This little story is mostly notable for being the first piece of anything fictional I have managed to scrape together in more than a month. Thank you, what is sure to be a very temporary break from crippling insomnia.
The horse had come back alone. Shela knew she couldn’t hate him for it – she couldn’t afford to hate him, now that she was alone, but that didn’t stop her from throwing a clod of crumbling dirt at his oblivious flank as he grazed peacefully on the few tufts of wiry grass that hadn’t burned. The horse raised his head, staring idly at her as tears rolled down her face.
“You daft old fool,” she shouted, her dry voice cracking into a foreign croak. She couldn’t afford the tears, either. There was no water left, and now there was no Jament to help her try to fix the well.
There wasn’t even a shovel. Everything had burned. The horse had come back, expecting its warm stable and a bale of crunchy hay – perhaps a piece of dried apple, if Jament was feeling inclined towards a great degree of generosity – but its instincts had betrayed its master, dead on the road somewhere for all she knew, and now Shela didn’t know what she was supposed to do next.
She had never wanted to come to the horrible place to begin with. The Red Mountains were no place for a woman, Jament had told her one night, his thumb gently twisting the ring he had put on her finger only six months before as they sat together, leaning on each other, warm before the hearth. He was supposed to have gone alone, for just a year, to look for the gold that everyone said was hiding behind every bush and stunted, gnarled tree.
It didn’t matter that there was little food and less civilization, or that the soil was too poor and the roads too treacherous to do anything about either. But they wouldn’t need to grow their own crops when they came back to the city. They wouldn’t care about the bad roads that made it impossible to bring a wagon full of their tools to the forges hot enough to fix them, a day and a half away if the sun wasn’t out to cause their horse a heatstroke.
They weren’t supposed to care about any of that once they found what they had been looking for. She had come with him out of necessity as much as dutiful love: she could not make enough coin on her own to support herself in the city without his wage to pay for their cramped, overly priced room. It was a fool’s choice, and perhaps a false one, but she had followed him into the mountains, blindly and full of trusting hope. There was gold out there, and all they had to do was find it.
She had done well, she had thought at first, to leave her city ways behind her. She had learned to cook without a stove, and without ground flour and yeast and meat and fruit. She had learned to haul her own water, while Jament was away in the hills, and wash their clothes on a flat rock, and clean their few possessions with the scouring root of the roughstock tree, dug from the clay with a second-hand spade.
But then one night, Shela hadn’t been careful enough about sweeping out the straw that covered their dirt floor, harboring little wiggling worms and bright red chiggers that made them howl in frustration during the hot, still midnights when their ankles itched like fire without end.
It was the fire that had taken their little homestead, a gap-walled hut cobbled together from all the ancient, knotty pine that Jament could drag into the vicinity. They hadn’t had the horse back then. They had found it, wandering thin and knock-kneed along the crest of the baking ridge that separated them from the dawn. They had used so much of their precious grain to feed it back to health, recognizing the importance of the investment, going hungry themselves through the short, blazing evenings before collapsing into darkness, exhausted by their fruitless labors.
It was the fire that had woken them, but not before catching on Jament’s sleeve, rousing him with a shriek louder than the one he had once laughed at Shela for letting loose when a diamond-heart snake slithered into her cookpot and made it a cool, shady home. There was no laughing when they raced outside, slapping their hands against his shirt to stop the burning before she remembered that he was supposed to roll it out in the dust. There was no laughing when they watched, dull-eyed and frozen, as the hut snapped up into flame like a curl of parchment, a beacon in the starry night that no one was close enough to see.
She had used strips of her skirt to bind up his burns, caked in red dirt and redder blood and odd white patches of blister and bone as he shivered and shook with silent pain while the fever grew rapidly inside him. The fire had taken the crooked well sweep and the bucket and the rope, and there was nothing she could do to quench his thirst. She had pleaded with him to let her go instead, before the sun rose and sucked the last of the meager moisture from the air, but the bad road was no place for a woman, he had smiled weakly at her as he kissed her goodbye, and he had mounted the horse with his arm dangling down as he climbed slowly over the ridge and out of sight to fetch whatever help he could find.
And now the horse had come back alone. Two days had gone already. Two parched and hopeless sunsets had arced over her bowed and frightened head, which meant that Jament, if he lived, was too far away for her to reach in the unforgiving glare of the sunlight without any water to sustain her, already wilting as she was. It was too far to town. It was too far for somewhere that would just ask her for gold she didn’t have to treat her missing husband’s wounds, and no one would trade their time and precious medicines for a knackered old horse with no meat on its bones.
“Come along,” she said, yanking on his tether as it huffed at her in annoyance that she would interrupt its meager meal. It was his last meal, perhaps, and she felt a little bad that she was taking him from it, but she would not die alone in the ashes with nothing but a stubborn horse to mark her grave.
Everything had burned, but if the fires they could make were hot enough to melt the metal of the spade and the flat-end hoe and the pincers and the cookpot that Jament had sold their city life to purchase, they would never have needed to make the long trip to town a day and a half away. There was value in those, even without their handles, and whether or not her husband had survived his fall from the ornery animal, she would need them to trade for shelter and bread and the small comforts of the outpost village barely clinging to its ruddy outcrops of stone.
“Come along,” she repeated, one hand on the bundle of tools lashed to the small of his back with vines threaded under his belly as she turned away from the homestead without taking a glance behind her. “This is no place for a horse.”