War and the thought of war sickened her. She was not like the others in the village. They were always excited by the prospect of war, always swarming off like so many angry bees from a hive, always swarming back, fewer in number perhaps, limping or injured, leading prisoners and full of tales of horror. The celebrations afterward dismayed her as well, the humiliation of the prisoners, more death, more anquish.
It made little difference how she felt, of course. She wasn’t anyone and not the daughter of anyone. Had she been the headman’s daughter or a priestess, it might have been different, and her feelings may have accounted for something. But if she had been, she thought, she probably would have deemed it all wonderful, as they did.
Everything was so green, she thought, trying to tear her thoughts from the ugliness of the village. The rolling hills were covered with lush green trees, the narrow path she walked on wended through green, white flower studded grass, as high as her hips. She laid her hands out flat against the top and caressed the gently bowing pale green and fuzzy heads of the stalks. By autumn, they would be golden, and by winter they would be laying against the cold earth. A warm gust of air caught a whisp of her hair and lifted it off her shoulder and she looked up. A bird was rising in the air without flapping its wings, rising up into the clear, pale blue sky.
She stopped, staring at him, shielding her eyes from the sun, as her bronze bangles slipped up her forearm, ringing melodically against each other at her elbow.. In the stillness, the only natural sounds were those of birds calling to one another in the further woods. But she could still hear the sounds of the village, the drums and the hooting and calling. They had returned a few hours ago, with bloody trophies and wounds, some of them grievous. These were not strange people to her, either. They were the men and boys she knew well, the men from whom she bought grain or a piece of cloth or a bowl. She clapped her hands over her ears and pushed forward through the narrow path. She would walk, and walk until she could not hear them anymore.
What was it about? Did it matter? This time was much like the last time. Some boys had chased an animal into her people’s territory. Boys from her village confronted them. There was a fight, and a boy from her village wounded. The men, offended by the news, demanded that the boys from the other village be turned over to them, but the other village refused, and both prepared for war. Foolishness. She pushed on toward the trees, away from the village. She would have felt more secure going west, since the village they had fought was to the southeast. But the river flowed alongside her village on the west side and so she went as far to the northeast as possible.
She walked a long time. It was difficult to gauge how long she walked, since, with each turn in the path, the shadows of the sun moved as well, and she was not yet adept at figuring exactly where she was in relation to the sun. Without close kin to teach her these things, how was she ever to know them? She was still in the wide flatland between the two great ridges of hills. The land dropped down a little, its grasses bending down toward a small stream that she knew flowed off the larger river. She knelt down and, cupping her hands, drank the cool water in tiny gulps, scooping up the water again and again. Her earrings jingled with each movement of her head, a sound that gave her pleasure, even in the most dismal of days.
She sat back on her heels and sighed, her thin arms resting on her knees and gazed down the streambed that seemed to have been paved long ago with rounded bronze and reddish stone. How was it possible that such calm and beautiful land, such a serene place where birds grasp upright stalks and sway gently on them, the sun reflecting off their dark wings, or ducks glide across the shimmering water, could exist so close to the place where men bloodied the ground with their lives and the lives of others? She shuddered and hugged herself.
A noise in the brush startled her. She jerked her head around, fearfully. A small rabbit leaped from the tall grass, across the stones, splashing water with his broad feet, his tail reflecting brilliant white as he hopped away. She smiled and almost laughed aloud. Frightened by a rabbit. How silly.
She stood and turned, and took a few steps to the west. The stream turned back on itself close by and she stared at the sun glistening off the surface of the water, but only for a second. Another sound. She whirled around, hoping to see another rabbit. But it was not. Something was moving in the grass. She turned slowly toward the sound, hesitant. Another sound, this one like an animal, wounded, plaintive. She should run. A wounded animal was a dangerous thing. But the sounds did not come any closer and curiousity had always been strong in her.
She moved toward the sound slowly, crouching low to the ground, ready to turn and run if she needed to. She crept forward, like one of those women warriors that live to the far north and east of her home, legendary women who ran as fast as men and were just as cunning and cruel, yet so desirable because an heir born to them with a sire who was also a great warrior would be a formidable man indeed. She moved the grasses aside and peered, timid and bold at the same time, ahead of her. There was a great grey stone and beneath it, a man.
Her breath caught. Not a man, a boy, though bigger than she. His back was to her, covered with a bronze plate, his narrow hips clad lightly in dun cloth, one leg covered with bronze armor, the other bare. He was supporting himself on one arm, trying to turn over, but, from the attitude of his head, she knew he was in great pain. A discarded helmet lay nearby. She stared at it, motionless. He was a warrior, to be sure. He sighed heavily, his head falling back to rest against the rock.
