Lightning glowed far away in the cloudy sky.
For just a moment, I could see the dark outline of the pitch-stained balloon against the light blue clouds, and then the light faded and the balloon disappeared, swallowed up in black.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Trusty asked for what seemed the hundredth time that evening. “It will be painful, and the scar may never fade. Your skin might be marred forever.”
“I’ve drawn the symbol exactly- all you need do is apply the acid and be ready to rinse it away with the solvent,” I said firmly. “Give me something I can put in my mouth, so I don’t scream.”
Trusty sighed and handed me a rag, which I placed in my mouth. Then I looked back up at the sky, trying to discern the balloon against the black sky.
I didn’t have the words to explain why I was ready to allow myself to be burned, and perhaps permanently scarred, so I gritted my teeth around the rag and fell silent. When the phenol hit my skin, I felt nothing, and then I felt a warmth that turned into a burning, building more and more until I could hardly stand it.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, but I did not flinch, did not move, and did not scream.
Time seemed to slow. I counted the seconds between the flashes of light and the peals of thunder, but the storm was still very distant and I could not distract myself for long.
“Your arm is done,” Trusty said. “In a few more moments I will remove the acid. In the meantime, stay still.”
I let the rag drop from between my teeth. “While we wait- let’s go over the plan,” I managed to say in a strangled voice.
“It is a simple plan. I wish we’d had more time so we could come up with something better. Still, we could not hope for a more opportune night. The bombs will sound like thunder to everyone on the mainland, and as long as the weather stays to the west, our craft will remain safe.”
“So- you will carry me to the edge of the eastern cliffs, where I will descend into the temple on foot while you proceed to the northeast entrance. I will do my best to stay hidden-” my words cut off and I groaned as a fresh wave of pain swept over me.
“Hopefully, if you are spotted by any guards, these scars and the slave tunic will help you to blend in. You will have to make sure that the bundle of weapons is hidden until you hear my signal.” Trusty stopped and lifted his lantern to view my arm more closely. “It’s ready. I’m sorry- the solvent will sting.”
He poured a pungent liquid on my arm. At first it felt refreshingly cool, and then the burning on my arm intensified. I gritted my teeth, but I could not stop the guttural cry that emerged from my throat.
“Don’t forget,” I whispered, “that I still need the brand on my chest.”
“It will be kinder if you go quickly,” I said.
Trusty shook his head, but he took the swab he’d used to apply the phenol to my arm and began to trace the symbol on my chest.
I gritted my teeth again, but I did not use the rag. I looked up again into the blackness and blinked away my tears.
This is pain that I have only escaped by circumstance, until now, I thought.
“I will detonate bombs near the northwest entrance to the temple,” Trusty continued. “Hopefully, the noise will draw the guards from inside the temple to the entrance. Then you will be able to distribute the weapons to the Ancients inside, and you can fight your way back out.”
“Are you sure the shooters are simple enough for us to use without training?”
“Yes- they are simpler to use than a flintlock. The shooter is a metal tube pre-loaded with thirty charges. Pull the lever in the back, and it will fire a projectile at the enemy. Hopefully, with the help of the martial training the Ancients already have, the weapons will level the playing field- at least enough to take care of the guards that avoid the explosions at the entrance.”
“This is a dangerous plan,” I said, “especially for you, since you will be alone at the entrance. In addition, the guards may have a protocol in place to deal with the Ancients in case of an emergency.”
“If there is, we will have to cross that bridge when we come to it,” Trusty said. “Dare told me that there hasn’t been any interference at the temple as long as she can remember, so she doesn’t know how the guards will react.”
Trusty poured the rest of the solvent onto my chest, and while my chest burned, the solvent was cold as it ran down my breasts. I was dressed only in a short grey tunic, which left my arms and my legs bare, and the night was growing colder. Slaves, it seemed, were not dressed to protect from the elements or provide comfort, but rather to differentiate them from everyone else.
The sky lit up again, and the wind rose. Trusty stood and looked around. Then, seeming satisfied, he began to climb into the basket.
“The wind is all from the east- we must hurry if we want to avoid losing the storm,” he said. “Sir Silas is gathering guild members from the pilgrim’s quarters, and he will bring reinforcements in the trawler by morning; we need to clear the way for them.”
“Of course,” I said.
The balloon’s basket was easier to climb into than I’d anticipated. The tunic, as cold as it was, did not restrict my movement nearly as much as pilgrim’s robes or crinolines.
As my feet hit the basket floor thunder rumbled in the distance, and when Trusty cut the tether the wind gusted as though to rush us on. Trusty twisted a knob attached to the gas line and there was a great whoosh. Then the ground grew distant, and the balloon bore me up, away, into the storm.
For most of the journey, we floated in a sea of darkness.
The balloon drifted without lantern, moon, or star to help guide its way. From time to time, the sky would glow with lightning, and I could see the froth of waves far below and the outline of dark cliffs in the distance. Each time, Trusty would mark the cliffs’ location and adjust our course slightly. With each flash of lightning, the cliffs loomed larger.
