The Journey of Emeline: Chapter Thirteen
The gates could be seen a mile down the dirt road, and they appeared to be quite large, but they towered into the clouds once Hadrian and Aleida were up close. The bars of the structure were black, and were as thick as some tree trunks. Hadrian had told her that this gate has stood for hundreds of years, and even during their many wars and flood rains. There were only two guards today, and they opened the gates at mid morning, and closed them again just before dusk. There were another set of gates just before the Piros Island. Before then, was a long stretch of road for traders and merchants to drive along. There were tall trees that lined either side of the path, and many winding roads that led off towards other wealthy towns. It was not a place to be stranded at night, as this road was considered to be ungoverned. Merchants traveled at their own risk, but the payoff was good enough because there was always work to be found near Piros. Hadrian had traveled through Halo Paths many of times, going back and forth, delivering information to the High Council. The last thing he did for them was to set in place the deal of closing up the entryways to the Mazas. He had sent no more word to the council, and Hadrian suspected that they weren’t too pleased with his absence. It was finally their turn to pass through the gates, and there were others ahead of them. The guards looked them over, saw their crates in the back, and motioned them along. Aleida had knots in her stomachs that could keep a pirate ship from leaving port, but once they were on the other side of those gates, she felt a sense of ease come over her.
The two rode in silence for awhile, as Aleida took in the comotion. There were carriages, riders, and people on foot. Some turned off on small paths only meant for one horse to get by. There were some people in such a hurry, that they weaved in and out, trying to get past people like Hadrian and her, who were taking their time. They needed to blend in until they were a decent ways off from the Gazdag entrance. Eventually the large group of travelers spread out, and there was no one else within close range of the two, ahead of behind them.
“Is there a plan in place, or are we truly marching to our death?” Aleida had her arms crossed, and her cloak hood covering her face. It was cold, much colder than in Boldog, and the wind whipped at her skin, numbing the tip of her nose and fingers.
“We’re heading all the way to the end of this road, and once we get there, the guard is going to ask us what we’re there for.” It didn’t seem like much of a plan to Aleida and she couldn’t handle anymore surprises. Hadrian continued,
“I’ll tell them that we want to see the Queen. We’ll get right to the castle door.” His vague tone drove Aleida to near anger, and she sat back, watching the trees slowly pass by her.
“You and I are going to see the Queen?”
“You and I are going to see my sister, the Queen.” Aleida couldn’t breathe. Why had no one spoken about this? It was her understanding that his sister was in the castle, but solely working there, possibly the hand of the Queen. She couldn’t understand why Hadrian lived so far South, and not in the castle, not worrying about anything.
“Were you planning on explaining?” It was nearly noon, which meant the two were only an hour or two away. In Aleida’s mind, there was enough time for Hadrian to open up, and if he didn’t, they could be in more trouble than she could comprehend.
“I just expected Josef to have talked your ear off about the dramatics of our family.” He seemed bothered by all her questions, and she realized how foolish she must’ve been to have thought Hadrian was compassionate about the situation her and her brother were in.
“Well he didn’t. Everything moved so fast, and we didn’t ask him to rescue us, you know. I hadn’t notice how much of a burden Dain and I could’ve been to you. Locked up in a palace must be such a curse for you.” She spat the words out like fire, watching the contention hit Hadrian and sizzle against him.
“It is a curse, don’t you understand?” His eyes were dark, and they peered into hers.
“How could I understand something I’ve never been told.” What was it that she didn’t know? It quickly became dark, and the temperature dropped, chilling Aleida again as she continued to seeth. Snow had begun to fall, but soon it was thicker, and it felt like tiny ice shards each piercing her uncovered skin.
Through the howl of the wind, Hadrian told Aleida what she had been waiting to hear,
“Our father was killed at the demand of the High Council for what they had believed to be rebellion. They drug him out of our home, into the streets. All because he refused to barricade the Low Ground entrances from the Mazas Mountains. It must’ve been three years now since his hearing. Gloriana sits on the High Council as the last deciding voice.” He hung his head, grief and fury ripping through the surface of his tone.
“Not only did she sentence her own father to die in a cage, tied over the Piros Sea, she sentenced her family to stay in Gazdag forever, and that I, the eldest brother, to serve the Council in continuing what my father was too weak to finish.” He choked on the last few words, and she didn’t press him for anymore. Still, Hadrian offered her a little more, in a voice that wasn’t full of bitterness, but of sorrow.
“It isn’t a curse, Aleida. It is a life sentence for all of us.”
