Chapter 17

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Out in the desert, time passes like grains of sand through my fingers.

Without Babel's oppressive dome hanging over me, I am able to think, really think for the first time in countless days. Long runs across the plateaus push my mind and body, the clarity helping Cade's lessons to take root. When the sun is too high to run, I linger in camp and talk with as many people as I can. I keep my manner carefully balanced between upbeat and determined, encouraging my warriors and pitching in with camp tasks. It appears as though the Wasters are content to follow me, at least for now. I don't yet take their support for granted; if Jaron were to suddenly reappear there's no telling where their loyalty would ultimately lie.

The nights are long, divided between practicing with Cade and plotting with the Wasters. Utter exhaustion turns my sleep deep and dreamless and gradually, my courage returns.

My newfound sense of confidence is put to the test when scouts announce that they've spotted a distant, yet wholly sizeable army.

I lead a party South and West. When we draw close to where the scouts first spotted the travellers we split into smaller groups and break apart, watching them from our various vantage points. I squint into the piercing sunlight as Luca and I circle closer and search carefully, ever-weary of the Madam's tricks. Memories of sudden explosions and funeral pyres are never far from reach and I make a grim promise not to let myself be taken for a fool, again.

In the end, it's the accents that give the Miners away. My heart immediately lightens when I recognize the City manner of speech and I peek overtop the dune. Headscarves hide their features but the clumsy tread of people unused to desert travel is unmistakable. I raise a hand, signalling to the other unseen Wasters. Planting a foot atop the dune's summit I stick two fingers in my mouth and emit an ear-piercing whistle.

At once, the Miners halt in their tracks and press their backs into a tight huddle.

"There!" Someone points at me and I grin, placing my fists on my hips.

"Hello there!" I shout into the wind. "You lot are awfully far from home."

The Miners shuffle closer together and murmur amongst one another. When one man finally raises his sabre and waves it at me it's clear even from a distance that he's unfamiliar with the weapon. I marvel that they managed to survive outside City walls for as long as they did.

"We seek the Runner!" The man barks, his voice sharper than his blade.

"Is that so?" I laugh. "Every other hellion wandering this desert seeks the Runner. So tell me," I angle my feet and slide down the hill, arriving in front of the group so suddenly that the leader stumbles back and topples the man behind him.

I cast a pointed glance at the sprawled Miner and then back at the first man, quirking an eyebrow. He gulps audibly, now clutching the hilt of his sword with both hands.

"Why should I tell you where she is?" I finish.

"I-" His eyes dart madly to the left and right. "We heard she's gathering an army. Look," His sword hand quivers as he digs into his pocket with the other, withdrawing a crumpled piece of parchment. I have to bite back a smile when Frye's Follow the Runner poster greets my eyes.

"We want to join up with her." The Miner finishes.

I rock back and forth on my heels as I survey the ragtag ensemble. "And why would she be interested in taking you on?"

A look of offense crosses the man's face, which I count as a point in his favour. "We might not look like much, but we're brave and we're loyal."

"Both admirable traits." I reply. "But what I really need to know is what makes you brave. What have you got to fight for?"

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