> 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

--Posted on 2023/05/01


I wish to ackowledge:

Chris Howard, who paid for this book's production

Kristen Arbour, for fixing some of my science errors

M.B., for fixing some of my weaving and shepherding errors

Eric Tokajer, for vetting my comparative religion sections

The Brit Ahm Writing Group, for helping me improve the introduction material


Segna's daughter would join the village the next day.

Segna had just returned from confirming this with the other women, and she stood outside her home for a few moments before going through the hatch that led inside. She looked up at the sky and wondered where the next few weeks would take the girl. Segna viewed a girl her age as a blank slate, but she was still confident that the patterns their people had followed in the two hundred years they had lived in this land would guide her smoothly through the process of finding her place in the village.

She watched the stately progress of the magenta moon across the sky. Bosona was sleeping deeply, judging by the size of the sliver it made. But she wasn't worried, even though he slept, because Bosona's cat, Zego, lived on the other tiny moon, far across the sky from the large crescent, and his eyes were always open.

She looked down and sighed. She hoped her daughter found her place quickly and stopped being a girl in the way, stopped being timid, and stopped letting everything scare her. Tomorrow would be the first step.

--Posted on 2022/06/12

Part One - The Girl of the Village

1. The Girl at the River

Elga stepped wordlessly to the edge of the shallow river, a short distance upstream of the footbridge, and waited in silence for the eldest to make their way down from the village. The moment had almost arrived!

The men and women of her village waited along the opposite shore for her to step into the water and join them on the village bank. The children waited in a row behind her. They stood along the river's latest crest line, so that no child would be in the water. Elga tried to ignore their subdued chatter. Starting today, they were no longer her playmates.

Elga tried to wait patiently, the way the adults across from her seemed to be, but it was hard. She'd been imagining this day for months. She'd been thinking about the decisions she would get to make when she rose out of the water for weeks. And she'd been almost shivering with anticipation for all the minutes she'd been standing here. And already, she was getting to do adult things, even though she hadn't yet been welcomed as one. The children around her wore thin shirts that fluttered in the slight breeze, while she wore a shirt that was thick enough not to cling after a swim, like the ones the adults wore. And perhaps, somewhere in the group waiting across the sparkling water, there was someone she would share her life with. She smiled at them, just in case he was, and thinking of that, her smile grew wider.

Eventually, the villagers parted as the group of the five eldest people in the community came through.

They stood on the bank of the river, well above the edge, and the one middle in age called to her, "Elgafrida Mariah Chessmean Beckfar, daughter of Keid, son of Khab, the village has need of you. Come and take your place along the adults of the village."

"Grandmother," she said, though her own grandparents were all younger than this elder, "I can't come to you, for the river runs between us."

"Child, step into the river and come to us," said the youngest of the group. "Though you may be covered in death, you can still arise and come to be a new woman in the village."

She wanted to go then, eagerly, but she responded as she should, "Grandfather, I am not ready to come to you, for I should miss my fellow children."

The oldest of the eldest said, "Woman, you have no peers over there. Your place is in the village. I have been told of your..."

After a long moment, the second youngest whispered in her ear, and she said "your readiness by the other women. You are a child no longer!"

The children on the bank picked up clumps of dirt and threw them in her direction. Since Elga was well liked among the children, most of the throws were halfhearted, and only one hit her. She held up her hands, and the children backed away. Then, she turned and said, "I'm no longer a child, but I am not an adult yet."

She stepped into the water and sighed as her knees went in and the water carried her body heat away from her, along with the last moments of her childhood. She reached the middle of the river, barely deep enough to cover the top of her belly, and squatted down until the flow covered her head. She stayed a moment, enjoying the sensations of the water flowing past her, and then she stood up and walked, dripping, out of the river on the side of the village.

"I stand here, on the side of the village," she said, as custom decreed, "a new woman. I make my own decisions. My parents are no longer responsible for the actions of their child, who has been left in the river!"

The women of the village came forward and enfolded her in awkward embraces. People didn't hug nonfamily often.

The two remaining eldest said in turn, "Come in to our village," and "Find ways to bring utility to the community."

Then the children ran across the bridge, yelling and screaming, and rushed off to play in the village, finally freed of pomp and circumstance.

Elga made her way happily through the crowd, accepting welcomes and advice. The village chief handed her a few gemstones. The baker's wife gave her a loaf of bread. The witch said, "Come by my house if you want a blessing from the gods." The weaver's daughter handed her a length of tan cloth suitable for making into an outfit. And the physicker said, "Be sure to come back and visit the middle of the river every time you have been sick, and after your river times."

But what she knew she would remember most fondly was that her own grandmother had left her house in the hills above the village and made the difficult hike to come down and see her become a woman.

Elga made her way over and stood by her grandmother until the villagers meandered away to their village tasks, leaving the two alone on the riverbank.

"Mama Electra, thank you for coming down to see me cross over."

"Elga, I'm so very proud of you. Have you decided what you will do in the village?"

"Not yet, Mama. I might learn to thatch. Or I might start running with the herds. I kind of like growing plants; maybe I'll learn the secrets of soil. Have you noticed a talent I should explore?"

"I'm happy to say that I think you'd be good at any of those things. But you might also consider becoming an explorer."

Elga gasped, then said, "Mama Electra! Explorers leave their families and visit dangerous places that don't have villagers nearby to lend a hand. I could never do that.

"Perhaps. Perhaps you might be surprised."

"I'll think about it," she said dubiously, "but I have a few weeks before I must settle down to a decision. For now, I should probably get over to the witch's for a blessing."

Elga turned to go, and Electra asked, "Should you?"

Elga froze.

Her grandmother had said it so calmly and inquisitively, Elga wasn't sure what to do. She faced her grandmother once more, terribly confused. Didn't her mother's mother honor the gods? Didn't Bosona look down and give light? Didn't Ganus patrol the village to protect it from danger? Why was her grandmother suddenly being so irreligious?

She asked cautiously, "You think I'm old enough to make the decision alone?"

Electra smiled.

"Did I say that? Making decisions alone is rarely wise."

With that, Electra turned and walked away from the village. Elga watched her for a moment and then turned toward the village square. She walked past the houses and workshops to the hatch of the witch's house.

And then she kept right on walking.

She hardly knew why, or what she meant to do, or where her feet were taking her. Elga couldn't figure it out until she passed the green field and stepped onto the path into the hills, towards Electra's house.

--Posted on 2022/08/02

2. The Girl and the Weaver

Lio ran across the bridge with the other children as their former playmate was surrounded by adults offering words to her. Lots of words. Elga would have to deal with lots of words every day, now. Adults used a lot of words instead of doing fun things.

Lio turned by the baker's store and ran toward the edge of town. He slowed as he neared the edge of town and stuck out his hands to touch each of the hatches along the lane. Telju Fletcher's hatch was green. Abek Shirer's hatch was brown. And Rava Grower's was extra large. Some were smooth, and others were covered in squares.

He made his way out past the grain field and across the little stream that fed into the river that went under the bridge. He crossed the little bramble patch where the herbalist gathered berries.

He walked along the rail fence, running his hand lightly across the rough surface. When he tired of that, he climbed between the rails and sat on the bottom with his arms over the top rail. From this vantage, he watched the little rodents scurry around in the meadow across the path. He was still watching them when Elga stopped and stood in the middle of the path just in front of him.

He watched her stillness for a long moment. Finally, he asked, "Is this a weird thing adults do?"

She jumped like someone suddenly wakened from an active dream and looked over at him.

"Alwa, Lio."

"Alwa, Miss Elgafrida."

She scrunched her nose up and said, "Don't start that formality with me, all at once."

"It's proper for me to greet an adult this way."

"I'm only just now an adult. Stay with what you've been calling me."

"Accepted. What are you doing?"

She said, "I'm trying to figure out what my grandmother said to me."

"Deep words of wisdom? On your first day? They don't want to ease you into this whole adult thing?"

She smiled and said, "Not like that. But she said I should become an explorer. Can you picture me walking through the wilderness, alone?"

He put his finger on his chin and then said slowly, "You are afraid of the dark, of strange noises, and of crawling things."

She nodded, her face showing the shame she felt. He pointed at the fluffy clouds in the sky and said, "You want to learn to fly and go up past Jenu's woven clouds?"

"I already said I wouldn't make a good explorer. You don't have to make fun of me, on top of it."

"I didn't mean anything bad by that. But seriously?"

"Give me a rest, Lio."

He crossed his eyes and stuck out his lower lip at her.

She said, "The witch offered to give me a blessing from the gods."

"What did she bless you with?"

"I haven't been yet."

"Why not? Wouldn't that help you understand why your grandmother wants you to leave town?"

"I will, later. I thought I'd go ask her about what she said."

"Really? After she told you to go away and leave your home behind?"

"She didn't mean it like that, Lio!"

"Are you sure? I mean, I almost want you to leave, now. Your own family doesn't want you around."

She looked at him with scorn, and he crossed his eyes again. She ran over and smacked the top of his head with her palm. He screamed a short scream and fell backward into the field. Getting up, he laughed and said, "Go on, now. Fly over the clouds like Riman and see your grandmother."

She reached over the fence and tried to swat him again, but he dodged away and ran back toward the village.

--Posted on 2022/08/16

3. The Girl and the Dark Woods

Elga turned back toward the hills and started walking. Lio didn't mean any harm, but his words had hurt her a little. Sure, she was afraid of the dark, but that wasn't something she felt he should have mentioned.

But it was only natural. Lio had been there that night. She and Lio and Tura had been playing Four Fates.

She grabbed Lio's flint knife from the collection of items in the circle between the three of them and told him he had to go to the baker's house and ask if they would adopt him.

He went, glaring at her, and Tura snickered as he walked up the lane and up to the baker's hatch.

He glared at her again and knocked on the hatch.

The hatch opened, and there stood Reado, the baker. Lio cleared his throat and asked, "Would you and your wife adopt me?"

Reado's face darkened, and he reached beside the hatch to pick up his broom. He said, "You interrupted my dinner to mock me?" And he swung the broom at Lio.

Lio dodged to one side and took off down the lane. Reado shook his fist at Lio, and Tura rolled on the ground, laughing.

Lio ran straight up to Elga and snatched his knife out of her hand. He walked over to the circle and knelt down. He picked up a glass ball with a metal figure in the middle of it.

Turning to Tura, he said, "Talk for two minutes without closing your mouth."

Tura sputtered and grunted and then started making badly formed words, talking without closing his mouth about Lio's parents, his personal habits, and his affection for woodland animals, but he made it for the allotted time and then took his glass sphere.

He looked over the circle and then picked up the carved figurine Elga's mother had given her for her last name day. He said, "You have to go a hundred steps into the woods and bring me a branch from there."

Elga stood up and looked toward the edge of town, to the trees that bordered the village on that side. She stayed in place for a moment, then took several paces toward the trees, akwardly slapping her feet against each other when she took a step. Then, she stopped. The woods were so dark, so full of unknown dangers, so shaky and frightening.

She turned around, almost tripping herself, and ran back to the circle, where she picked up the remaining treasures she'd put in hazard there. She pushed the carving toward Tura and said, "It's yours."

Then, she ran home.

That had been two years ago, and she still couldn't go into the woods at night. So, she'd better hurry to her grandmother's house before it got any darker. She didn't have time to let her thoughts wander.

--Posted on 2022/08/30

4. The Girl in the Way

But as she walked quickly along, more memories came to her.

One day, when she was smaller, she and her friends had been playing hoops in the village lane, spinning the hoops around and around. Suddenly, she was distracted and bumped right into Lio's hoop, but she didn't stop to pick it up or apologize. Instead, she wandered into the yard of the chandler's shop, where one of the apprentices was making several wick strings fast to a rod and tying them to little weights.

Elga was fascinated by the way he looped the strings. And then he turned to the master chandler, who picked up the whole rod and swung the weights neatly over a pot of wax, dunking them into it with practiced ease.

She spread her hands away from her hips and stepped slowly toward the scene of the action.

And right into the way of the other apprentice, who was carrying some split logs for the fires under the wax pots. She saw him too late, squeaked, and backed away, but now she was too close to the second pot, and she yelped as her hand brushed against its hot surface.

The apprentice shouted, "Get out of the yard, girl! You're in the way!"

Elga turned and started to run, but her hips bumped against the pot and upset it. It rolled over slowly and poured hot wax onto the ground. The master shrieked and picked up a bundle of wick strings, swinging it wildly at her apprentice and berating him for being an oaf, sparing a word now and then for Elga for being in the way and clumsy.

She gathered her wits, ran back to the lane, picked up her hoop, and ran down the stony track, bumping her hoop along the ground behind her.

--Posted on 2022/09/13

5. The Girl at the Forge

The path Elga walked now was not stones but smoothed dirt, worn and dried by the passage of many feet. Her grandmother's house was on the village side of a place where several paths into the hills converged next to the rain well.

People coming from several different areas of the hills would stop there on the way to or from town to drink a dipper of cool water. Someone had to lift a bucket out of the rain well for anyone to drink. It wasn't like in the village, where many of the tradesfolk had barrels of water on hand, drawn from the river by their apprentices.

It was the barrel of water that first drew their attention to the smith that day.

She and Kela were doodling on the lane with sticks, bored of everything that hot morning, and the smith poured a large pot of water over his head to cool off. The smith needed to cool off even when the weather wasn't hot. The splashing drew the girls' attention, and they stood up from their idle doodles and looked his way.

He returned to the forge, tugging on the rope that pulled down the long rod of the big bellows, stoking his fire to work the metal. He picked up his big hammer and brought it down on the anvil, flattening the work he had placed on it.

Elga and Kela edged closer to his workshop, stopping at its edge, and watched his enormous arms shape the metal with the big hammer. Elga was amazed at how much the metal changed shape with each blow of his hammer. Eventually, she took a step forward, desiring to see more. One step eventually became two. Two became four. Four became six.

The smith stepped back from his anvil suddenly and bumped into her. Elga fell on her bottom in the dirt.

The smith turned and said, "Begone, child. You're in the way. I don't want you to get hurt. Stay clear of the workers."

She stood up and brushed herself off. Kela was snickering behind her hands. Elga walked past her, stuck out her tongue at the other girl, and picked up a stick before walking to the far side of the road.

--Posted on 2022/09/27

6. The Girl and the Minstrels

There were no sticks on the path to her grandmother's house. They'd all been picked up for firewood, this close to the village, and the trees didn't often drop sticks here.

Elga liked a nice fire in the fireplace on a cool evening. She remembered one time in the cold months that there had been a good fire in Mayor Prika's hearth, the night the minstrels came through.

The lead minstrel was a tall man with shadowed eyes and a ready smile.

He told tales of the six gods, Ganus, Jenu, Rame, Bosona, Tik, and Peli. He told of people who went from town to town, and the fabulous items that they traded. And he told of Riman's ship.

He said, "Riman was feeling crowded, where he lived, so he built himself a ship with seven masts and asked his wife, Ana to bless it. This she did, calling it the fastest ship in the world. She said, 'You cannot leave me by leaving this place. I will go wherever you go.' When he set his sails, the ship rose out of the harbor and flew through the sky.

"He came to a land where the people were short and spoke to each other in dreams, but the place was not to Riman's liking, and he could not get along with the short people. So, he lifted his anchor and flew again through the sky.

"This time, he came to a land where the ground was like iron and the fish like minnows. He said, 'Can any man live here?' And Ana said, 'Keep moving on.' So he lifted his anchor and flew his ship through the sky.

"When he set his ship to ground again, the land was pleasant and full of green things, much like his old land but uncrowded. Ana said, 'Make your home here until the time for you to return home.' But Riman said, 'I will live here always.' And Ana said, 'One day, you will yearn for home.' But Riman said, 'This place is my choice for a home.'

"And so, Riman took all of his goods out of his seven-masted ship. He wanted to trade and dance and sing, but there were no people in this uncrowded land. So, Riman went to the decks of his ship and pulled people out of its planks. He pulled many people out and sent them in every direction, sending each group off with a lavish feast. And his children's children live in that land to this day."

He told many stories, but this one had been her favorite. She was still thinking about it, after all this time. And she thought about it until she reached her grandmother's house.

--Posted on 2022/10/11

7. The Girl and the Grandmother

Elga stood just inside the hatch of her grandmother's house. Electra had decorated the wooden hatch with sprigs of green leaves tucked into the intricately carved knots that lined its edges. Elga hadn't seen the knot patterns in many homes. Most people's hatches were decorated using squares connected with single lines. The table on one side of the room was set with the kerchief she had seen her grandmother wearing earlier over most of its round top, two mugs, two plates, and two spoons. Electra turned around and put a teapot on the table.

"How did you know?" Elga asked.

Electra smiled, then replied, "I don't know everything. I merely prepared for what might happen."

Elga came fully into the room and pulled out a chair. She and her grandmother both sat down.

"Mama Electra, why did you say those things by the river? I don't understand."

"I said what I felt. I am proud of the woman you have become. And I think you could do a good job at any of those tasks you mentioned."

"Mama, you said I shouldn't go for a blessing."

"Did I? How careless!"

Elga thought about it.

"No, Mama Electra." This admission required showing respect by using her name again. "You didn't. You merely questioned my statements."

The old woman smiled. She said, "Correct. The more closely you listen, the more you will hear."

Elga took up the pot and poured a tiny amount of tea into her grandmother's cup. It was too light. She put the pot back on the table and said, "Mama, what should I hear here?"

Electra smiled again and said, "Your mind is sharp. That is why I am sure you will do well with any job you choose ."

Elga made her face into a little smile that expressed great patience, and the old woman laughed.

"You win, Elga. You are listening, so I will speak.

"Dear Elgafrida, our people do well for themselves in this village. We are able to live on this land and enjoy its bounty, able to grow things and build things, able to track the passage of time. We know many things that are true about this realm.

"But we are a people who choose at one time and another to hear, to speak, to act on, and to defend things that are not true about this realm."

