I stand in a mountainous terrain scattered with diverse evergreen
trees and smattered with boulders of all shapes and sizes, a thin
stream - or what might have been a stream were it not so damn
cold and frozen - runs down from the apex of a hill to my right
and in to the valley below. A town inhibits the pit. Ayeira. A
small smile almost tugs at the edges of my lips, the almost
fairy-tale like appearance of the town sprouting forth old
memories both pleasant and the very opposite. Home. But the
expression never really surfaces. Now is not the time for
"We can't go into town!" I shout as a figure sprints right by me,
starting the rocky and utterly dangerous descent down the side of
the mountain. Moments later I'm on the heels of previously
He glances back at me, seems to contemplate speaking, then stops
all at once and snatches my arm to pull me to the side. Finally I
think, a moment to breathe. "We don't have a choice alright? We
don't have a choice. We just need to run, alright. So run." He's
panting heavily and his face is covered in a thin sheen of sweat,
despite the chill in the air.
I grit my teeth and wipe my own forehead, peering back up the
hill we just half stumbled, half ran down. Though I can't see
them yet, I know our pursuers aren't close behind and he's right.
We don't have any choice in the matter. It's either go into town
or risk capture. When I look back at him he's disappeared in a
mad dash down the hillside again.
As I follow I'm clipped in the shoulder by one of the obscuring
branches, resulting in a horrible tearing sound as it rips
through the fabric of my jacket as well as possibly a layer of
skin. Thankfully my adrenaline is enough to dismiss the pain.
"This way." He says, veering to the side and towards the bottom
of the stream I saw earlier. At it's end is a metal grate which
looks like it's about to fall apart, and the stench of rust is
almost overbearing to my senses. It seems to lead right into the
side of the land that the town sits on.
"Help me with it." Grunting as he starts to tug around the loose
edges of the grate, I oblige and hop across the stream, grabbing
the other edge and pulling against the metal. It only resists for
a couple seconds and I'm grateful because my muscles are crying
in protest from the hell they've been put through over the course
of the last couple hours. Through joint strength we manage to
push the rusty piece aside and move it back into place once we're
both securely inside.
Everything is black at first. We're both puffing and on the verge
of wheezing. I lean over and nearly wretch right there but
swallow with difficulty and keep moving forwards.
"Stop." His voice is hushed. I hear rustling for a few seconds
but then a little spark ignites in front of us and I can see why
he paused - he's holding a match. "Stay behind me." Though the
light is dim it still reflects off the edges of whatever it is
we're in. Some sort of pipe, not sewage though, luckily. A rat
screeches and scuttles by and I nearly shriek. He makes sure I
see him roll his eyes before we continue to advance down the
"How much longer?" I ask after a couple more minutes. The cold is
really beginning to make itself apparent and the fact that I'm
soaked with sweat doesn't help the situation by the slightest. "I
mean not to be irritating or anything but.. I'm freezing." And
tired. And sore. And hungry. I don't add any of these though,
since he's probably going through about the same thing right now.
"Just a little bit more. I think this leads to the town square."
He replies, peeking over his shoulder at me. "Do you want my
I shake my head and just resort to gnawing on my lip. Luckily
things have started to numb, so it's just pins and needles at
Turns out he was right, as a faint but entirely promising light
is visible up ahead and we both pick up the pace accordingly.
That light is the only thing we've got going for us and yet it
invokes such a sense of hope in both of us we've started jogging,
not even paying mind to our discomfort any more.
"I'll go up first." He says as we stop below the light and both
look upwards. Just like he said there is a manhole cover above
head and a ladder which looks to be even worse condition than the
grate from earlier leading up to it. "Wait until I shout down
before you follow, okay?"
"And if you don't shout down?"
He smiles - genuinely smiles - as he looks at me, placing a hand
on either one of my shoulders. "Tea, you are ever the optimist."
The sarcasm in his voice is audible. His expression steels again
and he drops his hands. "If I don't shout down. Run." And on that
positively reassuring note, he snuffs the match and starts up the
ladder with only the scarce light from above acting as a guide to
maneuver the ladder. It creaks and groans as it tries to support
Miraculously, it holds and he's able to get to the top and use
his shoulder to move the manhole cover out of the way and get a
better look aboveground.
"Well?" I call upwards, not impatiently but because I feel like
any second I may spontaneously combust due to anxiety and stress
overload. He remains silent for a couple more seconds before his
face reappears as he looks down at me.
"Clear. Come on up." I have to avoid hopping up onto the ladder
out of joy and relief and happiness and just about everything at
once, instead taking the safe root and proceeding up slowly as he
did. Above I can see stars dotting the sky, obsidian and barely
lit by the mere sliver of a moon that night. Billions of them
reach in all directions. That's something I do remember about
Ayeira. The amount of stars was always astonishing, especially on
clear nights like this one. I don't allow myself to bask in the
memory for very long though. We aren't out of harm's way just yet
and until then safety takes priority over star-gazing.