The two merchant travelers rode in silence, only ever speaking to proclaim how the weather was getting worse, or how wretched the cold really was. Again, it wasn’t long before Aleida could see the tall, black gates that could certainly be one of the last things she’d see as a free person. Aleida gripped Hadrian’s forearm, and tried not to tremble out of fear. It wasn’t the gates that she was seeing anymore, but a massive peak of red, jarring rocks that had a castle carved into it. Three large towers rose into the sky, and each held a black flag. It seemed as though even the sun didn’t reach as high the spike of the mountain. There were winding pathways that led travelers up and up, dangerously high, and Aleida knew that Torek had a lot of work ahead of her. Off to the very left, there was a ledge that had been constructed to reach out nearly 100 feet over the sea, and from there she could see small cages. They were tied underneath the ledge, and as she was watching, one of the ropes snapped, falling silently down, until she could no longer see where it went.
It appeared that the two were the only ones who had made the trip this far, and it was eerily quiet as they approached the gate. The guards perked up as they noticed a horse and cart slowly appear from the snowy mist. One guard walked towards them, holding out a hand.
“Why do you wish access to Piros, land of the High Council?” The Highguard’s voice was deep and it almost dared the visitors to speak back to him. Hadrian removed his cloak hood and handed Aleida the reigns, stepping off of the cart, and into the deep snow.
“We come with gifts to the Queen, and word from Gazdag, you fool.” The guard’s face turned to a grimace, and then, looking closely at the man, cocked his head sideways and laughed.
“Hadrian is that you? What on earth are you wearing?” The two embraced and Hadrian asked how the man was doing, speaking about his children and wife at home. Aleida was certainly confused, but she felt relieved that they might be able to make it through the gates without a hold up.
“So who’s the pretty gal you’ve drug to this hell on the side of the sea?” Hadrian turned to look at her. A sheepish, boy-like grin, and she rolled her eyes at him, staying still in her seat.
“This is Aleida, she’s a friend. I didn’t tell her how horrible this place was, so don’t try and ruin any more surprises, Morel.”
“So you two are headed up to Gloriana, you know the rules Hade. Down before dark, you don’t want to get stuck in Halo.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll be in an out. I’ll see you around my friend, seguro.”
The gates opened, loud and in no way unnoticeable. There still was one more guard, that Hadrian hadn’t acknowledged. The woman was stoic, and didn’t move from her position. It worried her how openly Hadrian and Morel spoke her with around, but there was a chance that Aleida didn’t know the full story. Once through the gate, the only thing in their way was a stone bridge that arched over rough water. Torek didn’t want to step a hoof on the stone, and Hadrian lashed the reigns, trying to make her move. They didn’t have much time, and things needed to go smoothly. There was a chance that Gloriana already knew they were here. Hadrian was becoming flustered, so Aleida hopped off, and made her way calmly up to Torek. She held on to one of her side strappings, and gently guided the horse towards the bridge, talking and cooing as she went.
With some prodding, Torek relaxed and swiftly crossed the bridge, and began the steep ascent. The cart creaked and swayed, and the crates in the back shuffled together, making a commotion. The streets, if you were to call them that, were icy, and rubble littered them, of buildings that could’ve once held nobles and other royal court members.
“This place really has gone to hell since the last time I was here.” Hadrian cleared his throat, and nodded his head towards a building just North of where they were heading up the path. There was a dark figure standing in the window, and as Aleida moved her gaze that way, the figure moved, hiding away. There was a mystery about this place. Aleida pictured golden streets, cheerful people walking about, rich as can be. She didn’t picture destruction and ruin to live so close to the castle walls.
“So did you complete it?” Aleida’s words rung out and a set of crows fluttered off, cawing as they went.
“Did I complete what?” He knew what she meant. Aleida was still, and Hadrian answered.
“Yes. It is the last thing your sister knows about me.” The castle entrance was visible now, and Aleida grasped his hand, cold against her skin.
“She doesn’t know the truth, Hadrian. If she did, she’d understand.”
The cart arrived at the front gates, and was once again stopped by two guards, this time, they weren’t friends of Hadrian. Again they asked who wanted to approach the castle of the High Council, and when Hadrian stood off of the cart and removed his hood, the two guards rushed at him, and one grabbed him, while the other pulled Aleida off the cart and she fell onto the stone path, only the snow breaking her fall.
“Why have you come disguised, boy? Your sister has been waiting for you.”
“Don’t touch her!” Swinging at one of the guards, Hadrian’s elbow clipped the one guard in the face and connected with his nose. Aleida struggled to get away but was held down, with a knife pressed to her neck. Everything had happened to fast, she hadn’t even had a chance to make a sound. Now, she was whimpering, barely exhaling, for fear of the knife coming any closer. While the guard cowered, holding his bleeding nose, Hadrian ran towards the back of the cart, lifting crates up and throwing them out, until he reached the only valuable thing the two had left. Lifting the chest high in the air, Hadrian yelled out,
“Let her go, or I’ll throw this over the side of the castle’s walls and then have you chase after it.” The guards held still, and the one holding the knife to Aleida moved away from her, dropping the knife in the snow, and raising his hands.
