This story is copyright © 1998 Samuel Marshall. All rights reserved. May not be distributed without permission of the author. Thanks to Bookwyrm and Liosalfar for advice and suggestions that helped me improve the story from the first draft. Musical accompaniment from LTJ Bukem/MC Conrad's "Progression Sessions vol. 1" album. ("Step into the roof of my mind...")
* * *
"What're you doing, girl? Eat your dinner 'fore it gets cold!"
Jeanie snapped out of her daydream, reluctantly focusing on the worn old wooden table in front of her. There was an earthenware bowl in her place, filled with steaming broth, and a hunk of coarse-meal bread as accompaniment. She sighed; this food was so dull, everything seemed so dull, in comparison with those deep green eyes...
Picking up her spoon, she forced herself to stay with the real world and not drift off again into imaginings. It was so easy, in a day's repetitive work tending crops - to slip out of consciousness, forget what she was doing, where she was, why things had to be this way, and dream only of that one person - but here she was expected to pay attention to food and conversation. Not that there was much of the latter; her mother held no great love for Jeanie and found little to discuss, and there were only the two of them to share dinner.
She finished her broth in silence as expected, and mopped up the last of it with the bread. The meal left her hungry, but everybody was hungry in this village. Safe land inside the stockade was poor and overused, and only a fool would plant crops outside it; there, anything that passed during the hours of darkness could despoil the harvest. Coaxing life from the soil here was hard work indeed, and work that only two escaped; the blacksmith, who made and repaired farming tools for his living, and the innkeeper, with coin from the occasional travelers and barter for the ale he brewed.
"I'm off to the inn," Jeanie's mother said. She had a name, but Jeanie didn't use it, only thought of the woman as "mother", a word tinged with bitterness. She wasn't old - thirty-three to Jeanie's seventeen - but she bore lines that obscured her previous good looks, lines that Jeanie blamed on the way her mother hadn't smiled in seventeen years.
Now, the woman stood and tidied her long hair, slipped into a cloak from the peg by the door and left, not waiting for Jeanie's nod of acknowledgment. Jeanie herself didn't often go to the inn, though most of the village socialized there; few liked her and few would make the effort to talk with her, so she was left alone in a crowd. Better to be alone alone, she thought, and then at least she could dream... dream of him who had (she was almost certain) liked her, and had made the effort to talk with her, and who had such beautiful deep green eyes and long flowing dark hair and a face that was pure and kind. If only he lived in this village... But he did not, and though she could daydream otherwise, it made a poor substitute. Weeks ago that substitute had been enough, but now she yearned for more, and with every day that yearning grew.
* * *
Jeanie's thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. "Who's there?" she called, pushing back her chair to stand up. She noticed tears on her cheek and absently wiped them off, walking over to the door. One hand she kept on the dagger she wore, just in case.
"It's Reyland Walker. Can I come in?"
"Sure, Reyland," Jeanie said, surprised. She opened the door on the evening twilight, letting a brief tendril of chill autumn wind curl around her while the youth - man - stepped in. He was about her age, and one of the few of her peers who'd deigned to play with her as a child. But he'd grown up fast, seeming several years her elder in wisdom and maturity, and he'd married last year. His wife was lucky to have him, Jeanie thought.
"What d'ye want?" she asked. "Mother's at the inn..."
"I know." Reyland hung his cloak on a peg carefully, turning to face Jeanie again. "I've just been there. She said something about you being lost in your own world all the time, and, well, Sophie realized you probably haven't seen another soul in weeks. Your mother can be... a little cold, and Sophie thought you might appreciate an old friend to talk to, so..." He shrugged. "Here I am."
Jeanie was a little taken aback. "Oh. Well... that's very kind of you, and her to think of me. But I'm fine, really."
"You've been crying," Reyland pointed out gently. "Sit down and we'll talk about it." He guided her back to the chair, then sat down himself on another. "Well?"
She looked at him for a moment, unsure what to say. As children, they'd had few secrets from each other, but things were different for children... Then, suddenly, her reserve crumbled and she found herself blurting out the story. How she'd seen travelers coming to the village, gone to the inn out of curiosity, and ended up enchanted by the stranger, his deep green eyes and his conversation both. How she'd not seen him since, after he left for his own village a day's travel away. How since then she'd found herself daydreaming about him more and more. And, finally, something she hadn't realized herself until that moment; how she planned to travel herself, to meet him.
When she'd finished talking, and dried renewed tears, Reyland shook his head slowly, evidently worried. "I know who you mean. Do you even know his name?"
Jeanie nodded. "I don't really think of him by name, though... seems to me I don't have the right, somehow."
"You know..." Reyland paused, searching for words. "I mean, you're both young, of an age, but that aside... he's... not like you."
"I know," Jeanie said, sighing. "That worries me, I guess, only I can't help wanting him."
