The Seer – Snippet 11

Chapter Three

“You’re going out?” Amarta asked her sister. “Tonight? In this cold?”

Winter had come to the village of Botaros and settled in for what was now the fourth day of a hard freeze, with midwinter still more than a ten-day away.

Dirina was changing her clothes. Putting on her good ones, Amarta saw in the dim light. Her best frock. Not so frayed, less stained, fewer mended rips.

“I won’t be long.”

Her sister went out more and more often.

As the nights grew colder, they had drawn the cot close to the stove. Amarta sat with Pas lying by her side, thickly bundled. His eyes opened and Amarta tucked the blanket around his neck to keep him warm.

How had it all gone so fast, the coins the large man in his fine cloak had left them? They’d gone to food and peat moss, of course. Repairs for the roof and cracks that were everywhere. They had one remaining falcon, saved against need, but Amarta didn’t think it would last long.

And the gold souver, so beautiful and heavy, that she’d gotten to hold for a few moments before they’d spent it, that, too, was gone. The landlord had raised his eyebrows a long moment when he saw it, his mouth falling open, but then he had shut his mouth and taken the souver, giving them five months ahead on the rent without any haggling at all.

Since that night, no one had come to ask Amarta questions. Now Dirina went out at night.

“I could come with you,” Amarta said, scrambling to her feet, looking around for her blue trimmed cloak. “I’ll carry Pas. I’ll bundle him good and –”

“No,” her sister said. “Another time, maybe.” She walked by Amarta, petting her head in passing. She moved around the room, readying herself.

“Where do you go?”

Her sister stopped. She looked at Amarta. Amarta sat down again, her gaze dropping to a seashell she had been holding.

The village tavern, Amarta guessed, as she turned the shell over in her hands. Whatever it was Dirina did there, she somehow managed to bring back food and fuel for them. Not much, but enough to keep them going.

A treasure, the shell was. When had her mother given her this? It seemed to Amarta the least she could do, to recall the last thing her mother had given her.

“I’ll only be a little while,” Dirina said softly.

Spring festival of her fifth year, Amarta was pretty sure. A festival gift. It made her want to cry, thinking of her mother.

No, she would wait until Dirina was gone to cry.

Dirina belted her dress with a cord, cinching it tight around her waist, then began to brush out her dark hair, gathering it in a length of blue cloth that matched the hem on Amarta’s cloak. Dirina’s bangs escaped the tie, falling across her face in slight curls. With the ends of the blue fabric she tied a bow behind her head.

Blue. Like the blue lines of the shell. Like the dress her mother used to wear, blue as a hot summer’s sky. They had cut that dress up, over and over across the years, reused every piece of it, sewn strips of it onto the bottom of Amarta’s cloak, taken more lengths yet to tie their hair with. They still had a few of those ties left. A bit of beauty against the undyed brown of everything else they wore.

The shell. The scraps of blue dress. But for memory, it was all they had left of her.

There had been a song, too, but it was gone. Sometimes, as Amarta was falling asleep, she almost remembered it. Her mother would sing about the ocean. Like a lake, her mother had said between verses. So big you couldn’t see the other side. One day, she had promised, they would go and see it together.

But they never had. Because of Amarta.

With a thoughtful pout, Pas reached out a hand to try to take the shell from Amarta’s hand. She gave him her other thumb instead, and he clutched it tightly.

“What do you do there?” Amarta asked.

“Not much. We talk.” Her sister fastened her fraying cloak around her shoulders, tying it snug.

Amarta looked up eagerly. “Do you mean like telling stories? Like what I do, but for fun instead of — ?” Instead of causing trouble with tales of futures that might be.

“Yes, like that.” Dirina walked to the door.

“At winter festival,” Amarta said, not wanting her to leave. “Will we join in?”

“Yes. Probably. You watch Pas. I’ll be back soon.”

“I’ll wait up for you.”

“No, you should sleep. You should –” Dirina exhaled, fell silent, then nodded once, and opened the door. White flurries swirled in the night breeze. Then she left, yanking the door shut behind her.

In the silence that followed, Amarta found that her tears for her dead mother would not come after all. Pas had fallen asleep again, and she gently pulled her finger out of his slacking grip.

The pile of peat by the stove was small, too small. Amarta decided to wait until Dirina returned to burn any more. She was not so cold as all that, not yet.

Again she turned her attention to the shell. As she rubbed the blue and white ridges she wondered if some part of her mother’s spirit lived on, in the shell. If she believed it to be true, might it become so?

She would believe it, then. She would keep the shell close to her, always. Perhaps if she slept with it in hand, she would dream of the song her mother used to sing to her. And then, when the weather warmed, she could tie the shell to hang in the window, letting it dangle in the sweet breezes, so that if her mother’s spirit was in it, she would see the warm blue sky, hear the birds, smell the earth. Each solstice and equinox, Amarta resolved, she would take her mother’s shell in hand, and think of her, remembering everything she could about her. Surely, she could do that much.

The flash of vision came and went so fast that she barely realized it had happened.

Thick fingers held her shell, turning it over and over. A man’s voice. A thoughtful sound.

Her shell. Someone had taken it from her. A sick feeling came over her. She enveloped the shell in her hand, wrapping it tightly, as if to protect it.

For a moment she had a sense, almost a taste, of the man whose fingers she had barely seen, then it was gone. Someone she had once met? A long-ago memory of some possible future vision?

Or maybe it wasn’t memory or vision at all, but only a snatch of dream.

It wasn’t fair, she thought, pressing the shell to her cheek as if it were her mother’s touch. The shell was all that she had left of her.

No, she decided, whatever it was that she had just seen, vision or memory — and whoever the man was — she would not let him take it.

Her throat tightened, and she gripped the shell tightly until the stove ran hungry and the room went dark.