Bitter, aching cold.
It was her first clear memory, before hunger or affection or fear. The type of cold that digs deep into your bones and won’t let go.
It came in the draughts that whispered through every crack in the walls of the hut she and her mother lived in. It crept through the floor under her bare feet, the straw mattress of her bed, the surface of everything she touched. And with cold came the stark white of the snow carpeting the world outside her home.
Hunger came next, a constant dull ache in the pit of her stomach, and after that… fear. The fear in her mother’s eyes when she looked at her sometimes. Or drawn tight in her features when she left the hut early each morning to work or hunt.
She didn’t remember much before the night her mother died. Those memories held a fuzzy, dreamlike quality. Impressions mostly. Her mother’s laugh. The way her embrace could dispel the aching cold, if only for a brief moment. A snatch of brown hair, light, coppery, like the leaves floating to the ground before the merciless winter came.
But she remembered that day like it had been yesterday. The glow of the sunset lighting the unbroken white outside the hut aflame in orange. The way she’d shivered as any warmth the day had held faded with it. She remembered watching as the sun finally slid below the horizon and the shadows crept further and further across the floor toward her… remembered staring out that window. Waiting. For her mother to return with the night as she always did.
But she hadn’t come, no matter how long she waited.
She’d almost frozen to death in the early hours before dawn, too young to know how to start a fire or make dinner, too young to know what to do about the fact her mother hadn’t come home like she was supposed to.
The night had been unending.
Fear of the dark swamped her. The walls of the tiny hut closed in until she felt she couldn’t breathe. Every sound outside caused her to start in fright, the pressure in her chest at the dark and the small space growing tighter and tighter until it hurt. Until she was taking quick, panting breaths, numb fingers clenched painfully tight in the threadbare fabric of the blanket she’d wrapped around herself.
She’d huddled on her straw bed and shivered from cold and terror until morning light had crept under the door and through the windows, slowly dispelling the darkness. By then her hands and feet were numb and she was so stiff she could barely move.
With the day came the slowing of her breath, an easing in her chest. Fear had not defeated her. She had survived.
She had decided then and there that she would bury that fear and dread so far away that she would never have to re-live it. Never have to remember the horror of that night, how she’d whimpered and trembled and begged for it all to be over. Whatever it took. Even if she was already afraid of what would happen when the sun set once again and darkness returned.
So bit by bit she packed it away, let the daylight banish the shadows, and then she forced herself to her feet. Eventually her stiff limbs cooperated, and she tidied the hut as she knew her mother would want her to, even though they barely had any possessions. Then she curled up on her straw bed and continued waiting. Her mother would come eventually.
Not long after sunrise a visitor came. Stomping feet sounded through the snow outside and then an impatient knock came at the door, hard enough to make it rattle on its hinges. It startled her from the daze of hunger and exhaustion she’d fallen into, and her heart quickened in fear when a second knock thudded on the wood.
She forced herself off the bed, stumbling and falling when cold-stiffened limbs refused to work properly. Gritting her teeth, she’d heaved herself off the floor and gone to answer the knock.
A big, bearded, man stood there, towering over her. She’d seen him before at the village market. The grim look on his weathered face marked itself in her memory for always… but it wasn’t the news he brought that made her remember it with such clarity. It was the flash of fear in his eyes when she opened the door and he saw her standing there.
“You survived the night,” he’d muttered, mostly to himself. If anything, the fear on his face grew starker at the fact of her survival. “I didn’t expect that, it was a cold one.”
She stared at him, uncomprehending.
“Your mother is dead. Someone will be here soon to collect you and take you away. You’re not wanted here.”
Before she could process that, could think to ask any questions, he’d turned and stomped away. She’d stared after him for a long time. Cold wind swept around her shivering body, toyed with the strands of her lank hair. Death was a concept she vaguely understood, enough to know her mother wasn’t coming back.
Where would they take her?
Eventually closing the door, she’d turned and looked at the inside of their hut. At the unlit fire and the old chest holding her and her mother’s belongings. Hunger ached in her stomach, but that wasn’t a new sensation, and she pushed it aside.
If her mother was dead, where would she get food? She had no way of paying for it. She couldn’t even light the fire to make herself warm. Not that there was much kindling left. Would they take her somewhere where there was food? The girl made herself walk over to the chest and open it up. She owned only one change of clothes, as tattered and worn as the ones she had on, but she pulled them out anyway. That was what Mother wanted her to do each day. Dress in clean clothes.
She’d only just finished putting her old clothing in the pail near the fire to be washed when a second banging came at the door. A different villager was outside this time. He hid his fear better, but it was still there in the way he took an unconscious step back when she opened the door.
“What happened to my mother?” She hadn’t quite felt yet that her mother wasn’t ever returning, even though she knew it must be true.
“She’s gone. Best not to dwell on it, girl,” he said, his voice blunt but not unkind. “You’ll be better off away from here.”
“Your kind isn’t wanted here,” he said gruffly. “We tolerated your mother because she had none of his… but you do and it’s best you be gone before you bring trouble down on us all. I’m off to Dirinan to sell my carvings, and it’s been decided you’ll come with me. Come along now.”
Five years old and she’d closed the door of her home behind her for the final time, small feet trudging through the thick snow towards the man’s cart. It was already loaded with crates, so she climbed up and perched between two of them, curling her body in an attempt to stay warm.
The journey had taken all day and night. He hadn’t spoken a word to her the entire day, apart from when he tossed her a hunk of bread and a blanket once night fell.
They’d entered Dirinan not long after dawn. Freezing, hungry, and exhausted, she hadn’t taken in much of the port city, her gaze unseeing as the cart moved through quiet cobblestoned streets. Her mother was gone. That realisation had slowly sunk in during the long night. A shudder racked her frame.
Her mother was gone, and she’d never see her again. Nobody wanted her now. Tears iced on her cheek, but she barely noticed. The pain inside was much worse than the discomfort on the outside.
The man didn’t say anything when he’d stopped the cart in front of a grey stone building either. She’d waited, shivering, while he went inside. When he came back out, he’d told her to get out of his cart, go inside, and never come back to the village.
Not knowing what else to do, she’d climbed down from the cart. He clicked his tongue and the cart took off. He didn’t look back. Shoulders hunched against the icy air, she turned and went inside the building.
The woman waiting beyond the front doors told her she was at an orphanage, a home for motherless children, and that she would be living there until she was old enough to leave.
“What’s your name, girl?”
“You have a last name?”
Lira had shrugged, unsure what that was. “Mama called me Lira.”
The woman masked her fear better than the villagers, but the man had clearly told the woman who she was, because the girl could see wariness in the stiffness of her shoulders and the way she held herself back, as if the girl carried some kind of disease. It was a familiar sight.
Five years old and already they were afraid of Shakar’s granddaughter.