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Strung out like beads on a string too long for them, the villagers paced along through the rain and drizzle. Snow-unicorns dragged laden sleds of everything they could salvage from burned Itadesh, and took slow, long-legged steps as they all walked together to Itrelir. Though some of the pacing villagers were even older than she was, Marda could not walk with them.Author's Notes
Walking had been such a simple thing for Marda's age-mates. They were running irrepressibly before she had mastered a few halting steps, and jumping things and talking about how skilled they would be at drum-dancing while Marda still struggled to make her legs obey the simplest commands.
Born with amukiiron, Marda's legs never matured, and before her age-set had even graduated, she was suffering the painful joint ailment that affected the very old. The top of her head barely hit the waist of her shortest age-mate, and the bow to her legs made her seem shorter than her dwarfen stature already did.
Marda watched the people behind her as they walked, all the energy and hope leached out of them. She was facing backwards in a heaped sledge, hating that she was not even a useful burden. The things she was packed in with were at least useful - foodstuff and furs and timbers. She looked at her gnarled hands - she could not even knit any longer.
A little alarmed, Marda looked around, and realized that Kativa had probably already called her once. Not being able to knit was not half as disturbing to the woman as the growing loss of her hearing, and a realization settled over her heart like the ash that had settled on Itadesh.
"Did you want to drill now? You asked me to stop by, after I got back from harvesting with the others."
Marda had been drilling Kativa daily, practicing listening to hear the eerie not-sound that discordant weather made, trying to hone the unpredictable gift in the uninterested ranger. The young woman was unaware that Marda herself could no longer separate that sense from the steady din of noise within her head that made it difficult to pick out voices and follow conversations. Marda's last usefulness to the village had steadily followed her ability to knit, with less notice and more shame. Even now, Marda could not bring herself to admit it. "No," she said. "Not today."
"Did you want something to eat, then?" Kativa offered politely.
Marda patted her hand where it rested on the rail of the sledge out of habit, forgetting how much it would hurt. The cool, rainy weather made it worse, and traveling for so many days on end already had reduced her to biting back whimpers of pain with every motion.
"I'm fine, dear," she said. In truth, the pain in her stomach was as gnawing as the pain in her hands and back, but she knew their supplies were thin and would be scarce indeed for the coming winter. She didn't require much at the best of times, but knowing what was coming, any food she was forced to eat felt tasteless and was only a burden in the pit of her stomach, as lacking in nourishment as beads.
She would need to leave her beads behind.
Marda sighed. "Help an old woman down," she said firmly, crawling to her feet. "My bladder's shrunken like the rest of me."
Kativa lifted her, easily matching the pace of the snowy dragging the sledge, and set her down gently at the side of the trail, out of the way of the next villagers walking slowly behind them. "Do you need help?" she offered, a little awkwardly. She was uncharacteristically subdued - her gray eyes were lackluster, and the cheeky grin that usually dimpled her face was quite erased. Marda reminded herself that too was her fault - even her touch with people seemed tainted these days.
"No, Kativa," Marda said firmly. "Not with this. I will catch the next sledge with Kalitelm and some strong young ranger will swing me into it," she lied. "You go on ahead." Before she wandered off to find the privacy of a bush, she paused, and said quietly, "You're a good girl, Kativa."
Kativa heard, because she snorted disrespectfully and tried to muffle it. Marda pretended she had not heard that, and let Kativa walk on, not appreciating her own, easily swinging steps.
It was an easy deception, to simply remain behind a good clump of brush as the long train of people and snow-unicorns wound past. After a moment, she took a short, sharp knife from her pocket and began cutting the beads from her coat.
Her necklace was last to go, and Marda's neck felt naked without it. No child beads dangled there, and for the first time that long, weary trip, tears stung Marda's old eyes. She stuffed the loose beads and strung necklace into a small leather pouch, and stood as the last unicorn but one passed by, to walk, with her halting, struggling walk, back the way they had come.
The last rider came towards her much faster than she could manage towards her, and Fala dismounted to greet her.
"Marda," Fala said, and hesitated. Her sharp ranger eyes would not miss the places where Marda's beads had hung, or fail to notice the bare skin of Marda's neck when she pushed her hood back to look up at the tall young woman.
"Fala," Marda replied gravely. Fala would not stop her, not in this. While Marda knew that Kativa would have tried to talk her out of it, and Kalitelm would find it inconceivable, Fala would respect this choice. She pressed the leather pouch to her, cringing at the pain it caused her shoulders to reach up. "Please take care of this for me. Give it to Kalitelm."
"I will," the ranger promised, and did not ask what it was.
"I'm going for a long walk," Marda said, though explanation was unnecessary. "Don't worry about finding me." If they tried, she could not get far, not with her pitiful gait.
"Do you have everything you need?" Fala asked, and if her voice sounded choked, Marda was only grateful that she did not ask why, even if she had a list of reasons as long as their records of the weather to answer with.
"Yes," she said simply.
"Have... have a nice walk."
Marda smiled at that, and passed Fala on the trail.
The sun was trying to shine weakly through the thinning clouds above, and there were birds singing their small hearts out along the path they had trampled, looking for startled insects in the villagers' wake. The chill in the air would soon fade, Marda knew, to a comfortable numbness, like the hunger in her stomach. As days went for a last walk, this was a good one.
This story was discussed in the forums, and I had the briefest of outlines for it, but it didn't really gel until Elizabeth Barrette sent me a copy of 'Leaves in a Bitter Wind.' This is the kind of inspiration I love about shared worlds, where one story seeds another and another...