The Unraveling by Holly Barbo by Holly Barbo - Read Online

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The Unraveling - Holly Barbo

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Something is shaking Erin’s world. Freak storms and disastrous earthquakes ravage the land, and perfectly healthy people are suddenly dying. Are these harmless coincidences or deliberate, connected events?

Erin’s parents die of a mysterious fever, but she isn’t fooled. It is clearly murder. Why would someone want to kill a weaver and his wife? Besides, Erin can feel that same malevolent energy hunting her down. Is that a new skill she didn’t know she had?

With no time to grieve, Erin joins a merchant caravan for protection and to give herself time to solve the puzzle.

Who killed her parents? Why are they trying to kill her, too? And why is the planet unraveling?

This book is dedicated to the four cornerstones of love that formed the foundation of my childhood: My Grandma Cherie who lived in the cabin at the bend of the river surrounded by the magic of the natural world. She encouraged me to find my own answers. Uncle Ollie and Auntie Fran who shared their fascination of rock and gem lore with their delighted niece and Grandma Grace who had a quiet sweetness in all that she did. You are gone from this world but will always live in my heart.

Chapter 1

Reality Altered

There was a breeze in the moonlit forest; the shadows shifted and blended as the branches moved. A young woman raced between the trees, oblivious to the branches that tore at her hair and clothing. In her haste, her feet slipped on the leaves and decaying foliage, adding to her terrified flight. The slender girl whirled behind a tree and crouched low. Her large, blue eyes darted back over her trail, searching the flickering shadows for her pursuer. Her breathing was ragged. Where was he?

She tried to catch her breath so she could listen, but her heart was racing like a stampeding elk; her breathing was so choppy that her whimpers escaped her throat in short, ragged bursts. She looked around the tree at the terrain she had just covered. Was that a movement back there? With a gasp, she darted back behind the tree and staggered into motion. She knew he was following. Goose bumps raced up her arms as she tore over the small rise, her heart pumping like a smithy’s bellows.

Something brushed her cheek. At first the soft touch didn’t register through the overwhelming terror of her flight but it came again, this time with a voice. Erin. It’s all right. You’re safe for now. Erin, hear me.

The light contact came again and abruptly broke through her mind. Startled out of the nightmare that had gripped her, she opened her eyes and, with a shuddering breath, looked up into the gentle eyes of the merlin falcon that was standing beside her head.

Thank you, Keir. Her breath hitched as she spoke. She rose up on one elbow and reached up to touch the bird, but her hand quivered with the remaining adrenaline that still coursed through her blood. That was . . . terrifying.

The bird bobbed his head. The nightmare is understandable. The murder of your parents is bad enough, but there’s also the fact that you have new abilities. Erin, you’re sensing the dangerous person who is seeking you. I am sure of it, and that had to play into your dream. But that person isn’t near. My kind have been watching. Rest. Dawn will arrive soon. There are some miles to go yet to get to Ree. She will have some answers for you. Rest. You are safe for now."

Erin’s nod was a little shaky. She could feel the sweat from the nightmare drying on her skin. You’re right. It was so real, it’ll take me a few minutes to be clear of it so I can sleep. I’m sorry I woke you, Keir. She shook her head and her long hair slipped behind her shoulders. A few strands still clung to the sticky sweat on her face. Erin raised a hand that was steadier than it had been moments before and brushed the hair away from her forehead. I know Ree will at least be able to advise me, because she’s a wise woman, and right now I need all of the advice I can get. She looked off through the trees. I think we are no more than several hours away. Erin sighed then sank back down and pulled her blanket around her. Thank you, my friend. You get more rest too, she said with a smile.

Keir made a small sound in the back of his throat before flying to a low branch above her. I may be gone when you wake but I will not be far. Just keep going to Ree’s home.

The next thing Erin knew, it was early morning. She quickly slipped her pack onto her shoulders and after pausing to study if she had left any marks on the ground, she started off. Erin appreciated Keir’s assurances that the Seeker wasn’t near, but there was still a need of urgency and she didn’t want to linger.

After a couple of hours, she paused at an old evergreen tree and studied the landmarks. Erin knew where she was. There was a glimmer of the river through the trees every once in a while and the land swept down toward it. She had been careful in her journey, but since the nightmare she was more cautious, being careful to step where the ferns were deep or where the rocks emerged from the leafy forest debris. She wanted to lose the killer, not lead him to Ree’s home. A glimpse of willows and cottonwood trees at the base of the hill told her that the river was there, and at its bend was Ree’s cabin.

She used to visit there with her parents. There had always been a feeling of peace at that quiet spot. The turtles liked basking in the warmth of the autumn sun on the log at the river’s edge. There was comfort in seeing life continuing as she had known it to be. She hoped Ree was there; Erin didn’t know where else to turn.

