by Jared Millet
Triss stood shaking amidst the hubbub of the Vanji encampment and felt that she was about to lose her mind. She couldn’t see past the crush of wagons and the brightly-colored pavilions, yet she felt certain that at any moment Baron Galcek’s mercenaries would crest the southern hills and sweep her back into captivity. A troop of Vanji had smuggled her away, but upon reaching the east-west road at the edge of the Baron’s fiefdom the caravan had pulled to a halt and thrown her out.
“But can’t you take me any further?” she asked Eujin, the caravan-master. He only shrugged.
“I don’t know.”
“Please,” she begged. “Arvella is only a day to the north.” She wasn't sure that her family would take her back, but it seemed her only hope.
Eujin spread his hands. “I don’t know if we’re going north. We might go east or west, or we might turn around and go back toward your Baron. You’re safe here for now. Tonight we have a dance. Tomorrow, we’ll decide.”
“Please,” she asked again. “If it’s a matter of money –”
Eujin raised his fist, but stopped himself. He pointed a finger at her nose and spoke through clenched teeth. “No money. We’re not bandits. Tonight: dance. Tomorrow, decide.”
The man walked away in a huff and Triss stood aghast, her heart racing. What had she said wrong? And why wouldn’t Eujin give her a straight answer? She looked around at the other Vanji clans that had stopped at the crossroad. Maybe one of them would be more reasonable.
“Don’t bother,” said a voice behind her. “No one will agree to anything, at least not until morning. It’s forbidden.”
She turned to see Eujin’s son, Van, leaning against a wagon-wheel. His eyes sparkled under a mop of hair that was unusually blond for one of his people. His shirt was unbuttoned to the waist and he wore the easy smile of a young man playing hooky from his chores.
“It’s forbidden for the Vanji to plan ahead?”
“No,” he said. “Usually it’s a good idea, but in this place it’s taboo. Here, let me show you.”
He took her hand and pulled her through the mob of wandering families and their animals. There was a carnival air all around, so much that she half-expected to see clowns and tumblers crossing their path. At last they came to a wide clearing in the middle of the camp. In the center of the clearing, the great eastern highway that bisected the kingdom met the road north to her home in Arvella.
“Once upon a time,” said Van, “a witch lived here. She would stop travelers who came to the crossing and predict which road they were going to take. They say she put on a good show. Once she’d convinced her victims of her ability to see the future, she would predict that some horrible fate would befall them if they went down their chosen path. Then her marks would always say, ‘But I don’t have a choice. I have to get these sheep to market,’ or ‘I have to deliver this message,’ or ‘I have to see my sick, dying mother.’ Then the witch would offer to use her powers to ward off whatever evil future she’d foreseen. She made a big deal out of it, of course, and she charged an awful lot of money for her 'services.' They say it was pretty funny to watch, actually.
“As long as she was only going after city-rubes, no one cared. But then she started pulling her act on Vanji. The Elders didn’t like seeing their kinsmen scammed, but they were afraid to make a move against her in case she really was a witch and not just a fraud. Then a boy named Jack came up with a solution.
“‘Let me go to the crossroad,’ he said, ‘and I’ll hear which road this witch says I’m going to take. When she does, I’ll just walk down a different one. That’ll prove she doesn’t have any power.’
“No one had a better idea, so they let Jack try it. He went to the crossroad ahead of his caravan and the witch came out to meet him.
“‘Well, old woman?’ he said. ‘Which way will my journey take me?’
“‘You’ll take whichever road you choose,’ the witch said, ‘but probably not the one I tell you.’
“Jack was trapped, see. No matter which road he chose, he would be fulfilling her prophecy. But then he figured a way out and smiled.
“‘You’re wrong,’ said Jack. ‘I’m not taking a road at all, and you have no power over me.’ To prove it, he stepped off the highway and marched into the wilderness. After that, the Elders drove the witch away and no one ever heard from her again.”
“What happened to Jack?” asked Triss.
“That,” said Van, “is another story. But to this day, no Vanji who comes to this crossroad will make any commitments as to where he’s going next. And every now and then someone will leave his clan, head off into the wild, and follow after Jack.”
Van stared at the hills as if he might do it himself. Triss felt the same urge. None of her options seemed good. To the south lay the Baron. To the north was her family, but would they take her back or turn her away in disgrace? She didn’t know what going east or west might bring, but poverty and starvation were as likely as any other adventure. A drop of water tickled her cheek.
“I don’t know what to do.”
“That’s good,” said Van. “That means you’re free. Hold on to that feeling. Tomorrow, decide whatever is right. Tonight there’s time to dance.”
This story is copyright 2010 Jared Millet.
It was performed on March 23, 2010, at the Hoover Public Library as part of the first Flash Fiction Night put on by the Hoover Library Write Club.