Primoz had been on the road for days. He went through lifeless mountains and had no way of refilling his vivers. One midday, when the cold had past – it was almost autumn now – he found himself near small brutally destroyed village. He followed the small pathway to it and was appalled by the cruelty used – half of the houses were burned, the rest made inhabitable. Except for few, but it seemed unlikely to hide any survivors.
“What happened?” he asked himself, before hearing clutching sound of an ax hitting wood.
A woman rose from behind the bushes. She was young grown up with charmingly beautiful figure hidden by the dress that now licked her back in the wind. Her bleached hair was entwined into long braid that reached to her middle, why her grey eyes shined in the evening sun.
“What happened happened ten years ago.” She said, eyeing the intruder carelessly. Though he was a huge man, tall and not the best looking, she didn’t seem intimidated by the site at all and he didn’t know what to think of that. In ten years he’d been travelling, it was common to be chaised away as most took him for criminal of some sort.
“Good day, ma’m.” He gave her a little bow, before she motioned him closer. Women had the habit of running when he closed in, but she didn’t seem to know it. In fact, her eyes seemed warm, welcoming as if seeing someone she’d known her whole life.
“Day is late, my friend.” She put the ax down and started collecting lugs where they had landed. For a moment she stopped, thought and turned to gaze his muscled arms he didn’t bother to cover and reached one of the lugs to him, giving a silent request he’d help her.
He was here for good relations he thought and accepted it, allowing the woman place quite a pile of them on his right arm, before gathering some herself. His left arm was holding his gear and sword.
He couldn’t help but observe the burned buildings, wondering if it be polite to ask, what happened.
“War went through here.” She said, collecting her armful before he could ask. “They took our food, burnt our houses and then went, leaving us to die.” She didn’t sound emotional, rather cold even. “What was left of them didn’t last for long and most of the villagers left. My family couldn’t – mom couldn’t keep anything down and grew week. She died. Me and my sister, we buried her in the hole in the ground. People say – I rather die. But then, dying is not that simple, even if you search dead yourself. On her grave I made a promise – I’ll do anything not to end up in there. So far I’ve manage to keep it.”
She rose. “Come – let’s find you something to eat then.” Her voice was calm, half sleepy even.
He froze. Did he just hear her right?
She went, but sensed then he wasn’t following and turned. “That is, why you are here, isn’t it? To stack up? I’m afraid I have nothing to sell, but I can give you some fruits and bread to get to the next village.”
It took him a moment to evaluate her words, before he felt able to move again and followed her to one of the remaining houses. It was small, but cleaned up and it had glass windows.
“I just finished supper, so I don’t have much left, but the breads are coming out soon.”
So that was the smell he sensed in the woods! He knew there had to be a reason he felt sudden urge to come here.
“You can put the logs there.” She nodded towards the small stove as she entered. The wooden floor seemed firm enough for him to walk on it, though it looked old. The room was warm and dark, but he didn’t mind it – he never had problems seeing in the dark, being most of his life in dark. There wasn’t much furniture, but enough for few people.
“Sit, you are probably tired, it seems you’ve walked for long time.” She didn’t put more attention on him, but turned to attend the fire.
He watched her. He didn’t know what to make of her – it was so calm he thought he was dreaming. Not even his own sister welcomed him so willingly in her home after learning who he was – a human with wild soul, yet this young woman called her in without showing any signs of being afraid or intimidated by his looks or by his weapons, which he wore many and most openly. He was used to being attacked and mistrusted for this, but he was never wrong to expect it either. Or wouldn’t she be afraid of him misusing her? Why was she being so nice?
She filled two cup with basswood blossoms and violets, before adding hot water from huge tank above the stove and gave it to him sitting against him on the other side of the table.
He thanked her. “You live here on your own?” he asked, not asking what he really wanted to know – about why she had so much hot water?
“Yes. My sister married five years ago and has six children of her own now. They come to see me once a week, to make sure I’m alright.” Her calm face filled with joy when she said it and to Primoz this had to be the face of an angel. “When you go to the village, ask for Oana – she’ll help you with food. Her husband has a shop there.”
They sat in silence for a while, stearing at each other. The wind outside had risen and it sounded harsh, playing with the roof.
She rose her eyes and listened. “Well, it seems you have to rest here for the night, though.” She sighed and went for the stove.
“It will pass soon.” He marked, but felt little truth in it.
She gave him an amused gaze. “No, not in this part of the mountains – it usually lasts ‘til morning.”
The weather in mountains was capricious and unpredictable. He had seen days when the morning was so cold you nearly survived when the evening brought heat so burning you could drown in your own sweat. Or you started your journey in thick fog and ended with giving praises to wind gods for blowing the insidious fog from your bath seconds before you’d step over the cliff and get yourself killed in fall too deep to remember.
She interrupted his thoughts when removing the slab from the stove’s mouth. A warm aroma of freshly baked bread filled the room and his hungry stomach constinged immediately reminded him why he was here.
She took out four good smelling loafs and covered them with white linen cloth. Then she fixed the fire again and brought one of the loafs to the table. She broke off a slice and gave it to him but took none for herself.