She approached the plank over the stream that fed into the river. Seeing the smoke coming from Ree’s chimney, Erin smiled and picked up her pace. There was a strong chance that the old woman was home.

Making her way around the copse of trees, Erin could see the cabin with Ree standing in her garden, the sun highlighting the silver strands that wound through her hair. She was standing near her carved henge posts that loosely defined the perimeter of her garden. Ree turned toward Erin as she emerged from the trees and the young woman could see Keir perched on one of the posts. Something about the tableau gave Erin pause. She probably wouldn’t have noticed the subtle hints before, but with her new abilities it seemed as if Ree, too, could converse with Keir. Somehow that realization warmed Erin’s heart and reassured her that she had made the right decision in coming here.

Erin gave the old woman a warm smile and quickened her steps. Ree hadn’t changed much over the years. Her grey and white hair was in a long braid that wrapped around her head like a coronet. She had always favored reds and russet colors, and was wearing her gathered homespun skirt with a plain shirt and shawl. Erin was sure that there were several pockets in that full skirt, filled with both treasures and necessary items.

Ree moved toward Erin with a cry of joy and grasped the girl’s hands, giving them a squeeze. It’s wonderful to see you. Keir was just telling me you were coming, though somehow I was expecting you. Her smile stilled and she cocked her head in question, as if she were listening. There was an unfocused look in her eyes for a moment. Then she turned to Erin, studying her face. What’s wrong? What’s following you? Seeing Erin startle and look over her shoulder toward the woods, she gently put her hand on Erin’s arm. No one is near. You’re safe for now. How may I help? Let’s go inside. I’ll fix you something to eat and a cup of tea. You wouldn’t turn that down. And with a wink to Keir, Ree started for the cabin.

The merlin falcon left his perch on the post and landed without effort on Erin’s shoulder, his talons squeezing gently in reassurance. He cocked his head, and his dark, intelligent eyes studied Erin’s face as he settled near her ear and said in his falcon tongue, I know you’re worried, but if Ree says it’s safe to rest, then it is. There’s time yet.

The three passed by the east side of the flourishing garden that, within a month, would be almost completely harvested, and approached the front of the cabin. There was another carved post, which stood guard to the entry, and Keir gave it a nod as they went by. Ree pushed down the big, hammered iron latch, and the heavy wooden door swung open into a room filled with light and space. The big stone fireplace climbed the west wall opposite a bank of windows and the bed was in an alcove on the north side. There were shelves and cupboards under the windows, where an assortment of objects were placed.

Ree gestured toward the old wooden table. Sit, my child, while I brew the tea. She stepped into the kitchen and studied the slender young woman sitting in her home. It had been years since Ree had seen Erin. She looked tired and a little worn around the edges. Her light, ash brown hair fell in thick waves below her shoulders. At the moment, the little merlin was nestled into the silky mass. There was stress and fatigue shadowing her large, deep blue eyes. Choosing herbs carefully, Ree blended a special tea for Erin, one that would give her clarity of thought and help restore her energy. Ree began to gather things for a meal, her movements efficient and sure; evidence of a lifetime of confidence and physical activity. Sliced bread from the morning baking, fresh things from her garden basket and the steeping tea went onto the tray. At the last moment, Ree smiled with a memory and put a piece of honeycomb in a bowl on the tray, too.

She carried it to the table and set it down between them. It’s been years since you visited last. You’ve grown up. Please take a moment to eat with me and tell me what you have been doing.

Erin started to eat. She hadn’t been aware of how hungry she was, but soon the plate was empty and her fingers and lips were sticky from the honeycomb. She smiled at Ree as she sipped the last of the tea in the cup.

Thank you. You have been wonderful, feeding me and all. It’s so good to be here. I have missed you. I hope you don’t mind, but you were the only one I thought to reach out to. Erin’s voice was husky with disuse, though Ree thought it might have a natural lower register, like her mother’s.

She looked up from pouring the last drop of tea into Erin’s cup. You are always welcome here. She gave a nod to Keir. You also, my small friend.

Erin looked down at her hands, then back up to Ree’s patient eyes. I don’t know what to do. I think there is someone following me, and it frightens me. She glanced over at Keir and tried again. I will tell you what has happened. I haven’t talked about my parents since I left home and Keir’s kind don’t speak the names of the departed out of respect.

The old woman nodded in understanding. She noted that Erin had pronounced Keir’s name to resemble the hunting cry in the merlin’s tongue.

"Two weeks ago my parents died. Father came down with a fever in early August as he returned from town, where he’d gone to buy a new shovel and other necessary items. He had some cloth bolts to take to the Weavers’ Guild, and supplies to buy for Mother. She had almost broken a shovel trying to dig up some mulberry bushes and needed a bigger and stronger one for the job. The bushes were essential for both her skill as an herbalist but also for Father’s ability to produce silk cloth.

