The rain had started to pour around noon of the next day. Zahra worried only briefly that it would interfere with Lavinia’s being able to locate them. She had gone for their breakfast with little trouble although the innkeeper had looked at her a moment too long for her liking.
All the same, they would leave soon. The unsettling feeling she’d been having didn’t leave her all through the long night and only intensified with the day. She’d pocketed the stone which no longer gave her any comfort and put on a brave smile as Marie asked her for what seemed to be the hundredth time, when their mother would come to see them. Terrance, thankfully, wasn’t so inquisitive.
Zahra took a deep, fortifying breath. It was risky of her to think of leaving the inn before the agreed time but she couldn’t take being there a moment longer. She left Marie, currently satisfied with her most recent placations, playing with her brother on the floor and set about gathering their things. She had made her decision and she wouldn’t be swayed.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, the sound calling her attention to what she was about to do. They would be leaving in the rain which was suspicious enough. Finding another inn that would take them could also prove difficult. But if they remained…
She glanced at the door, hearing footsteps in the hall. Most guests had retired to their rooms or sat downstairs with other guests, mingling, socialising, enjoying their stay. It wasn’t that odd that someone would be about at this time of day. The booted footsteps passed by their door and Zahra released a relieved breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding.
She picked up her satchel and was going round to the foot of the bed to give the children new instructions when she heard the footsteps again. She couldn’t be sure that they belonged to the same person but they sounded heavy and ominous on the oak floors of the hall. She heard the person get closer to her door and then, much to her horror, the doorknob slowly turned then released.
She thanked the Creator that she’d locked the door the last time she came in. It didn’t seem like their intruder had wanted his entrance noticed. The knob didn’t turn again but neither did footsteps in the hall signal their visitor’s departure. That was what worried her all the more.
Zahra crouched to the children with a beaming smile. She hid her tremors as best as she could when she explained her plan.
“We’re going out the window?” asked Marie glancing at the pane.
“Yes, it’s a fun game I’ve thought of just now. We need to be brave. As brave as the adventurers in your picture books at home.”
“Like Ringle Tan!” said Terrance raising a little fist excitedly.
“Yes,” said Zahra with a chuckle as she mussed the little boy’s hair, “exactly like Ringle Tan.”
Marie raised an eyebrow at her, looking every bit as imperious as her father. She was going to ask a lot more questions, Zahra was sure but for now, their time was limited.
She quickly helped the children into their clothes and opened the window wide. They could make it if they quietly made their way across the tiles and to the tree. It was close enough that climbing down it should be no trouble, even for the children. Would they manage? They would just have to find out.
The wind was cold but not uncomfortably so. They would have to tread carefully over the slick tiles. Below them was hard cobblestone and a grim end if they slipped.
“Come on Terrance, what adventure shall we say Ringle Tan is on today?”
The little boy thought for a moment and then raised his hand excitedly.
“Running from monsters in a jungle!”
“My, how exciting!” She clapped and helped him onto the ledge first. Marie followed not far behind, seemingly unhappy to join in the game. No doubt she had realised what the matter was. She was very perceptive for a young lady. Zahra was impressed but also felt the need to encourage her in some way. She was still a child and this whole ordeal must have scared her. As Marie scooted one foot over the side and to the tiles of the roof, Zahra squeezed her hand.
“We all need to be like Ringle Tan, Marie.”
The girl glanced at her excited smiling brother and then at Zahra and nodded.
“Hold onto the brick Terrance,” she instructed, “Ringle Tan wouldn’t slip and fall over the edge of the abyss.”
“Are there snakes?” he asked, a small excited tremor in his voice.
“Worse. All sorts of slimy frogs that will kiss you and turn you into a bigger frog!”
“Yuck!” he said in reply. Zahra glanced back at the door to their room. She’d placed more than enough money for their stay on the table by the bed. She wouldn’t want theft added to whatever charges she got if they were caught. When she had a firm foothold, she reached for both windows and drew them shut from the outside.
Now for the treacherous part.
“Hold on to the branch,” she instructed, “we’ll go down the safe route, away from the slimy frogs.”
Terrance was quick to comply and not long after, he was on the branch and against the trunk of the tree. Marie followed but by the time they got there, they realised the problem. Terrance was too afraid to go down on his own.
“Come on Terrance. Ringle Tan is braver than that.”
