The Pilgrim Star: Episode 1 – Chapter 3
TATTERED CLOTH rippled across the surface of the water, slow cross currents twisting it to sink and rise and descend again. Lee-Nin held Sao-Tauna above the thigh-high river, letting the folds of her dress billow out behind her, hoping the fabric would help dampen the sound of their passing through the gently flowing water.
She walked as quickly as possible, reaching her feet out cautiously with each step to avoid rocks and other obstacles along the river bottom. To her great relief, the slender forest tributary meandered between the trees in sharp and unpredictable turns, making it harder for her pursuers to see her when they inevitably followed her trail to the water’s edge. She wanted to put as much distance between where she entered the river and her exit as possible. As she pushed through the bone-chilling waters, she considered her options.
She had not always been good at seeing possibilities and quickly planning how to utilize circumstances to her advantage, but she had honed those skills through repeated use since reaching adulthood. After a certain age, she had found that she could always think her way out of a problematic situation, often while events arose around her. She would do the same with this series of particular predicaments. She would reason out a path to safety for herself and Sao-Tauna. And, if necessary, for the girl alone.
Coming around a curve in the river, she saw what she needed. The riverbank had so far been either too steep or too rocky to leave the water safely. Climbing the pitched earth of the angled river’s edge required grasping branches that would no doubt break and announce her passage to her pursuers. Likewise, stepping from the water to the bare stone would leave behind a puddle clearly visible even in the dim light of the cloudy night. A moss-covered outcropping of rock, like the one she steered toward, would sop up the water as she departed the river and conceal her new direction of flight.
She sat Sao-Tauna on the moss coating the flat boulder along the riverside and hauled herself out of the water. She took Sao-Tauna’s hand and guided the girl into the dense trees of the forest. She walked several paces before pausing to wring the water from her dress. It took precious moments they needed for fleeing, but it lightened her load considerably and made movement between the forest vegetation easier. She wished she had time to take off her boots and empty the water slogging in them, but she could easily live with this discomfort — she had, after all, lived for more than a week with the pinch of footwear fashioned more for palace halls than open ground.
She hefted Sao-Tauna back into her arms and began walking as silently as possible through the maze of trees, trying to use the edge of her vision to better navigate in the inky darkness beneath the canopy of leaves. She hoped the gloom slowed down the wardens even as she prayed that the river proved a lasting distraction to their tracking hounds.
“The river bought us some time.” She did not try to deceive herself that she spoke to comfort Sao-Tauna. She knew she needed the words even more than the girl. “With luck, we might lose them tonight.” She considered the likelihood of this possibility and the number of times she had entertained it over the course of the past week. “At least for a day or so.”
She could not keep running, or if she were to continue running, she needed to run faster. She might lose the wardens for a few hours, or a day, but they always returned to her trail. She needed to think further ahead to get farther afield. Maybe she could double back to the river and follow it in hopes of finding a boat or a raft, something that could carry her faster than her feet might allow. A wagon maybe. She might hitch a ride with a farmer or a merchant and try to outpace her pursuers. She had a pretty smile and felt convinced she could charm her way into a wagon ride to the nearest village or town, but to gain more distance, she would need to hire transport, and for that, she needed currency.
Having left the palace in haste, she had barely escaped with the dress around her waist and the coins in her hidden pocket. Fortunately, she had planned ahead enough to have a hidden pocket with gold coins, wrapped in cloth to silence their presence. Unfortunately, the coins had never been intended to provide more than a day or two of emergency currency, enough to allow her to make her way to a more significant stash of reserves. Her escape from the palace with Sao-Tauna had necessitated a different path of departure than her contingencies had allowed for. While she had foreseen the possibility of fleeing the palace, she had never envisioned doing so with someone else in tow, particularly not a small girl whose life had been forfeit for unknown reasons.
She needed to find some coin to hire transportation. Which meant she needed to steal it. And it was easier to steal coins than horses. Much easier, she remembered. She would not make that mistake again.
