> Serial Fiction: The Girl in the Way

Serial Fiction: The Girl in the Way

by Lincoln Sayger

Sad Girl by chuotanhls; Girl in the Way title image

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34. The Girl on the Way

Elga stood on the way that led out of town to the anor. Most of the town was about their business elsewhere. Electra, Virgil, Ansa, Zeray, Ima, Prika, and Mimos were the only ones who had come with her as she walked to the edge of town.

She rolled her shoulders to resettle her pack and turned to the small group.

She said, "Thank you for seeing me off. I will do my best to make you all proud of me in my travels."

Ima said, "Nizen, Elga. Be safe on your journeys."

Ansa said nothing, but when Elga looked at her, she smiled warmly at her.

Zeray said, "Elga, I made you a wreath of blessings, one for each of the gods. Wear it while you sleep, and it will protect you. I'll see you in a year and a day, and I expect you to tell me all your adventures."

Elga took the wreath without saying anything and turned to Mimos.

Mimos said, "Be on your way. The daylight will be spent before you get far."

Elga nodded respectfully to the elder. She turned to Prika Mayor.

Elga said, "Thank you for coming, Chief."

Prika said, "Go with the honor of Almodar." Then she gave Mimos a sour look before turning to Elga again with a smile.

Elga turned to Virgil. Should she give him a parting kiss? Just an embrace? No. That would be as cruel and awkward as telling him of her esteem. She touched hands in a customary parting and said, "Thank you."

He said, "Take care of yourself. I look forward to hearing about your travels when you return."

She smiled and stepped closer to her grandmother. Electra took her into an embrace and whispered, "Remember what I told you. You are able to thrive in the wilds and in the towns of men. Trust in the skills and words I have given you. I am already proud of you. Travel safely."

Elga said, "Thank you Mama. Master explorer, honored leaders of Almodar, I am leaving on my Explorer's Journey. I will conduct myself in a way to bring honor and profit to the town of Almodar, and whenever I return, I will bring news of the wider world and such items as I may to be useful to the town. Live well, in my absence."

With that, she turned and walked along the way from town.

She passed the statue of Ganis and barely looked at it. She passed the path into the orchard, where she had spoken to Camar Grover, and she slowed a little. This was the farthest she had ever been from her home. Every step she took from here on would be new ground, land she had never visited. She hadn't left town when she'd left the little group on the way. She was about to leave it now. But in the time it took her to think these things, she had crossed the boundary. She was already out of town. She was already on new land that her feet had never touched before. And she was completely alone, outside of earshot of anyone who had ever met her for the first time in her entire life.

She kept walking, resuming her previous pace. This was her task, given to her by her profession master, and she would not let fear or uncertainty keep her from doing it. Near the time when Bosona was directly overhead, she reached the tower her mother's mother had mentioned. She immediately spotted the chest at the tower's base that contained the flags, and she stood in front of it for a long time, thinking about what message to hoist. She didn't want to leave a message that sounded sad, or uncertain, or confrontational. In the end, after a lot of heartbeats, she hoisted flags that said her name, followed by ones that meant she had started her journey and made progress speedily.

Once she'd done that, she set out again, walking steadily up and down the low hills along the way. When Bosona slipped behind the trees, she stepped off the road and found a safe place to bed down. She gathered materials and made a comfortable pallet. The weather didn't smell like rain, so she didn't set up a rain fly, looking up at the stars as she drifted into drowsiness.

She missed her cot. She missed her mother. She missed her room with all the little things she treasured. She had been alone in the dark woods near town, but that had been ground her grandmother had already explored, and she had had a list of landmarks. Out here, she was all alone. Anything could happen.

She sat up with a start, alerted by some noise. A man was watching her from the trees down the slope from her. She moved quickly to a crouching position and picked up her knife. The man slipped away through the trees, his scaley skin glistening in the light from Zego. Elga took a few quixck steps into the trees, but he was gone.

She looked around, but she couldn't see him. Instead, she saw, some distance away, a woman about her mother's age. Almost before she saw the woman's face, the woman turned and walked heavily away, her belly swaying a little in front of her. Elga walked quickly toward her, but she slipped behind the trees and could not be found when Elga reached the last place she had seen her.

Elga leaned against a tree and covered her face.

