When I woke up, it was to the sound of birdsong. The chirrups were ripples of sound in my ears, both soothing and calling at the same time. I was stirred to move and in moving I felt the tickle of heather and long grass along my arms and legs. I opened my eyes and shut them quickly against the bright flash of light escaping from the green canopy above.
Shielding my face, I ease my eyes open and took in my surroundings. The forest stretched out before me, like something from a children’s picture book. It felt like mid-morning as the air was cool without being too cold and the sun was making itself known by the dappling of shadows playing on the dress and on my skin. And I noticed, much to my surprise and embarrassment, that the grass and heather were tickling places that no one clothed would expect to be tickled.
I was naked. Bare naked. I had not one stitch of clothing on my person and looking around, I found no discarded clothes to indicate that I had any articles of clothing before I fell asleep of wherever I was.
I had been sleeping on an overgrowth of grass and heather at the foot of a tall tree that had shielded me from the sun. It’s roots had thick and raised above the ground, forming a wreath around me and the foliage that had served as a form of nest for me.
I stood and stretched my back and limbs, feeling refreshed as one who had just had a good sleep and eager to begin the day. Was I unnerve by waking up naked in the woods? Yes, I very much was, but I wasn’t afraid. It was as if I was covered in a blanket of calm practicality.
I checked myself and found no injury. There were no scraps, scratches, bruises, or anything to indicate I was attacked or harmed in the slightest. In fact, I was clean as if instead of sleeping on the ground, I had just stepped from clean shower. My hair was clean and straight as if just brushed and my skin bore no marks or dirt.
If violence didn’t bring me here, then why was I here? Then I realized what I was missing and it went far beyond the clothing. I couldn’t remember a thing from before I woke up. I reached back in my mind for them, but the memories wouldn’t come as if they were trapped away by the back of my mind, just out of reach. Yet, I was able to grasp one small tidbit of information about myself and it was possibly the most important piece of all.
My name. Lynn. I knew it to be my name as it came to being as being a precious and most recognizable. It was apart of me and represented me and my being.
Somehow, just having that much kept me from panicking and focus on my current need. I didn’t wake up because of the birdsong. I woke up because I needed to take a piss.
* * *
After taking care of my present need, I thought over my options of which I had two. I could stay here and hope that answers of who I was and how I came to be here would come to me or I could leave and find those answers myself.
Upon waking, I felt energetic like an overcharged battery. I wanted to go, to do something, and waiting around for something or someone to come to me wasn’t appealing. Yet, I felt a strong connection with this place; the nest that cradle me and the tree that looked over me as I slept. Despite, my urge to leave, I would regret doing so.
I gave it all one last look before I departed and made up my mind not to look back in fear that doing so would convince me not to go.
I was lucky as there was no were no briers or sharp rocks to hurt my feet. The air was comfortably cool and the forest canopy protected me from the sun. it would have been a comfortable stroll if not for the circumstances. The birdsong filled the air and I saw a robin perch on a branch chirruping a mating call. It’s breast was the brightest shade of red I had ever seen on any bird, at least in my current state of memory. I paused staring at it until it flew off, alarmed by my presence. My eyes followed it skyward and that was how I saw the trail of smoke through.
Shielding my face with both hands, I studied the smoke. It wasn’t a large pillar of billowing smoke like from a house fire, but small dark wisp, like an afterthought of a fire. Where there was fire, there had to be people, right? A voice in the back of my mind reminded me that people could be dangerous and I was pretty vulnerable right now with no clothes or memory. On the other hand, people could mean aide and answers.
I had to stop several times to seek a break in the canopy to make certain I was going in the right direction. I was worried the fire would go out and cease making a beacon for me to follow before I got to wherever I was going. I found myself eager to get there, to find other people, as I didn’t fancy staying another night out in the woods and I would soon be hungry and thirsty. If I had been a wilderness survivalist, which could have partly explained my predicament, I couldn’t remember it.
And when I got to where smoke led me, I suddenly wished I had chosen the former option of not following. What I saw was in a small clearing, shielded by a copse of trees and for the first time since I awakened, I was frighten.
Four men lay dead around a smoldering campfire. I stared at them, hoping that eventually one of them would move or a rising of a chest would indicate some trace of life. But they lay still, not moving as if they were stones instead of people. Back then, I no recollection of any experience with death. I reacted more horrified of the dead than I was of what could have happened to bring them to such a state.
I couldn’t be certain of how long I stayed by the tree, too afraid to move. But as the minutes crawled and nothing happened, my heart began to slow from the fast pounding and I was aware of the sweat beading my brow. I approached them slowly, cautiously, studying them.
Two of them wore armor with swords at their belts and on the chest plate was embossed was white ring surround a black vortex. One still had his sword in its sheathe and the others sword lay inches from his right hand. The other two men wore white robes with the same white circle around a black vortex. They were older men, but not venerable, as if they were used to traveling the road. They were sprawl next together as if they had died in while conversing. And as I drew closer, I saw how they died. An almost straight, blood crusted, red line were across their throats, save for the man with his sword out. There was a long slash that bit into the metal across his collarbone where blood had sprayed the grass where he fell.
Whatever had happened or whatever caused this, it was long gone. The blood was dried, almost flaking from cold skin and armor. The fire that had provided me a beacon to follow was near dead and the food in the cooking pot was burned and spoiled. I considered stoking it again, but saw there was no need. I wasn’t cold and I wasn’t planning on staying any longer than I must.