“Don’t do something stupid Hadrian. We’ll let you in, but just you. The girl stays out here.” They knew what was in the box without Hadrian even having to open it, which meant this was bigger than they knew.
“No, she comes with me.” There were more guards coming their way and Aleida quickly moved backwards, still on the ground. She felt the cold handle of the guards knife, and she stuffed it in her cloak pocket, saving it for later.
“Hadrian, everything is fine. Go inside, I’ll stay with Torek.” She tried to smile at him, to show she was alright, but the only emotion she felt was fear. He looked at her, and then lowered the chest and tucked it under his arm. The guards formed a path towards the front entrance. It must’ve been as tall as four men, and as thick as a trees trunk. Aleida watched as Hadrian walked in through the opened door, and disappeared as it was shut again.
There was only one guard left to tend to Aleida, and thankfully it wasn’t the man who held a knife to her. The new guard checked the cart for anything else that might’ve been hidden, but all he found was some articles of clothing, a coin purse with a few penz in it, and some supplies for travel. When he knew she was harmless, the guard went back towards the door and sat, thinking of other things, paying no mind to Aleida. Torek as pawing at the snow, and Aleida decided to unhook her from the cart. It took a bit of time, but soon Torek was free, and Aleida busied herself, unstrapping the rest of her harness and setting it into the back of the cart.
Inside, Hadrian was led down corridor after corridor, up and down flights of stairs, all to confuse him of where he was going. The inside of the castle was much more ornate than the exterior, but not by much. It was dark, all but candles that lit up the way as they walked. The stone walls were cold to the touch, as Hadrian remembered, and there weren’t many windows, which kept many intruders from entering unnoticed. It also kept anyone from escaping, if they did manage to get away from the grips of the guards. Not all were as friendly as Morel. There was a time when Hadrian could walk this place freely, grabbing a drink at the pub with a few of the guards. Those days were long over, and it was time to face everything he thought he could leave behind, head on.
At the end of a long hallway, there was an open room, a rotunda perhaps, with one large window overlooking the North end of the castle. Hadrian recognized this immediately because all that could be seen was the ocean. There were curtains were draped around the opening of the window, but they provided no shade, but simply blew sporadically in the wind. The room smelled sweet, but it also made his stomach turn, and he knew she was in here. In unison, the guards turned and faced the opposite direction, the sound of leather hitting leather, followed by soft footsteps in front of him. Hadrian refused to turn himself. Instead he looked at his sister’s face as a fire grew in his throat.
“Do you not know how to address your Queen?” Gloriana looked unamused and disinterested in his presence. The two guards on either side of him grabbed Hadrian by the shoulders and threw him backwards, causing him to land facing the door, away from his own flesh and blood. The tiles were cool under his hands, but the sound of her snickering boiled his skin. Slowly standing up, he straightened out his cloak, and adjusted himself, saying the magic words.
Hadrian began to say, “My Queen, am I permitted to face you?” but she stopped him midway.
“Hadrian, do so with haste, so that I can get on with this day. You have news from Low Ground?” She didn’t know about the missing box of precious stones. Gloriana must have only thought that the motion to begin blocking off the Maza’s to the South was taking longer than necessary. What Hadrian knew now, was that he was still on his sister’s good side, and there was still time to make amends.
“Are the guards still needed? Their presence only strains you, I can see it on your face, sister.” Hadrian needed them away from earshot, so that he could discuss what he found. Maybe there was a way to suggest mutiny amongst her guards, if only she could trust him.
“Oh, come on Hadrian, they aren’t as terrifying as all that.” Gloriana looked out over the large window, taking in the great expanse of the ocean view. “But I think we will be just fine without them. Leave the box, guard. Out!” She turned and motioned for them to exit, and when they hesitated, she yelled profanities at them, and within seconds it was still in the room.
“Everything with Low Ground is done, I just wasn’t able to get word to the council until now.” There was a table set up in the corner with fresh bread and red wine. His sister sat down first, motioning that he come and join her. Gloriana looked so much like their mother, but all the soft edges had been chiseled away in this castle, causing her to look much more like the dictator she really was. In a red dress with an even darker red trimming, her black hair stood out amongst it all. Hadrian remembered the dresses she used to wear, all bright colors and never the same color in one week.
“Well you didn’t need to come all this way just to stare at me. What do you want now? I don’t have anymore work for you in Low Ground. It’s a dreadful mess right now and we don’t need anymore interactions with those people.” A cruel laugh left her throat. “I suppose they’re hardly people anymore.”