She looked up when she heard a yelp like a large dog who had been stepped on by a large herd animal. She quickly ran to see what she had heard, but after many steps, she was lost and could not see any animals. A shadow passed behind a tree, and she rushed quickly to the spot.

As she rounded the tree, she was suddenly confronted by a flaming eye. Next to the eye, she saw a stone-colored dog, a cloudy manlike figure, a woman with four arms, the fish man, and the woman she had seen before. The cloudy figure stepped up to her and said, "We will have revenge for your actions against us!"

Elga backed away, terrified, but she said firmly, "You're not real. You're dead."

The fish man said, "We'll show you how real we are!"

They rushed at her. Elga stepped back again, but they would be too fast to outrun, so she stood and put her arms in front of her. She said, "You're a lie!"

Elga sat up with a start. Her pack was next to her, right where she'd left it before falling asleep. It had all been a dream. She was going to let out an exasperated sigh, but she froze as a noise reached her ears.

Slowly turning toward the sound, Elga saw a large, hairy, not quite man-like beast lumbering through the forest. A breeze brought a musky scent to her nose, like the goats but deeper, uglier, and more sour. She sat still and watched the creature move away slowly. When it was far enough away that she couldn't hear its grunting and steps, she took a deep breath and pulled out her knife.

She wasn't sure how much help it would be against a pelimog, but she sat gripping it for a long time and watching the dark forest around her. She would not sleep tonight.


35. The Girl and the Fresh Start

Elga awoke with a start. The knife was on the ground in front of her, and she was on her side, halfway on and halfway off her pallet. She wondered how long her all-night vigil had lasted before she fell asleep. Some explorer she was. She felt well-rested, so it probably hadn't been long before she'd nodded off— if she had been awake at all. No, that wasn't right. She'd taken her knife out, so that part hadn't been a dream.

She took the wreath off the strap that held it onto the side of her pack and slung it as far away into the woods as she could throw it. She didn't need blessings from gods that weren't real.

That done, she put her knife away and dismantled her pallet. That done, she looked around and spotted some berries she recognized and added a few handfuls of them to her breakfast of nuts and bread. Then, she hoisted her pack, settled it across her shoulders, and returned to the road.

Bosona was not high off the horizon, and she thought about the road ahead as she walked. She heard the songbirds in the trees and remembered the things her grandmother had told her about what you could learn about the surrounding activity by how birds stopped, or changed, their songs. Judging from what she heard, there was no danger nearby, and she kept up a brisk but unhurried pace. Whenever she saw edible plants in the forest to one side, she paused and collected some of them, being sure not to disturb the parts that would bring future growth, nor to take all of the fruit and leave none for other travellers. By the time the shadows were small, she had gathered a respectable feast for one person, and she sat under the trees to eat until she was full.

Shortly after she rose from her meal, she came to the edge of the forest and followed the road through an enormous meadow filled with short grasses and bunches of tall flowering stalks with white petals and the occasional sprawling carpet of near mint and footsoft. There were fewer birds, but she saw small furry things scampering among the leaves of the low bushes that sprouted here and there across the gently rolling ground, as well as many brown and green lizards that stood still whenever she got close, trying not to catch her eye and slipping suddenly under the foliage when they thought it was safe.

As she walked along, she wondered where her path would lead. Where would she end up? What would she eat? Would she be able to make enough money in trade to feed herself?

Her first towns, she’d have news of only her own village. What should she say about her people? What could she say about their beliefs? Would everyone think the way they did about the clouds, the land, and the water?

She thought about the monsters of the wilderness, and about the wild men said to roam the unnamed places between towns. Would she encounter any of them, and how would she get away?

She started watching the sides of the path for likely places she might hide. But then she started to wonder if one of these places might be hiding a wild man or a monster. For a few hundred heartbeats, she became very frightened and shied away from these. Then, she realized she was being skittish and slowing her progress over these fears, and she thought of striding onward boldly. And right into ignoring a real danger when something jumped out at her, running blindly as she was, she thought.

So she stopped and stood for a moment. She couldn’t run along, but she couldn’t timidly walk in fear of hidden danger. She started forward at her earlier pace, but she kept her eyes moving, aware of both the horizon and the potential hiding places. She didn’t shy away from them but stayed ready to run to them out from them, or fight, if needed.

Before long, she was able to keep her awareness on all of this without focusing on it, and she began to relax.

