The other guards were understandably nervous. There were rumors in the past that sometimes the dragon would take one of them as well as the sacrifice, though such claims were always dismissed.
Rouxs was nervous for two more reasons than they were though. First, he was going to have to be the one to cuff Luminé to the rings embedded in the rock that would keep her there. And second, he was seriously considering some form of deception to save her -whether she remembered him or not. This in turn was a major threat to Dragonbarrow- if he couldn't replace her, they'd have a full scale dragonstrike, and if he could come up with a way... well, they'd still experience a strike, but it would at least ensure the damage would be far less than it should have been.
Worse yet, there would only be a handful of opportunities for him to actually try anything, and with nerves on his mind, his creativity was not at its best. Anything he came up with was going to have to go perfectly, or not at all.
A single idea nudged at his mind, catching his attention.
The daring side of him pointed out it was risky, but that if the other guards were just as nervous as him, it could just work. The more logical part of him said doing anything at all was risky, so he should either do it or let her be taken.
He didn't have long until the peak. It was either now or never. Courage was screwed up, found short, then ignored entirely.
"Why don't you guys stay here?" I suggested. "I know the rest of you are afraid too. I just need one of you up there to make sure I get this right."
The other guards looked to each other, silently considering the idea.
"If the Captain found out..." one of them ventured.
"I won't tell if you don't," I said. "Besides, this way if the dragon gets hungry early, the rest of you have a head start back."
"Who's going with you?" another asked, thankfully for me, one who looked kinda like Luminé. Or at least, she might be able to pass as him…
"You are," I answered, not looking over. I kept my eyes on the path ahead, not slowing.
"Me? Why Me?"
"Because otherwise we're going to be here all day arguing over it. You take one of her arms, I'll take the other. The rest of you can wait here."
I continued past the other guards and took ahold of one of Luminé's arms, trying not to make it too rough. I didn't look at her, even when the other guard took the other arm. What I did do was pay no attention to her sharp look when she recognized my voice, and the second when she realized it was me.
The recognition was ignored entirely. It was nice to know she remembered, but they were still in sight of the others. I don't dare show any sign yet.
"Rouxs?" she murmured, surprised, then almost shouting at him, "Rouxs!"
"Hush girl," the other told her. "You'll bring the dragon sooner." Then over her, to him, "You know her?"
"No," I answered flatly. "Never seen her before." He knew as he said it that she was staring at him in shocked disbelief.
"Rouxs, snap out of it! It's me, don't you remember?"
"He told you to keep quiet," I told her, continuing to watch the path ahead intently. "Whoever you think I am, you're wrong. I'm not getting eaten over a case of mistaken identity."
"Hush!" I snapped, a little harsher than intended, feeling her try to stop in her tracks, only to be pulled onward by the two of them.
The path turned sharply, flattening out as we entered the small area that existed between the rocks and the edge of the volcano, taking us well out of sight of the others. In one of the largest rocks were two iron rings, rusted with age, embedded into the blackened stone. A pair of unoccupied cuffs were hanging from them, and behind them seemed to be two darker streaks. He tried not to think about what they were from, or what had blasted the rocks here a burnt black.
"Hold her," I told the other guard, relinquishing my own grip on Luminé. I had to at least give the appearance of going along with this.
First was to remove the old cuffs. The keys he'd been given unlocked this pair, and he deposited them on a rock nearby.
Can I really do this? Should I even be doing this?
The answers turned out to be yes, and almost definitely not. I did it anyway, silently beckoning to the nervous guard.
"Sorry." I said after a moment's hesitation, then to Luminé's surprise, I grabbed not her, but the other guard. He didn't have time to be surprised, not after the helmet clanged loudly against one rock. The guard's eyes glazed.
"Quickly," Rouxs told Luminé. "You need to look like him, or this is never going to work," then he began removing the armor from him he added, "Sorry about what I said. Couldn't let them know."
"So you do remember me," She answered, removing the helmet.
"Yes, but keep your voice down. I don't want the others to get curious. Come on! We don't have much time!"
As soon as the guard had been divested of enough for Luminé to -hopefully- pass as him, the new cuffs were put on his wrists, then onto the rings in the rocks. The keys were returned to a pocket, and the old cuffs attached to my sword belt to be returned to the Town Guard once I'd signed off duty again.
"Tuck your hair into the helmet," I told Luminé absently, making sure I'd got everything. "Got everything. Done? Right, let's go before I get us both in any more trouble. Try not to say anything on the way down, will you?"
I was almost shaking with nerves now, feeling my heart racing. If it had beat any faster, you might be able to hear it against the breastplate.
