In the darkness of the cabin, Zahra lay awake. Her nerves were worn thin. Something about this whole trip didn’t seem right. It all felt too… easy. She couldn’t explain it; especially given that she had trusted everything else so far. As they neared the shore, she felt more and more like things were just not right. She sat up in her cabin glancing at the sleeping forms of Lavinia and the children. They had no such worries.
She had come in from her night musings without incident. Nobody on board had seemed even remotely interested in them. She’d had no reason for all these worries before but now… she couldn’t relax. Between the nightmares and the anxiety, it was no wonder too. Looking for something to do, she ventured for her pack in the darkness and opened it. She hadn’t considered looking at it since they’d escaped two days ago. For such an impromptu trip, April had been surprisingly prepared and she wondered for the millionth time what she could have packed.
She carefully undid the latch on the front. It opened with a loud click in the quiet room. She glanced around again. Nobody stirred. She breathed a sigh of relief and opened the pack again. The gloom did little to allow her to actually see the contents, but she had her sense of touch at least. The first object was made of glass. Following the smooth lines of it, she felt the body of a bottle and a small cork attached to the top. If she was right, it contained some more of her tonic. Two more bottles lay inside, each covered in some sort of cloth to prevent them from making a sound no doubt.
The next pouch was somewhat familiar. She felt relief at recognising the pouch April had given her to hold the coin Tess had given her as well as all the money she had earned from serving in the house. It wasn’t much but it would do in a pinch. This she would keep close to her heart. A black woman in a strange land needed all the advantage she could get.
Next, Zahra pulled out a smaller object that seemed like a small sheathed knife. There was an intricate pattern carved into the wooden hilt and the sheath seemed to be plain leather. She felt a little safer having it with her to be sure. There was also a smaller oblong object she couldn’t even begin to guess. It seemed to have a seam around it. Was there a catch or a clasp to it? Her fingers brushed against a small button on its front and a faint glow began to fill the room. Zahra gasped and quickly shut it. What was that? She took a moment to listen. Even breathing all around. She hadn’t disturbed anyone.
She didn’t dare test it again, however, in case she drew attention to herself. At the very bottom of the pack was a leather thong of some sort on which hung a stone she couldn’t quite make out. It was smooth to the touch and also carved with some design she would have to wait to see. It brought her some comfort to hold in her hand. She couldn’t quite explain why…
Eager to hide her treasures away, she placed all the items back in the pack and kept the necklace held in her hands. She smiled with a sigh for the first time in hours. Her fears still plagued her but she felt better – more grounded to hold the stone in her hand. Perhaps it was a talisman of some sort.
Her grandmother had taught her a little about talismans. Shamans gave them to many villagers for protection against the elements and evil spirits. But how had April acquired such a thing? She didn’t care to question it but was grateful for the stone held tight in her fist.
Her eyes slowly slid shut and she finally gave herself up to sleep.
The following morning, Zahra was up and ready with her satchel under the new cloak Lavinia had lent her for the trip. More and more, she had noted Lavinia’s kindness. She only wished they could get to know each other eventually. Perhaps they may even become friends of a sort. She smiled and shook her head as she helped Marie button her coat and tuck her curls under a hood.
Lavinia had explained that the children were very sensitive to sunlight and they would burn if they were out in it too long. What she didn’t explain clearly was what a “Halfling” really was. The only thing she’d mentioned about it was in passing – about keeping it secret. Zahra had wisely decided not to ask any more questions.
When they were ready, Lavinia turned to Zahra and took her hands. This startled Zahra a little as she met her mistress’ worried gaze.
“Rose, I want you to listen to me very carefully,” she said lightly squeezing her hands. Zahra nodded and Lavinia took a deep breath.
“I want you to take the children with you and get off the ship. I’ll follow along with Lucas afterwards. I want you to find a suitable simple place to stay. We’ll come find you. Can you do that for me?”
Zahra nodded even though she didn’t quite understand what Lavinia was getting at.
