Running was not forbidden outright for women, according to the exact wording of the Codex of Purity. Running and other 'unladylike activities' were outlawed when performed in the view of 'unrelated malefolk'. But since it was categorised as an unladylike activity, it was not encouraged in any situations. With the streets away from the blacksmith empty, I was not worried about being seen running, but I was not especially good at it. Within a minute I was breathing heavily, and my general level of pain and discomfort had increased tremendously. I had done a good job of suppressing that under my excitement, but that had not lasted.
Mary was struggling too, but in a different way. Her strides appeared measured and uncomfortable, as if she was limping while running. When I looked down I understood the problem. Her shoes were clearly too tight, and they were a very 'dressy' pair, even less suited to running than mine. Her hair was a wreck too. Tufts of inconsistent strands were sticking out from her pretty blue bonnet, and the rest of her hair seemed to be in a misshapen clump to one side of the bonnet, like a bun that had gone awry.
"Are you alright?" I asked, stopping to readjust my handbag after having hit it with my knee.
"I'm..." she said in a strangled sort of voice which was cut off by a throaty cough. "Need drink," she muttered.
"We are nearly there," I assured her, continuing walking at a fast pace. Glancing back at her, I noticed something missing. "Did you leave your... handbag behind?" I asked, stopping mid-sentence to huff in more air.
"My stuff's being stored," she said in a breathy whisper.
I shrugged, which shifted my handbag strap again. "Almost there." We were passing a shoe shop, and the bakery — Val's Bakery, specifically — adjoined it. The proprietors of the shoe shop lived in a residence above, while Val and his family lived beside their storefront, with the bakery proper above. This allowed the ovens to be close to the rooftop solar collectors. Practically, this meant that the bakery had two front entrances. Conveniently for us, the customer entrance was the closer one. (The blacksmith was different again: it was mostly surrounded by warehouses as no one wanted to live close to that much hammering.)
"Miss Wilison?" Mary's croaky voice brought me back to the present.
"Sorry, in here," I said, striding quickly for the door. There was still plenty of time. I would point Mary in the right direction, dash back to the blacksmith in time to keep Cleric Quire happy, and then I would be well and all this would be over. Though that came after the ceremony.
Val's Bakery was well lit with big windows and clever use of mirrors on the walls, though with noon fast approaching there was no direct sunlight. A cat lazed in a distant corner of the store, providing additional illumination. Behind the long counter, a frazzled blonde woman waited for us to explain ourselves. I knew her as Sal Carter, the wife of Val, and we were familiar enough that I could address her as such rather than as Missus Carter. Most regular customers did, same as they called her husband Val. That might seem improper, except that Val was not his actual given name. I did not actually know what that was.
"Good morning to you, Sal. Mary here is looking... for cinnamon rolls," I said, after I had caught my breath.
Sal shook her head. "Sorry, we already sent the last of them to the blacksmith with Gloria over an hour ago. Have you seen her? I expected her back."
"No, not that I noticed. Are you sure about the cinnamon rolls?"
Sal huffed, affronted that I would question her. "I am sure. No more cinnamon rolls. Did your friend see my Gloria? She was wearing her best dress, the same as hers."
"What about in there?" Mary pointed at the steel door behind Sal, ignoring the question. Two junior clerics were stationed in front of the door, trying to look imposing.
"No, the clerics made us clear everything out of storage. Speak up girl, I can barely hear you."
"May I see?" Mary asked, just a little louder.
"See? They are not even letting me inside. The impertinence... I should like to see you try."
Mary shrugged, justifying Sal's description of her. "Alright." She reached under her bonnet and yanked out a shapeless black lump. It was a pair of gloves.
A few clumps of blonde hair were pulled free too, and fell to the floor.
"What are...?" I wasn't sure what to ask.
Mary pulled the gloves on. I distantly noticed that they were fingerless. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, but all at once.
"What did you do to my Gloria?" Sal was demanding.
Mary began moving her arms through a series of swift yet precise motions, as if she was made of clockwork.