Her thoughts of escape so consumed her mind that she did not notice stepping from the forest’s edge until she stood in the small field of grain beyond it. Barley, she thought, absently rubbing the seeds of a nearby stalk between her thumb and forefinger.
The clouds briefly parted, allowing the light of the larger half-moon to illuminate the field and a small farmhouse with a barn at its far side. A path cut through the field not far from where they stood, running from the forest’s edge to the yard beside the house. Sao-Tauna raised her finger to point at the farmhouse as the clouds once more extinguished the moon.
“Yes, I see,” Lee-Nin said. “They might have food.”
And coins, she thought as she hastened toward the path revealed moments before in the brief flash of moonlight.
Lee-Nin followed the thin dirt trail up the middle of the tract of grain, running as fast as she could. Even in the dim light of the clouded moons, she and Sao-Tauna would be easily visible if the wardens were nearby in the woods. She reached the edge of the field a few moments later, pausing as she stood in a yard of stone and dirt and patches of low grass. The farmhouse sat dark and silent.
How late was it? Had the owners gone to bed hours before or only just recently? Were they light sleepers or deep in unshakable slumber? Another question occurred to her — were they dreaming a dream of a new star and a new god?
If she announced herself, the occupants of the farmhouse might rise and light a lantern, a glow that would shine for many strides in every direction, giving a guiding lamp of curiosity to the pursuing wardens should they see it. Moreover, she would need to convince the farmers to help her with food and possibly a place to shelter. An easier option existed.
With Sao-Tauna clinging tightly to her neck, Lee-Nin edged around the yard, stopping outside the door to the barn. Twice the size of the house with a wide door, the barn smelled, even from outside, of hay and animals. She cracked the door open and peered inside. Her eyes could adjust no further to the darkness, the interior of the barn a black pool of mystery. She listened for signs that might indicate a horse. Against her better judgment, and her still stinging recollections of past follies, she acknowledged that in this circumstance, it might be easier to steal a horse than to enter a sleeping farmer’s home and rob it of coins, surely hidden to protect against just such an invasion.
Lee-Nin pulled the door wider still and stepped across the threshold. The familiar grunting of a sow came to her ears. With the door nearly wide open, the shadows within the barn began to take shape, revealing three large pigs, a handful of chickens stirring to cluck, and a lean-looking goat, but no horse. She closed the door to the barn and turned to the farmhouse with a sigh. Did she risk the time and consequences of failure to rob the sleeping farmers, or did she press her slender advantage and try to find the road that must lead from the farm to the nearest town? Towns thrived on trade, and to make purchase of passage, she needed something to exchange, preferably shiny metal pressed into small disks and embossed with the zhan’s visage. The house might also have food.
Lee-Nin hitched Sao-Tauna higher on her hip and crossed the yard, considering how best to burgle the farmers she assumed lay asleep within the log-walled house. A low porch of weathered wood sat outside the entrance to the farmhouse. It moaned against her weight as she stepped across it. She froze, listening for sounds from inside the house. Hearing none, she raised her hand to the door and pressed gently. She feared the door might be locked, but it swung open, the metal hinges making a low rasping sound.
She opened the door as wide as she dared, hoping the shadows would announce their true natures as had happened in the barn. She waited and listened, turning her head, straining to see or hear what might awaken to confront her. She heard no snoring, nor even gentle breathing beyond the shallow breaths of Sao-Tauna in her arms. She stepped into the house, the floorboards squealing under her weight.
Lee-Nin stopped again — waiting.
Nothing moved. No one woke.
She allowed the hope flowering in her breast to blossom for a moment before nipping it with the hard blade of experience. The farmhouse might be empty, but that did not mean dangers did not await her within its walls.