Elga listened, wide eyed. Why would anyone choose what was wrong over what was accurate? Didn't the head of tally say that correct measurement and counting were what kept the village from starving? Didn't the keeper of debts say that correct accounts were the foundation of their society? And didn't the master shepherd say that being off by one goat was the beginning of disaster? How could anyone, let alone a group of them, follow someone whose counts were wrong?

Electra continued, "I see in your face that you think what I am telling you is a wrong saying. I thought so, too, once. So I will not ask you to accept this saying.

"Instead, I will prove to you that our people cherish wrong sayings."

How would she do that? Elga thought. But she remembered Mama Electra saying that wondering was not as useful as asking.

She asked, "How will you do that, Mama?"

"Hmmm," Electra said, "I think it might be more meaningful to you if you do the doing. Will you take an active part in this proof?"

Elga sat for a moment and thought. Did she want to disprove the beliefs of her people? What if she disproved something she held dear? What if she caused problems for the village? On the other end, did she want to keep a wrong count, even if it was given to her by people she trusted? Did she want to tell others a wrong count because she'd been too afraid to look at both ends of the stick?

She emptied her mouth with a swallow and said, "Yes, grandmother. What must I do?

"You must examine the counts. Start with your own words. When you said you should get a blessing from the gods by visiting the witch, what were you really saying?"

Elga creased her brow and thought for a long time. Finally, she said, "I don't know what you mean."

"Try breaking it down into smaller pieces of information. Then tease out what is implied and suggested by the words you are using."

Elga thought for a couple of minutes. Then, she said, "When I said I should get a blessing from the gods from the witch, I was saying the following things:

"I should get a blessing to help me decide my path. Blessings come from the gods. I should seek a blessing from them. The witch can give me a blessing from the gods. Visiting the witch will lead to her giving me a blessing. She has the power to direct the blessings of the gods. The gods have the power to bless my decision with clarity. My decision is important to the gods we worship. The witch wants to help me with my decision by giving me a blessing from the gods. The gods—" Elga gasped. "The gods we worship exist and bless us when asked."

She sat for a long moment in silence. Finally, Electra picked up the teapot and poured tea for both of them. Elga picked up her cup and held it in her hands, thinking. Electra picked up her cup and blew over it. Elga took a slow sip.

Electra said, "Which of those things do you know to be true?"

Elga looked at her grandmother over the top of her cup, terror widening her eyes.

"Mama, I know to be true for certain these things only: You have told me it is unwise to make my decision of a path alone, but I imply that I need help making it. The witch offered to give me a blessing from the gods, and I imply that if I go to her, she will say one. The witch expressed a willingness to give me a blessing, and I imply that she wants to help me with my decision. But I do not know for a certainty that she can give me a blessing from the gods, that they have the power to bless my decision with certainty, that the witch has power to grant a blessing, that my decision is important to the gods we worship, or that the gods we worship—" she paused, feeling very wrong about saying this, "—even exist."

Electra smiled, sipped her tea slowly, and then said, "You have divided the statement very well."

"Is there a way to know any of these things for a certainty?"

"Some. Some may be proven. Some may be disproven. Some may not be proven or disproven by evidence that may be available to you. You can gather information about the gods and examine the traits of each god to see what power and interest they have in our lives. Then, you must see what you believe and understand about the real power in our lives. Finally, you must stand firm in what you know to be a correct count."

--Posted on 2022/10/25

8. The Girl's New Job

Elga sat on the cot in her room and thought about all that had happened in the afternoon.

Tomorrow, her first full day as a grown woman, she would be expected to pick a profession to try, and she didn't know which one to try first.

There were many jobs in the village. Metalworkers, shoemakers, coopers, weavers and tailors, binders of books, chandlers, carpenters, shepherds, bakers, thatchers, fletchers and woodworkers, growers in soil, minstrels and tallymakers, forcaires, witches and sages, and elders. Of course, she wasn't able to do several of those. She wasn't old enough to be an elder. She had little interest in working metal or paper or wood. She didn't think she had the talent to be a baker, minstrel, or witch. She didn't think she had the patience to be a forcaire. Her village wasn't big enough for a lot of other jobs, like keepers of inns or city guards. But that still left a lot of choices.

She thought about what she'd seen each of the people in the village doing as part of their jobs, and she thought she would enjoy growing things in the soil, making arrows, thatching, herding, making candles, weaving, and making shoes.

But there was also the matter of preparing a correct count of the world. What a task her grandmother had set for her! Did she know that this idea set loose in a young woman's mind would make everything harder for her? How was she supposed to make a choice about her place in the village while examining the foundations on which the village stood? What if she moved something and eliminated one or more of the choices? What if she learned something that broke the way farming worked? She might offend one of the gods and bring destruction on her village.

No, Mama Electra wouldn't put her on a path to that, would she?

--Posted on 2022/11/08

9. What the Girl Would Try

Elga sat on a fence post in a fairly childish manner and watched the tallymaker Vela count the boards on the cart in front of the carpenter's shop, then the coins in the basket on the ground. When she finished, Vela marked her summary on the page clipped to the tally board and handed it to the carpenter, saying, "You've offered 58 coins for these 32 boards. Is that the count you expected on both sides?"

The carpenter smiled and said it was.

Vela handed the tally board to the cartman and said, "And you offer these 32 boards for these 58 coins, which I've found to be in accord with the standards of the Five Lands. Is that correct?"

"Yes," said the cartman, "this is what I expected."

"By the writ of the elders, I declare these counts and record this trade."

She got each man to make a mark on her tally, and she turned away to walk down the lane. The carpenter's apprentices unloaded the boards while the cartman collected his coins and waited for the cart to be emptied. Elga hopped down and followed the tallymaker away from the scene, listening to the woman talk of tasks she performed. She would take this tally sheet and store it with the records her profession kept of each major trade that was performed in the village, then retrieved if a dispute arose over what had happened.

Not every trade was recorded, Elga knew, but for a fee, any trade or agreement could be witnessed by a tallymaker and written down to prove its terms. Minstrels collected births, deaths, deeds performed and tales of prowess in the wider world, but tallymakers protected the integrity of everyday life in the village.

She brought her attention back to the details Vela was explaining about her job. When she had finished her precise on the tallymaker's lot, Elga thanked her and bid her a good day.

Then Elga turned and looked out over the field by the side of the lane, at the growers in soil moving among the rows of plants. They had a stately rhythm to their work. It looked harmonious to Elga.

She shook her head. She had a lot to do, still. She already knew the basics of soil tending, but there were other professions she needed to investigate.

She walked back up the lane toward the shoemaker's shop and stepped inside.

The shoemaker, Olo, looked up and said, "Ah, Elga, our new villager. Alwa! You'll be curious about my art. Is that right?"

She nodded timidly.

"I can teach you the basics of making a shoe in an afternoon, but to truly learn the art behind it and make a great shoe, you will need to spend months practicing and studying the ways shoe materials bend, break, stretch, and fold. Are you interested in becoming a shoemaker?"

She said, "Yes, please."

"Very well," he said. And he sat down behind his workbench and showed her his tools and talked about the ways he made different kinds of shoes, and even a little about making shoes without many tools. She listened intently and imagined doing these tasks day by day, earning her living by making shoes. Everyone needed shoes for at least some tasks, after all.

Before she knew it, three hours had passed, and it was getting dark. She thanked Olo for talking to her and rushed home.

As she sat on her cot, she thought about the day. She'd talked to a fletcher, a thatcher, a tailor, a sage, a shoemaker, a tallymaker, and a chandler. All of their professions had sounded interesting when she'd been listening to them being described. She just had to decide between them. But the village allowed a former child a few weeks to settle into something, so she had a little time to try a few things.

One profession she had pointedly not visited today had been the witch. She didn't want to think about the task her grandmother had set for her, or of the gods of the village.

Still, she knew that she needed to do something about it. She spent some time thinking and putting mental notes on her fingers, counting off the things about her life in the village that she was least certain were correct.

Of the things she took for correct, there were many she didn't know as really true, but as she thought about it, she noticed something. Some of the things she believed, at least a little, depended on other things she thought were correct.

For one, the witch might plan to give her a blessing and go through what she thought the correct steps, but if the gods of the village didn't exist, or did but didn't care, the motions and words would have no tangible effect.

If they cared but the witch didn't know the right way to reach them, her intent would matter nothing.

Some beliefs rested on others like logs in a wall, and others held together like links in a chain. So some could be tallied only together. With this in mind, she looked at her village's customs and beliefs. She decided that so much of the question her grandmother had raised to prominence in her mind rested on the belief in the village's gods that it would be the best place to start her examination of the count, as her grandmother had called it. One hardly needed to test whether the joining of two boards was sound, if termite tracks covered one of them; the whole work could not be trusted.

Yes, though the people of the village sometimes went a day or more without anyone mentioning the gods— and, all at once, she wondered why they weren't a more present part of village life— belief in them still lay under an expansive amount of the count that the villagers defended firmly. Why?

Why did they defend something that didn't show in the way they lived?

--Posted on 2022/11/22

Part Two - The Girl in the Decision

10. The Girl and the Witch

Elga stood in front of the whitewashed hatch and knocked. After a long moment, it opened, rolling into its pocket on one side of the opening, and the witch looked out and smiled upon seeing her.

"Alwa, Elgafrida-ku. I'll be with you in a few minutes."

Zeray closed the hatch behind her and motioned to a chair before leaving the small vestibule that served as entryway and waiting area. She did return in a few moments, following Meda Grower and saying, "Give the potion to him every four hours until the fever stays down until the next time, and give him plenty of water and goat broth. He'll be his regular self again, soon."

Meda thanked her and left.

"Now! Have you come for the blessing I offered you the other day, or are you thinking of pursuing the arcane and healing arts?"

"I wanted to ask you about the gods, Zeray-ku. I haven't heard anyone tell exactly who they are, what they do, and how we know what they want and how to get their blessings. Can you tell me what I need to know?"

"Skies! That's a big question! It sounds like you have a very healthy interest in the arcane," Zeray said.

She stretched her hand toward the inner room, and Elga stepped forward.

Zeray sat down at a table with many tassels, and Elga sat across from her.

Zeray said, "No one knows exactly who the gods are, but we see what they do, and we study the things people do, and how the gods respond, and we derive from this the appropriate rituals and offerings to obtain blessings. We call it the Hazen method. We us a Feme board to tell what they want, but it usually falls along the lines of their sheaves.

"The first of the gods is Bosona, who rules the day, watches over us, gives us daylight, guides us in fairness, and made all the animals that accompany us. He is strongest in the long days of the hot times. Is that what you are seeking?"

Elga realized now that each god had a sheaf, a group of things they were supposed to do or care about. She said, "Yes, Zeray-ku, it is."

"Then, second, there is Ganus, who rules the land. He stands guard in several places around our village and runs on patrol between them. He leads guardians, shepherds, and travelers. And he is strongest in the fading time."

Elga nodded and said, "That makes sense. When the fading time comes, most travelers are heading to their homes or cold-time lodgings. And the shepherds sit with the kidding goats and lambing ewes in the field."

"Right. After the land was filled with animals," Zeray continued, "Tik spread out the oceans and rivers to cool the animals, who were hot under Bosona's gaze. And the water was empty, so he made fish and other water creatures. He is over the fish, the water, and the loden winds. He is strongest in the short days at the turning of the year."

"Isn't he related to painters?" Elga asked, brightening. She liked looking at paintings and wished the village had more of them.

"Yes. He loves all those who capture a moment. We have no one in the village who works in paints, but the minstrels tell of those blessed by Tik in other places. He also blesses those who dig for metals.

"But Jenu said that Tik had made the short days too cold, and that Bosona made the hot times too hot and withered the plants. She told Tik to stop making it cold, and she would help the plants and animals in the hot times. So Jenu took the hair of the goats and sheep, along with the fluff of the fluffpuff plant, and she wove them into clouds to block the heat of Bosona's gaze and to wrap the land in the short days. But Tik ignored her and kept making the short days very cold, so that the clouds were not a blanket in the short days."

Elga frowned and said, "I thought the gods would work together."

"They each have a place in the world, and their works all do something to help us, but they each have their own goals, and sometimes, that leads to difficulties for us, but at least they don't fight with each other like the tribes to the loden.

"Anyway, Jenu rules the etwar winds, blesses weavers and thieves, and watches over people and plants as they sleep."

Elga asked, "She blesses thieves? Why does she bless those who alter the proper count by moving what is one man's to the storage of another's?"

Zeray's eyes widened, but her friendly smile remained.

"Jenu is not Bosona, to care about counts and tallies. She delights in concealing things, including those who move unseen."

"I think I like her less," Elga said with her lip stuck out.

"She blesses us with good dreams, and she blesses the growers in air. Each god has a blessing for us.

"Now, Rame is strongest in the new time, when things grow, and that is what she does. She creates plants out of the ground and blesses the growers in soil, babies, and growing things. She rules the inwid wind."

Elga nodded and repeated their names, thinking of their areas as she said each one: "Bosona, Rame, Tik, Jenu, Ganus..."

"And Peli," Zeray finished. "Peli is strong wherever Bosona's gaze does not fall. When he sleeps, she rules. And she rules all times under the ground. She makes and feeds on darkness. She is the ruler of death and comes to take the souls of the dying. She blesses hunters and those who travel on dark waters. And because she values sacrifice and pain, she makes the monsters that roam the wild places."

"Why do we worship her?" Elga asked.

"Why do we live in peace in the village, untroubled by the spirits of the dead? She clears away the fallen stubble of the spirit realm the way Rava and Meda clear away the stubble and weeds from their fields."

Elga frowned. She had heard the name of Peli mentioned and even heard of men bargaining with her, but she hadn't really realized they worshipped a monster breeder and soul stealer.

Zeray said, "That's a quick summary. Do you have any questions at this point?"

"Yes. Ganus is the one they made statues of?"

"No. That is Ganus, himself. He patrols the land around our village."

"I thought they were statues."

"Ganus sits very still as he watches, but he will outrun anyone who runs from station to station along his route."

Elga asked, "What does Rame do? Did she create the plants and then sleep?"

"No, Elgafrida-ku. She creates them now. Her servants tend the plants and build them up— spirits in the forms we see: worms, bees, grubs, and beetles move the plants this way and that, adding pieces to them."

Elga thought for a moment and said, "Tik is a man-fish who can swim through the air, the minstrels say. Ganus is a massive dog. What do Bosona and the others look like?"

Zeray nodded and said, "Those are both right. Bosona is a great-bearded old man with one eye. If it were possible to see past the brightness of his gaze, you'd see his eye-patch, face, and shoulders, at least. But when he closes his eye at the day's end, it is too dark to see him."

Elga listened thoughtfully. Did Bosona really have one eye? What happened to the other one? There was no known type of person or god who had only one eye to begin with. Did he really live on the big moon at night, like Tura said?

"Rame, it is said, looks like a woman with a round belly. Jenu is a beautiful and enticing woman with four arms. I saw her once, and I can understand why men fall in love with her."

Elga giggled and said, "That's amazing! What about Peli?"

"Peli? No living man has seen her. She is thought to be like a swirling shadow resembling an old woman, but eight feet tall."

Elga bobbed her head but said nothing. Zeray thought for a minute and said, "Now, the next part of your question was about the offerings they prefer."

Elga nodded again and said, "Yes."

Then, she sat back and listened.

--Posted on 2022/12/06

11. The Man of the Flocks

Elga stood just outside the village by the grain fields and looked to the inwid meadows where the shepherds grazed their flocks sometimes.

She thought about all the things Zeray had said about the gods. How could she test any of those things to see which were accurate and which were false? It seemed like a lot to sort out. Perhaps she could pick just a few to put to some kind of test. After she did and said all she could, there would only be a few things she could verify, because she could hardly test the form Peli took or the offerings Tik preferred, unless the gods conveniently showed up and answered her questions.

A sharp whistle pierced the air, muffled slightly because of distance, and she turned toward the sound.

Ganus ran toward her, and she gasped.

Then, she realized that the stone-colored form was much too small, and it was rounding away from her, tightening the edges of the flock, as more whistle signals cut across the air.

Virgil walked toward her, guiding his flock by guiding his dogs with specific whistle commands. Virgil was confident and unhurried. He knew where to put his feet on the hillside. He knew that his dogs would follow his commands. He was adroit, fearless, handsome, charming, smart, and everything Elga was not.

She watched him for a long time, captivated by the patterns the animals made as Virgil whistled the dogs this way and that, and she wondered how he did what he did, moving the flock across the meadow with no apparent effort. She couldn't imagine doing the same thing; not really. Not as she was now— but perhaps herding would give her those things. She'd ask for a job trial.

Maybe herding would turn her from a girl in the way to a woman of confidence and grace. And maybe Ganus, if he were real, would smile on her.

The gods.

She desperately wanted to know the correct count about them. She had to find a way to separate the correct count from the assumptions.

But when she thought about it, only a few of the things Zeray had told her could really be tested, since most of them had no visible connection between what they knew of the world around them and the gods to which those results were attributed.

If she found herself face-to-face with one of the gods, she could ask about some of the other things, but how likely was that? And in that case, she wouldn't be wondering if that god were real, because she'd be talking to him.

She did know where to find Ganus, though. She knew the points of his patrol, as Zeray called it, but she had never heard of anyone getting an answer from Ganus to questions asked where he stood. She couldn't even know if Zeray was right. She thought about that for a long moment. Was there a way to show whether Ganus was patrolling the village? She assumed there wasn't, but what if there were?

She would need to be in two places at once, but if Ganus could only be in one place at a time, the same was true for her— except that it wasn't. She could get help, something Ganus, for all his vaunted speed, couldn't do.

--Posted on 2022/12/20

12. The Girl and the Fog

When Elga woke up, she shivered for two reasons. First, she was going to make her first job trial today: weaving. Second, the air held a definite chill. It was unusual, this time of year, but not unlikely. It happened some years, but not most.

She got dressed and went outside to the top of a low rise. All around her, the world was covered with a downy blanket of mist and fog. As she looked up, she saw that the fog continued up the hills and off into the sky. It was all clouds. It was as if Jenu had thrown a blanket over the village to keep it from getting too cold.

The fluffy blanket sat around the buildings. Elga stood still and wondered at the majesty of it and the beauty of it; all the humble buildings of the village draped in clouds.

She was still marvelling at it when she saw a vague shape moving through the cloud. Was it a pelimog? Was it a fluffpuff weevil of unusually large size? Was it a malignant spirit?

The vague shape coughed.

It coughed?

Probably no monster, then. Elga peered at it curiously, then asked, "Who is that?"

The shape jumped and became very slightly more vague, but then it called, "Elga?"

She let out her breath and said, "Lio."

Lio walked forward out of the fog.

Elga asked, "How did you move through the cloud?"

Lio said, "That is an odd question. It moves out of my way. No one can move through a cloud. They're solid. You know that because you can't see through them. I thought being an adult made you smarter."

Elga said, "I know, but it didn't seem to move."

Lio made a resigned but impassive motion. He didn't care why the cloud moved or how it moved. He wasn't trying to prepare an accurate count of the beliefs of the village. But even though she knew that a cloud was a solid object hung in the sky, something about his appearance bothered her.

Elga said, "Stand here."

Lio replied, "Accepted."

"We see there's no cloud in any direction near us, right?"


She moved away until he was at the edge of the circle around her. She squinted at him and said, "There. You are almost touching the edge of the cloud."

He wrinkled his nose and squinted his eyes at her, then said, "I'm not sure if becoming an adult has worked properly on you. It seems to have made you see and think weird things. You are at the edge of the cloud. I'm in a big space."

So, they saw different things, and the cloud didn't open around both of them; only one. Or it seemed that way to each of them. She took a step away from him. He faded very slightly. She looked at him and said, "I wonder what happens if you wave your arms in a circle."

Lio looked at her with the same look she would have expected if she'd asked him to stick his arm on the end of his leg. But after a moment, he stuck his arms out and spun in a circle, moving his hands up and down. The cloud swirled around him, opening a small space where his hands and arms went. He stopped and looked at her. She did the same thing. When she looked back at him, his jaw was slack, and his eyes were wide.

"How did you weave the cloud?"

Elga thought for a moment. Then, she took three steps away from him. With each step, he grew more faint. She couldn't see around him, and he couldn't see around her.

The cloud wasn't solid or made of fibers. Jenu wasn't weaving the clouds.

--Posted on 2023/01/03

13. The Girl Who Wove

Elga moved cautiously through the slowly fading mist, thinking about the trial, unplanned and casual as it had been, and what it meant for the village.

Very little, she had to admit.

But in another way, the realization that clouds were not woven fibers shook her whole understanding of things. While she hadn't attached herself firmly to the gods of the village, this was the first solid evidence she had that not everything taught about the six gods was counted accurately.

As the fog lifted, she walked a little faster, still contemplating possible reasons the fog didn't open up around two but appeared not to be near either one of a pair of people in it. Eventually, she had to give the effort up. She didn't have a good idea, and the fog had completely disappeared.

She arrived at Ansa Weaver's hatch, and she looked at the blue surface decorated around the outside with white squares, noticing for the first time that the blue matched the sky on a summer day and the white was a little dusty, like the clouds.

She grasped the bronze knocker and rapped it against the hatch. Ansa opened it and gestured Elga in with an expression of satisfaction on her face. Elga entered the room and looked around. The floor was filled with several looms, chairs, side tables, and racks with places for dowels to hang fabrics— somehow leaving space for the apprentices to walk between them without bumping anything. Small lights glowed on the tables and in sconces on the walls, casting light on the looms and their occupants.

Ansa closed the hatch and motioned to a chair, and Elga sat on it, careful not to bump a figure of a clawed beast holding a couple of panels of fabric on dowels in its upraised claws.

Ansa handed Elga a frame prestrung with warp threads, a "Skitel" with a length of thread wrapped around it, and a thin piece of wood she called a "Pick-up stick" that she said made learning easier.

Ansa pointed to each thread on the frame in turn and said, "Over; under; over; under; essence of basic weaving. Edge not tight."

She sat down near Elga, picked up her own warped frame, and showed how to make one row of weft. When Elga had woven her pick-up stick between the threads, opened a shed, and tucked her skitel through to the other side of the frame, and dropped the threads back together, she said, "Use this to straighten row."

Elga used the end of the pick-up stick to even up the row, and Ansa said, "Next row same as last, backward. Over now under. Under now over," pointing at the first row, then the warp thread above it. She made a row, and then Elga copied it. Ansa nodded, said, "Keep edge tension even," and walked away, looking over the work of each of her apprentices. She nodded frequently, sometimes pointing to an area of concern, but she said almost nothing. Elga hadn't known that Ansa was so quiet.

She turned back to her work, running her pick-up stick over and under, over and under, again and again, repeating the pattern of motions,

lifting the shed, sliding the thread into the shed,

bringing the thread out of the shed, closing the shed,

pressing the threads down to the bed made by the threads of the earlier rows,

checking the edge, and starting afresh, under and over, under and over, on the next row.

After a few minutes, Elga's back started to ache, but she kept working, slouched over her loom. Ansa was beside her, sudden as lightning and silent as a cloud in her approach. She put her hands on Elga's lower back and shoulder, pressing gently in opposite directions as she spoke in a gentle but insistent tone: "Sit straight, Elga."

Elga straightened her back, and the soreness receded. She repeated the motions, over and again, careful to maintain correct posture, careful of the tension at the edges, but her mind wandered.

She wondered why Ansa barely spoke, why all of her apprentices seemed cheerful in spite of the drought of encouragement, what the clouds were made of, since they weren't woven of wool, why Ansa started her on a frame instead of one of the floor looms that did a lot of the work of moving the threads up and down to make a shed on their own. She wove the pick-up stick through the warp threads and ran the skitel through them almost in a daze. She wondered what she'd been taught that was a proper count and what was a miscount. She asked herself how she would learn to make quality fabrics and what could be made of them and how they'd be made, when all the cloth she was making would be flat rectangles. This frame loom wouldn't make cloth a tailor would cut into shapes, with its heavy-gauge warp threads and rough spacing. How long would she weave before she could make something more useful than flat, blanket-like material? She wondered what she wanted to weave that would be more useful. She ran the skitel back and forth. She wondered what kind of thread was most useful. She jumped as Ansa put her hand firmly on her shoulder.

"Too tight," Ansa said, pointing at the edges, steadily getting tighter and tighter with each row.

"I'm sorry, Ansa-dona," Elga said quickly, "I'll pull it out."

"No," Ansa said, looking surprised. "Not bad. Not weak. Only ugly. Keep. Do better. Move forward. Look."

Ansa's hand drifted toward a wall where a large panel made up of smaller panels hung.

The small panels were all made of the same color fabric Elga was working on, but as she looked a little harder at it, she saw that the panels were not straight. Many of them had curved edges, but someone— Ansa?— had put them together so they matched. She saw some other panels that had been inserted that showed more evenness and skill, with irregular edges to match the faulty work of the new appentices.

Elga suddenly realized she had seen blankets of this design in the village; river blankets, the eldest called them; prized for the flowing lines. But it wasn't the apprentices who made them beautiful or got credit for them.

"I'll do better on the following rows," Elga said.

Ansa nodded and smiled in a way that warmed Elga's insides all the way through. She straightened and walked away to check on the others. The mystery of the cheerful apprentices was solved, in Elga's reckoning.

Elga tugged lightly at the edge threads to loosen up the edge, but it didn't do anything. She went back to work, paying closer attention to the tension and trying not to get into so much of a rhythm that her mind could wander. But she still contemplated the village and its gods. Listening to the soft swish of the pick-up sticks being slid into the warp threads, she wondered about the clouds. Watching her own fingers move the threaded shaft through the shed, she pondered how things could be made of flat cloth. Paying close attention to the tension as she ended and started rows, she thought about everything she now knew about weaving, little as it was, from her short practice, the actions of the apprentices around her, and what Ansa's daughter had told her the other day when she was talking to practitioners of many professions to decide which to try, and of how her life might be if she learned it well and was able to fall into the rhythm day after day while keeping the edges right. It was slightly comforting, the thought of knowing exactly what each day would be like. Perhaps she could do well at this and love the work. She looked down and found that she was at the end of the spool.

In the barest moment, Ansa was at her elbow, holding out a new loaded skitel. Elga exchanged it for hers, and Ansa showed her a method for continuing.

"Many ways," she said, "this is one."

The day went on like this, row upon row, spool upon spool, and the more the day passed, the more Elga's mind wandered. At one point, she came to herself with a start and felt, against all logic, that she'd almost woven her hair into the weft. She was only a little sorry when the apprentices began to set things aside and clean their areas.

She showed her frame to Ansa, who took it and sidled over to a table, where she set it down.

As Elga turned toward the door, Ansa put her hand on the frame and said, "Good start."

Elga smiled at her and then went out.

--Posted on 2023/01/17

14. The Girl on Patrol

When Elga left the weaver's house, she turned distractedly toward her home, thinking about the village and all that she'd seen and pondered during the day.

As she came to an intersection, she saw Kela, Lio, and Tura huddled together, and they broke apart, running along three different lanes. Elga was reminded immediately of her thoughts about the gods. None of them could be in two places, but Elga almost could. She stopped at the corner of the house closest to the crossing lane and watched Kela pause in the lane and look at the branch she'd drawn. She grinned and started back toward the crossing, watching for the other two. Lio slunk back on his lane, watchful, as well. She glanced toward Tura, but he was hiding at the corner of a building, having obviously decided he'd drawn the lowest branch. Kela spotted Lio and ran toward him. He sped to meet her, and as they got close, both called out a number. Kela's was higher, and Lio skidded as he tried to reverse course. His reversing effort was not enough, and she slapped his left shoulder. He splayed on the ground, his tongue out dramatically and his eyes crossed. Elga was always surprised how long he could stay like that, and it gave her an idea.

While Kela snuck toward where Tura had hidden, Elga walked over and stood beside Lio.

"Alwa, Lio," she said.

He didn't move or make a sound.

"You can hold that face longer than anyone in the village."

He stayed dead.

"I think you might even be the best in the world."

He stayed dead.

"What can be better? I bet you can outstare a god!"

He started, then went back to being dead, then sat up after a moment and asked, "What would you bet?"

Elga smiled. She said, "I'd wager a small zircon."

"You know the gods? Do you get to meet them when you become an adult? I thought you just spent your time working and talking about boring stuff."

"Grab Kela and Tura; we're going on a long walk."

Lio scrambled to his feet and ran off, but he was back in a short time with the other two.

Elga said, "Thank you for coming on this adventure. The fate of the village depends on your actions this day."

Kela's face changed from doubt to excitement. Elga continued, "We should be done by dark, but I have an important task for each of you."

Lio said, "What about the staring contest?"

Elga said, "That's one of the tasks. Now, follow me."

She led them through the village to the road leading to anor, which led toward Hartsel. A good way from town, she stopped in front of Ganus. A basket sat in front of the large figure, and there were a few gifts of fruit, wine, and gemstones in the basket

Elga said, "The rules of the contest are these: Stare at each other. Whomever blinks the fewest times, he wins. If one of you leaves, he loses. Contest ends when I return."

Lio pushed his sleeves up on his arms and said, "I'll show you I'm the best!"

Tura laughed, "You? I've never seen Ganus the Vigilant blink!"

"I will!" Lio said.

Elga said, "Come on! We have more tasks."

She turned back to the village and led Kela and Tura toward the inwid meadows. On the side of the road stood another shrine where Ganus watched to the etwar over the offerings and the village. Moss grew on the pedestal atop which Ganus stood, but something kept it from growing on Ganus.

Kela asked, "Won't Lio be lonely without him?"

Elga turned to Tura and said, "This pedestal is a shame. I need you to get out your curry brush and clean this moss off of the pedestal. Make sure nothing comes up to Ganus until I return."

Tura gave a snappy and melodramatic salute and said, "Aa-aa, moka pittance!"

As he took the brush from his oversized pocket, Elga led Kela back toward the village, turning right when she came to the path that led to the loden, past the bramble patch.

Just where the path joined another to go into the hills and past Mama Electra's house, Ganus stood, head erect, eyes toward the village, slightly farther from the path than a large basket containing a few offerings. This path was not as well traveled as the others, so fewer people came to this shrine.

Elga turned to Kela and said, "Ganus is watching the village from here, now. He must like your company. Keep him from getting lonely. If he follows me, you may go back to the village, but don't leave him until I return, accepted?"

She felt a twinge of guilt telling Kela something she thought was miscounted— indeed, what she was trying to disprove— but she justified it in her mind as part of the pretend of the adventure game they were playing, even though she knew she considered that reasoning a miscount, too. Wasn't calling a deceit the conceit of a game the same as a deceit in itself?

"Accepted," Kela said. She sat by Ganus' feet and put a hand on his paw.

Elga swallowed hard and hurried along the other fork of the path, toward the footbridge etwar of the village. She tried not to think as she hurried past the meadow and down the hill to the bank of the river.

Did it matter what people believed? What did it hurt, really? Yet the correct count of so many things did matter— made the difference between eating and being hungry. How could she know this wasn't one of them? And what of the offerings left for Ganus? Ganus didn't need those, if he wasn't real. But those who left them might.

But was their need for those things greater than their need to feel watched and protected? What would happen to the village if she proved that the six gods weren't there? Could anyone live in peace if no one was there watching over them? Would people work together without the gods? She might be doing them a favor by telling them a comfortable deceit.

She reached the place where Ganus sat looking back at the village across a basket for offerings and thought, Here already.

She tentatively reached toward his ruff but held back from touching him and said, "Did you beat me here, or did you sit here before I left the weaver's? If you're real, show me."

For a bare moment, she longed for him to move, to prove his existence and believe all she'd been told. For a moment, she wanted to believe, even if it was a miscount.

But that moment passed.

She couldn't do it.

She couldn't believe a miscount and had to know whether it was. And it was too late, anyway. She'd already started the barrel down the hill, and it was too late to get in front of it to stop it from hitting whatever was in its path. Even if she didn't go back the others would know if Ganus patrolled the village or not.

She had to know. She wouldn't want to miscount what was real, even to be more comfortable, and she had no way to justify making the choice for someone else by telling them a false count. Not when she knew the real one. She moved confidently, this time, pressing her hand firmly to the ruff of the statue's shoulder. It was cold, as stone was in the shade. Ganus was not here; only a statue. She knew it, and she had only to recircle the patrol to seal the proof that he didn't simply race ahead of those who looked at each shrine for him. She was sorry she'd done this. She felt terrible for taking away the slender comfort the offerings gave to those who left them. But she could no longer stand to tell a false count. That was why she'd tried to discover this, in the first place: so she could give a true count, if asked.

She couldn't make the true count go away, so she ran from the statue and back to Lio, who was staring at a statue intently. Taking a deep breath and letting it out in a sigh, she steadied herself to do what she must. Lio wouldn't listen to a flat denial. He had to see it for himself.

"And, stop!" Elga cried.

Lio fell backward onto the ground and moved not at all.

Elga asked, "Lio, how many times did you blink?"

"Fifty-seven," Lio said.

"Ganus, how many times did you blink?"

The statue said nothing.

"Lio, how many times did he blink?"

"None," Lio said, tears streaming from his eyes.

"Don't weep so," Elga said, "Statues never blink."

"He's not a statue."

"Oh, I see. Well, did he run and come back?"

"Of a definite, no! That would have lost the game!"

"I see," said Elga. "Let's see how the others did with their tasks."

Lio stood up and followed her to the inwid meadows. Tura stood by the pedestal, smoothing his finger along a curving path near the top of the pedestal, guiding a trail of ants away from the feet of the statue of Ganus.

"Tura, did anyone approach Ganus?"

Tura jumped up and spun around, wobbling a mock salute in front of his forehead.

"Miss Elgafrida, no one has approached the god."

"And did Ganus leave this spot at any time?"

"No, Miss Elgafrida. He has been here the whole time."

"Liar!" Lio shouted.

"Lio, be still. Listen and watch," Elga commanded.

Lio frowned.

"You have done good work. This pedestal is a credit to our village's quality."

With that, she turned and led the two boys to the third patrol station.

Kela still sat beside the statue, her hand on its paw. That was it. If he'd moved, she would no longer be here. None of the statues had moved.

"Has Ganus moved from this spot, Kela?"

"No, Miss Elgafrida. I've been keeping him company the whole time."

Tura asked, "How many Ganuses are there?"

Lio said, "Only one. How is he staying with each of us at the same time?"

Elga said, "There is no Ganus. Only four statues."

She walked back to town, leaving the children staring after her in shock.

--Posted on 2023/01/31

15. The Girl Who Would Not Kill

Elga rubbed her eyes and gave her head a little shake, pausing by the statue of Ganus, mythical patrol dog of the village, before setting out across the inwid meadow. Zego had already gone below the horizon, but the stars winked at her in the sky, giving barely enough light to avoid tripping over the occasional scrubby plant that stood a foot's height above the ground cover.

Ahead, she saw a faint red glow and, beyond that pinpoint, a fainter glow at the horizon. Bosona would be looking down on them before too long.

She made straight for the point of light, and as she approached the place and could see the campfire, she could also make out two other young adults from the village also making for the fire.

The trio arrived at roughly the same time, and while Elga stood near Virgil waiting to be acknowledged, the other two clasped hands with another pair, who started talking in low tones to them without any greeting, telling details of their time on the pasturage. Elga didn't hear much of their talk, for Virgil stood up, put away his whetstone and knife, and spoke to her before a dozen heartbeats had passed.

"A fine morning, Elgafrida. Well rested?"

"Yes, Master Shepherd."

He nodded in approval. Then, he said, "Today is going to be a hard one. We have a lot to do, and we have to make a selection."

The four apprentices let go of each other and separated. The newcomers went toward the flock, which was clustered near a large barrel and trough, while their compatriots headed toward the village. Virgil continued, "The flocks of sheep and of goats are a vital part of the village, protecting it, supplying meat and milk to keep us fed, and giving us leather and wool to keep us warm."

Elga smiled, thinking of being part of keeping little children warm and well fed. She liked the idea of being a vital member of the village. "What we do," Virgil said, "is not just raising animals. We keep the animals healthy, but we also keep the village and the meadows healthy. We make sure that there is grass next year, that the rains don't wash the hills into the village. We protect the village, not just the flock, from monsters and wild beasts."

Elga gripped her hands tightly. She had to face something frightening, some time. She liked the idea of protecting those she loved. But did the shepherds really encounter monsters?"

"You will learn how to feed the animals, how to keep the animals healthy, how to protect the animals, how to read the weather and the ground, how to milk the animals, how to shear, how to manage the dogs, and how to butcher."

Elga had been listening with growing excitement to each of these tasks, but she missed the next few things Virgil said as the last item stopped her mind short. Butcher? She thought the shepherds only raised the animals, that someone else turned them into meat. She liked meat as much as the next person in the village, but she didn't like the thought of having to kill an animal herself.

"...and then we'll visit the barn for a quick overview of the equipment we have there."

Elga tried to refocus on Virgil. He was telling her about how often they moved the flocks to maintain the health of both the animals and the different pastures. Elga listened attentively, trying not to get distracted.

He went on, talking about the method the shepherds used to water the flock so that each animal got enough to keep them from getting dehydrated before their next watering.

"...and now, let's talk about getting the animals moving," he said.

Elga followed him over toward the flock. He said, "Guiding the dogs takes a lot of practice. And before you can control them, you need to understand how they move the flock. And you learn that by doing it yourself. Approach the flock slowly, watching for movement.If the movement is in the direction you want, just keep going in that direction, slowly and steadily. If not, adjust your approach. If it's close to the right direction, raise the hand away from your goal and snap your fingers. Like this."

"When they're getting close to where you want them, back away, maybe move far around to another side. If you approach from the long side or quickly, you can split the flock. I'm going to split some animals off, and I want you to move them in a square around this field."

He whistled and clicked and walked and whistled, and in five minutes, he had a small group separated out and a bit away from the rest of the flock. Elga watched him and thought it was amazing how he made the flock move, even without the dogs.

Elga spent the next few hours moving behind them, walking to one side or the other, slowly getting them moved where she was supposed to, slowly gaining confidence and efficiency with moving the animals. But eventually, she got her small sub-flock moved along one edge of the square without scattering them, without rushing from side to side to keep them bunched, and without falling down in the grass, as she had on one of her earliest attempts. When she crouched to get the animals to stop, then started to the side to make the turn, Virgil called to her and whistled the dogs around to push her animals back into the flock.

She joined him and brushed at a dirt spot on her shirt.

"You're picking that up very quickly. I think you have great potential," Virgil said. He whistled a signal to one of his apprentices, and the boy waved and then started whistling and shouting commands to the dogs, moving the flock in the direction of the next meadow on their rotation.

Elga followed Virgil down toward the village. At the edge of the forest, there was a barn that the shepherds used for their work. He led her to the door nearest them, where another of his apprentices, a boy named Drumei, met them and accompanied them inside.

He explained each of the tools they used, one at a time, and where and when it was used. He talked to her about the crooks, scrub brushes, shears, sacks, buckets, salves, balms, collars, and a variety of other types of tools and mixtures.

Virgil quizzed her on the tools he'd gone over, and she did fairly well with repeating the characteristics of most of them.

He nodded and led her and the apprentice to one end of the barn, where a large pen held a small flock of goats. As Drumei guided the goats along a narrow run, Virgil talked about the criteria they used to select which animals to keep and which to get rid of.

He said, "Among other things, we keep careful track of which animals get sick, so we can see how often they fall ill. We don't want to keep breeding a line that is prone to illness. We look for ewes and does that don't let their kids nurse, because their offspring won't live unless we step in and find a nanny for them or feed them by hand, and we don't really have time to do that for a bunch of kids. Oh, and look at this one. See how the one teat is lumpy and swollen. This animal is sick and needs extra attention until she's well. Drumei, change her collar for a red one. It looks right here like she scraped against something out in the pasture, so we'll use a salve that fights infection and keep her extra clean until she's better. She won't nurse, right now, so her kid will have to go to a nanny. We're not going to want to breed her again, either, because she's more likely to reject her kid at nursing. We look at the offspring and see which does and ewes are producing scrawny offspring. We'll want to avoid continuing those lines, as well."

As he spoke, he used his staff to guide the goats into one of two pens at the end of the run. He continued talking about individual animals, pointing out traits that were attractive or abhorrent, sorting and selecting which animals would be returned to the herd, and which ones would not. She got lost in his words, drinking in the information. She had never known how complex the job of herding was, before today.

She was caught off guard when the last animal went through and Virgil said, "Now, we'll try you out on one of the hardest parts of herding."

She pushed her sleeves up a little and waited, biting her lip anxiously.

Drumei handed Virgil a hammer with a boxy head, and Virgil handed it to her. It weighed about 30 pebbles, and it felt good in her hand. She could swing it easily, but what was she going to do with it? The shepherds didn't seem to use fences the way the growers in soil did. That was the point of the pastures. She followed Virgil around the outside of the pens to a gate in the pen that had been on their left as they sorted the group. When they got there, Virgil hopped into the pen, took a crook from Drumei, and walked slowly into the pen. He reached out quickly with the crook and came away with a goat's neck. Then, he had his hand on the goat's collar and led it out the gate. As Drumei closed the gate behind him, he walked out into the field beside the barn. Elga followed.

He said, "Now, the important thing is to follow through on your swing. If you pull back at the last moment, you won't stun the goat, and you could cause the animal a lot of pain. Aim here. Go ahead."

Elga said, "What?"

Drumei said, "Master Virgil is going to get the goat to lower its head. You're going to stun it with the hammer. Virgil will slit its throat while it's stunned, so it won't feel any pain."

Elga said, "What?"

Drumei wrinkled his brow. Virgil said, "Elgafrida, we have to slaughter this animal. This is part of making sure the flock and the village stay healthy. Are you ready?"

"No," she said. "I can't."

"You can't what?"

"I can't bear the thought of killing an animal."

Virgil said, "The deaths of the animals are part of the circle of our work. You'll have to face it. We used to have a butcher in town, but he died about ten years ago without an apprentice. Since the flocks are almost the only animals butchered in the village, there hasn't been much call for someone outside the shepherds to take it up again, so we have to do our own. You'd have to do it eventually. Do you think you might work up to it?"

Elga stood motionless for a moment, thinking, and then she shook her head. "I don't. I'm not strong enough to face that. Can I be a shepherd on the other end of things?"

Virgil shook his head. "Every shepherd learns every part of the job. Every shepherd takes a turn in each task."

He held out his hand. She handed him the hammer. Drumei spread some feed on the ground, and the goat started to eat. Virgil eased up beside the goat and lifted the hammer.

Elga turned and ran toward the village, but she still heard the dull thud of the hammer as he stunned the goat.

--Posted on 2023/02/14

16. The Girl Who Wandered

Elga found herself walking up the hill past the statue of Ganus standing behind a large basket. She was going to her grandmother's house, not quite sure why, but definitely going.

The little cottage came into view ahead of her, and she quickened her pace toward the brown hatch. She rapped on the wood between two knot designs and waited.

She didn't know what she would do if her grandmother wasn't home.

But it didn't matter, for Mama Electra opened the hatch a moment later.

"Elga, my sweet girl, it is pleasant to see you. How are your trials going?"

"Oh, Mama Electra! It's a dog's dinner."

"Come inside and tell me all about it."

Elga ducked through the opening and slid into a chair at the table. Electra sat down across from her.

"Mama, I worry I may never find my place in the village. I did terribly at weaving. I couldn't keep my mind on the work, and I felt like I was going to weave my hair into the fabric. I don't have the heart to kill an animal, so I can't be a shepherd. And on top of that, I've killed two of the six gods."

"A third of the gods dead in two days? You have been busy. How did you kill them?"

"Accepted, accepted. I didn't really kill Jenu. I just found out that the clouds aren't made of woven fiber."

She explained what had happened with Lio and the fog the other morning.

"Elga, you have reckoned that count very well."

"Yes, but then yesterday, I went out of my way to prove that the statues around the village are not Ganus. I did kill him."

"Oh? Tell me about that."

She told her the details of her walk with her three friends, how she'd given each of them instructions, and how she had felt when she reached the last statue, not even through with the experiment but already knowing how awful what she was doing would be for anyone with whom she shared it.

"Elga, I am impressed with your wisdom. You discovered a remarkable way to solve that question."

"But Mama, what will happen to the village if I prove that all six gods are not watching over us? And how can I prove the others? What is the way to prove that Bosona isn't watching us? I can't stare at the eye of Bosona or see past it to say what he really looks like. How can anyone see him?"

Electra thought for a long time. Finally, she said, "Elga, what the village does with information is not your responsibility."

"Mama, I am not entitled to choose for others what they're allowed to believe!"

"That's true, but people will believe what they choose, even if you present them with evidence to the contrary."

"Accepted, though I think I shouldn't tell people what to believe."

"Elga, that is fair. Unless they ask you, you don't have to share everything you know. But if you answer, you have a responsibility to give a correct count."

"I know, Mama."

"Now, I remember one thing that might help you. I was once in a tent on a bright day. And I suddenly saw the people outside walking around on the top of my tent."

"What? No!"

"Not really, no. But that's how it looked. They showed up on my wall, with their feet toward to top. I got curious, so I looked around, and I found that there was a tiny hole in the wall of the tent. When I stepped in front of the hole, the people on the opposite wall disappeared, and then I saw that the people were on my stomach."

"How does that help?"

Electra smiled at Elga patiently. Elga thought about the information.

"Mama, can I use this to look at Bosona?"

Mama kept smiling, a little more proudly.

Elga said, "I can, can't I? But how do I know I'm looking at Bosona?"

Electra said nothing, adopting a look of contentment.

Elga took a deep breath and sighed. She put her chin in her hand and looked at each idea individually, turning them over in her mind.

Suddenly, the world snapped out of focus in her mind's eye, and different objects she'd been thinking about appeared as though melting into being before her. An angry man, a tent, her mother's hand mirror, and a little end table.

"I can look around corners. But how do I know I'm looking at Bosona? How do I line it up?"

Electra smiled and listened. Elga put her hands on the table and looked at her fingers.

"The light! Like when I look in Ma's hand mirror. What I see bounces off the mirror, and the angle of the mirror has to be half the angle from my eye to the thing.

"Wherever the light from Bosona goes is where I can see him, so if I make the light go somewhere, he's looking there. I know how to be sure my eye hole is seeing Bosona. I can force him to look through my eye hole, or into a cave, or anywhere I want. But what will I see on the wall?"

Electra spoke, finally, saying, "I don't know. This is a thing I've never done. I never even thought of testing the gods this way. I just talked to people about them and used arguments in my head to decide what I believed."

"And what did you decide? That the gods don't watch us?"

"Didn't you just tell me it wasn't your place to tell others what to believe?"

Elga lowered her head and looked up at her grandmother. She said, "Mama Electra, you are mocking me."

"I regret that. Please forget it. I just don't want to get in the way of your honest questioning or tell you what to believe. It makes a difference when you reach the answer on your own. If you go as far as you can and need help, I can guide you, but I don't want you to give up before you've gone that full distance."

"I see."

After a moment, Elga added, "Bosona is the only one left that I can think of any way to test."

"After that, you'll need to use arguments to decide."

Elga smiled and said, "Thank you, Mama. I'll let you know what I find."

Elga looked out the window and let the world snap out of focus again. She arranged different things in her mind, moving the pieces around and replacing things: the tent with a sheepskin blanket, the end table with a person, and the wall of the tent with a white sheet. And she could make the only light come from Bosona. She knew the whole thing, now!

The window fuzzed into focus. The shadows outside were still somewhat short. She had time to do this today, but she'd need help.

She turned to Electra and said, "Mama, will you let me ruin a sheet and a blanket to kill a god?"

Electra stared at her for a long moment before saying, "You'll need a hard marking stylus, too."

Elga smiled and nodded eagerly. Then words tumbled out of Elga's mouth: "I'll hang the sheet on the flat wall inside the hatch of your root cellar. It only gets morning light on that side of the house. You'll point the light at the little hole with your best mirror. We'll hang the blanket on your wash line, stretched to the trees on that side..."

So Electra got the blanket, sheet, marking stylus, and mirror, and the two women went out to the wash line. Elga untied it and pulled it to a tree beyond the root cellar. Electra found a spot where she could reflect the light of Bosona into the root cellar, and Elga hung the blanket from the line. Electra showed her where the light would pass, and Elga took the knife from her sheath and shaved a circular spot on the blanket to flatness and poked a hole in the center of the circle with a pin, wiggling it a little until she thought the hole was the right size. Then, she dropped her hands to her sides.

"Mama, do you think this will work? What if I see the old man with a burning eye?"

Electra smiled, saying, "You will then know that Bosona, at least, watches our village. Isn't being wrong and learning the correct count better than being right but always wondering if the count is right?"

Elga thought about this. Which did she find more frightening? Killing a god or proving that he watched the village? Whatever the answer was, she'd have to have the count to decide what to believe, because she'd already decided that what she would believe was what really was the correct count. She had decided to become a woman who believed the correct count, whatever that was.

"I want the right count, Mama!"

Elga moved to the root cellar and opened the hatch. She pressed heavy tacks through the large, expensive, brightly whitened sheet so that it hung flat on the wall and called to Mama Electra to aim the light at the hole. Beams of light leapt onto the sheet in the dark of the cellar, and she shouted instructions until the eye of Bosona was centered on the sheet and not fuzzy, and she could look more closely at it.

Then, she stared at it for a long time. It didn't look right. This was no eye, ringed in flame. This was just a ball, flames erupting from its whole surface. Was this the view around that bright disc in the sky, or was this a vision of anger from the god she questioned? She almost ran in terror, but before she could turn, she noticed something near the edges of the wall sheet. Tiny points of light. And they were in a pattern she knew.

Those were the three brightest stars in the Oar. She never saw it at this time of year, but that's what the pattern looked like to her. And over in the opposite corner, she saw two of the stars in the Horse. Another figure she didn't see this time of year. She couldn't see the stars of the Ox, which lived between the Oar and the Horse. She wondered what those stars looked like if you were close to them.

Shaking herself awake, she rushed to the wall and traced an outline around each of the stars, then traced the lines where the edges and contours of the flaming ball were.

Then, with a shaky voice, she called, "I'm done, Mama Electra."

The beams of light disappeared.

"And what do you see?"

"You would not trust my word, Mama."

"Elga, I trust you."

Elga shook her head, even though she was hidden from view by the blanket and said, "Mama, I would not believe me, if I heard this."

Electra came around the blanket and stood at the top of the steps. She looked at the drawing.

"What are the little spark things?"

She pointed at each corner and said, "The Oar, the Horse, the Eagle, and the Kite."


"Yes, Mama, and I think Bosona might be one, too. He's dead, Mama: just a ball of flame."

Elga started crying.

"I know, Elga. I had reasoned out his existence long ago, so I wasn't surprised."

"And I think I might be able to see in caves with enough mirrors."

Electra smiled gently and said, "Let's leave Peli alone. You can't be in every cave at once, so there's no way to beat the argument that you weren't where she should have been."

"Mama? What do I do? I've killed half of the gods."

Mama Electra enfolded her in an embrace and led her to the house.

--Posted on 2023/02/28

17. The Girl in the Soil

The next afternoon, Elga was in a field, carrying a small bag of seeds toward a small square of turned ground. She had spent the morning listening to Rava talk about all the things a grower in soil needed to know about plants, times for planting different crops, soil amendments, types of ground, pests, pollinators, who used which parts of what crops, how to tell if a plant was getting enough water or too much, and a slough of other things. It was finally time to get her hands dirty.

She stepped up to the edge of her plot and started making little holes and dropping seeds into them. She had covered about half of her plot before Rava came over and looked at what she'd been doing.

"Elga!" cried Rava, "What are you doing?"

"Master Grower?"

Rava pointed at the plot.

"What's wrong, master?"

Rava said, "Your lines are terrible. How are your plants going to grow with uneven spacing between them?"

"I think they'll grow well. I see plants like this in the hills."

"In the hills, we aren't trying to grow specific plants in a specific way to yield a good harvest. We're happy when we find what we need, but we haven't made plans based on what will be growing there."

"Will they not grow as well here as there?" Elga asked. "Won't the plants be fine as long as the area has enough space to support them all?"

"The plants may or may not grow well, but how are the workers apt to get to them to check on them, inspect them for pests, and water them if the rain is not enough? Won't they step on this one and this one, since they are in the natural paths between rows?"

Elga looked at the seed mounds and the neighboring plots and thought about this, but she said, "We can just be mindful and watchful. I think the plants will grow well like this."

"Elga, we do not have time to be stepping carefully around plants we do not know the locations of. We plant in rows so that we can move quickly and confidently among them without damaging any of the plants."

"Yes, Master Grower."

"Plant the rest of it like its neighbors. I was told that you were good with plants."

"Yes, Master Grower. My ma taught me how to grow herbs and care for plants in pots."

"This is a little bit different. When a plant is in the ground, you can't move it easily. You have to stay off it and work from outside its perimeter. For this reason, we plant things in rows. We know where the plants are, and we know where we can step. I want you to do well with these plants, so plant them in rows."

"Yes, Master Rava."

Rava moved off, and Elga went to the edge of her plot, starting rows next to the rows in the neighboring plot, making holes and dropping seeds again, but she still thought that planting more like what she saw in the uncultivated areas around town could be good, too.

When she finished her little plot, she returned to the shed and asked Rava Grower for another task. Rava looked at her with a leery eye and said, "Rame help me, I don't know what to do with you. I saw how well you touched the plants in pots during my explanations this morning. You have a way with plants that is helpful for this work, but I don't know where you got the idea to put seeds in the way. I'll let you work with Lytri weeding over there. Perhaps that will be more to your liking."

She pointed at a stout young woman in a field a short distance away. Elga bobbed her head and walked toward Lytri.

Elga greeted her and made herself available. Lytri pointed out the row of plants she was growing and told Elga the difference between its leaves and the leaves of the weeds she had been encountering most in her weeding.

Elga moved over to the next row and started carefully pulling the weeds from around the profitable crop. She had been doing this for a few minutes when Lytri looked up and gave a huffing sound.

"What are you doing, Elga?"

Elga looked back at her and said, "I'm removing weeds."

Lytri pointed and said, "Why didn't you pull those two?"

Elga looked where she pointed and said, "Oh. Those round leaves with multiple veins along them are purrescarc. They won't hurt the kale, and the herbalist can use them for wound treatment, inflammation, and digestion irregularity."

Lytri narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth for a moment before shrugging. She said, "That doesn't matter to me. It's not what we're planting here. That makes it a weed. Pull them up."

Elga's shoulders fell, but she turned back and pulled up the plants, tucking them into her smock pocket. As she continued weeding, she put aside whatever she came to that might be useful. They kept at it for another hour before Rava came by to check on them.

"How is it going?" she asked.

Elga said, "Well, master gardener."

Lytri said, "She's doing acceptably now. Earlier, she was leaving weeds behind if they were ones she liked. She's very slow."

Rava looked to her.

Elga said, "I left a couple of purrescarc, because I thought you'd want to grow them for the herbalist, since they were already in the ground. They're good plants."

Rava said, "I see your point, but Lytri is right to have you pull everything that is not what we're growing. A little bit of nutrient here and there can make or break a harvest.

"But now, I need you to clean up. It is time to go to the shrine."

She turned and walked away, and Lytri followed her. Elga hadn't realized growers in soil were zealous. None of the other trades she had tried had included any worship in their daily activities, so she was surprised by this. She brushed her hands on a towel in the tool box and followed.

But did she really want to do this? She didn't think Rame was responsible for the growth of plants. If Rame was watching and building plants for their benefit, why did she build the plants they didn't need, even those that harmed the crops they wanted? Why didn't she only build the plants the people needed in the village, and leave the other plants in the wilderness? The growers in soil worked hard because there were all sorts of extra plants and creeping things in their gardens. Wouldn't it be better if she didn't build those things?

Elga decided that, if Rame did exist, she wasn't doing things to be good to the villagers. Was that what the shrine visit was for? To bribe Rame not to bring weeds and creeping things that would make their lives harder? If so, it wasn't working, and Rame was definitely not looking out for their wellbeing.

The more she walked and thought, the less she liked Rame. And the less she believed Rame was even there. What kind of god would behave this way? Making good things and bad grow together so that villagers had to work harder to get their food did not seem sociable or good.

Would she be expected to take part in this ritual, if she became a grower in soil? Now, she followed to answer than question.

Just before they reached the shrine, she moved quickly to Rava's side and said, "Master grower?"

Rava stopped and turned to her. The apprentices slowed and looked at her curiously.

"What is it, Elga?"

"Rava-dona, I wanted to thank you for giving me the opportunity to train with you. I am not sure if I am a good fit for this trade, but I will think on it further."

"Very well. I was not sure, myself. But I think you could be, if you set your mind to it."

"Thank you."

Rava turned away and entered the clearing in front of the shrine. Elga kept watching, and after Rava had gone to the shrine, each of the apprentices did the same. Before the others looked at her again, she had slipped away.

She was sure, now. She didn't want to be part of the growers in soil.

--Posted on 2023/03/14

18. The Girl on the Roof

Laress liked order. He liked when things made sense, stayed in their places, had utility, and above all, did not upset the order of the community.

Laress walked through the village at a brisk walk, especially so for one of his age, who had distinguished himself in one career and been chosen for a loftier one.

His love of order was one of the reasons he'd been chosen to become the youngest of the Eldest when a vacancy opened in that group, not the last time but the one before that. And as the second youngest of that number, he felt that the way to distinguish himself and avoid being impeached (though that rarely happened in Almodar, or anywhere in the nearest three of the Five Lands), was to maintain order. Stability. Prosperity. Institutional memory. Tradition. Reverence.

Laress turned left on the lane toward the inwid meadows.

So, he found the things his ears had heard particularly troubling to him. Children being irreverent toward Ganus had to be investigated. It had to be determined whom was at fault. and it had to be stopped, quelled, crushed.

Laress stopped in front of the baker's house, his robes swaying in a billow around his legs, and looked up at the roof of the house.

Determined questioning of the lads had led him to the conclusion that one newly welcomed woman was responsible for the behavior of the boys, but order dictated that he must interrogate her personally. Every villager had the opportunity to face accusations with an explanation. Perhaps the boys lied about what she said and did. Laress was not a man to leave things half done. He would ask what he had ask to get to the correct accounting of events.

Laress looked up at the roof of the house. Pega and her team were spread across the face of the roof, doing various tasks as they put new reeds on the roof and strapped them down and tapped the edges into shape. The process was beautiful, fascinating, orderly. Laress liked it.

But he could not watch it all day. He had come for a cause.

Shading his eyes, he scanned the roof and found her.

Pega was now on the ground, preparing to carry something up to the roof. Laress didn't know what it was, but it looked like it belonged up there.

"Pega-ku, a pleasant day."

"Accepted, Laress-dono."

"That girl," he said, pointing, "has she been with you long?"

"Her second day, this is."

"What do you think of her?"

Pega smiled and said, "She has done very well. Thinks well. Does as asked. Understand shapes. Has good balance."

"And do her beliefs match yours?"

Pega looked confused, but she said, "I don't know what you mean. She hasn't really said anything about them."

"I see. could I have a hundred heartbeats of her time?"

"Eldest Laress, you can take all of our time for whatever you want."

"Elga-ku!" Laress called.

The woman— still more a girl than a woman— actually, looked up at him.

"Elg-ku, I desire words from your mouth."

She looked up at him and opened her mouth wide.

Laress nodded.

Elga stood up and started to make her way carefully down the face of the roof, but one of the apprentices was heading up, and she had to work her way around the slight man. As she did so, she glanced down at Laress again.

He tried to smile reassuringly. He was only here to ask questions and find out how this incident could be explained away so that order could be upheld, after all.

Elga's foot came down in the wrong place, and her leg slipped out from under her.

'I showed too much discomfort in my smile,' Laress thought as he watched her knee come down on the slat, the girl trying to regain stability with the knee.

It didn't make firm enough contact, sliding away from her and down the rafter. Her face drained of color as she tipped forward over the edge, her back foot off the slat. Laress brought his hand to his mouth and gasped, watching the girl's eyes bulge as her head tilted toward the ground. She closed her eyes and curled into a ball, then rolled out into a loose standing position, looking at the ground. Laress gaped, wondering why she came out of the ball.

Her feet hit the grass with a thud, and her knees buckled, toppling her onto her side. She crashed through some fence reeds, breaking them off into very sharp ends that narrowly missed skewering her before hitting the ground with shoulder and hip at once. She rolled heels over head and flung her arms and legs out, sliding to a stop.

And Laress started breathing again. And the world sped up to normal again.

Pega ran over to the girl and said, "Are you hurt, Elga? Elga?"

She started slapping Elga's cheeks, but the girl did not open her eyes. The master thatcher carefully prodded her limbs and torso, then assigned her two nearest apprentices to carry her into the house.

Laress walked over to Pega and squeezed his hands together nervously as he asked, "Will the girl live?"

Pega's look of surprise at the question confused Laress. Did she think he shouldn't ask it? She said, "She didn't break anything or tear anything up when she landed. I'm sure she has only fainted. In a few minutes, she should be awake and able to go home."

"Home?" Laress asked stupidly. He didn't know why she would go home. He had questions to ask, and she had work to do on the roof.

"Home," Pega said flatly. "She is done here, and your questions will have to wait until another time. She came near to dying, a minute ago."

Laress was shocked. Since he became one of the eldest, nobody had ever told him to wait. For anything. No matter what. He opened his mouth to object, but Pega, a woman half his age, looked back at him with a level gaze, and he, to his great surprise, closed his mouth and turned away. Order would have to be restored tomorrow. He said he would return in the morning, but Pega said, "She won't be here. She's done. I won't have a clumsy girl on my roof."

Laress walked away, silently wondering why he felt that the whole mishap has been his fault.

--Posted on 2023/03/28

Part Three - The Girl in the Thick Weeds

19. The Girl at the Hatch

Elga stood at the hatch of her grandmother's house. She had been standing there for probably a thousand heartbeats, and she still hadn't pulled the block back to announce her presence. She rubbed the purple patch on her elbow. It had gotten quite prominent on her walk here from Reado and Debara's house, where she'd been working this day. She scratched her ear.

She had decided to come talk to Mama Electra instead of going home to talk to her ma, but now that she was here, she was unsure of what she would say, and she didn't want to disturb Mama Electra until she had decided.

She shifted from foot to foot. She had been surprised, when she woke up in the house, that her ankles weren't broken. They didn't even hurt much.

She had fallen out of trees before, but this was higher than she had ever fallen, and she was no longer a child, to bounce back from something like that.

She jumped a little as the hatch opened. She still hadn't knocked, and she hadn't expected it to open unbidden, but she immediately shoved the hatch aside and threw her arms around her grandmother and began to cry.

Mama Electra stood firm, as if she had expected this exact thing, and put her arms around Elga's ribs, which were also as tender as her arm.

Electra pushed the hatch closed and said, "Come sit down and tell me what has happened."

Elga let go of her and moved to the table. Electra sat across from her.

Elga began, "I think I'm in trouble with the eldest ones."

Electra raised her eyebrows but said nothing.

Elga said, "One of them came to see me. I was working with Pega-dona, and his arrival scared me so much, I stepped wrong getting to the ladder and fell off the roof. I landed rather well, but then I fainted from the fear. When I woke up, he was gone, so I don't even known how much trouble I'm in."

Electra touched her hand, and Elga saw emotion in her grandmother's eyes: fear, relief, pride, and a little bit of uncertainty.

Elga took a breath and added, "—with the Eldest, that is. I'm in thick trouble with Pega Thatcher. She threw me out of my trial with her, because I fell off the roof."

Electra said slowly, "An... understandable precaution, I suppose."

Elga nodded. "Of course it's understandable. I brought danger to myself and others. But it still felt bad when she told me, a few short minutes after I woke up from my faint."

Elga started to let her eyes fill with the tears that had been wanting to come out since that moment and said, "Oh! Mama Electra! Why did I fail at all these jobs? You said I could be good at whatever I chose."

Electra asked gently, "Ah, did you choose any of those jobs, or were you drawn to something else?"

Elga thought for a moment and realized that she had not committed to any of them in her gut. She said, "No, I guess I didn't choose any of them. I rejected most of them for one reason or a second one."

Electra nodded slowly. Then she asked, "What will you do, now?"

"Hide from the eldest for a while?"

"Hiding from your problems seems like a fitting idea," Electra said seriously. Then, after a moment, she added, "But what seems like a fitting idea in the moment seems less like one the more its consequences become visible. Hiding from problems, more consistently than other unhelpful ideas.

"Although the idea of giving yourself some space to think might be profitable, if you use it for that and not to avoid things.

"Take some time to think, Elga. I know a fitting place for it. But don't hide there. Fill the time deciding things: what you want to do moving forward, how you will answer the eldest when they ask you about your words and actions, and how you believe things really are."

Elga said, "I will do as you say, Mama Electra."

"I'm glad to hear it. This spot for thinking is deep in the woods near the village."

Elga looked at her grandmother with alarm, but she continued, "I know this will be difficult, Elga, but it will also be helpful to you. I also need you to deliver a package and a note for me. I'll make instructions to help you. When you finish, come tell me how it went. It should be no trouble for one who has slain a god."

Elga felt betrayal, but she also trusted her grandmother. She didn't know why Mama Electra would ask her to do this task. Perhaps she did not realize how much the forest scared Elga. Or perhaps she thought Elga needed to be able to walk through the forest for the job she did in the village. Elga hadn't considered becoming a forager, but they went into the woods. Perhaps her grandmother wanted her to be a forager. But if that was her idea, why did she talk so much about Elga making a decision or thinking things out? Was this how adults pushed younger people into doing things? She decided to face this possibility in the face.

Elga said, "Mama, I never considered being a forager. The job doesn't interest me."

"What does that have in connection with this?" Electra asked with curiosity but no irritation.

"Don't you want me to go into the forest because the foragers do?"

"No, Elga," she said cheerfully, "your decision of profession is yours. No other person can make it for you, for no other person will do the work to make you successful in it. That is exactly why I want you to go alone to think. But it wouldn't hurt for you to be comfortable in the woods."

"Do you think I can do that?"

"Elga, if you choose to go, I know that there is nothing that holds you as an individual back from it. If you choose not to, you won't.

"I have made many decisions in my life. Some of the times I have not done something I could, I have wondered how my life would have been different, but most of them have never troubled me afterward, so I'm not worried about you, either way. I think solely that time to think may be helpful to you."

Elga decided that Mama Electra did not know how much the forest terrified her. To brush this decision aside like scattered husks that could be discarded and never missed was a sign that her grandmother did not know that this was without question one of the choices Elga would think about for the rest of her days if she let it go by, wondering how her life might be different if she had stepped out of the place of comfortable familiarity.

No, this was not a choice she would forget; not unless it was the first in a long line of choices she never regretted. But did she have the strength to face the dark woods? She bit her lip and gripped her fingers, thinking about it.

"Mama Electra, do you think I'm—" Elga began, but she was interrupted by the sound of someone rapping the knocker against the hatch of Electra's house.

Electra stood up and said, "I'm sorry. I don't know whom that is."

She went across the room and opened the hatch to find Virgil Shepherd standing outside.

"Alwa, Virgil-ku," Electra said.

"Alwa, Electra-se. Segna told me Elga might have headed this way."

"She is right here," Electra said, opening the hatch wider.

Virgil stepped through and looked at her. She squirmed in her chair and moved her hands to cover the scrapes on her knee and elbow.

He said, "Not too banged up, thank the gods. I was very worried when one of the lads told me you had fallen from a roof."

Elga replied, "I guess I landed well, Virgil-se."

"That made me happy, especially when I first heard it. I have been seeking you. I wanted to make sure you were not hurt. And there's no reason to treat me like a parent. I'm not that much older."

"Only thing hurt is my sense of poise," she said, her cheeks growing hot. A warm smile crossed his weathered face, and for a moment, he looked a lot closer to her age.

He ran his hand through his curly hair and slid his fingers along the brim of his hat. Finally, he said, "I hope that you are as well as you look. You are an exceptional young woman, and I want what is best for you."

Elga felt her cheeks grow hotter, and she said, "Virgil-ku, I affirm that I am not much harmed, and I would go back on that roof this minute, if allowed. You don't have to worry about that. It was a very close thing to hurting me badly, but I am not afraid. I merely let myself be distracted at the wrong moment."

"I am glad, then," he said.

She smiled at him. He had been very sweet to come looking for her and assure himself of her well-being. The heat was finally beginning to recede from her cheeks, and she felt she could look at his face without feeling self-conscious. Then, he added, "And do you know what you'll do now?"

And she once again felt the way she had when her foot missed the rafter earlier in the day.

Electra said, "I've been advising her to take a little time away from things and figure out what she wants to do and to be."

Virgil nodded thoughtfully and said, "That is a wise suggestion. You have several options open to you. I know you'll find the right path."

Elga looked at her grandmother and read her look immediately, so she said, "And that starts with finding a path to a quiet place. I'm heading into the woods."

Now that the words were out of her mouth, she felt more bound to follow them. She also felt a little better for saying them, a little less uncertain.

Virgil raised an eyebrow, which made him look dashing. Then, he said, "I think you will do well with that."

Elga said, "It is something I must do, so I will."

Virgil stood up and said, "I won't take any more of your time."

Electra said, "Thank you for checking on her. Have a pleasant evening, Virgil-ku."

She shut the hatch behind him, and Elga stood up, saying, "I'll gather some supplies."

Electra smiled and said, "You are welcome to do that, or you can take my pack. It's already ready."

Elga looked at her for a moment, trying to decide how her grandmother got so wise, so able to almost predict the future. Then, she realized that she had been standing before the hatch outside for those thousand or two heartbeats. Her grandmother had had time to decide what she needed and pack a bag for her before opening the hatch. She nodded and said, "I'll take what you made up for me, Mama Electra."

--Posted on 2023/04/09

20. The Girl in the Dark Woods

Two thousand heartbeats later, Elga stood at the edge of the dark woods on the inwid side of the village, a pack on her back and a sheet of instructions in her hand.

This was the end. She could go no farther with the old familiar comfort of her ordinary life. In fact, standing here at the edge of the forest, her place of comfort was actually behind her.

If I'm already uncomfortable, she thought, I should go in. I should have gone in by now. I'm not going to get more comfort standing here. I have to go in or run away.

Indeed, her heels were starting to ache from standing here. But she didn't step forward.

What awaited her in those trees? What had kept her from taking ten steps into the trees since before she'd known these trees were here? What was she afraid of?

"Miss Elga!" a cheerful voice reached her.

She turned. Kela was waving at her. She waved back.

"You're not going in there, are you? It's getting dark!"

Elga could hear in her mind the mocking voice of Tura telling her to bring him a branch. She turned her face to Kela, gave the girl a smile, made her decision not to be held back by fear of unknown things, and walked into the forest.

It wasn't quite dark yet, and she could see where she was going fairly well. She made her way along, following the directions she had almost memorized standing outside the trees. She looked from time to time at her wayfinder, a small device with a black arrow that always pointed at the top of the world. It was very old, but is still worked, helping her keep to the correct direction, and Mama Electra had let her use it today.

The instructions gave her markers to seek. There was the tree with a saddle over the height of Elga's head. After a while, there was the rock shaped like a mother holding her child. Elga crested a hill and could just barely see, through the trees, a wide swath of land to loden. With a little gasp, she recognized Mama Electra's house. Her grandmother had hung a line with colorful flags, as she sometimes did, with different shapes and patterns. Elga didn't know why she did that some days but not on most. She didn't have time to stand here gawking. Look at those shadows crawling across the inwid side of the hills!

She moved on, setting her toes down carefully and testing the step before putting her weight on it. She walked on as the forest darkened around her, until she realized that while she could see her surroundings quite clearly enough, there was a strong chance she could miss a guide object from her instructions in this gathering gloom. Why had she spent so long standing at the edge of the forest? She was suddenly afraid, and she almost darted back in what she thought was the direction she had come, but before she even moved her feet, another thought froze her in place, more terrifying than the idea of missing a way marker: She could get completely turned around and have to shout herself hoarse waiting for rescue from the village.

She took a deep breath. She wouldn't let that happen. It would be too terrible, after the recent days of embarrassment. Calming herself, she imagined all the things she knew about this moment: Her grandmother's love, the contents of her backpack as individual items, the trees around her, the leaves and rocks on the ground, the last marker in her instructions: a crooked stump she had passed a bare hundred heartbeats earlier, the vague sahdows on the trees, and herself in the middle of it.

How can I remember where I am and where I was going? she thought. I have to make a mark. I see trees ahead, and there are sticks and rocks nearby. I can mark that tree ahead and point a line of sticks or rocks at it, but how can I remember this spot while I gather them? How about one of the spikes in the pocket of the pack? They would probably go into the ground here easily.

She opened her eyes and slipped the pack off her shoulders, setting it on the ground. Taking a spike from the pocket, she drove it into the dirt between her feet until only half of it showed above the ground. She straightened up and looked straight ahead. Ten paces away was a tree almost in her way. She thought she had been about to pass to the right of it. She walked to it and pulled her belt knife, making a slash on the bark where her path would have bumped into the tree.

Then, keeping the pack and the stake in sight, she gathered seven stones. She took these back to her stake and stacked the four flattest of them in a little tower, and she put the other three in a line pointing straight at the slashed tree, touching the tower and each other. Now, she had a little stack visible for 20 paces and a line pointing the exact way she had been going when she felt unsure of her direction.

She looked at the sky, but it didn't seem that Jenu— she stopped herself— like the clouds were thick enough to drop rain. She pulled out a few blankets of sturdy wool, made a bed from them, and lay down near the marked tree with her pack close to her head. She was awake for what seemed all night, listening to the sounds of the forest, alive with activity. She hoped she had not lain on a path. That would be her— in the way in a lonely forest. She tried to lie still and attract no attention.

Reports of monsters in this area were sparse, and while they did happen, far fewer involved places this near the village. Still, every sound made her ears prick up and her heart skip a beat. She worried about the darkness, about the animals, about the monsters, and about roving wild men seeking travellers to rob and kill. She didn't know how many small animals were around her, and she couldn't hear the ones whom her stillness had lulled into coming out to browse in spite of her presence. A wood mouse came close to her blanket and sniffed at it before deciding it wasn't food and meandered in another direction.

Her stillness, fear or no, brought sleep in time.

--Posted on 2023/04/23

21. The Girl and the Path

Elga woke with the first rays of Bosona that crossed her eyelids. She leapt up, throwing her blankets aside, before remembering what she was doing in this strange place. Her hips ached, and her head, but she was unharmed. She checked over her gear. Everything was as it should be. The wayfinder, a precious object it was an honor for her grandmother to let her use, was working, though she needed a landmark and a heading to make it very useful.

Shouldering her pack, she walked past her little tower and line of rocks, glancing back to ensure she didn't lose sight of her marked tree. When she could still see it but had to look for it to find it, she made a mark on another tree. She repeated this until she needed a moment to locate that tree, and she made another mark. After about 200 heartbeats, she stopped and pulled a bright red and white cloth from her bag and tied it around a tree.

From there, she walked in a spiral, keeping the cloth in sight and turning and looking, until she saw the crooked stump. She had never felt lost, but she was surprised by the strength of her relief at seeing the stump again. Checking her wayfinder, she went back for the cloth, then returned to the stump. She took a bag of nuts and a water skin out of her pack and munched on them while she checked her wayfinder and her instructions again.

That done, she put the bag back in its pouch and set off. As she had suspected, she passed the little pile of rocks she had stacked very soon, and they were close enough she could have hit them with a pebble from where she was. She left them undisturbed, a sign to her of the fact that she had been off course, even if not by much, and continued in the same direction.

As far back as she could remember, she had been afraid of these woods. Nothing in here was as frightening, now that she had walked in it. And yet, she felt no less timid herself than she had been. It was only the familiarity that removed the fear. Nothing had become less fearful in her. That seemed strange to her, and she wondered why she still felt like a frightened little girl. But she knew that she would not be as comfortable right now without the familiarity lent by her grandmother's instructions.

Finally, she reached the last landmark on her instructions, turned until her wayfinder said she faced anor, and walked 30 paces, coming out of the trees into a wide clearing.

Elga sat in the middle of the clearing for a long time. She listened to the forest around her for a long time, and she was surprised to hear life and growth, not fear and struggle, as she had come to expect. Why, since she was not less fearful, did the forest, even what she could hear but not identify, therefore unknown, sound less dangerous to her? She had lived beside the forest all her life, afraid to go into it, but it had not been as dangerous as she had thought. She closed her eyes and thought about what she had seen on the way here.

She had not been so focused on the instructions that she had missed seeing the plants of the forest. She had seen some more purrescarc, a few patches of black berry, and even a bit of kingfoil, along with birds and lizards in the trees, various vines and flowering plants, and once, far off in the undergrowth, a small, furry animal that skittered off before she got a clear look at it. She was glad the lizards had been far away.

Thinking back, she was surprised by how many of these things she could name and describe from listening to the adults in town, especially her grandmother. She opened her eyes and looked around her, thinking about the smells of the meadow, the feel of the near mint and foot soft and oxalis under her feet and hands, and the questions her grandmother had asked her to ponder. Here, in this bright, peaceful place and mood, she could face those.

She thought about what the eldest might ask her, and she came up with a response to each one that she felt was reasoned and accurate. She felt very confident in her answers, and she thought about her path. She decided the next place to try was the chandlery. The scents of flowers here in the meadow were so calming and strengthening, she thought, a life making candles could be very pleasant. She wondered for a moment if candles hid some terrible task she would have to do, like herding, but she dismissed that. This time, her choice would work, and it would be pleasant, and she could decide what she believed and be an adult and bring utility to her village.

Elga sat in the daylight and rehearsed her answers to the questions she thought the eldest might ask her. Here in the clearing, she felt so much peace. She felt ready to face anything.

Eventually, Elga stood up, brushed the leaves and dirt from her hands, and shouldered her pack. She opened the second envelope her grandmother had given her and read it. She slipped the wayfinder from its pouch, turned it until the dial matched what was in her next instructions, and set off, looking for a tall tree wrapped with pink-leaved vines.

--Posted on 2023/05/09

22. The Girl and the Three Ways

Two hours later, she came to a stop where her directions led. It was a beautiful spot with trees and bushes around a stone bench flanked by slim stone pillars and an arch. This, she thought, was a place to make order.

So, she sat down on the bench and ordered her thoughts. She thought about all the things she had been told and all the things she had learned in recent days. She decided what she believed and tried out some explanations she hoped would state them without calling others to share them if they didn't want to. One thing she believed firmly was that every person had the choice to believe how they wanted.

Then, she stood up and opened the third envelope her grandmother had given her. She unfolded the instruction sheet and looked at the instructions. And she stared at the words. There were only eight words.

Find the fastest way out of the forest.

And then, three ideas of varying character popped into her head. The first was the way of the mouse. The second was the way of the squirrel. And the third was the way of the ferret.

The way of the mouse was certain to work but unlikely to be the fastest. Pick a direction and go straight that way at top speed. It might some times be fastest, but she could as easily pick the wrong direction and run through the longest part of the forest instead of the shortest.

The way of the squirrel was more sure to be short, but it was more daring and took a side route that wasted a large amount of progress. Find the tallest nearby tree, climb to see which way was the closest edge, and go that way. It was faster than the slowest route the mouse might take, but she could climb a hundred paces and find herself a hundred paces from the edge with two hundred paces ahead of her to get there.

The way of the ferret seemed best to her. While the mouse might pick the shortest route one time in a hundred and get out faster, the ferret would always know the short route and pick the same way every time. The mouse, on the other hand, would pick a longer route more often than not. The way of the ferret was to remember the path, estimate the current place and the shape of the forest, and go in the shortest direction.

To help her, Elga found a stick and a patch of dirt, which she cleared and used to draw the forest as she understood it from wandering the meadows around it as a child. She put a circle where she thought the clearing was. She decided to pick a mouse direction, and it seemed best about 2 hands off of the right of her inward path. Then, she stared at the map and let her mind sort of see the path she had taken. There was the spot she could see Mama Electra's flags, there was the crooked stump she had visited twice, there was the rock with a baby, and there was the clearing. She wiped it away and redrew the circle a few fingers higher on her map. There was the vined tree, and there was the bench. And the closest edge was about 170 degrees from loden. The wayfinder told her the mouse path she would have taken was at about 220. Oops. It was better she hadn't run that way. She used the wayfinder to find that direction, though its position from where the bench was would have let her make a close guess. She thought that little cove in the forest was next to a little storage building used by the fletcher to dry wood, which would let her judge if she came out in the right spot. The whole exercise had taken less time than the climb to the top of that tree would have.

Elga gathered her things back into her pack and walked in the direction she had chosen.

She came out of the trees farther from the building than she had hoped, but still reasonably close to the shortest way out, so she was fairly pleased with her decisions. She pulled out the fourth envelope Mama Electra had given her and read the instructions: Put away your wayfinder. Make your way to the next location without using it.

Landmarks and headings followed, and Elga had to think for about 75 heartbeats before she figured out how she would do this. Then, she set out. She knew where Bosona stood in the sky compared to the ground at different times of day, so she could use that to determine directions for a while.

The instructions led her away from town for a couple of hours along the road, across a stream, through a copse of trees, and up a low hill, where she found the house of an old man who kept an orchard. She had never been out here and hadn't heard enough about this orchard to have been able to find it without directions. She knocked on the hatch.

The old man came around the side of the house and called, "I'm over here."

Elga turned and walked to the corner of the house before greeting him, "Alwa, elder. Are you Camar-se?"

"That's me."

"I have a package for you from my grandmother, Electra."

"Oh? I wonder what she's sent me, this time."

Elga pulled the package out of her pack and handed it to him. Then, she nodded and turned to go.

"You don't want to see what it is?"

"It is your package, elder. It is not my place to ask what is in it."

He said, "Oh, come and see. I'm sure it's not a secret."

She said, "As you will, elder."

He sat down on the step in front of his hatch. He tore the paper open and lifted the lid from the box. Inside was a packet of seeds. He looked at them for a moment and said, "Thank her for me. These must have been hard to get."

Elga thought there was something special about the seeds to Camar, but she didn't know what it was, and she didn't feel she should ask. She said, " I will, elder."

She turned again and left.

--Posted on 2023/05/23

23. The Girl and the Next Job

As soon as Elga arrived at her grandmother's house, she was seated at the table and given a small plate with a few cookies on it. She munched on them while her grandmother started water for the tea. She could barely contain her excitement about deciding on a new job trial.

"Now, then," said Mama Electra, "Let me hear all about your outing."

Elga swallowed a bite of cookie and said, "I don't know what you want to hear. It went better than I thought it would, and I didn't go far. I'm sure you've seen everything I did."

Electra smiled and said, "Why don't you just start at the beginning?

"What did you do when you left here?"

Elga settled herself in her chair and thought about the previous two days. She said, "I went to the forest and followed your instructions to reach the thinking spot."

When she finished learning candles, she could make tapers and pillars and braids.

Electra said, "How many plants did you identify on your way there?"

Plants? She wasn't sure. She said, "More than I'd expected. Maybe a hand or two of them."

"What happened at the meadow?"

"I thought about the things you said to consider. I ate some of my food. Then, I opened the second envelope and left."

She almost blurted out that she'd decided to try chandlery, but she stopped herself. She knew that it would be rude to change the subject before her mother's mother had been satisfied about this one.

Electra asked, "Where did you go next?"

"Your instructions led me to a bench by some bushes."

She wondered what secrets she would learn about wicks. Not that they were particularly secretive, but most people didn't think to ask anything about them.

"What happened next?"

Elga said, "I had to figure out how to make my way out without landmarks. I pictured my path and the shape of the forest, calculated the angle, and walked out."

She knew how to calculate angles easily, because her mother had drilled her on those procedures for weeks. Was there much calculating involved in making candles?

"Did you use the wayfinder the whole time?"

"No, Mama Electra! I obeyed you. I found the orchard without it."

If you mixed fruit with wax, would it make a candle that smelled like fruit, or did they have to do something different with them?

Electra asked, "How did you come home from there?"

"I used the wayfinder to come straight back."

I can hardly wait to tell you.

"What did you like most about this?"

Elga spoke quickly, without really thinking about it: "The scents of the ground cover and the late flowers in the meadow."

"What did you like least about this?"

"I was scared in the forest at night."

Electra nodded and asked, "What skills did you use on this outing?"

Skills? Elga said, "Following directions? Reading a wayfinder?"

She longed to tell of her decision. She wriggled a little in her chair. Electra stood up and checked on the water by putting her hand near the pot for a few seconds.

"So, Elga, what have you decided?"

Elga blurted out, "I'm going to ask for a trial with the master chandler!"

Electra smiled and said, "That's nice."

--Posted on 2023/05/23

24. The Girl and the Call

Finally free of her grandmother's questions, Elga walked quickly down the path toward the village. She was sure of her path for the first time since coming out of the river. She would be a valuable member of the village and a strong adult who knew whom she was and what she needed to do each day.

She would train to be a chandler.

Soon, she stood in the very spot where she had gotten distracted while playing hoops a few years earlier. But she didn't stand there long. Itari was packing away the remnants of her lunch, and Elga regretted not getting more than a little snack at her grandmother's house.

She waited until Itari seemed done with her lunch items and then stepped forward.

"Itari-dona, I am Elgafrida Beckfar. I wish to apply for a trial in your profession. I know a lot about flowers, I'm good at knots, and I'm a hard worker. Please take me on for a trial, Master Chandler."

Itari looked her up and down and frowned. She said, "I don't need another apprentice. You would just be in the way."

Elga's mouth dropped open. In the way, like when she was a child? Not just no, she was a girl in the way. It wasn't fair. She had grown so much. She took a breath to say so, but the master chandler must have seen it, because she jumped in ahead of her words with a reply.

"My mind is made up, Elga. I don't want a clumsy, stupid, ugly girl who denies the gods of our village as my apprentice."

Elga took a step back and lifted her elbow as though it were a shield, as though it could protect her from the hurt of the harsh words that Itari shot at her.

She hadn't thought this woman who was always surrounded by sweet, comforting fragrances could be this cruel. She also hadn't expected her to have heard about the gods. Elga had barely figured for herself that all six gods were not real. Had the eldest told her? And why, even if she had the capacity for this cruelty, was she slinging it at Elga?

And then it hit her.

Every shrine had a stick of incense or a few stubs of candle wax from fragrant candles, both sold by the chandlers. Denying the gods was a personal insult and danger to Itari's life, so she pierced Elga with her sharpest words.

Even knowing this, they hurt. Even knowing that going to try for a profession that depended for part of its money on the belief in the gods had been stupid, they hurt. Itari thought she was stupid and ugly. Did everyone think this? A look of sadness flicked across Itari's face, but she hardened it into indifference and turned away to direct her apprentice and her journeyman to their tasks.

Elga walked out of the candle yard and wandered up the lane toward her house. There in the lane, she stopped at the first intersection. She didn't know where to go. She felt stupid. She felt clumsy. She felt ugly. How could she have not known the chandler would be more linked to the gods than most? How could she have expected to be welcomed to a profession just because she wanted it?


She spun, surprised by the voice, thinking immediately that she was in someone's way. Again. She found one of the eldest of the village standing at the side of the lane.

"Eldest?" she said.

"I am eldest Laress, Elga. Could you come with me for a few minutes so I could ask you a few questions?"

"Of course, Eldest Laress."

He led her to the green near the village chief's house and sat at one of the tables. She sat on the table's other bench.

"The eldest have asked me, Elga, to check on you and see how you are doing with your place in the village. What have you been doing since we called you into the village?"

Did Eldest Laress think she was stupid? The eldest felt she needed extra guidance. Elga held onto the bench and said, "I visited a bunch of masters; the shoemaker, the head of tally, the tailor, the fletcher, and the sage. I did trials with Ansa Weaver, Virgil Shepherd, Rava Grower, and Pega Thatcher. I have just been rejected for a trial with the chandler. Is that what you mean?"

Laress scratched his cheek with one fingernail and said uncomfortably, "Not exactly. I'm asking about what you have been doing with the children."

Did Eldest Laress think she was ugly? Was that why he wouldn't look right at her? She tried to push the thought away and focus on the question. It was one she had practiced, but all the answers she had rehearsed would not come when she called for them. What use would they be, if everyone thought she was stupid and ugly?

Elga forced herself to let go of the bench and look at him as though confused. It wasn't hard, because though she had an idea of where he was going, she honestly didn't know how to answer him. What had she meant to say? She rubbed her nose and tried to order her thoughts, telling him what she thought might make him happy. She said, "Uh, I went for a hike with a few of the children the other day. Do you mean that? Is it forbidden?"

"I'm just trying to get a correct count of things."

Elga hung her head but said nothing. Was the eldest on the same quest she was? Had she pushed him off the path by lying to him? He added, "I will find it. As Bosona's eye is on all of us, mine is on this village."

Did Eldest Laress think she was clumsy? Could he see into her heart? Elga was still thinking about these questions, but what she said was, "I have seen Bosona's eye."

"Of course you have. He stands near the sky, watching us."

That didn't sound like he knew her heart. Nor did it sound like he was seeking the path she was. Her mind was still picking that apart while her mouth said, "I dont mean looking at the sky. I saw that the eye of Bosona—"

Elga stopped, and her eyes grew wide. What had she meant to say? She had let herself get distracted by his motives and stopped watching for where her words were going.

Laress asked, "What about his eye?"

Elga said, "I'm sorry, eldest. I didn't mean anything. Give it no thought."

"Elga, I think you should tell me what you started to say. What about Bosona's eye?"

"It's nothing, Eldest," Elga said, waving her hand in front of her face. Get back to the things you decided to say. What were they?

Laress glared at her and said, "I'm hearing disturbing rumors. How can I clear them away, if you won't answer questions? Tell me, child."

Faced with this direct request, Elga cringed, but she said, "Since you ask, Eldest Laress-se, I saw that the dot in the sky is a ball of fire, not an eye."

"But what of Bosona? How could his eye be fire?"

She was suddenly frustrated. "It's not anyone's eye. It's just another star."

"How can this be?"

She let her eyes fill with tears. She whispered, "There is no Bosona."

Laress didn't seem to hear her. With a visible change, he said, "The lads say on your little hike, you told them the reason Ganus doesn't blink is that he's a group of statues."

Elga looked at her feet.

"Is this what happened, or did they lie to me?"

Was he asking her to turn back to the gods? Was he giving her a chance to be part of the village? She couldn't. She could not say her friends had lied, giving for herself a wrong count. She said, "It is what I said. Statues don't blink."

The tears rolled down her cheeks.

Laress took a hissing breath in. Elga examined her knees. Laress stood up and said, "I will confer with the rest of the eldest. Go home and stay there. You will not do another trial until this matter is settled."

Elga stood up and walked down the lane.

--Posted on 2023/06/06

25. The Girl and the Home She Had

Elga rose early the next morning, but no one came in the morning to give her the results of the deliberations of the eldest. She filled the time by cleaning her room, putting in chests the things she didn't think she would need soon, making a box for things she no longer wanted, putting most of her toys in it, and generally tidying the room. Ordinarily, a young adult would do this upon being accepted as an apprentice in their new job, but Elga saw no need to put this task beyond the avilable time she had on this day.

When she finished with her room, it almost looked ready for a new occupant.

Was there really so little that she saw herself using on a regular basis? If she had already had a job, her new tools would have taken the place of some of the things Elga had removed, which was probably why the traditions set that task for after a job was started, but even so, she thought the room looked stark— even empty.

With a sigh, Elga shut her room and carried the box to the front step. Then, she started cleaning the rest of the house.

"Why are you home?" her mother asked.

"I told you that last night, Ma, the eldest told me to stay home," she said patiently and respectfully.

"And is my house dirty, that you feel you must clean it?" her mother said peevishly.

"No, Ma. I was only trying to fill the time and be useful."

"If you want to be useful, you should honor the gods."

Elga set her rag on the corner of the table and said, "I don't think my beliefs make being useful in the village impossible."

"Can't you smooth it out? Tell them you were mistaken? Tell them you will do better? Tell them you will honor the gods? You could have done that this morning, probably."

"Ma, I did not wrong someone. I told the correct count, as I saw it."

"You don't have to say everything you believe. You can promise to pretend to believe, to keep that to yourself."

"Ma, this isn't going to go away. It's something people are going to ask me about."

"Elga, I just don't understand how you let this happen. I don't understand why you told those people about this nonsense."

You don't understand because you don't want to understand. You don't want to understand anyone who doesn't agree with you, Elga wanted to say.

But she didn't say that.

She couldn't bring herself to a place where she could stand and say that to her mother, even though her people believed that a girl who had been through the river was fully a woman and the equal of any woman in the village. She honored her mother, but she also feared speaking up to her face. Even if she was wrong. Even if Elga had known for years that she was wrong and sought to silence those who told her any count that disagreed with hers.

"Elga, this doesn't make any sense! You have to revise what you said. You have to tell them that you will work with the village and abandon this foolish notion that you've somehow learned the gods don't exist. You have to."

"Ma, I cannot tell them that. I don't ask for anyone to believe as I do, but if someone asks, how can I say what I know is not?"

Her mother put her hand on her shoulder and said, "You look them in the eye. You remember that your elders know bettert than you, because we've been around longer. And you say in your heart that you are a foolish girl. Then, you say what is, not what you imagine."

Elga shook her head.

"Elga, you must! You will be thrown out of the village and die in the wild places, if you don't do what everyone around you knows is right."

"Even if I die, Ma, I cannot go along with a wrong count."

"How can you do this to your poor mother? You will tear my heart out with your stubborn foolishness! You'll waste all the work I put into raising you, dead in the wild places."

Elga took a breath to try to calm her mother and regain her footing, but there came a knock at the hatch, and she let the breath out without saying anything.

When her mother opened the hatch, Eldest Mimos stood on the doorstep, leaning on his staff and looking appraisingly at the toys in the box beside him.

"Eldest Mimos-se?"

He looked up and said, "Ah! Segna, I have a word to speak to your daughter."

"My daughter went into the river."

"Yes, yes. I'm sorry. I have a word to speak to Elgafrida. Is she here?"

"Elgafrida is here," she said, waving her hand at Elga.

The eldest stepped into the room and approached Elga. He said in a frail but slightly booming voice, "Elgafrida Mariah Chessmean Beckfar, daughter of the village, you have been summoned to a meeting of the masters of Almodar, to be held at sundown tomorrow, in the house of village chief Mayor Prika. You will give an accounting of yourself, and the village masters and elders will discuss your place in this village. Do you understand this summons?"

"Yes, Eldest Mimos-se. I will attend and give an accounting of myself," Elga said.

Mimos nodded. Then, he turned sharply and stabbed the floor with his staff as he began to walk to the hatch. He swept through the opening and walked up the lane. Her mother closed the hatch.

"A full council! Elga, you've really put your foot in it. They'll throw you out of the village! I can't believe you would do this to your family."

Elga nodded and turned away, going to her room to sit on her cot and weep in private.

--Posted on 2023/06/20

26. The Girl is Accused

Elga walked up the lane to village chief Mayor Prika's house and looked across the little yard to the big windows of the common room. The village chief's house was a massive thing, looming over the ones around it, because almost all of them were small buildings with only three or four rooms on a level. The needs of the chief's job required several rooms on the ground floor in addition to the family's living space.

Elga stepped along the walkway to the large, wide hatch into the common room. This was the same room where she had listened to the minstrels share stories those years ago, but it looked different now, even where it was still similar. She stepped across the threshold and looked around.

Where there had then been a group of tables covered with foods of all kinds, they now held the hands and papers of the eldest, who sat in a gloomy line. The hatches to the garden, where the villagers who had not been fortunate enough to win a place in the common room could stand and listen, were shut and dogged instead of open. The hearth that had held a merry little fire that evening no sat dark and silent. And the little platform where the minstrels had stood to play and sing held only a single chair surrounded by a low railing. A chair for Elga. An examination box.

She crossed the room and stood by the chair, noticing that even the one thing that was the same, the chairs, looked different. As near as could be in the same positions, instead of lottery winners who could hear the minstrels, they held the leaders and elders of the village, who must hear that Elga was unworthy to be part of their lives for daring to question the gods. She sat down and looked at the eldest.

Ima stood up with great effort and said, "Elgafrida Mariah Chessmean Beckfar, daughter of the village, I have been told of your..." She trailed off, perhaps lost in the wording of a different ritual. The eldest next to her, Mimos, whispered to her, and she said, "your need for examination. You are accused of behavior unfitting to a woman of our village! Eldest Laress, if you would be so kind."

Elga dreaded having all this recounted, but she tried not to show it. Instead, she looked at the gathered leaders. Her mother was among them; As the wife of an herbalist, she had the right to be there. Her mother's mother was not, and Elga felt betrayed. She was old enough to sit with the elders of the village, surely.

"Thank you, Ima-dono. Five days ago, it was on Tyday, I passed a group of the lads as they played, and I overheard them arguing about Ganus, and one of their number said that he was only a bunch of statues, if you can imagine a thing like that in our village." Laress seemed inclined to go on in this lane, but at a flat glance from the next senior eldest, he moved on.

"I asked the boys about their comments and was told that they heard it from one Lio, another lad. When I found him, he said he had gotten the idea from a young woman, Miss Elgafrida.

"Not wanting to believe it, I located the young woman and asked to speak with her. Although I learned that she had not spoken of her deviant beliefs to her master, I needed to investigate—" he cut off at another flat stare, from Mimos, this time.

Elga bit her lower lip. He sounded angry. He probably thought she was stupid.

He collected himself and said, "That was on Pakday. I called to her, but an accident interfered, and I was unable to discuss the matter."

An accident he had caused. Elga bit her lip again, this time in anger at the way he phrased things. It wasn't her fault he had snuck up on her and called her down in a dangerous way.

He continued, "When I went to her house the next morning, I learned that she was away. I can only say that it seemed she was avoi—" he cut himself off again, looking at the other eldest, and continued calmly, "when I found her again, it was Andinday already, but she agreed to speak to me. I asked her what she had been doing, and she focused on her work, listing off the jobs she had tried. I guided her, asking what she had done with the children. She played innocent, talking about a hike. I told her I was watching, and she claimed to have seen the eye of Bosona. Then, she claimed it was nothing but a ball of fire, or a star, or some other nonsense. I don't think she could decide."

Elga gripped the sides of her chair to keep from leaping out of it at him. That was so unfair!

Laress said, "And she said Bosona didn't exist."

Elga let go of the chair and sunk down a little. She hadn't meant to say that part to him, and she knew how the others might view it.

Laress said, "I asked her kindlt about what she had said to the lads, and she admitted that she had told them Ganus was only statues."

Elga felt her eyes burning. Laress was saying she had intentionally misled him. He was putting her actions and words into the worst tone of voice, and he was staying just close enough to the right count that she could not say he was wrong. She had been trying not to appear rebellious and counter-social.

Laress said, "I told her to go home, and I brought what I found to the eldest. Thank you, Ima-dono."

He sat down.

Ima said, "Is this accounting accurate, Elgafrida?"

Elga stood and said, "It is close enough that I cannot make a big noise about the differences, Ima-dono. Yet I state that my beliefs are only my own, and I ask no one to share them."

Mimos said, "That does not mean they are not disruptive, young woman. We must see if there is a place for you here."

--Posted on 2023/07/04

27. The Girl is Rejected

Elga took a deep breath and sat down to wait.

Eldest Aless, youngest of the five, stood and called, "Abek Shirer?"

Abek rose from his seat and said, "I have an apprentice and don't need another."

Elga didn't feel bad about that one. Not only did she have no interest in the job, she had known he was taken, and this had been only a formality. Besides, his job was to keep peace in the village, and she was a disruption.

"Prika Mayor?" Aless called.

She said, "I need no helper, and I don't think the village would want a chief in conflict with the gods."

Elga wasn't surprised by this, either. The village chief's job was one of soothing a variety of interests, and the village chief was very careful with her words.

"Vela Tallymaker?" Aless called.

Vela said, "Looking at the jobs she tried, I think she is not well suited to the Office of Tallies."

An excuse? Elga was startled by that. It seemed ironic coming from the keepers of tally. She had thought Vela would be blunt and honest. It was an interesting answer, she thought.

Aless called, "Pega Thatcher?"

Pega stood up and said, "She is too clumsy to be on my roof."

She thinks I'm stupid, Elga thought. It was only a momentary distraction.

"Ansa Weaver?"

Ansa said, "Left trial. No return."

Elga tried not to be hurt by that, since she had said it without anger, but it was hard. Leaving a trial didn't usually mean the career was abandoned. Young adults often returned to an earlier trial for their final choice. But it was her choice to reject any candidate, even if it wasn't normally done.

"Virgil Shepherd?"

He stood and addressed Elga, saying, "Have you changed your mind about the requirements of herding?"

He was giving her a very kind offer, a way to stay with his group. But she couldn't kill an animal regularly, not being hungry in the moment. She said, "No, master shepherd," and he sat down, saying nothing else. His eyes stayed on her, as they had through most of the evening, watching compassionately.

"Rava Grower?"

Rava said, "Rame is an important part of our work. I won't have a woman who defies her working for me."

Elga had expected that, too. She didn't see that it mattered to the work, but Rava seemed to think it did. Again, she was within her prerogative to make that choice about an apprentice.

"Olo Shoemaker?"

He said, "I'm not looking for an apprentice."

Elga wasn't sure how he felt about her, but she wished he had been clear, even if he thought she was ugly or stupid, like some of the others.

It went on like that, through all of the masters and elders— who could speak for her as a companion for a short time. If one of them took her for companionship, perhaps this could blow over, and she could start a career with one of those who hated her right now. Then again, maybe not. Even her own mother refused to speak up for her. Regardless of that possibility, each one of the masters and elders had an excuse or a reason to turn her away. They were making their wishes clear. They did not want Elga, this girl who would not lie about her beliefs, in their midst. They wanted Elga to be out of their village. They did not want a girl who upset their habits. Only the last two masters who were asked said they were open to having her, though they also expressed doubts: The physicker and the witch.

Aless said, "We have heard from the assembled masters and elders. Three places have been found for you among them. Does one of these suit you, Elgafrida Mariah Chessmean Beckfar, daughter of Keid, son of Khab?"

Elga thought about them. She had no problem with the physicker as a person, but she thought that she could no more work on wounds than she could kill animals for someone else's meat. And she could not be a witch's apprentice, plying the trade of the gods while believing them a lie.

She said, "No, Eldest Aless. I cannot take one of these jobs."

--Posted on 2023/07/18

Part Four - The Girl and the Right Count

28. The Girl is Summarized

"Then I see no place for you, here, Elgafrida," Aless said.

He let the observation hang in the air. Elga shrank down in her chair. She was a girl in the way. Nothing more than a girl in the way of everyone and everything in the village.

Aless took a deep breath and said, "As the gathered elders and masters have found no place for you," he paused again in what Elga thought was too much dramatic effect, but in that pause, the hatch to the path from the lane swung open, and Mama Electra strode in to the room, leaning on her staff. She had come! She didn't forget Elga. Elga smiled weakly, then frowned. She had arrived just in time to see Elga thrown out of the village.

Electra said, "I'm very sorry for being late. I had trouble with the path down from the hills. Have I missed much?"

Aless seemed incensed. He said, "Electra Grocerwidow, you have missed the entire proceedings."

"You judged her already?" Electra asked with a frown.

Elga almost started crying again. Did her grandmother not care any more for her than that? She had thought her grandmother had come to support her, or at least to cry that she was being driven out.

Laress said stiffly, "In fact, we have not, but it is moments away."

Electra smiled and said, "Then I hope you will indulge an old woman with a few moments of reflection."

Laress turned crimson and said, "You are younger than I am. But I suppose we may hear your questions and thoughts, however little they may change things at this point.

"I have recounted my investigation for the gathering."

Elga thought he seemed less composed as he spoke, taken out of the normal pattern.

"Five days ago, on Tyday, I overheard some lads argue about our great protector, Ganus. One even said that Ganus was a bunch of statues. When asked, they said Lio, another boy, said it. I asked him, and he said Elgafrida had told him this nonsense. I went to speak with her, but she eluded my questions by falling off a roof. The next day, Washday, she was nowhere to be found in the village. I cornered her the next day, and I asked her what she had been doing. She listed jobs she had tried. I guided her by asking about the children, and she claimed to have only gone on a hike with them.

"I said I was watching, and she said she had seen the eye of Bosona. Haven't we all seen him in the sky, watching over us? But she said his eye was a ball of fire and other nonsense! She claimed Bosona doesn't even exist; I asked her directly about what the boy said, and she said Ganus is only statues! I told her to go home and wait, while I brought the matter to the eldest. She admits that every word of this is true.

"Every one of the elders and masters, except three, has rejected her and her ideas. And she has not accepted a place with any of those who would turn a blind eye to her wild ideas about the gods of Almodar."

Electra frowned at Laress, but then she smiled and said, "I see. We have heared a number of things about her, but what have we heard from her?"

Laress turned slightly purple and said, "Electra, this is not a time to hear the ravings of someone who has rejected the ways of our village."

Aless stood and put his hand on Laress's shoulder, and he sat down. Aless said, "At this point, I see no place for her in the village, Electra Grocerwidow. No master will have her."

"Be that as it may," Electra said, "I do have some questions."

Aless bobbed his head and then sat down.

Electra asked, "Elga, is this really so? Do you wholely reject the ways of our village?"

Elga said, "No, Mama Electra. I don't reject our people's ways. I only question the gods we worship. I think the rest of our ways are valid and beautiful."

Electra said, "I want to hear your thoughts on the people of our village."

Why are you asking me this, grandmother? Elga thought. I don't want to think about the people who rejected me. They turned away from me and spoke for casting me out. Why should we talk about them?

Electra asked, "What can you tell me about Ansa Weaver?"

Elga looked at her grandmother with a frown, but after a moment, she said, "Ansa-se is a kind woman who works to nurture her apprentices and to keep their work from being wasted. I enjoyed my trial with her, even if I was unsure the weaving trade was my place."

Electra said, "Tell me about Virgil Herder."

"The master herder was kind to me. Even after I left his trial, he looked after my welfare. I think the way he requires every herder to do every part of the work is a little too rigid; that could be left for those who might become a master in the near future. However, he is a good teacher and a man who cares deeply about the village. If I did not have to kill, I would go back to herding."

"Tell me about Rava Grower," Electra said.

This isn't fair, Mama! Elga thought. They will hate me more after I've said these things, and they will throw me out. What if I make them so angry they beat me? They already think I'm ugly and stupid. Why are you doing this? Elga blinked back tears and answered: "Rava-se is rigid and impatient. She does not react calmly to questions and other ideas. And she forces her workers to do worship to Rame, never asking what they think of the sessions. I think this is wrong, because those are the only times she mentions the gods she forces on them."