"Cease this activity!" one of the junior clerics bellowed, but he was ignored.
"Miss, I must ask you to explain—" the other started to say, but he did not get to finish.
"Miss Wilison, get down!" Mary yelled, and flattened herself against the well worn planking.
Without stopping to think, I hit the floor beside her.
There was a sound, not like a cow or a huge set of inexorably grinding gears, but far less like anything else I'd ever heard.
My senses exploded.
Something exceeded my comprehension.
Five eternities or five thoughts later, I was aware.
Someone was carrying me.
The movement stopped, and a strong arm let me slide off a sizeable shoulder to land heavily on my feet.
I forced my eyes open and evaluated my surroundings. I was back outside, on the main street of Forrester's Crossing, but on the other side of Gwabegar Lane.
"Are you alright, Miss Wilison?"
I knew that voice.
Oh, Mary was beside me. She had carried me here from Val's. "What happened? Why are we here? How long was I out?" I looked her up and down, and noticed some details were amiss. "Where did you get those boots, and what is in that sack?" It clearly was not cinnamon rolls.
"That was a blast of magic, we're heading for the train, and only a couple of minutes. The train hasn't left yet but it will if you keep talking so shut up and run!" She reached for my hand but I twisted out of her reach.
"Magic?" If I had been touched by magic that meant... No. It couldn't be. I would be put in quarantine exile, like Friche. I would definitely not be receiving healing. I would surely die, far from home and unable to communicate with my family. "No!" I would never see my family ever again. "Are you certain?"
"Yep, that was magic alright. Come on!" She tried grabbing me again and I darted out of the way. She chased after me. "At least you're going the right way."
"Why should I go anywhere with you?" I demanded.
"I can help you. No one else will. I can see that you're sick and I know what happened to the bike person who was touched by magic yesterday. If they send you out too, you have no chance. I'm your only hope of saving your hand and living. And I owe you a favour."
"Who even are you?" I continued running. No one else was in the street.
"Not now. Just run."
I ran onward, but my mind continued working on the situation. "Why the train? They will not let us board."
"We're going for the bridge right after the station."
"You mean...?" She couldn't intend to jump, could she?
"We jump." She spoke the two words as if they were a simple concept.
"Jump? Off a railway bridge? Onto a moving train? That is in clear violation of the rules of conduct pertaining to railway infrastructure expressed in chapter ten, subsection five... uh..." I would normally be able to remember this instantly.
"Yeah, in case you haven't noticed, I don't much mind breaking your rules."
My rules. "You... you're one of... them." The final word landed limply, like a dropped sock.
"A mage, yeah."
A mage. I knew they were called that, but I had never heard anyone refer to one of them by anything other than a euphemism or an epithet. "Did you come here to free the one we captured?"
"Ha! That's a good one. Guess again."
I slowed to a more sustainable jog, so I would not collapse before we reached the bridge, and took another look at Mary. If that was her real name. What did I really know about her? She didn't look monstrous or have any markings on her body. Not that I could see much skin given how her dress...
Some memories fell into place, filling out more of the jigsaw puzzle Mary presented. "Did you steal that dress? From Gloria?"
"Yep. Don't worry, someone'll find her and cut her loose. And her hair should grow back given time."
More puzzle pieces connected. Or was it one of those numbered-dot-joining exercises Chester had hated so much? "You are the mage they caught last night! You escaped, and you have been hiding in plain sight!"
"It's amazing how people don't look any deeper if you're wearing the right thing," Mary said. "Is this our street?" She was as casual as slippers at a funeral.
"Yes," I said, taking a left turn. Was I really doing this? Running straight to a railway bridge to leap onto a train? With one of the evil fallen ones? This had to be a dream. A nightmare.
I stepped from the gravel road onto the wooden planks of the bridge. From the loose and shifting onto the sturdy and rigid. No, that metaphor was wrong. From the utterly solid ground onto something suspended and bolted together. That was right. Right?
