Artist : Joe Slucher
Author : Shona Kinsella
Andar trudged along the road, head bowed, back bent under the weight of his daughter. She was only three years old, but he had been walking for hours and even her little weight was getting to be too much for him. It took all of his will-power just to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but he had promised Kait that he would take their daughter to the city, that he would find a place for her, someone who could take care of her.
Jenna shifted position in the sling on his back and Andar stumbled, going heavily onto one knee.
‘Papa, did you fall?’ Jenna’s voice was hoarse with thirst and a blade of guilt slipped between Andar’s ribs.
‘Don’t worry, little one, Papa just tripped over his own feet. I’m fine.’ Andar squeezed his eyes shut against the lie and forced himself back to his feet.
‘I can walk, you don’t have to carry me,’ Jenna answered.
‘Save your strength, my darling,’ Andar said. ‘You’re going to need it for this fine adventure.’
He swallowed against the lump in his throat as Jenna lay her head against his back. Oh, how I will miss her. Her easy affection and her endless questions. The weight of her in my arms when I carry her to bed. Kait, did you know how hard this would be? At least he wouldn’t miss her for long. Andar had no doubt that he would be joining Kait in the spirit realm soon. He just had to make sure that Jenna would be cared for first. Just as he had promised when Kait was too weak to get out of bed anymore.
Andar kept his eyes on the dusty, cracked road as he walked, falling into a half-trance. Looking back, he should have realised sooner what Kait was doing. He should have noticed that he and Jenna always had more food than Kait did; should have seen his wife growing weaker before it was too late. Maybe he could have stopped her, persuaded her that they both needed her more than they needed the extra food.
Jenna’s voice jolted him from his thoughts.
‘Papa, there’s a wagon coming.’
Andar moved over to the side of the road and looked behind. It wasn’t really a wagon, coming along, more of a cart, pulled by a donkey that was all skin and bone.
‘Hallo,’ the driver of the cart called.
‘Hallo,’ Andar called back, examining the man. He had a hat pulled low on his brow and wore rough homespun, just like Andar and Jenna. Most likely another farmer, heading towards the city in hope of finding help.
‘Do you travel to Carval?’ the man asked.
‘Yes,’ Andar answered, somewhat wary.
‘I’m going that way myself. I can save you a walk, if you don’t mind riding in the cart.’
‘I have nothing to give you in payment.’
‘No payment required,’ the man said. ‘In times like these, we all must help our fellow man, as the book of Po tells us.’
A religious man, Andar thought. He may know of a safe place for Jenna.
‘Then we would gladly ride in your cart, friend.’
Andar carefully lowered the sling and let Jenna slide to the ground before lifting her onto the cart and climbing up beside her. As soon as they were settled, the driver held his hand out and Andar shook it.
‘Name’s Darien,’ he said. ‘I have a farm just outside Vail.’
‘I am Andar and this is Jenna. Our farm is closer, between Vail and Polero.’
Darian flicked the reins and the donkey set off once more, plodding along with little energy. Andar worried about the beast’s ability to pull the extra weight but his tired body was too grateful for the rest to linger long on the donkey’s woes.
It was just before nightfall when they saw Carval against the horizon. The city sprawled across the landscape, having long since outgrown its walls.
‘Where are you staying?’ Darien asked as they drew close.
‘I don’t know. I hadn’t expected to arrive until tomorrow.’
‘I have no coin for a room, but I know somewhere that will give us room and board in exchange for some chores done around the place in the morning.’ Darien leaned closer and lowered his voice. ‘It’s a boarding house run by a widow with a soft heart. A good, safe place for your girl to sleep.’
‘That sounds perfect.’ Andar pulled Jenna into an embrace. Tomorrow he would look for someone to take her in. Then he would begin the long walk home, to die.
Andar hauled a bucket of water up from the well and smiled at Jenna, who watched from the bench outside the kitchen door, where she sat, playing with a straw-stuffed, cloth doll that the widow, Mab Tenaway, had given to her. Tears prickled at the back of his eyes and he looked away. His heart was breaking.
Kait, my heart, I don’t know if I can do this. How can I let go of her? Of you?
Andar took the bucket into the kitchen of the boarding house and set it on the table. Mab Tenaway was stirring a pot over the fire in the hearth, humming to herself as she worked. Andar thought of how Kait would sing silly little made-up songs about whatever she was doing, to make Jenna laugh. He missed her so much that for a moment his chest locked up and he couldn’t breathe. He sat down heavily and bent over, head between his knees until he regained control of himself.
‘So, what brings you to Caraval?’ Mab Tenaway asked without turning around.
‘I am … I was … a farmer,’ Andar answered. ‘The rot, it took most of our crops. For a while we were able to get by, I even thought we would make it, that it would just be one hard year and the next crop would be fine.’
‘We all thought that at the beginning,’ Mab Tenaway said, voice soft. She still hadn’t turned from the pot.
‘The second year was worse. My wife, Kait, she … she,’ Andar swallowed hard, forcing the emotion down. He looked at the door, making sure that Jenna hadn’t snuck in behind him. ‘She stopped eating, gave me and Jenna her share of the food. Before she died, she made me promise that if it got any worse, I would take Jenna to the city and try to find someone to take her in, someone in a better position to feed her, so that she will at least have a chance.’
Andar could hold back no longer; he put his head in his hands and sobbed.
Mab Tenaway came to stand by his side and pulled his head against her stomach. Without a word, she cradled him as he mourned. Eventually, his sobs turned to sniffles and she handed him a rag, dipped in the bucket of water, then stepped back to the hearth, stirring her pot once more.
‘I may be able to offer some hope,’ she said when Andar had washed his face.
‘I am getting old,’ she said, a wry smile on her face. ‘I find myself needing more and more assistance around here. I can offer you both room and board if you will work for me. Food is scarce here too, and you will rarely end the day with a full belly, but we have enough to get by, for the moment. You and your girl will be able to stay together. For a while longer, anyway.’
‘I don’t know what to say,’ Andar replied.
‘No need to decide straight away. Think it over. Spend the day in the city, perhaps there is a better option out there.’
‘Thank you. I don’t need to think it over. We’ll stay.’