The blue morning was quiet, and any tracks that had been made the day before had been dusted over by soft, white snow. The sound of the winter waves was brief, only ever heightening slightly as the breeze carried in its noise. Most in Ketto were sleeping, all but mothers who checked in on their children, pushing away the hair from their faces. Sickness was one thing that the people of High Ground could not escape, and were subject to, just as much as others. Cold winds were harsh near the port, and a warm fire was kept burning from sunrise to sunrise.
Where just the day before many merchants and travelers had bartered and sold goods, a large, black creature was seen walking across the open city square. Its haunches moved forward, creeping low and looking side to side, before running into an alleyway. The creature was known to many in the area as a nagyfox. They were rare and grew to massive sizes, eating local farm animals like chickens and baby lambs. Even young children were told horror stories about these foxes to keep them from wandering into the forest unattended.
The nagyfox, with its thick fur and hungry eyes was searching for something, someone. Weaving in and out of the streets, staying low and in the shadows, the fox stayed out of view to any early risers. Giant paws trod lightly, until they stopped in front of a two story home. The house was connected to many other rows of buildings, each with one entry, a few windows, weathered brick, and a chimney that puffed grey smoke into the night. If one was a stranger, each street would look the same, maybe more narrow, different stones, and different people, but still the same. To the fox, this was undeniably the right place. The smell of the surroundings, the sounds of small chatter coming from inside was all enough to know. So the creature would wait, not here, but somewhere close, watching, waiting.
It had been two days since Hadrian had seen Aleida’s dark, brown eyes. He figured his own were bloodshot, red from the lack of sleep. How could he? Sleep without knowing if she needed protection? All he wanted to know was how she had gotten herself nearly killed. In the usual way, he beat himself up, thinking that every other choice they had of travel. It should’ve been him and Torek on that dangerous road. Maybe it was too early to risk leaving Talal, but every instinct told Hadrian to leave before sunrise.
Back and forth he went, torturing himself, refusing to eat until she opened her eyes, sitting at the bedside, watching her abdomen slowly rise and fall. Counting each inhale and exhale, finding abnormalities in the numbers. Kereese and Lin had been kind enough, and suggested that patience was going to help Aleida survive. Hadrian wanted to shout back at them, faulting them for being so unconcerned. Instead he shut his mouth, clenching his jaw tight and squeezing Aleida’s hand as tight as he could manage, hoping to wake her, reaching for some kind of comfort.
And then there was Oga. He knew very little of her, but her presence had made Aleida sit up, her eyes wide. Hadrian had rushed to her, but in the same moment she collapsed asleep again, and here he was, many grueling moments later. He allowed the new woman to sit alone with Aleida for part of the day, while he went and checked on Torek, cleaning off the dried blood and checking for wounds. When he found her to be just fine, Hadrian sat on a milking stool, and put his head in his hands. Normally, he was full of plans, dictating where to go, what to do when they got there, and who would be meeting them. Now, it was either survive or… He couldn’t bear to think of the alternative. Everything he touched fell to ash. With his own hands he tore his family apart, put thousands of Low Grounders at risk, and now, her. If the gods his mother spoke about were watching over him, they had surely turned their favor to some other man.
When returning to Oga, returning to his post beside Aleida, the woman stood and looked at Aleida for a moment before turning to leave. He watched her, her hair was neatly braided and wrapped around in a heavy coil to her head. Reaching the door, she turned, looking into Hadrian’s eyes. They were softer than before, and he could see the age in them, her wrinkled hands gripping the door handle for support.
“You and I mustn’t think in tragedies. She will open her eyes soon, and we will see strength again.” The door shut, and ever since Hadrian had stayed by her side. Hours passed again on the third morning, and soon midday appeared, but the room stayed dark, a small fire in the corner providing some light. There was one window in the room, and it overlooked a back alley with little to no traffic. Hadrian stood, stretching his limbs, reaching up and hearing his body crackle like the fire. Kereese knocked silently, like she always did, bringing him lunch, and a cup of wine. Usually she let him be, but she remained in the corner, wringing her hands before coming up beside him.
“This must be hard. Trusting strangers.” Her bright red hair contrasted against her pale blue dress. Everything seemed dull in the moment, except that hair, and so Hadrian looked at the loose tendrils around her face instead of in her eyes.
“I’m nearly a stranger to her.” Hadrian gritted his teeth again, the feeling of fear wafting over him again. It was a hopeless feeling, and he would succumb to it until she woke.
“Lin and I worry that she hasn’t eaten or drank water since you left Talal.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.” Bile rose in his throat, and Hadrian leaned against the wall, steadying himself. “What can we do?”
The red-haired woman walked over to Aleida, placing her hand over her forehead, brushing her curls to the side, and tracing her sleeping face. “We can wait. That’s what we can do.” Walking towards Hadrian again, she began to plead, “But let us wait with you. Let’s bring life into this room, let’s hope for her, together. I know we are just strangers, but she is from my country. We are connected.”