I wanted to stay away from them, but I was nude without any food or water and these men had a bags set the side of camp that surely offered what I so needed. Giving the bodies a wide berth, I went to the bags. There were four, likely one for each of them, and a fifth bag made of a velvety material. The four travel bags had travel rations: hard cheese, bread, and dried meat. Full water skins, extra clothes, and other items of personal belongings for the deceased.
There were books, blankets, travel cloaks, purses of coins, even a case with a pen and small ink bottle. One of the bags contained a necklace with a piece of metal banged into a circle which I believed was supposed to be a heart and on it the word Mara. Seeing this piece of keepsake sobered me. I had been digging through the bags, at first hurriedly so I could go away as soon as possible, then out of eager curiosity.
I held the necklace and looked back at the dead men and felt the guilt roll through me. They had been living men and here I was going through their things like a thief. I laid the necklace down top of the bag I pulled it from and reached for the velvet bag. It was with reverence that I carefully opened it. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened it as it was pristine and crafted from such fine material. A bundle was wrapped inside wax paper and inside was a white satin dress trimmed in black at the skirt and sleeves. A silken sash was tied loosely at the waist, serving as a decorative belt. The dress was beautiful and so out of touch with my surroundings that for a moment I didn’t believe it was real. It was cool to the touch and flowed like water through my hands. I was sorely tempted to try it on as it looked to be in my size, but instantly told myself no, it didn’t belong to me and was likely a gift for a woman from one these men.
Also inside was a pair of white soft felt slippers, an ivory necklace with the emblem of the same white circle around a black vortex, a silver circlet, and a tome full of poetry. Not being a fan of poetry, I set it aside. Definitely a gift for a woman. I push the things back inside and tug the silk ropes to close it tight and set it aside.
Then I reached for the clothes. They were several sizes too big and homespun, but they did the job in clothing me. Just being clothed gave me a bit of courage and I turned to the men and eyed their boots. Wasn’t there a superstition against stealing a dead man’s boots? I could continue barefoot, but was sure to get blisters or hurt my foot on something sharp or jagged and I doubted the slippers were suitable for traveling by foot and I had no idea how long I would have to walk before I came across . . . something.
To ease my reservations, I decided to think of the men as gentlemen who wouldn’t let a woman walk barefoot if they could help it and they no longer had any need for the boots. Taking them was easier said than done. I was still ill at ease about taking a dead man’s boots and also rigor mortis had already set in. The heel refused to flex unless I pulled with all my might and even then the sick popping when I managed to bend it made me let go just before I slipped the boot off thus wasting my efforts each time. By the time I was able to get them off the smaller robed man, I was relieved and tired by my success that I thought nothing of pulling them on. They were still too big, but comfortable and felt good to walk with something between my soles and the grass.
Then I spotted the sheathed knife at his belt. I eyed it, not wanting to go through the effort of taking it from this dead man, but too afraid not to take it with me. I had tried lifting the sword and it was much heavier than it looked and I doubted I could carry it far with the bags and water skins weighing me down. I tried to pull the knife and sheath free, but found it was on a loop around the belt. I would have to undo the belt to thread it through.
I held my breath to keep from smelling the coppery blood and did the belt. It was thick and almost solidly refused budging to my fingers, but after a series of hard tugs, I managed to pull it free of the iron buckle and get my prize. The knife was weighty in my hand and the blade’s edge gleamed at me when I slid it from the sheath. I felt better, braver with it in my hand. I didn’t have a belt so I took silk sash from the dress and tied it around my waist and tread it through the sheath loop. It was a comforting weight against my hip and I would find that I developed a habit of gripping and touching the hilt to reassure myself.
With that done, I carefully placed all the items I wouldn’t be taking with me back into their respective bags and placed each one with whom I believed was the owner based on the contents. The ones with books I placed with the robed men and I laid the necklace and the bag of women’s clothes with the younger of the two armored men. Then I collected the food into one of the bags and slung over one arm and the water skins over the other. The water skins were heavy, but I knew that if I didn’t take what I could, then I would regret it later.
Before I could leave, I felt I had to say a few words, some sort of eulogy. Hearing my own voice, was startling, as I hadn’t had a need to speak since waking and couldn’t recall the sound of my own voice.
“I’m sorry that you died. I’m sorry that I can’t do more for you than just saying a few words. I hate that I have to take from you, but I want to believe you would have wanted to help me if you were alive.” Not knowing of anything to say further, I ended it with, “I’m sorry and God bless you.”
I’m sure someone more attuned to religion and giving speeches would have done a better job of it than I. With my eulogy given, I left the campsite.
* * *
Before the campsite, my fear had been packed away like some forgotten memory of a dream. Yet, seeing the dead bodies brought the danger of being alone and vulnerable home for me. Clothed, laden with supplies and water, and with a knife for protection, I felt better, safer. Yet, I wasn’t foolish enough to believe this was enough. I needed more than just answers for my predication, I needed civilization or some place I could find security and shelter.
With no way or knowledge of telling the time, I had no idea of how long I walked. The first hour was easy going, but by the end of I was sweating and walking at a slow gait. Then by the second hour I was taking short breaks to catch my breath and taking small sips of water. And by the third hour, I was taking longer breaks and had already gone through one of my four water skins.
Likely, whoever I was, I wasn’t one for hiking or perhaps I had overloaded myself. And on top of it all, the morning sun was getting higher and hotter as the day drew close to noon. It wasn’t even half the day and I was already exhausted as if I had traveled for days.
