Tintisie crouched, trembling, in the tall, ripe wheat. A sudden wind rattled the golden stalks above her head. Sticky clay mud covered the bottoms of her feet, smeared her skin and spattered her sweat-stained, tattered sack-cloth dress. Straw stuck in her matted hair. Though tiny, she curled into a fetal position to become even smaller. She clasped her hand over her mouth to stifle her gasps as she caught her breath. She could hear a dog sniffing and rustling through the grain.
“Blue has my scent! I can’t outrun a dog.” She squeezed her eyes shut as she pictured the massive hunting dog in her mind. “Calm. Deep breaths. Don’t panic. Think.” Blue’s snuffing sounded closer.
“It will find me soon! What to do? I can’t run. It will hear. It will see, just like last time. Just like….” She heard footsteps crunching through the field behind the dog. She froze. Her hunter might have been just a few yards away, but she couldn’t turn to see him. She held herself motionless and listened to his breathing. Then she smelled it, the fetid stench of a moonshine still’s rancid, fermenting innards.
“Yellow-Teeth. It just had to be you.” Thoughts of the serf foreman filled her with disgust and loathing.
“Come on, Blue,” the man called out. “Damn rain is coming, by the look of those clouds. We can’t waste any more time searching for that Slip. We got to get this grain harvested before it’s too late or there will be Hell to pay.”
She heard a second man, farther away, laughing as he shouted, “If that Slip is still in this field when we send the harvester over, it will find her.”
Yellow-Teeth roared with laughter, “Yeah!” He shouted. “Hear that, Little Bird? The harvester’s gonna cut you into dog food. Best come out now!”
Yellow-Teeth impatiently turned and moved back to join the other men somewhere to his right. “Bah! She’s nothing but trouble. Get them oxen moving!”
More laughter sounded from behind her. Someone clicked his tongue. She heard the stomping of oxen, followed by the whirring of scythe-like blades and creaking wheels. The harvester cut a wide swath through the field, mowing the grain a bare few inches above the ground and shunting the heavy ripe stalks into the collector behind.
Tintisie hesitated. “I have to run. But the dog—did it go with Yellow- Teeth? I didn’t hear it move off when Yellow-Teeth called it.” She strained her ears to hear the animal, but couldn’t hear anything else over the racket of the harvester.
Familiar feelings began to well up inside her: helplessness, fear, frustration, and pain. The memories had once held her in an icy grip. Now they just roiled inside her—particularly the incident that had driven her to this escape attempt.
“I said take the bird!” The man with yellow-stained, crusted teeth, his breath smelling of cheap alcohol, shoved a still-living dove into her hand. “Thrust the knife into it. Make it bleed upon Asmodeus’s altar!” She whimpered and shook her head. Inside she cried for her goddess. “SMACK!” Yellow-Teeth hit her so hard that the knife, intended to sacrifice the dove, flew out of her hand. It struck Yellow-Teeth on his forearm where it stuck, shuddering with force. Yellow-Teeth grimaced in pain, pulled out the knife, and gestured with it. “You little JINX! Next time it’s you we sacrifice. You will be the bird, Little Bird.”
“No time for that now.” Fear still held her, but fury had begun to grow within her. “Sarenrae, I remained faithful to you. I asked you for help time and time again. All I received was bad luck: to me, to those around me. If they are right and I am a jinx, please, Sarenrae, if you can hear me, please take my bad luck away and give it to them. They have beaten me, tortured me, forced me to do foul things, left me cold and hungry, and turned my friends against me. Stop punishing me! Punish them, instead!” A deadly quiet settled over her and she looked up to see the sun turning red as it prepared to descend upon the horizon. Her mouth set in determination. Her jaw ached. She pictured Yellow- Teeth’s sneering face. “Bring bad luck to them all!”
The ground shook as the oxen came into view a few yards away, pulling the harvester behind them by a leather harness. Suddenly, one of the leather straps snapped, whipped back, and hit one of the oxen then wrapped around the others’ legs. Both beasts bellowed in pain and confusion and bolted in blind panic, dragging the harvester with them. The startled men atop it hung on for dear life.
“Blue!” Shouted Yellow-Teeth as he pointed. “The ox!”
Not ten feet away from Tintisie, the grain stalks exploded, and a dog several times her weight and size bounded away. The dog sprinted towards the oxen pair, barking up a storm.
“The vile beast was still there, waiting for me to run.”
She rose from her position and glanced about the field. She could barely see what was happening through the thick stalks of grain. The dog’s barking, the shouts of men and the bellowing of oxen were all receding. “They’ve got a bigger problem than finding me, now. Go! Go now!” She bit her lower lip, sucked in a deep breath and dashed towards the creek at the opposite end of the field. Her adrenaline-fueled legs pumped as she crashed through the uncut grain. Her dirty-blonde hair flowed behind her.
She reached the shadowed ravine, just as the sun’s light faded. The darkened water at the bottom was swollen, its current swiftened by recent rains. She dove in.
“No more tracks. No more scent for them to follow.”
The water was cold, but the promise of freedom made it bearable. It swept her downstream, swallowing her in the fast current and carrying her far away from her tormenters.
“Could it be that Sarenrae heard my prayer and finally graced me with a bit of the famous halfling luck?” At that instant a broken branch carried by the swollen stream suddenly swung into view.
“No, she didn’t hear, and you are still a jinx. Tintisie the Jinx…”
Sudden pain interrupted her thought, and then she lost consciousness.
* * *
Flashes of light.
“I think she is going to make it. She is breathing. Praise Cayden Cailean.” It was a man’s voice—and kind.
“We’d better get moving if we are to reach the slave enclosure by the time this storm hits. The storm will hide our actions. Best leave that one, I think. We’d have to carry her. She’ll only slow us down.” This second voice was higher-pitched, perhaps younger.
“What!?” The kind voice turned incredulous. “Just look at her! Scars on her back and wrists, dressed in rags and thin as a reed. She must be one of the slaves we came here to set free. What kind of men would we be if we left her here? I am not going to do it, Banner.”
Tintisie felt gentle hands bandaging her brow.
“You’ll leave her here if you know what’s good for the mission,” the one called Banner said flatly. “The other halfling slaves all say she’s a jinx. They insisted she not come when I prepared them for this escape. She’s going to get us all caught, Reith. It isn’t worth the risk.”
Strong hands slid under her and cradled her like a child. “I’m not leaving her. I’ll carry her. She’s so tiny and thin. She can’t weigh more than twenty pounds.”
Tintisie’s eyes popped open. She saw the human male holding her pull a cloak from his backpack. He wrapped her in it and tied it sideways like a harness across his middle—the way women carry their babes. She caught a glimpse of a symbol hung from a chain around the man’s neck. It resembled a beer stein. It vanished in a blink of the eye as the man muttered something under his breath.
Tintisie felt warm and safe as she nestled in the cloak sling. She recalled a happier time long ago when she was back in her village and wrapped in her Momma’s belly sling. She opened her eyes again and saw a blond-haired halfling male staring at her.
“Hullo little Jinx. I’m Banner and that there is Reith of Andoran,” he said. He had the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. They were kind, despite the harshness of his earlier words. “What’s your name?”
* * *
(featured in Wayfinder, Vol. 7)
To be concluded in Wayfinder #8!