This character fiction focuses on Aurae's backstory. (It used to be Calling in case you were wondering)
Comments more than welcome, but VM/PM only please. Enjoy!
The dawn crept like a thief, unhindered through the pale, snow-washed sky, alighting on the snow softly as the ghost of a feather. It peered tentatively through the window of the inn, spilling onto the floor with a liquid glow. It caught in the empty glasses which sat on the tables, lighting them up like long-lost treasures whose lustre had slowly faded over time, leaving only the nostalgic memories of radiance, which were faintly projected onto the walls. It cast long shadows along the edges of the room, the only witnesses to this spectral display. Lastly, it settled on the girl who lay curled up in the chair in the corner, announcing without a whisper the arrival of the day.
Aurae opened her eyes slowly, then shut them again as the crisp air made them water. What time was it? The sun was up – why hadn’t she been woken? She unfurled herself like a leaf would after a shrivelled, wintry sleep, stretching stiff limbs that shivered as they felt the cold. There was no sign of anyone else; they must still be asleep. She crossed to the window, hugging herself against the bitter chill, and squinted out into the harsh light.
The inn was built precariously on the sloping walls of the valley, high enough to offer a breath-taking view of what was now a glistening snowscape. The sun was rising above the far mountains on the other side, crowning them with a thin, watery grandeur. The ground below the window dropped down steeply, making it seem as though the winding road that made the inn accessible from the small town below would slip and fall at any moment. People came up from there mostly in the evenings, for the food, drink and entertainment, a part of which the small girl provided. She sang – she had been told she had a pleasant voice, smooth and tuneful, capable of most folk songs and ballads. It helped the inn make its money, which was why she was still there, but also earned a little bit for her own personal use in the form of tips or requests.
A fresh snow had fallen overnight, leaving the ground beautifully smooth and untouched, a new and undiscovered place. After staring a few moments longer, Aurae turned her back to the window to face the inn, dark after the bright white glare of outside. She didn’t bother to blink away the flashing shapes that appeared, moving instead straight towards the door. She fumbled with the bolts that held the heavy wooden slab closed. As it opened an even colder draught of air reached in and wrapped itself around her, sending shivers rippling through her body.
One bare foot reached out and touched the surface of the snow. It was bitterly cold at first, but she soon lost the feeling as her whole foot sank into the white dust. The other one followed it, and soon there was a trail of small footprints leading away from the door to the well which stood a little way away from the inn. She loved being the first one out in the snow – it made her feel as if she had the whole world to herself, instead of just the inn’s small garden. She felt as if she could draw the whole sky into her lungs, as if time had stopped, leaving her the sole inhabitant of this hushed, beautiful, sleeping world.
Bending over the side of the well, she saw the frozen surface gleaming dully below her. Pulling herself away, she crouched down and began to scrape away the snow at her feet. When she stood again there was a long, wooden stick in her hand, which she swung over the side of the well and lowered towards the ice, which it met with a soft clunk. She rested for a few seconds, the lifted the stick up and brought it down hard on the ice, the impact stinging her cold hands. After a few more strikes she felt the ice break, and had to grip the stick and heave backwards as it threatened to carry on down into the black water. She continued to break it into pieces until there was a large enough hole for the bucket to fit through, at which point she returned the stick to its place in the snow and leant on the wheel that raised and lowered the bucket long enough to catch her breath.
Her hands were as numb as her feet by then, and she barely felt the wheel beneath her hands as she turned it, sending the bucket down towards the dark circle of water. Hauling it back up again was harder work, but eventually it was sitting on the side, and she standing above it, hands on both sides and her head bent over it.
As the water stilled, her reflection surfaced from the depths of the bucket to stare back at her; a thin, pale ghost of a girl, almost appearing translucent against the frozen sky. Maybe if she lay in the snow she would become completely transparent? Her face was pale as a candle, framed by a wispy curtain of light golden hair. Her hair had always been long - she liked it that way. It was long enough to reach her waist, and she liked to leave it loose to do just that.
