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 smiling.
"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 not-a-sewage-pipe.
"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 jacket?"
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 this point.
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 his weight.
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 right.
"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 expected.
"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 people.
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 from below.
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."
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