The wind was in our favor. Before I could have any second thoughts, we’d been swept to the island where battle awaited me.
Trusty helped me to tie the bundle of weapons to my back while we drifted low over the edge of the cliffs, and then he threw a rope ladder over the edge of the basket. He helped me onto the ladder, and then whispered, “good luck.”
I climbed down onto a steep, grassy slope. There was hardly a bush or tree to conceal me, and I could see straight down into the valley. The ruined temple below glowed with circles of firelight that danced off of uneven rock walls and crumbling columns. I could hear the rope scrape against the balloon’s basket as Trusty drew up the ladder, but I did not stop to watch him. I climbed down the slope, moving as slowly and quietly as I dared in the tall grass. I took a winding path, trying to stay as low as I could while I descended, and each moment fearing I would be spotted.
Everything remained silent below, and I reached the first crumbling temple wall unscathed. The light from the fires was brighter, so I got down on my hands and knees and crawled through a gap in the first wall and toward a second that had been worn so low it seemed little more than a hedge. I looked ahead and saw no other hiding place but a cluster of pillars that bore the skeletal remains of the temple backbone, beyond which were two circles of firelight. I removed my bundle and hid it behind the low wall, and then crept forward, crawling toward the pillars to get a closer view of the encampment.
I had reached the pillars and stood when I heard a loud voice cry out.
I froze. I could hear footsteps coming from beyond the circle of firelight, and before I could react someone grabbed me by the back of my tunic and yanked me backward.
“I found another one trying to sneak into the men’s camp,” the man who had grabbed me grunted into my ear.
Another man, dressed in black and bearing a spear, came into view. He leaned close to me and scanned me with glittering eyes, his gaze lingering on my newly-marred chest.
“Getting lonely, are you?” he said. “Maybe you’d like me to keep you company.”
But the first guard yanked on my cloak, pulling me away from the second. “You remember what the High Priest ordered; no touching. He doesn’t want any more of them to deal with.”
The second guard rolled his eyes and turned away, and the first dragged me away from the encampment, and toward another circle of firelight in the distance.
“Stay put- next time we won’t be so forgiving,” he said, tossing me to the ground. Then he walked away to the edge of the firelight, where two other guards were already posted. I pulled myself to my feet.
“What a fool,” I heard a girl behind me mutter. “Whoever he is, girl, he isn’t worth your neck.”
“Let her have her fun,” another scoffed. “We’re all going to die here, anyway.”
I turned around and saw a group of women gathered around the fire. The girl who had spoken walked closer to me. She had dark, curly hair like many of the others who gathered around me, and her skin shone like copper in the firelight.
She narrowed her eyes as she approached. “Who are you?” she whispered. “I’ve never seen you before.”
I put a finger to my lips and then leaned in closer to whisper. “I’m a friend of Dare’s. Something is about to happen.”
“Wha-” she backed away, her eyes wide. “You aren’t one of us?”
Several more women turned to stare at me, and I moved closer to the crowd that had already formed to avoid a more visible commotion.
“Swift is right- she’s an outsider,” a tall, skinny woman whispered. “Her brand is still raw.”
“Harmony?” an elderly woman’s voice creaked like an old door in my ear. “You are alive!”
“No- Harmony was my mother,” I said gently. I could hear a sharp intake of breath on my other side. “There’s little time to explain, but Dare has sent me here. I have hidden weapons behind the low wall, and soon we will have allies to help.”
“Help?” the tall woman hissed.
“You mean it’s time to fight back,” the woman called Swift said. “We aren’t going to wait around to die.”
“There’s going to be a distraction soon,” I said. “As soon as the guards are out of the way, we will take the weapons and fight.”
“Where are the weapons?” asked another, drawing near.
“Behind the low wall,” I repeated “Don’t gather here- spread the word through camp.”
Some of the women broke away and started to whisper among the other groups, but the tall girl and Swift drew nearer.
“Who is Harmony? Where do you come from?” the tall girl pressed.
“Dare told me about Harmony,” Swift said. “This girl must be the free-born Ancient.”
“I am; my name is Grace,” I said.
“How?” the tall girl said. Then she turned and looked over her shoulder, as though some quiet instinct had warned her about the guards who drew nearer to the circle.
“Go warn the others,” Swift said. “I will explain later.”
The tall girl nodded and drew back, and Swift took my arm as though we were bosom friends and drew me closer to the fire. “What will the distraction be?”
“It will be a clap of thunder- louder than any thunder the storm can produce.”
As though destiny were listening, a loud bang rang out through the camp, followed by another, and another, and then three more in rapid succession. The guards sprang into action, half of them running toward the sound, and the other half bearing their polearms toward the camp. My heart sank in despair- the guards were better organized than we’d anticipated.
Swift, however, took my arm firmly as she watched the guards disperse. Then she yelled, “Merrit! Lead the first company.”
