The whinny of a horse jarred Jia out of the first sleep she’d had in two days. The splat of something falling into the mud and the thump of hooves fading into the night had her peering through the boughs of her wayward pine.
Beneath the full moon two scruffy men drug a woman by the arms into the woods on the other side of the Baren Road. A mass of black curls slid in the mire beside her lower body.
The men murmured and laughed. Eager hands ripped the woman’s frock.
Jia huddled beneath the damp horse blanket and bit her fist, remembering the night of her mother’s death. Momma, she whimpered. Please come back.
The first man wheezed for a time; the second grunted.
Jia’s empty stomach heaved. She knew what those men were about. Her step-uncle started doing the same to her when she’d been placed in his care three months earlier. Why couldn’t she have just stayed with Widow Endride? She wasn’t old enough to take the place of her mother as head cook, but she was big enough to be a scullery maid or dish washer.
“Good gods!” one man exclaimed. “Run, ye fool! Afore she puts a curse on our heads!”
Jia’s head snapped up and she brushed back unkempt, golden tendrils from her eyes. The men scrambled down the road, one struggling with his breeches. Across the road a pair of pale legs glowed in the moon’s cold beams.
Jia crept from beneath the pine and approached the still body.
Hair covered the woman’s face and blood pooled beneath her head. The linen frock had been ripped to her waist; crimson stained the pine needles between her spread thighs.
Jia bent and pushed back the mud-splattered hair. Eyes the color of blooming violets met hers. She stumbled onto her backside.
“Please, help me,” the woman whispered.
Jia bit her lower lip as mud oozed through her threadbare kirtle. “There’s a village just over yonder hill. Shall I get someone to fetch your people?”
“No, child.” The Sato unclasped a gold chain from her neck and pulled a jeweled amulet from beneath her chemise. “I am called Andara. You know what I am?”
“Y… yes, Wise One.”
Andara grimaced and swallowed the thickness from her throat. “You know of the Alcove of Bones?”
Jia’s face paled. All children knew of the haunted Sato burial grounds in the Torun Hills above Kiel, the city she’d run away from two days before.
“Dip this in the Hallowed Wellspring. Return my spirit to my ancestors.”
Tears filled Jia’s eyes. She had no wish to retrace her steps. “Anything but that, Wise One. Please.”
The woman gasped for air. “I can grant one heart’s wish if you set my soul to rest.”
Jia bit her lip. It was said a Sato’s wish-granting bore danger, but it might be worth having her life returned to normal. She leaned forward and touched the amulet. “I will do as you ask.”
Thin, smooth fingers wrapped around hers. The white stone beneath their hands brightened till it bathed Jia’s dirt-smudged face like the summer sun.
The hand fell from hers as the Sato’s eyes closed. Her chest rose then was still.
Jia stared at the amethyst light swirling within the stone until clouds covered the moon and rain began to fall.
Jia stood beneath the towering stone arch that led to the Alcove of Bones. Her stomach knotted with hunger, her eyes were gritty with weariness. She clenched the amulet in her trembling hands and prayed Andara’s spirit within would protect her.
She took a deep breath and moved into the dim corridor. The sand beneath her feet muted her footfalls. The air smelled of jasmine and springtime.
The cavern of the Sato dead opened before her. Countless alcoves lined the circular wall, many cradling the bones of those long dead. All faced the cavern’s center and the shimmering spring that lay there. Jia crept forward and shivered as a thousand eyes caressed her. Voices murmured. She bit back a cry as icy tingles brushed against her bare legs.
My heart’s wish, Jia reminded herself.
She stared straight ahead till she knelt beside the spring. The water rippled as Jia dipped the amulet into it. With a rush of air the stone’s glow dimmed. The spirit of the Sato woman rose before her.
“Though my bones rot beneath the sun, my soul has returned home,” Andara’s bell-like voice filled the chamber, quieting the others. “I would grant this child’s heart-wish for her selflessness.”
“I want my mother back,” Jia whispered.
The Sato’s violet eyes filled with sadness. “You ask the one thing even the gods cannot do.” A wispy hand touched Jia’s forehead. “But I will do what I can.” The spirit sank back into the water with a sigh.
Jia sat by the road outside Kiel, too tired and hungry to go on. Coach wheels rumbled toward her. She lifted her head and watched with bleary eyes as it passed her by before coming to an abrupt halt.
A woman’s face appeared in the window. “Jia?” she asked, her voice soft as batt cotton.
Jia blinked. “Madam Endride!”
“Lane,” the woman called. “The door, if you please.”
The driver leapt to the ground and opened the carriage door. Widow Endride emerged in a rustle of black silk.
“I’d heard you’d gone missing.” The widow pushed back Jia’s hair. “Oh, you may cry, child. I miss your mother, too.”
Jia wiped her nose on her sleeve. “P…please don’t take me back to Uncle’s. He’s mean as a badger. I’d rather die than go there again!”
Widow Endride cradled Jia’s cheek in her hand and smiled. “I happen to have an empty nursery now that Richard went to boarding school. I don’t suppose you’d want to come home with me instead?”
Jia face lit with joy as she glanced up toward the Torun Hills.
Terri Rochenski is a stay-at-home mom of two toddlers who loves to read and write when she’s allowed some ‘me’ time.