There isn't a soul in sight but we still take care to silently
place the manhole cover back on as not to play our luck any more
than we already have. In fact, I'm just thinking about how lucky
we were to even get down the side of the mountain without killing
ourselves in the process when a chorus of shouts arises from
behind us. It only takes a moment for us to pick up that our
pursuers have entered the town and then we're both practically
dragging ourselves into a run again. My lungs burn in retort to
more movement and I'm exhausted and burnt out and it takes every
inch of willpower to keep moving. Keep running. Left right, left
"The inn." I say through huffs. "There." I point to the opposite
end of the square, where a squat building sits, made to look
almost like a cabin of sorts. It's walls are mostly log save for
cobblestone rimming the windows, vines reaching up the sides like
tendrils and curling outwards at the roof. Light is brewing
inside the frost-ridden windows and as we approach the sounds of
hearty laughter emit from indoors. The fragrance of bread and
garlic and what I take to be soup for it's earthiness quickly
fills the air and we share a wide-eyed look of anticipation.
In a joint effort to look normal, we link arms and try to hoist
our heads just a little bit higher, wipe the sweat from our
brows, that type of thing, before entering. But then again,
looking normal is not so simple a task when you probably look
like the underside of a cow. Or worse. Most likely worse.
He opens the door and we simulatenously step inside. "Welcome to
the Marching Stallion - Are you two alright?" A woman,
effervescent and totally oblivious to what we've just been
through greets us almost immediately. She looks friendly enough
and maybe even a little concerned, so I answer with a fairly
pleasant voice. It's hard to do so because after our most recent
encounter with people ended with our being chased here in the
first place I feel I have every right to be hostile. I have to
inwardly remind myself that she is not the enemy.
"Yes, we're fine thank-you. Do you have a room to spare?" I ask,
and for some reason am suddenly overcome with this intense wave
of.. Whatever it is you feel when you feel like you're about to
burst out in tears. This could be it. We could be safe or she
could recognize us. I feel the tension radiating between him and
I and can only hope the woman won't catch on. I've almost chewed
right through my lip as it is.
She frowns and nods, wrapping an arm around my back and guiding
us further into the busy inn. "Yes, of course, of course!" The
place is packed chock full of men and women alike, but mostly men
chugging down on tankards. It has a warm glow and almost feels
homey. Lanterns line the walls and a bar sits off to the side,
everything made purely from assorted shades of wood that look
like they could give you a splinter in a split-second. Of course
I remember this place, I've been here many times before. It looks
just as I remember.
We walk right to the corner of the room, where a rickety-looking
staircase leads up to a corridor, the bannister that once had
been used as a handhold bent sharply to the side. "Right up there
and the first room on the left." She fumbles with a key ring
attached to her hip for a few seconds, brows furrowing in
concentration as she tried to depict which key is the right one.
"Ah, here we go." She pulls a key that looks absolutely identical
to the rest forth and smiles proudly at her find.
"How much?" He says, already reaching into his pocket to retrieve
what I know is our very shallow pool of money. I'm actually a
little surprised we have anything left at all, or that it wasn't
lost in the chase.
She gives us a sympathetic look of sorts, like someone just
kicked a puppy or something. I try not to take offense, since my
tolerance for pity is fairly low. "For you two.. Three agans." Is
her final decision. He pulls out the payment and hands it to her
in exchange for the key. The small coins are made out of grimy
metal. On one side they have an image of a single tree with six
threadbare branches, meant to symbolize members of the circle. On
the other a pattern that resembles a tiger's stripes, the icon of
Ayeira. It is decorated with embellishments, most of which have
either been worn off or are caked with dirt.
We got off very easy. One agan is barely enough to purchase a
loaf of bread. Three for a night in a warm room, which means
safety and warmth, is better than either of us could have ever
"Thank-you so much." He says with earnest gratitude. I might have
considered thanking her as well but I just nod my head because
now I'm definitely in danger of crying. Whether from relief or
shock, who is to say? The woman reaches down and gives my hand a
squeeze before walking back to rejoin the crowd of conversing
Without so much as a word we trudge up the stairs, effectively
tracing mud and slush on the wood in the process. He's quick to
unlock the room and as soon as I step inside I locate the bed -
there are two so I pick the closest - and quite simply collapse.
"You should take off your shoes first." He notes, but slumps down
on the other mattress without taking off his own. It remains
silent in the room for a couple minutes, the only sounds being
our joint breathing and the rambunctious laughter and hollering
Then I think I hear a little laugh from his bed. More of a grunt
really. He says "I can't believe we're alive."