For a few minutes, all my focus was on moving through the terrain as silently as possible.
That would be easier, a little part of my mind insisted on pointing out, if I could just leave Eliza behind.
The woman might have moved silently inside my house, but she had no sense of coordination for getting through the outdoors! She half-stumbled, half-trampled along like a boar in heat, crashing through dry twigs and leaving destruction in her wake. She had speed, at least, but that seemed to be the only point in her favor.
I very nearly left her behind. I wasn’t a part of her world, whatever she was caught up in, and I didn’t need to get dragged into her schemes. Let her be the one to face the Peacekeepers.
Face them, and the metal darts from those white weapons that they carried…
“Dammit,” I growled to myself, and forced more speed out of my exhausted legs to catch up with her.
She nearly shrieked when I finally caught her, and only my hand, thrown hastily over her mouth, kept her from shouting out and giving away our position even more than her wild, erratic movements. “Stop!” I hissed in her ear. “It’s Rane! You’re leaving too much of a trail!”
She froze, although to her credit, she didn’t shout when I pulled my fingers away from her soft lips. I tried to think. My advantage – perhaps my only advantage – is that I know the terrain. I’ve grown up here, spent my life in the little village. I’d run these paths, hidden from my friends, dodged the adults who came out searching for me.
The creek. It was nearby, and the darkness would hide us. Peacekeepers didn’t like going down near it, didn’t like the smell and the threat of getting their white outfits dirty.
It was our only option.
“This way,” I hissed to Eliza, tugging her back along the path that she’d just smashed out through the underbrush. I couldn’t teach her how to move more quietly through the undergrowth, but we could double back, leave a false trail. Eliza hesitated for a second, perhaps uncertain about why we were retreating back towards the searching Peacekeepers, but she didn’t say anything.
A dozen steps down, I pulled her off the path towards the river. “It’s going to be cold,” I whispered to her.
“What is-” Her words cut off as the water lapped up around her ankles. It had been a late spring, and we still saw chunks of ice on the river in the mornings, before they’d had a chance to melt away. I knew that it would be cold, but it offered more hiding opportunities, a better chance to avoid detection.
“You’re trying to kill me, aren’t you.” The words came from shivering lips as I pulled her in deeper. The shore was rocky, the ground dropping away quickly beneath our feet as we moved away from the edges.
“Be quiet.” The water was bitterly cold, and I felt my own limbs twitching in protest. With each minute, I felt heat leeching out of my body, and I knew we wouldn’t be able to stay down here for long.
It would just have to be enough.
I pulled her in, closer against me, in towards the shore. A few steps down, a rocky overhang extended out, a three-foot cliff above the edge of the river. We pressed in against that cliff, our bodies shivering against the damp, mossy rock, trying not to make any noise and give ourselves away.
And up above us, I heard footsteps moving in through the tall grass. The heavy thud of boots thumped against the ground, and I felt Eliza’s fingers tighten on me.
“Anything over there?” It was the voice of one of the other Peacekeepers, harsh and grating. I didn’t recognize the voice, although the Peacekeepers usually tried to keep their distance from us peasants.
We held still, frozen, waiting. The man standing on the cliff above us stomped back and forth, and I could practically imagine him staring down into the black water below. All he had to do was lean a little further forward, look down, and he’d see Eliza’s pale, almost white hair gleaming in the moonlight…
“Nothing,” the man called out, and my heart started to beat again for the first time in several minutes. He turned away, and we listened, our ears straining, as his footsteps receded.
Eliza moved against me, perhaps looking to get out of the frigid water, but I held her close. “Wait,” I murmured, as softly as possible. “Just a little longer.”
She held on. I felt her, small, pressed against me. I tried not to think about that presence, but she was a welcome distraction from the cold that even now crept into my extremities, seeking to suck away all of my body heat, tap the heat of my core and drain me.
And then, another five minutes after hearing the last sound from above, I released her. We moved through the water, over to the rocky shore. We pulled ourselves up from the river’s inky blackness, up onto the rocks, shivered in the air. I stared up at the stars, wondering what I’d done, what I’d just gotten myself into.
“They found me.” I turned my head at Eliza’s words, spoken softly and without much emotion. She kept her head tilted back, looking upwards. A pale tongue licked her lips. “I didn’t think that they’d find me. I didn’t mean to bring them…”
She turned, and I knew that she was trying to tell me her apology.
I didn’t want to hear it. Not now.
“We need to keep moving,” I said. Fighting every instinct, all the parts of my body that cried out to just lay here, let the shivering stop, drift away into pleasant, warm sleep, I hauled myself upwards. “They’ll keep searching. They’ll find us if we stick around.”
“Where?” She didn’t comment on my word usage, how the singular had become the plural. For better or for worse, at least for now, our fates were entwined.
I had an answer for her. “The boats. If we can get to one of the boats, we can cut it loose. Drift away downstream. They’ll figure it out, eventually, but we can get some distance between us, and…” I didn’t finish, just turned and looked up at the still-lit city behind us. Upland. It never slept.
She nodded. “Let’s go.”
We crept away, through the darkness, descending towards the harbor. Away from my village, my home. Away from everything I knew.