The Seer – Snippet 17
They took one last look around the shack.
“I’m sorry, Diri.”
With a bleak expression, Dirina shook her head as if to reject the apology. “I only wish we could take the chair and table,” she said softly. “We should have burned them for heat.” Her sister adjusted the straps that kept Pas tied to her chest, nuzzled him briefly, picked up her heavy sack, slung it over her shoulder.
At least they didn’t have much to carry.
Always leaving. Always because of her.
As they stepped outside into the frozen night, Dirina shut the door behind them. The heavy, dull sound of wood on wood echoed in Amarta’s mind, and with a light brush of foresight, she knew they would never be here again.
At least she didn’t have to worry about spring festival in this village.
Dirina was watching her, her expression a faint echo of the look the villagers sometimes gave her. Amarta felt a chill that had nothing to do with the night.
She followed Dirina past outlying houses and farms, now shut tight. Envy filled Amarta for their safe, cozy, warm houses.
As they left the village behind, snow crunching underfoot, the mountain road before them was free of footprints. No one traveled this road in winter. It was folly. She hoped her sister knew what she was doing.
But she was the one who had set them on this path.
High, thin clouds caught moonlight, casting barely enough light to show them the road as it led under tall trees and darker shadows. Pines and cedar and high maples cut black shapes against the night sky.
The thought of burning their chairs seemed so sensible now that she wondered why they hadn’t done it before. They could die out here from the cold itself, never mind the eyes in the shadows that she might have only imagined. What if this were a terrible mistake?
“We go to the river, Diri?” she asked softly.
“Did you not say we must cross the Sennant?”
“That’s what I saw,” she said apologetically.
“Then we’ll cross and go to a village a bit beyond. When the weather improves, we’ll find a way downriver.”
Somewhere new that no one had heard of them yet. Heard of her.
“Whatever is after us, maybe it only wants me.”
“All I’m saying is that I could go to the river without you, cross and be safe, and you and Pas could go back to Botaros…”
“I just think that maybe –”
“Amarta.” A sharp rebuke. “Whatever is coming, it isn’t getting you. We won’t let it.”
Amarta sobbed a little then, but quietly so that Dirina would not hear. She wiped her face with her sleeve, leaving her even colder.
The last time they had crossed the Sennant, they walked a high bridge connecting two cliffs below which the river crashed and boomed, a terror of white foam that still gave her nightmares.
“How will we cross?”
“A raft on an overhead rope with a pulley. At the end of the road. Or so I’m told,” Dirina added softly.
Her mind numb, she marched behind Dirina, trying to step in her sister’s footprints.
“We should find a way-house between us and the river.”
A place to be out of the cold. It sounded marvelous.
As they fled yet another home. How many had they left now? Three? Four? And how many more?
Whispers mumbled behind her heavy eyes, a swirling, muddy confusion trying to answer the question she had, in foolish exhaustion, begun to ask.
Taste and texture in her mouth, chewy and sweet, nuts and fruit and spices she had never tasted before.
Blue eyes above a wide smile. A warm hand squeezing her own.
Possibilities only. Nothing certain. She pushed it away angrily. A glimpse here or there, a tantalizing hint of warmth when she was so cold, of food when she was so hungry. No use. No use at all.
Distracted, she misstepped, caught herself. Dirina gave her a worried glance, then turned back to trudge forward, head bowed over Pas in her arms.
Amarta chastised herself. She must focus on the uneven ground in front of her. A poor step, a twisted ankle — she was already costing them so much.
“Ama,” Dirina said after a time. “Do you think we could rest a bit?”
Amarta stopped, confused for a moment as to why her sister was asking her.
Because she was supposed to know. The one thing she could do to help them.
She let her sister’s question sit in her mind like a lump of fat in a hot skillet. Atop some bread, perhaps, with a fried apple, or even some scraps of meat.
With effort she turned her thoughts back to the question. Was the shadow hunter close? Did they have time? A crawling sensation on her skin intensified. Warning or simply that she was freezing, she could not quite tell. “A few minutes, I think,” she whispered.
