When it comes to running, I’m on Orla’s team.
THEY BEGAN WITH running. Hethanon led Orla through the winding streets of Nimbys for the first morning, ordering and goading her on, making her run until she was sick. It didn’t take long; she was terribly unfit. Her life had been a sedentary one and she’d been perfectly happy about that. The most exercise she ever did was joining her mother on a walk through the forests, which was by necessity slow and careful, intended to check the trees rather than improve their own health. Orla liked walking; she hated running.
“Come on, come on,” her almost-uncle growled, sounding far too full of breath while Orla was struggling to even put one foot in front of the other, let alone fill her lungs. “You think you’ll get far in the Riders this way? You won’t last a quarter moon. Move!”
He ran literal rings around her, getting in her face, driving her forward. Orla lost track of time, distance and direction as she stumbled from one street to another.
Midwinter celebrations raged all around her, but she hardly noticed. All she wanted was to stop, to sit down, to breathe.
Hethanon wouldn’t let her. “Don’t stop,” he ordered, even when he let her slow down. “Keep moving or your legs will freeze. You don’t want to ache tomorrow, do you?”
At this rate Orla didn’t think she’d even see tomorrow.
They walked long enough for her muscles to stop shaking and her breath to stop rasping in her throat, then it was running again. On and on, all around the city, past the great cathedral, down along the docks, then up, up, up along the winding streets to the base of the great cliff.
Orla was almost on her knees when they stopped, the craggy rock looming over them.
Her almost-uncle eyed her thoughtfully, looked at the steep path, then mercifully shook his head. “Tomorrow,” he announced, and jogged back into the city.
Orla stumbled after him, but her torturer was soon out of sight. Thank goodness. Blessing Maegla for her infinite mercies, she sat on the edge of a frozen fountain and hissed at the cold stone beneath her. She would pay for this, she knew, but right then she didn’t care. Her legs ached, her lungs ached, her back ached, her feet hurt and all of her was sore. Even her fingertips hurt when she stretched out her arms and tried to flex some life back into them.
As her heart slowly calmed and breathing became easier again, Orla noticed how cold it was. Snow had fallen during the night, leaving a light dusting of white over ice. The water trough behind her was covered in a thick layer of it, tiny pockmarks showing where the local sparrows and starlings had come down, searching for a drink.
Wishing for one herself, Orla pressed down on the ice. It didn’t crack, but it did sink a little, the water beneath seeping around the edges to flow over the top. Cold bit at her sore hands and she hissed, cupping her palms quickly in the chill and taking a short, sharp drink.
It hurt, biting at the inside of her chest and making her regret the impulse.
Shaking out her hands, she jumped back to her feet and rubbed her arms as she got moving again. That hurt too, her tired muscles having seized up against the cold. She limped down the icy street, looking at the houses around her. Clean and big, they weren’t the great mansions she’d seen on the east side of the city, but they clearly belonged to the wealthier sort of Nimbys citizen. Glass glittered in large windows, held in place by decorative lead frames. Candle light glowed behind many of them, warm and inviting. Orla wished she could walk in any one of the doors and warm herself for a while.
Instead she blew into her reddened hands and stumbled on, knowing she should start running again but unable to face it. Cramp gripped her left leg and she limped, hissing and grumbling beneath her breath.
The houses grew smaller, the windows less clean and bright. The cobbles beneath her feet gradually faded away, leaving only mud and slush as she descended into Nimbys’ less affluent areas. Eyes watched warily as she passed, some human, some not. She didn’t see any faces, but she knew they were there. They were cold too and hungry, however Orla knew she didn’t look rich enough to be worth bothering. Hethanon had insisted on that.
“If you walk around Nimbys, you take nothing with you. That way nothing can be taken from you, understand?”
She hadn’t, not then. It wasn’t that Ihra didn’t have poor people and rich people, but she’d been born and raised on sacred Urha. Few enough people lived there that she’d never had to worry about crime. That didn’t mean she wasn’t aware of it, and the longer she walked alone through Nimbys’ darker streets, the more worried she became.
