Fiera watched the body of her mother slowly disappear. One-by-one, the villagers placed their stones on the woman that had borne her and, until that morning, had brushed her hair every day. Her father lay nearby, under his own pile, settled from rains that had come too late for her parents. Now Fiera was alone. With her parents’ death just days from each other, it was as if she had died, too.
She bore her grief in every pore of her body. Yet, she stood by and did nothing. Leery villagers filed past, offering condolences. The neighbor woman, who sometimes entertained soldiers, took her gingerly by the waist and guided her home to a table filled with meager offerings of food.
The bereaved eagerly ate and mostly left her alone, sneaking quick looks when they thought she didn’t see, then turning back to their friends, shaking their heads sadly.
For hours this lasted, and would have gone all night, but Fiera rose to her feet, stumbled out the door, and back to the graves of her family. The sun had given way to night and it had started raining again. A fine shower hugged her as she lowered herself to huddle between her parents. The water slipped into the ground and disappeared, leaving the soil as hard and cracked as before, not enough to erase the hunger of either the land or its people. Tomorrow, there would still be dust.
The neighbor woman followed with a lard-thickened blanket that was meant to lie beneath a traveler as they slept in the open night. She drew it tightly around Fiera and left, muttering, “We’ll probably be at her funeral within a few days’ time.”
Nineteen and Fiera was alone. If she’d married like others much younger, then she’d have had a husband and his family to help her through. Then again, they might have died from the famine as well.
Slowly, the understanding of her sudden freedom crept over her. Rising, and with no plans or sense of her direction, she stumbled across the broken land in the rain, her blanket as her only shelter. Through the night she walked on hunger weakened muscles, at times falling to lie in a crumpled heap until the awful ache within her heart drove her on. The rain ceased, leaving the ground dry and choking, as if water had never touched it. At long last, she came to a road and the struggle of whether to turn east or west sapped the remains of her energy. She slumped to the ground, waiting for fate to decide her death.
Finally, in the dawn hour, Fiera heard the clack of hooves on stone, the creak of braces, and the low toneless hum of a merchant coming from the east.
She struggled to her feet and tugged the blanket to cover her tangled fawn-red hair. The effort to hide herself had a cost and she tipped toward the ground. In what she supposed could be considered a miracle, she managed to stay on her feet by flailing her arms and stumbling a few steps.
A giant single-horse cart appeared from around a bend. It was loaded with rattling pots and pans, bolts of fabric, herbs, jars of assorted nails, and other items. A huge dappled grey horse slowly pulled at the traces while an ancient man with a long white drooping moustache hunched on a seat with thick springs and an even thicker pad.
“Whoa!” The aged merchant heavily leaned back on the reins, sawing at the horse’s mouth. He peered at her in the awakening light. “What do we have here?”
Too weary to speak, Fiera waited for the merchant to decide what to do about her, swaying on her feet like a leaf on one of the dying trees around her.
After a long slow consideration, the old man pursed his lips. “Well, come on, then. You can climb up by yourself, can’t you?”
Dumbly, she shuffled toward the cart. The giant draft horse looked her in the eye, its thoughts in her head. Witch, beware of this man. He steals from other merchants and the poor. He only feeds me when he steals.
Fiera paused at the horse’s muscled neck, giving it long strokes, in part to buy time while she spoke with the horse, but also to steady herself. Animals always knew the truth. She wasn’t surprised this one had seen her identity, but horses rarely cared about the affairs of men until it affected them, such as this horse’s hunger. She would be wise to consider its words. If the animal was to be believed, the merchant wasn’t to be trusted. Will you carry me?
The horse bobbed its head. Anywhere.
With shaking fingers, she smoothed her hands over the brace buckles, feeling them disappear beneath her fingers. You will need to lower yourself so I can mount.
“What’s going on?” The old man rose from his seat, the springs squawking from lack of grease, and he peered down at her. “Stop! What are you doing?”
He tied off the reins. As he climbed down from the cart, the braces dropped to the ground and the horse lowered to its knees. Fiera slid across its wide back and wound one hand through its thick mane, her other hand tightly clutching the blanket around her. She clamped her legs around the horse’s ribs. Even still, the horse nearly unseated her as it lunged to its feet and they took off, two steps ahead of the cursing merchant. She only hoped she had enough strength to stay mounted for the journey.
Hunkered low over the horse’s muscled shoulders, they flew past thinly foliaged trees and brush that was nothing more than sticks, leaves long dried and blown away. Watching the landscape blow past dizzied her, so she concentrated on the road instead. The horse’s hooves burst the dust off the ground like small explosions. Boom-boom…boom. Boom-boom…boom.
She asked, What’s your name?
I’m called Captain. I was first a soldier’s horse.
Fire! Like your hair?
Yes. Like my hair. The brown of bare trees ripped past as the clouds above dissipated. Beneath her, the boom-boom…boom took her further away from her only home. She turned and looked behind them at the dust trail that became a wall between her and the past. There would be no more hiding, no more shame. Despite the ache in her heart over the loss of her parents, she smiled. It was time for a new beginning.
Her traveling companion seemed to enjoy the journey. He stretched his long neck forward and tossed his head. Where are we going?
Anywhere there was life. Her heart hurt for her parents, yes, but it also ached for the friendship of her own kind: witches. And it ached for something else, something she couldn’t quite define. As far away as we can.