So they sat, backs against a large, towering fir.
Moments later Amarta woke, heart pounding, dread propelling her to her feet and then forward along the path. Dirina silently gathered Pas and followed.
By the time the sky began at last to pale toward dawn, Amarta’s legs felt leaden, and her eyes kept trying to close as she shuffled forward. With daylight, heavy clouds gathered across the sky and snow began to fall. At first it was a light sprinkling and then fat wet flakes, the gray-green of snow-crusted pines the only color in a world gone white.
When Dirina stopped, Amarta plowed into her, and they caught each other, Pas objecting wordlessly between them. Dirina pulled her under a bough of thick cedar that provided a bit of shelter. They sat and ate a few bites of hard bread in oil, nearly frozen. Amarta looked back at the path.
Before them was a crossroads. To the south another road opened, leading temptingly downhill, unlike the ascending road that was their direction.
“The village south,” Amarta said softly. “Isn’t it closer?”
“The river, you said,” Dirina answered. Was that reproach in her sister’s voice?
“You and Pas could go south, and I’d go to the river. We could meet at the town of Sennant later, and –”
“What if there isn’t really anyone after us? What if I’m wrong?”
“Ama?” Dirina’s voice cracked. “Are you –?”
“I don’t know!” She swallowed the lump in her throat, looked into the woods. A winter finch fluttered to a fallen stick, pecked at it hopefully, fluttered away.
Dirina moved close and wrapped Amarta in her arms, the baby between them, and they huddled there a long moment. Then Dirina held Amarta at arm’s length.
“We will go where your visions say,” Dirina said, standing, helping Amarta up and hefting Pas in the sling at her chest. She caressed his cheek and, with a force that surprised Amarta, said: “We will not be among the fools who ignore your words.”
At that Amarta blinked away tears, brushing snow from her lashes.
They struggled their way up the incline, heads down in the falling snow. After a time, the snow lightened to flurries.
“Diri, if it keeps snowing…”
“I can’t tell,” Amarta said miserably, too tired to think, let alone ask questions her vision might answer. “What if the way-house isn’t there? What if there raft is gone? What if the hunter –”
“What if, what if,” her sister snapped. “I’m not leaving you for him to find. Say no more of that. You understand?”
A pause, the sounds of their footsteps crunching in snow.
“Ama. You must tell me when you foresee things. Even if it’s about me. I know what I said, but it’s different now. Yes?”
Suddenly Amarta felt cold inside as well as out. “Yes.”
Exhaustion forced them to stop more and more often as the short day wore on.
At another rest, leaning against Dirina, again Amarta felt herself dragged into unconsciousness, waking minutes later, gasping for breath, lurching to her feet and stumbling forward on the path. Dirina followed wordlessly.
Daylight began to fade. Dirina picked up her pace, and Amarta struggled to keep up.
Something like pain hit her abruptly. An echo of pain to come, it was. A wrenching, sick moment of tearing. “Diri,” she hissed. “Stop.”
“What?” Her sister looked around, face drawn, eyes wide.
“Something ahead. Something bad.”
Dirina took a quick step backward, eyes on the path before them.
Amarta felt the pressure of the shadow hunter behind, urging her forward, an ominous warning. But before her on the road, something sharper and sooner.
“Pull the knife, Ama.”
Reaching into the back pocket of Dirina’s sack still on her shoulders, Amarta took out their only knife, gripping it in her hand, wondering when they had last sharpened it on anything.
They both went still and silent, listening to the deep quiet of the woods. Overhead a cloudy sky darkened.
Dirina watched her. At last she whispered: “What now?”
Hunter behind, a horror in front. Overhead, a gray sky darkening with night.
“I don’t know.”
Dirina rocked Pas gently to keep him from making any noise.
Again and again Amarta tried to summon a clear thought, a way to vision. Her thoughts felt stuffed with hay, sluggish with cold.
If they went forward, then — what?