This is from the second book of the Alliance series, where Peter's childrewn are gaining allies to be formed into a countering Alliance agaist the rapacious Federation.
Anneke watched as the Lord High Sheriff’s men-at-arms arranged the dozen Federation agents on an improvised scaffold. Eleven already had nooses around their necks and were standing quietly. Dusk was falling and the flaring pine torches gave the scene a surreal light. Peter had forbidden direct intervention, but she couldn’t stand idle while these fools died. She liked this world, had made friends here. Yet, to involve them would trigger a bloodbath. She had to depend on the Federation responding in time, even if it meant doing something to buy them time.
The redhead at the far end understood. She was resisting furiously, four men-at-arms inadequate to the task of restraining her. One was down already, both hands clutching a part of his anatomy he wouldn’t have willing offered as the target for a full-blooded kick. Another bled profusely from a torn ear, most of the earlobe bitten off.
The sergeant swore foully, damning the girl and the men-at-arms equally as he strode down the line and rapped the girl behind the ear with the handle of his dagger, dropping her in an unconscious heap at the men’s feet. “Lay her aside. We’ll hang her later.”
Anneke used the distraction to get closer. The Federation rescue party was near. She needed to be on the opposite side of the group when they arrived, ready to intervene.
“Are you ready?” The sergeant remained by the unconscious girl, looking back along the line, his sword raised to give the signal.
“Wait. I want to watch them dance.” Anneke’s imitation of the tyrant’s voice wouldn’t have passed muster under normal circumstances, but, coming from behind, it was enough to turn everyone towards the darkness of the forest when she hid.
They were looking the wrong way to see four dark objects lob through the air to fall at the men-at arms’ feet. Recognizing them as stun grenades, Anneke translocated two hundred feet before they exploded, shielding her eyes and turning away. The chain mail jerkins would protect the tyrant’s men from harm, but they’d be stunned. None of them had ever faced explosives. She could leave the matter in Federation hands now.
The distance muted the crack of the stun grenades, but there was a flash grenade amongst them and it lighted the evening sky revealing the approach of at least fifty more men-at-arms. Fortunately, they skidded to a stop at the explosions and the Federation leader had time to release his people on the scaffold and then throw more grenades to cover his retreat. They were gone before Anneke realized the redhead was not among them.
“Damn,” she swore, translocating to the girl in time to drag her into the safety of Limbo.
“Damn.” She swore again as the girl stirred. They must be back in real space before she woke.
The river was closest and its banks were steep. She plunged them both into the water where overhanging bushes would hide them. Peter would never understand her revealing the existence of Limbo to a Federation agent.
The cold water completed the girl’s revival and she bit Anneke’s hand when she tried to stifle her outcry. “Quiet, damn you, they’ll hear.”
“Sorry.” The girl understood. “Get these ropes off,” she whispered, turning to give Anneke access to her bound wrists. “Who are you?”
“Safe.” Anneke shushed her with a finger to her lips. She could sense the approach of men-at-arms. “Squeeze under that bank and cover your face with mud. If they use lights, close your eyes. Whatever you do, don’t look at them.” Anneke disciplined herself not to smile at the girl’s reaction to being instructed in basic field craft by the inhabitant of a planet regressed to medieval feudalism. She had a fiery temper, this one.
The men were good at their job, worst luck, probing every bush with spears or pikes, leaning far over the bank with raised torches to study the water. The girl should be safe, the undercut was deep here in the bend of the river, the current tugging at them, but there wasn’t room for two of them.
Anneke leaned close and whispered in the girl’s ear. “Stay here. You’ll be safe. I’ll come back for you when they move on.”
A nod answered her and Anneke let the current carry her away, diving deep and slipping into the safety of Limbo as soon as she was out of the girl’s sight.
“A good move.” Peter was waiting and she braced herself for a lecture. “Be careful. The Federation has trying to be smart. There’ll be bloodshed. Keep yourself out of its way.” He gave her shoulder a squeeze and was gone.
Anneke shook her head in amazement. Her father would never stop surprising her. She moved back to the portal into real space and watched over the redhead, scanning her thoughts to pass the time.
