“I know you are, Princess.”
“I want to go home.”
“Can’t go home.”
She’d asked him the question before. She’d asked him many times on their flight from the palace into the country-side. At first he hadn’t given her a reason. They had too much ground to cover. But she’d persisted, and so he’d told her because they had to. When she kept on persisting, he’d told her that they were going on a trip and would meet her parents there (wherever there was). Then he’d told her it was a game. And then he’d told her the truth: “Because they have your mother and they killed your father and they’ll kill you if they can get you.”
He’d started giving her this answer four miles ago. She kept asking him anyway. To make it real in her young mind? Maybe because the words didn’t carry any weight for her. He didn’t know. But she hadn’t become hysterical, so he kept answering her as best he could.
“My legs hurt.”
“I’m sure they do.”
“When can we stop?”
“Soon, Princess.” It was always soon, but never soon enough. In his mind there was a distance they had to travel, and he’d pushed her hard to reach it before daybreak. Sometimes he carried her. He’d carried her out of the palace. More often they both walked. The Queen’s “go-bags” had come in handy as well as his father’s wood-lore.
They lapsed into silence. Until, “I’m tired.”
“I know, Princess.”
“Are you tired.”
“Can we stop?”
She never asked how soon was soon. She never pointed out that he’d been saying “soon” since she’d first asked the question many, many miles ago. She never complained about the blisters that had to be forming, or the weight of her own pack. She asked her questions, he gave her his answers, they lapsed into silence. It was how they worked.
“I want to go home.”
“Can’t go home, darling.”
“Because the Consort is dead, the Queen is captive, and they’re gonna want you next.”
“Because they’re evil bastards.”
She nodded and kept walking.
When they finally stopped she didn’t notice it. He had to sprint to catch up with her and bring her back. “Do you think you can sit here for a few minutes, Princess, while I make this shelter for us.”
She nodded quickly. They had been walking all night.
“Without falling asleep?”
“I guess I can stand.”
He gave her a sharp nod. “I’ll be quick.”
It wasn’t a shelter so much as a screen from prying eyes. They were going up into the trees anyway. The one he’d chosen had a big knoll in the middle as if it had been hollowed out by generations of folks sitting between its big branches. He thought it’d be big enough to sit them both without having to worry about the girl falling out while they were sleeping. The screen would hide them from prying eyes so long as a strong wind didn’t kick up.
He climbed out of the tree, glad again for his father’s teaching. “You ready, Prin—”
She was asleep on her feet. He would have let her be if he thought he could climb the tree with her, but she wasn’t quite that small anymore. “Come on, darling. Wake up for me.”
“Found us a place to hide, remember? Gonna climb up this tree and hide in the branches till it gets dark, then we’ll move again.”
“ ‘Kay.” She was swaying on her feet, eyes drifting closed.
“Nope! No, not yet, Princess. You climb this tree for me and I’ll let you sleep the clock around. C’mon, sweetheart. Wake up for a man too young to be runnin’ all over again.”
“Climbing the tree. C’mon, you. Upsy-daisy.” Following close behind, he made sure she made it up to the break without hurting herself then got them settled. It would be a little warm with the both of them curled up together, but he didn’t think she’d mind. He didn’t. He was just as tired as she.
“Alright. Wake me up if you gotta go, otherwise I’ll wake you up when it gets dark, okay?”
“Why can’t we go back?”
He sighed. It was his first sigh. “Because everyone they haven’t killed or caught is right here in this tree, and we’re next on the list.”
“What do we do next?”
“Once we find a place big enough for you to open a travel storm, Princess. That all right by you?”
“Never done one before by myself. But Tutor says I’m pre- pre- pre-ko…”
She sat up. “What if I can’t do it?”
“Don’t even think about it. There’s always other places to hide. We’ll be safe. We’ll go back home. Now get some sleep.”
She settled herself against his body as he tried to relax long enough to drop off himself.
“Last one, Princess, then it’s lights out ‘til the morning.”
“ ‘Kay. Jeb, are we going to die? Like Daddy?”
He pulled her close and dropped a kiss on her dark hair. “Cain’s are notoriously hard to kill, darling.”