A sudden feeling of weightlessness. Time slows. Her stomach turns. She falls.

handhold.pngNormal time resumes an instant later with the sting of concrete stripping a layer of skin from her palm as she clutches at the building, the rope, anything, flailing, a tangle limbs and twisted linens as she tries to arrest her fall. She dropped no more than a few vertical feet, but for seconds that feel like an eternity Valencia flattens herself against the building, holds onto it tight, and closes her eyes. She glances between her boots and sees the ground still fifteen feet below and she hugs the building tighter. Her mother's lilting nursery rhyme fills her head: When you're up you're up, and when you're down you're down, and when you're only halfway up you're neither up nor down. She has fallen backwards through time and is four years old, scared of the dark and demanding to be held. Frozen in place, she squeezes her eyes closed.

Then her brother's voice cuts in: C'mon Val, you're tougher than that. It was a mantra of his. As kids he'd said it anytime he bloodied her nose and she stopped fighting back. He said it when she broke down weeping on top their mother's grave. He said it as he pressed another shot of whiskey in her hand even as she tottered on her chair. He said it each time she flinched as he sewed shut a gash on her shoulder from a skirmish with bandits. You're tougher than that. He wouldn't ever say it again though because, like the rest of her family, he was gone. Still, he had always been right. The words gave her strength. She looked down again and saw the girl named Parker motioning for her to keep coming, her arms open wide like she would catch her if she fell.

Valencia took a deep breath, tightened her grip on the makeshift rope, and stepped from the ledge.

Safely on the ground, Valencia didn't grant herself a moment's pause as she sought the best vantage point to scope the area. The abandoned buildings around them bathed in the mix of faint light and darkening shadows of dusk. No sounds of commotion from the barren streets. Valencia wiped the grit from her palm and smiled. A clean getaway. But what should to do next? Where to go? Would the city be safe for her?

The thought was interrupted by a shout. She turned in time to see the rope jerk as the letch hit the ground hard, collapsing in a heap and holding his ankle. Valencia immediately rescanned the area to see if the noise had alerted any guards. She turned back and felt a tinge of shame as Parker and the mangy one rushed to his aid. Her first instinct had been to bolt and leave them all. Yet here she was, watching, waiting for these strangers to make their escape.

The brawler was making her way down the rope when they heard yelling from above. The broken window framed a trio of incredulous guards, looking from the makeshift rope to the fleeing prisoners two stories below. Valencia's former cellmates' eyes were wild as they half-carried, half-dragged the injured man from where he'd landed. The guards disappeared to raise the alarm and Valencia knew they'd be swarmed in less than two minutes if they didn't get out of there. "This way," she heard herself call to them, directing them northward, and asking herself why she bothered staying involved.

The echoing voices of the guards pursued them through the empty streets. Valencia spied the smashed remains of a restaurant and ushered the group in. She would have preferred to put more distance between them and the jailhouse but they had to get out of sight fast before they were overrun. Her companions carried the wounded man back to the kitchen while Valencia remained at the entrance, peering down the street. From the kitchen she heard bickering and moans of pain, and someone remarked that the backdoor had been barred shut. If those Waltzers find us here we'll be trapped, she thought. Down the street, flashlight beams knifed through the dark. Her mother's nursery rhyme again played in her ears: The noble duke of York, he had ten thousand men...

"I'm heading around back," Valencia called to no one in particular and she darted outside, running the length of the building before ducking into the alley behind it. A block to the south, the lights of their pursuers probed the burned out shells of buildings. A vivid image sprang to Valencia's mind: the Waltzers would find the escapees huddling in the kitchen, defenseless and injured, and they would fall on them without mercy or pity. Doubtful any of the prisoners would even make it back to the jail alive.

Not my concern, Valencia tried telling herself. In the gathering dark she could slip back through the alleys to make her escape, melting into the night, safe and sound. She'd make her way to the market, call in a few favors to buy passage to Green Bay, and regroup as she tried to put this whole regrettable incident behind her. Valencia licked her lips and glanced down the alley.

C'mon Val, you're tougher than that.

In her mind she saw her brother naked in the dust, his face swollen and beaten beyond recognition to anyone but her. One arm was nearly hacked off at the should, his body riddled with bullet holes. On a different day with different luck it could have been her. Hell, tonight it almost had been. Some guessed the attackers had been Sullivan's Fleet but Valencia knew better. She had fought against pirate raiding parties countless times and killed more than a few, but in the end she knew it was just business to them; they adhered to their own twisted kind of honor. Crawley's lackeys though were ill-disciplined and cruel. The kind who would defile the body of brave but vanquished foe.

The dark figures crossed the street. The leader ordered them to spread out and continue the search.

Valencia knelt and found a stone good for throwing. It felt cool and hard and reassuring in her hand. "Well," she whispered to herself. "Things are about to get interesting."