The Seer – Snippet 16
“Must you go out again? Really?”
Amarta heard the whine in her own voice, but it was hardly fair that Dirina went out almost every night, while Amarta must stay and watch Pas. With snow deep on the ground, Amarta only went outside to the toilet, and the only people she ever saw were her sister and Pas.
Pas was trying to stand now, making a small, frustrated sound. He sat back heavily onto Amarta’s lap, frowning, staring across the lamp-lit room at his mother. Amarta wrapped her arms around him, burying her nose in his neck instead of looking at her sister.
As the peat in the stove smoldered and spat, sending an acrid smell into the room, Dirina pulled a dress over her pale underclothes.
“We need more fuel for the fire,” Dirina said flatly.
That was so; they did not even have enough to get through the night. By morning it would be wretchedly, bitingly cold.
“The tavern again,” Amarta said, half-question, half-accusation.
“I’ll be back soon.”
It was nearly the same conversation every night. But when Dirina came back she brought food and fuel, sometimes a few nals. Though as winter held stubbornly to the land, the nals chits became worth less and less, and the peat ran out faster and faster.
Maybe it wasn’t so bad, what her sister did at the tavern. Maybe it was one of those things that seemed worse than it was because Amarta was too young to understand. And just because Dirina’s hair was tangled when she came back, and she stank of men until morning when they could heat water to clean themselves, that didn’t mean that she didn’t like it. Did it?
Amarta didn’t really want to know.
“Why don’t they bring me questions any more, Diri?”
Dirina’s fingers were on the door handle. She paused. “I don’t know.”
Amarta didn’t quite believe that. “Because it’s so cold, maybe.”
“That must be it.”
The winter had been far colder than anyone expected. Even the king’s red-and-black clad soldiers had gone, given up their search for the missing tax collector, a short man with a husky voice who had come during harvest, taken taxes, and left, apparently failing to return to the capital with his collectings. The soldiers seemed ready to stay until they had questioned everyone in the village over and over.
Then the snow had begun to fall in earnest. When it was four feet deep, the soldiers had left. The spring, now that it was here, did not seem that much different from the winter.
“When the weather warms…” Dirina said, hand still paused on the door.
“Please don’t go.”
Her sister’s eyes widened in alarm. Amarta felt a sudden, sick guilt. “No,” she said quickly. “I don’t see anything. I just…”
Her sister’s mouth twitched into a weak, fearful smile that settled the guilt deep in Amarta’s stomach.
“Do they talk about me?”
“At the tavern. What do they say about me?”
“Nothing. They talk about the tax collector and how the king’s soldiers drank all the best wine. How Grandmother Malwa laughs too loud in the night and returns to the wrong house when she comes back from the toilet.”
But Amarta had seen the villagers scowl at her and had heard the whispers: “Magic, that’s what.”
The poor harvest. The wretched cold that would not break. They blamed it on her.
But it was no kind of magic, what she did. Only a way of looking at things and people.
Not magic. Magic brought destruction. Everyone knew that.
Dirina sighed, walked over, stroked Amarta’s head. “When the cold breaks, and the ice melts, people will warm to us. You’ll see, Ama.”
Amarta nodded, though she didn’t believe it.
Then Dirina left, pulling the door tight behind.
So cold. Amarta put one of the final pieces of peat into the stove.
The three of them had gone to winter festival, stood warming by the huge fire in the central square, listening to the music. While she looked around for a friendly face, Amarta recalled the saying that, in winter, no one could afford to be stingy, because who knew when you yourself might need something in the dead-cold times? But everyone kept distant from them; they had not been born here, so perhaps they did not matter.
It was hard to imagine that spring festival would be any different.
She remembered the last village, the forgiveness rite at spring festival, with the run up the cliff, flat stones in hand — as many as you needed — each one scratched or char-marked with the first letter of the name of those who had wronged you the previous year. Then, all at once, together, everyone would hurl their rocks as far as they would fly, so that they could go into the new year free of grudges and wrongs, all forgiven.
She had laughed with delight, looking around at the others, eager to see who might now be her friend again, but no one had returned a smile.
There had been no friends then. There would be none now. At this spring festival there would be no welcome, let alone forgiveness for the outsider who knew too much.
It was so very unjust — she had only answered the questions they had asked. How could they resent her for that? Surely, once they understood how little she really knew about them, they would forgive. At spring festival this year, she resolved, she would tell them everything. She imagined that moment, how she would stand up and speak up, and she would say —
The light of the fire went very bright.
There would be no spring festival this year, not for her.
A vivid image cut through her imaginings like a howl etched across the night’s deep quiet.
The hunter stood in the shadows, face wrapped against the chill, eyes dark, watching her, waiting for her to come near.
Only once before had vision come on her this way, unbidden and overwhelming, and that was the morning her parents had died.
Tangled in a blanket, nearly smothered, unable to move, she fought and struggled to cry out. A thick wad of blanket went into her mouth, tight, impossible to push away, her cries no more than muffled grunts.
Amarta launched to her feet, heart pounding, and pulled on her cloak. She bundled the sleeping Pas. He whined about being woken, then about being wrapped too much, hands pushing at the blankets. She said something, forgotten the moment it left her mouth, and he stopped, perhaps sensing the urgency of her tone. She held him tight and was out the door.