She considered running again but thought better of it. Her body hurt too much for her to go very fast and she didn’t want to show weakness. Somehow that seemed like the worst thing she could do.
Rubbing her arms against the cold, she trudge on through the growing twilight, wishing she’d followed her uncle earlier and hoping she could remember the way back to his house. He’d led her all over the city during the day, but she hadn’t been in the best mind to take it all in.
“It’ll be fine,” she mumbled to herself. “You’ll find your way.” She would, because she had to. Snow drifted down, light and perilous, and Orla picked up her pace.
The street grew narrower and steeper, the houses to either side rising higher. There weren’t many windows here, just doors, each building seeming little more than three paces wide. Orla wondered how many people lived in each and how many shared each room. She didn’t look; the eyes were more numerous than ever and she really didn’t want to draw attention to herself.
She was so busy keeping her head down, trying to remember where her uncle’s house was, she almost walked into the wall at the end of the street.
A sharp cough startled her and she looked up, reeling backwards from the dark brick wall. Stepping back, her foot cracked through an icy puddle and she almost fell into the noisome mud.
The cougher spluttered and Orla blushed. Embarrassed, cold and flustered, she turned to the figure in the corner, a scowl on her face.
“Ever so elegant,” the figure muttered, huddled in the corner where the street took a sharp turn. Mostly hidden by the gathering shadows, Orla couldn’t make out much about them, except for the glint of a blade unsheathed in their hand.
She knew that voice, though; she would recognise that mockery anywhere. “Taryn?”
“Hello, little Ihran,” the former-skysailor greeted, her words interrupted by a cough.
Orla crept cautiously closer. “What are you doing out here?” In this part of the city. She might not have known much about her former roommate, but Orla knew Taryn came from money. Her crisp accent and expensive clothes had said more than the girl herself ever bothered to share. “Are you all right?”
Taryn snorted, the blade glinting as she lowered her sword. That was when Orla realised the girl was sitting on the cold ground and had been leaning on the sword more like a staff than a weapon. “What is right?” the girl murmured. “What is wrong?”
Concerned, Orla crouched and pressed a hand Taryn’s forehead. “I think you have a fever.”
“I think I have one too,” Taryn admitted, breaking into coughs.
“You should be inside. Where are you staying?” Orla asked, grabbing the girl’s arm and standing up, trying to pull her up too.
“You’re looking at it,” Taryn mumbled. “Don’t you like my rooms? Aren’t they fancy?”
Orla shook her head, ignoring the nonsense. “Stand up.”
Surprisingly, Taryn obeyed, swaying on her feet, sword in hand. “My bag,” she said, placing her hand against the wall to keep herself upright. “They tried to take it.” She half raised the sword, the tip clanging against the bricks. “I didn’t let them.”
“No. Good. Well done,” Orla said, searching the darkness until she found a crumpled sack. “Is this it?”
“Not really.” Taryn shook her head and stumbled. “S’all I managed to save. Still, mine.” She swiped for it and almost fell.
Tossing the sack over her shoulder, Orla lunged and caught the girl before she hit the ground. “Let me carry it,” she offered, wrapping her arm around the taller girl’s waist. “We’re going the same way, anyway.”
“We are?” Taryn asked, sounding surprised.
“We are,” Orla replied firmly, leaving no room for arguments.
“That’s nice,” the girl sighed, slumping her whole weight across Orla’s shoulders.
Mighty Maegla, for such a skinny thing, she certainly weighed a lot. Grunting, Orla bore up under the strain and the pair of them stumbled around the sharp turns and down through the alley. Just when she was about to give up hope, the way opened onto a wider street, where a lamplighter and his boy were hard at work.
After a quick pause to ask for directions, Orla tightened her grip on her burden’s waist and they staggered on through the snow.
~ Next Chapter ~
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