The Seer – Snippet 35
Amarta tentatively put weight on her injured ankle, suppressing a wince. Dirina helped her from the horse to one of the covered wagons.
“We take a chance with you,” said Jolon, the small man they had spoken with at Nesmar Port. He lifted Pas from where he stood next to Dirina and set him inside the wagon.
“You won’t be sorry,” Dirina said with conviction as she helped Amarta limp forward.
“We hope this is so,” replied the woman who had come back for them, Mara, with a sober glance at each of them.
Amarta did, too. Having left Enana and her family in the path of the shadow hunter, she wondered just how safe it was to help them.
With Mara’s help she climbed up into the wagon, finding an open spot among casks and sacks of grain, bails of hay in the corners, and blankets wadded into the spaces between. Through a rip in the wagon’s tarp, in the twilight, she saw another of the small, striped horses walking by. They settled in and then, from all around the wagon, voices began a trilling soot-soot-soot half-song. The wagon jerked forward and began to roll.
“Where are we going?” Amarta asked Dirina as her sister took Pas into her lap.
“Away from here,” Dirina said adamantly.
Away was a good direction. But he would follow, surely.
She could imagine him arriving at the riverside barge dock the next morning. But so many people had walked and rode and wheeled up and away from the dock, across banks and river rock. Surely he could not track them among all the others’ footprints.
He could have lost their track anywhere between the farmhouse and Nesmar Port. In the forest. At crossroads. Surely it would be impossible for him to determine what direction they had gone, let alone that they had climbed into a wagon.
Just as it was impossible to know the gender of a foal whose mother did not yet even show her pregnancy?
With that troubling thought, Amarta lay back on the blankets.
The wagon stopped suddenly. Amarta sat up, waking, not remembering falling asleep. Outside, it was full dark.
Mara opened the tarp flap at the back, a lamp in her hand. “Come,” she said.
They climbed out. Dirina took Pas off to a nearby tree.
Around the wagons, the small tribespeople in their odd rag and leather clothes were making camp, feeding and watering their carthorses and the smaller ones with stripes. A fire was going, and someone was preparing food.
Mara looked at her. “We will feed you, too, lost girl. To sit here.” She took Amarta’s arm and helped her limp over to a fallen log.
Her mind was on their pursuer. He might even believe that they had gotten on the barge that they had just missed.
Somehow she didn’t think so.
Around her, tribespeople were making camp with a practiced ease that she had never seen before. They had grown up together, she supposed, surprised at the intensity of the ache of envy she felt.
Jolon sat beside her on the log, a lamp in one hand, bread in the other. He handed her the bread, which she nibbled gratefully. “Do you still hurt?”
For a moment she was stunned — how could he know?
He meant the ankle.
“Much better, thank you,” she lied. They could not afford to be thought of as a burden. Even if they were.
“Those you run from. You worry. It is not needful.”
She shook her head, denying the worry, denying the assurance, not sure how much to admit. She looked for Dirina for guidance, but her sister was elsewhere with Pas, helping prepare the food.
And that was good: they must seem useful enough to be worth the risk, and hide the trouble they really were. Amarta saw another tribeswomen kneeling to talk to Pas, smiling, and she felt relief; if Pas were sweet, that might be one more reason not to leave them by the side of the road. Which they probably should.
She realized that Jolon was still watching her. She hoped she hadn’t shown too much of what she’d been thinking. “Where are we going?” she asked.
He smiled. “Somewhere safe.” He considered a moment, then crouched down in front of her, set his lamp on the ground, and motioned her close. Smoothing a bit of dirt flat, he drew an oval with a finger. On the lower side of the shape he made a long, thick, wavy line. “We follow the river road, here.” On the near end of the oval he made a small mark. “This is where we camp now. This –” at the far end of the oval, he pointed, “is where we took you with us, at Nesmar Port. Where are the ones who follow you?”
Hesitantly she pointed to an area to the side of the oval. “He was here, I think.”
“He? You mean he is one man?” At her nod, he gave a short laugh. “One is not enough. No more worry for you. We are Teva.” At her look, he made a thoughtful noise. “You have not heard of us?”
She shook her head.
“We are Teva,” he repeated, sitting back on his heels, a playful smile on his face. “We are so fierce that Arunkel kings and queens bribe us to be on their side. Some say it is our clever nature. Some say it is our laughter. Some say it is shaota.”
“The horse you called pregnant. And her brothers.” He gestured to the striped horses.
Amarta looked over at the small creatures, nibbling at grass. “You don’t halter or tether them. Won’t they wander away?”
“No, they…” He seemed to consider a moment, then stopped himself. “Yes, sometimes, it is true. But rarely. It is not like…” He moved a hand in the air, searching for words. “They are not slaves, like the carthorses. They belong to themselves.”
“To themselves?” She had never before heard of such a thing. “Then why do they not leave?”
He frowned a little, his gaze on the horses. He made a guttural chuffing sound, and one of the horses turned her head to regard him for a moment before she turned back to the ground cover. He suppressed a chuckle.
“They like us,” he said with a shrug. “We are Teva. Who does not like Teva?”
The wagons continued south. Some days later, Dirina asked for and gained from the Teva thread and needle to repair the various tears in the seams on both sides of the wagon’s tarp. Amarta watched her fiddle, thinking it more likely, given the rattling and swaying of the wagon, that she’d stab herself than mend anything.
But Dirina was right to try. The more useful they were, the better.
As she began to work on the tarp, Amarta curled around Pas on the blankets, awaking as the wagon suddenly jolted to a stop.
Dirina hissed, sucking on a finger.
Far distantly they could make out voices and shouts and something that might be screams. Dirina held her hands out for Pas. He crawled over to her. After a long moment, Jolon put his head in at the back of the wagon.
“We come now to a town. There is no way around it. You stay inside and be silent, yes? No matter what, yes?”
“Yes,” Dirina said.
His eyes flickered quickly between them. “One last time I ask you. Tell me true. You do not run from Arunkel soldiers?”
“No,” Dirina said firmly, and Amarta also shook her head, agreeing.
“Good,” he said, but he seemed worried, and he looked at them a moment longer. To Pas: “You stay quiet, yes?”
Then Jolon left. The trilling soot-soot-soot song, and then the wagons jerked forward.
What were they going into? What was about to happen?
A pointing finger, followed by a shout. Hands grabbed for her, yanking her from the wagon. Sleeves of red and black. Dirina shouted. Pas screamed.
Amarta scrambled over the straw and crates to the largest of the rips in the tarp and clamped it shut with her hand, looking out the tiny opening that remained.
“Ama,” Dirina whispered.
Amarta held a finger to her lips for silence.
As the wagon rolled forward, the voices and shouts grew louder. Amarta smelled smoke, heard distant wailing. She made a gesture to Dirina to get down. Her sister wrapped her arms around Pas and burrowed into the blankets.
A shout to halt. The wagons stopped. Horse snorts, footfalls. Amarta peeked through the pinhole opening.
Two large horses. Then three. Men atop them, wearing red and black.
“Identify yourselves,” said a male voice.
“We are Jolon and Mara al Otevan,” answered Jolon, who was mounted on his shaota.
“You have picked a poor time to visit Arteni, Jolon and Mara of the Teva. What is your business here?”