Father’s fever quickly became so high that he was delirious. Mother and I did everything we could, but he passed away within hours of stumbling out of the forest. The moment he passed, as his heir, I was flooded with his knowledge and sensitivity of the energy fields that people emit. Father’s skill was not strong, nor did he work to develop it through his life, but he was able to sense when people had powerful emotional energy fields. He always knew when people were ‘wearing’ an intense emotion, and he could read their basic character long before they were near. It was an uncomfortable gift because he could sense some people from miles away if their emotions were very ‘loud.’ He never learned to shield enough to be at ease with his gift. He didn’t go into town often, except for supplies. It’s why we lived in such an isolated spot and were, for the most part, self-sufficient.

Erin paused to gather her thoughts and to get her own emotions under control. It took a few moments until she looked up at Ree and said in a quiet voice, As you can imagine, having that gift flood into me was overwhelming. It swamped my senses and, combined with my own grief, I was dazed. She made a wry face then took a breath. Mother was, of course, devastated. The next morning we buried him at the edge of our small orchard. We dug his grave using the new shovel that he had just brought back from town. Mother had insisted on digging the grave herself. She said that she could take out her grief in the activity and preferred that I build the coffin from planks we had in the shed — that and prepare Father for burial. She then helped me place Father in the coffin and move it to the orchard.

Her sobbing interrupted her narrative. After a few minutes she pulled herself together and continued. It was so hard… body, mind and spirit… but we did it by supporting each other. Again, Mother insisted on filling in the grave with the new shovel. After I had gathered stones to set as a marker, I took the old shovel from the garden and helped her. The next day, Mother became violently ill and had a fever. In her delirium, she kept murmuring about the shovel being sticky. It didn’t make sense to me until I realized that only Father and Mother had touched that new shovel. Mother died the next morning. Drawing a shaky breath, Erin continued, "I was very careful when I checked the shovel and found a slightly sticky substance in places on the wooden shaft, where you would grip. Not wanting to touch it, I sniffed at the sticky spots. I have never smelled it before, but I will not forget the odor. It had a subtle, noxious, putrid sort of stench. I don’t know why, but I am sure that the sticky substance was put on the handle to kill one or all of us.

"I had prepared Mother’s body for burial. I was going to bury her next to Father, but I had a feeling that I might be in danger. Since there were only the three of us, I couldn’t fake my own death, because who would have buried me? I decided to burn the shovel handle because I didn’t want to take the chance that an innocent would come upon it and take it. Then there would be more meaningless deaths. Hoping to buy some time, I came to the conclusion that I needed to burn the cabin with my mother’s body inside. I hated doing it. Mother would have understood, I know, but it destroyed all that my parents had worked for. I kept only a small memento from each. A small copper disk enameled with a leaf that Father wore around his neck on a thong. Mother had removed it before we buried him. I also kept a jasper bead with a feather etched on it that Mother always carried in her pocket. I left their wedding rings with them.

I was careful to do it in such a way that the windmill and the workshop didn’t burn. Father always stored a few silk worms and some of Mother’s herbal ingredients and remedies in the cold box. I also arranged a natural hole in the fence so the goats and chickens could get out to eat. That would give them a fighting chance to live. Perhaps the Seeker thinks my bones are in the ashes.

Ree nodded in understanding and after a moment she said quietly, And you have your mother’s gift?

Erin gave a small smile and quietly said, I believe you know the answer to that already. Mother’s gift was a gentler ability. It passed to me upon her death, but I didn’t realize I had it until after the worst of the grieving eased. I had burned the shovel and was sitting on the edge of the orchard looking at Father’s grave when Keir flew down and perched in one of the apple trees. I heard this unusual voice but I couldn’t see where it was coming from. To get my attention, Keir landed on my knee. She glanced over at the merlin. So amazing, she said with a smile, The sunlight delineated every dusky feather. Such a beautiful and surprising bird perched there, looking at me. He settled his wings on his back and cocked his head to look into my eyes. Then he said to me, ‘You need to leave here. Something feels wrong. It’s not safe.’

Ree looked at them steadily. Why do you think you’re being followed?

I sense someone following or at least trying to complete a goal. There’s something about the person that feels, Erin paused and searched for the right word before she finished, malevolent.

Keir added, The deaths were not natural. In her grief, Erin’s mother had talked to me as I watched her dig her husband’s grave. She mentioned that he had been uneasy about something in town. I had heard Erin’s mother speak when she had a fever and watched Erin study the shovel handle. I felt that a person who was capable of that would check up on the result. Erin was in danger if the person wanted to finish the job.

Erin rubbed her cheek against the little falcon. Keir has been a comfort. It’s as if I still have a part of Mother with me, to have her gift. Mother always had a way with some of the wildlife that lived around us. She never shared with me the reason behind the affinity. I just assumed that it was because she was such a gentle soul, the kind that Father needed to be close to because of his gift, and that the birds and animals responded to that.

The old woman bowed her head in thought. I suspected she had that ability. But you’re wrong in assuming that it passed to you upon her death. You have always had the potential for it, but the talent hadn’t matured. The suddenness of the tragedy is what brought it to maturity. Her gift is different from the one your Father passed to you. His was indeed a legacy to an heir. Yet both were an awakening of a gift that was already part of your blood. You were already coming into both gifts but weren’t aware of it, said Ree. Your Father’s talent doesn’t have to be uncomfortable for you just because it was for him. You have different personality traits, different strengths and weaknesses. You’ll meld those together in ways unique to you. I suggest to you that you learn to filter those loud signals as well as stretch your range to hear them. She looked at Erin with her eyebrows raised in question.

A look of dawning awareness crossed Erin’s face as she realized the truth when she heard it. How…? She chuckled. "Mother used to call you the wise woman. I didn’t realize that I’ve been doing that until you said it. But this brings me back to the original problem. I don’t know why someone would wish Father dead, or all of us for that matter. I only know that I feel that someone does and that they’re looking for me now."

Keir spoke again, I have family in the area and they’re keeping watch with me for anyone who appears to be following.

Ree stood and collected the dishes. Tell me what you’ve been thinking that might’ve been the reason your parents were killed, she said just above a murmur.

Erin shook her head. I’ve thought a lot about it, and all that I can come up with is perhaps Father sensed something about someone and they felt threatened by it. As far as I know, no one knew he had a gift, and he wasn’t fooled by people when they tried to put on a false face. He could read people very well. That was known. Maybe someone was aware that Father saw through them and found them wanting in some way. Maybe they were dishonest, or had done something terrible and felt that he knew something about them. That is the only thing I can come up with. She shrugged. "Someone felt that Father was a threat to them and didn’t care who they hurt or killed as long as the threat was eliminated. Perhaps they felt that Father knew more than he did or had spoken to us about it. Then we would all be a threat.

I mentioned that Father didn’t like to go to town. He would go if it was necessary and didn’t want to send one of us. He felt the trip might not be safe for a lone woman. We either went as a family or he went alone. Since Mother and I were working in the garden and doing some late summer preserves, he took the cloth bolts into town with his list of errands. When he came back from town, he was very quiet. I didn’t pay close attention because I had thought it was just being around people that made him so. But he must have seen or sensed something. Then he fell ill.

Ree looked at Erin thoughtfully. May I see your hands? she asked. Erin looked at her quizzically but laid her hands on the table palms up. Ree took a long time studying and comparing them. She would stroke certain lines and turn or twist them gently to get better light on certain parts. Finally she spoke up, Your left hand shows the potential you were born with and what you are like inside. The right hand shows the changes in your life. Some of them are what you’ve learned and some are what has happened to you. The right hand can also indicate the future, but we have free will. What I was looking for were indicators to see how I can help you. Basically, what I am seeing is that you have the strength to overcome most difficulties and dangers. Ree looked at Erin for a long moment. Many people are controlled by fear. It clogs their wits. They don’t think clearly or react well. You’re afraid, but you are not handicapped by the fear. For you, it heightens the senses. This is good, she said with a reassuring smile.

The gifts you have inherited are powerful and will be a help to you. This is even more potent because no one knows you have them. But I offer you, she paused as if searching for words, tokens to take with you. The wise woman got up from the table and crossed the room to the shelves and cupboards under the windows. She picked up a blue and amethyst glass bowl and started collecting a few items from the odd assortment sitting in the spill of sunshine from the windows. Erin silently watched the old woman pause several times in contemplation before she finally nodded to herself and returned back to the table. Ree set the bowl on the table as she sat down. Erin, I have chosen several items that may be of use to you. They don’t look important, seeming just simple keepsakes that you might carry in your pockets. Ree’s aged hands, showing some swelling around a few joints, moved agilely as she gently removed a series of objects from the pretty bowl, that she then placed one by one in a line on the table.

The first piece was a bracelet of intricately knotted twine. The thick thread was smooth but old-looking; woven into the pattern were five beads. Three of them were green stones of various shades. One appeared to be copper with a slight blue-green patina, and the center bead was a tawny gold color. The second object was a chestnut that was shiny from being handled. Next was a black stone with a complex pattern etched into the surface. It resembled an old infinity knot pattern that Erin had once seen. A small crystal was the fourth to be laid down. It was basically clear, with some gold-colored lines inside of it like thin strands of thread. Beside it, Ree placed another stone. This one was smooth and dark green in color,