Preya stood on the bank of the icy stream and paused to catch her breath. She did not think she would catch him, but she had to keep trying. He was her da, and he had always taken care of her. The tracks he was leaving in the snow would not last. The tiny spots of blood here and there among the footprints would not last either, not once another layer of snow had fallen across the hills.
She had awoken in the early morning dark to the smell of lemonwood and myrrh. There was a small iron bowl near the fireplace with ashes in it, and her da was gone. She had run outside, and found the tracks leaving from their cabin. She threw on a cloak and followed the tracks, and now, just as the sun rose, she stood at the stream where her and her da caught salamanders. The edges of the stream were icy and frozen, but the middle was still flowing. Across the stream, on the other side, she could see the footprints continuing onward. She took a step back, and jumped over the stream, landing with a crunch in the snow on the other side.
She walked for another hour or so, deeper into the hill country that climbed steeply into the surrounding mountains. She was so cold, and every step was grinding the freezing pain in her feet further into her bones. Her ankles were starting to stiffen. She paused to look around her. There was nothing but rolling hills behind her, and the looming pines and the mountains ahead of her. The forest gathered around the mountains, shrouding them with towering evergreens. She saw the footprints leading into the forest, and knew that she was going in there. Back behind her, beyond the low rolling hills, she could see the smoke of the chimneys of Lover’s Hill. In the distance like that, the towne looked so tiny but so warm. She pulled her hat down over her stinging ears and trudged onward, into the forest.
Stepping into the forest, into the embrace of the trees, felt dangerous. She wanted to be back in the open hills where she could see for hundreds of yards around her. She gripped the handle of the long knife stuck in her belt, and continued to crunch through the snow, her eyes darting all around her. She did not know what she was afraid of, or why exactly she should be fearful at all, but she could not keep her eyes from wildly bouncing about the trees. She forced her attention directly ahead of her, and stopped where she was. There was an empty pond just there ahead of her, and in the middle of the clearing created by the pond, she saw something in the snow…
She dashed across the empty pond as fast as she could, and stood over the object in the snow. Looking down at the thing, her knees gave way and she fell onto the snow. It was Tanni’s favorite toy, a brightly painted wooden fish with cloth fins that flapped back and forth. Her father’s footprints ended here in the middle of the empty pond, but he was not here. She cast her eyes all about, looking for more tracks in the snow, but there were none. She looked up into the trees, and saw nothing there either. She looked up at the grey sky and saw nothing but dark clouds slowly churning their way across the world. She picked up the toy and clutched it to her chest. The wooden toy was warm, like it had been sitting in the summer sun. She thought of beautiful little Tanni’s face, the way she looked before the sickness had got her. Tears welled up into Preya’s eyes and burst the sunlight around her into fragmented bars and streaks. Deep, uncontrollable wails and sobs began to well out of her, and she poured steaming tears onto the snow.
She cried for ages, long enough for the sun to shift its position in the sky. Finally, she pulled herself back together. She realized that she was soaking wet from the snow, and her teeth were chattering. She stood up, brushing snow from her cloak with one hand while the other held Tanni’s toy. The toy was ice cold now. She dropped the toy back onto the snow, and began to trudge back toward the cabin. Her cabin now.
Winter always seemed long in the valley, but Preya was sure this one would be the longest yet.