At her words, the Ancients in the camp leapt to their feet and stormed the guards, fighting with fists against the guard’s spears.
“Show me to the wall,” Swift said urgently.
I looked back toward the path I’d come and saw a gap in the guard’s circle. I took the chance, ducked through the gap and ran at top speed all the way back to the wall. I could hear Swift’s feet pounding the earth behind me.
The bundle was waiting where I had left it, and all of the pre- loaded shooters remained untouched. A split second later Swift was by my side, her hands out ready to accept the weapon.
“Hold it this way,” I said, handing her one. “Pull the lever in the back to discharge it at your enemy. The charges are pre-loaded.”
“How many charges?” she said, holding the weapon securely as though she had held one all her life.
“That is enough,” she said. I tied the bundle with half of the weapons to her back, and I took the rest in my arms as she ran toward the men’s encampment. I was halfway back to the women’s camp when I was met by the tall woman, who took shooters from my arms and passed them to several more Ancients she had led away from the fray. I demonstrated the correct way to use the shooter as quickly as I could, and then the others scattered, running back to the battle fully armed. Another, very short woman soon found me, and she tossed the weapons to a few struggling fighters until there was only a weapon left for her and me.
The guards seemed to catch on- they turned away from the Ancients who still fought melee and, as though by unspoken command, rushed east where I and the group of newly-armed fighters stood ready.
*pop* *pop* *pop*
Lightning flashed overhead as the first shots were fired, and guards fell to the ground, one by one. The shooter trembled in my hands- I raised the gun but hesitated. One guard looked at me, smirked at my hesitation, and ran toward me.
I couldn’t see who had shot, but the guard fell.
My fellow shooters advanced, and I walked with them through clouds of gunsmoke and the smell of fresh blood. I stepped over the bodies of the fallen as I advanced, almost stumbling, the sounds and smell turning my stomach.
I saw, among the bodies, a girl with curly hair in a grey tunic writhing on the ground as she tried to stem the blood flowing from her side. Then my hands moved on their own, raising the shooter and adding my fire to the cloud of bullets that sent the guards, one by one, to the earth.
Lightning flashed again, and the unnatural thunder boomed and cracked in the distance.
Suddenly, the guards broke rank and scattered. Some of them ran northeast toward the entrance, and some fell back, running toward the crumbling walls. Only a few remained with the melee fighters, and they were quickly overwhelmed.
“Don’t let them reach the armory!” One of the melee fighters screamed as she plunged a spear into a guard’s back. Then I heard a sickening crunch before I saw the spear emerge from the guard’s chest.
I turned away from the grotesque scene and ran with the others, pursuing the guards who fled toward the wall. We followed to the entrance of a squat, stone building, where we slowed our run, raised our weapons, and fired again.
Most of the guards fell, but more emerged from the building- some covered in black and some half-dressed, but all armed with swords and flintlocks.
Then it was our turn to fall back as the armed guards advanced. We traded fire, and then when we’d all run out of ammunition, the guards charged- swords raised.
The guards fell, their swords clattering to the ground. I turned to the side and saw our reinforcements- the Ancient men, armed with shooters and led by Swift.
The fallen guards were already being stripped of their weapons, and someone pressed a sword into my hand. The feel of heavy steel seemed to awaken my voice, and I called.
“To the entrance! Everyone- we must pursue the rest northeast.”
I ran toward the entrance, and with a queer feeling I realized that the others were following me- heeding my orders. I raised my sword and let loose a cry as I ran, and the others echoed with a scream of fury.
We ran down a wide path that narrowed slightly before we reached the beach. I was exposed- the path had bottlenecked and left my companions behind me, but the guards were all distracted. Some guards waded into the sea, and some knelt on the sand and shot arrows toward what appeared for all the world to be a great flaming beast, which drifted and flailed on the waves.
Trusty’s balloon had caught fire, and it was crashing into the sea.
The Ancient’s swords sliced through the archers, and they shot their remaining charges into the backs on the guards who were wading into the water. I stabbed my own sword into the sand and dove into the icy waves.
“Trusty” I called. “Please, please don’t die.”
For a moment there was no reply, and then the balloon’s basket caught fire. There was a fizzling sound, and then a huge explosion. The whole sea seemed to boil, and the sky was on fire with sparks of red, gold, blue, and white. I could feel the explosion in my chest, hear it ring in my ears, and a wave of water rushed at me, hitting my open mouth and forcing me back into the sea.
I kicked desperately and hit the surface once more. I coughed and choked, and as soon as my lungs filled with air and my eyes blinked away the salt, only tears remained. The balloon was destroyed, and only a few bits of basket drifted, aflame, on the surface.
“Trusty- no,” I whispered, and then coughed again.
“My balloon!” I heard someone behind me cry. I turned to see Trusty swimming toward me.
“I jumped before it hit the surface.” He swam to me and grabbed my shoulders. “What are you doing in the water? You’ll freeze. Come on- let’s get to shore.”
There was a final crack of thunder, and then the rain started to fall.