trap door. It leads to a tunnel beneath the city. This will take you to the east wall. No one guards it. There is a pack at the bottom of the ladder. Do not take a lantern. Make sure the trap is shut and pull the ladder away—”
“Wait. You are coming, too, right?” Tressida knew Gran would return to the palace to fulfill her duties, but surely she would follow later.
Gran’s grip on her arm eased, and then she brought her hands to Tressida’s cheeks. “My darling fairy-head.” The tempest in her eyes quieted. “I should have told you more.” Again, she canted her head toward the city, but all was quiet to Tressida’s ears.
“Go east through Seawood until you reach the coast, then north. Take the terrace road if you can find it. That will be fastest. Empty the larder before you go, but do not waste time. You must make for the city of Siblan and go to the house of Warden Kadre. He will know what to do.”
“Warden Kadre. I will remember. But…” Tressida had never been far outside of Lerom, and she knew little about Derr except that they were Cirq’s nearest neighbor to the west. “Surely the Derrians come to help?”
The squall returned to Gran’s eyes along with the glint of tears. “They do not. They are barbarians bent on destruction. Do not let them catch you.”
She pressed her forehead to Sida’s, mumbled a few words, and then, aloud, she said, “Never forget how much I love you. You are gift to the world. Do not fear what you are, embrace it. I have been honored to care for you.” She kissed Sida’s cheeks. “Do not let them catch you. Do not look back. Do not wait for me.”
“Do not let them catch you, understand?”
But Gran only shoved Tressida down the narrow stone walkway.
Behind her, the iron gate clanged shut.
Even though she still could hear nothing of the Derrians, even though the city appeared as calm and quiet as ever, she did as Gran said. Fear tightened her belly. Down and around the streets that twisted back on themselves, always down, for Lerom had been built on a small mountain with the palace and horse park at the pinnacle.
She flew into their tiny house and raced to her room. Gran had never mentioned a trap door. Probably for the best. Too tempting to explore. She took the handle of the heavy wooden trunk and jerked it to the middle of her room. Nothing. Not even an outline to indicate where the door might be and no ring with which to lift it.
On her knees, Tressida swept her hands wildly around the inside edges of the closet and along the floorboard seams trying to find a crack or crease she might dig a fingernail into.
She sat back on her heels and exhaled noisily through her nose. Gran did not make up the trap door. Tressida might be a fairy-head, but she believed the dread in the old woman’s eyes, had felt it as if it were her own.
She made a fist and rapped on the closet floor with her knuckles. A hollow sound returned. This was the right place. And then, as she watched, a slightly darker line appeared where the walls met the floor, forming a perfect square that when open would be just large enough for her to fit.
One more thing Gran neglected to explain. Without questioning whatever power had created the secret door, Tressida pulled her belt knife and wedged it into the newly formed groove. The door popped up on hinges hidden below. The ladder rested against the doorway, just as Gran said. At the foot, she could make out the pack. What would be in it?
Excitement pricked the inside of her chest.
Truth be told, Tressida had sensed a change coming. In the last couple of days she had scented something new and fresh on the air coming from the north. Lying in bed at night, listening to Gran hum in the next room while crushing and mixing herbs from the palace hot house, Tressida had felt lightened, almost as if she floated above her mattress.
There had been other feelings recently, too. Sometimes, when she walked barefoot on the dead grass in the horse park, her feet tingled as if something lived just beneath the surface. It filled her with longing and contentment in equal measure.
She had asked Gran about it, but Gran had only smiled, a little sweetly, a little like she hid a private joke, and said they would talk soon.
Soon had come and gone.
Whatever the north breeze brought, whatever dwelled under Sida’s feet, it was not the Derrians. She thought she could feel them now in a dusky westerly wind and an uneven heaving in the ground. It was as if even the soil and rocks of Cirq rebelled against their invasion.
Mostly, she wrinkled her nose at the dank air wafting out of the tunnel.
Tressida went to the kitchen and filled a sack with a few meager provisions—a hunk of stiff cheese, half a loaf of stale bread, a small sack of nuts—leftovers from the palace. Almost an afterthought, she filled a skin with water from the barrel in the corner. As she turned, she saw the book she had taken from the library of the Horseguard on the kitchen table. She snatched it up and shoved it in the bag.
Driven by the storm in Gran’s eyes and the excitement pressing her breastbone, Tressida started down the ladder. At the bottom, she slung the waiting pack onto the shoulder opposite her food and water. Gran would be fine. She almost always ate at the palace, anyway.
Tressida started down the tunnel, then stopped.
“I am such a fairy-head,” she mumbled. She had forgotten to close the trap and pull down the ladder.
She climbed it again and grabbed the door, wondering if it would reseal itself. But as she did, a scuffling noise came from the front of the house.
Silently, she eased the packs off her shoulders and hung them on the top of the ladder, then boosted herself through the opening. It was nearly full dark but she didn’t dare light a candle.
From the street, the sound of people running, and farther away shouts echoed.
Her room was next to the kitchen. She liked being close to the only source of heat. She did not like being cold, and the city was always cold anymore. When had the sun last shone?
Thin light trickled through the single window, enough for her to see someone crouched by the front door with a hand on the latch, hiding, it seemed, from those outside.
More people ran past.
What was happening? Where was Gran?
Sida’s knife came into her hand. She was not sure how. Her palm felt slick, her heart struggled to stay behind her ribs, and blood pumped against her ears. Slowly, she moved into the room, staying in the shadows, but her shoulder brushed against a pan hanging on the wall.
The person spun to her, a man, his face frozen for a moment, eyes wide, teeth bared. Then, he pulled open the door and bolted.
Tressida stood rooted to the spot trying to still her breathing, staring after him.
Then, she followed.