I found a shaded thicket and decided I needed a good long rest before I continue and my stomach was growling. As much as I wanted to conserve food, I had no idea when the last time I had eaten and perhaps if I hate some of it, it would be a lighter load to carry. I chose a comfortable spot and sat in the shade and opened a bag. The bread was almost stale, but broke easily between my hands. I nibbled the crust before taking a bigger bite and then fumbled a hunk of hard cheese from the bag.
It’s a shame I didn’t have butter or a skillet or I’d made a grill cheese, I thought to myself. I munched on the bread and cheese between small sips of water. I thought of how much I wanted a grill cheese sandwich and remembered stoves, both gas and electrical. Then with that memory came a kitchen with granite counter tops and a stainless steel fridge with french doors.
Okay, I could remember my kitchen, or a kitchen. Maybe from there, more memories could come, but none came, then. When I finished my chunk of cheese and bread, I resisted the temptation to eat more and rest longer. It was close to noon and I had no idea how many hours of walking I had ahead of me before I came across my next supply of food or water.
My legs had become stiff from sitting and after stretching them, I gathered my supplies and continued on my way.
I came along the creek an hour later and I lay on my stomach on the bumpy rocks and drank from it for a long time. It was nice and cold and I drenched my face and hair. The cold drops rolling down my neck was instant relief as the shirt was beginning to cling to my skin. I refilled my empty water skin and drank some more.
Then I heard the baaing. It frighten me as I didn’t recognize it for what it was until I heard it the second time. I looked around and after hearing the cry several times I was able to pinpoint from where it was coming from. Leaving the bags and water skins behind, I followed the sounds to a tall bank and using roots as handholds, I hauled myself up into a copse greatly shaded by a thick canopy.
At first, I didn’t see anything until my eyes adjusted to the shade and then I noticed the white in the bushes. The lamb baaed piteously at me though the brambles and I fell in love with her.
“Oh my God, you poor precious darling!” I climbed up and steady my balance against the trunks, stepping over roots as brambles tugged at my pants legs. The lamb struggled to stand and the briers tangled in its soft wool held it in place with legs splayed at odd angles. I tugged at the briers and ended up with several scratches across my palm before I remembered the knife at my hip.
I would have thought cutting through the briers would be quick work, but I had to hold the briers at the right angle to cut and the lamb shifting would end up having my hand scratched more or have the blade slip and nearly slice my fingers. I made soft shushing sounds when she began to bay excitedly, sensing help and freedom. When I cut away enough of the brambles, I reached in and pulled the lamb free and nearly fell backwards with her across my lap.
I set her on her hooves and she tread the ground on uneasy legs. I petted her and whispered to her in a sing-song baby talk. “Aren’t you a pretty little girl . . .” (I looked, but couldn’t tell which so I was going off my own assumption). “Where’s your Mommy?” The lamb replied with another vague bleat.
It was harder climbing down with a lamb under one arm than it was climbing up with both hands free. I took my time, determine to get down without falling or dropping the lamb. It was a lot of effort and I was relieved when my feet were on solid ground.
I set the lamb down and she made stumbling steps towards the creek. There was no telling how long she had been tangled in the brambles and with the scent of water just feet away. I carried her to the water’s edge and watched her drink which made me thirsty again.
We both drank side by side. I wiped my mouth on the back of one hand and decided it was time to go, but I would follow the creek as it provided a plentiful supply of water and I wouldn’t need to carry so many water skins. I didn’t want to leave the lamb behind as I feared she could become caught in a bush again or, worse, be caught by a predator. She didn’t seem willing to follow me as she were more interested in a picking at nibbles of grass near the water’s edge.
I took the knife and cut the strap from a water skin I was leaving behind and threaded it through the knife sheath loop and tied it around my neck. The knife thumped against my chest as I took the sash from my waist and tied it to fashion a leash for Bliss, the name I had given the lamb. With a gentle tug, Bliss followed along behind me, first resisting the unfamiliar sensation of being led by the neck and then trotting along on more balanced legs.
* * *
Hours later, I found the bridge. I found walking next to a creek easier as the water kept the air cool and I could stop and soak my feet whenever I stopped to rest. I rubbed the soles of them, noticing blisters forming on the balls and the edges of my toes were chafing from the rubbing insides of boots that didn’t fit me. I was tempted to go barefoot, but I knew that a minute I choose to go without the boots, I would step on something sharp and wished I had never taken them off.
The creek had began to thinned into a stream with the bank becoming steeper and steeper. I couldn’t walk along the water’s edge as the ground was sodden and more than once I nearly lost a boot to the sucking mud and poor Bliss’s wool was stained from mud. When I saw the bridge it was a most welcome sight as I had begun to fear I had awaken many, many miles from any people. The bridge was a single stone arch with vines and moss clinging to the rocks.
It was late afternoon and the sun was beginning it’s descent downward. It seemed like a good place as any for a rest and I just about collapse onto the ground with the stones supporting my back. Bliss bleated as she nosed through the leaves and grass. Well, it was going to get dark soon and I have yet to find anyone to help me. I looked through my supplies and estimated I had enough to last me for two more days, that is if I ration it carefully. The creek had solved my water problem, but now I feared it may be time I abandoned my water source.
Bridges don’t build themselves so there had to be people nearby. A village or a town, something within walking distance, hopefully. There should be a path I could follow and my water skins were still full and I could get one more good drink before I left the creek and I should be good to walk for a while yet.
