As the sun rose and its light permeated through the trees, Torren stood up and stretched. His previous dream may have driven all thought of sleep from his head, but at least keeping guard through the rest of the night had let the time pass more effectively. He’d long ago gotten used to sleeping little. He reached over for his pack and brought out some wrapped cheese and bread he’d bought from a farmer a couple of days ago. This part of the Empire was filled with farms and small towns, running almost to the border. They were usually willing to part with some of their gains for coin or labor. Though the prairie fields farther south brought in most of the grain used by the empire, wood and vegetables, mostly corn, as well as fruit were the contributions of this area to the whole.
Taking the food, he walked over to the blanket bundle on the ground and scrunched down next to it.
“It’s time to wake up.” He shook the sleeping figure with the back of his hand as he spoke. He jerked back in shock, as the blanket suddenly exploded before him as she sat up with a start.
The girl’s wide eyes darted in every direction at once, looking totally disoriented. Panic covered her face as she finally turned to look at him and she appeared as if she might bolt.
“Forgot me already, have you?” He asked her with some sarcasm. “Run off if you want, though I would have thought you’d rather have some breakfast.” He tore off a piece of the hard bread and popped it into his mouth.
“You, you’re the one who helped me?” The girl eyed him warily as if afraid to believe this might be so.
He watched her half-amused and half-annoyed, thinking surely he didn’t look that bad. There were a number of women who thought him quite handsome. “Do you want food or not?”
Slowly, as if afraid of committing herself, the girl nodded. He tore a chunk off the bread and part of the cheese and held them out to her.
After a moment, she took them from him, making sure she didn’t touch him. She got up, and dragging the blanket with her, shuffled several feet away from him before sitting back down to eat.
Torren ate his own meal, studying his impromptu guest fully for the first time. She was young, so much was obvious, no more than fifteen summers was his guess. Her hair was long, tied in a disheveled braid, its sandy blond color much darker than Torren’s almost white blond. Her face was long, her mouth and lips small, but her eyes were large. She possessed long, gangly arms and legs. Her skirt was homespun and went down to her ankles, but the cotton shirt was of better quality, with short sleeves which reached to her elbows. She also wore a small vest of dark brown with red flowers stitched around the border. A blue pin caught the light at the end of her braid and looked expensive. Though a little better dressed than he would have expected, she still looked like a farmer’s daughter. Overall, she was unassuming and average looking, her open, sky-blue eyes the only feature which stood out about her at all.
Nothing he saw explained why men would have chased her into the night. Not that it mattered.
“Could I, could I have a little more?” Her eyes gazed at him, her fear and hesitation quite clear.
He tore another piece of bread for her. “Thirsty?”
The girl nodded as she gingerly came forward to reach for the offered bread. She took it from him and scooted back quickly as he rose to his feet. He felt her staring after him.
Torren took a deep drink and then walked toward her to hand her the waterskin. She took it eagerly. He stepped back, watching her drink, wondering what he was going to do with her. “So, why were those men after you?”
The girl choked at the question, her gaze darting around as if the mere mention of her pursuers would bring them there.
“Well?” He tried not to sound impatient but was having a hard time of it.
The girl set the water skin down and stared at her lap. “I-I don’t know.” Her whole body tensed. “I was sleeping and my, my aunt, she woke me up and, and told me to dress. I asked her why, but she wouldn’t tell me, she just told me to hurry.” Now that she’d started talking her words came out faster and faster. “When I was done, I started toward the door but she stopped me. She, she told me to go out the window.”
Her eyes filled with tears. Torren suddenly felt uncomfortable. “She pushed me toward it, telling me she loved me, telling me to hurry. She was whispering; she sounded afraid. It scared me, so I did as she said. When I had climbed out the window, she told me to run.”
He frowned, not liking where this story was going. He told himself again this had nothing to do with him.
“I didn’t run,” the girl said, sounding utterly miserable. “I tried to argue with her. I knew something wasn’t right and I just couldn’t go. And then, that’s when the door to my room slammed open and my aunt turned around and attacked the stranger there.” She took a tattered breath. “He, he hit her. She fell. And then, then I, I ran and ran, until…” She stared at her hands her voice shrinking to nothing.
