In her dreams she sees him.
He’s not a particularly tall man - in fact, he’s only a few inches taller than herself - but there’s something in his manner that makes him tower over others as if they’re only house elves. He is regal, like something out of her mother’s fairy tales, but there’s something incredibly wounded about him too. His eyes have that shell shocked look that she’s seen in so many of the soldiers who fought in the war. However it’s been almost a decade since the last troops came home, and this pain seems to be more recent.
He reaches out for her, his hand finally gripping hers as the world around them dissolves into swirling darkness. An unseen wind picks at her clothes and whips sand against her skin. It grows stronger and stronger, until she feels as if she might suffocate from the storm. Suddenly the man’s hand is gone, and she’s left alone to fend for herself in a world filled with never ending shadows.
Just ahead the darkness parts and reveals a woman. She’s just as stately as the man, perhaps even more so with her sepia colored skin and golden hair. She sits on a great wooden throne that gleams in the little light is let through by the storm. Behind her is a silver pool that shimmers. Just looking at it gives her chills, and goose flesh breaks out over her arms in their wake. She can hear screams - thousands upon thousands of voices rising up in fear - and amidst them she can hear the voices of her parents and her sisters crying out in pain.
Two men in white grab her by the arms and drag her towards it. One holds a wand to her head, its tip digging into her temple, and pulls out a shining memory from her mind. “Let’s find some happy memories...”
She screams and kicks but it’s no use. The men are stronger than her. They drag her closer to the silver pool and a silver chair starts to rise from its center...
It’s Pandora who rips her from the nightmare.
“Cressida,” the ten year old hisses in her ear. “Cressida, wake up.”
Cressida groans. While she is grateful to be free of the dark dream world, a brief glance around tells her that it’s still night time. Through the tent walls she can see the flicker of bonfires around the camp, and someone walks by carrying a lantern. She has at least a few more hours before the madness of the day begins. “Dora, go back to sleep.”
“There’s someone out there. What if he hurts Barley?”
“Barley is tiger, Dora. I’m sure she’s fine.”
“Dora, please!” Cressida snaps and throws a pillow in her little sister’s general direction. There’s a thump that tells her that she’s hit something, but since there’s no accompanying yelp, she doubts it was her intended target. “We’ve a long day tomorrow and I need my rest. You know how Momma gets if I can’t do my job.” Assuming that the conversation is over with, she rolls over and pulls her blanket tighter about her shoulders.
However, Pandora isn’t ready to give up yet.
The slip of a girl is constantly excused from work by the manager. She’s too weak, and often sick, but when she is set on something, she can find the resources deep inside to surprise everyone. It’s part of the reason why they’re here in New York, when they should be spending the winter in Florida or California with the rest of the circuses. This time is no different; Pandora shakes her sister’s shoulder hard enough to make the bed shake, and if they were on the train with Auntie and Uncle, she might make the car move too.
“Pandora!” Cressida yelps, then quickly remembers where she is. Thankfully, Vesta continues to snore on, oblivious to her sisters’ argument.
“Someone is going to hurt Barley! Please Cressida! She needs us.” Pandora’s limpid blue eyes stare up at her, beseeching her.
“Fine.” She growls, throwing the comforter off of her legs. She shivers in the chilly air and quickly grabs her dressing gown off of the chair in front of her vanity. It’s thin and made of silk, so it doesn’t do much to protect her from the cold night beyond the canvas walls of their tent, but it’s better than nothing. “Stay here.”
“Yes’m.” Her sister nods and quickly crawls into the space that the older girl just vacated. She burrows under the covers until only the curls on the top of her head are visible.
Cressida sighs. She is sure that Pandora will be asleep by the time she returns from checking on poor Barley. She’s probably even asleep right now. Cressida could crawl in next to her and she would never know that she did not check on Barley. But she did promise, and so she lifts the tent flap and steps out into the dark night.