Yet, my feet were aching and my body was just done for the day. No matter how I tried to rise to my feet, but body rebelled. I was just too spent to continue on and I wasn’t looking forward to tomorrow when my body would be sore and stiff.
It seemed I was facing something I really didn’t want to do and that was spend the night in the forest. It shouldn’t be bad, I had already done it, I told myself. Yet, I still wasn’t feeling brave about it. It would be dark and I had no means or any idea of how to build a fire. At least, it was a warm night and I shouldn’t become cold.
Bliss nosed at my pants leg and I rubbed her head. Stroking her head brought a wave of tranquility over me and all my worries abated. I closed my eyes and let my exhaustion tow me to sleep.
* * *
When I woke up, it was night. For a brief moment, I panicked until I looked up and saw the moon high in the sky and I remembered where I was. Bliss was curled asleep on my lap with her nose tucked beneath a leg. She raised her head alarmed when I shifted my legs and I soothingly petted her. It was late night and the birdsong was replaced with the chirruping of crickets and the distant hoot of an owl. Several fireflies glowed in bright yellow dots over the water.
It wasn’t as dark as I believed it would be. The moon was providing adequate light for me to see when my eyes adjusted. I idly stroked Bliss, my finger tips rolling through her soft wool, as my mind went back to old questions.
Who was I? Other than a name, I had no idea of where I came from. I remembered a kitchen and other things were slowly coming back to me. I now remembered what a car was and I wished I had one now. Better, yet, a phone. I could call 911 and have someone find me. Yet, for some reason, I understood that neither of these were available to me, not because of their absence, but because they were far, far away, completely unattainable.
I shivered, drawing Bliss against my chest in a cuddle which did little to comfort me. Suddenly, I was very afraid of what could happen tomorrow, of what I could learn tomorrow.
* * *
The rumble of a wagon on the path above woke me up. It was early morning and the cool air reinvigorated me. My body was stiff, but I was able to move with new strength. Bliss bleated at me from the soft grass she had made her bed. As the sound of a wagon grew louder, I heard the clopping of horse hooves clopping on the path and a man’s voice singing a song I wasn’t familiar with.
I saw a pretty, pretty girl with pretty pretty lips
She sang pretty, pretty songs about love and family
And she sang of Gods and Kings
I weighed Bliss’s leash under a heavy stone and climbed of the hill on level with the path. On the road was a wagon driven by a man in his fifties or sixties. He was the one singing and when he saw me, he pulled the old gray mare pulling the wagon to a halt. The wagon was covered with a canvas and I could see the curve of heavy barrels forming curvatures at the sides. Pots and pans hung from the sides on metal hooks and I could see full burlap sacks stacked just behind the backboard
The man was wearing ragged clothes with brown feet in wooden sandals. His eyes gave me a near sighted squint. “What are ye doing on the road, boyo?”
His near sight mistook me for a boy. My hair was cut short and I was wearing men’s clothing. I supposed it was simple enough mistake and it was one that I decided not to correct. A voice in the back of my mind said it would be safer to be assumed a guy traveling along than a woman by herself. “I’m lost. I was wondering if there was a town or city nearby.”
The man gave me a suspicious squint. “From where do you hail, boy?”
Geez, did it matter where I came from? I’m more concerned about where I’m going. Why shouldn’t I just tell him the truth? I woke up alone, naked in the woods and I came across four dead guys of whom I lifted food and water and clothes. No, he wouldn’t believe it or if he did, he’d be suspicious and full of questions I couldn’t possibly answer. “I come from the west.”
Then the man rolled his eyes as if an unhappy revelation came over him. “A refugee? I knew they were going to come our way after a while.”
Again, I didn’t correct him. Letting him come to his own assumptions may aide me more than giving him the full truth. In fact, I had no way of knowing exactly what direction I had travel. I’m pretty sure I had gone in circles a few times. I said casually, “I’ve come a long way.”
His accent was off. It reminded me of British, but it had a flavor to it that I was unfamiliar with. “If you’re asking for a ride, then you’re out of luck. I carry no passengers, paying or not, in my wagon. I have no room and my cargo is heavy enough as it is. I can give you directions if that helps.”
“Sure, I just want to go somewhere I don’t have to spend another night outdoors.”
“Well, the village is a few hours travel that way, but there’s a farm half a day’s travel from here. Friendly folk, you’ll take you in if you’re willing to work. They’re sheepherders though, and will set their dogs on any sheep thieves.”
Okay, it seemed I know now where Bliss came from and I may or may not be a sheep thief. I could only hope that Bliss stayed quiet down below at the bank. “How do I find them?”
“Follow the path back the way I came. You’ll walk three miles, it’ll take you out of the forest, then you’ll see a smaller path branching off. Follow that and you’ll come across them after a mile or so.”
I hoped my dismay at more miles of walking didn’t show on my face. “I’ll see if the farm will have any . . . work for me.” If I wasn’t cutout for hiking, then chances are I’m not worth spit in farming, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
The man gave me another scrutinizing squint. “How far did you come to have speech such as yours?”
“Very, very far.” I hoped he didn’t asked where exactly I came from. I had no knowledge of the surrounding lands to make anything up.
Thankfully, the man lifted the reins and gave them a dismissive flick. “Not my business to pry into strangers’ business. Head on to the Collums Farm. If you’re a good soul, they’ll treat you well. If you’re not then you’ll have Jace Collum and his lads to reckon with.”