None of this was right. I had taken a step out into madness.
"Looks like the train isn't moving yet. All that rushing and now we've got to wait for a minute or two," I heard Mary say beside me.
A minute or two to doubt everything, to change my mind. A minute or two to... to do what? To let the nightwalker leave, and pretend none of this happened? Claim I was not involved? With Mary gone, there would be no boon, no healing. I could feel that there was no chance of my survival without that healing. And I had been exposed. Lying about it would just endanger everyone so my family could watch me die, or worse. Besides, Sal would tell the clerics that I was exposed to magic, so that would not even work.
Wait, Sal. She would be exiled too. And those junior clerics. Assuming... "Did... did you... Sal and the guards. Are they alive?"
"Yeah, they'll wake up," Mary said with infuriating calm.
"Did they pass out like I did?"
"Nah, the door blew out and clobbered the guards. Sal didn't faint until she noticed how bad the damage was. Dunno what happened to you."
No one was dead, but now a total of five people would be exiled. Actually, if I returned to face justice my punishment for allowing the perpetrator to flee would be severe. I might even receive the fate intended for Mary. To be quarantined for magical exposure was mere misfortune, but to be condemned as a traitor against the Great Maker...
On the other hand, if I fled with Mary, I would most definitely be a traitor. No, not hands, there were more than two options. I might yet earn back my boon if I recaptured the nightwalker myself. I would still be exiled but if I received healing first I might yet survive.
As my thoughts flitted back and forth like tiny birds among the shrubs, I was only distantly aware of hearing a shrill whistle, a much deeper horn, and Mary's comment that the train was finally on its way. I was only conscious of noting the fact that my time was running out fast. I had less than a minute to decide.
Realistically, I could not stop Mary from leaving. She was clearly stronger than me, and I was unarmed, while she held a sack presumably filled with her magical belongings. My only choices were to do nothing and accept whatever dismal fate I deserved, or to deliberately break a rail infrastructure law and follow this evil being of darkness and trickery into the unknown.
"Here it is!" Mary said, pulling herself up to sit on the wire safety fence, away from the station. I looked behind us and saw that the steam engine was almost to the bridge, with a luggage wagon and three passenger carriages trailing behind it.
To die, or maybe live. To be cast out from my home, or to voluntarily leave.
Mary dropped her sack onto the centre of the mail wagon, waited a few seconds, and landed on her haunches atop the first carriage. "Hurry up!"
I clambered up the fence, still not sure whether I could go through with it. "You can really help me? Heal my hand?"
Even if my hand was healed, magical quarantine existed for a very good reason. "And the magical contamination from the blast?" I had to yell to be heard.
"No such thing! Jump!"
I landed near the back of the third carriage with my knees bent, and nearly fell over backwards from the impact.
This was really happening. I was atop a moving train. One of the children of darkness was shuffling along the carriage-tops towards me, clutching a sack of diabolical implements and wearing stolen clothes and hair.
I would never see my home or family again. While I had anticipated leaving them, it was not meant to be like this. I would certainly not be marrying a butcher. Timothy Douglas would have to find another bride. My family would have to adjust to my absence a season sooner than planned.
Would anyone miss me?
Mary crouched down beside me. "Hey, that was pretty close. I thought I was going to lose you for a moment. Are you hurt? Oh, you're crying. It's alright, you're safe now."
She put a hand on my shoulder. I immediately pulled away. "Safe? Safe? I'm on top of a train, with a mage! What about this is safe?"
"I mean you're rescued, from that terrible place."
What did that even mean? "Huh?" And what had happened to her voice?
"No one can make you do anything you don't want to do ever again. You're free, Miss Wilison."
That made no sense to me, so I latched onto the one thing I could deal with. "Mary, I do not understand you at all. But before you try explaining what you are on about, I need you to stop addressing me as if you are a maid. For better or worse, you are a mage, so would you kindly call me Charity?"
"Not a problem, Charity. But you should really start calling me Skids."