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She awoke to the smell of blood, the sound of running water and the icy bite of the wind on her back. For a long moment, that was all she could be certain of, as if her brain had to learn all over again what it meant to be conscious. Then, in the instant when disorientation gave way to awareness, terror slammed into her gut like a falling tree. She fought to breathe, even to open her eyes and see.
She wished she hadn’t.
The scent of blood spilled from the cooling, inert form upon which she lay. His throat had been slashed from ear to ear, the flesh parted in an obscene smile, still glistening in the brilliant moonlight. His eyes were fixed forever in a terror-filled gaze.
Bile rose in her throat, and she rolled off the body, pushing at it, pushing at the air around it, as if she might somehow banish the event, erase it from her mind, never to have happened. But it was not to be, for as she rolled backward, she tumbled upon another body.
The boy was small, not yet seven to judge by his features. Deep brown eyes seemed focused vaguely beyond her head. His abdomen had been laid open in an ugly, razor-smooth diagonal gash from just beneath his left nipple nearly to his right hip. Tiny, dirty hands clutched a small walking stick over his belly, a terrified, confused, tormented child’s futile attempt to both hold his innards within him and protect himself from further blows. To judge by the savagery that must have followed—for surely that sort of mutilation could not have been done until he stopped fighting—he had succeeded in neither aim.
Her eyes rose to take in the rest of the scene around her. A river gurgled black with blood, stinking of it, over rocks worn smooth by the water’s patient, insistent, inexorable caress. She looked upstream for the source of the blood in the water. She didn’t have to look far. For at least a hundred paces, the bodies of men, women and horses sprawled along the bank like so much litter, as if haphazardly thrown over the side by a passing ship, their last agonies visible in every vivid, stomach-wrenching detail.
She fought the dizzying wave of nausea and lost. As she spat the last of it into the river, she realized she was naked and covered in blood. A new panic tore through her as her hands roamed over her body, feeling for wounds. There were none immediately apparent, so she made her way upstream, methodically checking each body in a manner and for reasons she could not fathom, until she reached the head of the column and clear water.
The water stole her breath away, so cold it nearly burned her skin. Gritting her teeth, she steeled herself to the pain and washed the gore from her body, then checked again for wounds in the pale light of the moon. Nothing so much as a scratch. She stepped out of the river, and the wind bit anew, sending her into an uncontrollable shiver.
At this temperature, I’ll freeze to death in less than an hour, she thought, then wondered why she would know such a thing with such utter certainty. With that wonderment came the most terrifying shock of all. She had no idea who she was, or where, or how she’d gotten to this place.
Nor was there time to find out.
The whimpered moan sent a chill down her spine. She looked around, wondering if it might have been the wind, but then it came again, the sound full of pain and fear. Every rational thought told her to hide, and yet she was drawn to the moan like a moth to a flame, working her way back down the column, pausing every few steps to listen until the sound repeated.
It was a girl, perhaps the same age as the boy she’d seen earlier, perhaps even his twin. The girl’s lips, thin and almost white, quivered as she gasped for breath. She knelt beside the girl, feeling for a pulse in the bloody mess that was a throat, and finding it fluttery and weak. The girl’s eyes seemed to search the darkness before finding her.
“Oon-tie,” the girl moaned. “Oon-tie.”
She had no idea what the word meant, but the message was clear enough: help me. Her fingertips probed the wound at the girl’s throat. Somehow the killers had missed the artery, although the slash had opened several smaller blood vessels. It was a superficial wound. Fear, cold and shock had done the rest. The girl must have lain still, clinging to her dying mother, feigning death until the attackers had grown bored with their blood sport and melted away into the darkness.
“Shhhh,” she whispered, trying to find a reassuring calm that would quiet the girl. “Don’t talk. Let me try to help you.”
It was then that she noticed her fingertips were burning. She decided it was the cold.
“I’ll be right back,” she said, rising to look for something to wrap around herself and the girl.
“Ooooon-tieeee,” the girl moaned as she moved away.
The sound tore at her heart, but discipline and a training she did not remember took control. If she didn’t find a way to keep them both warm, nothing else would matter. They would simply die here, in the dark, in the cold, vainly clinging to each other for a warmth neither could give.
She picked through the slashed bundles that lay on the ground, finding nothing but sacks of wheat and rice. Surely one of the bundles ought to hold a blanket or spare clothes. But there were none to be found. Shuddering at the thought, she combed through the column again, finding the body of a woman roughly her own size. She closed her eyes as she undressed the woman, whispering a nearly silent I’m sorry, fighting back revulsion as she pulled the damp wool garment around her, knowing that the dampness was blood.
Still, wool dried from the inside out—yet another fact she wondered how she would know—and she knew she would warm up soon. She ran back to the girl.
“Hah-gee,” the girl whispered. “Oon-tie.”
“Yes,” she said, nodding her head. “Oon-tie. I’ll help you. Oon-tie.”