I watched the wagon trundle over the bridge and climbed down the bank. Fortunately, I had weighted down Bliss’s leash where she had plenty of grass and water to keep quietly happy. My back ached and my legs were sore, but I was energize from sleep and now having a direction to travel and I wanted to be moving.
Shouldering my bag and water skins and tucking Bliss beneath my arm, I climbed up the slope and started down the road. It wasn’t exactly a road, per se, it was more like a path that had been formed by constant use through the forest by wagons and many feet. I could see chips of cobble stones from when it had been a formal road. Whether it was from age or lack of maintenance, it had relapsed into a dirt path.
Bliss trotted at my heels, her tiny hooves kicking up small puffs of dust, sometimes with a bounce in her step. She seemed to have enjoyed our time together and I hate to see it end. I could knock on the farm door and tell them I found their lamb and I was returning her.
The problem was that I didn’t want to return her. I had grown attached to Bliss to the point that I was making plans of keeping her as a pet. I wasn’t sure where or how I lived, but I would make room for her if I could hold onto her. I was almost tempted not to go the farm. Searching my feelings, I knew I could part with her if I had to and if I was certain she was going to a good home. And each time I looked at her trotting at my feet made the dread of parting with her stronger.
I focused my mind to other things such as why I decided to hide where I came from. Something was wrong. Other than my missing memories and waking up with no clothes in the forest, that is. A beacon in the back of my mind was flashing over and over, alerting me that something wasn’t right, that something was out of place, and just wrong and I couldn’t figure it out what that could be. At least, not at that moment. That would come later.
Other than Bliss, I felt a sense of detachment from everything around me. I was a part of my surrounds, but I was still apart from it. Something wasn’t meshing together and until I figured out what it was, I would still become confused of what was going on and a bit distrustful of it. Such as why I didn’t trust the man in the wagon.
Soon my hungry stomach demanded breakfast and I stopped beneath an oak tree in the shade to eat. I gave Bliss a few bits of bread and rubbed her satin head. Oh, yes, it was going to be a sad to part with what had become companion at a confusing time.
Walking on the path was easier than traipsing through bushes and over roots, but walking was still painful to my blistered feet. I regretted the leaving the creek behind as soaking them in its cool water would have helped the pain.
A shade passed across the ground before me. I thought it was a cloud passing over the sun or that I had walked beneath a thick part of the canopy, but a chill crept down my spine. Bliss bleated, but it wasn’t her usual happy or curious baa. She stopped and wouldn’t move despite my gentle tugs on the sash. Standing as still as a small white statue, her nostrils flared in the air and small eyes flashing. Then I noticed the silence.
Ever since I woke up, there had always been noise. Birdsong, squirrels shaking leaves, rabbits disturbing bushes, just something alive making some sort of noise in the foliage. Now there was nothing save for the rustle of leaves in the breeze. I felt another chill roll down my back, between my shoulders.
I picked up Bliss and cradle her in my arms and began moving in a quick gait. She wriggled, not wanting to be off her feet. I kept feeling the chills spreading through my shoulders and back and frightfully feeling I was being watched.
I told myself that I was being silly, that I was overthinking it. That there was nothing there, following me. Yet another part was warning me that there was something out there that was scaring Bliss was watching me.
Wolves? Would that old man have warned me if there were wolves out here? Would a farm be out here if there were?
There was a non-physical weight on me and I shivered. It was the feeling you got when you know someone is scoping you from across the room and it wasn’t the sort that gave you a good feeling. It wasn’t wolves and I found myself wishing it was.
Ahead, there was a break in the trees and as I drew close I could see that I was getting close to the edge of the forest. I swallowed, tightening my grip on Bliss and ready to drop the bags if it should come to it. If I could break out of the forest then whatever it was following me wouldn’t have a place to hide. The dagger felt heavy on my breast and if I should relinquish my bags, my next motion would be to draw it.
Maybe it was my imagination borne from my anxiety of that moment, but I heard a twig snap behind me. I took off. Ignoring the agony in my feet, Bliss protests of being jiggled about and how the bag and water skins were weighing my down, I ran, my feet pounding the ground. Over the clopping of my oversize boots on the ground, I could imagine hands or claws reaching behind me, to snag my shirt or shoulders.
The bright sun greeted me when we broke through the edge of the trees and I nearly fell over my feet. Bliss squeak as I dropped her during my stumbles and I managed to keep on my feet, bent double and heaving. I wrench around to look at the edge of the dress and saw movement beyond them. I held my breath, despite my desperate need for air and waited for whatever would come through those trees for me.
I nearly toppled over from exhaustion and lack of air and dropped to my hands and needs and came close to retching up my breakfast. I was sorely tempted to just laid on the grass and just pass out, but I didn’t dare in case whatever was in those trees decided to come out. I checked Bliss and she was fine through shaken and still nervous. I let her walk with me from the end of the sash and left the edge of the forest with my feet punishing me for the sudden run.
I had to stop and rest, nearly draining half a water skin to cool down as there was no more shade. I was out in the open with slopes of hills around me. The grass was short with bushes and foliage sprouting here and there. Bliss happily ate from a clover patch and seemed more comfortable in the field than she was in the forest. I had to admit I was feeling more restful out in the open despite it being warmer.
We soon came to the branching path the man had mentioned and the sun was high in the sky. It branched off from the top of a steep hill and from there I could see valley spread out before me. The path ran through like a drop of water along a smooth surface, winding this way and that. But below, with my eyes shielded, I could see a white cloud on the ground that seemed to pulse and move. It was a sheep herd. I was getting close.