"It's full moon soon. Don't go to see him, especially now, but best not ever," Reyland said. "If it was anybody else, I'd advise meeting, but this isn't going to work out."
"I guess you're right." Jeanie stood up again. "Thanks for coming, but you'd better leave. I need to get some sleep, and you probably want to get back."
The young man nodded and got to his feet. Wrapping his cloak around his shoulders, he stood in the entranceway - letting the breeze in again - and looked back at her briefly. "Good luck in getting over it," Reyland said, and pulled the door closed behind him.
* * *
Tossing and turning in bed later, she thought of Reyland's words. Luck she'd need, if she was to forget about this. Only - the unwise part of her said - couldn't that luck be better used in meeting him and...?
Eventually she slept, exhaustion claiming precedence over her emotional turmoil. She woke before dawn, barely refreshed, and set about packing a little stored food into a bag. The few coins that she'd hoarded over the years, she fitted into a drawstring-pocket within her cloak. At some point during this process, Jeanie half-realized she was about to do exactly what she'd been warned against; but whatever part of her mind was in subconscious control soothed her worries with imaginings of him, and she went about the task with no further consideration of its consequences.
She was out of the house by daybreak. Her mother would not rise for some time yet, and the others that were about in the rutted-mud streets took little notice of Jeanie and her small sack of possessions. She made her way along by the dilapidated wooden houses - halfway to huts, really - and past the larger stone-built inn, to the gate in the wooden stockade that circled the village. A night-guard was just stepping down from the makeshift watch-tower, his job complete as the sun rose. He made no comment as Jeanie passed through the gateway. This being the only way out of the village, it was much used, and her boots squelched in the churned-up mud. She hurried through, trying to make good time. And also trying frantically to remember which way she was supposed to go.
You follow the road westward from here, he had said, and then turn off a mile before you reach Stonebridge, heading cross-country along a less-used track to the south. A day's travel, if you set off early and move fast.
At least, that was how she remembered it. Directions given in casual conversation weren't ideal for traveling by, but she had her starting point; the road to the west. Turning left, she looked westward, shivering a little and drawing her cloak tighter in the early-morning chill. Ahead, the sky was still dim from night, brightening only gradually to the grayness of dense-patched clouds. The road itself set out in a ragged approximation to a straight line, curving around boulders and stands of trees that had made its path difficult. It ran downhill away from the village, sloping gently through a landscape of low undergrowth - knee-high grass, nettles, small bushes - and the occasional wooded patch. Further into the distance, it disappeared into the shadowed dimness of Saronjay Forest which encroached from the north. The evergreen forest - and presumably the road within it - continued as far as Jeanie could see, rising up a hill then disappearing from view after the summit.
Nobody else was visible on the road; it wasn't necessary to start this early to reach Stonebridge, and at any rate tomorrow was not a market day. Jeanie had the track to herself, and she set off along it at a fair pace. On the long downhill stretch, she kept feeling the presence of the village still in sight at the hilltop. She had to fight the urge to look back and see if anyone chased after her; of course, nobody would bother, there was no reason to stop her. Even so, she was glad to reach the cover of the forest, twenty minutes later.
Within the trees, it was dim and gloomy. For the first few minutes, rays of weak clouded sunlight spread liberally from gaps in the canopy overhead, but deeper into the forest there were few such breaks and little illumination. The trees kept away the force of the wind, but held between them a dank, moist air with a chill all of its own, away from sun's warmth. It could almost be night, and Jeanie shivered at the thought. Supposing the creatures of the darkness were still about here, where it remained dim throughout the day... She kept a hand firm on her dagger, remembering that it was considered inadvisable to travel alone.
* * *
Despite her fears, several hours of travel through the forest passed uneventfully. At noon - or as close as she could tell, from the clouded sun that filtered through dense tree branches - she ate a small lunch. Sitting on a massive fallen trunk, she could rest her legs, although dampness made the seat a little uncomfortable. The meal, of bread and a little cheese, was a hurried one. As soon as she was done, she got back to her feet, stretched cramp from her legs, and continued along the trail.
It was another few hours before she came to the side-path that would lead to his village. Though there was no signpost, it was unmistakeable; a cleared track curving off to the left, wide enough for two to walk side-by-side. Jeanie left the main road with lightened heart, relieved to be making progress.
The new trail turned southward and then straightened out. It was pleasant to walk along; the ground wasn't churned up by horses and carts, but was smooth and even grass-covered at some points. Other parts were carpeted with browning leaves from deciduous trees that, in this part of the forest, formed small clusters amidst the evergreens. After five minutes of walking, faint sounds of water could be heard to the right, and occasionally Jeanie glimpsed of a narrow, swift-flowing river through the trees. It seemed to parallel the path at a short distance; probably the ground nearer the banks was too damp to travel on comfortably.
