With a slow hand Besha knelt and put the last stone on the grave.
“Goodbye, Mama,” she whispered.
Her mother was the last member of her family, except for a brother she had never met. Tran had left two years before she was born, after a fight with their father. Both men too stubborn to make peace, the younger Havern had left to seek his own fate in the world.
She turned to look back over the village in the valley below. The ones who had come to say goodbye with her, started to make their way back. Besha wasn't yet ready to leave. She turned back to the headstone and rested her hand upon its cold black head.
Memories of being read to, smells of bread baking, and the courage even at Isabé's last moments assailed her. So many memories.
“I will find him, Mama. I will keep my promise,” she whispered, ignoring the tears that dripped onto her too washed dress. Alone. So alone.
When the south wind dragged the dark clouds from the ocean, she wiped her face with her sleeve. With a last touch to the weathered stone next to her mother's, Besha got up and retreated slowly as a last goodbye.
The darkness descending over the village drowned out the sun's rays, but for a sliver hanging on over the eastern horizon. It wouldn't rain, not yet, but the dreariness and the rising damp only made her feel cold and more miserable.
Even though grief rested heavily on her shoulders, she noticed the three people waiting for her at the cottage. Wariness dragged its own weight into the fray.
“Robert. Sarah. Evan,” she acknowledged the mayor, his wife and son.
“Bethesda,” the mayor began, “with your family no longer with us, I feel that we should hasten the wedding.”
The eager faces next to his made her angry. She considered venting her pain. She had never liked the bully Evan had become, and had never actually said that she would marry him. They all assumed she would fall in with their plans, simply because she had lost her family. For a moment she considered reminding them about Tran, but bit her lip at the last moment.
Instead she sighed the sigh of the weary. “Not now please. I have just buried my mother. I cannot think about this right now.”
Evan grabbed her arm. “Don't you look down at me, missy. No one else will have you, not with that pitiful dowry. You will crawl to me with or without marriage.”
She knew he believed that. And that was what she had feared all along. With her mother bedridden, she had not left the house much and too many people visited for him to catch her alone. Her reprieve was buried this day. And he was not going to wait. He had never liked it when she said no, and that archaic law of a public claim was way too fresh in everyone's minds. After Sonja and Adam used that to prevent her parents from marrying her off to a guy she couldn't stand. It was too risky to push Evan, and she wanted to have say in choosing her own mate.
She didn't believe for a moment that he cared about her. Neither was he going to be faithful. It was the one thing she would not tolerate. Her parents might have had their problems. but they respected one another. She wanted that. The way Evan looked at her or any woman told her that respect was the last thing on his mind.
She suppressed the revulsion, nodded to his parents, and opened the door without another word.
Inside she locked the door, ignoring his taunt that a locked door wouldn't stop him.
His father wielded too much power in this village for her to seek the help or support from her neighbours. She didn't have many friends and they would be powerless against Evan's threats. Neither did she want their lives to become difficult because of her.
There was only one thing to do - she had to leave...tonight.
She had always planned to leave especially when it became clear that her mother was not improving, but not so soon. At least she wanted some time so say goodbye and arrange to have the cottage looked after while she travelled. But there was no time. A quick glance at her timepiece told her that she had about two hours before sunset. Not much time at all.
They never had much in terms of worldly goods, so there wasn't much for her to pack. She would have to carry everything on the hike, since she couldn't afford to waste what little currency she had on a transport. She changed out of the dress into pants, a shirt and warm coat. Her only pair of good shoes made way for her work boots. She dug out her old school backpack and eyed it with a critical eye.
The canvas fabric was still in good condition. Quickly emptying it of any left over notes and pens, she stuffed it with two pairs of fresh underwear and socks, a clean shirt, a hat, her only pair of gloves and the bare necessities for personal hygiene. Giving her long hair a hard look, she decided to pack a pair of scissors, but not waste any time now to cut it. A quick braid would have to do.
Next she inspected the food stores. Meagre as they were. It was late spring, so there could be some things she could forage along the way. It reminded her that she needed a good knife. It took a moment to find her dad's old hunting knife at the back of the cupboard. It was still sharp. It went into a side pocket of the bag.
Digging around for a suitable bag, other containers would be too heavy, she packed all the dried food she could find. Some things would need water to reconstitute it before it would be edible, but it would last longer than fresh food. A bottle for water would be good. A spoon and bowl was added. She spotted her mother's home made first aid kit. Quickly bagging it before she changed her mind she tested the weight of the bag. Not too heavy.
She stood back and bit her thumb nail trying to figure out what she had forgotten. Fire. The moment she spun around, the sun's last rays fell onto the window sill.
Time was up. Quickly grabbing matches, a lightweight fibre blanket that could also serve as a rain coat, and the sandwiches she had made for lunch but couldn't stomach before the service. She was ready.