* * *
The rest of the way was an easy downward stroll. Since my destination was closer, I was walking with longer strides and forgoing breaks in my eagerness to get there. Once again, I saw a finger of smoke the horizon. With the sun beaming on my back, like a hand urging me forward, I made my way to the farm.
Bliss heard the calls of sheep before I did. She paused in a stiff stance listening before she responded with her own bleating calls. A dog was rounding the sheep up, urged on by a boy of ten or eleven bearing a shepard's staff. He stopped and stared at me.
I must have been quite a sight, to be sure. I was woman wearing men’s clothing too big for her walking a lamb on a sash leash. He must be wondering if I’m some insane wretch come to steal the sheep starting with a lamb.
I waved in a way that I hoped conveyed I didn’t mean any harm. I walking over slowly, and much to my dismay, the boy took several steps back. “Hi, my name is Lynn . . .” And despite how much I practiced my greeting in my head (Hi, my name is Lynn, is this lamb yours?) it fell apart until the luminous stare of wide brown eyes. Instead, I settled for the tried and true greeting for any kid. “Where’s your mother?”
His free hand raised to point down the path to where I could make out the outline of several buildings in the distance. “Okay, thanks, I’m going down to visit her, alright?”
I could feel the boy’s eyes on me as I left with little Bliss skipping by my feet, likely happy to be home again. Meeting the boy made me nervous as I wondered if I would receive the same reception of wide eyes and shocked silences. I was having second thoughts about coming here, perhaps I would have been better off going to the village, but it was too late now. Since I believed I was getting help soon, I had been a bit greedy with my supplies and water and I didn’t fancy going back into the forest to whatever had been following me.
As I drew closer, I made out more and more details of the farm. A large farmhouse lay central of several small buildings. Children of various ages were carrying large wash tubs from the barn under the supervision of a teenage girl holding a baby on her hip. At the edge of the barn was a paddock where several cows rested while a small herd of goats grazed. To my amusement, baby goats were climbing on and off a cow’s back.
The girl with the baby noticed me first. She stared at me for a moment and just I feared she was as struck dumb as the boy in the field, she beckoned one of the children over and after a quick whisper into his ear and pointing at the house. He took off at a run calling for Mum.
A woman stuck her head out the door and saw me. By the moment, all the kids were looking at me, curiously. I stopped and held up my hands, one still holding Bliss’s sash leash, to show I meant no harm. The woman bustle out of the house, letting the door slam behind her. She was heavyset woman with blonde braids tied up away from her face. Her skirts made low whooshing sounds as she strode to me.
Thankfully, this time I was able to make my greeting, “Hello, my name is Lynn and is this your lamb?”
The woman stopped and looked at Bliss, then at me and back at Bliss. Then she tossed back her head and laughed. Her laughter rolled from her, making her face and large breasts shake. When the woman recovered, she wheezed, “I don’t know. One lamb looks like any other lamb. I suppose it could be as last month a wolf attacked our herd and being the dumb animals they are, they scattered to the four winds, some of them pregnant ewes. Where did you find this one?” She spoke with the
“In the forest, she was trapped in briers.”
“Ah, it sounds like her mother gave birth out there and abandoned her when she was caught in briers. They’ll do that, ya know. Oh, well, it’s fine now, perhaps one of the other ewes will take her in and if not, she would not the first lamb we raised by hand.”
I was relieved to hear that Bliss would be cared for once we parted ways, which seemed to be now. A boy, younger than the one herding sheep, came forward at his mother’s beckons. “Cyril, take the lamb to the barn and finish setting up the tubs. Mari, give me Krissi and get some onions from the garden for supper. Rudolph, once you and your brother finish with the tubs, go fetch some water from the well and fill the washtub.”
With her orders dispense, the children scattered to obey save for Cyril who reached for Bliss, but then noticed the sash. He touched it with a small, dirty finger and it rippled like water. “I never saw cloth like this, Mum.”
“It’s silk, son, now go on and do what I told you to.” The mother settled the baby on her hip and gave me a sharp look, “That’s a very expensive piece of cloth to use for an animal.”
I swallowed, suddenly feeling nervous and guilty under that critical eye. “It was all I had at the moment when I found her. It’s still clean,” I added defensively. The boy gingerly untied the sash from Bliss’s neck and I held it across both hands. It was clean, but had bits of grass clinging to it, likely from where Bliss had brushed against tall grass.
“Ah, just never met a woman who rather use silk to tender animals than to wear,” the woman chuckled. “Now come along. I take it you’re tired and want a bath.”
Despite my sadness at seeing Bliss taken from me, it didn’t hamper the pure joy of having a bath. Until she said the word, I had no idea of how dirty I felt. I could feel sweat clinging to my skin and I bet I smelled bad. “You have no idea.”
The woman looked me over. “Yes, I do.”
* * *
The woman introduced herself as Sulara. She and her husband have lived on this land, raising their children, since they wedded twenty years ago. They had six children, Krissy, the baby, Rudolph, age 4, Cyril, age 6, Marlo (the boy herding the sheep), age 10, Mari, age 16, and their eldest son, Alan, I had yet to meet, age 19. Outside, at the edge of the farm, was a small grave where her husband’s parents lay side by side among the smaller grave of their babies who had still birth or died within their first year.