It cut Hadrian so deeply to hear this. Months ago it wouldn’t have phased him. What would Gloriana think if she knew Aleida was just steps away from the castle’s interior? Gloriana wouldn’t think twice and he knew that. Aleida would be a prisoner before the night’s end.
“Sister, I didn’t come to discuss Low Ground, I want to make that clear.”
“Oh, for money then? I am sure that the council has paid you fairly in the past, and what is fair is fair.”
“I have been paid, Gloriana. I am concerned that you don’t know why I am here.”
She stood abruptly, and the sound of the wooden chair scraping against the marble floor made a terrible sound.
“So you came here to tell me what I don’t know? I assure you, that won’t land you any favors from me, family or not. Out with what you have to say.” Grabbing the wooden chest, Hadrian set it on the table, moving aside the glasses of wine.
“I found this on the docks at Fekete. I was preparing for our usual exports, and it stood out to me. I opened it, and I was suddenly approached by guards dressing in the High garb, and I managed to get the box away from them safely. Gloriana’s gaze showed she was interested, and she reached for the latch, but Hadrian put his hand on top of the lid, keeping it shut.
“For the past week, our home has been watched by your Highguards. No one is safe, mother especially. I bring this to you, only to show what a mess the council is, and to only imply that there may be insurrections amongst your castle.”
There was a long silence between the two. The sound of the ocean’s waves crashing against the red walls of the structure began to sound deadening.
“Your implications tread the thinnest line. Now remove your hands from what is obviously High Council property as you have already said so yourself.” Hadrian knew that once she opened the box, there would be understanding. Jewels like this were never approved for export. If other kingdoms were to be impressed, it would be in the castle walls, not exiting from a port like Fekete. Hadrian knew this, and surely so did The Queen.
The latch clicked, and Gloriana’s long fingers lifted the lid, revealing what the red velvet casing held. He watched her face, as flames began under the surface. She was red in every way. This was not what she had thought she would find.
It had started to snow outside, and Aleida had lost the feeling in her hands and feet. She had even moved Torek closer to herself, hoping that the large animal could offer her some protection from the weather, but at the height they were, the blizzard was going to tear through every living thing. Even the guards were considerably restless and could be seen blowing hot air into their gloves. It wasn’t uncommon that the temperatures were bitter, but with the winter comes driving towards them, it was the most unbearable that it had been in a long time.
“Girl. Come here.” Aleida looked towards the guard, and he was motioning for her to step inside. The large wooden door was opened slightly, just enough to squeeze in.
“I’m not leaving the horse.” She gripped tight to the lead, and though she could hardly feel her face anymore, Torek wasn’t going to be left out in the conditions alone. The guard rolled his eyes and step inside himself, shutting the door and leaving Aleida alone with the horse. It was getting darker by the minute, and even quicker because of the storm clouds coming overhead. It was bound to snow even more, and the two didn’t even have shelter to get to the other port. Surely no ships could make it out in this weather.
Without warning, Torek began digging into the stone path with her hooves, clearly irritated by something.
“What is it, girl?” Aleida tried to stroke her muzzle but Torek kept wrenching her head back and forth. As quickly as the guard left, the door opened again and he came bursting out towards them. The guard shouted that she was under arrest, and it was from The Queens orders, and she must obey. So much happened at once, and before Aleida could run or hide or even surrender, Torek charged straight at the guard, getting up on her hind legs, and landing a swift blow on his chest. The scene wasn’t brutal, but it was one of the more frightening experiences that Aleida had ever witnessed. The guard rolled away, grabbing his shoulder. There were spots of blood in the snow, but not enough to be fatal. Without wasting anymore time, Aleida ran towards the guard, who was in and out of a daze. She took his sword and unlatched it from his waist, and threw it over her shoulder.
There were two options for her. Fight or flee, and Aleida didn’t come all this way to die. She looked behind her. A long winding, icy road, that could take her to yet another unknown land. The road could also take her back to Gazdag. Back to her brother and Josef. Ahead of her was a dark, stone wall with a door wide open. Inside were a hundred guards, a one man who had already put enough people at risk, and his sister. Where she stood right now, was an injured guard, and a horse. Aleida must’ve looked crazy. Her old cloak was stiff and frozen at the edges. A Highguards sword strapped to her, and a small dagger in the other hand. The wind had whipped her hair into a tangled oblivion, and Torek had a wild rage about her. In the madness, there was a calming feeling of what she needed to do. The feeling was fleeting, and so Aleida acted fast, grabbing the lead of Torek. The horse was much too high for Aleida to get up on, so she climbed up onto the top of the cart, and lept onto Torek, laying flat against the horse, and the two bound towards the castle doors.