A breezy, frozen night faced her, a three-quarter moon shining half around a cloud, making the drifts of snow glow white. The air bit her face with cold, snuck under her cloak, crawling around her neck.
A small sound in the dark. An animal in the brush. A mole, or a rabbit. Surely too small to be a man, but she froze anyway.
Suddenly she was unsure. Should she go back inside and wait for Dirina? Must she rush? Even if the vision was true, this could hardly happen so soon, not with the ground frozen and deep in snow. No one would travel in this.
But the last time she had waited to act, her parents had died. She had foreseen it clearly, and still her parents had died.
She pushed herself to a fast walk, trading silence for speed with every crunching footfall.
Someone was coming. She could feel it. Every shadow seemed a threat.
When she reached the tavern, she pushed open the heavy door and stepped inside, shudderingly grateful to be out of the bitter chill.
The small room was lit with lamps and smelled warmly of people, the yeasty smell of ale, the spice of woodsmoke. Every scent told her that all was well with the world.
For a moment she simply stood there, relishing the warmth, inhaling the scent of food, listening to the reassuring sounds of conversation.
“I’m not paying more,” an old man was saying, “I’ll tell you that. Not to make up for the collector’s theft.”
“Oh, you’ll pay,” a woman near him said, slapping the back of one hand with the palm of the other, a gesture that said hard currency, not trade or favors. “Get fixed with that. If they give you a choice between pay and your fingers, you’ll find a way.”
“Shit will sprout wings and fly.”
“Brave words for a man with all his fingers.”
The man loudly exhaled. “We don’t earn more, they just take more. It’s not right.”
“If the king knew…” said a young man.
“Maybe you should go tell him, boy,” the woman said.
“I could do. Would he listen, do you think, If I went –”
A laugh. “No. He wants your coin, boy, not your –”
The room fell silent as Amarta was finally noticed. In moments the only sound was the hissing of the central fire pit. Some who turned their heads to look at her she recognized from their shack, as those whose futures she had foreseen when the weather was better.
From their looks she could see that they remembered her, too.
“I don’t –” she began. Know anything about you, she ached to say. So many people, so many possible futures, things that might never even come to pass — how could anyone expect her to remember it all?
Or maybe they thought she was foreseeing now, as she stood here with her feet and fingers aching from the cold, Pas whimpering in her arms.
“What do you want, girl?” asked the unsmiling innkeeper, walking to stand in front of her.
“Upstairs,” he said. “Busy. Go home.”
“I need her.”
“Not now, you don’t. Go home.”
Behind her someone opened the door and stepped inside, bringing in gusts of cold air. Sudden terror made Amarta pull away from the figure, clutching Pas tighter, but it was only the village healer, an old woman, not the monster from her vision.
The woman’s lined face twisted downward. “What’s she doing here?”
“Just leaving,” the innkeeper said, a hand on Amarta’s shoulder. “Come on now, girl, people got to eat and you don’t belong.”
Then Amarta was outside in the chill again, the door shut tight behind her. Pas inhaled the frigid air, a deep, deep inhale, and then gave a shrill wail into the night.
Amarta wanted to cry, too. She rocked him instead, face near his, murmuring. He quieted, staring up at her with a petulant expression.
A mistake to come here. She would return to the shack, where, if her visions were to be believed, she would not live much longer. When Dirina came home, she would tell her what she had seen and they would figure out what to do together. Surely there would be at least that much time.
She thought of her mother.
There might not be.
Before she could reconsider, she pushed open the door again and stepped inside. Pas had stopped crying, but once inside he began again and everyone turned to glower at them both.
“Hey, now,” the innkeeper said sharply, moving forward, his hands out. “You can’t –”
“Dirina,” Amarta pleaded.
“Can’t come in here, I said, girl. Now –”
“Dirina,” Amarta cried out defiantly, raising her voice over Pas’s howl.
“Out,” he shouted, grabbing her by the shoulders, hard enough to hurt, turning her and propelling her toward the half-open door. She leaned back against him, resisting.
“Dirina!” she yelled as loud as she could.
And then she was again out in the night, the door shut, the bolt slamming down.
Pas was wailing in earnest now. She turned away from the inn, stumbling back down the path to the shack, tears of frustration and shame blurring her vision.
If the villagers hadn’t liked her before, they would like her less now. A false hope in any case, that they might ever. But what if she had ruined Dirina’s work as well? What would they do for food and heat?
Maybe there was no changing the future for yourself. She’d foreseen her parents’ death but had not been able to prevent it. Maybe that was how it worked.
Or, she realized suddenly, she could leave by herself. Tonight. Go off into the mountain roads alone. Surely the villagers would accept Dirina and Pas if Amarta were gone.
She wondered at what would find her first. Cougars. Wolves. The cold.
The shadow hunter.
But then, if she died, perhaps she could see her mother in the Beyond. Tell her she was sorry. Maybe her mother would throw a stone for her over whatever cliffs the afterlife might have.
She wiped her nose as she walked, clutching Pas to her chest as he cried softly. So intent was she on the snow-crusted path in front of her, on swallowing her tears, that only when Dirina was right by her side did she hear her sister call her name.