Chapter Fifteen: A horse, a snake and an empty cageMature

Molly was shaking backstage, and she wasn't entirely sure why. Raider had taught her the schedule for the night, she knew which props she needed to move and when she needed to move them; the tiny trampoline needed to be center-stage when the tightrope walker leaped from his post after his act, the crate full of diablo sticks and juggling balls needed to be out there before the jugglers, plus the fire breathers and fire poi would need a heavy supply of kerosene throughout their act, which Molly would need to run out to deliver to them on cue. And those were the easier tasks.

"You alright there, little Ren?" A burly man named Buccaneer had sidled up next to her, a worn old rimmed hat cocked to one side of his head, his glossy white horse in tow; the horse, although not a particularly small one, dwarfed in comparison to its owner.

"Yes," Molly blurted quickly, flustered at being addressed by her new nickname. Ever since Raider had introduced her to the group as a renegade, the name had stuck, and some had even taken to shortening the code name to Ren. Molly had quickly learned how to address each member, usually by shortening their nicknames to one syllable, such as cutting Buccaneer down to Buck. Nobody in the circus still went by their birth names. Molly knew it was better that way, since almost everybody had something to run from. It was safer. She had spent that whole afternoon staring at her reflection and her new shoulder-length haircut, mouthing the word Ren over and over again, but the name still stuck in the back of her throat.

"Natural to be nervous during your first show." Buck clapped her lightly on the shoulder, as though his giant arms might break her metal spine if he were to lean any harder. "You'll get into the swing of things in no time."

Molly smiled, folding her arms across her chest to hide the trembling of her hands. Out in the ring, the audience clapped and cheered as the acrobats took their final bows. "Good luck out there."

"Thanks, little Ren. Means an awful lot." Buck tipped his hat as he swiftly mounted his snowy steed and galloped out and into the ring, to much excited raving from the crowd. Molly bristled. After Buck's act came the one she had been dreading the most, the one which was for the most part responsible for the knots in her stomach.

She tiptoed away from side-stage and out into the night. A cage was perched just outside, and a pair of yellow eyes glinted through the darkness from just behind it. Molly swallowed hard. "Buck's just started. Better start getting ready."

The yellow eyes came closer, and the light from inside the tent caught the tall, thin outline of their body. Prowler. The animal tamer. As far as Molly could tell, she was little more than an animal herself; aside from the snakelike eyes in her skull, she only ever seemed to communicate through short, sharp hissing noises, and fed on raw meat. She sidled past Molly, wordlessly, into the tent.

Molly padded over to the cage and fiddled with the bolts which kept it into place, so that she could wheel it inside for Prowler's act. As soon as the wheels popped free, Molly gave it a sharp tug, and it wheeled freely towards her - more freely than it should have. It had felt much heavier earlier that evening, when Raider had run through the routine with her. There was a small torch hanging from her belt, and Molly flicked it on, directing its beam towards the dark interior of the cage. The light fell upon a few loose tendrils of straw, some scattered chicken bones and a hatch which hung open from the back of the carriage.

Molly stumbled back, dropping her torch and tripping over it, falling on her back in the soggy, muddy grass. Empty, she thought as she began to panic. 

So where was the tiger?

The End

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