She was not large by most standards – in fact she was the complete opposite. She stood at no more than five feet tall, with a narrow, fragile body and thin, spidery limbs, not yet acquainted with hard manual labour. She was wearing a simple white shirt under a plain brown pinafore-style dress, collarless and sleeveless, the hem sitting just below her knees. The clothes were more for practicality that beauty, and hung off her small frame like curtains.
She stood stock still, staring into her own owl-grey eyes. Over the past six months or so, she had begun to feel as frail and wraithlike as she looked, somehow disconnected and out of step with the world around her.
She knew she was not from here. Some years ago she had been left on a table in the inn, with no idea how or from where she had got there. Whether her parents had left her intentionally or simply forgotten her she didn’t know, but she was not aware of any attempts to reclaim her. She had come to the conclusion she was probably the daughter of a simple trader from some land far from here, and one of the women she knew made a living entertaining travelling men down in the village. This inn was, after all, their ideal hunting ground.
The innkeeper and his wife had taken her in and raised her, unable to think of what else to do with her. They had been fair to her, though they had never become that close. Not in the way real parents and children are. Their relationship was more one of duty and acceptance than love.
She knew she was not like the other people in the valley; its name was Arduim, ‘valley of fire’. Almost every person in the town below was some kind of fire mage. The abilities ranged greatly, from the ability to strike a spark between thumb and forefinger to the ability to light blazing bonfires as tall as a man. In this valley you would never find a fire lit by ordinary means. Magic was a part of everyday life. Aurae too saw it as that, even though she had none of her own. She had been raised around it – local visitors to the inn had it, their families down below had it, even the innkeeper and his wife had it. It came as naturally to them as walking and talking. She had envied them at times, that was true, but she had known she would never be like them so she saw no need to waste her time wondering what it would be like.
These reasons were not the causes of the distance Aurae had been feeling, though. It was when she made the decision to leave that she had started to feel isolated, as if the valley was not her home – not only just then but since the moment she arrived. The idea had quickly settled in her head, as though she had always known that one day she would have to leave. She had, in a way. It did not take long at all for her to accept that she did not live here any more.
She looked again into the bucket, distracted by her thoughts for long enough. Her reflection stared solemnly back at her. It was no longer the reflection of a child – she saw a young woman, ready to make her own way in the world.
Happy birthday, she thought to herself as she plunged her hands into the bucket, shattering her other watery self. Today was exactly fifteen years from the day she had come to the inn. In her mind she was more than ready to take her life into her own hands. She couldn’t rely on the kindness of the innkeeper and his wife forever – she had to leave at some point, and today was as good a day as any. She gasped as the water numbed her face, but forced herself to continue until her grogginess was replaced with clarity and assurance of what she was about to do. She drew herself up to her full height, looking back at the inn with an almost overwhelming mix of emotions. Sadness at having to leave the place she had called home for all fifteen years of her life, and regret at not being able to say goodbye and thank her foster parents for everything they had done for her…but also excitement at the great unknown that was already beginning to unfold in front of her.
With her eyes she traced her footsteps – the first steps of the long journey she knew she was about to embark on – back to the door of the still sleeping building. She suddenly found herself wanting more than ever to run back inside, to run her hands once more over the furniture she knew so well, to say goodbye to every little nook and cranny she was so familiar with, to embrace her adopted parents one last time…but already she could see the first signs of movement from the upstairs windows. If she went back now she knew she would not be able to leave. It was now or never. She couldn’t just let a moment like this pass, and return to her old life, when she already felt part of a new one. There was no going back – she was already gone.
”Farewell…” she breathed, shattering her last bond to this place.
The town nestled in the bowl of the valley like a baby in the crook of its giant parent’s elbow, swaddled in snow, peacefully sleeping. It was a fairly small town, almost a village, that gained most of its income from farming and agriculture. The clusters of houses - the small stone and thatch ones belonging to the field workers, and the larger brick ones with bold black beamwork belonging to the wealthier livestock owners – were lined with white fields that, in the warmer months, would already be scattered with workers, but now were lying dormant beneath their white shrouds. Her mouth twitched with amusement as she thought how unsuitable those building materials would be in the event of a fire, the chance of which was so vastly amplified in this valley. She supposed that was why there were so many wells dotted around. The town centre would also normally be coming as close to bustling as it could in a town this sleepy, but nobody had a reason to be up yet, save for the few solitary figures hunched over the roads, melting away the ice with their magic.
