Waiting for Anna: Part Four
After a while, Anna thinks she has the strength to stand, but she still has to use her walking stick to lever herself up. Her legs are weak and wobbly--both of them.
Once she is standing, the Aisha thinks, she can get out of here. She doesn't think further than that. She can't. If her parents and her brother were still there, they would've come to get her before this.
As she leans on the cane, something clicks under the floor, and the wall slides back, letting in the late evening sunlight and the scene in the living room. Anna doesn't let herself look at it. She heads for the front door, determinedly not looking around. It is easy to convince herself not to look.
The door is hanging off of its hinges, moving a little as the wind shifts it or as its weight settles. Outside in the snow, Anna leans on her stick and swallows hard. She scans the snow, looking for the footprints of the soldiers. Just outside of the door, there is a muddle of footprints, but after that they divide into two directions. One set leads away from the house, toward Sestin. Other prints, coming from near the barn, look as though they came from the direction of Kelva. The barn itself is in as much wreckage as the house: straw is scattered over the snow outside both the big doors.
Kelva is unsafe, then, Anna thinks. She sways, but her stick helps her keep her balance. So is Sestin, if that is where they are moving toward. Two directions left, then.
She turns to face the other way, thinking. The one direction goes through farmland until it reaches the sea; of that Anna is fairly certain. The other leads through her wood, and ends up in Brightvale.
Anna knows nothing about Brightvale except vague rumors, and even those promise danger. They say the Brightvale citizens never interfere because they want Meridell to fall; they say that the Brightvale king stole his kingdom's land from King Skarl, his own brother.
Nevertheless, it is a safer choice than going toward either Kelva or Sestin, and she does not want to stay where she is any longer. There is nothing left for her here. And they say the Brightvale king is wise--slippery and canny, but wise.
With her mind made up, Anna turns toward the house. She does not want to go in, but neither does she wish to feel the sting of the cold night air. She hesitates, and then goes in, holding her breath as she slips her thick coat off its peg in the front hall. A cut on the side exhales feathers as she puts it on, but it does not seem to be disposed to waste more to the air after the first time, and she buttons it up securely over her chest. The Aisha finds her scarf and hat, too, and carries them out.
She thinks for a moment of finding food, carrying it with her, but she cannot convince herself to go back inside.
Planting her stick firmly in the snow, she pulls on the hat and slings her scarf around her neck, and then retrieves the cane.
With a sigh, the Aisha turns her face toward Brightvale and starts to walk.
It is exhaustion that gets her, not the cold. Her jacket keeps her warm even as she starts to nod off to sleep as she walks. Her feet move automatically, but they cannot keep her from tripping without her looking out for protruding roots.
Her fall serves well to wake her up. Anna moans and pushes herself up, reaching out with one hand for the walking stick that is like part of her by now. Finding it, she braces it against the ground and pulls herself up to stand.
The Aisha cannot go on. Nor can she convince herself that she will be safe here, in the middle of the wood. In the dark, though, she could well lose her way without knowing it.
In the end she curls up between two tree roots, reasoning that she is harder to see there. Halfway through worrying about whether or not she should pile up snow for insulation, Anna falls asleep.
The light of dawn and the stiffness in her muscles wake the Aisha up the next morning. She uncurls out of her hollow and stretches as much as she can while supporting herself with her cane and not putting too much weight on her foot.
Anna turns in a slow circle after she finishes her stretches, noting the direction of the sunlight in particular. Her trail of footsteps from last night are a little off track, she finds as she counts the compass directions around, but she was nearly going the right way.
Turning to face the direction she needs to go to get back on the right track, Anna adjusts her hat and scarf and starts off. She ignores the hunger rumbling deep inside of her. The Aisha knows she has to find food, but she can survive for a while longer, at least, without it. It can't be too far to Brightvale, Anna thinks, and she can get food. Or she'll find a farm; there have to be clearings in this forest somewhere. The soldiers can't have gotten to all of them yet, and--she shies away from this thought, but it is necessary--even if they have, the odds are good that some food might still be left. If she gets desperate.
The Aisha hopes it won't come to that. She couldn't stand even going back into her house for food.
She scoops up a double handful of snow and licks it, and then takes mouthfuls of it, letting it melt in her mouth before she swallows it. It doesn't help her hunger, but she feels a little less thirsty, at least.
She continues through the woods, picking her way around the roots of trees and the low bushes that threaten to entangle her unsteady feet and her walking stick.
On the second morning, Anna has to admit that she is lost. She needs food, and the woods seem to stretch out in every direction around her. She has kept going in the same direction, but it is impossible to say how much further she will have to go before she reaches Brightvale and safety. She could even be in Brightvale already, and just still in this interminable forest. It goes on forever.
The Aisha sinks down on a fallen log, dropping her cane next to her. Her hunger has dwindled, but she knows that this is just because it has been much too long since her last meal. She hasn't the faintest idea of where to find edible plants, or even what the poisonous ones look like to avoid them.
She runs through her memories, trying to find anything she might have forgotten about the area between their farm and Brightvale. The wood; she knows that. But it does not run all the way through Brightvale, or at least she does not think it does...
But then, what does she know? Nothing.
Anna sighs, retrieving her stick to help herself up. She needs to do something, and that something isn't going to happen while she's sitting here.
The silence of the woods catches her notice then. This wood is never silent, the Aisha thinks next moment; surely it is just the normal serenity of winter.
But there is something special about this silence, and it takes her a moment to discover what it is that she finds so intriguing about it.
It is not silent because nothing is there. It is silent because it is waiting.
A wood can't wait, Anna thinks, but the plain fact lies all around her. It can. It is.
She draws in breath and holds it. She stills herself to join the wood, acting on pure instinct. She wants to know what it waits for.
It pulls her up from it, sweeps her along. You are what we are waiting for, a thousand voices tell her, and a thousand more add, You are what we seek.
Anna closes her eyes, holds her breath. The woods carry her through them, down to the smallest leaf, up to the highest bough. A hundred thousand leaves shower over her, scattering into the winds, disappearing into the ground. She sees the animals in their dens, sleeping through winter, and the way the snow falls into the stem of a leaf. She sees the birds flying high above the forest, seeking out the red pinpricks that are winter berries. She sees everything--she is everything.
And then she is not.
She inhales shakily, leaning on the walking stick that she is still, improbably, holding, and opens her eyes.
Anna is standing on the edge of a great plain. Behind her stand the woods, which are silent no longer. Weewoos sing from the branches; creatures scurry below, leaving tracks behind them.
The Aisha half-turns and looks behind her. There are no footprints leading up to where she is standing.
She swallows and looks around again.
Ahead of her, across a wide field, stands the great castle of Brightvale.
To be continued...