Part 15 of my prompt-based story.
189: Beware the shadows.
Allyandrah and Kru’Dael’Nah huddled together on his bed for their final night indoors. Sasha curled up on their legs. Allyandrah woke up often. The steady, heavy breathing of Grandfather relaxed her and settled the anxiety building up inside of her. She tried not think of how they would haul everything useful from the house or what they would be forced to leave behind or what might go wrong during this long trek being taken at the worst possible time.
She finally drifted back to sleep and dreamed of getting lost, running and searching to find either Grandfather or Sasha. She woke to light shaking.
“My dear, we must rise and gather our things. Today is the big day.”
Allyandrah blinked, groggy and dazed, emotionally overwhelmed by her dream. Grandfather’s wrinkled face loomed above her. He smiled. She smiled back. He nodded and moved away.
“I’ll begin gathering our food stock to inventory what we have. Don’t take too long waking up.” Grandfather shuffled through the door, humming a tune. Allyandrah’s chest tightened and tears sprung to her eyes. Kru’Nah used to hum the same tune. She waited until the ache in her throat subsided before pushing back the covers and shimmying into warmer clothes.
“I was starting to think you’d fallen asleep,” Grandfather said, winking.
“No,” Allyandrah said. “Just hard to get up some days.”
“Oh, I know that very well.” Grandfather laughed. “Maybe your heart keeps you in bed today. Often, it’s my very own body keeping me in bed. Not good when you’re all alone.”
“Why did she send you here alone with no slaves to care for you?”
Grandfather shook his head as he pulled out packs of food and set them on the table. He was quiet for a long time before answering.
“I don’t know for sure,” he said with a sigh. “It’s painful having such a revelation about your own daughter.”
“I guess so,” Allyandrah said. She regretted asking. Sasha whined and scratched at the door. Allyandrah jumped to let her outside.
“That wollo is smart as a whip,” Grandfather said. “We had domesticated wols at the palace and I swear, they picked the absolute dumbest of the breeds to have there. Hated those stupid things.” He chuckled.
Allyandrah laughed. “Maybe we can do something about that when we get back home.”
“Back home,” Grandfather echoed. She closed the door and glanced over at him. His eyes seemed distant, unfocused. After a moment, he shook his head and looked down at the table. It was covered with small packs wrapped in cloth and tied with string. She studied him as his lips moved, his finger dancing in the air. At last he slowly shook his head.
“Something wrong?” she asked.
He looked over at her. “No sense in keeping it to myself. There’s less than I thought.”
“So what do we do about that?”
“Is there anything we can do? I don’t know. Perhaps we harvest Hornothol needles and make tea to stretch out our food? Maybe we’ll come across a frozen carcass? Hard to say. Hard to say.” He shook his head again and rubbed his face with his hand.
Sasha barked from outside and Allyandrah let her, and a blast of frigid air, into the house. She shivered.
“Maybe the shipment is just late,” Allyandrah offered as she walked over to the table.
“If it’s just late, it’s never coming. They don’t travel this late into the season. Who knows? They might get stuck here all winter and they only know what she tells them of me. Most of them aren’t too friendly, which tells me enough.”
“Do you think the Guardians are trying to avenge you?”
“To avenge me?” His eyebrows shot up. “No, my dear, the Guardians aren’t like that.”
“What are they like then?”
He sighed. “Not now, my dear. We need to pack. There are precious few hours of daylight now that the new snow is falling. We must get out today.” He turned and disappeared down the hall, coming back a few moments later with large sacks they could wear on their backs. “You will have to carry the most heavy stuff.”
“I can carry it,” Allyandrah said. She resisted the urge to embrace the old man again and assure him that all would be well. He loaded most of the food into one of the packs. He put lightweight dishes into the other and some clean underclothes. By the time he was finished, both packs looked equally full, but one was easily three times as heavy as the other. They silently dressed for travel in the outdoors, the heaviness of leaving hanging in the air. They secured each other’s boots and face masks and heavy fur capes. They then hoisted the bags onto their backs.
“This is the best we can do,” Grandfather said. His voice was muffled by the mask. Allyandrah nodded.
“Then let’s go,” she said.
They took one last look around the house, still so full of so many nice things. Allyandrah swallowed the lump in her throat and followed him out. The wind stung the skin at the spot between her eyes, where she had no covering. They moved slowly and Sasha raced around in the snow in front and behind them. Eventually, she settled in between them. Allyandrah followed Grandfather, keeping her eyes trained to spot any extra bit of food they could find.
Grandfather stopped and turned to her. “We only get about eight hours of light this time of year,” he shouted through his face mask. “It only gets shorter until there’s only an hour or two. We’re going to have to walk all daylight, and maybe some into the night if the moon is bright and we can see.”
“We’re not going to walk at night otherwise?” Allyandrah shouted back.
“No. I can’t do that,” he said, shaking his head. His eyes looked sad.
Allyandrah nodded. “That’s fine. I can try to hunt a bit at night then, and see if I can find anything at all.”
He nodded, then turned around again. The sun was already heading back down toward the horizon. They’d hardly gone very far at all. Allyandrah sighed and trudged on.
He stopped again and turned. “This time of day is very dangerous,” he shouted. “The shadows hide things.”
Allyandrah nodded, not quite sure what he meant.
“Remember at the camp? The man that left and came back changed?”
“The shadows hide those things.”
“How do you keep them away?” she asked.
“Don’t fight with it,” he said. “Best to just lay down so you can’t see it. If you fight it, you will lose and it will take over you.”
“When is it not dangerous?”
“Only when the sun comes up again.”
“Shouldn’t we stop then? Make a camp? Maybe a fire?”
He turned toward the sun. “We still have almost an hour we can walk. Let’s go just a little bit further and see if we can find a good spot to stop for the night.”
They trudged along until they found a tree where someone, or something, must have spent the night. The sun was just disappearing behind the horizon as they tossed their packs down. Allyandrah quickly gathered some wood and sticks and soon enough, they had a small fire going. They made needle tea and ate meager rations. Sasha begged for more off of them, but Allyandrah shooed her away. Allyandrah’s stomach gnawed in hunger. It was the only time they’d eaten since they left.
Sasha wandered off into the darkness. Allyandrah followed a few steps behind her to relieve herself away from the camp. When Allyandrah stopped, Sasha continued on, sniffing at the ground.
“Don’t go too far,” Allyandrah called after her. She finished quickly, her exposed bottom freezing against the frigid air. She followed the light of the fire back to their tree and climbed down into the depression under it.
Grandfather had already fallen asleep. Allyandrah nestled next to him. The wind whistled through the trees. She tried to close her eyes, but the eerie darkness kept her awake. She thought she heard something go through the trees, but nothing ever appeared. The fire slowly died down and the strange warmth from Kru’Dael’Nah came from behind her.
The trees around her rustled definitively and she jumped. She resisted the urge to scream and shrank back into Kru’Dael’Nah. Should she wake him up?
Sasha’s head poked up from over the rim. Allyandrah sighed and glared at the wollo.
“You scared me,” she hissed.
Sasha walked over and licked her on the face before curling up in the snow in front of her. She licked her lips as she lay her head down. Hemmed in from in front and behind, Allyandrah finally lay her head down and drifted off to sleep.