He leaned forward again, painfully, gazing at the inside of his thigh, but fell back again with a deep sigh, his eyes closed. He looked up suddenly, his eyes glistening.
Instantly, she realized, a little embarrassed, that the grass had afforded her nothing in the way of privacy. She came forward slowly, shyly. “You’re hurt,” she said suddenly.
He turned his face away. She looked down at the awkward bend of his bare leg, and the wound in his thigh. “You’re been hurt badly.” Her fear abandoned her and she was awash in pity. “I’ll fetch someone to bring you back to the village,” she said quickly, rising and turning to run home. Whoever he was, he must have been a son of one of the wealthier men in the village. It was not so big a place, but not so small either. The rich lived on one side of the large pond and the poor on the other. There were a great many of them that she would never have seen.
“Stop,” he said hoarsely.
She turned back to him. “What is it?”
“There isn’t any point,” he said bitterly. “I am a coward. I should have died where I fell like a braver man.” His face was beautiful, even in pain, and as finely formed as the rest of him.
“Then you would have died,” she said practically.
She knelt down beside him. For a few minutes there was silence. She watched his face in profile as he stared away toward the hills. “I’ll get you some water,” she said suddenly, picking up his helmet, and turning back toward the stream. When she returned he drank it eagerly. She tore a piece of fabric from the legging he had torn away and began to sponge the blood from his leg, trying not to look too closely at the wound, but knowing, eventually, she would have to.
“This is not so bad a wound,” she said. “But I think the bone is…”
“I know,” he said ruefully. “I’ve seen far worse, but I cannot live.”
“It isn’t so bad that it should deal you death,” she said encouragingly.
“But I can’t go home. I ran away from the fight. It’s one thing to listen to the stories and earn the armor and the horse, quite another to be confronted with the fighting. When the time came, I couldn’t raise my spear.”
“Were you afraid?” she asked. His familiarity with her made her bold. She should not have asked such a thing of her betters, but he was in too much pain, physical and spiritual, to be punctilious about her obvious lack of status.
“Terrified. But that wasn’t it.”
“What was it then?” she asked, daubing more blood from the wound. If he refused to go back to the village, if he refused to allow the wound to be treated, it would grow far worse, and quickly.
“I don’t know,” he said bitterly. “I don’t want to talk about it.” He fell silent, sullen, and she rose slowly. She gathered armfuls of the soft grasses and piled them up under his back and alongside him for support. The sky was turning a golden color in the west.
“I must go,” she said.
“Go, then,” he scowled.
“I’ll come back tomorrow,” she said.
“Don’t bother,” he said, laying back. “I won’t be here.”
“Where will you be?” she asked with wonder.
He did not answer. He turned to her again. “Don’t tell anyone that you’ve seen me. Please.”
He turned his head from her then, miserably, his arms tight over his chest. She turned back and went away, following the stream until she returned to the path that led to the village. Her feelings were mixed, confused. He was a warrior, a rich man’s son, and yet laid so low by his wound and his shame. She felt horrified by his wound, and yet, if he would let her treat it, he would surely recover. What then? Would he think of her as a peasant girl, lower even than the serving girls in his own house? Would he, could he, love her? She shook off the thought, but in truth, feelings were already growing in her, the feelings that a grown woman has for a man, admiration, tenderness, even love. It was nearly dark when she reached home and she crept into the hut that she shared with the other girls who were without households to support them, girls who worked long hours in other women’s kitchens or who washed other women’s clothing and linens for a loaf of bread or a bit of meat each day.
“Where were you today?” Mitha asked, pulling the blanket open for her.
She slipped inside on the straw. “I went away.”
“We had a big celebration. There wasn’t any work.”
“I know. I didn’t want to be here for it. Is there work for tomorrow?”
“You can wash Kemusala’s floors with me. We’ll start at midmorning.” Kemusala was one of the richest women in the village. She had golden bangles that rose halfway up either arm, and a voice as shrill as a crow’s. Her husband surely could not have liked living with her, but she was a large and grand woman, a peacock, and showed off his things nicely.
She closed her eyes, but knew that she would not sleep. His face was there whenever sleep came close, his dark eyes and sad mouth. What if he died during the night? What if wild beasts came and bore him away? What if he recovered, and loved her? She stared out the windhole, looking east, and waited for morning. She rose when there was a thin band of lighter colored sky along the horizon, but it was still dark, and there were an uncountable number of stars in the sky. She crept to the pot that stood over the low, glowing embers and ladled out a little of the thin mixture of grains and a little meat. She ate quickly and then filled a small jug with another serving, tore off a piece of bread and wrapped it in the corner of the cloth she had been saving for a part of a new gown. She could not take too much and deprive the others of their fair share, and yet, if he was well enough, he would be hungry.
What had been a long walk yesterday seemed much shorter this morning, since she had a destination in mind now and went speedily toward it. The lightening sky reflected a blueish grey on the smooth snaking stream as she ran alongside it, eager, yet fearful. She saw the rock and made for it. He was lying there, his head drooping forward, his arm sprawled out. Her breath caught. Too late. She was too late. She knelt quickly beside him, put her hand on him, but he was warm, and jerked himself awake suddenly.
“You startled me,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” she laughed, suddenly relieved.
it?” he asked shortly. “What’s funny?
“I thought you were dead,” she said.
“Well, that’s funny, alright,” he said weakly, bitterly. “You should have waited a few hours and I would not have disappointed you.”
She laid her bundle on the ground and opened it. “I brought you some stew,” she said, feeling the outside of the earthenware pot. “It’s still warm, so you should eat it now.”
He took it from her hands while she picked up his helmet and went to the stream for water. “Do you feel any better today?” she asked when she returned.
“I don’t want to feel better,” he said. “I want to die.” He turned the pot back and forth in his hands.
“Then die,” she said, gently tipping it toward him. “But not of starvation.”
“I can’t eat,” he said. “Just give me some water.” When he had drunk all he could, she began washing the wound again. It had oozed considerably during the night, although the actual bleeding had stopped. She raised his knee and they both peered at the wound. She turned and took the fabric and tore it into strips and wound it around the wound while he said nothing.
When she had finished, she looked at him sadly. He had not spoken to her more than a few words. “I must go,” she said. “Will you be alright here?”
He only growled a little.
“I have work to do today,” she said apologetically.
“Go then,” he said.
“Will you be alright?”
He stared into the sky. “If the gods are kind, I will be carried off by a wild muskrat to be food for a generation of hungry little muskrats.”
“Ohhh,” she said, exasperated. “Don’t talk that way.”
He merely shrugged, and she turned to leave. “I’ll be back,” she said. “Rest and don’t exert yourself.”
He said nothing. Mitha would be waiting. She did not want to leave the boy, though, yet her duty was also to the girls. “I must go,” she said suddenly and turned away. She sped back to the village, and found Mitha waiting. They went together to Kemusala’s house and cleaned her walls and floors while she chattered at her daughters in law about the new field her husband had bought and how the rent for it would more than pay it off in the course of that year and how she was to have a new cover for her pillion, of brilliant red silk, embroidered in gold flowers. Mitha shot her a withering look and they both stifled the desire to laugh. Yes, Kemusala was wealthy, but she was only putting on airs to impress these peasant girls. After all, should not her daughters already have known about the field and the pillion?
But she was too excited to be jealous, even of Kemusala and all her wealth. She had a treasure of another kind hidden away. A beautiful, sad warrior. Was it possible that her prayers had been answered? She prayed every day to the gods, the prayers that only a lonely sad girl can offer, prayers for love and belonging, love of a good, honest man who can provide for her and their little ones? This is the wages of faith, she thought, that the gods would give her a man, a young man, a perfect man, someone she could never have hoped to meet in the course of her ordinary days and put him into her hand so that he needed her care, that he would be able to see her love and kindness.
They finished the work and collected their pay from Kemusala, who brushed them away while they bowed to her politely. She wanted nothing more than to run off to the field by the stream and find her warrior, to see if he ate the food, if he had slept. The sun, she thought with sudden horror. How stupid of her not to find some way to shade him from the sun. He must be hot, miserably hot.
They went back to the cool mud and waddle house and ate the pieces of fruit that Mitha’s sister had received for cleaning a house across the square. But all her thoughts were on the young warrior. She slept better than night and in the morning, crept away with a piece of fruit, a few boiled eggs and bread. He was sleeping, his arm over his head. She watched him for a long while, wondering if he would look that way if they were together, if they were married and he was asleep in their bed. He woke and smiled a little.
“You feel better today?” she asked.
“ A little. Worst luck,” he said. But she didn’t believe him as much as she did before.
“Eat,” she said, showing him the food. He complied without protest and she felt stronger herself.
Within a few days, she had found a small cave not far from the stream and he managed to hobble, with her assistance, to it. She made him as comfortable as possible. She was not horrified any longer at the idea that he did not want to return to the village. In fact, it seemed somehow easier. If he remained away, if he found a way to live here or further away, then they could be together. Issues of his class or hers would be unimportant. His father, whoever he was, and she dared not ask, would not protest his alliance with her. Surely, he would have her for his own. She showed him every kindness, treated him with every civility, brought him food and clean water, washed his bandages and clothing, cared for him tenderly.
They talked more. He didn’t talk much at first, although as time went on, he became more eager and exuberant. They touched only a little, but each time it warmed her.
you do every day?” Mitha asked. “Where
do you go? Who do you see?”
She was taken a little aback by the question, although she realized instantly she should have anticipated it.
“What do you mean? Why do you think I’m seeing anyone?” she answered quickly.
“Oh, come now,” Mitha swatted her playfully with a dishtowel. “When a young woman comes and goes in secret, can’t sleep at night, but sits up and sighs…”
She gasped a little.
“Oh yes, you forget who you sleep with. How could I not see all the signs?” Mitha smiled mischeviously. “There is someone, isn’t there? Who is it? The boy that works for the drayer? The potter’s son. Yes. I’ve seen him looking at you, and you, cagey little thing, not looking back. You’re in love with the potter’s son.”
A deep blush flooded her face. “I am not,” she retorted hotly, secretly pleased. Were the signs so obvious then.
“With whom then?” Mitha asked, her voice genuinely puzzled.
“You wouldn’t know him,” she said idly.
“Oh, wouldn’t I?” Mitha laughed. “You have some myserious lover?”
“He isn’t my lover,” she argued. “Not really. But…I’m hoping.”
“Tell me about him,” Mitha said eagerly.
“He’s…different. And beautiful…and…”
I meet him?”
“Oh,” she sighed. “I don’t know…”
Through the windhole, she could see it had drizzled throughout the night and the bowing branches supported heavy looking water drops. In summer, they would never have grown into such large baubles, but now, they were double the size, huge reflecting bulbs hanging from the branches, yet small. Not a one was half as big even as the fingernail of her littlest finger..
The trees over the ridge were paler than usual, shrouded in a mist that might not lift, even in the early morning sun. Still, it was a long time until sunbeams would appear, if at all today. She hurriedly piled food onto the bedsheet that she had folded in half, and tied it by the corners.
“Off to see your mysterious lover?” Mitha asked sleepily.
“Why must you tease me?” she asked.
“Take me with you today. I should meet your boy, shouldn’t I? Haven’t I been like one of your own blood and yet you will not let me meet this man. Do you think I will try to steal him from you? Me, with my great beauty?” She laughed. In truth, she had little beauty, only a few baubles and was missing some teeth that marred her appearance greatly.
“Yes,” she said finally. “Yes. Come with me. You and I have always been close, Mitha. I love you and I know you will keep my secret.”
“Why must it be a secret?” Mitha asked.
“He doesn’t want his father to know where he is,” she said. “He wants them to think that he died in battle.”
“How odd,” Mitha mused, wrapping a scarf tight around her head. “Well, come on. It’s cold out. How far is it?”
“It isn’t so far, once you’ve made it back and forth a hundred times,” she laughed. They slipped out into the morning air. The carpet of leaves that had been crisp even yesterday morning had grown soft and spongy. They fairly flew across it, unconcerned about the noise that their rustling might make. Soon, she would not go to him anymore like this. Soon enough, she prayed, he would be able to plant or snare animals and she would not have to return to the village each day for food. He could get around better now, with the assistance of a crutch, but he would never walk again, not like a regular man walks. Still, it was a small thing to give up for the pleasure of the affection of a young man as handsome and kind as he was.
They went along the path and turned at the streambed. “It’s a long way,” Mitha complained. “Are you certain about this?”
“Of course. Come on.” She felt a little apprehension rising in her breast. He had sworn her to secrecy but, after all, this was Mitha, not anyone connected with his people, and yet…and yet…
They made their way to the cave. He was sitting up against the wall, just outside the opening. He stood slowly, supporting himself on the crutch. His face was clouded.
“You’re here,” he said, taking her hand slowly. “Who is this?”
“This is my dearest Mitha,” she said eagerly. “You know. I’ve told you about her.”
“Yes, of course,” he said softly. “Welcome.” She glowed. He was so polite, so well bred. She came forward and bowed a little, her hands folded in front of her. They talked for a few minutes, the kind of talk that people who don’t know each other well engage in. Mitha fell silent and she smiled at the older woman.
“Tell me,” Mitha began. “I have lived in the village since I was born, and yet I cannot recall ever seeing you.”
“Well,” he said. “I’m not surprised. I had only recently come back to live in the village. My sire has a great amount of land in the south and only returned to the village within the last few years.”
sure I would have seen you, at least at the festivals. Where is your house?”
“Near the spring beyond the temple,” he broke off a piece of bread and handed it to her. She chewed it quietly, pleased that he and Mitha were getting along so well.
Mitha’s eyes narrowed. “The spring beyond the temple? There isn’t a spring beyond the temple.”
He laughed. “Of course there is. By the fruit grove.”
She shook her head. “The temple is on the west side of the pond, near the river.”
“You’re confused,” he said softly. They all stared at each other in silence for a few moments.
“Oh, by the gods,” Mitha said, clapping her hands to the side of her head. “Girl, what have you done?”
“What do you mean?” she clutched at Mitha’s arm.
“He is one of them. He is an enemy.”
She laughed outright. “What do you mean?”
He was silent, his eyes fixed on them, incredulous.
“He isn’t from our village, you goose, you fool. How could you?”
She opened her mouth, but sound would not come out of it. She looked back at him. He closed his eyes silently.
“What village are you from?” Mitha demanded.
He pointed. He pointed in the opposite direction of her village. She put her hand to her mouth, and felt the weight of misery on her. “You never told me,” she said.
“You didn’t tell me either,” he said. “Does it matter now?”
Her thoughts ran quickly. She put her hand on his. “Not now. It doesn’t.”
His lips flickered a smile, but when they broke their gaze, Mitha was gone. From the height of the cave, they could see her running toward the village. “She’ll go and raise an alarm,” he said bitterly.
“I’ll stop her,” she cried out.
“Wait,” he said. “You can’t catch her.”
“I can. I’m younger and faster. I’ll go and convince her it will be alright.” She pulled away from his hand and ran down toward the path. It didn’t take long to catch up with the older woman. “Mitha. What are you going to do?”
“Tell the men that he is hiding there.”
“Please don’t, Mitha. Please.”
“Why? Because you love him?”
“Yes, because I love him. Because I have never loved anyone like him before. Because he is a fine young man and I need him.”
Mitha stopped and stared at her. “Yes, I suppose you do.”
She slipped her hand into Mitha’s. “Please forgive me. Don’t say anything, please. Let it just be like it was before. In time, you’ll see. He is not so bad or so forbidding as a real enemy. He is just a young man who will never be whole again. Let me have him, Mitha.”
“Answer this, girl. Did you know what he was?”
Tears sprang to her eyes. “I didn’t. I swear to you, I didn’t know. I thought he was one of us.”
“Did you ask?”
“Of course not. Not directly, but he never said anything that seemed unusual.”
Mitha sighed. “I will not blame you, then. You are a foolish girl. We will say nothing else about this, then.”
She slipped her hand into Mitha’s and they walked on toward the village. “It will be fine, Mitha,” she said. “You’ll see.”
“Of course,” Mitha smiled. When they returned home, they ate and laid down to sleep. How slept came, she could not fathom, since it seemed so distant. In the morning, she awoke alone. The other girls were up. “Where is Mitha,” she asked sleepily.
“She has gone with the men.”
“The men of the village, silly. They are going after an enemy hiding in the caves above the stream to the east of the village.”
“What?” her blood pounded throughout her entire body. “When did they leave?”
“Maybe an hour ago. They will bring him back here and he will regret the day that he ever drew breath,” one of the girls said happily. She grasped up her shawl, threw it around herself and ran out. One of them caught her arm. “Just stay. What would you do? Where are you going?”
“I must go.”
“Mitha said to keep you here,” the other girl said. She wailed but they merely thought it was for want of Mitha. “She’ll be back by sunset, I’m sure,” the older girl said. “Don’t worry.”
At sunset, when they returned empty handed. “He was already gone when we got there,” Mitha said.
“How could you?” she stormed. “You promised.”
“You should not speak so openly,” Mitha said. “I protected you by not revealing that you had hidden him and cared for him for months. Imagine what would happen to you if they knew you had done this. All your protests that you knew nothing would avail you nothing.”
She sank down on the mud ledge next to the windhole and watched the lowering clouds skitter across the dark sky. He was gone. Alive, but gone. In an instant, everything she believed to be true about her future was gone as well. Where would he go? Back to his village, or somewhere else? How would she ever know? Silently, a tear slipped down her eyelashes and she found she did not have the strength even to stroke it from her cheek.