Widow Hunley, back straight as a pine, follows her sister’s simple wood casket down the muddy track through town. The cemetery is a distance from the few homes and shops, next to the small abbey made of fieldstone and prayers. Her sharp, shining black eyes see me and stare. As if with her glare alone she might accuse and destroy me.
“That doesn’t bode well for our future here.” My sister, Gwynn, sighs and tugs at my elbow. “Come along.”
“I didn’t do anything,” I tell her. My fingers worry at a threadbare patch of wool in my cloak. “I never say the things I see.”
“You don’t have to, Inira. It’s there plain as day on your face.” She walks ahead, and mutters under her breath. “When they can stand to look.”
Shame floods me, and I reach up to trace the bumpy outline of the scar spilling from my cheek down my neck to my collarbone. Bitterness floods my mouth. The scars have kept the world in fear of me my entire life. Only Gwynn has stayed with me. Even Mother and Father left me for dead.
Sometimes I wonder if Gwynn wishes she had as well.
“Come on! We have to get packed. I know Widow Hunley, and she’s been after you for months. We need to be gone before they return.”
My heart sinks, but I pick up the pace, grabbing handfuls of my skirt and hiking it out of the way of the mud. Rain has barely stopped for days now, and soon it will turn to snow. The chill is in the air, and the leaves on the trees are almost gone. Not the best time to be traveling, searching for a new home in a town that hasn’t heard of a scarred girl with strange tendencies.
The tiny wooden hut we live in is one of my favorites. It was abandoned, and I had spent time cleaning it up and trimming at the overgrown flowerbeds outside. It was part of our agreement to rent it, but also because I loved the potential I could see in it. When I started, it had been little more than a shack we were allowed to take over in exchange for a bit of mending and one of the gold coins Gwynn keeps sewn into our clothing. She ducks inside, snagging the old sailcloth bags from a basket inside the doorway and thrusting one at me.
“You know how this works. We’ll leave as soon as we’re packed.”
I take the bag, pulling my extra two dresses and underthings from the small shelf over my cot. “Where are we going this time?”
Gwynn shoves her clothes in the bag. “North, I think. They won’t expect us to head that way.”
“The villagers won’t follow, Gwynn. Not as long as we’re gone.”
Her movements hesitate for the briefest of moments, a fine tremor moving over her slender fingers, before she shrugs. “Still, it’s better to be safe.”
I wrap the two loaves of coarse bread I made earlier in a clean blanket and stow them in the bag with my stockings and comb. Nothing left to pack. We never had much to begin with. And it seems Gwynn knew this was coming. The bags next to the door, all the wash done and dry. Two loaves of bread this morning instead of one. Everything set up to leave. I put my hands on my hips.
She turns, her frown fierce. “What?”
“Tell me the truth.”
Fear and confusion chase each other across her brow. “I don’t know what you mean. Did you get the bread?”
I reach out and grab her hands. “Everything is ready to go. But tell me who we’re running from? Widow Hunley is a nuisance, and she will eventually drive us away from here. But that’s not who you’re afraid of.”
“I’m not afraid,” she snarls.
I raise an eyebrow. “Liar.”
For a moment, I’m certain she won’t answer. She tugs her hands away, one smoothing back some escaped tendrils of golden hair. “Someone from the last village. They’ve been very persistent. Asking about us. I don’t think we want them to find us. Its better if we leave and go somewhere unexpected.”
I nod, though I know she’s keeping something back. She can’t meet my eyes.
“All right then. I’m ready when you are.”
She slings the bag over her shoulder and pulls the hood up. “Let’s go. We’ll take the track in the woods to Lillivan and then take the main road.”
“I didn’t know you knew about the deer track.”
She snorts. “Of course I knew. But I haven’t taken it. I’m sure you have. Lead the way.”
I step out the door in front of her, noting that she left the fire in the grate and a single candle we can barely afford lit on the table. From the outside, in the approaching twilight, it looks as if we are home. Once more I wonder what Gwynn is so afraid of, but I don’t ask again. My sister has been there for me, and though she can be cruel at times, I know she looks out for both of us. I have not made it an easy task. For now, I’ll accept the answer she’s given.
We make our way through a field, avoiding the road. Some of Gwynn’s paranoia is rubbing off on me. A sense of urgency pounds at my chest, demanding we get away faster. I don’t mention it to her, just quicken the pace. She doesn’t argue or comment. Just keeps her head down as the rain falls a little harder, soaking into our clothes and making them cling.
A few moments more and the dark, damp woods enfold us. We’re barely twenty minutes from the hut, and I hear a distant cry go up. Gwynn inhales sharply, and I speed up. Window Hunley wasted no time.
“Go on, Inira. We need to move faster.”
She’s moved up, moving through the trees even with me now. Every few minutes, she glances behind us, as if wolves nip at our heels.
“Stop that,” I tell her. “You’re going to get a sore neck if you keep it up. Whatever you’re looking for isn’t there. Not right now, in any case. We’re nearly to Lillivan.”
“Once we get in town, stay in the woods. We’ll avoid the roads at first. I’ll head south on the road and double back through the woods. I want people to think we’re headed for Slathain. A big city would make more sense. Work, somewhere to hide.”
I shrug, hop over a downed branch. “I’ll wait for you near the crossroads. There’s a berry thicket there that might still be bearing, and no one will search it if they stop. Too many thorns.”
Gwynn nods, and a few moments later, we separate, heading in different directions. As I watch her cloak disappear into the dark, a pang of fear shafts through me. It’s a remnant left from my younger days, but I still wonder if one day she will simply decide to keep walking, and leave me to my fate.
I’m old enough now. Nearly seventeen. One day, she will leave me. It is a certainty I don’t want to acknowledge, but on some level, I know, as certain as I know my name, that it will come to pass.