“What’s your name?”
She glanced up at him, looking surprised.”L, Larana.”
Torren nodded. “And do you know where you are now, Larana?”
She stared at him for a long moment and then slowly shook her head.
“All right then,” he said, folding his arms across his chest. “I’m heading north, in the direction of Caeldanage, and I’m willing to have you along until we either run across your home or come across a farm or town where we can find someone willing to take you there.”
Larana just stared at him saying nothing.
“Of course, if you prefer, you can go wherever you want on your own.”
She looked away shaking her head repeatedly.
He nodded. “By the way, my name is Torren.” Though she flinched away as he came close, he paid no attention to her reaction and retrieved the water skin. He made his way back to his pack. “If you’re up to it, we should get going now.”
Larana nodded quickly and rose to her feet. After dusting herself of leaves and dirt, she grabbed the blanket she’d slept in the night before and briskly snapped it in the air twice before folding it neatly and then meekly bringing it over to him. “I’m ready.”
He took the blanket without comment and wrapped it into a roll with the other, attaching them to the bottom of his pack. He glanced up past the trees, getting his bearings from the rising sun and set off, heading north.
He didn’t lead them back to the road, but stayed in the lightly forested area. The going was harder this way, but Larana didn’t complain though it was obvious at times she was hard pressed to keep up.
When he called for a stop hours later, he saw the girl drop to the ground in relief. “Stay here.”
“Where-where are you going?” Larana straightened up quickly, fear flooding through her face as if she thought he meant to leave her.
Noticing the reaction, he gave her a quizzical and slightly irritated look. “I’m going to lay a false trail. I’ll be back soon.”
He left the girl looking alone and forlorn to take care of business. He hoped this wasn’t an indication of a long and nerve-wracking trip.
Retracing their path a short way, he set about to erase as many clues of their passing as possible. Going back to where he started when he was done, he set off in a different direction, leaving clues they could follow but not making them too obvious or they’d realize what he’d done. As soon as he reached an area where a trail would be hard to find, he went back a different way, being as careful as he could not to leave any trace.
When he returned to where he’d left the girl, he found her pacing, staring deeply out into the area around her. As soon as she spotted him, he saw her face light up with relief. “You’re back!”
Torren scowled, knowing he’d told her he’d return. He retrieved the water skin from his pack and took a long swallow. As an after thought, he offered it to her. In her eagerness to get it, she almost tripped over herself. His scowl deepened but he said nothing as he handed over the skin.
Larana drank the water gratefully, her cheeks filled with a touch of red. “Thank you.”
He shrugged and took the skin from her. “Let’s go.”
After a short while, the leaf-strewn floor gave way to a small path going almost perpendicular to their direction. Torren stopped and glanced both ways up the path and then prepared to go across it.
“Wait!” Larana jumped forward and grabbed at his sleeve. She immediately let go as he turned to glare at her with irritation.
“What is it?” he demanded.
His annoyance grew as the girl hesitated, staring up and down the trail as if looking for the right words.
“I-I think I know this path. It’s a shortcut.”
He waited for her to elaborate, but she didn’t. “To where?”
He watched as the girl bit her lower lip and glanced up and down the trail again, looking unsure.
“It’s a shortcut to the stream,” she said finally. “It’s where we get our water.” She pointed to the left side of the trail. “My home is this way.”
Torren glanced down the way she pointed. “Are you sure?”
He saw her bite her lip again. “N-no.”
He stared up the path again. Though he suspected the men last night were even now trying to pick up her trail, there was a chance one may have stayed behind, waiting for her at her home, to make sure she didn’t return. Then again, it was almost as likely there wasn’t one. If her family was still there, though, he could leave the girl with them, leaving him to go on his own again. Whatever problems they were having with these men, they could sort them out themselves. “All right. We’ll follow it for a short while and see if it grows more familiar.”
Larana nodded in thanks and then took off to lead the way. He followed at a more sedate pace, shaking his head.
They’d not gone far before the girl turned around, a bright smile on her face. “This is it! I’m sure of it now.” She ran off showing more energy than she’d held earlier.