Aurae looked down at her bare feet, wriggling her toes but feeling nothing. She’d taken as little as possible with her – that way, if they found her belongings still in the inn, even if they did find her footprints leading away from it, they would hopefully assume she hadn’t gone far, and would be back by the end of the day. By that time, though, she would be away, past the mountains, into who-knows-where. She shivered, both from the cold and the exhilaration that came with thinking about what was to come. She hoped they wouldn’t come after her – they could easily find someone else to do the small amount of work she had been required to do, and another musician of some sort to entertain guests couldn’t be too hard to find. The innkeeper and his wife had no other children, nobody to take over the inn after they were gone, but there were no shortage of people in the world more suited to running an inn that Aurae was. The prospect of it had filled her with dread.
No, her life lay ahead, not behind. For the first time she looked back at the inn, high above her now. She allowed fond memories that came with the sight to well up, like the days she had climbed up the gnarled little tree that sat next to the building – now looking older and more prone to collapse that ever with its lack of leaves – and sat on the bed of thatch where she could see the whole valley. It was a spectacular sight; soft and fresh and glowing in the burst of spring; emerald green and bright, humming with life in the summer sun; a flurry of red and gold in the autumn winds; and then breathtakingly still, twinkling white and silver under the steely winter sky, as it was now. That had been the first desire she had had to see beyond the mountains. She smiled back at her younger self, almost able to see the smaller girl perched on the roof of the inn, wondering at the beauty of all she could see. She would take this girl and all her memories with her, safe in her mind, the first building block of her new self…but she mustn’t dwell on it now, not if she wanted to be out of the valley before sunset.
She had been to the town a few times before, on various errands for the inn such as the occasional shopping trip when the innkeeper’s wife was ill, so she had a vague idea of the basic layout. She knew from both these trips and her surveying from the rooftop where the market place was – the place where the goods produced by farming were exchanged with the goods imported by the merchants that were flowing constantly in and out through the narrow mountain paths. She also knew where these paths were…but not how she would pass through them. They were long, steep and rocky, and once she was beyond the town she would be navigating by instinct alone. But she would manage somehow, she told herself as she trotted down the path into the town.
She had decided to explore a little before she set off – who knew when she would get the chance again? She wasn’t planning on coming back for a while, if at all, and sunset was still a long way off. The market place would be a good place to start, she thought. It was a large, cobblestone courtyard where the merchants brought their wagons so they could trade goods with the locals. There were a few there already, no doubt either early birds desperate to get the best spot before the others started arriving, or ones that had stayed overnight. Aurae wandered over to them, peering at the items piled into the open backed wagons.
There were about five in total – one seemed to belong to a blacksmith, with metal tools and a few weapons stacked up in the back. The most this valley had in the way of a military was a few men who had a better idea than most about how to use a weapon, meaning basically that they knew which end to hold, and a few mages with greater power than the rest, both of which would be prepared to defend against small bands of raiders or bandits who were occasionally silly enough to try and take the valley. Skills like swordsmanship, archery and even fist-fighting were seen as archaic arts in the valley, something Aurae had been told was reversed in the world outside, with magic being rare and looked up to. This, the fear of the mystical, was probably why the valley had never been properly invaded. Not in any living person’s memory, anyway.
From time to time, Aurae had longed to learn how to use some kind of weapon, to have a rare skill that nobody else here was blessed with. This probably was feasible, more so than ever learning magic, which made the idea even more attractive and exciting, but she had never had the opportunity. Aside from it not being entirely proper for a female to learn such things, for both practical and social reasons, but the skill would not have been wanted or needed in the area she had long been expected to take as her profession: innkeeping.