“But what is I fall? I’ll get hurt… I want to go back. I don’t like this game anymore.” He hugged the tree with his little arms and refused to go any further no matter how much Marie spoke to him. Zahra glanced back at the room. Nobody had managed to come in yet, at least not as far as she could tell. The tree was slick and the tiles were slippery. She only just managed to get her footing. Their time was running out. With how much the tree was shaking, they could be spotted any moment now.
“It’s okay Terrance. I’ll come for you. Stay there.”
He sniffled, rain pouring down his little face and arms, but nodded. Marie glanced back at Zahra who nodded at her to make her way down. When she was safely out of the way, Zahra picked up her skirts and brought the back between her legs to the front tucking them in as best she could. She needed them out of the way or they would trip her up. The fashions in this society seemed to hamper a woman’s movements. No wonder they didn’t hunt or climb. They couldn’t with all this fabric in the way!
When she was done, and with a final look about town to make sure they hadn’t been spotted yet, she held onto the branch and used it as a guide to walk to the ledge of the roof. Reaching slowly forward, she leaned her body out onto the branch until she got to a firm enough spot to hold her weight.
Then she leaned out further keeping her feet still on the tiles as she held onto the branch using it to slowly and carefully crawl towards the trunk. When she was far enough away from the ledge, she let go and swung herself towards the trunk attempting to wrap her legs around it. She caught the trunk with her thighs, jostling the tree and causing Terrance to cry out.
“It’s okay Terrance, you’re fine. I’m here…” she said and hoisted herself up until she was sitting on the same branch he was. His little hands had a death grip on the bark and he’d shut his eyes tight. She smiled and reached for him resting her hand gently over his.
“I’m here now.”
“I’m too scared to go down,” he sobbed. Zahra knew what he meant. It had to be scary being that high up. At this height, if she jumped in just the right way she could stop herself from getting hurt. Still, with all those branches in the way, her skirts could get caught and she’d be stuck. Terrance sniffled and sobbed. He was much too small for these troubles and she felt intensely guilty about having to do this to him. Still, it needed to be done. They had to get away from the inn.
“Why don’t you tell me what it is you like best about Ringle Tan? Is he big and strong?”
For a moment, it looked like he wouldn’t reply. She waited patiently, aware that even at that moment, they could already have been spotted. Marie had made it safely to the ground. The rain had let up some. If they didn’t hurry, they would soon be surrounded by crowds to witness their escape.
“He is. And brave too.”
“Can you tell me about one of his adventures?”
“You’ve read them already,” he replied sulkily, “you know the story.”
“I promise, I don’t,” she replied scooting a little closer on the tree. “Can you tell me the last story you read about him?” Terrance sniffled and attempted to turn around. It was a little difficult to do and hold on to the trunk of the tree, so Zahra held him steady as he did.
“That’s it. Hold on to me. I’ll keep you safe.”
That got a small smile out of him. His death grip was transferred from the tree to around her neck. Not ideal, but it was progress.
“He went down the Amazon River in a small boat to save a baby deer.”
“Oh, how very brave of him!” she remarked mentally calculating the distance to the ground. Marie looked up and Zahra motioned for her to hide. This descent would be the hardest of her life. One wrong move would land both of them in harm’s way.
“And he had to face giant alligators and a big snake!”
“All by himself?” Terrance nodded with a smile.
“All by himself! And then he had to carry the deer up a big mountain to get it home.”
“How did he carry it?”
“On his back. He used a cloth he had to tie it there so it wouldn’t fall.”
“That’s an idea. You want to try it? This isn’t a big mountain and we’re not climbing but going down. Do you think you can hold on to me until we get down?”
She saw the uncertainty crossing his features, worry etched into his little brow.
“I won’t let you get hurt, I promise. Then we can go see a friend of your mother’s. You’ll be with her again in no time. We just have to finish this game.”
That seemed to decide it for him. In truth, she had no clue what a healer in another town would have to do with Lavinia or her family, and she had no idea if they would meet again soon. Her one concern was to get them away from there as soon as she could. She carefully transferred Terrance to her back and asked him to hold on. He nearly choked her, so scared he was. As long as she could still breathe, she didn’t think it would hurt.
“Close your eyes if it gets too scary. I’m not going to let you fall.”
When he nodded, she turned towards the trunk of the tree and began her descent. She reached one foot down onto a lower branch and settled her weight on it, adjusting her hands so she could lower them further. Then she reached for the next branch and settled her weight on it. It was a lot weaker than the one she’d been sitting on, she noted. Sticking her foot in its base so they had more support, she lowered them even further.