She closed the door and put Sao-Tauna down, knowing the girl would not move without explicit instruction to do so. Lee-Nin fumbled in the darkness to close the shutters of the only two windows and searched with slowly moving outstretched hands to find a lantern. A flint box rested on the table beside the oil lamp, and it took her only a few moments to strike a spark and bring a flame to the wick.
With a dull orange glow illuminating the little one-room house, she surveyed her surroundings and formulated a plan. The home had no inner walls, although several support beams holding up the rafters divided the interior into clear living spaces. A simple kitchen with a few pots and pans sat near the fireplace. A sleeping space and a bed with a lumpy mattress lay opposite the cooking area. A threadbare blanket curled off the bed and onto the floor. A long oak table filled the center of the dwelling, apparently used for eating and woodwork. A small stack of books sat at one end near a lone chair. Against her will, she found herself examining the books as she held the lantern high.
Her eyes hovered on the cover of the top book. She recognized the language as Mumtiba, although she could not read it. The embossed wheel with twelve spokes above the words marked it as a Pashist text from Juparti. She could not remember why the wheel represented Pashism, but it did not matter. Holding such a book marked heresy in the Tanshen Dominion. Punishable by whipping and worse.
Who would leave such a thing sitting on their dining table? Lee-Nin wondered.
Someone who meant to return quickly, she admonished herself, setting the lamp on the table as she turned to inspect the rest of the house. Books had been her saviors more than once, but just then, she needed coins, not words. She also needed food. She saw a tall wooden pantry in the corner of the kitchen. They had no time to stop, but they could always eat while they ran.
But which took precedence, food or money? Would a farmer this poor even have a few coins to steal? And would he be home soon? She felt certain a single man lived in the house. It held no feminine touches that would be present regardless of the poverty of a farming couple.
A scuffing of leather against wood brought her attention back to the door where Sao-Tauna still stood, fidgeting slightly. The girl caught Lee-Nin’s eye and pointed at the table, where a hard-looking half-round of dinbao, the Shen flatbread of wheat and oats, rested beside the books. Lee-Nin frowned. She’d been so distracted by the books that she hadn’t even noticed the bread. She looked at Sao-Tauna and her frown deepened. When was the last time she had found food to feed the child? Dawn of that day? The day prior?
She took the scrap of bread and handed it to Sao-Tauna, pulling her from the door and placing the girl in the chair at the table while she began to rummage through the sparsely stocked pantry. She found a lump of cheese wrapped in molding cloth and a hunk of cured meat along with the remains of another flat loaf of dinbao. Not much, but more at once than their stomachs had seen in days. She swallowed the saliva suddenly pooling beneath her tongue as she placed the provisions on the table and looked for a sack of some kind to carry them. She reconsidered her plan. She would give the house a quick tossing in search of hidden funds, but the stolen food already provided them a better bounty than they might have hoped for an hour ago.
Best to quickly clasp Father Fortune’s surreptitious bounty and abscond before Mother Fate arrived with an offering of her own.
She winced at the unbidden and long-forgotten phrase, as well the memories that came with it. She found a small sack hanging from a hook on the wall and turned back to the table and Sao-Tauna just as the wood of the porch outside the door creaked with the weight of firmly planted feet. Lee-Nin dropped the sack and rushed to Sao-Tauna, pulling her from the chair even as she snatched a dull-looking meat knife from the table, turning sideways to brandish it as the door to the farmhouse swung open.
In the hazy, flickering glow of the lamplight stood the largest man she had ever seen, a good two heads taller than a normal Shen, his wide chest stretching the fabric of his faded shirt, his shoulders filling the doorframe. He kept his long black hair pulled back behind his neck and his beard shaved clean, exposing a misshapen face, marred even further by a scar across his right cheek. In his powerful arms, he held a massive ax, the handle as long as his thigh, the metal head at least five hands wide.
His near-black eyes stared at Lee-Nin. She clutched Sao-Tauna tighter and raised her feeble blade.
The man’s voice rasped and rumbled as it fell over his lips and into her ears.
“You should not be here.”