But now, the world seemed closer, more real, bringing with it the possibility that she might one day learn the things she wanted to learn, and do the things she wanted to do. She felt as though she had been released from a cage into this vast world, both daunting and enticing at the same time. She reconsidered training with a weapon with new eyes. She was not strong or heavily built, which ruled out any heavy weapons, the style of which she did not think would really suit her anyway. In fact, she barely had the strength expected of someone her age, let alone the size. But she was fast – she could run easily as fast as the other children here, if not faster, and agile as well, good for activities such as tree climbing. She searched through other aspects of herself that could point towards a suitable weapon.
She could cook basic food, which didn’t help much…and she could sew. She was reasonably accurate and precise with her needlework, illustrated by the neatly sewn tear in the hem of her dress, which she found herself running her fingertips over. She was standing right up against the wagon now, inches away from the heap of goods, her eyes searching and eventually coming to rest on a small, light looking sword, about as long as her arm and as wide as two fingers. She reached out for it, brushing it with her fingertips.
“Hey!” Came a voice from behind the wagon. “What do you think you’re doing? You could hurt yourself!” The speaker had emerged, and was now towering over Aurae – it was a tall, brawny man with an angry, impatient look behind a bristly yellow beard that looked like a small, furry, not very happy animal. The blacksmith. Aurae had jumped, startled and the sound, pressing her finger a little too hard against the edge of the sword, which rewarded her with a stinging cut which proceeded to well up with blood.
“Sorry,” she squeaked, hiding her hand quickly behind her back.
For a split second, the blacksmith squinted at her as if trying to remember something. “Wait, aren’t you-“
“No, no I’m not” she cut him off quickly, cursing herself. Anyone who had ever been to the inn may well recognise her! Why hadn’t she thought of that earlier?
She turned and scurried off quickly before the blacksmith could ask her any more questions, or charge her for what she had touched. She didn’t think the small handful of coins she had taken with her could afford the sword, no matter how much she had wanted it. Once she was out of sight, behind one of the wagons, she leant back against it and gathered her thoughts. She doubted she could stay for much longer now – somebody might report to the innkeeper that they had seen her down here, and they would come after her. The town was off limits without their permission.
Something soft butted her in the shoulder, prompting a small yelp of surprise. She looked up at where it had come from, her sight being met by a horse. A huge, chestnut brown carthorse with a white mane and tail, as well as long white hairs covering its hooves. It nickered softly and nudged her again, this time in the chest.
“Hello, beautiful,” she responded, reaching up to stroke its velvety nose. She liked horses. Riding was another skill she would love to be able to master – not as rare as swordsmanship, but still no less appealing. It was a good combination, she thought. Footsteps from the other side of the horse told her it was time to move on, though. She whispered a soft goodbye to the magnificent creature, and stepped out into the square once again.
Aside from the blacksmith’s cart, most of the others seemed to stock food and clothing. Looking around, Aurae smelled the fishmonger before she saw it. She wandered away from it, over to a clothes wagon. She shivered as she looked at the thick coats and cloaks piled onto the wagon.
“You look cold, dear” came a voice from next to the wagon. It belonged to a matronly woman, short and barrel shaped with her silver hair piled up on top her head, over a round, crinkled face with motherly eyes. Aurae opened her mouth, ready to explain how she was not the girl who sang in the inn, but relaxed as no recognition came. The woman must have only just arrived in the valley this morning. She nodded instead, smiling weakly.
“Why don’t you come over and have a look?” the woman suggested. Aurae obeyed, stepping closer to the wagon. She had regretted not bringing some kind of warm outer layer as soon as she had left the inn. “I don’t know if I have anything to fit you,” the woman chatted, “but better leave plenty of room to grow! I’m sure you’ll end up a tall, willowy thing – makes me jealous just looking at youngsters like you! I swear…” She watched as Aurae, who was deaf to her ramblings, as she stroked the folds of a soft, midnight blue cloak. She laughed. “Expensive tastes you’ve got there, young lady. We could marry you off to a nice rich gentleman, and he’d never guess you weren’t born a noblewoman! Why not try it on?” Aurae looked up sharply at the mention of price, but then back at the cloak as the woman invited her to try it on. It unfolded as she lifted it from the stand and opened it up, tossing it carefully around her shoulders. It was several inches too long, but she could easily take the hem up if she could get her hands on a needle and thread, which couldn’t be too hard. Or, as the woman had said, she might grow into it. It felt wonderfully warm against her cold skin, and the colour made her feel as if she was enveloped in the night sky itself – blue was her favourite colour, especially this shade. It did look a little odd on top of her other clothes, but as long as she kept it closed it shouldn't matter. It wasn't just for her appearance, anyway - she would probably freeze if she carried on dressed as she was.