She pulled the girl inside the cloak with her and tied the sash, sharing her body heat with the pale, cold girl. Tucking the girl’s legs around her hips, she rose and once again searched the column for anything she could use for a bandage. Finally realizing that a torn strip of sackcloth was the best she would find, she did her best to wrap it around the girl’s throat while keeping the girl inside her cloak. It wasn’t a proper field dressing—where had that phrase come from?—but it would have to do.
“Oon-tie,” she whispered in the girl’s ear as she bound the wound. “Oon-tie.”
It was then that she realized her fingers were still burning, even though she’d grown warmer. This wasn’t the burn of cold-numbed nerves. It was as if she had dipped her hands into a bag of ants, and the burning itch was spreading up to her palms.
“Oon-tie,” she whispered again, carrying the girl with her to the river, where she knelt and plunged her hands into the icy water, then scrubbed them against each other.
The water soothed the burning enough that she could focus on what to do next: move away from this place. She had no idea if the killers would return, but the bodies themselves would soon draw natural scavengers. She didn’t want to be there when the vultures arrived, didn’t want this girl to watch them peck at the flesh of people she had known and loved.
In the darkness, she picked out a hard, stony road that ran alongside the river. She went upstream, for the simple reason that at least this way they would have access to clean water. After a few minutes, the river widened again, and the sound of water over rocks faded into the darkness. The road bent closer to the river, and a neat stack of thick, smooth logs seemed to materialize out of the night.
A portage, she thought. Perfect place for an ambush. And why do I know this? Who am I?
She let her mind wander over that question for a few minutes but could find no answer. Her back ached with the weight of carrying the girl, and she needed to rest. In the distance, a tree line beckoned. At least she would have cover. She could make it that far. Then they could rest.
But the tree line hovered just out of reach. Her depth perception had been skewed by the flat light of the moon, the crystalline nighttime air and the fact that she was climbing a slow, steady slope. Her breathing grew labored, but she pressed on, the girl shivering in her arms.
The girl ought to be warming up, too, she thought. Yet the girl’s breaths came in ragged rasps. The girl’s legs slid off her waist again and again, as if they were increasingly weighted with stones. Each time, the girl seemed to struggle harder to pull her thin legs back up. She was losing the battle for life.
The woman didn’t let herself think about that. The tree line. The tree line. It became a mantra, the whispered words keeping a rhythm to her stride as she forced herself on into the night.
Finally she could make out distinct trees, some kind of pine, tall and straight, wreathed in bunches of needles that looked as fluffy as a squirrel’s tail.
Just a few more steps, she told herself. You can do this. You’ve done it before. She had no idea where, or when. But she had done it— and more.
The girl went into spasms just as they reached the trees. The woman lowered herself to the ground, pulling the heavy wool even tighter around them, but the warmth did nothing to stem the spasms.
“Ooh-ooh-oon-tie,” the girl gasped.
“I’m trying” the woman answered. “I’m trying to help you, honey. Oon-tie. Oon-tie.”
She felt for a pulse again. It was weaker than before, tiny flutters fighting a rising black wave. The girl’s skin was clammy, her breath shallow. She laid the girl on the ground, in a pile of needles, and turned the girl’s face to her.
“Keep fighting,” she said, hoping her tone of voice would convey what the words could not. “Don’t give up. Don’t you quit on me.” But the girl’s eyes grew cloudy, her breath more ragged, until finally she let out a tiny gasp.
Then she was still.
The woman lifted the girl and clutched her inside her cloak, sobbing in the darkness, vainly crying out to any god who might listen in this strange place, “Noooooooooo.”
Sara Deepwell hefted a barrel of ale from the stack and lowered it into a V-shaped cart, then rolled it out of the alehouse and in through the back door of the Deepwell Inn. Despite the cold of the morning, with mist still drifting in off the Adasen River and across the Commons, she wiped a sheen of perspiration from her forehead with a sleeve.
That’s four barrels,” she said.
Her father, Bandylegs, looked up at the icy-blue sky and nodded. “I’m sure that will be plenty. Let’s get the stew going.”
“Yes, sir,” Sara said, suppressing a small sigh.
She could remember when four barrels of ale wouldn’t have lasted through half an evening at harvest festival. This year, it would probably be more than enough.
She went into the kitchen, dipped her fingertips in a basin and flicked the water onto the skillet atop the stove. The water danced and popped. Satisfied, she speared a huge mutton roast on a metal fork and pressed it onto the skillet, taking in the scent of searing meat, turning it every few minutes until it was nicely browned. The roast went into the boiling water in a cast-iron cauldron, along with the onion, garlic and herbs she had minced before dawn. Later she would add the potatoes, carrots and other vegetables. For now, though, she had other chores.
