Feeling raindrops tap-dance on her hair, Shenya stepped quickly back into the dingy cabin, ducking her head to avoid the top of the doorframe. Jono would not travel in this weather; his mission was too important to risk being lost in a night so dark and wet, and so she would be stuck here alone for the night.She sat in the fireside chair. How would Jono react at finding her here? Would he allow her to accompany him, or would he send her back, knowing what she would face on her return? Would he know, before he left the village, that she had run away? Her head rested against the chair's high back. Her eyes closed. Thumps on the door woke her with a jolt. "Open up!" For a moment Shenya didn't know where she was, but then she grabbed the knife she kept tucked in her left boot, rose from the chair and staggered to the door. She drew back the bolt. The door banged open. "Since when has anyone bolted the door of a wayside cabin?" demanded the thickset young man standing in the doorway. "Jono!" Shenya stepped back to let him inside. "What are you doing here at this time of night?" He stepped in out of the rain, his clothes wet through, and dropped his pack on the floor. "Shenya? Is that you? What are you doing here?" She ignored his question, threw more wood on the fire, and then turned to see him stripping off his soaked jacket and shirt. "Turn your back, girl, and let me change into dry clothes!" While he changed, she swung the kettle over the fire and made hot tea. When the sounds from behind told her he was dressed again, Shenya handed him a mug of tea and picked up his wet clothes, which she draped over the rack beside the fire. "What are you doing here?" he repeated. "How long have you been here? Does our father know you're here?" He looked at her, one eyebrow raised in question. "No, he doesn't know, does he!" He moved to the one fireside chair and sat down. "You've run away?" he asked more gently. She nodded. "So he's not changed his mind about Gerrick?" She sat in the second chair. " He can't expect me to marry that old man!" "Our father's not old," Jono said softly, "and he's the same age." "And I wouldn't want to marry my father! Jono, please, let me come with you! I can't go back. Father will be so angry with me." Jono stared silently into the fire's flames. "It's all about Father's wish for a grandson, and yet Gerrick has not fathered any children on his first two wives. Who's to say he'd be able to with any other woman? Why shouldn't you inherit the village leadership when Father dies?" she asked. He looked at her, the expression in his brown eyes unreadable. "You know why! I'm not his son, though I call him 'father'. My father was his youngest brother. The leadership must go in a direct line. He needs a grandson, the son of his only daughter." "And I'm no more than a brood mare!" Shenya snapped. The rain had stopped by daybreak, though the trees still dripped and the ground was soggy beneath their feet. By midday Shenya's socks were squelching in her boots, her trousers wet to the calves and her shoulders sore from the pack straps. She changed into dry socks when they stopped for their nooning meal. Jono walked on ahead, munching on a handful of dried fruit, leaving her to catch up. He disappeared around a bend in the road. She stowed her wet socks in an outside pocket of her pack. "What's this?" A gruff voice came from behind. "What's a stripling boy doing alone on the road?" Shenya spun to face the speaker. "A girl! So, young missy, what brings you out here on your own?" Grey whiskers covered cheeks and chin of the weathered face. Food stains decorated the faded and wrinkled brown tunic; a rope belt held up wrinkled brown trousers with bare dirty feet sticking out below. Shenya crouched down, as if to tie up her pack. Jono was well ahead and might not even hear if she called out. She slid the knife from her left boot and held it in her hand, hidden behind her leg. She rose to stand, seeing that she was half a head taller than the grubby man who stared at her with faded blue eyes. She waited. "Come then, missy. You'll share your food with a hungry man?" He stepped forward holding out his hand, his expression showing he wanted more than just food. Her knife slashed his palm. He squealed, staggering back in shock as she grabbed her pack and ran. She ran, legs pumping, the pack dragging at her arm, until the road curved to the left and she could see Jono ahead. She stopped, gasping for breath, bent down and wiped the knife's blade on grass at the roadside. The man wouldn't follow; he would have to bandage his hand and the shock of finding her armed and knowing how to defend herself would put him off. Even if he did catch up, she would then be with Jono and the old tramp wouldn't risk facing up to a younger man. The road wound on ahead, past fields where farm animals grazed, over bridges where the streams beneath raged after the rain. Shenya told Jono about the tramp as they