She lifted the hood over her head – it was deep enough to cast a shadow over her face, obscuring her features. Nobody would recognise her wearing this, she thought. She could get out of the valley without any trouble whatsoever.
The woman was clapping her hands with delight. “I suits you!” she complimented, no doubt about to ask if she would take it or not. But the coins were already in Aurae’s hand, half of what she hand in her pocket. The woman regarded them hesitantly. Reluctantly, Aurae added a few more. Still the woman looked at her. The last of the coins came out, and Aurae looked at the woman pleadingly, her expression making it plain that she had no more. A long silence followed, the eventually the woman spoke.
“I’ll make an exception just this once,” she said, “but only because I don’t want to see a little girl freeze to death!” Aurae beamed happily, tipping her money into the woman’s outstretched hand.
“Thank you!” she smiled, wrapping the cloak tighter around her as she practically skipped away. She felt a new person already - older, more prepared.
The snow had felt even colder than before as Aurae left the square, making her way down the pathways between the houses that had not yet been cleared. She did regret not bringing shoes – but then, she reasoned, they would be the most obvious sign that she was venturing beyond the grounds of the inn. She wandered for a while, her mind wrapped up as if against the cold in thoughts of what she would do when she left, in the general direction of the mountain pass where traders passed in and out.
She thought about the crossing of the mountains with a mix of emotions; it would be a hard journey – the mountain paths were steep and the ground was treacherous, especially in this weather, and her lack of shoes would not make things any easier. She did not know any of the routes, either, or how long each of them would take to traverse. She had not brought any food with her in her impromptu escape, and it would be hard to come by in the mountains, or anywhere in winter, for that matter.
But along with her trepidations came determination. She would make this journey, no matter what – besides, what other options did she have? This first step would be a challenge, but she would come through knowing a little more about her own abilities, and about herself. Provided she came through it, of course.
A traders’ wagon rattled past, heading straight for the mountains. If only she could somehow get her hands on even a horse…that would make her journey much easier, let alone less dangerous. She kept walking, watching the wagon grow smaller and smaller as it began to climb the foot of the mountain. Maybe one of the traders would be willing to give her directions, or even a lift? It was then that she fully came to terms with the mistake she had made in using up the last of her money. Traders were not the kind of people who did a lot for free, no matter how kind they were.
These thoughts continued to trouble her until she reached the mouth of the first path, where she halted. She allowed her gaze to drift up the steep, uneven passage between the icebound, stony giants. It looked a lot more intimidating close up than it had from the other side of the valley, like a huge, ravenous beast ready to swallow her up through a gaping, toothy maw. She felt a lot smaller and more fragile in the face of this massive gateway to an even larger world. But this was just the in between, she reminded herself – the whole world couldn’t possibly be like this. She had heard enough to be sure of that, even if she still had no idea what exactly lay beyond.
Slowly, she started walking again, treading carefully uphill over the frozen ground. Up ahead she could see the wagon that had passed her earlier, closer than it had been before. It seemed to have stopped, and as she drew closer she thought she could see people moving around on the slope above it. They seemed to be clearing a path for the wagon to pass through – a disadvantage of being one of the earliest to leave, she supposed.
She would probably manage to keep up with this wagon on foot if the whole journey was to be like this, she thought. Or maybe…she picked up her pace, hurrying up the slope towards the wagon, only pausing briefly to check behind her for ayone that might be following. The people seemed too busy to notice anyone approaching, but even so she did her best to keep to the long morning shadows cast by the rock faces on either side.