Always other chores, she thought sadly. The inn was too much work for her father alone, and she had been helping him for what seemed like forever. In truth, it had been six years. Six years to the day since she’d heard her mother’s laugh, since she’d heard her mother’s songs in the public room, since she’d seen her mother’s smile, since she’d tasted her mother’s fish chowder, since she’d felt her mother’s hand pushing at her shoulder to wake her in the morning. Six years, and it could have been yesterday.
It had been a morning just like this one, clear and cold, misty, with a north wind. Sara had been fourteen then, more worried about meeting her friends at the market and giggling as they watched the young men work the dock, pushing carts laden with sacks of wheat off the river barges, or carts laden with wool and furs onto them to be taken downriver. They would watch the men’s muscles ripple as they labored and try to guess which of them would be best at quelling the urges that fluttered in fourteen year-old girls’ bellies. Not that Sara or any of her friends would have considered actually doing anything about those urges. The watching and the whispering, the giggling and the dreaming, were enough.
Sara had been planning exactly such an adventure that morning as she’d spread feed in the trough for the goat, drawn water from the well that gave the family and the inn its name, and picked an apron full of fresh tomatoes from their small garden. She’d gone into the pantry to put up the tomatoes and come out just in time to see her mother at the door, waving.
“I’m off to the market for flour,” her mother had said, the distinctive musical lilt in her voice as clear to Sara today as it had been six years ago this morning.
And then she was gone.
By midmorning, her father had grown anxious, and together they’d walked across the commons to the waterfront, first to the miller, then to the fish market, then to every other shop along the row, from the wool and fur drying sheds to the ice house. No one had seen her.
Together with a growing band of friends, they’d searched the commons, shooing sheep from their paths as they walked, then fanned out into the town as word spread before them. Townsfolk had checked back gardens, sheds, the stables, the waterfront again, the commons again. They’d expanded the search outside the wall, as farmers walked their fields and trappers looked for tracks in the dense pine forest that swaddled the rugged hills around town like a green blanket.
It was as if she had vanished into thin air.
A pall of gloom had hung over the harvest festival that year, as it did again this year. Winter had come too soon, with bitter nighttime cold borne on the wind that whistled through the Desa Pass and down on Whitewater like an angry avalanche, turning leaves black and crops to mush. The farmers had taken to their fields early, and the townsfolk to their gardens. With autumn only just begun, they’d done what they could, but it was not enough. Not nearly enough. Just last night, in the public room, she’d heard a man say he’d lost nearly half his crop. The other men had nodded agreement. It would be a lean winter.
Sara pulled her cloak tighter around herself and went upstairs to clean the few unoccupied rooms. The cold had forced the trappers down from the mountains early, for not even the hardiest soul dared risk being stranded in these mountains, where temperatures could plunge from mild to deadly in the space of an hour. There would be few white wolf pelts to sell downriver.
At least there would be ale. Her father had put up extra barrels over the past three years, when the fields had been lush with hops, barley and malt. He would trade more this year, he’d told the men in the public room last night. Deepwell ale was a prized commodity downriver. It would make up for the lost pelts and bring in enough grain from the valley for the town to make it through the winter. They would get by, he’d reassured them. Whitewater folk always got by.
But the barge caravans had grown sparse as the summer wore on, and the big harvest barges were three weeks late. There would be no fish chowder and fry bread at this year’s festival. Only mutton stew. And four barrels of ale.
Sara tried to shake off the sense of doom that seemed to stalk her like a hungry mountain lion. Her father had spoken reassuring words in the public room, but in their private quarters, his face was dark. Sara could almost read the troubled thoughts as they flickered across his face. And last night, again, she’d heard his quiet sobs through the wall.
He had, no doubt, once again taken out the white wool cloak and white lambskin boots he’d bought that same day six years ago, intending to give them to his wife six years ago this morning. She’d thought of suggesting he should sell them but could never bring herself to do it. For they were more than mere memorabilia. They were the tangible hope that someday, by some miracle, the light would walk back into his life.
There should be children, Sara thought. Children bouncing in the courtyard, helping her mother to hang the dried stalks of barley and string the seeds and pinecones that would dangle from the trees. Children scurrying around the commons, chasing sheep and splitting the morning air with high-pitched peals of laughter. Children in the public room, sitting on their heels, eyes wide, breathless, hands clasped tight, as the old men’s voices rose and fell in the cadence of old poems, their words rich with the tension of the hunt or the din of battle.
There should be children underfoot, Sara thought, returning to the kitchen where her father sat, looking out the window at the women crossing the commons on their way to market, their bodies hunched and leaning into the north wind. There should be joy instead of this grim, quiet determination that folk in Whitewater adopted to steel themselves for hard times and winter storms. There should be hearty laughter, and hearty fish chowder with just a splash of mead added to make it sparkle on the tongue and glow in the belly.
Instead, there was only the unceasing moan of the wind. And mutton stew.
“There’s evil coming,” her father almost whispered, his gaze still focused out the window. “Evil and blood.”
Yes, Sara thought. Evil and blood.
And more loss.
Copyright ©2005 Rachel Lee