“It’s… It’s a strange request, I know,” she continued, “but I feel that it would be best if our party wasn’t so big and conspicuous.” This made some sense. If they had been followed or if someone was looking for them, it would be easier to hide if their group weren’t together. Lavinia reached into her own small bag and pulled out a pouch full of coin. This she pressed into Zahra’s hands and smiled.
“I think I can trust you. I’m entrusting you with their lives. You’re… you’re like me. I know you won’t let them come to harm.”
This wasn’t reason enough, in Zahra’s thinking, for her to be entrusted with the mistress’ children but she did not argue. The truth was that she would defend them to her last breath.
“Don’t let them stay in the sun too long. If I haven’t found you in two days, as soon as you are able, visit a healer in the town – any healer, and mention the household you served. They can help you. Do you understand?”
Zahra nodded again.
“I will do as you say.”
“Thank you,” said Lavinia who surprised Zahra again by hugging her.
“I’m sorry. I just feel like a load has been taken off my chest. I might be quite mad for trusting you,” she laughed even as tears welled in her eyes. She was frightened, no doubt. They were out in the world without a home and the children were counting on her for their safety. She swiped at her face, a resolute smile turning the corners of her slightly trembling mouth.
“Mama?” said Marie tugging at Lavinia’s skirt.
“Oh, my sweet baby,” she said kneeling to hug her child, “everything’s going to be alright.” Marie returned her hug. Zahra felt something shift in the air of the room. It almost felt like Lavinia was saying a goodbye. It was a strange feeling, a foreboding of a sort that wouldn’t quite go away.
“Now Marie,” said Lavinia, “I want you to be really, really brave. Can you be really brave for me?” Marie nodded. “I want you and your brother to go with Rose. You listen to what she tells you alright?”
When she nodded again, Lavinia hugged her close and kissed her cheek then she did the same with Terrance who only now began to fuss. Lavinia kissed him once more and whispered something to him. He nodded and took his sister’s hand then they both turned to Zahra.
“You’ll watch over them? I’ll meet you as soon as you can. I promise.”
Zahra nodded with a smile, the feeling of unnamed dread only growing. Lavinia nodded resolutely then, picking up her small pack, left Zahra and the children in the room. Marie looked up at Zahra who smiled reassuringly.
“Ready Miss Marie?”
“I’m ready,” she said and squeezed Zahra’s hand. She was scared too, the poor girl. But they would be together again soon… she hoped. She would have to be the brave one for the three of them. Sending a prayer of courage to the Creator, she counted to three and then stepped out of the cabin into the corridor. The ship would dock soon and they had to be among the first off it.
Many of the guests were milling about chattering on about which shop they would visit, griping about having to take another stage to some inland town, complaining about the gloomy weather on the docks, and others wondering where and how they would find a decent eatery since the ship wasn’t going to provide the morning meal.
Luggage was strewn all about and Zahra navigated the children through it. It was much too chilly out here and she helped the children find and pull on their gloves then she reached into her own pocket for the pair the nice inn-keeper’s wife had given her, and tugged them on.
The ship docked a moment later and Zahra stood, lifting Terrance into her arms. Marie grabbed a hold of her hand and she took a few more deep breaths. She could complete this mission. It was simple enough. She glanced through the crowd but couldn’t see any sign of Lady Lavinia or Master Lucas. Perhaps she was explaining her plan to him? It didn’t matter. All she had to do was leave the ship with the children.
The ship’s crew moored the ship to the docks and set the gang plank. The disembarking procedures were underway. Zahra felt a sliver of fear slide down her spine. Could she do this? Could she care for two Halfling children sufficiently? She would have to, she reminded herself resolutely. She had no choice.
“Stay close,” she said to Marie who held her hand a little tighter.
The first few people had already gotten off. She helped Marie onto the gangplank and down they went. When she got to solid ground, it took a moment for her to adjust. “Getting your land legs” some of the men on the docks called it. It was a momentary bother. Once they were off the ship, Zahra headed resolutely into the crowd looking for all the world as if she was headed for a destination with purpose. She had to seem as natural as possible or she would look suspicious. So she looked down at Marie who looked rather forlornly back at the ship.
