“What are you going to do?” Crow was whispering as I peeked out through my eyelashes. There was moonlight drifting through cracks of the shack, but no other light. Ekundayo’s eyes glowed lightly.
“Why, what makes you think I’m going to do anything?” the shaman asked happily.
“She is your daughter, am I wrong?”
“Of course she is,” Ekundayo lied like it was true, passionately so. “But I had to rescue her.”
I was drowsy, half awake, but determined not to wake fully. Besides, it seemed like this was a good vantage point to spy from.
“How does she not know Madame minstrel though?”
“Things have changed inside the castle, I suppose. Maybe Minstrel fell out of grace.”
“Tss, there would have been a hanging if so,” Crow muttered savagely. But then he sunk into gloomy silence. It did not last long. Within a moment he perked up, saying “So she is your daughter?”
“Of course,” sighed Ekundayo, closing his eyes as he rested against the wall. Crow shifted, rubbing his hands together.
“Does she, you know? Have your powers? Is she free?”
One of Ekundayo’s eyes opened. Then it closed. “Who knows?”
“Well, she must know!”
“I doubt it,” hummed Ekundayo. “Freedom comes at a price too, my friend. Don’t forget that.”
“But imagine if she was!” Crow sighed. “It must be so lovely. What’s it like?”
Ekundayo hummed as an answer.
Crow blew on his hands and rubbed them together again. “Lage must be so jealous!” he cackled gleefully. “How is that bugger, anyways?”
“I wouldn’t know,” said Ekundayo sourly. “Why don’t you go ask him?”
“Oh, hush you,” said Crow. “How is he?”
Ekundayo hummed, eyes closed. Crow huffed and wrapped his arms around himself. I hoped they would say something more. Anything, really, that would be useful. Or something to explain what was happening in this strange world. But they didn’t say a thing.
I drifted back into sleep as the silence stretched on.
It felt like only a few moments, but when I was roused, the sun was seeping through the cracks and the day was cold in a bone-chilling way. Ekundayo’s breath misted between us as he shook my shoulder.
Shushing me, he held a finger to his lips. With a nod to the sleeping Crow beside us, he helped me up to my feet. I shook him off, stumbling on my numbed legs. It was so cold.
Ekundayo ushered me to the door, which he pried open so silently for me. Then, with a nod, he pointed me out into the street.
The sun was blinding, beating down without a cloud to spare us. The shacks were garish in their frozen misery, icicles hanging here and there, frost clinging to the walls. The sun had just risen, sparkling over this mess like it was pretending to be pretty.
“Here,” Ekundayo took my cloak from my shoulders and plopped a grimy gray one onto me. “Only guards wear red,” he announced before throwing my cloak into a nearby alleyway.
“Now what?” I asked grimly as we walked what felt aimlessly through the streets. But he was alert, smiling, but tense.
“Now what?” he repeated cheerfully. “Somethign is happening. The spirits woke me. We must get out of here. You, if you can, must evade the city. Escape, if you will, all the way. I know you will be fine if you can just get out of here.”
I gave him the stink eye of disbelief. He smiled cheesily.
“You remember that I am a shaman, do you?”
“Yes,” I said sourly, but also knew that I did not believe in magic. Or did I? I was living in another world now, wasn’t I? I frowned, looking around for some sense of normalcy.
“You also remember that I am an assassin?” he asked gently.
“Yes!” I snapped. What was his point?
He seemed kind as he stopped, drawing me before him to look me in the eyes. His fringe sparkled, swaying between us. “It means that I will be fine here, but you shall not. You are not an assassin, child. You are a child.”
I shook his hands off angrily. “I’m not a child anymore!”
“You haven’t murdered, yet,” he said solemnly. “You are still a child to me.”
I huffed angrily. Whatever!
He looked around. Then, he reached up under his hood. He drew out a necklace. It was a golden chain that looked surprisingly modern, with a gold medallion the size of my thumb, with a red rose painted on it. “Here,” he hooked it around my neck. “You keep this.” It slid under my tunic, warm. He patted it there. “You will find me again, and I will find you. Alright? Don’t despair. People will find you.”
“I’m tired of being found,” I snapped. I felt like a token of purity of some sort, being passed around like a treasure.
He winked at me. “You do that. Just remember to escape this city, even if it means becoming an adult. Now,” he straightened. “Where are we going? Ah! That way!” and he pointed us forward.
I rolled my eyes and followed him, scowling at his side while we slipped through narrow alleyways and foul-smelling paths.
It was just as we passed into what seemed a cleaner area of town that the screams were heard. I looked to Ekundayo. His eyes were narrowed but he was still smiling. We crept forward now, clinging to the walls and scuttling forward.
The scene unfolded before us at the end of an alleyway. We crouched behind barrels and I stared in awe.
There, on a giant black horse, was Rebella in her white fur cloak. Before her, all around the city’s market space were screaming villagers in muddy browns, being hauled to and fro by red-cloaked guards. They were separating parents from their children, beating the parents away as they flung the children into a frightened mass before Rebella.
“They’re looking for you,” muttered Ekundayo to me.
“Why?” I moaned, knowing full well why. They wanted the card. They wanted me, but not for who I was but what I now possessed.
Ekundayo tutted. He pointed left, finger just poking out from the top of the barrel. “That ways’ the gates. Can you see them? They are down for the morning. Get across.”
“And you?” I asked, without thinking why.
He smiled. “I am an assassin.” He patted me on the shoulder. “We shall meet again, daughter.”
“I’m not-” but he jumped up and out from behind the barrel. With a yell he ran out into the market square, a knife flashing in his hand. He ran straight towards Rebella’s horse.
Guards rushed at him. Parents and children ran, freed, in all directions.
This was my chance. I swallowed once, then darted out as well. I kept to the walls, skirting around and dashing for the gates. People rushed and screamed, escaping the guards and running like mice in all directions. Elbows jammed into me, shoulders slammed me aside, and I found myself crushed up against the wall more than once. But the gates were coming closer.
A horses’ shriek came up just as I reached them, and the guards left their posts, running forward with spears knocking and slicing people out of their way.
I turned. Rebella’s horse was staggering, the princess holding on for dear life. A purple head with a glittering fringe was darting away through the mass, chased by red-cloaked guards.
I felt a pang of pity for the horse, then rushed out the gate. I found myself gleeful and happy that Ekundayo was fleeing safely. I trusted that he would survive. I believed that we would meet again.
As I pounded onto the earthen path and out into the fresh snow beyond the city and into the forest, I felt free. Finally.