The two of us stepped back out into view of the other five, heading down to meet them. I noticed they'd already started slowly back down the path, while trying at the same time to look as if they hadn't gone anywhere. It hadn't worked. I wasn't technically meant to give them orders, but they were all lance-constables -the only difference was that I was only a temporary replacement.
So it surprised them when I looked them over critically, then said,
"What do you think you're playing at, trying to sneak off before the duty's finished? Come on, I know you guys are afraid, but seriously. At least try to look as if you're doing the job right. Now let's get back before the dragon gets here."
"Uh... we heard a noise..." one said.
"I stumbled into a low rock," Rouxs replied. "It just caught my helmet."
"But there aren't any-"
"I said a low rock," Rouxs cut him off firmly.
"Right. Low rock. Um. How low?"
"Low enough not to be worth mentioning. Keep moving before I give you a kicking for trying to run, or I'll be telling the Captain about this."
"You'd get in trouble too," another pointed out. "We were all meant to go up there. Not just you and young Sammy."
"He'll understand that one. I took one of you along to make sure I didn't try anything while up there. That's all that's actually necessary."
Except ironically, I really did try something. And it worked, too. I'm not going to get away with that one if they find out what I've done.
The rest of the journey back was taken in silence. The others because of what they thought they'd done, Luminé because she sounded nothing like the unfortunate Sammy we'd put in her place, and me because I'd done that.
As she and I had both taken up the rear of their returned procession, when we passed the massive cavern entrance for the old mines, I laid a hand on her mailed shoulder, gesturing for her to keep her head down. She understood -it wasn't unusual for those who saw a sacrifice leave to stick around to abuse the guards who'd done it. Thankfully, there were none remaining today.
We came into Dragonbarrow feeling like the last remnants of an army that had run away from the battle, having seen the demoralizing defeat they would have suffered as they departed the battlefield. There was no sign of what we had done, except for the one remaining Town Guard by the gate. I wordlessly handed over the old cuffs and the keys for them as they passed.
"Go on ahead," I told the others. "You should all have time off after doing that. Sammy, stay with me, I want to talk to Nielen with you. You're not in trouble," I added, more for the benefit of the others than her. Once they were clear he whispered to her, "We'll sign your weapon out, then wait until the locker room is clear. I've got a change of clothes you can borrow so no one will recognize you."
"What am I going to do, Rouxs? I can't let anyone find out I didn't get sacrificed."
"I'll think of something. Mom never comes into my room, I think we can hide there most of the time."
"You mean you didn't think of this earlier?"
"I had other things on my mind, like getting you back here safely. I just hope the dragon doesn't do too much because of this."
"They're going to search for me once they realize I wasn't up there – and when they watch realizes this Sammy is missing-"
"I know, I know! Not a word now, don't blow your cover," he muttered, leading her into the armoury.
The Quartermaster, used to seeing what he expected and more often than not, not what was really there, didn't notice that 'Sammy' had shrunk a little, or looked slightly off from usual. Once in the locker room, I quickly pulled out the spare change of clothes stored in the locker. At least I'd been given the same one as usual. The clothes weren't anything I would normally wear, they were what I called my blending-in clothes. Pull up the hood on the hoodie, and few people recognize me. I was hoping it'd work the same for her.
Once I had returned everything to my own locker and retrieved my jacket, I kept watch while Luminé changed, then led her back out into the main watch house. My skateboard was handed back, along with a small envelope containing his pay for the job.
"Don't go getting in trouble now." the officer told me as the stuff was handed over.
"Be serious," I answered. "This is me we're talking about."
"You're right. I should be telling you to get in more trouble!" he joked.
"If only you knew." I muttered as I left.
"I think we've got a problem," Luminé told me, outside. "How far up is it to your place?"
"About a dozen terraces, why?"
"There's too much chance I'll get seen if we have to walk that. If someone finds out..."
"I think I can find a way through the tunnels to get us up there," I countered. "I explore them from time to time. No one else uses them. We'll just need a distraction to get into them."
As if prompted by that cue, a guttural roar came from the volcano's peak, echoing off buildings, making it seem as if the entire place was shaking in a minor earthquake. A nearby pottery store lost the entire morning's work, totally unnoticed as the whole town froze, turned to the peak.
"There's your distraction," Luminé whispered weakly in the following silence.
Someone not far away shouted,
"Run for cover! It's coming!"
"Sound advice," I muttered, quickly taking Luminé's arm. I'd have to find an entrance to the tunnels, and quickly. Around us, the other residents were already panicking, following that same advice.