* * * *
Rachael was cold. Partly it was the river, but mostly it was her reaction to how close she’d come to dying on the scaffold. She’d fought more from the horror of what was happening than from the knowledge she must buy whatever time she could for the Federation to react and save them. The local girl said the others were safe but Rachael remembered nothing. There was a hard lump behind her left ear with the skin broken and her head ached abominably so someone had knocked her unconscious. She had men around her fully occupied; she smiled at the memory, so it was probably the sergeant. There’d have been confusion during the rescue and they’d left her as dead. Her rescuer, the local girl, must have dragged her away.
She nodded unconsciously. The girl would know the river and slip away safely. She was probably on her way home now. The men-at-arms would know her too. They were all local and had seemed reasonable until the ugly little man in charge had taken offence and ordered the Federation party hanged at the crossroads bridge as an example. The site had been used before, the materials for the scaffold in a shed beside the bridge. She had a vision of her body and those of the others hanging limply in death and shuddered.
“Over here.” She recognized the sergeant’s voice and squeezed herself further under the bank, dragging the pendent roots across her face for concealment. The flare of a torch lit the water and she closed her eyes and waited. Even when clods, broken from the bank above, splashed close, she kept her eyes closed. The girl was right; eyes caught the light and destroyed concealment.
“We’re wasting time,” the sergeant said. “We need to catch those bastards and ram their tricks down their throats before we hang the lot of them. The red-headed vixen will be with them. She couldn’t have escaped by herself.” He paused, as if looking around for a final time. “Come on. Trumpeter, sound the Assembly and we’ll get on with the real job.”
The notes of a bugle followed and the noise of the men retreated, but Rachael didn’t trust the sergeant. His speech had been a little too pat. She’d stay right where she was.
An hour slipped by, then another and Rachael was slipping into a half doze of hypothermia when the touch of a hand startled her awake.
“Time to go.” It was her rescuer, the local girl.
Too stiff and cold to move easily, Rachael had to be assisted into the hide coracle and she lay helpless beneath its thwart as the girl covered her with dripping fish traps, thankful for the rough blanket they wrapped around her body first.
“Don’t move. They’re guarding the bridge and we have to pass under it.” Rachael felt the boat surge as it entered the main current.
A shout from outside the boat froze Rachael into immobility and there was a seemingly endless conversation in the local dialect between the distant speaker and the man in the boat. It ended in laughter all round, her rescuer, the local girl, joining in, so Rachael relaxed a little as the boat bumped under the bridge and moved out of the torchlight.
“Another ten minutes and we’ll get you into some dry clothes.” The girl said. “Hang in there.”
Rachael mumbled a reply and slipped back into a half doze. Everything felt distant and unimportant now. She no longer felt cold and just wanted to lie there.
“What’s your name?” The girl’s voice was urgent. “Wake up and tell me.” Rachael felt her body prodded by something. “What’s your name?” The girl repeated the question and increased the prodding.
“Rachael. It’s Rachael. Leave me alone.”
“Is your hair color natural? We may need to dye it?”
“S’natural.” Rachael’s voice seemed oddly slurred. “Do you want me to prove it?” She giggled at the thought.
The girl chuckled, as if she understood Rachael’s thought. “I’ll see soon enough.” The boat rocked as the girl stood up to look around. “We can’t wait any longer.” She was speaking to their companion, probably the boat owner. “Take us in over there. There’s shelter enough.” Her voice turned urgent. “Rachael. How many brothers do you have?”
Rachael had begun to slip away again and she resented the question. “None of your business. They’re all married.”
“Good for them. How many sisters?”
“Too bloody many.” That seemed funny too and Rachael tried to laugh, but found it beyond her, mumbling to herself instead as she tried to recall their names.
The boat grounded, tilting enough to displace the fish traps above her and Rachael’s mumble became a grumble. “Watch it. I’m under here.”
“Not for long.” The girl was tossing the traps onto the bank in her haste to get at Rachael. “Help me get her ashore. We need to get her into dry clothes and warm before she slips away completely.”
“There’s a hut in the centre. Used by poachers. You’ll be safe there.” The man rumbled. “I’ll carry her. You tie the painter to that branch and bring the bundle of clothes.”
Rachael felt herself lifted and lay cradled like a child in strong arms. She sighed and closed her eyes.