The first time the wagon had passed her she hadn’t really looked at it, being too caught up in her own imagination, but now she had a chance to look at it properly. It was quite old and battered, made of rough, weathered planks under a sky of grubby canvas, with crudely sewn patches and the beginnings of new tears dotted around like clouds. It stood about as high as her waist, suspended on thickset wheels which looked like the only part of it fully suitable for travelling in these conditions. The canvas came right down over the back, meeting the wooden boards that formed a low wall around the floor, reaching about halfway up the sides but dipping down to less than a quarter at the back.
Aurae peered cautiously round the side of the wagon, counting the people busy clearing the path ahead. There were about four, though she couldn’t make out any details, even gender, from this distance. Two horses stood at the front of the wagon, and two more milled around in front of these, as far as the ropes that fastened them to the wagon would let them. Other than them, there seemed to be nobody else nearby.
When she was sure it was safe, she carefully lifted the canvas in the corner, just enough to squeeze through. Placing both hands on the wooden back she pushed herself up off the ground and, after several tries, over the side, falling into the wagon and landing on the hard wooden boards on the inside.
It was surprisingly tidy inside, the only contents besides herself being several large sacks and a couple of crates sitting at the opposite end. These must be the traders’ belongings, she thought…but what about the large mounds behind them, covered in moth-eaten linen? Gingerly she crawled over, reaching out towards them, and lifted the corner of one between finger and thumb.
Books! She felt a shiver of excitement rush through her as she stared at the pile of these rare and wonderful objects before her. The smell of books was one she had smelt very few times in her life, thick and musty, and the sight was equally uncommon and fascinating. She touched one of the faded, dusty covers almost reverently, then closed her hands around the sides and lifted it off the pile. She laid it on her lap and opened it up, staring in wonder at the tatty pages. She loved the whispery sound they made as she turned them, and the squiggles that covered them from top to bottom that drew her attention like a moth to a candle.
She couldn’t read – not many people could in the valley. Books were expensive, and reading was a difficult skill to teach and to learn, as well as not being a very useful skill to farmers. But in that moment Aurae decided learning to read would be the first thing she did, even if it meant sitting in this wagon for days, staring incomprehensively at the pages of these battered books.
But the muffled sounds of voices could now be heard outside, and were gradually becoming louder – the traders were coming back! She stared at the canvas, frozen with fear, the book still open on her lap. What if they opened the wagon? With panicked movements she stuffed the book back on the pile and covering it with the blanket, hesitating for a second before flinging it open again and hiding herself underneath it as well. She was hidden behind the sacks and crates, so hopefully the bulge wouldn’t be too noticeable.
The seconds dragged agonisingly past, and the book smell became almost unbearable as she waited to be found and sent back. She felt the wagon shake a little as someone climbed onto the front, then again as a second climbed up. Then, with judders and groans of protest, the wheels began to turn and the wagon began rattling its way up the path. Aurae breathed an almost audible sigh of relief, and leaned her head back against the books for several moments before lifting the blanket once again and crawling out, gulping down the fresh air.
She stayed between the books and the sacks, leaning against the wood, and tried to rest. But sleep wouldn’t come – she was out of the valley for the first time in her life, moving steadily away from everything she knew, into a vast and undiscovered world where the possibilities stretched endlessly beyond her vision, far out into the unknown. She had done it!
A few hours into the journey, Aurae thought she fully understood why the traders favoured the seats at the front or their horses over the relative shelter of the wagon’s interior – her bones all felt as though they had been shaken loose and were now rattling around freely inside her bruised body. It had been a mostly uphill journey so far, having to stop frequently for the traders to clear the path. She had long since lost track of the exact time, but it had to be at least early afternoon by now.
The excitement had finally worn off, allowing her to drift in and out of a light sleep, closing her eyes only to be jolted awake again by the jerky movement of the wagon over the rough ground. She thought about what would happen once the traders discovered her – would they let her stay with them for the rest of the mountain crossing? Or would they refuse to take her with them, abandoning her on the harsh, wintry mountain to make her own way across?
These thoughts were interrupted sooner that she had expected – the wagon seemed to be slowing down, the slope beneath it levelling out. Aurae sat upright, casting agitated looks in the direction of the opening at the back of the wagon. The thoughts ran faster and more frantically through her head as she felt the rocking motion of the wagon as the two traders climb down from the front seat. She could hear their footsteps on the ground now, this time moving behind the wagon instead of away in front of it.
