The girl, once she’d scrambled around the shutter and into the room, proved to be a big-eyed, scrawny waif not too many years younger than Sophia.
She huddled into the corner near the window, sending anxious glances toward it until Sophia closed and re-latched the shutter, wondering at her visitor’s wish for the only exit route to be cut off.
They hadn’t bothered banking the fire or dousing the lamp to sleep, so the two girls had plenty of light in which to take stock of each other.
The silent review may have lasted some time, but for the sound of boots in the corridor outside.
The girl jerked back into the shadows, the whites of her eyes showing.
Connor knocked, “It’s me.”
Sophia replied, “And the others?”
“The landlord’s downstairs, securing his bandit in the cellar.”
Sophia waved the girl to a different corner, one that blocked immediate sight of her from the door, but kept her within Sophia’s range.
Sophia then un-barricaded the door and opened it.
Connor slid in, wary as a stray cat until he found their visitor.
“And what are we doing with this one?”
“I haven’t had a chance to talk to her yet, so I’m not sure.”
Connor returned the reinforcements to the door, then crossed the room to lounge casually on the bed.
“Acron likes her, he says she smells trustworthy and she wouldn’t let the man beat him or the horses. And she took some blows herself in trade.”
“What does he think we should do with her?”
Connor was silent a moment, then his eyebrows shot up.
“He wants us to bring her along. He’s even offered to switch to horse form if we do.”
“Can he do that?”
He spent a lot of time around the stables and training grounds in Weriban. I suppose he picked it up.”
“Well I’m not adverse but please tell him it’ll need to be once we’re away from here and he’s probably better being a pony than some showy charger.”
The girl had shrunk so far into her nook, she was near becoming one with the wall.
“I mustn’t, I can’t, please, what are you saying?”
Sophia tucked her knife away and plopped down on the floor in front of the shadowy corner.
“We’re taking you with us unless you’d truly rather stay here. We’re running errands for the Overlord and I could do with a spare pair of hands, eyes and ears. You’ve somehow managed to make a good impression on our companion and I’m inclined to trust his judgement.”
“You’re not taking me to prison?”
“No, although that may be the best story to spin tomorrow morning to get you away from here.”
The girl shook her head vigorously, “No, for they’ll believe I’ll hand them over too and they’d be sure to kill me first.”
Connor leaned forward, “First things first, do you want to come with us?”
The terrified look turned anguished, “Yes, so much, but if they think I’m escaping and might tell on them, they’ll never allow it.”
“And who exactly are ‘they’?”
“The landlord’s my uncle and the one you took in the courtyard’s my older brother. Uncle took us in when Ma died.”
Sophia frowned, “You don’t wish to stay with your family.”
“No. I’m useless you see. Just a girl, so no good for anything but beatings. I don’t want to be hit any more.”
Connor choked and Sophia’s glare should have set the whole room ablaze. The girl cowered again.
“You are coming with us. If you have some way of slipping out and meeting us on the road, tell me now or we will be putting this place to the torch and those two toads in irons.”
Connor shrugged at the girl’s astonished stare, “She can and she will. Whoever told your relatives that girls were useless was badly misinformed.”
The stare swung back to Sophia, “Truly?”
A tremulous smile formed, “I’ll need to go and check on the rabbit traps in the woods. I can start out on that, then cut across to the Lillia road.”
Connor cleared his throat, “Leaf. We’ve already been to Lillia.”
A sigh, “Oh that’s easier, most of my traps are near the Leaf road, it’s better cover for game.”
“There’s a large rock that’s often used as a lookout about two hours down that road. Do you know it?”
“Yes sir, it’ll take me longer than that to get there though.”
“Best if you have a head start on us then. What do you say Sophie? Do we oversleep a little in the morning due to our interrupted night?”
“I think so, and I want a proper breakfast too. We should be on the road around mid-morning, so at your rock about midday.”
“I’ll make an early start to make sure you don’t see me, since you caught a glimpse in the courtyard.”
Connor grinned, “She’s going to fit right in. What’s your name?”
“Uncle and Jem just call me Girlie.”
“No, I’m not calling you that. You can either remember what your mother called you, or come up with your own.” Sophia was still fuming.
The voice turned husky, “Ma called me Joy as she said I brought it to her every day.”
Sophia smiled, “I like the sound of your mother, Joy it is.”
She jumped to her feet and headed to the window, “Now you need to make yourself scarce until tomorrow lunchtime.”
Connor read the apprehensive look, “The dragon is back being a wolf and is guarding the horses in the stable, he’s not in the courtyard. Besides, as I said, he likes you.”
Joy squeaked in terror and Sophia hurried to shush her, “You’ll be fine. You’ll meet him properly tomorrow, in full sunlight and you will be completely safe, I promise.”
Joy looked at her, “Word of a gentleman?”
Sophia looked levelly back, “Word of a Lady.”
Joy nodded, drew breath and vanished out of the window.