Lulled by the ease of travel, Jeanie slipped back into daydreams, and it was not until an hour later that something new required her attention. The waterway to the right was coming closer to the path. She rounded a corner into an open clearing, to find that the river crossed the path in a wide curve. Here the channel was several times the width of the narrower parts to either side, and much shallower, frothing across rocks and gravel.
Wincing at the thought of the ford's cold water, Jeanie pulled off her boots and stockings, and rolled up her trews. With a boot in each hand, she quickly waded through the knee-deep icy water, trying to ignore the freezing temperature. The rocks that formed the river base were sometimes covered in weed or moss and formed treacherous footing; falling over in water this shallow might only result in a soaking, but even that could be serious in the cold autumn weather.
Jeanie trod carefully on the rocks that acted as stepping-stones across the fast-flowing water. One wobbled warningly after she'd put her weight on it and she froze for a moment, balanced in mid-air... but it held firm and she was able to get to another stone, completing the crossing safely.
Once on the other, higher bank, she spent a few seconds vigorously shaking her legs in an attempt to get the warmth back in them and the cold water off them. This achieved neither, so she sat carefully on a large boulder and resorted to rubbing her feet dry on a corner of her cloak. This worked, and she was able to put her boots back on.
Relatively comfortable again, she got up to continue walking - then cursed roundly. Her bag, which contained what was left of the food and was also itself of good quality, was on the other side of the river; she'd left it there when she put it down to remove her shoes. How could she have been so stupid?
Shaking her head in annoyance, she started to untie her bootlaces again, then stopped herself. No; she could avoid wasting another ten minutes if she crossed as she was, keeping the time her boots were underwater to the absolute minimum. Four or five well-chosen strides or jumps should do. She checked to find a good route, and started her return by jumping onto a large stone...
...remembered in mid-air that it was the same rock which had wobbled on her previous crossing...
...landed on the stone, which tipped to one side, overbalancing her totally and flinging her into the river. She fell towards the rushing water, catching a brief confused glimpse of rocks and water and foam before her head hit something and she blacked out.
She came round what seemed to be only a few seconds later. Everything was freezing, wet, green-tinged, and very confused. She attempted to breathe and gained only a mouthful of water; thrashing and kicking around, she managed to reach what appeared to be the river's surface, cough out the fluid from her mouth and lungs, and grab a breath of air. Then she lost her precarious balance and went under again, frantically struggling to regain control. The current seemed to be strong here, and besides, she couldn't actually swim. It was already getting difficult to move her arms and legs because they were so icy cold...
Struggling against the water and the protests of her own limbs, she managed eventually to regain a measure of stability. As she gulped deep breaths, she caught a confused glimpse of riverbanks swaying past at a fearsome rate, before a twist of the current span her about and left her fighting for air once more. This sequence - Jeanie gaining a degree of control, only to lose it at the whim of the capricious river - was repeated time and again. Finally, the biting cold seemed to make it impossible to even move her arms, let alone pull herself to the surface for a gasp of breath. She was on the point of giving up, letting herself drown... at least then she wouldn't freeze...
And then something smashed into her side, taking her breath (what there was of it) away. Realizing hazily that it was likely to be solid ground, she managed to pull herself up onto it and away from the water. It did appear to be a riverbank of some sort, and after coughing up more liquid she seemed to be able to breathe in the air. She could even see, and blinking river-water from her eyes made the fuzzy blur become clear: a muddy beach, low enough that debris was swept up on it. Debris consisting mostly of fallen tree-branches, and her.
The next thing she noticed was that she was shivering uncontrollably. Although her mind wasn't very clear yet, it seemed to her that getting warm would be a good idea. She stripped off the outer, thicker layers of sodden clothing, and began to dance around in what was left, as energetically as she could manage after the exertions of her unintended swim. To start with, she was hard pressed not to fall over - she could barely feel her limbs, and they weren't very responsive - but gradually the blood got flowing and she could move more normally. The physical exertion cleared her head a little, enough that she hoped nobody was going to walk through this part of forest and see her dancing haphazardly in her underwear.
Finally, after ten minutes or so, she felt a little better. She was pretty sure she wasn't going to die of the cold or have her extremities drop off, and she'd dried off okay; the problem was her sodden, and relatively heavy, outer clothing. She wrung it out with her hands as best she could, which got rid of most of the water and left it damp instead of dripping wet. Then, since she hadn't thought to bring materials for a fire, there was little alternative but to put the clothes back on; wet or not, they would still provide a layer of protection against the air.
That done, she took stock of her situation. She'd probably been in the water about ten minutes, swept northward with the current. The place she'd ended up... she blinked. It couldn't be... but yes, there was the path and there was the fallen tree, she remembered the spot. It'd taken her half an hour to walk this far!
