The wagon resembled a tiny house on wheels. Pots and other wares dangled from its eaves and clanked against the rig’s wooden sides as it slowly ascended the mountain road. By dusk, the driver reached his destination, a lonely hut perched near the edge of a cliff. A circle of half-buried stones surrounded the structure, marking it as a Wise Woman’s home. After halting the horses, the driver remained seated and chanted under his breath. The verses were supposed to bring tranquillity. They failed, for the man was convinced that the hut didn’t mark the end of a long and arduous journey, but rather the beginning of a far more perilous one.
The man stopped chanting when he heard a door close and footsteps on the frozen ground. He turned to see a white-haired woman approach. She halted and scrutinized him. “The wagon looks right,” she said at last, “but you don’t look the peddler.”
The man bowed his head respectfully. “I’m a Seer, Mother.”
“Aye, you have that temple softness to you.” The woman sighed. “So, no skill with arms?”
“None at all. The goddess will protect her.”
The woman shook her head. “Nothing’s certain. As a Seer, you should know that better than I.”
“I’ll do my utmost,” said the Seer. “I was told I’m to play her father.”
“Aye, so show her no deference. That could betray her.
And you should leave the morrow. When spring comes, the roads will turn to mud.”
“Where shall I take her?”
“Aye, indeed. But that’s what’s been revealed.”
“And nothing more?”
“Not yet. Until then, best you pick the road. When she makes choices, her heart sways her overmuch.”
The man turned his gaze southward before descending from his seat. The ground dropped just a few paces away, and from his perch, the ridges of the highlands looked like crumpled garments cast from the peaks above. Below, a small village nestled in one fold, its homes already shuttered for the night. The plains beyond were obscured as the world turned dark.
The hut’s door opened, spilling light and catching the man’s attention. Someone peered from the doorway. “Is that her?” he whispered.
“Aye,” replied the Wise Woman. She raised her voice. “Yim! Come here.”
The Seer studied the advancing ﬁgure. She’s only a girl! he thought, judging her age as eighteen winters. He feared her appearance would draw attention, for she was lithe and comely, with large dark eyes and ﬂowing hair. She wore a shift of gray wool, a matching cloak, and sturdy boots. In peddler fashion, her cloak was festooned with ribbons, each lightly stitched in place to permit quick removal and sale. They ﬂuttered as she walked.
“Yim, tend the horses,” said the Wise Woman. “This man will show you how.” Then the elderly woman sought the warmth of the hut, leaving the two alone.
“Have you ever fed a horse?” asked the Seer.
“Only goats and sheep,” replied Yim, regarding the animals warily.
“I’ll show you what to do. Follow me.” The Seer walked to the back of the wagon, opened its door, and retrieved two cloth sacks with straps attached. “These are nose bags,” he said. “They ﬁt on the horses’ heads so they can feed in harness.” He uncovered a large barrel afﬁxed to the wagon’s rear. It contained oats and a scoop. “Put two full scoops in each bag.”
After Yim did that, the Seer demonstrated how to attach a bag. Then he observed Yim carefully as she afﬁxed the other one. While she appeared intimidated by the horse, she didn’t shrink from it. That was all he could observe, despite his heightened powers of perception. Realizing that Yim’s inner qualities were veiled against his gaze, he sought to probe her through conversation. “Your guardian said we should leave tomorrow. Are you familiar with the roads?”
“I’ve never been more than a day’s journey from here.” Yim turned her eyes toward the plains, which were black beneath the fading sky. Her gaze lingered there as though she saw something within the shadows. The Seer noticed that Yim froze as a fawn does at the scent of wolves. After a moment, she stirred and said, “So, you spoke with my guardian. What did she say about me?”
“Did she tell you I lack sense?”
A wry smile passed over Yim’s lips. “She will, ere we depart.”
They headed out at ﬁrst light after receiving a terse farewell from the Wise Woman, who retreated to the hut before the wagon reached the road. The Seer drove the team from the broad seat at the wagon’s front. Yim sat next to him, bundled against the cold in her cloak and gazing at familiar scenery that she would never see again. It was a long while before she spoke.
“I know that I must call you ‘Father,’ but is your true name Theodus?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
“That name was revealed to me. I’m supposed to follow his footsteps. Since you’re my guide, I thought my vision referred to you.”
“The goddess is your guide. I merely drive the wagon.”
“My guardian said you’re a Seer. Doesn’t Karm speak to you?”
“I ﬁnd children for service in the temple. I’ve never had a vision.”
“So how do you know where to take me?”
“I don’t. Karm will tell you what path to take.”
“But my vision only said to head southward. I thought that you would . . .” Yim’s face reddened. “If you don’t know where to take me, why did you bother to come?”
“The Wise Woman sent for me. She said you were ready.”
“Well I’m not, if I’m supposed to know the way. You’re a Seer. Why didn’t you foresee that?”
“The future’s not ordained. The most a Seer can hope to foretell is what’s likely. I can’t even do that.”
Yim sighed. “Then what’s likely is that we’ll wander for moons. I haven’t had a vision since autumn, and my visions often make little sense. Sometimes I’m shown things I don’t understand. Even when Karm appears to me or I hear her voice, her guidance isn’t always useful. How can I follow Theodus if I’ve never met him?”
“Time often reveals a vision’s meaning,” replied the Seer. “Time and contemplation.”
“That’s not much use nigh sunset when the road forks and you must choose which way to take.”
