The Seer – Snippet 32
“I will do what you do to earn money,” Amarta said.
“No,” Dirina said, shocked. “You will not.”
“You’re a child.”
“Come spring, Diri, I’m of age.”
“Years are not enough. Your first time should not be — like that. It should be someone you like. Someone who likes you.”
“What do you mean, first time?”
An exhale. Then, softly, “You do not need to know.”
“How long until I bleed with the moon, Diri? That, if not my springs, certainly means –”
“It doesn’t. It means nothing.”
“I’m not a child.”
“You certainly are. This would not be safe for you.”
“It’s safe for you?” Amarta swallowed her frustration. “I’d know if it was safe. I’d be able to see before it happened.”
“Would you, now? Really? Then why are we on the run again? You see danger when it’s right on top of you, Ama. With a man, that’s far too late.”
Amarta wanted to say that it was more complicated than that, to explain that the hunter after them, whose eyes she had finally seen, was more dangerous than a single man ought to be. Then she looked at her sister’s thin mask of confidence, saw worry and terror churning beneath, and decided not to. “All right,” she agreed. “But I won’t let us go hungry again.”
“We won’t,” Dirina said. Another empty promise, but she would not gainsay it. Her sister was doing all she could to get them from one moment to the next.
Despite that vision had told her he would sleep for hours yet, she looked around furtively at the dark forest.
She would not, she resolved, push vision away again. Thinking of the forest and her hunter, she realized that she hadn’t, really. The visions were inescapable. Like so many things in her life. Like having to leave places that might have been home.
A sudden scratching sound made her jerk around, setting her heart to speeding, but it was only a squirrel, leaping from one tree to the next, now gone into the upper reaches of the thick canopy.
She hoped that the inescapable things in life did not include her hunter.
When they reached the Sennant River they turned along the road, walking past small houses and fenced pastures. Goats and sheep looked curiously at them as they passed.
Nesmar Port was little more than a sloping bank of stony shore and a wooden dock. People, horses and wagons were clustered thickly, some leaning on barrels, voices loud and gestures wide over piles of sacks and stacked crates. Two well-dressed women stood together, consulting a board of parchment notes as a donkey laden with overstuffed saddle bags was futilely attempting to back up from between a stack of crates topped with cages of chickens. Someone began to laugh, someone else to call loudly to children who were staring and pointing at a pair of small, oddly striped brown, black, and tan-colored horses.
Amarta breathed relief. They had not missed the barge after all. At a large flat rock she sat gratefully, dropping her stick to the stones underfoot. She crossed her ankle over her other knee, rubbing it to try to ease the pain.
“Ama,” Dirina hissed.
Her sister’s gaze was intent, face tight. Amarta followed her look across the assembled crowd, not seeing the cause of her alarm. “What?”
A single carthorse was pulling a wagon of hay bundles slowly up and away from the water toward the road. Elsewhere a man hefted a pack over his back. Two small, dusky-skinned men from some eastern tribe were securing a wagon cover.
Amarta felt her stomach drop. “Oh no,” she breathed.
The man with the large bundle across his shoulders, his three children pulling a handcart behind him, gave her a sympathetic look as he passed. “Sad it is, but you just now missed it.”
“No! Are you sure?” Dirina asked.
He pointed downriver. In the distance was a slowly receding barge, laden with wagons, boxes, animals, people.
The man’s children looked at the two of them as they dragged the handcart behind him. Amarta saw how their gaze took them in. They would be remembered.
“Up now,” Pas insisted, arms on his mother’s leg, looking at her intently. She sighed heavily, pulled him into her lap.
The weight of the day, of this latest failure, settled heavily on Amarta.
Open and covered wagons were hitched to horses, packs slung over backs and into handcarts. The donkey escaped his temporary trap and was now making his way up to the road.
Leaving. They were all leaving.
“What do we do?” Dirina asked, her hopeless tone tearing at Amarta.
Would the hunter come here directly from the farm? Surely there was the rest of the countryside to search. He might go another way.
No, the barge was obvious. She could too clearly imagine him walking through the riverside village, asking questions.
“A woman and child and a limping girl dressed as a boy? Oh, yes, I saw them. They missed the afternoon barge. They went that way.”
“Do you think,” Dirina asked, almost timidly, “we could — go back?”
To the farm, she meant. The only place Amarta was sure they could not go. “No,” she said soberly.
She wanted to sleep it all away, like a bad dream. Wake to Enana calling her to the fields.
The final crates and barrels were loaded onto wagons, bolts of cloth and cages of rabbits rearranged on top. The sky was darkening. Everyone wanted to get where they were going before nightfall.
Nightfall. When he would wake.
Another moment she put off looking to vision, then another. That part of her was sore as well. At last she forced herself to look and listen to what could be.
Nothing but the chattering of people, the crunching of small stones under foot, hoof, and wheel. The smell and hush of river. High clouds caught the first hint of sunset.
Focus, she told herself sternly, closing her eyes.
When she found it, it was buried and crusted over, like some rusted-shut metal door that screamed to open even a crack. She fought back, pushed the question into this sorest part of herself.
Could they wait for the next day’s barge? Find somewhere to hide for the night? Was it possible?
The smallest flash came to her. Barely a breath.
Darkness. Rough motion. The smell of horse strong under her, head pounding. Pas and Dirina gone.
“No,” she breathed, pushing it away, not wanting to know more.
“Then where?” Dirina asked. Almost a plea. “Ama, we have to –”
“I don’t know!” she said loudly.
An elderly woman gave her a reproachful look as she and her adult son, judging by his similar looks, slowly walked by. The man was breathing hard, carrying a pack as well as holding his mother’s arm to steady her as they ascended the bank.
A slight depression in the ground, near a flowering plantain at the edge of a road. A leather-clad knee dropped down by it, fingers lightly brushing the dirt.
“Grandmother,” Amarta said quickly, rewarded by another glare from the woman. Amarta struggled painfully to her feet, picked up the stick at her feet. “Please take this for your travels.” She held it out. The two of them paused, the woman’s expression softening.
The man nodded gratefully, took the stick and handed it to his mother.
“Thank you, child,” the woman said.
“Blessings of the season to you,” Amarta replied politely.
Dirina looked a question at her. Amarta looked toward the river.
Only a couple of large covered wagons remained. A dusky-skinned woman checked the harnesses of a team of four gray carthorses while the other of the tribespeople loaded up bags into the other wagon.
Standing apart from them were the striped horses, untethered, unhaltered, not even bridle or reins. Their markings were strange, with brown and orange stripes wrapping their wheat-colored hides, stretching from the tricolor fall of their tails up their backs through their manes to their heads, the fingers of stain reaching across their faces like some sort of midwinter festival mask. It was as if the chestnut-and-ginger-colored lines had been painted on their backs and sides by someone with more enthusiasm than skill.
“Mama, look: horses!” Pas cried loudly, pointing at them. At this outburst, one of the horses looked at them. Dirina kept a tight hold of Pas’s hand as he tried to pull away to run to them.
“What are they?” Amarta asked.
Mutely, Dirina shook her head.
One of the striped horses turned in their direction and began walking toward the rock on which they sat.