The footsteps in the snow led them away from the path they had been following. Jane kept looking back behind them at the road and the line of cleared trees, watching as it disappeared.
“Who could be out here in such weather?” Jane asked.
Bryna slowed her tread to answer. “Hunters, most likely. Animals grow their thickest coats out in the winter, making the finest furs for skinning… tanning.”
“Skinning and tanning,” Jane mumbled back.
“The animals mus’ be cold without their hair,” James spoke up, hanging off his mother’s back.
The old woman smiled at him. “Yes, of course…”
Jane pursed her lips and avoided the explanation. “I hope… they are friendly, at least.”
Bryna nodded thoughtfully. “They wouldn’t be able to turn down helping two women and two children, out here in the cold and looking like ragamuffins.”
Jane hiked the little boy a bit higher on her back and focused back to the treads in the snow. They continued to march along, stomachs growling and legs aching and cheeks burning in the cold. The clouds above began to clear, exposing the sun and causing the old snow to glare in their eyes.
Despite the bright light, James managed to fall asleep. Jane heard the boy’s soft breathing in her ear and felt his head on her shoulder.
“Bryna,” she spoke up softly.
“The light… the wisp.”
“What about it?”
“It’s supposed to… lead travelers away from their path.”
Bryna sniffed in thought. “Right. Some say they be the spirits of those who lost themselves on their way.”
“Then did someone…?”
“You’re tryin’ ta’ make sense of folktales, Jane.”
“We both saw it… the light, at least. How can you say such a thing is just a tale? And one that led us tracks like these? I’m a believer in the Lord, but this… is something… new.”
“Sometimes seeing is believing.”
The tracks suddenly stopped and diverged into a large area where the snow was disturbed with marks and scuffs moving about in all directions. Among the two sets of boot prints, Bryna spotted a series of u-shaped impressions.
“A horse?” The old woman posed, looking at where the tracks had come from.
“If they had a horse as well, they might have encountered the light, the same as us, and had it scared off.”
“Poor, dumb creatures,” Bryna sighed. “We must keep moving.”
The tracks seemed to fade as they continued, the old snow melting away in the sun of the day. Jane had long since lost the direction they were heading, and the sun began to creep father beyond the trees. Her hope began to fade as well, but she didn’t dare speak of her feelings to the old woman. The weight of the boy on her back sapped her strength little by little, but James seemed to be content in his continued sleep. His cold hands had long since fallen off her collar, and it was only her interlocked hands against his hips holding him up at her back.
The heat of the day began to fade, and with it, the last bits of her strength. “I… can’t keep this up, Bryna. We need to stop. James,” she said, shaking the boy. “You must walk for a while. I can no longer…”
James flopped around on her back, head rolling off her shoulder. She hurriedly crouched and laid him back against a tree before jostling at him. The boy’s face and forehead were red from the rays of the sun and reflections off the old snow. He was still breathing, but could barely open his eyes.
“I’m here,” Jane said, swallowing hard, “Bryna, do you have any water left? Any crumbs in your bag?”
“I’m sorry, Jane.”
“Smoke…” The little boy mumbled.
“Smoke?” Jane echoed. She turned her nose to the air, and without mistake, she could sense it too. “Bryna, is that a campfire?”
Jane picked up the boy and held him close to her chest. He was cold all over. With her last bit of strength, she returned to her feet and closed her eyes, allowing her other senses to seek out the fire.
James held limply to his mother’s chest. She felt his hands attempting to make purchase, but there was no strength behind his movements. “We’ll get you warm soon.”
Somewhere, deep within the wood there, Jane could hear the sounds of people, something she had not heard in what seemed like a while. It was the voices of men. Her feet crunched the snow and cracked the twigs and tore at the old, soggy leaves. Her strength was fading, but that didn’t matter. Bryna was not far behind, but struggling to keep up. The voices stopped.
Jane held at attention. For that moment, she wondered if the voices were just her imagination, playing cruel tricks. She stopped, hoping to hear them again. The sun above them threatened to hide back beyond the clouds, sapping what little warmth it offered them.
The old woman stopped as well. Jane glanced back at her. The silence was interrupted by a call. “Is someone there?”
Something swelled in Jane’s heart. “I’m-“ she croaked, a heaviness in her throat. “Yes, we’re… we’re lost… my little boy… he’s freezing to death!”
The footsteps approached. The first man stepped out, someone burly and wide, dressed in furs, and with thick hair of his own covering his face. He glanced back to another man, his partner, in a similar state of dress. “Come now,” he gestured to Jane. “We’ve got a fire going.”
Jane held James tight those last few meters. The men’s camp was little more than a clearing of snow, with a hissing fire and a length of sticks leaned against one of the larger trees. A tarnished kettle sat upon the rocks at the edge of the fire, melting snow for drinking water.
“Sit, warm yourself up however you need,” The first man said, glancing between the women and the two children between the both of them. “How long have ya’ been out here? And why?”
Bryna shook her head. She glanced around for any sign of the road. Instead, she noticed the horse, staring and sniffing indifferently. “This- how do you have this damn animal?”
The second man licked at his lips and clapped his hands in recognition. “We came across this fellow, all dressed fur ridin’, running around out here. We wondered if he had escaped, or ran off from someone on the road. Take it he’s yours?”
Bryna nodded her head. She took one last look at the animal before focusing back on Jane and the two children, one of which was still in her grasp. The mother had the boy on her lap before the fire, rubbing at his chest and hands with her own. “Food? Do you have any food?”
The first man dug through his pack and retrieved a satchel of hard crackers. Jane took up the broken-off section in her hands and crumbled it further, pushing it into James’ mouth. “Eat, eat. It’s warm, here, too.”
Bryna checked on Marie, still bundled in her arms and fumbling restlessly under the wrapping. “Our home caught fire… them men were off in Manchester… and we decided that Blackburn was our best option to wait it out until they got back.”
“We’re from those parts,” the first man said back. “You’re still pretty far south. Can’t blame you, the roads are rubbish.”
James nibbled on the cracker, allowing his saliva to wet it down before swallowing. He felt his mother’s warmth on one side, and the heat of the fire by the other. Opening his eyes a slight amount, he saw his mother’s face, her own eyes moist eyes looking into his. The light above was bright, but his heavy blinking revealed to him that it was not the sun. The greenish light faltered and faded, eventually disappearing from his view. He reached his hand up in the air to grab for it, but it was too late.
Jane grabbed at the boy’s outstretched hands, rubbing her warmth into his cold fingers. “We’ll be in the village soon enough. You’ll take us there, won’t you?”
“Seeing as how something has scared off all the game, we best return,” the first man said.