She barely had time to scramble back under the cloth that covered the books before the canvas sheet was unfastened, letting in the glaring rays of the afternoon sun reflected off the snow. Time must have gone by faster than she had realised.
Her heart rate quickened considerably. Now would be the worst time to be discovered and removed – to be out on the mountains at night would be extremely dangerous. She had heard stories of wolves and bears, of deep rifts in the ground that were impossible to see in the dark, which had swallowed many travellers. She had heard that nearly all who had lost their lives to the mountains had done so at night. She was not overly keen to join this number, she thought, trying unsuccessfully to block out an image of herself being torn apart and eaten by savage beasts, and the nauseous feeling that came with it.
There was a scraping sound as someone reached in and began to remove various items from the wagon. At first they came from the other side, but then consecutive rushes of hot and cold began to sweep over her body as the objects directly in front of her began to move.
A silence followed. She sat stock still, hardly daring to breath, waiting to be seized and dragged out into the open. The seconds crawled past…nothing happened. She stayed frozen for several more agonising moments, and then let out a slow, shaky breath, allowing her taut muscles to relax. They had missed her.
That was when the sudden tug came from around her throat where her cloak was fastened. She stifled a scream as she was pulled out from under the cloth and into the cold air, desperately clawing at her throat, trying to loosen the cloak biting into her neck. She must have left a bit sticking out from under the cloth.
Arms were wrapped around her body, pinning her own to her sides, and she was lifted out of the back of the wagon and set down roughly on the snow, her captor gripping the back of her shirt collar with an iron strength. She stood, rigid as a board, waiting for something to happen.
“It seems we have a stowaway,” came a rough, male voice from directly behind her. “In Altor, when they find these, they pay for their lift with their lives. Theft of transport, they call it.”
Two people emerged from in front of the wagon – a man who appeared to be in his late twenties, tall, with curly brown hair, followed by a woman of about the same age, black haired and heavy with child. They stood and stared at Aurae, seemingly unsure of what to say. A third appeared to join them, another man, seemingly younger than the first, but distinctly similar in appearance. They must be related, she thought – most probably brothers.
“So…” began the older one, “what do we do with her? We can’t kill her – that’s for the law to do.”
More silence. Then the woman spoke up:
“And we can’t leave her here on her own… I mean, look at her – she’s only a child, and not a big one at that! These mountains are dangerous, even for us. And she has no shoes, either! Leaving her would be the same as killing her.” She stared down at Aurae’s feet with an expression of disbelief.
“But we can’t just take her with us,” objected the man holding Aurae. “Why should we share our food and shelter? Does she look like she has anything to offer us in return?”
“Please,” she piped up in a strained voice, “I can cook and clean…I don’t mind doing chores, and I’m willing to learn new things too.”
“What makes you think we need a maid?” said her captor.
“Garn, listen!” pleaded the woman. “Just for the mountain crossing. We can’t take her back now, but we can’t send her the rest of the way on her own. We’ll be on the other side in at least four days. Even you couldn’t take a child’s life.”
“She’s right,” said the older of the brothers, putting an arm around the woman. They must be husband and wife, thought Aurae. “I’m as worried about our supplies as you are, but what other choice do we have? And with Helen’s child on the way she can’t do as much – the girl could help her. We’d both be grateful.”
“She might liven things up a bit, too” said the younger brother, speaking for the first time. “Journeys like these can get so boring.”
They all stared expectantly past Aurae at the man holding her. Garn, as he had been called. He stood still for a moment, while Aurae waited with baited breath. Then, at last, her collar was released. She stumbled forwards, sagging with relief, letting go of the breath she’d been holding. She turned to see a tall, thickset man with a face that resembled that of the two brothers, framed by grey hair. Their father, no doubt.
“Fine.” He said reluctantly. “But only until we reach the other side of these wretched mountains – no longer.” Then, with a grudging look at Aurae, he turned and stalked away towards the pile of goods he had been unloading.