Gloriana reached inside the chest, and touched something cold. Her face scrunched up with disgust. It was one thing for Hadrian to have come to the castle, dressed as poorly as he was, and to make a mockery of her position, but what he had just done, crossed the threshold. Hadrian’s face was a look of pure terror and confusion. Gloriana just saw it as poor acting, and the fury she had been holding down, was unleashed all at once. The chest was supposed to be filled with pounds of jewels and diamonds of all sizes. Instead, Gloriana’s royal hand had reached into a frozen pile of horse excrement. It wasn’t recognizable at first, but the smell gave it away seconds later, and even though Hadrian was pleading with her, telling her that it wasn’t meant to contain that, it was all Gloriana could do to keep her breakfast down.
“Guards. Get him out! To the bloody cages with him. And make sure to find him one with the best view.” She was hysterical, and her handmaid’s were rushing towards her with a warm bucket of water and a washcloth.
“No Gloriana, you have to listen to me.” Hadrian could hear the guards rushing down the hallway, and he knew he didn’t have much time. There was one window in the room, with a hundred foot drop into the raging waves, or a door that led to a hundred armed guards.
“You, you little heathen. Suggesting that there is mutiny under my rule? After everything I’ve given you.” She brushed the maids away and walked towards Hadrian. Her dress cascaded behind her, like a lit torch in the wind. She stood in front of him, only inches away, and grabbed his chin, directing his gaze towards hers.
“You are just like our father. A failure to me.” Just like that, the air in the room changed. The fire that had been burning in the corner of the room blew out, and the curtains that had been flowing, laid still and draped uneventfully to the floor. There was a new sound coming from outside the rotunda, and echo and blared something wild. Guards were yelling out and the sound of armour hitting the floor. The maids were cowering in the corner and even Gloriana seemed unfamiliar to the noise.
Out of the dreadful sound, Hadrian heard his own name. There was something about the moment that made him feel like he might be dreaming. If this was real, it appeared to be the sound of a horse, and as the thought came to him, Aleida and Torek barraged through the opening, causing The Queen to fall back onto the marble floor. Aleida was a sight and Torek looked just as gruesome. She held a sword in her hand, and had reins wrapped around her free hand. The curls on her head were going every which way, but she was his savior.
“Hadrian, are you alright?” She jumped off of Torek and ran to him. He was about to ask her the same thing but there were more guards coming. He nodded his head and wiped away smears of blood from a cut on her forehead. Hadrian got back onto Torek first, and hoisted Aleida up behind him. Gloriana was seething and screaming frantically for her guards. She tried to run towards them, grabbing at Aleida’s leg, but Aleida pointed a small dagger at her,
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to piss off a girl from Low Ground?” With that, Hadrian lashed Torkes reins and the two sped off down the hallway. Dodging down narrow corridors and down staircases, they managed to lose the guards. Hadrian had never seen Torek move so fast, and he hoped that if they made it out of the castle, she could still get them down towards Ketto.
“Hadrian, how are we going to get out of here? There’s only one entrance, and I know there will be guards waiting outside.” The adrenaline was wearing off on Aleida, and it was being filled in with fear. She had her arms wrapped tightly around his torso, but even so, without a saddle, she felt herself slipping as they turned corners.
“Right. We aren’t headed out the entrance, we are going to the dungeon. There’s a tunnel that will take us out of the castle, so we will avoid the first set of guards. Once we are out of the tunnel, we will be under the bridge that takes us to the last set of gates.”
“So that’s the plan?”
“I never said there was a plan, that’s just where we are going.” Hadrian turned Torek one last time, heading down a final staircase that took the three to a large wooden door. Aleida slid off of Torek, more gracefully than the first time in the barn in Gazdag. There was an iron latch, and she lifted it with all her strength, and pulled the handle. It made a loud creak as it opened, and a putrid smell seeped from the opening.
“We need a light, I can’t see two feet in there.” Before getting back up on Torek, Aleida grabbed a torch that was set into the wall. The smell hit her again but there wasn’t any time to think about it, and she took Hadrian’s hand and got back up, placing her face into his back, trying to forget where she was. The door shut behind them and hopefully the dungeon would be the last place the guards would search. Torek slowed down, and Hadrian feared that she would start to spook. He stroked her mane, and kept himself calm, hoping that she could sense it. It was cold in the castle’s prison, and the sound of waves was slowly disappearing as they dipped under the sea’s surface. It was damp, and the smell only intensified as they continued further into the tunnel. As Aleida swung the torch side to side, she caught a glimpse of chains on the wall. She imagined there would be bars that kept prisoners inside, but instead, it was an open area.
Torek trudged on, and inside the bowels of the castle, everything was silent. There weren’t even rats scurrying about, prisoners snoring, or the sound of guards running around overhead. Only the sound of hooves hitting stone as they made their way through.
“Hadrian.” Aleida spoke and the sound scared her, and she lowered her voice against the silence. “What is this place?” They had been in the dark now for nearly half an hour and moving at a decent pace. They surely must’ve cleared the castle by now, and if they didn’t reach the exit soon, the torch would burn out, and they might be trapped without finding their way out.
“I’ve never been this far, in fact, I’ve never been down here, only heard stories about it.”
“What kind of stories, Hadrian?” There was an uneasiness in the air that hadn’t been there before. This wasn’t the average prison where traitors and convicted thieves went to. The slow and painful death was outside, sitting in a cage, held by a thin rope. Down here, this was where the quick deaths happened, and the two were closer to experiencing it than they realized. There was a sound behind them and Hadrian pulled the reins back on Torek, letting her know to stand still. It wasn’t the sound of guards coming towards them but something far worse. All around them, small portholes were opening up, creaking and groaning was pools of water poured in.
“Hadrian! What did you hear about this place?” She pleaded for him to tell her that she was wrong. That the two had not just rode into their watery deaths, with no end in sight.
“We don’t have time to discuss what I heard, Aleida hold on, we have to find the tunnel doors that open.” Hadrian kicked the sides of Torek and she began splashing through the tunnel, icy water spraying in from the cold ocean. The water came in at a steady pace, but it was still easy enough for Torek as she dashed straight ahead.
To Aleida, it didn’t appear that there were any routes that turned off from the way they had been traveling, and that was a hopeful sign that they could get to the doors before the water was too high to open. Of course, when they got to the doors, if there were any, with luck there wouldn’t be guards waiting to arrest them, or worse, kill them on the spot. She felt herself slipping again as Torek started into a full sprint. The creaking noise started again, and the portholes opened even bigger, and water began pouring in by the gallons. The water was rising fast, and Torek was reasonably irritated, slowly down, and jerking her head back and forth.
Torek jerked again, and as she did, Aleida slid off the back of the horse, landing on her back, into the fresh cold water of the Piros Sea. It shocked her immediately, and soaked her from head to toe. It felt like the air had been pulled from her lungs, but the fall hadn’t physically hurt. She couldn’t even call out for Hadrian, as the fear of drowning consumed her.
Hadrian noticed that Aleida fell instantly, and pulled his horse to a stop, and ran back through the water searching for her. The water was colder than he could have ever imagined, and his boots were already soaked through. He called out for her,
“Aleida, make some noise, I can’t see you in here it’s too dark.” The water was pouring in, and the noise it made was so loud it drowned out everything else. He heard whimpering coming from a few steps ahead of him, and saw a silhouette. He walked towards her, and reached down, pulling her up from the black water. She was in shock, and shivering so hard, unable to speak.
“I’ve got some good news for you. I’ve found the door.” She cracked a smile, and he lifted Aleida up, carrying her to Torek. He moved Aleida and the horse back a few paces, and prayed that the door would open. If they waited any longer, the door would be at their knees. Grabbing onto the doors large handles, he pulled.
Nothing. It wouldn’t budge. Life ran out of Hadrian, and panic filled the empty spaces. He pulled again, this time wrenching and wenching until his hands became raw.
“Shit,” He said under his breath. There was nothing they could do. This was the only way out. He hung his head, and kicked at the door, screaming curse words. They echoed off the walls, but it didn’t matter. There was no one else around to hear them. There was a lock attached to the door. There would have been no time to search for the key, but Aleida had something else in mind. Hadrian hadn’t noticed it, but she had gotten off of Torek, and was walking slowly towards the door, with the sword in his hands. She looked at him, and she knew she wasn’t prepared to die, not in High Ground, not in the dark, and not without a fight.
“Step back, Hadrian.” The sword was in her hands, and her grip was strong and true. With hardly any light to guide her, Aleida swung. As hard as she had ever swung at something in her life. And then she swung again. And again. Until she heard a hard crack, and the sound of the lock breaking off and falling into the water. The three stood there, water to their thighs, and held their breath. Aleida put the sword back into it’s holster and grabbed one door handle, and Hadrian the other.
It was now or never, and they pulled the door with all their might.
Beautiful, fresh air hit their lungs. They had made it to the end of the tunnel, and they were under the bridge that they crossed earlier that day. They quickly made their way out, shutting the door again behind them, as water continued to seep out from the cracks. The door would surely break open without the locks, but hopefully they would be long gone before the Queen and her guards had the chance to check the tunnel. The night was cool, and it had stopped snowing, but if Aleida didn’t get warm soon, the damage might be irreversible. Aleida looked out across the bay. The bridge was above them, the castle behind them, and ahead of them was about a hundred foot spread of water. All surely just as cold as what they were in before.
“I know what’s on your mind, Miss Aleida. And I promise you, it’s not as bleak as you think.”
“No? It only looks as if I’m going to have to swim, which I can’t.” He chuckled, and got back up onto Torek’s back, reaching his hand down again for hers.
“This stretch of sea is only about 4 feet. I made the mistake one summer of trying to sail my boat under this bridge to beat Josef in a little game we made up. We’re into a bit of luck today.” Up Aleida went, and on they traveled, only taking a few minutes to reach land.
“We’re headed to a little place I know called Talal. It’s the town before Ketto Port, and it’s just a short ways from here. We’ll be safe, Gloriana thinks we’re dead, and it’ll take her a few days to find out she can’t kill me that easily.
They rode off and Aleida must’ve dazed in and out, because when she came to, she couldn’t hear the ocean anymore. Just the warm sound of families getting ready for bed. For a second she lost where she was, maybe thinking they had arrived back to Boldog somehow. When she didn’t recognize the town, her heart sank, and she began to feel where she was again. Hadrian slid off Torek and tied her to a hitching post, making his way inside a small little shop. It frightened Aleida to be out in the open like this, not the mention she still felt her dress stick to her, freezing her to the bone. Moments later Hadrian came back, holding a lantern and a key. He helped her off, and they walked a ways away, and inside a small housing quarter. They were on the second story, and Aleida could hear a mans snores coming from the first floor as they made their way up the stairs. Hadrian fiddled with the key until the door opened, and they walked in. The room was small, roughly the same size as Aleida’s cabin, but it smelled wonderful and there was beautiful hand crafted furniture in place of her old, and used tables and chairs. She immediately noticed the one bed in the corner, and figured that this was the only room left, and surely Hadrian had some other accommodations. In the front of the room there was a fireplace and all the necessities to make dinner. At this hour, it was doubtful that there was anyway the two could get fresh produce and meat, but she could wait until morning.
Hadrian started a fire immediately and Aleida began taking off her cloak. She looked down at her white dress, and she wanted to cry then and there. All her things she had hastily packed, they were gone, somewhere still in the castle, or perhaps burned along with Hadrian’s bag.
“I don’t have anything else to change into. I’d bet this cloak is near ruined, too.” Hadrian didn’t respond to her, and she felt that she might be silly, commenting on the material things when they had just barely escaped with their lives in tact. Shuffling through a chest at the foot of the bed, he pulled out a familiar bag. It was the same bag she had packed hours earlier.
“Morel.” She was still confused as she tried to run it through her head. “Morel knew that one way or another, we weren’t going to make it back out the same castle doors we came in. He told me about the dungeon, and told me that if we could make it down there, we’d have a chance to survive. If we could survive, our things would be waiting here in Talal. If not, he would return them to Gazdag, to my mother if she were ever to return.”
“That seems like quite a large favor. How can you trust him? How can you know he isn’t going to turn us in? There was that other guard there with you.”
“Ah, yes. You see Morel is from the Troncocas, and he knows my mother. He came over with her and my father. We are like brothers. As for the other guard, her and I go way back. She owes me a favor or two as well.” Aleida rolled her eyes, and grabbed the bag from Hadrian. He turned, and warmed himself by the fire while she changed into a warm cotton dress, news socks, and grabbed a blanket from the bed. It was peaceful here, and the outside world around them sounded happy.
From the same chest, Hadrian also pulled out his bag, digging around to find a new pair of pants. Aleida gave him some privacy and stood by the window, looking out towards the square. The snow was falling softly, and two kids ran across the courtyard, laughing and twirling before rushing down an alleyway, no doubt hurrying home before their parents worried. She couldn’t help but think of Dain and how scared he might be. It was undeniable that she trusted Josef and Dareema, but there was always something to worry about. Then there was Emeline. Miles and miles away, and probably near freezing, the further she went into those mountains. There were times when the two had an unspoken bond, but that had been broken for quite some time, and it was easier to just move on. Hadrian pulled on his boots behind her, and she turned, concerned as to why he was leaving her.
“Where are you going? We’ve only just got here.” Her voice was quiet, and she hoped he’d stay. There had been a distance between the two in Gazdag, but here and now, she felt closer than she had even been with anyone, to Hadrian.
“Hey now, I’m only going to put Torek back into the stable. The local Inn keeper said we can keep her there as long as we need.” Aleida nodded her head and locked the door after him, retreating back to her seat at the window.
Warmth from the fire could be felt from where she was, and Aleida closed her eyes soaking in the feeling. It must’ve been minutes after she sat down, and she began to doze off, her head against the glass window. There was a quiet knock on the door and Aleida awoke, her heart beating against her chest.
“Who is it?” Aleida whispered through the crack in the door, and heard Hadrian laugh, and opened it.
“Is Torek alright?” He nodded his head and shut the door again. He was carrying a basket and a pot in his arms.
“To round off this day, the generous family that owns this inn gave me some of their leftover meal on my way back from the stables. Are you hungry?” A huge smile came across both their faces, and they sat down at the table, barely talking as they enjoyed the bread and vegetable stew. When they were finished, Aleida gathered it together and was prepared to wash it tomorrow to return it to the kind people. More logs needed to be added to the fire, and Hadrian did so, and then took off his coat and boots again, stripping down to just his pants and socks.
The two gathered around the fire, sitting on the floor and thinking of the day. Aleida glanced at Hadrian. She felt shy now, and pulled her blanket up over her mouth. He was strong, no doubt, and his darkened skin glowed in the light of the fire. He was handsome just like his brother, but older, and with the weight of the world directly on his shoulders. It must be how Emeline feels. Felt. She had no idea anymore. He caught her looking at him, and Aleida looked away, back at the fire, but could feel his gaze still on her.
“What’s Low Ground really like for those who live in it?” His question surprised her, and she took some time to respond.
“I used to use the word ‘magical.’ But maybe now I feel like we’re all just cursed there. Before though, it felt like a place I would be happy to never leave. The people, the vast nature. The stars.” Her eyes were burning, but not because of the orange flames. Memories flooded into her brain, and they wouldn’t stop until they had overflown into tears.
“I didn’t mean to upset you, I just never knew that there were people like you that existed there.” Hadrian paused, and the words floated up towards the rafters like smoke. “You and your sister, so much will to live. And I have to assume it doesn’t stop with just you two.” Maybe it did. Aleida wasn’t sure if anyone else had made it out without damage from the Wind. Surely not her parents, her friends, even her enemies. There were times she had wished that they would’ve stayed. Maybe it would be better to die with family than to die alone.
“I don’t know if it’s the will to live Hadrian, or if I’m just too scared to die.” She got up from the fire and sat back at her window. The lights in the town had almost all gone out, except a few night owls. Aleida grabbed the lantern and sat it beside the bed. It was nicely made and smelled like the outside air.
“Do you want to sleep here Hadrian. I’d be happy to sleep just about anywhere.” They laughed, and Hadrian got up went back into the chest at the foot of the bed. He pulled out some bedding and laid it near the front door.
“I think you might feel safer in the bed, Aleida. I might stay up a little longer and think of our next movements.” It was late, and she was far too tired to object, and so she unwrapped herself from the blanket she had over her shoulders and handed it to Hadrian. He thanked her, and sat by the fire again, looking through his bag. One day at a time, Aleida thought, and she laid herself in bed, nearly asleep when she sat up again.