A Woman Worth Ten Coppers:Shadowed Path 01By: Morgan Howell
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?”