“Don’t worry Miss Marie. You heard your mama. She’ll be with us sooner than you know it.” She smiled and squeezed the little girl’s hand. “Now, let’s find us a place to stay, alright?” Marie nodded, some of the tension easing off her, and the small group made their way into the town to look for lodging.
Zahra sighed and shut the door to their inn room. She had given the inn keeper the required pay for a single night and they had been given the room. The man was shifty at best and she didn’t quite know what to make of him. Something told her she would need to be on her guard with that one.
It had taken them the better part of the day to find a suitable inn some distance away from the docks and by the time they found it, it was dusk. The little meal they had shared in the day had sustained them some but now that they had found a place to stay, perhaps they could have a proper meal sent to them.
The children seemed to be exhausted. So Zahra drew the curtains and helped them into the bed. It would be cramped if she climbed in with them. At any rate, she could sleep in the nearby seat.
She was no stranger to discomfort.
She paced the room in thought. Lavinia had told her to head for a healer in town, any one would do. She bit her forefinger as she continued to pace. If she left the room, she would be leaving two vulnerable children in the clutches of a suspicious innkeeper. If their true nature was found out… if hers was…
She shuddered to think of it. As she turned on her third trip across the room, she laid eyes on her satchel. It still contained all the items April had stored for her. She had kept the necklace in her pocket and she reached for it now. The stone was warm and she rubbed on it idly as she thought. She would probably have to take the children with her which would mean leaving the inn in the first place. She could do it as soon as it was light the next morning. The weak rays of the rising sun would be less harmful, she surmised.
She almost laughed at the track her thoughts had taken. A mere week ago, she would have thought herself mad if she heard her own thoughts now. She was protecting children that were half monster – just like she was. How was that even to be? And in that case, what was Phillip? His skin, just like Lavinia’s was cold to the touch. Was he a Halfling too? How many of them were there?
But none of that mattered just then.
She looked back at the sleeping children coming to a proper decision. Her first instruction had been to find an inn. This she had successfully done. Lavinia had said that she would come and find them. If she didn’t in two days, Zahra would have to find a healer. How and why they would receive help was beyond her but she would follow the instruction. Lavinia knew a lot more about these things than Zahra did.
Perhaps there was much more to the world than she realised. The stories she had heard as a child and dismissed as legend and folk tale could all hold some kernel of truth. If that were so, what other monsters could she possibly encounter? What other secrets did the world hold?
Was she willing to discover them all? She sat heavily in the chair and glanced back at the children. It was her job to keep them safe. For now, there was a roof over their heads and they could buy a nice warm meal.
All she had to do was wait.
The final rays of a dying sun fell over the bustling port town. It would be nightfall soon. The passenger ship that had docked that morning was still at port, the last of the passengers having left hours ago. The next group would leave two days hence. A few men still walked the deck checking riggings and securing the sails for the night. A small group stood off to the side watching their employer grip the railing unhappily. It was just dark enough for their deeds not to be noticed, so he had given clear instructions on what was to be done.
Two men emerged from the bowels of the ship, their faces grim and remorseless. Between them, they half dragged a lifeless body to the deck. The man at the railing gestured towards the opposite side of the ship and they were quick to comply.
They pushed their burden overboard. It fell into the sea with a splash. They were no strangers to such things and they followed the instructions they had been given to the letter. In their line of work, nobody lived to make up for any mistakes, after all. The man sneered as he heard the splash and ran a hand through his hair. Their plan had gone south from the moment things had changed.
The children were missing and one of their group was dead. This was all wrong. It should have been so simple.
“What do you want us to do, boss?”
He sighed and leaned over the railing. The day had been quite lovely, he would admit. And it would have been better if his plan had worked.
“Find the girl and the children and bring them to me. Or better yet, tell me when you find them. They can’t have gone far. As for the traitor, we’ll see that he’s treated just as he deserves…”
With that, he dismissed the men and they headed off into town on the trail of two young children and a black woman travelling together. The anomaly was unique. It wouldn’t take any time at all to ferret out that piece of information.
All he had to do was wait…