Yim resumed gazing at the landscape. Though it remained in winter’s grip, patches of bare earth had appeared beneath the barren trees. The palette of gray, brown, and dirty white matched Yim’s pessimistic mood, and it was a while before she made another attempt at conversation. Turning to the Seer, she asked. “Have you done this often?”
“Delivered girls to their destinies.”
“There have been no other girls. There will be no others.”
“But the Wise Woman said I’m no one special.”
“You’re Karm’s servant, as are we all, and humility beﬁts a servant,” replied the Seer. “Yet the goddess chose you alone for this task. You mustn’t fail.”
“If the goddess wants me to succeed, how can I fail?”
“Karm’s benevolent, but the world is not. If men are to be free, then they must be free to choose evil, and many have. It’s always a struggle to fulﬁll the goddess’s will.”
Yim sighed. “I’ve heard that talk all my life. I thought I was leaving it behind.”
The Seer gave Yim a sympathetic look. “Was it hard living with the Wise Woman?”
Yim’s thoughts turned to her upbringing. It had been not only hard, but also unusual. She knew the name and virtue of every herb, where each grew, and when to harvest it, but she had never played a game or had a single friend. Yim had been a small child when she was given to the Wise Woman, and for a long while, she had believed her life was normal. True, she had never known her mother, and her father vanished after the Wise Woman took charge, but being young and living in isolation, she took her circumstances for the way of things. Thus she thought all girls were taught to read and learned secret arts that they must never mention. She even assumed that everyone had visions.
Over time, Yim shed those illusions. As she grew older, Yim accompanied her guardian not only when she gathered herbs, but also when she practiced healing or midwifery. Through those excursions to nearby farms and to the village, Yim made contact with girls her age. They had some things in common: Like them, Yim had been taught to cook, mend clothes, and tend animals. She also knew how to make cheese, a common accomplishment in the highlands. However, none of the girls could read, and Yim doubted they had late-night lessons in even more arcane arts. But the girls differed most from Yim in that they would spend their lives in the highlands and Yim knew that wasn’t to be her fate.
“You’ve been singled out,” said the Wise Woman when Yim reached her twelfth winter, “and all your life has been preparation for one task.”
“And what’s that?” asked Yim.
“It’s your duty to bear a child.”
Yim knew better than to laugh, but she had witnessed too many births to see any uniqueness in that. The Wise Woman seemed to read Yim’s thoughts, for she added, “The goddess will choose the father, and you will go to him.”
Since parents arranged marriages, the Wise Woman’s revelation seemed only a twist to the common custom. Yim imagined that she would be matched to some holy man and saw her secret lessons as preparation for her role as his spouse. At twelve, the prospect of marriage didn’t enthuse Yim, and it still didn’t when she grew to womanhood. Having received no love from her stern and taciturn guardian, Yim had little expectation of receiving it from a man. She felt that only the goddess loved her. Karm seemed like the mother for whom Yim had always yearned. It was for the goddess’s sake that Yim acquiesced to her duty.
Yet after her conversation with the Seer, it was starkly apparent that she had embarked on a journey with no concrete destination to ﬁnd someone unknown to her. It was a distressing prospect, and duty seemed a poor reason for doing something so rash. I never chose this path, she thought. I was raised to follow it without question. Yet Yim did question what she was doing. She knew she couldn’t go back, but she didn’t have to go forward. Wavering, Yim considered her alternatives.
Women without kin had no standing, which was why she was masquerading as the Seer’s daughter. A lone woman might become a servant, but being in no position to bargain, she’d end up little better than a slave. At least I’d be safe. When Yim imagined such a life, she thought it wouldn’t be any harder than her former one. But by choosing it, she would be thinking only of herself, and Yim found that hard to do. She had pined for human contact throughout her lonely childhood and had tasted it only when she began assisting the Wise Woman with healing. Yim’s role had been to comfort the sick or injured through simple acts of caring– preparing a meal, cooling a feverish brow, or holding a trembling hand. She soon discovered that such deeds sustained her as much as they did those she comforted, for compassion created bonds with others.
That compassion made Yim consider the Seer beside her. He had a drawn look, with skin that hung loosely on his stubble-covered face and eyes that possessed the vacant gaze of the weary. Yim surmised that he was unaccustomed to hardship and the road to the highlands had worn him down. He’s ill suited for this journey, but he undertook it. In envisioning his disappointment if she abandoned her quest, Yim found a reason to continue it. She could make the Seer’s sacriﬁce worthwhile by striving to fulﬁll its purpose. Additionally, she could ease his hardship on the road by gathering wood, tending the horses, and cooking. It was a meager rationale, but since it involved giving comfort, it seemed more compelling than mere duty. In the end, it helped Yim decide to go on.
Having made up her mind, Yim felt she should speak to the Seer and say something that assured him that she appreciated his efforts. As she tried to ﬁnd the words, he began chanting softly in some archaic tongue that was mostly nonsense to her. Yim waited for him to stop, but he kept at it. Eventually, she tired of waiting and retreated inside the wagon. There, she wrapped herself in a blanket and slept to escape her boredom.
When Yim awoke, she rejoined the Seer. He was still chanting. Yim gazed about and found the countryside unfamiliar. Having entered strange territory made her decision seem irrevocable. Yim’s apprehensions heightened, and she wanted to know what she faced. To that end, Yim studied the chanting man who was taking her onward. She sensed he was hiding things from her. Just like my guardian, she thought. But Yim had the skill to see beneath surfaces and discerned that the Seer had some inkling of what lay ahead. Underneath his calm exterior, she glimpsed fear.
From the Paperback edition.