The rush of prisoners before us scattered at the top of the stairs, parting left and right into corridors. The creature, whatever he was, led me to the right. There we rushed down a narrow corridor. The prisoners ahead of us tangled with guards in brawls they lost. We wove around the messes and he drew to a halt at a window. The glass pane opened outwards, and he climbed up, sidling sideways so his body could slip out.
A guard yelled at us. The creature held out a hand to me. I hesitated.
I was seized from behind by the shoulders. I burst, a wave of anger suddenly crowding my mind.
I screamed, I lashed out. I felt the surge of power and adrenaline taking over. I wrenched myself free, jabbing elbows against armor and thrashing with all my might. The world had dissolved in a haze of red. The guard grappled at me – but was slammed back by a kick from the creature who was half back in through the window. Again, the hand was thrust at me.
This time I took it. I was yanked up, onto the window’s ledge. My hands gripped the edges of the window, and a rush of cold air greeted me. A drop opened up beneath us, one large story down.
“Climb on my back,” the creature said, taking one of my hands and putting it on his shoulder. I climbed, swinging my legs around his waist and gingerly grappling at his neck beneath the hood.
Too soon, the creature, man, began to scale the wall. I yelped as we moved away from the window, tightening my grip on his neck and locking my legs around his waist. But we did not fall. Instead we scurried down, to the side, and climbed atop the wall that separated the castle from the rest of the city.
He didn’t stop to set me down. Guards rushed us, but they were too slow. He had already jumped off the wall, scurrying down like a spider to the ground below.
The guards shouted from atop the walls, but they could do nothing it seemed. He ran, darting through the crowds of people to slide in narrow alleyways between houses. After several dizzying turns, he slowed to a stop.
“You can get down now,” he said gently, bending over slightly. “We should be safe here. At least for a little while until the guards recover their senses.”
Trembling, I set myself on the ground. I gripped my hands into fists, trying to calm myself.
In these shadows, I could see the one who had set me free much better. He was certainly tall, but maybe he was still a human. Yet something about him forebade it.
“Show me your face,” I ordered. What was he? Some monster? He had already admitted to being an assassin. How much worse could it get?
He smiled, flashing those white teeth. “Bossy. That’s good. But here, just for you,” he bent over before me, lifting the beaded fringe from his eyes and with it, the hood up off his head.
His eyes were brilliant golden set with sparks in them that gleamed. They reminded me of cats’ eyes in their roundness and their tilt. He had a tall forehead, from which grew a myriad of thin silver dreadlocks. Beside those dreadlocks, pointed ears poked out.
He ran a hand through his hair, flashing me a grin again as he stooped before me. “You see? Our hair is the same. I’m just much older than you.”
I was pretty sure I’d never have actually silver hair. Just gray, if I lived long enough to get old. He was trying to make me like him. I was determined not to, putting on my most sour expression.
His smile didn’t falter. He straightened, brushing his hood back up. “The sun hurts my eyes,” he explained as he set the fringe back into place. “And the fringe helps me hear the spirits. I’m a shaman, you know.”
I didn’t answer, looking around. We were in a tiny crackle of a space between four buildings. A crossroad of sorts. The snow was trampled into the mud, proving that this was a well-used path.
“We’ll need to find you clothes,” he hummed. “Something practical.”
I didn’t answer, but I knew he was right. My yellow and pink pajamas, now covered in filth, were sorely out of place even if I hugged the guards’ red cloak around myself. And something besides socks would be good. Now that I relaxed, my feet were frozen. They stung with cold.
The elf looked around. “Should I kill someone? It would have to be a young woman, or do you wear mens’ clothes?”
“Don’t kill anyone,” I griped, deciding that there had been enough death already. “We can just – steal.”
He laughed. “How ideal. How shall we do that?”
I looked around again. “We should get moving,” I muttered, not wanting to admit that, unlike in movies, there didn’t seem to be laundry hanging haphazardly around for easy plucking. Did people not do laundry in winter?
“This way then,” said the elf, nodding to the right with his head. His fringe’s beads caught the light and glimmered. “I know what we shall find for you.”
As we walked, he began to talk. “My name is Ekundayo. What about yours?”
I didn’t answer, glaring ahead.
“Very well,” he said cheerfully. “I will call you simply ‘apprentice’. How is that?”
I frowned at him. “I am not your apprentice,” I hissed between my teeth.
“Oh but you see, it shall be useful,” he said, lifting a finger at me. Then, he winked. I scowled.
We walked for several more minutes in silence until several people appeared beside the buildings. They stepped out of the alleyways and barred our path.
I hesitated, slowing. These people were all hues of dirt and scuffed even worse than the ones I’d seen when entering the city. They meant trouble.
But Ekundayo put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t be afraid. They’ll smell it,” he murmured happily.
And so we walked on to greet these bandits.
They seemed baffled by this behavior, or more so by something about Ekundayo. They looked from him to me and back again, frowning. There were four of them, and they looked at each other with arms crossed and large knives at their belts.
Ekundayo inclined his head and said something in gibberish, starting with “Shee, shee.”
The bandits shuffled their feet. They looked at me. The woman that stepped forward with a lifted chin answered in that language to Ekundayo, nodding at me.
Ekundayo placed a hand on my shoulder, and he laughed softly before saying more gibberish.
After another curt exchange, the bandits stepped aside. Ekundayo patted my shoulder and we walked on past them.
“What was that?” I hissed after we were out of earshot. “What did you say?”
He chuckled, pulling the hood up onto my head. “You’re going to have to learn the language of the poor to live here, apprentice. Only the rich speak your language.”
I paused. It had never occurred to me before that English was not universal. But now… “Teach it to me,” I ordered. I’d need it, certainly.
More smiles. Another chuckle. “About what was said. I told them you were my daughter, spawned with a noblewoman, and that I’d finally rescued you from their clutches.”
I gaped. He winked again. “It explains you not speaking a word of the poor speech. And why you look so out of sorts.”
Anger rose within me, a steady burn in my chest. “I’m not your daughter, and I’m not your apprentice. Stop imagining things!”
He shook his head, tutting. The fringe on his hood rattled. “Children these days,” he scoffed before chuckling again. Then, he pointed to a shack that looked no different from the others. “There,” he said. “We will find our friends there, daughter.”
“I’m not your child!”