They were able to live off the land by their garden and the livestock, but their living came from the wool. Spring shearing should have started last month, but due to the wolf attack on the flock, they had to push back the shearing to collected the scattered sheep. Now they found most of the flock and with the village’s Spring Festival was only a week away. It was when the villages and surrounding farms gathered to celebrate spring and to sell and trade goods. Sulara’s husband, Jace, had gone to the village, Redwood, to borrow a wagon from a friend and hire on extra shearers to get the job done in time.
She was telling me all of this as she led me into her home, sat me down at the table, laid the baby down in a cradle for a nap, then busied herself around the pantry to prepare a bowl of broth and piece of breath which she set in front of me on the table.
“You don’t have to feed me. I have food of my own.” Though it hadn’t been long since I eaten the stale bread and hard cheese, the smell of the stew and fresh baked bread made my mouth water.
“You brought one of our sheep back to us, so the least we can do give you a meal.” The woman finally settled her bulk in the chair opposite me. “Have a seat and we’ll have a chat while you eat.”
I sat and instantly felt how grateful my legs and feet were to rest. I dipped the spoon into the stew and tasted it and melted. It was so good, warm and more wholesome than the rations I had been eating before. The bread almost sent me into a spiral of ecstasy, it was so good. It was all I could do to keep from taking bowl with both hands and downing it all in one gulp.
“Where are you from?” Her head was tilted, her eyes giving me another sharp look.
The question took me by surprise and it was odd that it was such a simple question I had foreseen, but still had no way of answer. I couldn’t answer her question with the truth anymore than I could with the man in the wagon. Something was holding back my tongue, keeping me from saying I had woken up naked in the forest.
“From somewhere far away,” I said, settling on telling her what I told the man.
“Ah, and do you have any family?”
I swallowed, suddenly feeling as if she had dropped a heavy rock in my stomach with that question. “I . . . I don’t . . .” I don’t know? I think I do, but I don’t remember them? What do I say?
“No, you don’t have to answer. Where you come from and who you’re family is, is of no business of mine. I shouldn’t have asked.” Sulara said, jovially, dropping her scrutinizing look, but there was a steadiness behind her eyes that told me that she hadn’t fully let this topic go. “Do you at least know where you’re going to next?”
Again, another question I had no idea of how to answer. Before, I had only thought of finding someone to give me answers. Where had I come from? Why was I out alone in the forest naked? I thought that it would all come together if I found someone and all I get are questions to which I had no answers. I gave her the truth, “I don’t know.”
Sulara looked at me, but not unkindly. “We need extra hands for the shearing. Alan can sleep in the barn and you sleep in his bed. Then you can come with us to the festival and you can decide what to do afterwards.”
I was flooded with so much relief tears were pricking my eyes. “Thank you. I don’t know if I’ll be much help though. I don’t think I ever helped out with sheep before.”
Sulara arched a brow, “I’m sure we’ll find something for you to do, dear.”
Then she got up and performed small chores around the house while I finished my meal. One thing I would quickly learn about Sulara was that if she wasn’t talking, eating, or sleeping, she was working. She was cleaning, cooking, caring for her children, gardening, tending to livestock, patching up injuries, and darning clothes. And when she was too busy with one more pressing chore to do another, she summoned and ordered one of her children to do like a CO giving orders to soldiers. And to their credit, the kids took off like a shot to carry them out.
She and Mari carried the washtub to bedroom down the hall, Alan’s room and the boys filled it up with buckets from the well. I wanted to help as they were going through so much effort for my sake, but I was just too exhausted and sore to offer my assistance. I just thank Sulara and Mari and they left me to undress.
The boys and the baby had honey blonde hair like their mother, but Mari had her father’s chestnut brown hair which was gathered in a long braid down her back. She looked like a younger, thinner version of her mother with a pert nose, soft bone structure, with large brown eyes. However, instead of staring at me in curious awe, she was gave me suspicious glances and looked distastefully at my clothing when her mother wasn’t looking. I feared that she could speak out against my staying and convince Sulara to send me away, but she held her tongue. Her mother’s word was law.
Alan’s room was small, likely had once been a storage room or pantry. There was room for a bed, a small crude set of drawers, and a shelf holding a few books. I glanced at the titles and recognized none of them. Then I undressed and laid the clothes across the bed. The washtub was wooden with a high back for reclining and the water was heavenly to my sore muscles. I set my feet on the edge of the tub and crossed at the ankles and sighed. Every muscle relaxed and the tension that had gradually been building since waking in the forest eased away.
The door opened and Sulara came in with a bundle of fresh clothes and toiletries. “I have some old clothes that fitted me before I got big having children. Though, the dress may still be a bit big, but it should fit better than men’s garments. Oh, dear, your feet,” she noticed my feet hanging off the edge of the tub. “they’re covered in blisters.”
From the horrified expression on her face, I could tell that it was pretty bad. I was almost glad I was too sore to look for myself. “That bad?”
“Very bad, but nothing I can’t take care of.”
Sulara had tended to countless injuries as a mother living on the warm. She had tended anything from splinters to broken arms so blistered feet were nothing to her. Though I had to question her when she returned with a salve and needle to lance the blisters.
“I thought you left blisters alone to heal on their own.” I said, tempted to sink my feet in to the water to protect them from the suddenly lethal looking needle.
“Yes, but if you’re going to help out tomorrow, then we need you on your feet. Walking around tomorrow, you’re likely to burst them and infect them. It’s better to do it now while they’re clean and with medicine.”