With that time, the time she'd spent getting warm, and the time in the river, she'd lost almost an hour. Getting to her destination in a day was supposed to be cutting it fine already; and now she was cold and wearing damp clothes. It would be sensible to head back to the main road and make for Stonebridge. She could be there well before sunset, get a room in the inn, have a warm bath while her clothes dried off in front of a fire...
That would be the sensible thing to do.
She trod through forest undergrowth back to the path, and set off along it at a fast pace. South. Towards him. And away from sense.
* * *
Jeanie retraced her steps of an hour ago, at somewhat greater speed. Reaching the ford again, she picked up the bag that'd caused all this trouble; it was still exactly where she'd left it. Then she removed her footwear and crossed the river carefully, avoiding the treacherous stone. On the other side, she dried her legs and got back into her boots as fast as was possible, and started away quickly along the path. The pace she'd set made her breathe slightly harder than usual, but it also kept her warm, and would help regain lost time. It was late afternoon now, and she had to be sure of reaching this village before dark. Then, of course, she still had to find him.
She drifted back into daydreams when her attention didn't seem to be required for travel, pleasant imaginings of what might happen at day's end... but they were beset by doubts, now that the reality was so close. Of course, there were things that could go wrong, too - what if he wasn't there? If, despite all sense, this wasn't the right path? If... that difference... proved insurmountable? (And she had a nagging feeling that she'd lost track of the moon phases, that tonight might be full moon, or near enough.)
Another hour or so of travel passed uneventfully, the forest seeming endless indeed, and becoming dimmer and darker as time went by. The sounds of the daytime birds began to wane, and - just as Jeanie was really beginning to worry - the trees began to thin out. The path, too, petered away into nothing as the trunks spread apart, there now being a thousand different ways to walk unobstructed in vaguely the right direction. And finally, the forest came to a proper edge in the form of a road.
Jeanie breathed a sigh of relief at the welcome sight. The wide cart-track was probably the way from Stonebridge to this village (she wished she knew its name). The road ran along the side of a steep valley falling away to the right, a grassy slope speckled with boulders. It continued to the southeast, where the valley smoothed out, the hills at either side dropping down to meet with its floor... and there, in the center of a wide flat plain, was a village.
It was less than a mile away downhill and barely visible in the dusk. A cluster of mostly-stone houses sat higgledy-piggledy together, much the same as any similar community, but still unique. Circling the village at a distance was a wooden stockade. Just as at her home, it encompassed some fields for crops, as well as pens for the animals that - in the day - would graze outside.
Jeanie hurried down the track. Away from the trees, the biting wind was fierce once more, but at least her clothes were pretty much dry now. And on this last stretch, surely she could not fail - though it would be easier if she reached the village before nightfall, and could enter freely rather than having to negotiate with a gate-guard.
* * *
Ten minutes later, she was nearing the village, although by any reasonable definition of the word "dusk" was turning to "dark". The moon was up, and it was uncomfortably close to full. But these thoughts slipped from Jeanie's mind as she realised somebody else was nearby, coming towards the road from one side. A shepherd, bringing in his sheep from grazing, for safety through the night. And... he looked like...
"Juan?" she said softly, stepping towards the tall, shadowed figure. The name sounded odd now she'd said it, somehow distant from the "him" of her dreams. Maybe that was for the best, a new beginning...
An old ewe baa'd indignantly as Jeannie stepped around it, and Juan - it was him, as she'd truly known - automatically bent to hush it as he turned. Then his eyes caught Jeanie, and registered surprise. He blinked. "You're... Jeannie, right? The pretty one from..." He blushed. "I forget the name of your village."
She giggled, feeling young and happy. "I forgot the name of yours, too. But I didn't forget you." She gulped, herself blushed, and managed somehow to continue. "I've been dreaming about you since we met... ever since we met... and now I'm here."
"Aye," he said quietly. He took a deep breath, and looked down. "I've been dreaming about you, too, but... you know..." Almost involuntarily he looked up, eyes flicking to a point in the sky in the east where the near-full moon hung, revealed fleetingly between clouds.
"I know." Jeanie sighed. "But don't you think, maybe, we could work around that?" She held her breath, waiting for his response.
"I've been warned this could never work," Juan said, his breathing coming ragged. "But... maybe..." He bent down a little to look in her eyes...
Then at that moment, the moon's light shone clear, and a little of the wolf-urge came. It must have glinted in her eyes, for Juan screamed in primal, inarticulate terror of the heart and turned to run away; forgetting his sheep, his answer to her unquestionable.
She stood and looked after him, a single droplet of salt-water running down her cheek. Then she began to express her heartbreak, with a high-pitched keening that set teeth on edge and scattered the sheep, and that became a fully-fledged howl as she shifted and padded away into the forest, crying wolven tears.
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