The moon is high in the sky, so thankfully she doesn’t need the flashlight from next to her bed. She wraps her arms around herself as she walks through the camp. The rest of the circus is abed, either in their tents or in the train cars, but a few carnies are still awake. They patrol the grounds, their breath hanging in miniature clouds of fog around their faces, their boot heels crushing the frost on the grass. They nod at her as she passes them and she knows that their eyes linger on her rear end long afterwards.
Silly Dora. Dumb Dora. Cressida grumbles to herself as she nears the edge of the circus where the animals are kept. If someone was dumb enough to taunt Barley, the men assigned as security for tonight would stop him - that is if Barley didn’t stop him first.
She sees the elephants first. They look at her with dark eyes, their wrinkled grey trunks shoving straw into their mouths and reaching out towards her as she passes. She waves at them as she passes, her teeth chattering together from the cold. “S-s-sorry boys. N-n-no treats tonight.”
Next to the elephants are the zebras and the horses. They all doze standing upright, one hoof bent so that only the tip touches the ground. Their ears twitch as she pass, and their noses twitch at her scent, but they continue to slumber on.
The lone bear is equally oblivious to her presence, but the lions are not. Their eyes gleam in the light of the moon, and one lioness paces along the front of it’s cage, panting as it looks for a way to escape and attack. She watches it for a moment or two, admiring the way it’s golden hide slips and slides over it’s sleek muscles, before finally moving on.
Barley is just beyond the lions, at the very edge of the camp. She, too, is awake. However, instead of pacing the confines of pen, she lays in the middle of it, watching Cressida indolently. The moonlight reveals that she, and her cage, is completely fine. There is plenty of water in her basin, and blood streaks on the rough wooden floor reveal that she was recently fed. Cressida smiles to herself;yet again Pandora was worked about nothing.
Finished with her errand, Cressida turns to head back to her tent only to find that there’s a man blocking her way.
She’s not sure where he came from. The animal area was empty when she walked through it, and the moon is still bright over head - though it has inched a little closer to the horizon - and the stars are still bright pin pricks in the black expanse above.
For a moment she thinks it’s a brave carnie come to talk her into a little necking. There are one or two newbies who think they are sheiks and she wouldn’t put it past them to try to whisper sweet nothings in her ear. She smiles to herself, thinking of the knee they’ll get to the family jewels if they try anything. The others learned long ago not to sneak up on the Polari girls... perhaps it's time to give this fish the same lesson.
However, she should give him a little warning first. “Hey, look,” She calls out to the man, clenching her teeth together to keep them from chattering. “Whatever you’re trying to sell, I am not in the mood for it, okay? So beat it before I get one of your buddies to give you the bum’s rush.”
At the sound of her voice, the man looks up at her and she gets a good clear look at his face. Her blood runs cold through her veins as she finally recognizes him, the man from her nightmare. Only, he looks a damn site worse for wear than he did in her dreams. One eye is swollen shut, and a dark bruise mars his other cheek. His black hair hangs in his face in stringy clumps. It’s also trimmed unevenly, with large chunks missing here and there. And his clothes, oh his clothes, gone is the dapper robes, replaced by a plain shirt and pants that appears to have been made out of flour sacks. They positively hang on his gaunt frame.
He doesn’t respond. Instead his eyes - well, his one good eye - roll back into his head and he collapses, his head lolling on his neck like Dora’s rag doll. He falls dangerously close to the lion pen, and the pacing lioness decides to take advantage of his proximity. She lunges, her claws raking out in an attempt to grab him and drag him closer.
Cressida is faster.
She grabs him around his middle before he can fully hit the ground. Despite his thin frame, he’s still a bit much for her and she grunts from the impact. But she’s able to pull him just out of the swiping lioness’s reach. A quick glance at his arm tells her that the damage has already been done though. Three gouges have been cut out of his skin by the lioness's claws. Blood is already welling up in them, dark and thick.
Cressida screams for help, while the lioness glares at her and Barley continues to watch the scene unfold while silently liking her paws.