So the afternoon went just as she said. Lin brought up sweet smelling cake, drinks, and food dishes that even Hadrian had never seen in his travels. Candles were put around the room, lighting the space, and setting every face aglow. Kereese had learned to play the fiddle back in Low Ground, and began plucking away, singing or humming as she went. Oga had disappeared, setting off for more healing materials for when Aleida opened she eyes. Hadrian felt his mood lighten, and the three began sharing stories of childhood, where they grew up, the things they had in common. Lin was a tall, lanky man who had escaped the life of a miner in the Zoulty caves. It was a perpetual job, and everyday he and others risked their lives. Hadrian knew where the coal went to, and that hardly any of it stayed in Low Ground. He felt guilty, and Lin noticed this and said,
“You know, we’re all born into something we wish we could change. Poor or rich, we all want something we can’t have, and we all have something others will kill for. If I were ten years younger like yourself, I’d think I might have the world at my feet. But you already know you don’t. That’s what’s going to save you.” After that they were all still for a moment, Kereese still unknowingly plucking the strings at random. There was a sound, almost so faint, that had there been heavier winds, or a louder fiddle, you might not have heard it. Faint, and from the mouth of Aleida, came tiny gasps of air. Her lips parted and she seemed to be speaking, or desperately trying. Kereese stopped playing, and each held their breath. Lin stood abruptly from his perch near the window and bounded down the stairs for water. Hadrian, who had pictured this moment for the past 72 hours, stayed motionless. Fear that she was taking her last breaths was heavy on him, heavier than any time before.
“Get over here and help me set her up.” Moving into action, Hadrian gently took hold of Aleida’s underarm, and lifted her so she was sitting at an angle. He held her head in his hands, and began speaking to her. He told her he was here for her, and that everything was okay. She was going to be safe, Torek was safe. He repeated the names of her family members over and over, telling her that they needed her still. That he needed her.
Lin handed him a cold wet rag, and he dabbed at her face, trying anything to pull her further back to them. As Hadrian continued to speak to her, and press the rag to her warm skin, two tears ran down from each eye.
“I think she’s going to be okay, Hadrian.” Kereese had tears in her eyes, and Lin held her close. She blinked once, then a few more times, adjusting to the light. Aleida’s dark brown eyes were shining as the candles shone against them. She looked up into Hadrian’s and tears continued to fall. He wiped each away with his thumb, and knelt there beside her, as the couple began asking Aleida questions. They checked how she reacted to light, how tightly she could squeeze their hand, if she could remember who she was. They introduced themselves, telling her where they came from, and she smiled, nodding her head at the familiar territory. After drinking water, her eyes gazed at the food that was set up in the corner of the room on a wooden table.
It was late, and Lin and Kereese had done all they could to make the both of them as comfortable as possible. Aleida was eating small bites of food, and taking long drinks of water. Hadrian, for the first time in a long time, ate until he was bursting at the seams. Her voice was still hoarse, and it made her seem as small as a mouse, but she was nothing short of a dragon in his eyes.
“How did we find our way to this house?” It really was a mystery, but he knew it was Oga who led them through the alleyways. She was a mystery beyond anything he had ever known, but he was sure she had saved them.
“It might be something for Oga to explain to you.” Aleida’s nose scrunched up and she turned her head sideways.
“How do you know about Oga? I haven’t seen her since…” She starred off, out into the dark night, her wheels turning as she processed the true last time she saw her kin, Oga. “I suppose I saw her in a dream.” A quiet knock at the door, and Hadrian jumped as it startled him. It was a hooded figure in a black cloak, dripping melted, muddy snow onto the floor boards. Aleida had wide eyes, unsure of the stranger, until she removed her cloak. If Aleida could’ve gotten up and ran to her, she would’ve but instead Oga came to her, in a big embrace, pulling the young woman close, and stroking her hair.
“Oh, édes csillag, my sweet star, you are awake.” The old woman held Aleida’s cheeks in her hands, taking in a good look.
“Oga, how did you get here? The travel from Bitzsostan is too long for you.” The woman’s eyes crinkled as she smiled, and sat at the edge of the bed, holding Aleida’s hands as she spoke.
“I would say the same to a young girl like yourself, but here we both are.” She was quiet, but Hadrian could tell she had more to say. “My sweet, there are so many horrible things happening in our homeland. When I sent you and Dain to Fekete, I hoped there would some good for you there. It seems I was wrong. The times have changed since I was a girl.”
“I hoped to find Emeline, you, and Dain, but I see that hardships have split you all.”
Hadrian left the room, allowing the two to speak in private, letting the grief of everything be worked out amongst family. Aleida assured him that he was like family, but he needed time to clear his head anyway. He hardly ever traveled outside, for fear that a guard might spot him. However, the night was dark, and the moon was covered by clouds, as Hadrian opened the creaky wooden door into the cold air. He walked a few paces down towards Torek’s stall. Inside, she stood, her back legs towards him. He patted her side, and white air billowed from her nostrils. A feeling of exhaustion came over him, and so he only stayed for a few moments, feeding her handfuls of hay.
On his way in, he admired the beautiful sounds of the city, the crunching of the snow underneath his boots. It was almost peaceful to be away from the house. Away from the smell of uncertainty. Hadrian wasn’t certain of anything, not even after seeing that Aleida was awake. There was something bugging him about the events that had unfolded in the past few days. He was too tired to think about what was keeping him from feeling safe in Ketto. He had no idea he was being followed, being watched every second of the day. He just saw the dark blue sky, and the clouds and the snow, before heading inside to get his first nights sleep in a long time.