Having Sulara lance the blisters was uncomfortable, but wasn’t as painful as I feared. I braced my heels against the edge of the tub as she pricked the blisters on my soles and drained them with a soft cloth. As she worked, she talked to me.
“Have you traveled far?” Sulara said casually, her eyes on her work.
I swallowed, still feeling nervous of the needle. “Yes, I have.” I must have walked at least twenty miles in the last twenty-four hours.
“Hmm,” Sulara tilted her head in deep thought. “Are those the only clothes you have? You don’t have any women’s clothes in your bag?”
“Those were the only clothes I could get,” the words slipped from my lips and I instantly wished I could snatch them back.
“Oh, I see,” she said.
My comfortable bath became the setting for a gentle, casual interrogation. Sulara knew there was more going on than I was willing to share. Again, I became cautious and guarded, unwilling to tell the truth. And again, I felt that detachment I felt towards my surroundings, a wrongness that floated around me.
“So you traveled alone?”
“Yes,” I decided the less I said, the better.
“It must be dangerous for a woman to travel by herself.”
“I can take care of myself.” Then I wondered if I could take care of myself. Other than the fright in the forest, I hadn’t came across anything dangerous, just its aftermath in the dead men in the forest. A shiver ran through me as I realized that I may have dodged danger twice. So could I have really protected myself?
“You must have come from very far away. I’m not familiar with your accent.”
“I have.” Then I decided to threw her off with a question of my own. “I met a man in a wagon along the way. He gave me directions to your farm.”
“Oh, that was Jenree. He’s works the Morning Glory tavern with his brother. He was returning from Tarlos with supplies for the Festival. Blind as a bat, but he knows the way to Tarlos and back by heart. Sometimes, he’ll deliver letters to my brother’s family for me.”
“What is Tarlos like?” I wanted to keep her talking about herself and not be so interested in me.
“It’s a large town for these parts and it lies on the main road. A lot of merchants and travelers pass through there on their way to the capital. Were you on your way there?”
Ooh, a redirect. Sulara was focused on finding out more about me. Was it because she was worried about her kids? No, if she was, she would have sent me on my way, not bring me into her home. She wanted me around, but knew there was more to me than I was letting on.
“It sounds like a nice place to go to.”
An eyebrow twitched and Sulara’s lips tighten in a small smile. “Yes, I was born there. My family thought I was crazy to marry a farmer and come all the way out here to live off the land and have a family.”
“How did you meet your husband?”
“My father was an innkeeper as his father before him. My brother runs the inn now. Jace and his father came to Tarlos to buy sheep to add new bloodlines to the herd.” Sulara straighten and set the needle on the table. “They spent two days in our inn and I fell in love with Jace. When they went back to their farm, I went with them, married to Jace.”
To marry someone after knowing them just one day astounded me. “That’s a pretty sudden engagement. How . . . how old were you?”
“I was fifteen years old.”
Then my mouth dropped open in horror. I managed to recover quickly and asked, “What did you parents say?”
Sulara laughed, “They didn’t get a chance to say much of anything as Jace and I eloped in secrecy and rode away to his farm. I wasn’t brave enough to tell them myself so I left them a letter on my bed and they refused to write or see me for nearly two years. I was already promised to the son of a tanner and my family was religious and had wished to see me wedded in the Church before a priest and my dashing their plans by eloping with some farmer boy they had never met before. I supposed it did help make peace with them that Jace and I went back to Tarlos and renewed our marriage vows before a priest, but I don’t think they ever truly forgave me. My brother doesn’t hold it against me though.”
“That’s nice of him.” I still couldn’t over it. Fifteen and running off to get married to work a farm and have babies. When I was fifteen, marriage was the furthermost thing from my mind. I liked boys and I liked having sex with them, but I wasn’t going to marry any of them because that would mean being tied down for the rest of my life. I hadn’t been a girl that fantasize about wedding bells and domestic bliss, I wanted to travel.
I didn’t realize I was remembering until Sulara spoke. “I know it’s a strange to marry a boy I only knew for one day – are you alright?”
“I’m . . . fine.” Was I fine?
“You don’t look fine. You look as if you seen a ghost.”
“I’m tired. I have been walking all day.”
“Oh, dear, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have taken up your time with small talk. I’ll leave you alone to finish your bath in peace and sleep. I’ll have one of the children fetch you when supper is ready.”
“Yes, thank you. You’re very kind,” I spoke like an automaton, my mind elsewhere. I barely noticed when she left the room, quietly shutting the door behind her.
With the memories of myself as a fifteen year old, came images of the home I grew up in, my parents, my school, and friends. They weren’t clear images; it was like looking through a foggy window, I could make out the shapes and colors, but not the details. I couldn’t distinguish eye colors, shapes of noses, or hair styles. I could only see the figments of them and knew them for not who they were, but what they were for me, friends, parents, and even a couple of teachers. It was like seeing a fish, but not knowing what kind of fish it was. Was it a goldfish, a mackerel, tuna, or possibly a dolphin?
I found myself mechanically washing myself and shook off the cloud the memories have brought and enjoyed my bath. There was a bar of lye on the edge of a table within reach and I lathered my body with it and felt the layer of sweat and dirt rinse off. The bottom of my feet were better without the pressure of the blisters.
I toweled off feeling as if I had washed off a layer of skin. Seeing the bed, I felt more tired, my limbs becoming heavy. I didn’t bother with dressing and as soon as my head hit the pillow I was asleep.