“I saw it before,” James muttered lowly.
Bryna was bouncing Marie on her hip, attempting to make the little girl stop crying. Jane prodded at the fire, or what remained of it, in search of any warmth in the barely glowing embers. The clothing up to her ankles was soaked with freezing water. Prying off her socks, she found herself caught between the cold of the air and the radiant heat of the fire pit. She laid the damp stockings on the nearby rocks to let them dry while the rest of her body shivered.
James’ gaze was still tracking about the dark forest, looking for the low glow shifting about his vision. “The wisp…” He spoke again, but the others were distracted by their own worries.
“Bryna, what are we going to do?”
“Shh-“ The old woman hummed, putting Marie back to sleep in her arms. “We’ll be fine. Not much further to the town, I think.”
“How sure are you?”
James finally felt the cold night air. He closed in on his mother and wrapped his arms around her neck and shoulders. She pulled him closer and shifted him onto her lap. “That light…” she spoke to herself.
“Saw it before…” James spoke up.
“Bryna, tell me you saw it too, that I wasn’t just imagining things?”
The old woman used her free arm to gather up the damp blanket and pull it over Jane’s and her own shoulder. “A wisp…”
“Just sleep now, James.”
“It’s nice,” The little boy insisted, fidgeting in Jane’s lap.
“The boy spoke of it the night before too, Jane,” the old woman said back.
Jane bit at her lip and looked up and about at the dark forest. “What does it want?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea.”
James tugged on the front of his mother’s clothing. “Follow it.”
“It’s gone now,” Jane sighed. “It… it spooked the horse. We’ll have to make it on foot.”
“The woods will be easier than going it along the road. The pines are keeping the snow at bay.”
“Let’s hope we’re near…”
The next morning, with all their belongings strapped to the women’s backs, they departed the cold fire pit. They followed, at first, the path marked by the tracks of the horse, left behind when it had fled the night before. Not far from where they had stopped, they came across the stream, fresh with the shards of ice from where Jane had crashed through. In the light of day, they found a crossing able to be made with a determined jump.
The road still ran parallel to their path, the clearing of trees marking their way. The nearly naked canopies above blocked out some of the snow from the ground, allowing them to traverse forward slightly more easily. Among the undergrowth and rocky ground, they lost the horse’s tracks and were forced to continue along the known path, hoping that they were as close to the village as they believed.
James walked for short distances while Bryna and Jane exchanged the little girl back and forth, resting their arms. He continued taking glances between the back of his mother and the seemingly endless forest about them. The sun piercing the clouds above mimicked the glow of the wisp he had seen the night before, but it wasn’t quite the same.
His little legs constantly felt the pull of the snow against them. When possible, he held to the back of his mother’s clothing to help pull him along. “I bet papa would be able to kick through the deepest snow,” he spoke up.
“I’m… I’m sure he would,” Jane said back breathily, eyes still to her front.
“Let’s take a break, shall we?” Bryna asked from a few steps behind. She motioned to a sheltered hillside of rock.
They settled down for that moment, passing about the remaining crumbs of hardtack. Jane looked at the little boy, then six years of age, in what felt to be the first time in a long while. “You probably don’t remember your grandpa David, papa’s papa. But you met him when you were a baby. He said you were going to grow up like your father. Big and strong like him. You’re already halfway up on me.”
James looked on blankly, taking in the words. “I wonder how papa is doing…”
Thinking about his father and the words passed on from his mother, James was able to march on foot with his mother and the old woman. The two women had often spoken together when they had been back at their home, but they seemed silent in their march at either side of him. His stomach rumbled, but in the back of his mind, he didn’t wish to ask either of them to stop to eat. They traded his little sister a few times, while the other rested their arms. James wished silently that his father were there, able to carry him on his shoulders.
The little boy continued to look about their surroundings, noticing the road, and the rocks, and the bare trees, and the trees that still held to their long, green needles. He kept watch for something, but he couldn’t picture whatever it was in his mind. He felt a sudden touch at his back as his mother caught him slowing and wandering.
“Pay attention,” she said coldly.
The old woman paused and rubbed at his leather cap with her gloved hand. “Getting tired, boy? I can let you up on my back.”
“That’s okay, Bryna,” Jane butted in. “You mustn’t strain yourself. Take Marie, and I’ll carry James.”
James’ mother crouched down and intertwined her hands behind her back, allowing the boy to find purchase on her shoulders and against her back. His fingers locked tight onto the cloth beside her collar bones, and she stood with a slight struggle. Her reddish hair was cold, but underneath, her back and neck were warm. Exhausted, James fell into a light sleep very soon after.
The boy dreamed. He saw a path of pure white. It seemed to have no end, save a bright glow of yellow, like the summer sun, continually out of reach. He heard his name.
He awoke again, feeling his mother tension her arms to keep him suspended upon her back. “What, mama?”
“James,” the little boy echoed.
“I think you were dreaming,” Jane said tiredly.
James attempted to shove his head back against her neck, but he felt something different than before. He looked up, glancing about. It was brighter than when he had come to rest on his mother’s back. Out of the corner of his eyes, he spotted the bright aura. Every way he turned, it was still only in his peripheral vision, but never in the direction the four of them were headed.
“Stop…” James said suddenly.
“You’re dreaming, love.”
James pulled on his mother’s shoulders more forcibly. “This not the way!”
“Ouch,” Jane complained. “Bryna, hold up.”
Resting her shoulder and arms, she knelt back down and let James stand once again on his own two feet. He glanced about, looking for the light. “Bad way…”
Bryna caught wind of the conversation. She looked in the same ways the little boy glanced, but couldn’t see anything in particular.
“Bryna, how much longer do you think?” Jane asked, rubbing her wrists and fingers to stretch and warm them.
“I assumed…” The old woman hesitated. She stepped out over the old leaves encrusted in old snow, a few meters, until she came across the clearing where the road ran through. “I’m positive, we just have to keep going…”
“I can’t sleep out here in the cold another night,” Jane said hopelessly, gritting her teeth. “None of us can.”
“I know that.”
“C’mon, boy,” Jane said, reaching down for James’ hand.
The boy followed absentmindedly, watching his mother by his side, and the old woman a few treads ahead. He spotted the light again, dancing about the trees to the south of them. He pulled on his mother’s hand suddenly, yanking her violently to the side and through the slippery snow.
“You can’t do this to me, James.”
“Wrong way. Follow him.” The little boy pointed at the wisp. Jane caught sight of it in a single blink before it disappeared again.