As Larana hurried farther and farther ahead, Torren slowed, a strange smell tainting the pervading scent of growing vegetation. Was that smoke? And what about the other more subdued scent mixed in with it? “Larana!”
He sprinted up the path, a sense of dread rising inside him.
After a long bend in the path, the trees opened up into a clearing. He slowed as he spotted the girl standing at the end of the trail. She stood unmoving as he came closer, what she was looking at gradually coming into his field of view. The smells, which had first alerted him that something wasn’t right, were growing stronger.
Before her, in the middle of the clearing, charred beams reached up toward the sky, resembling broken, crippled fingers. Thin trails of smoke rose from between them, proclaiming the cottage’s recent demise.
Larana’s gasping breaths echoed toward him as she stared at the destruction.
“Is this…?” He left the question unfinished, knowing it could be nothing else.
The girl took a half step forward, seemingly unaware he was even there. “Aunt Ban. Uncle Zed?” Her call reverberated around the clearing but she received no answer.
“Aunt Ban! Uncle Zed!” Larana called out again her voice fraying at the edges. “It’s me, Larana. I’ve come back.” Nothing disrupted the ensuing silence.
Torren felt his jaw clench, already knowing what she was yet unwilling to admit. “They’re not here.”
The girl turned on him, fire in her eyes. “They are! They wouldn’t leave without me.” Turning from him she ran out into the clearing, heading toward the small shed on the far side–the only thing in the clearing still standing. “Aunt Ban!”
He didn’t watch her, instead approaching the burned out shell of the house, sure he knew where the girl’s relatives could be found. Following his nose, he moved carefully through the rubble until he found the source of the acrid odor mingling with the smoke.
“Aunt Ban! Uncle Zed!” Larana’s shouts were growing shrill, filling with dawning panic.
He stepped out of the ruins. “I’ve found them.”
Larana stopped where she was and turned to look at him, a hopeful smile on her face. He saw her glance past him and watched as the smile slowly crumbled with inevitable understanding.
“No…” She shook her head slowly from side to side. “No.” Her face filling with despair, the girl cut past him. He didn’t try to stop her. He didn’t watch as she stumbled into the rubble and shortly found the two burned and twisted bodies, which had, not long before, been her family.
He glanced back at her cry of despair, despite his original intentions, and saw her fall to her knees. He stared at her shaking back as sobs racked through her body. Without a word, he turned away from her pain and walked to the shed on the other side of the clearing.
Setting his pack outside, Torren searched the shed’s contents and came out carrying a shovel. Not once glancing in the girl’s direction, he proceeded to dig a hole not far from the side of the small building. Perhaps he could do for her what he’d not been able to do for himself.
Sometime later, he wiped at his sweaty brow, having hollowed out a shallow grave. Climbing out of the hole, he set the shovel aside and reentered the shed to retrieve several large pieces of sackcloth.
Quietly, he reentered the burned remains of the house. Larana still sat where he’d last seen her, her eyes red and swollen, soot covering her clothes and face, dark tracks showing the path of her tears.
“I’ve dug a grave for them,” he told her.
She slowly turned her head to look at him, her expression slack, her eyes glazed. It was hard to look at.
“If you’ll move back, I’ll wrap them up in this and then take them there.” The sun was high in the sky, its light shining down on the manmade clearing. The stench from the bodies was growing stronger.
Her face vacant, Larana blinked several times and then stood up slowly to get out of his way.
What debris there’d been over the blackened bodies had been removed, though pieces of the corpses had come away with them. Suddenly, not wanting her exposed to this any more than necessary, Torren quickly laid a cloth over each one. His mouth a thin line on his face, he knelt down, gingerly tucked the cloth around the body of what he presumed to be Larana’s aunt and lifted her in his arms.
The stench of the rotting, charred flesh multiplied as the body shifted. Momentarily, Torren closed his eyes, unwanted images flashing through his mind of another time. When he opened them again, his eyes were clear, but his expression grim. At least these two would have the benefit of a proper burial.
Larana followed him mindlessly to the grave as he took the body there. She knelt down in the grass, staring down into the hole as he set the wrapped body inside it. Glancing once in her direction, he left her there as he set out to retrieve her uncle.
After he’d settled the second body into the grave, he took a deep breath and spoke. “What gods did they believe in?”
She only stared at the grave.
He waited to see if she’d respond at all, but she said nothing. Sighing, he bent down long enough to take a handful of dirt and gently sprinkled it over the bodies. “May the First Mother take you to Her bosom and care for you.” Saying nothing else, he picked up the shovel from where he’d left it and started filling in the grave.
Larana said nothing as he worked, but fresh tears streaked her soot-covered face.
Once he was done, he took a deep drink from the water skin and then got a small piece of sackcloth from his pack. After dampening it, he used it to mop at his face. “How far is the stream down this path of yours?” he asked.
She was still staring at the covered grave as if she could still see the bodies lying within. She said nothing.
He slowly shook his head and turned away. Taking a spare set of clothes out of his pack and a pail from the shed, he headed across the clearing without another word.
Following the path they’d come in, he soon came across a respectable stream. Setting the pail and his clothes to the side, Torren quickly stripped
and hunkered down into the cool water. Small fish nibbled at his toes, but he never noticed them. Even as he washed his body and his dirtied clothes, all he could see was the soot covered, gangly girl staring at her relatives’ grave.
When he returned, Larana was still exactly as he’d left her. Frowning and pushing back his damp hair, he studied her from the corner of his eye as he set the full pail he’d brought back inside the shed. He came back out to loom over her, his expression hidden. “We’ll need to leave soon,” he said darkly. “We’ve already been here longer than is prudent.” He got no reaction. “I’ve brought some water so you can wash yourself.”
Larana gave no indication she heard what he said.
Without preamble, he reached down and grabbed her arm, yanking the girl roughly to her feet. “We don’t have time for this! They’re dead. Deal with it.” His voice was thick. “You’ve had time to mourn. That time’s now over. Go clean up.”
Her eyes widening with barely felt pain from her arm, she stared at him uncomprehendingly. Torren brusquely pulled her away from the grave and half
pushed her into the shed. He grabbed a piece of sackcloth and after dunking it into the pail he thrust it into her hand. “Clean up.”
When she still did nothing, the water dripping from the cloth in her hand to the ground, he took her hand and raised it and the wet cloth to her face. She gasped as the wetness touched her skin, her eyes suddenly focusing for the first time.
“Clean up.” He kept his eyes locked on hers, moving the cloth across her forehead.
“Clean up.” She pulled her hand from his, looking at the wet cloth held inside it. “Yes.” She blinked several times as if slowly becoming aware of her surroundings.
“I’ll wait for you outside.” He watched her intently, strangely relieved to see life coming back into her face.
Larana nodded slowly, bringing the cloth back up to her cheek.
He nodded back and exited the shed to give her some privacy.
He waited for her beneath the shade of the large oak by the shed, studying the land and wondering why so many farms were built the same. From the remains of the house, he knew it’d been no more than a three-room building. It would have held a thatched roof, whitewashed sod walls, and a central chimney for preparing meals and heating the house in the winter months.
A small garden in the back would have been for common vegetables; the actual main fields farther off. A chicken coop would have sat against one side of the house and perhaps they’d owned a few goats or a mule, though there was no sign of either now. How similar it was to the place he’d spent the latter part of his youth-a place which had been both a prison and a haven to him.
Shaking himself out of the strange misplaced mood, he pushed away from the tree as he spotted Larana exiting the shed. Her face and arms were clean again, her hair damp and in place. Thoughshe’d obviously also tried to clean the worst of the stains off her clothes, aside from wetting and spreading the soot, they didn’t look much better. She approached him rather meekly. “I’m done.”
He nodded and then glanced up at the sky. “We still have a few hours of daylight left, so we should cover as much ground as possible before it gets dark.” She followed behind him as he stepped over to retrieve his pack. Though she appeared more normal, he also noticed the dark circles growing beneath her eyes.
“Do you have any relatives near here?” he asked her.
The girl looked away, her eyes turning sad. “No. I have no other family.” Her gaze strayed to the mound where her aunt and uncle were buried. “I-I’m a foundling. Aunt Ban and Uncle Zed found me on the road.”
Torren felt his right eye twitch. This story was starting to sound just a little too familiar for comfort. “I take it they had no relatives either?”
Larana shook her head no.
“I see.” He felt the odd mood overtaking him again. “Let’s go then.” Without another word, he hefted his pack higher on his shoulders and set off the way they’d come.
Once they reached the point where they originally intersected the path, he didn’t leave it but instead went on ahead and followed it to the stream. Once there, he took the time to refill their water skin. “Do you know if this connects to a river or a road?”
Larana nodded quickly. “Yes. There’s a road, which runs east to west, some ways down. I wasn’t allowed to go that far, but I did it once.” She looked guilty at the admission.
He had traveled through this area a number of times over the years and thought he held a pretty good idea where the stream would take them. “Come on, then.”
He stepped into the stream and started following its course upstream. The cool water reached about halfway up his boots. Larana hesitated long enough to remove her slippers and then went in after him.
Though the afternoon was warm, the girl was shivering by the time he called for a short break. Her teeth almost chattering, she slipped on a rock while stepping out and fell to her knees, getting her skirt and legs wet as well as the shoes she’d carried so far.
He frowned at her bumbling even as she looked up at him, her cheeks coloring. After a moment, he came forward and offered her his hand to help her up. As their hands touched, he felt a tickling in the back of his head and something akin to gratitude. “I’m very clumsy. Sorry for the trouble.”
He let go of her hand as soon as she was on her feet, shaking his head at the strange feeling. “I think we’ll be able to reach the road before nightfall.”
Larana nodded, trying her best not to look cold. The circles he’d noticed on her eyes earlier were noticeably darker.
His face suddenly cleared as he made a decision, and the slight scowl, which normally hung about his face disappeared. Though he wasn’t aware of it, it shed years from his face. “We haven’t eaten since this morning. Why don’t we stay here a bit longer than usual and eat something to hold us over until we make camp?”
The girl nodded eagerly. “Yes, please.”
He rummaged through his pack and pulled out a hunk of meat wrapped in waxed cloth. Taking out his boot knife, he cut portions for both of them.
He saw her wolf hers down after the first tentative bite. He was thinking of perhaps going ahead and giving her more when she enthusiastically licked her fingers, but hesitated as she abruptly stopped and tears formed in her eyes.
He knew loss was never easy. But it was best to just deal with it and then forget. “I’m sorry about your aunt and uncle, but you need to put their passing behind you. There was nothing you could have done. Nothing will bring them back no matter how much you want it. For your own sake, just forget about them.”
Larana turned to look at him her face filled with shock. “How, how can you…?”
He stood up and slung his pack over his shoulder. “We’d better get moving.”
In less than an hour, they found the place where the stream crossed the road. Thick planks had been set on the road to make a small bridge over the water. He climbed up and stopped on top of it, staring long and hard in both directions even as Larana moved to join him, her still damp shoes making squishing noises.
“Let’s keep going just a short way,” he said after a minute. “Then we’ll get off the road and set up camp.” He eyed Larana as she nodded tiredly and said nothing.
They didn’t follow the road long before he led them off to the side. He penetrated the tall grass and brush just far enough to get them out of sight and then stopped. “This should do.”
Grateful, the girl sat down by a tree with a sigh and removed her shoes so she could rub her tired feet. He chose another tree nearby and removed his pack before sitting down. He unhitched the blankets from the bottom of it and tossed one of them to her. He then removed the meat they’d shared earlier, as well as more hard bread and cheese, before dividing most of it between them.
As they ate, the sun disappeared from overhead and everything slowly plunged into deep shadows before being swallowed by darkness. A mere lump ofdeeper darkness across from him, he was caught off guard as Larana’s voice whispered to him from across the way.
“Have you, have you lost a loved one too?”
He said nothing, not liking the question. There were things he didn’t enjoy thinking about, let alone speak of them to a stranger. He grabbed his blanket and set it out on the ground. “You’d better get some sleep. We’ll be starting out early in the morning.”
He lay down and turned his back to her, hopefully cutting off any further conversation. He stared out into the darkness, listening to her settle in before eventually drifting off to sleep.