Zon—for Zon he was—lowered his sword, looking hard into Ameryn’s eyes.
“I’m dead?” Ameryn retorted. “You’re the one who’s—”
“How did you escape?”
“How did you escape? And where are the others?”
“A-Ameryn,” he stuttered, his shock-widened eyes shrinking into a look of pity. He raised a hand as if he were going to touch her face. “What happ—”
Ameryn swiveled to face the source of the banshee cry, only to see a brown blur barreling at her from the edge of the clearing. She felt the wind fly from her lungs as the creature knocked her to the ground and started pelting her face with tiny fists.
“I’ve got ‘er, Zon! Run while I’ve got ‘er distracted! Grrr, take that, you devil!”
“ENILOR!” Zon barked “Get off of her!”
“This is no time for heroism, you great lummox! Save yourself!”
“Enilor, it’s me!” Ameryn cried, willing herself not to kick the creature off with her clawed feet. “Stop, I don’t want to hurt you!”
The barrage of beating stopped. Ameryn’s bleary eyes focused in on small furry face, half concealed under a curtain of wild honey-brown hair. Her exposed eye roved suspiciously around Ameryn’s face.
“Who’re you, Missy? Don’t think I caught your name.”
“Enilor,” Zon said, pulling the Otterling off of Ameryn’s chest. “This is Ameryn.”
Enilor blinked incredulously, then rubbed her eyes with her paws. Her nose wiggled for a moment, sniffing Ameryn’s skin and hair. Then her face split into a wide grin. She knocked Ameryn to the ground again, this time in an overenthusiastic hug.
“AMMYYY!!!” she squealed. “Goodness gracious, we never thought we’d see you again, never, no, never, but here you are—oh goodness I’m going to cry—oh, Ammy!”
Ameryn wrapped her arms around the otterling, near tears herself. She had thought them all long dead—but here were two. She looked up at Zon imploringly.
“Who else is here?”
“EVERYONE!!” Enilor bellowed before Zon had a chance to answer. “Looka’ who’s here! Come on out! It’s safe!”
Ameryn watched in dumb amazement at the figures that crept into the moonlit clearing. Two taurlin girls, a giant, a Low Sprite, a centaur, a faun, and two elves, one male one female, stepped from the shadows.
“Claritas…” Ameryn breathed as she rose slowly to her feet. “Mesmeralda…Loui….”
The first of the taurlin girls—Claritas—stepped toward her on tentative hooves, the other taurlin close behind. “Ameryn?”
One by one, her old friends surrounded her and embraced her. She was nearly crushed in the embrace of the giant, Loui. The centaur and the faun and the Low Sprite she did not know—but all the other faces were faces of friends she had thought long dead at the hands of Sprite slave traders. Zon’s brother and sister—the two elves—Mesmeralda, Claritas’s cousin—all of them lost, but now found.
“How did you all get free?” Ameryn asked. “The last time I saw you, you were all enslaved.”
“Not anymore, love,” Enilor said. “We’ve got Zon to thank for that. Without ‘im, we’d probably still be slaves.”
“We still are,” Zon said grimly. “We’ve no way of removing our brands.”
“Eh, still,” Enilor said, undaunted. “We’re mostly free, then. Do you see chains on these feet?” she said, pointing at her furry toes exaggeratedly. “No. No you don’t. Thanks to Zonno.”
“She’d have you believe I set us free singlehandedly,” Zon said, running his fingers over his hair with an unsettled gesture. “We set ourselves free, Ameryn. All of us. Three years on the slave lines, and folk were afraid to buy us because of what we were. One day we couldn’t take it anymore. We got away from our captors—”
“—And sent a few to the depths in the process,” Enilor interjected, making a bloodthirsty little slicing motion across her throat.
“—and here we are,” Zon finished, spreading his arms wide. “The Freedom Troupe.”
“You still play music, then?”
“Naturally. Only now we don’t play it under a master’s whip.” He went around the circle of friends, calling off their instruments as he went. “Claritas and Mezzy take the woodwinds, Loui’s on the drums, Enilor’s on the fiddle, Narina plays the tambourine and dances—my brother and sister play anything they can get their hands on, naturally—Alexim’s on the panpipes, Paddy plays this big wooden thing,” he said, giving the great fiddle-like instrument on the centaur’s back a pat, “and I play the lute.”
“Traveling musicians by day,” Enilor said, waggling her eyebrows mischievously, “emancipators by night.”
“You free slaves?” Ameryn gasped.
“Slavers are always looking for cheap entertainment,” Zon said with a shrug. “So we give it to them—that and more.”
“That’s how we got these fine chaps you haven’t met before,” Enilor said, seizing Ameryn’s arm and escorting her around the circle, stopping first at the Low Sprite.
“Ammy, meet Narina,” Enilor said. Narina was tall, with the red-feathered ears and flaming red curls that distinguished her house from that of the High Sprites, who were dark-haired with grey-furred ears. Narina offered a small smile and held out her hand to Ameryn, shyly.
“Surely they did not enslave their own kind?” Ameryn asked.
“No,” Narina said—her voice sounded like bells, or maybe birdsong. “My High Sprite cousins do not consider us a part of the family. I came to the troupe voluntarily after their taxation left my family starved to death.”
“Down with Nayr and his knights!” Enilor bellowed. The troupe gave a hearty cheer in response.
“Keep you voices down, everyone,” Zon admonished. “That band of Black Knights might still be nearby—hush!”
“Black Knights?” Ameryn said. “Did you see Black Knights anywhere near here?”
“A day ago a troupe of them came through this wood,” Zon said. “They had a human girl with them—we were following their trail to see where they were taking her.”
“We thought it strange that they should have a human captive,” Claritas added. “That would break the treaty that’s kept the Wolves and the Rats from going at each other’s throats for years.”
“That was Aileen!” Ameryn exclaimed. “The princess of Berasia—I am her Guardian, and I was sent to rescue her.”
“You’re the princess’s Guardian?” Enilor said, looking at Ameryn with wide eyes. “So you’re the one the whole country’s talking about. Ha! Our Ammy!”
“Yes,” Ameryn said, her feeling of elation quickly dissolving. “I am the princess’s monster Guardian. The King found me after the Last Battle and took me in—had me trained to be the princess’s Guardian because—well, because…” she trailed off, putting a hand to her mutilated face by way of explanation.
The circle of vagabonds went silent. A few lowered their heads out of respect and sympathy. Zon took a step forward and put a hand on her shoulder. She put her hand over his as though she were going to push it away—but didn’t. She felt a furry hand grasp her own, and she looked down into a pair of sad brown eyes.
“Ammy,” Enilor said softly, “what happened?”
Ameryn felt her throat contract. The combined joy and sorrow of the moment collided—her eyes stung a little. She didn’t want to tell the whole story—not now. All she needed to say she put into a single name: