Snow had flooded the streets of Talal, and the wind whipped through alleyways, and covered doorsteps everywhere. The sun was beginning to stretch itself awake, but Hadrian had been up for hours. He was confident that Morel would keep his secret, but he also knew that if the two were caught, there would be no mercy, regardless of who found them. Aleida was still asleep, huddled underneath the covers, motionless. Logs in the fireplace crackled and Hadrian moved himself closer, warming his hands as he pondered their next steps. Torek needed more rest than they could afford, which meant that travel would have to be slow to the next city over. Small towns like Talal were good for short-term stops, but a city would keep them hidden like the cover of night.
High-guards would be out in large numbers looking for them, most likely dressed in unnoticeable clothing. With only a few penz left, this would keep Hadrian and Aleida from purchasing a new guise. Cities in High Ground were all wealthy, but there were the more poor people that still lined the streets during the day, merchants especially. Again, Hadrian had to remember they were without their wagon, and there were hardly any merchants without. During the middle of his thoughts, he heard Aleida stir. She sat up, her hair going every which way as she pushed the covers from her legs and shuffled over to the fire.
“What time is it? Have you slept?” Her voice was groggy but the sound of worry cut through. He nodded his head. Hadrian had laid down to sleep, that wasn’t a lie, but his mind did not allow for sleep.
“It’s nearly morning, I was just about to wake you.” Aleida stood, a blanket still wrapped around her shoulders, and began fixing the bed, tidying herself, running her fingers through her hair and pulling it back. Following suit, Hadrian wrapped up his own bedding that still lay by the front door. As he worked, a thought came to him, and he winced. Today was going to be harder than yesterday, but he knew how him and Aleida would make it to Ketto. If the guards were looking for two people, they wouldn’t be looking for one. As he thought of these things, he looked at Aleida. With shaking hands, she was putting out the fire, fully dressed in her cloak, her belongings packed neatly on the bed.
It was time to go, and it was a hazy blue outside as the moon said goodnight. Silently, the two walked down the stairs, leaving the small room the way they had left it, the snoring man still loudly purring in his drunken sleep the floor below. Aleida followed Hadrian through a long alley, passing houses whose dwellers were still warm in their beds. Snow was falling lightly, and their boots trudged through the previous night’s flurries with some difficulty. Before too long they made it to the nearby stables. Torek was happy to see them, and greeted them with a loud grunt. After many moments of silence, Aleida’s voice cut through the early morning.
“I’m almost scared to ask you, but what is happening today?” She was staring at the back of his head, and she picked at the gloves that covered her chilled fingers. They didn’t even have a saddle, and Aleida could still feel the cold chill of the water as she slid off Torek last time. Finally, Hadrian turned and faced Aleida, handing her the horses reins. She didn’t take them, but stared at them, shaking her head.
“I’m not splitting up again.” Her eyes were wide, scared, and she pleaded with him, whispering with fury, putting other horses on edge as they stomped and grunted in return.
Hadrian listened to her pleas, but explained his reasoning, hoping she would understand. “The High guards are looking for a man, a woman, and a horse. It’s simple Aleida, we can’t go to Ketto together. I’m going on foot, you’ve got to take Torek there. I’m not discussing this.”
There was visible hurt in her eyes, and she pleaded again. “I haven’t got the simplest idea where Ketto Port is!” Aleida put a thick emphasis on the word ‘where’ and sat down on an overturned water bucket, her head in her hands. He couldn’t quite make it out, but he thought he heard her mumbling the words ‘I can’t do this’ over and over. Hadrian decided to give her a few moments, and led Torek outside to finish strapping Aleida’s belongings to Torek. He heard footsteps and saw that she had emerged from the stable, her cheeks red.
“Aleida all you have to do is ride down the only main road in this town. You’ll get to Halo’s Path.” Hadrian drew a map in the air with his finger, showing that the route was easier than she thought. “You don’t have to pass through any gates, because you’ll turn before then.” It’ll take you half a day if you go slow. Less than that if Torek wants to run.” He smiled, but her stomach felt uneasy, and all of a sudden her skin felt like it was on fire. The path was marked in her head. Torek and her would ride out of town, making a left and following the Halo’s Path. Just before the gates, she would make another left, and follow that path all the way to Ketto. Hadrian warned her that there might be guards waiting at the cities entrance, and so she was to wait until a large group of others made their way through. He would be waiting for her, he would find her, he told her.
“Won’t I make it there before you?” She heaved herself onto Torek, concerned with his plans, but trusting it nonetheless.
Hadrian looked up at her, “I’m heading on foot, cutting through the forest. That has its own set of dangers, but it’ll cut the time in half. There is no way Torek could make it through the brush, and we can’t leave her behind yet.” Yet. It rung in Aleida’s ears as she departed, Torek leading the way as they made it to the center of town, headed for the Halo’s. It was inevitable, and she’d better get used to it. To survive she would need to leave behind more and more. First her home, her parents. Then her sister and Oga. Next, she left behind Dain. Nothing was going to stay the same with her, and so she vowed she would leave the old Aleida here in Talal. Kicking at the sides of Torek, she sped with some purpose towards the snowy path, her cloak fluttering after them, waving goodbye to what they were leaving behind.
Hadrian’s boots crunched against the hard snow as he hurried through the woods that connected each town. The trees were thick, and travel was slow, but he was already close to Masadott. It was the only town in the area that was known for its lavish furs and silk dresses. Father would stop by Masadott on his way home from the High Castle, bringing home a beautiful shawl for Hadrian’s mother, and new white fur-lined boots for Gloriana. They would giggle and squeal, holding the new items close, and then hugging father before he went back to the library to work. This was years ago, and it had been years since anyone had brought Dareema a new gift. She wouldn’t accept them anyway, only staying in her worn dresses that she often repatched.
The woods were empty, except for a few hunters here and there. They disregarded him, but his heart raced like a squirrel up a tree every time he saw someone in the distance. He only carried with him a small dagger, hidden away in his left boot. Aleida had one as well, and he hoped she’d never have to use it. In a short few hours he would make it to the last stretch before Ketto. The terrain would start to become less accessible, and at the end, there was a small raveen to travel through, and up over a rocky hillside. There he could look down on Ketto, and he would have clear vision of the sea, the city limits, and anyone going through the entrance. He would spot Torek in any crowd, her black body adorned with one small white spot on her neck. Hadrian had chosen Talal as their first resting spot because it was unlikely that guards would search it first. First might’ve been Masadott, since it was the closest to the castle next to Ketto. Secondly, they would make their way to Gazdag, vandalizing their home in search of Josef and mother. However, it was most likely that guards would be set up in Ketto, near the port itself. Though Hadrian’s family was in charge of a few smaller exports in Fekete, it was rare that any of those ever landed near their Northern sister port. Once Aleida and him got settled into a secluded area of the city, he would need to find a messenger who could bridge communication between Josef and himself. The plan was to meet in Sungel, the same port that Hadrian took Emeline the day before she left him. There he had connections to take them wherever they needed to go. All of that seemed simple in his head, but there was a lot of waiting involved. Waiting could get them all sent to the dungeons, every single one of them.
Dark blue clouds opened up and began one of the heaviest snows of the season. Visibility became an issue, and Hadrian lifted his cloak over his head, trying to keep the flakes from his eyes. Ahead he could finally see the ravine ledge. It only took him a few minutes to slide down and carefully land at the bottom. It was icy, but the river that lead out to the ocean had not yet frozen, and so he looked for a man-made bridge. Looking left then right, all Hadrian saw was a fallen tree that had created something similar to a bridge. Without wasting time, Hadrian hurried up the riverside, and crawled onto the tree trunk. He checked to see how sturdy it was, before stretching his arms out wide, and stepping forward. Only needing to clear 20 feet, he was confident enough that once he crossed, the climb out of the ravine would be easy. His foot slipped once or twice, but in the end he made it over and scurried up to the edge of the tree line, taking in Ketto City.
Even with the heavy storm, people were out, hurrying around the markets, kids were playing in side streets, and boats were starting to come in for the day. There was still a steady stream of merchants coming in and out, some traders, others staying for weeks at a time for new materials. Ketto was much larger than Gazdag, and it showed. Rows and rows of tall shops that also housed their owners in the top story filed around the main market center. A hundred other alleyways featured pubs, tailors, trade shops, blacksmiths, and bakeries. Further back were fewer streets and more open spaces for wealthy homes. From some Ketto homes that ourskirted the city, the Red Castle could be seen clearly from their terraces. Thankfully, the tree line began to clear, and Hadrian had a clear view of the city entrance. To his surprise, there were no guards waiting at the city gates, but he knew they must be somewhere. From where Hadrian stood, he had cover from two large trees. It also blocked some of his view to the left and right of him, and now he feared the guards might have had the same idea as him.
It would mean he would have to wait until dark before coming out from behind the tree line. He hadn’t planned for this, and he should’ve known the guards would take care to make sure that their presence wasn’t known. As he was beating himself up for his careless plan, he spotted Torek. The hooded figure on top of his horse was seemingly Aleida, but something was very wrong. A boot was missing from her foot, and try as Aleida might, she could barely sit up straight. She kept leaning against the crest of Torek, before pushing herself up again with her right arm. She needed help, and she needed it now. He waited as she passed through the opened gates, blending in with other travelers around her. Hadrian took a chance, and darted from his hiding spot, as the wind picked up and visibility became almost nonexistent from the hillside. Snow swirled and spun around him, as he put one foot in front of the other, wondering if it would be his last. He turned and there was no one following him as he made it onto the cobbled path just before the gate. There was a small trail of blood in the snow, and he knew to follow it. People pushed past him, and horses whinnied as riders made their way in and out of the market center. The trail stopped after a while, and Hadrian turned in his tracks, looking through the crowd. Walking to the perimeter of the market, he saw finally saw curly hair again, pressed limp against the horses neck. He ran towards them as they turned into an alleyway.
When Hadrian got to them, Aleida had slumped off of Torek and had landed in a fresh pile of snow.
He knelt beside her, checking behind his shoulder to see if they had drawn a crowd, “Aleida, what happened to you?” She was shivering and her left arm was holding her ribs on the right side of her body. Hadrian saw blood, and he knew she had come across bad company along Halo’s Path. Aleida mumbled something, but the city was so loud he could barely hear her. Suddenly, a few paces down the alley, there was an elderly woman staring at them. Hadrian looked up at her, and saw that she was motioning for them to follow her. He was hesitant, but there was nothing else he could do. He lifted Aleida’s body and she cried out in pain, before slumping against him. Torek followed, as they trailed the woman. Street after street, she shuffled along, peering back and forth before crossing a bigger street. There was a moment where Hadrian was sure that she was leading them on a wild chase, and he yelled out, “Where are you taking us? She needs help!”
The old lady turned one last corner, and as Hadrian caught up to confront her again, she was gone. Frustrated and lost, he spat profanities into the wind, leaning against a brick facade. Aleida was heavy in his arms, and as he began to give up, a wooden door opened a few houses behind him, and a young woman and man ran out towards them.
“D’ya need our help? She looks a mess.” He nodded his head and the man grabbed a hold of Aleida’s legs, leading them towards the house. The woman spoke softly,
“I’ll tie your horse to the back. Is that alright?” She posed the question, but was already leading Torek away, patting her side, and observing the blood that had been spread on her pure white spot. Up the stairs and into a back corner room, there was an empty bed ready for her. A million questions were running through his head, but there were people willing to help Aleida, and that was all he could focus on.
“How’d she get a knife to the ribs, mate?” The stranger had removed her cloak and was checking the wound through her dress.
“I, I wasn’t with her when it happened.” It was worse than he thought, and panic began to rise when behind him he heard the woman coming up the stairs holding a bucket of water. He turned to her and in his panic, shouted louder than he would’ve wanted,
“What are you going to do for her? She’s going to die!” Pulling a chair from the corner of the room, the woman pointed for him to sit.
“Well you’re just lucky the old lady found you when she did. Sit, we’re going to give her a look over. My name’s Kereese, so you know.”
Without anything else that he could do successfully, Hadrian sat as the two got to work. They began by removing her dress, cutting it with shears on her unwounded side. Kereese pulled Aleida’s undergarment away from her side, making the hole bigger in the garment so they could work in that area without removing the whole gown. Taking a cloth from the bucket of water and ringing it out, the man dabbed against the wound, cleaning it thoroughly.
“Oh, it’s not all that bad, Lin, now is it?” The woman sounded hopeful, and Hadrian sat back in his chair a little, sweat dripping down around his chin. They spoke softly back and forth, working quickly before Aleida woke again. He could see them wrapping her up, and changing the sheets underneath where she lay. The man, who he presumed to be called Lin, approached.
“She’s lucky, that’s for sure. Three cuts on her side, I counted. None were deep, but the pain must’ve gotten to her.” The man wiped the hands clean with a rag, and turned from Hadrian, cleaning up their utensils and moving them to a nearby table.
“Why…” Hadrian couldn’t finish the sentence. He just looked at his boots, which had created a muddy, watery mess on their wooden floors.
“Why did we help ya?” Kereese knelt down in front of him with one arm draped over her knee, a smirk on her face. “ Well, ya needed help didn’t ya?” She looked him in the eyes, and he felt the honesty in her voice.
“You needed help and so we helped. Plus she’s a Low Grounder, clear as day.”
Hadrian looked between the two. If they knew she was from Low Ground, other’s might as well. He stood, and they could tell he was feeling defensive.
“Now it’s not what you think, lad.” Lin put his hand out, trying to deescalate the situation while Kereese sat on the edge of Aleida’s bed.
“We’re Low Grounders too, born and raised near the Zoulty caves. Lovely city.” She batted her eyes at Lin and they smiled wide, proud of their roots, but Hadrian still wasn’t impressed.
“So you’re just in the Northernmost port of High Ground, steps from the castle gates, and you tell a complete stranger you were born in Low Ground.” Hadrian figured he could fight off Lin if needed, but there was no way they were getting out quickly if thing went south.
“You’re no strangers to us. Oga knew you’d come.”
“Oga?” A groggy voice sounded from behind the three, and Aleida sat up, her head cocked sideways. She winced, but her eyes weren’t on any of them, but at the old woman standing at the door. Hadrian turned, taking in the full presence of the newcomer. It was indeed the woman who had led them to the this Safe House. Her hair nearly reached the floor, and it was as white as the snow falling outside. Adorning her shoulders was a black cloak, and underneath a black dress. A crooked smile on her face amongst the many wrinkles.
“Oh child how are you doing?”