The Seer – Snippet 19
Or maybe it would be easier for everyone if he shot her now, killed her dead, and got it over with. Then, perhaps, Dirina and Pas would be safe.
“Ama!” Dirina screamed.
Still she watched him. She needed to see him, see this next moment. With every step his horse was losing ground as their raft was caught in the downstream current, but his bow was still pointed directly at her.
Now everything was moving: the raft, the horse, the banks on either side. It seemed to Amarta that the place where the bow in his hand crossed his arrow was the only thing in the world that did not move.
“What do you want?” she yelled at him. “What?”
“Ama,” her sister hissed. “Don’t.”
As if in answer, he lowered the bow. His horse slowed, still following along the riverbank but falling farther behind.
Amarta sat heavily next to her sister. A half-hearted attempt to foresee only gained her a tangled, misty sense of fading danger as the man on the horse, still following along the shore, receded into the distance. At last they could no longer see him.
One thing she had seen clearly, though, was that she would meet him again.
Amarta began to tremble. Dirina held her, spoke soothing words, but she was shaking as well.
In time Pas calmed down enough to want to be fed and changed. Swapping one patch of moss for another, Dirina handed the pole to Amarta while she fed him. Amarta stood on the raft, keeping them at the center of the wide river. She glanced at the bank behind.
Would he follow?
Of course he would.
The skies cleared and the shadows lengthened. It was colder on the water than she thought it could possibly be without being frozen solid. They huddled together.
“We’ll stop soon,” Dirina said, bundling Pas in her arms. “When we find a road. We’ll go –” she broke off, then started again. “We’ll go —
Her sister was silent, inhaling raggedly, as tired and worn as Amarta. She had never seen her sister so shaken.
“We’ll find a road on the other side,” Amarta continued. “Go inland.”
Dirina nodded as Pas reached for her hair. She kissed his forehead. “We will need to get off the river,” Dirina said. “Find food and shelter.”
But they would stand out wherever they went.
“Diri, if we cut my hair, could I seem a boy instead?”
Dirina gave her an assessing look. “Maybe. With a little change to how you move and what you say.”
Amarta pulled out their knife, grabbed her shoulder-length hair around front in a fist, and began to saw through it as Dirina had with the rope.
“Here, let me,” Dirina said, arranging Pas and herself closer. Then, after a time: “It will do for now.”
Amarta held a handful of the cut hair, some of her tresses nearly a foot long. About to toss them into the river, she hesitated, recalling the eyes of the hunter. The strands might float downstream, tangling with fallen leaves and branches. He might find them.
She tried to foresee. The future was cold and swirling and uncertain like the water around them. She put the strands in her pocket.
“Look,” Dirina was whispering to Pas, pointing to the moon in the deepening azure sky, “a shard of the first stone from which the world was born. And those lights? Those are stars, the children of the sun.”
Dark banks passed to either side, thick forests, an occasional campfire.
Lamps from houses in small villages. Amarta envied them their warm houses, their families, their food. What would it be like to live in a place with the confidence you would be there tomorrow and the next day? The next season? A year hence?
“There,” Dirina said, pointing.
A road along the bank. Dirina stood, poked the pole into the water, maneuvered them to the shore. After a little work, the raft was on the shore. Amarta stepped off into the frigid water. Together they dragged the raft partly up onto the bank. Good enough. Or was it?
Dirina on the ground, blood oozing wetly from an arrow in her leg. Amarta turning to see him atop his horse.
Dirina held Pas and the rest of their belongings.
“Diri, the raft. He’s seen it.”
For a moment her sister looked confused. Then she nodded. “We’ll send it downriver.”
They launched it with as much force as they could, and off it went downstream.
“Travel far, travel true,” Dirina whispered.
Amarta didn’t try to foresee the path of the raft. It would have to be good enough.
They stood by a tree at the edge of a fallow field, Pas deep in exhausted sleep against Dirina’s chest, and stared at the lights of a farmhouse.
