This is this week’s Trifecta Writing Challenge response. This time around, they gave us a chance to write some longer fiction — no prompt, just between 333 and 3,333 words on a subject of our choice. Many thanks to Andra for suggesting subject matter and Jessie for suggesting a way to wrestle with my profound lack of enthusiasm for short stories. This follows last week’s The Secret, so if you’d like a little background on how Sarili got where she is, take a look. Thanks for reading!
In the long list of stupid things she had done in her life, leaving before her people had decided where to settle might end up taking the prize. Sarili looked grumpily up and down the length of the dusty road, and then waddled off into the grass and sat down. She pulled a foot up into what was left of her lap and rubbed her ankle while she contemplated her stupidity.
They had told her not to do it. How will you find us? We can’t afford to lose each other now. At least wait until we’ve found a home. It had been a reasonable question given that they were planning to hide, to make themselves as unfindable as they possibly could. She hadn’t listened. She’d been too wild with grief and horror and the need to run, and the elders had been too devastated at the loss of the City, too overwhelmed by the task before them to do more than tell her not to.
I’ll find you, she’d said. Just go, I’ll find you wherever you end up. She would. Eventually. The question was whether she would find them before the baby came. She hadn’t imagined time pressure and a condition that made it increasingly difficult for her to travel. It had been months of not finding them. It was what she would have expected, but it was starting to be a serious problem. She was getting close now. Her feet hurt, her ankles were swollen, and she was pretty sure that no one carrying this much extra weight in baby should walk this much. If the baby came, it would be an end to safe searching. The only way she could protect the baby on her own would be to walk off into the woods and hide. Stay there, just the two of them, until her child was old enough to be able to search with her or be left alone while she searched. It would be years. This one last place to look — it would be just about the last thing she could manage before finding somewhere safe to give birth.
A shrill whistle pierced the air. Sari looked up as a farmer’s cart rattled to a stop on the road in front of her. The middle aged man at the reins frowned down at her belly. “Are you all right, miss?”
She struggled to her feet and gave him her best tired smile. “Yes, it’s just hard traveling now. My back may never forgive me.”
He gave her a look of paternal disapproval. “You shouldn’t be traveling at all.” He stepped down and offered her a hand. “Can I give you a ride?”
He laughed at that and helped her up into the seat next to him. “You couldn’t have gotten my wife out of the house with a pitchfork at that stage.” He picked up the reins and clicked his tongue at the horses. “What are you doing on the road, anyway?”
“Looking for my family.”
“They moved after I married, but I need to find them before the baby comes.”
“You don’t know where they are at all?”
She shook her head. “Somewhere in this part of the country.”
He whistled. Her feelings exactly. The northern woods were vast. “Where’s your husband, then?”
She ducked her head. “He caught a fever,” she said softly. It was what she’d told everyone since she had started to show. As for the real man she had left behind, she didn’t let herself think about him. Once upon a time, she would have worried about that. But in this new world, they all had so many things they couldn’t bear to think about that this was just one more thing to add.
“I’m sorry.” His voice was rough with sympathy. “You rest.”
He dropped her off in the next village with a short lecture and the name of the innkeeper who owed him a favor. She smiled and waved and took the room, in no state to say no. She ate the proffered dinner without noticing what it was, and fell into bed.
She woke several hours later. She stared at the ceiling in the darkness and listened until the sounds of movement died away, and then dressed again and slipped out into the night.
This time, she knew where she was going. It was her last good gamble. She had remembered, after another round of unsuccessful searching to the west, that there had been a temple here once. Not one of theirs, a human one, but one they’d known about and occasionally visited. It would have been razed, but maybe, maybe they would be keeping an eye on it. Just in case some idiot like her got cut off and came looking for them. Please let them be watching.
It was easy to find, off in the woods just past the last of the houses. The temple wasn’t there, but the rubble told her she was in the right place. She said a silent prayer, and sat down to wait.
She waited for hours, at first hopefully, and then less so. Well, she had known this was only a fool’s chance. She breathed out slowly. An owl hooted. Sarili stared at the dim shapes at the edges of her night vision and listened to the leaves rustling. Stupid, stupid, stupid. The baby shifted restlessly and she rubbed a soothing hand over her stomach. “Looks like it’s just going to be you and me, little one.”
The owl hooted again, rather more sharply. Sarili’s head snapped up. Her heart started to pound, and the baby, annoyed, kicked. The owl was sitting high in a tree a few feet away. She considered it for a moment, afraid to hope. She swallowed. “Child of the Laughing God,” she offered carefully in the language of her childhood. The owl cocked its head at her, looking at her nearly upside down. Please, please… Sarili found herself on her feet and shaking, and without thinking about it snapped “I’m extremely homesick, are you really going to leave me out here?”
The owl made a sound that sounded for all the world like a giggle and flew down to the ground. It was the best kind of dream to see it fold out into a woman she’d never met but whose face still said salvation. “Sorry about that. We’ve had disguised soldiers and priests coming here looking for us, I had to be sure.”
Sarili buried her face in her hands and tried not to cry. “I’ve been looking for you for months.” Her voice barely made it past her hands.
“Well, you’re with us now.” The woman touched her shoulder gently. “I’m Amaili. How long do you have?”
Sarili gave a laugh, wobbly but genuine. “A month and a half. Maybe less. I was starting to think I was going to have to look for a cave.”
“Congratulations.” An unexpected smile blossomed on the other woman’s face, and her hand moved to cover her flat stomach. “Me too. We meant to wait, but…” Her face was a mix of joy and embarrassment. “These things happen. I think we could all stand to see some children being born after everything.”
Somehow, that turned out to be the last straw. Sarili burst into tears and threw herself into Amaili’s arms. “Shh, shh, it’s all okay now. You’re not alone any more.” Amaili held her while the tears died down. “It’s okay. Come on, it’s time for us to go home.”
A smile came to her through the tears, and she lifted her head. “Home,” she agreed. And then she followed Amaili off into the night.