Though the trees remained few and far between as she continued across the meadow, the ground rose and fell gently, causing the road ahead to slip in and out of view. Although she was wary for ambushers, she noticed buzzing and fluttering insects moving lazily above the hollow places and decided that they might be disturbed if something were there. Still, she remained alert and kept her hand close to her knife. Eventually, she saw a dark green smudge ahead that quickly lifted above the horizon to become the tops of trees.

As she reentered the forest, she noted with some amusement that she felt more safe here than in the open meadow. However, the road became rough and uneven here, interrupted by roots and rocks and having less of a maintained appearance than what she had found previously. Her grandmother had told her about this, how roads sometimes became rougher in the area about halfway between towns, particularly if it was hard to reach. She was glad to be on foot, though. It would have been worse on a horse or in a wheeled vehicle here.

She followed the road through the trees until the light overhead dimmed and slipped away. She found a place to sleep and prepared her bed before darkness surrounded her, and she even had time to make a survey of her immediate area and gather a little bit of food before bedding down. This time, when she lay down, she did not have dreams of strange persons. Instead, she dreamt of her family, the villagers, and the places she had played as a child.

Elga was playing in the way outside their house when her father came in from work. He lifted her up and squeezed her tightly to his chest, filling her with the joy of being loved, before opening his arms to let her out to a comfortable distance for speaking quietly.

“And did you have a pleasant day, Frida?” he asked.

“I did, Pa! I followed Ma into the brambles and put six handfuls of berries in her basket!”

“Six! That’s amazing. Did you get poked by the bramble?” he asked.

“No, Pa! I was real careful!” she said.

He smiled and said, “That’s my smart girl.”

She rubbed her nose against the end of his, and he put her on the ground and walked beside her into the house. He met her mother and kissed her. She asked him about his day, and he told a funny story about one of the customers. They sat down and had dinner. He talked about the things he thought would happen in Almodar in the next year. Elga smiled at her parents and lifted a fork of delicious food to her mouth.

And on she dreamt, of other times and other conversations, all of them pleasant and homey. But all of these dreams slipped away into forgotten realms as she slept peacefully on.


36. The Woman in the Girl

Elga woke with the first morning light and cleared her bedding away before eating a bit of her bread with a little fruit paste she made from her dried stores and the last of the berries she had picked the day before. She washed this down with a deep draught from her canteen.

She settled her pack and started walking. She hadn't often felt much like a woman, since coming out of the water, but today, she did. She didn't know why this morning, or the night before, felt different. She didn't know why she felt more capable now. Surely one night without fears or uncertainty didn't mean she'd grown up. But there was still something there, something that had changed. She felt there truly was a woman inside her breast, a capable woman who knew what to do in the situations she faced. She was on her way, and she knew where to put her feet. That was all she needed, right now.

Elga stepped out of the forest into a strange place. The forest definitely ended, right there around the road, but after perhaps twenty feet on either side, the grass and weeds were swallowed up by trees again. It was like the forest continued everywhere but on the road. And then she felt like a little girl again, wondering at something very simple. The forest did continue, but the road had been cleared to either side by the town beyond. Figuring this out made her feel strangely mature again. But perhaps that was natural. She was an explorer. Her ability to feed herself would depend on the ability to observe things and figure out what was at first puzzling.

She walked on.

Bosona had risen to the top of the sky and begun to fall again before she reached the end of the road canyon in the forest, and she came out of the trees for real. The road came out of the edge of the trees at an angle, and the trees continued on one side but fell away sharply on the other. This time, the road stretched out on a meandering path down a wide slope, as the land fell gently but clearly away in all directions beyond the forest. She could see farther away than she could from her grandmother's house. And there was no sign of a village anywhere. But the road did not go out into this great expanse. It actually went down for some way and then turned slightly to the suben, where it crossed a little stream and then went behind the trees. She started down the hill.

Bosona sank in the sky, as she continued walking. The road began to look more and more like a town road, kept in good repair and edged neatly. As she neared the bridge, she noticed that the land on the other side was surrounded by hedges, broken by a path leading to a home or other destination within the enclosure. Another path led into the trees some distance beyond the first. As she did not see anyone, she continued down the road, past open ground that no one had yet claimed. In spite of these signs of intervention, the area still felt wild and open. She did not know how far it was to the town, but it did not feel close. She paused and consulted her journal, but though there was a rough map of the road, she hadn't kept close track of how far she had come since the last landmark, so judging the distances was difficult. She told herself she needed to be more observant and put her journal back in her pack.