It took her a moment to realise that the rain had stopped. Glancing up, she also noticed that they had something of an audience. A woman watched horrified at the spectacle and her daughter beside her pointed excitedly. Cursing in her head, she turned her attention back to the task at hand.
But not before she’d seen the face in the one window she had hoped not to... the window of the room they had just vacated.
The man standing there scowled at them. Then he raised something he held in his hand… a weapon that made her blood run cold. He was holding a gun. Would he dare to shoot them right there with an audience to boot? He couldn’t possibly. Sure enough, he tucked the weapon away but turned away from the window and left the room. He was coming for them.
She was close enough to the ground to attempt a jump and, seeing no other option, she took the chance. Terrance held on a little tighter and under the added weight, she stumbled to her knees.
But they'd made it.
“There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” she asked when she finally loosened Terrance’s grip from her throat. He nodded, seemingly relieved. Then she looked around for Marie. The little girl was peeping from the corner of the building and she motioned to her.
“Alright! That was a fun game. Now let’s see about finding that friend of your mother’s.”
Marie took the hand Zahra held out to her and she picked Terrance up with one hand. It stung around her upper arm and she only just realised that it was bleeding. She’d probably cut her arm at some point in trying to get to Terrance, or maybe on her jump? It didn’t matter. It would be handled later.
Keeping her head down to avoid any overly curious stares, she made her way through the crowd. She glanced back only once to see the man exit the building and cast a glance around. People had already begun to flood the streets going about their business. They were sufficiently hidden, but if they stayed still for too long, they would be caught again.
Doing the only thing she could think of for the moment, she ducked her head and kept on moving, navigating them through the crowd in the hopes of finding the town healer.
Cold, wet and exhausted, Phillip trekked into the port town of Burnham Bay. Unable to just sit around waiting for news, he’d decided to intensify his search. Calling in a favour from a friend in the shipping service, he’d found the port destinations of all passenger ships leaving the docks the day Sepphira’s Keepers reported seeing the small party of vampires. He’d gotten the records of the following day as well.
By night, he travelled and by day he searched. He hadn’t had a decent meal in days, unwilling to stay too long in any one place, and he felt a strong craving for blood – one he tamped down. He couldn’t find a decent supply anywhere and attacking a human was out of the question. Maybe he would find a Keeper and see if they had anything to help. He swiped a hand down his weary, unshaven face and hefted his bag over his shoulder as he walked into a nearby inn.
This was the fifth port town he had come to. Two had been within close proximity to each other easing the spread of his search. The last one he’d been to had been bigger and it had taken much longer than he’d liked to find answers. He’d spend two of the last five days in that town alone checking if anyone had heard anything about a travelling party with a black woman and two children. Six false leads had his hope dwindling.
He’d grown desperate. Every day they were missing was a day they had to get further and further inland. If he could just get himself a clue, he would know where to begin his search. As it was, this trip was getting to him.
Anyone else would have trusted the Keepers, but not him. Besides his worry for Zahra and her safety, he also worried about the kids. Nobody had heard from Paul yet which was worrying. He was never out of the loop for this long. Whoever was targeting the family had done a good job. Even the massive network of Keepers was unable to track him. But he couldn’t think about that now.
He walked to the front desk where a surly looking man looked through a register. Phillip paid for a room and went into the dining area to see if he could find something to eat. Of course what he really needed was blood but that would have to wait. He ordered his meal and quietly set about eating it when a certain conversation caught his attention.
“Imagine that! Climbing down a tree with her legs on display for all the world to see!” exclaimed a scandalised woman. Phillip smirked. Whoever that was must have made a real impression. Perhaps some child that needed chiding. He was facing the other way so he could only imagine the woman’s expression.
“My word! How shocking! And did they catch her?” Her companion added just the right amount of shock into her voice.
“They didn’t. By the time the innkeeper had been told about it, she was long gone. Those poor children…”
Phillip’s fork paused on its way to his lips.
“I knew nothing good would come of letting a woman of her kind stay in a nice place like that. Do you know, she didn’t even come down to mingle with the guests. She had something to hide, if you ask me.” The second woman blew out a breath.
“Well, I’ll tell you this, they will not be getting my patronage any time soon.”
Phillip dropped his fork, unwilling to stay a moment longer. It clattered rather noisily onto his plate, drawing the attention of a few patrons. Picking up his pack, he left money on the table and strode back out the door. It had begun to rain again but he didn’t care anymore. He had a clue. Zahra had been here; he was sure of it. Now he just had to find her.