“This one, or do we go on?” Dirina asked, tone flat.
They had been careful, walking on rocks, considering every step. No broken branches. No stray hairs.
Tired, cold, hungry. Would whoever lived in this farmhouse take them in, at least until tomorrow?
Beggars in the night.
Amarta looked at the farmhouse again, trying to foresee. She felt empty. “Maybe,” she said.
“Maybe?” Dirina said, her voice cracking. “Yes or no?”
They were both so tired that it was hard to say anything, let alone anything nice. Amarta squinted at the farmhouse. If they knocked on the door, could it lead to being warm?
The smell of hay. A place to lie down.
There was a way.
“Yes,” she said, too tired to explain.
They walked the rutted path to the house. It stretched back and away from the road under a leafless oak, a barn nearby.
Dirina took a breath, and knocked.
A woman opened the door, gray at her temples, a frown on her face. “What do you want?”
“We are travelers,” Dirina said, trying to sound hopeful and pitiful all at once. “Begging your mercy. With nowhere to go this wretched night. All we ask –”
“You’re letting in cold.” She scowled. “Get in.”
They did so, pulling the door shut behind. A fire in a large wood stove breathed heat into the room. Two men, young enough to be the woman’s adult sons, sat at a table and turned to look.
The smell of meat and spices hung in the air. They had food. They were eating. For a moment Amarta could think of nothing else.
“We were orphaned, ma’am,” Dirina said, moving the blanket a bit so that they could all see Pas in her arms. “Our parents fell off a mountainside and died. Our uncle took everything we had. We’re not beggars,” she said. “We can clean and mend and care for children…” she glanced at the young men and faltered. There were no children here.
Dirina ducked her head, eyes wide. It was the look she got when they were most down on their luck. “We can cook, and fetch water and collect wood and pick wildflowers and –”
Flowers? Dirina must be beyond tired. Her sister stuttered to a stop, only now seeming to realize what she had just said.
“Anything, really,” Dirina finished softly.
The woman, clearly reluctant, shrugged. “The barn has hay. Be gone in the morning. The donkey is mean and will bite, so don’t bother him.”
But the last thing Amarta wanted was to leave this warm room to share space with an unpleasant animal in a cold barn. More than anything, she wanted to stay right here and eat whatever they were eating.
They would share what they had, if they wanted to. How to convince them?
The woman didn’t trust them, Amarta could see that in her hard expression. What would it take to change her mind?
So tired. Too tired to look ahead.
Just a little ways ahead, then. Heartbeats in the future. A hint of what could be.
She caught it then, barely a whiff. A taste of stew from a future that might yet be.
“No,” she said to the woman. “I mean –” she glanced at Dirina, who gave her a dismayed look. “That’s not all of it.”
“Not all of what, girl?” the woman asked, moving to the door to open it. “Loham, take them out to the barn.” One of the young men stood and approached.
“It’s true we’re orphans,” Amarta said, talking quickly, “but there’s more. There’s a man after us. I think he means to kill us.” She spoke calmly. That was the thing, she realized, not to try to look ragged and pathetic. Dirina’s approach had worked before, many times, but it wouldn’t work now.
The woman gave them both a long look. “Why?”
“We don’t know,” Amarta continued. “But we have nowhere to go. We haven’t eaten today because we have no food or money. But we’re trustworthy, and we’ll work hard for you as long as you’ll have us.”
“Not the king’s men,” the woman said. “We don’t need that kind of trouble.”
“No, not that,” Dirina said.
The woman nodded slowly. Then, to Dirina: “Next time you let her speak.”
Dirina looked down, face reddening.
“Cafir,” the woman called to the other man, “put some blankets in the corner by the fire. Loham, ladle out two more bowls. You two, take off your packs, and –” she stepped toward Dirina. “Here, woman, give me that baby before you drop him.”
Dirina hesitated a moment, then handed her Pas.
Amarta took off her pack and looked around the room, feeling dazed as the future she had glimpsed moments ago became the present.