Bosona was near the trees, now, but she kept walking. She knew she would have to stop soon, but she hoped to reach the town before stopping for the night. She had just decided she needed to spend her remaining light preparing a place to sleep when she saw the first light in the village of Hartsel. It was still a distance off, but she felt confident that she could make it there before the light failed.

Keeping her awareness wide, she rushed toward the buildings that she could now make out clearly.

When she reached the first one, the last rays of light were sliding off the tops of the roofs, and the villagers were lighting the lamps on the main streets. One of these looked at her with an appraising look, and she said, "Alwa. Can you tell me where I can get a room?"

The man, a little taller than her with a few more stones' weight and slightly darker skin, said, "Four hatches on, there's a public house that lets rooms out."

"Thank you, dono," Elga said.

Elga counted the hatches as she passed them and came to a building with a larger hatch and a sign hanging from a metal bracket beside and a little above it. The sign depicted a mug and a cot, and below these, were the words: Berpe Public Hospitality. She pulled open the hatch and went inside.

The room was poorly lit, but she could make out most of its details. Three rings of candles hung from the ceiling and provided what light there was. Eight tables filled most of the floor, and a serving boy carried a tray of food to one of these. Each of the tables was at least half full, and the crowd gave off a distinct hum from all the voices mixing in varied conversations.

It was the most strangers she had ever been around.

For a long moment, she wanted to run back out into the road and find somewhere quieter. What if no one here liked her well enough to give her a fair trade? What if one of them took a dislike to her and attacked her? What if one of these was a wild man of the wilderness, come in to find victims of his bloodthirsty frenzy? Elga pushed back the terror and looked around.

Barely controlling her breathing, she gazed at each person, gathering as many details as her mind would hold, before lifting her leaden feet and moving forward into the room. She had to find the master of the house and arrange a room before she passed out of consciousness and tumbled to the floor. She located him, finally, and headed straight for him.

"Alwa, Host Erpe?"

He nodded, and she went on, dry-mouthed, saying, "I am Elga Explorer of Almodar. I am come to seek and share news."

Erpe smiled broadly and said, "What news from Almodar? Is Abek still shirer? Does Ima still sit with the eldest?"

Elga took a deep breath and started to tell what she remembered since the last minstrel had passed through. It was difficult, but she managed not to stumble over anything. She felt she must look foolish and naive to this man, but she managed to get through the recitation and ask about things her grandmother had told her, and about what the minstrels had mentioned about this area. Perhaps, with a year's practice, she could learn to do this without looking foolish, as she was certain she did to this experienced innkeeper. One day, she would no longer be a girl but a woman.

She hoped it would be soon.


Erpe Host stood behind the long table in his public house and dried the heavy mugs he favored for customer use. He felt happy about the day's events, and he wondered what would happen next.

A slim figure in a hooded cloak pulled the hatch open and stepped inside. When she pulled back her hood, he saw that it was a young woman with wavy, mouse-brown hair and almond irises, a thick nose, and flattened ears. She stood by the entry for a long moment, scanning the crowd. He wondered if she was seeking a specific person, but when she finished taking everything in, she didn't look disappointed or pleased. Instead, she glanced quickly around and locked her gaze on him before striding over with clear purpose.

"Alwa," she said calmly and firmly, "Host Erpe?"

Erpe nodded, wondering if she wanted him specifically or just the host of this place, and she went on, introducing herself as Elga of Almodar, an explorer.

Erpe was delighted and asked after some of the people he'd been told of by minstrels. She answered confidently and clearly, and he wondered how many years she had been exploring. This must have been her fourth or fifth outing, he thought.

She finished her news and asked of happenings in and around Hartsel. He told her what he knew, and her wise almond eyes made notes on his cheeks and forehead. When he had finished, she asked appropriate qestions about the events, and about the market in town for various items. At the end of this recitation, she asked for a meal and a room, and he took the money.

As she walked away to find an open spot at a table, he turned to his serving boy and said, "She's an expert explorer. I wonder where she traveled before, since we haven't seen her here."

The boy said, "Maybe she stopped on the other edge of town last time."

"That must be it," Erpe said.

He went into the kitchen to prepare a special dessert. Such a guest could bring more travelers, if she liked his hospitality.

The End of Girl in the Way

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