He thanked her and sank his teeth in it while watching her return to the stove and preparing a basin. She first put on an old apron and brought a towel near her. Then she turned her sleeves up and mixed hot and cold water ‘til she was satisfied.
“Bojan will be back soon, he is never late for his meal.” She explained, when noticing his curious look.
“Who is Bojan?”
“My dog.” As for sign, he heard a low bark behind the door and she hurried to open it. “He always gets muddy in days like this – it’s easier to wash him right a way when he arrives or he’ll make a mess all over the house.”
In came a huge sheep-size black wolfhound. He immediately took interest in him –animals often sensed, who he was – and growled, but a sharp order from his mistress and he turned back to her with devious puppy face, tale fiercely wagging behind him. The monster was indeed dirty as he could see from the water turning light milky grey.
He observed her placing the dog inside the basin – suprised by her strength in doing so – and watched how Bojan enjoyed her every steady stroke and hug while she washed the dirt off his fur. The site made him yearn for her touch too, so much even he found himself drawn to her, yearning she washed his fur like that too.
Soon the dog was free and paced off on his little place near the fireplace while she discarded the water outside. He had a bowl with food there waiting.
She then fixed new water in the basin and came to offer him a towel. “Here, you can refresh yourself while I see if I can find you a blanket and pillows.” He simultaneously took the offer and headed for the bowl. “The stove is hot now, you see, but it will cool off soon. Then sleeping on the floor will be hard to bare.”
It was indeed hot here, he admitted, but he doubt the heat was caused by the burning logs. Instead he started to wonder if the reason wasn’t more with human form, like him?
But he had no wish to ruin this perfect time by forcing her into something she might not wish to do. She had welcomed him in her home and shared the little she had with no requests involved. In his eyes, hurting her would be sacrilege, because at the moment, she was near being a saint.
“Athala.” She said suddenly, placing the bedding before her bed, which was on the other side of the stove, where it was warmest in the room to sleep.
He rose his water dripping face to give her a puzzled look.
“My name, “ she explained, “it’s Athala.” She brushed her hand over the soft pillow to clean away some dust. “I thought as we do need to spend the night here together, I might as well know your name.” She shrugged.
He seldom used his real name. His father had said the names bared much power in them and trusting someone with it meant you really trusted someone. Because of that he used many fake ones, giving one after another, never revealing his true identity so no one could use it against him.
“Primoz.” He said quietly, before realizing he had said his own name.
“Primoz.” She repeated it for few times, trying to get the pronation right. Then she gave him a respectful nod and turned back at doing his bed.
Less than an hour later they were in their beds.
“Good night, Athala.” He said yawning, digging in.
“Good night, Primoz.” Her voice disappeared in the dark, but he heard every sound of it and it felt good. The wind outside grew louder, but he felt only warm in his heart.
First time in his life he slept well, waking rested, against the fact it was cold that woke him. She had been right, the stove had cooled off in the night and it chilled the floor so, making it almost impossible to sleep on.
He stretched himself long, before rising from the bed. He tried not to wake her, she didn’t. Her dog was now laying almost in full length next to her, showing him some teeth. Warming her, he thought.
He started a small fire under the stove and watched her arouse from her bed sheets. She smiled at him calmly and put her long grey dress over her just as grey under dress. She sent the dog out and left with him, only to return with apples, some cheese and dried meat.
They ate in silence and she packed him some of it in a scarf. Before he went, she showed him, which turns to take to get to the village and gave her the meal, saying it will be dark before he gets there.
He accepted the food and thanked her. She gave him a lovely smile and kissed him on his cheek for good luck.
As she had promised, her got to the next village just as the sun was settling behind the high mountains he had left behind only few hours before. He asked children about the woman called Oana and they showed him the way to a huge house not far from the town center.
They were closed, but a woman of spitting image opened the door. She was carrying a child and two came right after her. Her belly was bigger too.
“I came here from the mountain village.” He started when realizing he was staring at her. “I was sent here by your sister, Athala.”
She froze and colours left her cheek.”Athala?”
He didn’t understand and repeated what he had just said.
“Yes, I had an older sister, Athala, but she died two years ago in cold.” She watched the man take a step back, before catching his hand and leading him in. “But anyone she sends is welcome.” She gave her a big smile and took him to the kitchen, where young servant girl made fast leaving, recognizing the assassin.
She pore him some ale and took a seat against him on the chair.
“But I spoke to her just now.” He started, in shock. “She gave me shelter for the storm.”
“She still keeps her promise then,” she smiled warmly, “and it was indeed stormy night yesterday.”
He didn’t understand.
“Some children say they’ve seen a young lady up in the mountains near the old village. That she called them in before the storm racked over. I thought they were merely joking. I’ve never seen anyone with full mind say that before.”
His hand moved up where she had kissed him on his cheek. The woman he saw was dead?
“…keep going as far as you can see and you’ll eventually find the one you are seeking. Good luck.” Were her last words to him.
“Come – let’s find you something to eat. With this cold, you aren’t going anywhere. Tomorrow, my husband will help you restock your bags.” Oana’s cheerful voice flew over the kitchen when she disappeared in the conservatory.
He didn’t move. The woman he’d seen was dead! Beautiful saint of the mountains he had promised himself to visit again was but a ghost in the wind.