Slowly zipping up the pack, she turned around the kitchen and did a last tour of the cottage. In her mother's bedroom, she ran her hands over the freshly made bed. Despite the odour of the sick that still clung to the air, she inhaled Isabé's favourite jasim based perfume. The tiny amethyst flowers in the predominantly white room, always reminded her of the jasim which grew wild in the country side around the village. The wild flower was difficult to harvest for making perfume, but she recalled the joy that day when Isabé got it right.
A gentle finger traced the bottle on the dressing table before abruptly turning around.
In her own bedroom, she collected the letter to her best friend, written weeks ago, stuffed it in an envelope with the keys. Her mobile had to stay. So did her books and sewing. She would miss those the most.
Besha took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling to keep the tears from spilling. A breath-like caress infused warmth and love over her cheek. She didn't open her eyes because there was no one.
“Be safe, child,” she could have sworn were spoken from her mother's lips.
“I will, Mama,” she whispered and swung the pack to her shoulders.
Leaving a light on, she was after all a night owl, she left the house via the backdoor. It was the closest to Sonja's home and faced away from the street.
With slow and vigilant movements Besha stepped out to leave the only place she had ever known.
Sonja Trage walked into her bedroom to get a book, when she saw an envelope slip through the open window and plop onto the chair below. Rushing forward she pulled the curtain away.
A tear slipped down her cheek when she saw the raised hand of the departing figure.
“Be safe, my friend,” she whispered.
Dropping the curtain into place, she took the envelope, and hid it at the back of her closet behind her heaviest winter boots.
Collecting the book from her nightstand, she wiped her cheek.
“Honey,” she called out as she left the bedroom, “would you like some tea or coffee?”
Besha knew she was wasn't in the clear yet, even though she had left the village behind. Hours of sticking to shadows and keeping away from any high traffic areas, she stopped behind a large tree to catch her breath and take a sip of water. She had yet to eat the sandwiches, but didn't want to linger. It was still too close to the village.
Her first destination was not that far away. She only told Sonja that she would leave, but never where she needed to go to. It was better that way.
After returning the bottle to the pack, she stretched her shoulders and adjusted the weight of it to a more comfortable spot. To the casual observer she might look like a runaway, but she knew exactly where she was headed. She just didn't plan on walking there. If she hadn't been in such a hurry to leave, she could have sold some furniture or other things to be able to pay for her passage.
There was no time to cry over could-have-beens. She pushed away from the tree and started walking once more, holding thumbs that no one would think she would go to the Whispering Forest.
She didn't meet anyone on the way, but didn't relax her guard. It was better if she wasn't spotted by anyone. She wouldn't put it past Evan to send out a search party for her.
Another shiver rolled down her spine when she thought of him and she paused to listen and look around. It was dark with almost no artificial light in the vicinity. She wasn't taking any chances by using the tiny flashlight she had in her pocket. Better not to alert anyone and draw attention to herself.
Wea One was a semi-desert, but the area where she had lived all her life was filled with trees and mountains. Not much water, so it was only green during the short rain season, which would start in a week or two.
Spotting lights ahead she froze and crouched down behind a bush. She sat there for a few minutes trying to decide what the reason was for the lights in the middle of an open field. Laughter reached her ears when a slight breeze started to blow from the direction of the lights.
People. And they were camping. Irritated at them, she scouted around for a way to avoid them without being seen. She was in no mood to be accosted by drunks.
Leaning towards the other side she noticed more bushes ahead, about the same size as her present hiding place. It looked like a lane of some kind, judging by the curve in which the bushes were planted. Taking care not to run, she made her way along the curve always watching and pausing behind a bush to check.
It took an agonising amount of time to skirt around the campers. They were quite loud, but she wasn't taking any chances. By the time she felt safe from being seen by them, she was tired and hungry.
Taking a minute to rest and drink water, she considered her options for sleeping. She had to rest for a few hours. The village where Isabé had told her Tran lived was another three to four days' walk. It would be stupid not to rest when she could.
There was an abandoned building up ahead, but it was too obvious. There might also be others taking shelter there. She squinted. The moon peeked out from behind the heavy clouds. There seem to be some trees on the other side of the building.
Adjusting the pack, she grimaced at the weight, she set off towards the building. Close to it, she could hear what sounded like snoring.
Sneaking around the back, she found the trees. They were bigger than she thought and perfect for what she had in mind. A last look around, and standing motionless to listen for a minute, she decided that it was safe enough before she reached for the first branch.
A couple of birds scattered in a flurry of feathers and irritated chirps.
No human sounds followed.
She reached upwards again. Picking a spot to her left, she carefully removed the pack and anchored it against a broken branch before settling in, stretching her legs out along the bark.
The sandwiches were no longer neatly assembled, but she ate them anyway. Alert to the fact that her next meal might be many hours away, she ate slowly. Her eyes started drooping after the last crumb had been consumed. Reaching for the pack, she untied the straps and tied them around her and a branch. It would hopefully keep her and the pack from falling as she napped.