walked. He nodded. "Teaching you how to handle a knife was a good idea, even though our father would never have agreed." She smiled. "You've taught me many things he doesn't know and wouldn't sanction if he did know." With the sun touching distant hilltops, they arrived at the gate of the market town. Jono led her away from the town square, to a house on the far side of town. He knocked on the red painted door. "Who knocks at sundown?" queried an old woman's voice from inside. "One who seeks the services of a priest," Jono replied. Shenya stared at him, but he kept his gaze on the door. A wrinkled face framed by white hair appeared in the doorway. Brown eyes stared at young couple. "Come in, come in." The old woman stepped back, gesturing them inside and down a passageway to the kitchen where a fire burned brightly on the hearth. "Father Matyn will be back soon. I'm Mari. Sit!" She pointed to chairs beside the table and turned to the fireplace. In moments, Mari set hot mugs of tea on the table, and then plates of thick stew. "Eat," she instructed. "The priest should return soon." She looked from Shenya to Jono. "Is he to perform a marriage ceremony?" "No, mistress," Jono replied, "at least not here this night." He flicked a glance at Shenya. "We have need of his services for a dying man." The old woman nodded. "We've heard there is sickness about. Have you come far? And why is your wife dressed like a boy?" She brushed a hand down the skirt of her apron, worn over a cream, yellow and white striped housedress. "My foster sister and close cousin," Jono said, stressing the relationship, "is with me because it is for her father that we need the priest. It is safer for her to dress as a man, or people would question why we, unmarried, travel together." The old woman nodded, accepting the logic of their situation, accepting also that young people now did things differently from when she was young. Shenya froze, her spoon halfway to her mouth. She had thought Jono's mission was to trade for necessities after this year's crop failures. What was this about a dying man? Her father? No, it couldn't be! He had been healthy when she left the village, healthy and very angry at her repeated refusal to marry Gerrick. Jono arrived at he wayside cottage mere hours after she did. Her father hadn't had time to... Or had he? Had he and Gerrick quarrelled because of her? Had they fought, and her father been injured? She couldn't ask in front of the woman, wouldn't betray her ignorance of her father's condition before a stranger. She put the spoonful of stew in her mouth and chewed, no longer tasting what moments before had been delicious spicy mutton and vegetables. The old woman looked up as they heard the outer door close, and footsteps up the passageway. A young man in priest's black robes entered the kitchen and the old woman quickly served another plate of stew. Father Matyn sank onto the chair beside Jono. "The sickness is spreading," he said to the woman. "I've said funeral prayers for twenty today in Kayan's village, and more to say tomorrow, so I've heard, in Abram's village." He suddenly noticed they were not alone. He turned to Jono. "Where are you from and how many sick?" Jono shook his head. "We have no sickness in Davyn's village, not the sickness elsewhere anyway. Not yet. But we do need your services for a dying man." The priest shook his head. "I'm needed tomorrow in Abram's village. I can't come to you for at least two days. What ails the man?" "Blood cough," said Jono. "Is he still standing?" Jono nodded his head. "He was when I left yesterday." "Then you'll have to return and wait for me," the priest said. "My services are needed more urgently elsewhere. Mother," he added, turning to the old woman, "can you organise food and supplies for my journey tomorrow?" He wiped up the last of his stew with a hunk of brown bread. "I'll leave at daybreak." With the old woman bustling around the kitchen gathering supplies for her son's journey after the priest had gone to bed, Shenya had no chance to ask Jono about her father. At bedtime, he was shown to the guest room, while she shared the old woman's bed. Despite her concern for her father, Shenya slipped easily into sleep and awoke refreshed. She discovered the priest had risen and departed. Jono was in the kitchen with Mari, the priest's mother, who served nut porridge and coffee and made it obvious that they should leave because she had things to organise for sick villagers. "How long has Father been sick?" Shenya demanded as she and Jono left the town on their homeward journey. "Why didn't he tell me? I would have stayed home and nursed him." Jono shrugged. "As he did not know you were leaving, he must have thought there was no urgency to tell you." He set a brisk pace, but not too fast as they had a full day's journey ahead and needed to conserve their energy. At mid-morning they stopped beside a large, flat-topped rock that served as a wayside table and ate fresh bread Mari had provided. Shenya stared off across paddocks filled with milk beasts. Blood cough was serious. She knew that no one survived it, though it was becoming more rare these days. How had she not guessed that her father was ill? But then she knew and accepted that lately she had concentrated more on her own problems than those of others. Her attention snapped back to her surroundings when she heard Jono's grunt of pain. She turned his way and looked directly into the faded blue eyes of the dirty old tramp, but this time three others accompanied him; one had muscly arms around Jono's chest. "So, young missy, you were off to find your pretty boyfriend yesterday." The brown tunic was just as dirty, crumbs of food clung to the grey whiskers and a grimy cloth bound the hand she had sliced. She looked at Jono, but he seemed to be in a faint. Had his captor hurt him? No! Somehow she knew that he was faking it, waiting for something from her. But what could she do against four outdoors-hardened men? And suddenly she knew. She reached down as if scratching her leg, and touched instead the handle of the knife tucked into her left boot. "Watch her!" the tramp ordered. "She's got a knife." But none of them had time to move before Shenya's blade flashed. In her hand was not a knife, but a sword. Startled for a moment, she glanced at Jono and saw him smile, and then lessons he had taught returned to her and she wielded the sword with accuracy at the man who held Jono. She turned and attacked the tramp in the brown tunic, and noticed on the edge of her vision that Jono battled the other two with a sword she hadn't known he carried. But it was a one-sided battle; two fit and healthy young people armed with swords against four old men armed only with knives. Jono chased the four men up the road, leaving Shenya to catch her breath. When he returned, Shenya looked for the sword Jono had wielded, but he held only the short knife similar to the one she kept in her boot. "You've solved your own problem," he said grinning, as he leaned against the flat-topped rock. "I've been waiting, but you've been late showing any signs." "What signs? What are you talking about?" He sighed. "Has our father never taught you our family's history? Our grandmother - yes, she was mine, too - was a powerful woman. That's power as in Power! Your mother had a little, but not enough to stand alone." Shenya frowned. "If you would stop talking in riddles, I might know what you mean." He shrugged. "Our grandmother," he said patiently, "was village leader after her husband died. Yes," he added, seeing her shocked look, "as a woman alone she lead the village until she became sick, and then your father took over." "And what has this to do with me?" Shenya munched on dried fruit, hungrier than she'd been before breakfast. "With that little trick with the knives," Jono said, "you've finally shown that you also have the Power. It will take some training," he admitted, "but there are people who have the knowledge to help even if they don't actually have the Power." "And this helps me, how?" Jono grinned. "You're brain isn't quick today. Think about it!" "Do you mean...?" She stopped and stared at him, gasping at the possibilities that rose before her." "If one woman can be village leader, why can't another?" He tied up his pack and shrugged it onto his shoulders. "Gerrick sure isn't going to want to marry such a strong woman. He'll find a young girl he can control." "But Father will still want to marry me off," Shenya said as she picked up her pack. "There's no one else suitable in the village for you to marry," Jono replied. "I'm the only unmarried male near your age, and we're too close blood kin. So," he said as they set off down the road, "you'll have to stay unmarried, at least for now. You might choose your own husband later on. But our father need not pressure you for grandchildren, because you can be village leader in your own right. And you need only remind him of his mother to gain his acceptance." As they walked down the road, Shenya thought of all the improvements to village life she had suggested and been denied by her father. Now she could see them put into practice, and some might even help them avoid the illness that was attacking other villages in the region. She couldn't prevent her father's death; for that there was no cure, but she could improve the lives of the village's women and children and, yes, the men too. This was not the future she'd been facing, that had decided her to leave her father's village. This was a future where she could live a life valued, and one on which she already knew her father would agree. The sun seemed suddenly warmer, the air more sweet, as she walked beside Jono toward their home.
x x x
Ms. Cresswell returns to anotherealm after too long an absence. Her tale buckles swashes with style. Welcome Alyson back on our BBS, folks. Lassie, we missed ye. -GM