"Tell me about Pega Thatcher," Electra said.

Elga let her eyes plead with her grandmother. How can you ask me to judge my village? But her grandmother gazed back at her, patient and impassive. Waiting.

Elga dropped her eyes and said, "I was doing well with her trial, and I thought Pega-se liked me. But she is a woman hasty in judgment, calling me clumsy after a single moment of distraction lead to a misstep, even though my recovery was as graceful as possible."

Electra asked, "Did you try with any other profession master?"

"I asked Itari Chandler for a trial, but she refused me harshly."

"What did she say?"

Elga glanced up at her grandmother quickly. Surely she wouldn't make Elga repeat that. No, looking at her eyes, calm and firm, Elga knew that she would. So Elga said, "She called me stupid, ugly, and clumsy, and she said she didn't want a girl who denies the gods as her apprentice."

And now everyone thinks I'm clumsy, stupid, and ugly.

Electra looked at her with a curious expression and asked, "Was there no other master you tried?"

"No, Mama. I've failed at becoming a member of this village. They will send me out with nothing, because I'm nothing but a girl in the way of their comfortable beliefs."

Even as she said it, she felt horrible for judging them so harshly. Some of them had been kind and even offered her a place, but she could not bend. The questions had been asked, and she would not lie. And she was also getting caught up in the emotions of her words.

Elga continued, "They hardly honor their gods, but they defend their claims to faith in them, so much that they cannot allow someone to not believe. It would have been different if they honored the Six Gods and spoke of them daily, but I think they just want others to think they are honoring of the Six Gods, when they are not. For that, they say I am in the way and cannot be allowed to stay."

Elga hung her head again, feeling completely defeated, and said, "I would not ask any of them to share my beliefs, but that is not to their likings. So I see that I must go."

--Posted on 2023/08/01

29. The Girl is Surprised

Aless stood up and said, "Electra Grocerwidow, this has gone on long enough. You have heard all that we have. The girl herself admits that she has no place with any master in this village. She will have to be exiled. Surely, you admit to this?"

Electra squared her shoulders and said firmly, "Eldest Aless, your words have been heard, and I listen to your wisdom, but she has said things that are not true, though I do not doubt she is unaware of her errors.

"After all, she has been completely forthright on this seat of examination. Because of her errors, your conclusion is completely incorrect."

Several of the leaders gasped. Although her tone and words were respectful, her statement was out of the ordinary respect. Everyone was quiet until Mimos asked, "Electra-ku, what did she say that was inaccurate?"

Elga lifted her head a little. She could hardly believe what she was hearing. Her grandmother was standing up to the eldest, and an eldest used the ku ending on her name, a show of great respect from an elder to a younger.

Electra said, "She did a trial with one other master. That master has not rendered a verdict in this assembly."

Laress rose from his seat as though it were scalding hot and said, "We have heard from all the leaders!"

Electra said, "You have not heard from me."

Laress was indignant, letting his lips form a sneer. He asked scornfully, "You?"

But Ima was nodding in recognition and said, "Let her speak. Electra, stop being dramatic. Tell your position to those younger than me."

Electra said, "Elders and leaders, before I married Aryus Grocer and took over the storehouse of our village's produce, I was Almodar's master explorer, and I never resigned that position, though none of the children have sought to apprentice to me in many, many years."

Elga's mouth dropped open and hung that way for a full hundred heartbeats as a stir of voices rolled through the room. Electra headed a profession and didn't tell her? Elga felt hurt at the secret her grandmother had kept her entire life.

Mimos held up her hands until the room quieted. Then, she said, "Then, let us hear your verdict for the village assembly."

Electra said, "I will render my verdict when I have done an examination of her professional skills. It will not take long," she looked at Laress to quiet him, as he had been on the point of standing again to object, "happily, for she has done a trial already that will demonstrate her well enough. Laress-se has attested to the performance of this trial."

Laress glowered for a moment before the sense of this occurred to him. He leaned back in his chair.

Electra said, "Elga, answer these questions."

Elga straightened in her chair, determined to give thoughtful answers.

"What did you do when you left my house on Tyday?"

Elga decided to be thorough. She said, "I went to the edge of the forest. It took me a long time to gather the courage to enter that place unknown to me. Once I did, I found satisfaction in finding each landmark and turning to the next one. I saw plants and animals I recognized and was pleased with how much I didn't even realize I knew.

"When it got dark, I made a pile of stones and marked a tree to ensure I could start in the correct direction in the morning. I reached the meadow about two hours after daybreak."

"How many plants did you identify on the way there?"

Elga thought back, visualizing the plants to help her remember, then said, "I saw 15 plants I recognized: blackberry, creepfruit, wisteria, purrescarc, kingfoil, beauty berry, wild pumpkin, scrub oak, turkey oak, pine, smilax, nettle, false dandelion, puffball, and near mint. I also saw lizards, birds, and a small furyy critter that I didn't see clearly."

"What happened at the meadow?"

Elga realized these were the same questions she'd answered a few days earlier, and she was glad she was giving them more thought and answering them more seriously. She said, "I looked around the place and found a soft spot to sit. It was a large patch of near mint with some oxalis and footsoft growing in its midst. I sat down and considered my next job and the questions the eldest might have for me. I decided I wanted to make candles. And I thought about how my attitude toward the forest had changed. Then, I went over my answers, rehearsing them until I was comfortable. Not that I remembered them when I had to face the questions. Everything I practiced left my head. But I did try to come up with concise ones that were respectful. I honor our village even though I don't follow the Six Gods."

Elga remembered the next question, so she continued: "After that, I followed my next instructions to the stone arch bench. The wayfinder you loaned me made following these instructions easy."

Electra smiled faintly and asked, "What happened next?"

"I sat on the bench and ordered the world within my thoughts. You may not agree with my conclusions, but you don't have to. They're mine. I realize I can't judge reality for anyone else, but every person has the choice to decide for himself what he believes, and because no one can judge for another, every man and woman must decide this for himself. I did what I must do. I am here because others do not think I have that choice, but I defend that choice for everyone here. But that isn't what you asked. When I knew what I believed to be a correct count, I opened my next instructions. They contained no landmarks. I had to find my way to the edge of the forest. I thought of three ways to find my way out: Run until I came out, climb to see which way was closest, or draw a map and chart my path, then look at the edge closest. I chose the last, and I was off by only a little."

Electra asked, "Did you use the wayfinder the whole time?"

"I did not, master explorer. The next set of instructions after that one forbid it, so I used the position of Bosona and the landmarks in the instructions to find an orchard to the anor of the village."

"How did you come home from there?"

Elga smiled at that. She said, "I again drew out my path. Then, choosing a place I knew I could cross the river, where I knew I would not have to recross it twice more, I set my heading. When I got to the river and crossed, I headed straight for your house. This took me back through the forest, but I knew how to manage that, now."

As Elga described these answers, the tension of the day started to leave her shoulders, and she grew ever so slightly more comfortable with her grandmother's questions, the people watching her, and the events of the recent days. She was able to do much more now than she had been last year. This could be okay.

Electra asked, "What did you like most about this?"

"The sense of accomplishment that I could navigate through the woods on my own. I'd been afraid of the unknowns in the forest for so long, and I went in and came out without getting lost."

"What skills did you use on this outing?"

"I used orienteering, plane geometry, herbalism, trailmarking, logic, cartography, celestial navigation, civic navigation, reading, sociology, and camping."

Electra said, "You are all witnesses of my thorough examination of this candidate for explorer apprentice. You can plainly see that my decisions are not based solely on nepotism or familial affection. This candidate is a fine one, able to answer questions candidly and report comprehensively and comprehensibly. As all gathered are witness of these facts, I, Electra Bethany Oswald Chessmean, elder of Almodar and village master of explorers, state before you all that Elgafrida Daughterkeid Sonkhab is a fit apprentice and has a place in my guild. She is fit to travel the world and bring back to this village both reports and exotic wares for our benefit.

"So, Elga, what have you decided? Will you apprentice to me?"

This question was not part of the ordinary apprenticeship process, but Elga had never formally applied to this. The eldest had sort of asked it on her behalf as part of the survey of masters, but Elga had not made the request. So the choice was hers last rather than the master explorer's. She thought about it for a long moment. Did she really want to be an explorer instead of a pariah? She didn't have to take the position. She now knew that she was capable of travelling on her own, and she could travel to a distant village to take up another trade. She could go to a place where herding was split between those caring for the animals and those managing meat supply and herd size. She could go elsewhere and try thatching again. She could become a chandler where her beliefs were not known. Or even a trade her village was too small to support, like those found in the large towns. But she could also follow her grandmother in exploration. The choice was hers, and she was not limited to a bad one and a worse.

So, what did she want? What was her place? Did she want one of those other choices over the horizon? Or did she want to be a member of this village, if only nominally? As her grandmother waited, she realized that she did want the life of an explorer. Though other trades were interesting to her, none of them had made her feel as good as the trial in the woods had.

Elga said, "Master Explorer, I will be your apprentice."

Laress rose and said, "So, girl, you have found a place. But I say you are still disruptive. Therefore, I propose to the eldest that your first trip must be for three years, and you must leave within one full day."

Mimos said, "That is acceptable."

The other eldest nodded slightly, but Ima shook her head. She said, "If Electra deems her worthy of the rank of journeyman, which she is not required to do before two full moons are seen by her sworn apprentice, the maximum required journey is for one full year.

"Electra Explorer, this is our judgment: Elga's first trip must be no less than one year, and we strongly recommend to you preparation for journeyman status as quickly as is practicable. Do you accept this judgment?"

Electra said sourly, "Ima-se, if I were any other master, she would be permitted to carry out her trade here; she would not have to leave, at all." She softened her tone and continued, "But I will prepare her and send her out at the first opportunity. I accept this judgment on her behalf."

Elga didn't like this ruling, and if it had been given an hour previous, she would have argued against it. But Electra was now her master. She had made the choice in front of witnesses, even if she hadn't formally sworn it, yet. So she had to accept it as her master had chosen. She had finally found her place in the village outside of the village. She would no longer be in the way. And she suddenly found in her heart that this path pleased her just fine.

--Posted on 2023/08/15

30. The Girl and the Master

Elga followed her grandmother's slow pace up the path to her house. The two of them had been the first to leave the council and the only ones for several minutes after. Some apprentices stayed with their own parents, but with the time constraints, they had both felt Prentice Elga should stay at Electra Explorer's house, and they had headed in that direction without needing to discuss it.

As they went, Electra pointed to plants Elga knew well from years of walking this trail, but she told Elga things about them she had never known. When they came into view of the cabin, Electra pointed to the flag line, which had a number of flags strung along it, faintly visible by the light of Sonaoum, now almost full. Elga's mother would have said it meant that Bosona slept lightly tonight, but Elga wondered now why the big moongot bigger and smaller. She dragged her attention back to the flags, asking, "What do they mean, Master Electra?"

Electra said, "I feel silly for setting them this evening. I think you can barely see them, but the three at the top are your name. See? Elf, Lu, Gi: Elga.

"Then, ME, PLEASURE, HONOR, YOU: I am proud of you. Make sense?"

Elga felt a glow in her belly. Mama Electra had put these up not knowing how the meeting would go. She said, "Yes, Mama, but how do you know this?"

"My master taught me. I taught your mother. It's how I let her know I'm in fair health and how she knew where you were when you went into the woods. I knew you'd be scared, but she didn't need to be. I will teach you, too."

They went into the house and lit lamps. Electra showed her the flags for the 24 letters of the alphabet, along with those for common words.

Electra said, "It is more common in Akoba than around here, but there is a place on the anor road with a watchtower, and it has a set of flags. It is outside the village, so if you have word for me, you can leave it there, and I will see it."

Then, Electra put the flags away and began telling her about the best way to approach a strange village, the first questions she advised Elga to ask strangers, and things to look for in people's faces when dealing with them.

Electra asked, "Do you recall a few days ago, how you took the count of your own words?"

"Yes, Master Electra," Elga said. She had to make an effort to remember to call her by her title instead of her family name.

Electra said, "You can use this same method to weigh the words of others. You should always think about the count with merchants, for they certainly do. And usually for the words of those you eat with, It's the difference between accurate information and wild rumors.

"I think the best town for you to visit first is Hartsel. It's about two or three days' travel from here."

She told Elga what she could remember about the town, but after a short time, she said it was time to sleep.

In the morning, Electra led Elga out into the hills to teach her, and they gathered food using some of the information in the lesson. She also showed Elga a number of useful knots: one for keeping a line taut, one for lifting something without constricting it, one for dragging logs, and a few others. Elga picked them up quickly, but she hoped she could remember them when she needed them. She taught Elga how to cleanse water for drinking, how to build and tend a fire, and how to bind a wound. Elga drank up the knowledge like a dry sponge, eagerly trying to memorize every detail.

After noon, Electra taught her about blazing, making traps, and skinning. She talked about plants that were useful to travelers, stones that could do more than hold down the edge of a sheet, and how listening to animals could tell you when someone else was near. They talked about ways to build shelters, how to conduct negotiations in a market or in rural places, and different ways to coordinate movements with others. Electra also told her some tricks for determining directions without a wayfinder.

After dinner, the pair sat at the table, listening to the sounds of the night outside. Finally, Elga said, "Mama Electra, I would like to hear about your master. Who was it? How did you learn so many things? Did it take long?"

Electra sighed and said, "My master was an explorer who came through my little town when I was still a girl. He spent a few months in that area, making maps for his village. His name was Tares, and I followed him around as much as I was able. The way he moved through the wild places like he knew every rock and tree fascinated me. Just before he finished his work in the area, I had my first river time, and I went into the river as you did. But when I came out, there was only one master I wanted to try: Tares. He taught me many of the same things I'm teaching you, and more. When he left my town, I went with him as his apprentice. When we had seen a few more towns together, I found that my fascination with him went beyond what he could teach me about the trade of exploring. I soon told him this, and he taught me a lot about love. We were married, and we traveled together for many years. We saw all of the five lands. But a few years after we had visited the fifth land, we came to an unfriendly town, up in the loden parts. Tares was killed by a merchant who didn't like what Tares wanted to trade for his furs. He broke a bottle over Tares's head and then shoved it into his stomach. We managed to get away, but his wounds were too severe, and he died in the forest. I traveled by myself, after that. One day, I came to Almodar, and the first person I met was your Papa, Aryus Grocer. I decided to explore the region around this village, and I spent a couple of years training three explorers. When their training was complete, I married Aryus. I didn't have any other apprentice explorers, and it was several years before another asked for the training. Since that one left, none have taken up the work until you. You saw how the elders had mostly forgotten that I ever was the Master Explorer of Almodar. Zemoi! Listen to the way I'm going on. Let's get back to your training."

So, they talked more about plants and paths and people and places until it was time to go to bed.

--Posted on 2023/08/29

31. The Girl Who Watched

The next morning, Electra and Elga again went into the hills to gather food and talk about different plants. Electra kept dropping information here and there until they had finished eating breakfast.

Elga put her palms over her eyes and flopped onto her back, saying, "Mama Electra, I can't hold another piece of information! Save me! I'm drowning."

Electra smiled down at her and said, "I want you to take in and hold one more piece of information."

Elga said, "I just said I couldn't!"

Electra said, "You can, and you must."

Elga sat up and looked intently at her, then said, "Yes, Master Electra."

Electra nodded and said, "It is far less important to remember all the answers than it is to remember how to find them."

"Through trials and notes?"

"No," said Electra. "You find things in a reference. It can be notes, but it can also be something like this."

Elga leaned forward and watched her grandmother bring a large book out of her knapsack.

"What is it?" Elga asked.

"It's an explorer's journal. I spent months copying my notes and those of my master into the first third of this book. I started it after my last apprentice gained journeyman status. There are things in here that will help you, and I've organized it based on situations and topics. You'll find almost everything I've taught you in these pages, along with other things I will not have time to tell you. Refer to it frequently, and you will both remember more and be able to find what you can't memorize. I will give you ink and a pen to write in it, so that you can record your own observations and experiments and maps in the last part of it. The pages are weather resistant, and the cover seals around it to keep out water, as well. Keep it close, and keep it safe."

Elga received it from her grandmother's hand and held it close to her chest, tears welling in her eyes.

"Now," Electra said, "Tell me something that I taught you since the council. Something you did not know before."

Elga said, "Something I didn't already know... If you don't put lots of blankets under you, you'll get cold more easily. Put one blanket on top, and the rest under you, when it is cold outside.

Electra said, "Very good."

As they walked back to the house, Electra pointed to the clouds and told Elga about the different types of clouds she would see in the sky and what they meant about the weather. When she closed the hatch behind them at the end of their walk, she motioned for Elga to sit down at the table.

As Elga watched, she pulled a bag out of the bench by the window and reached into it. She put three items from it onto the table, then quickly snatched them away. Elga looked up at her face.

"Tell me what I put out," Electra said.

"It was a green bead and two other things I didn't see very well."

"A short wooden dowel and a metal washer."

Elga asked, "How was I supposed to see that?"

"By paying attention."

Elga furrowed her brow and frowned. Electra pulled five items from the bag and put them on the table, then swept them away. Elga looked up at her.

Electra said, "I'm sure you can tell me better what was there, this time."

"A glass bead, a flat disc, a bronze ring, and a frilly square of cloth. I didn't see the last item."

"A blue jack."

Elga looked down at the table. Electra smiled at her and waited until she looked back up before pulling a handful of varied items out and placing it on the table in a mess. After a moment, she swept the things into her hand and put it under the table.

"A red bead, a twisted silver wire--" she began, but Electra interrupted, "Were there more blue things or yellow?"

Elga stopped and thought, then said, "Blue?"

Electra lifted her hand and showed the items. There were two blue and two yellow. She said, "The same number."

Elga groaned and said, "I'll do better. What is the importance of this, Master Explorer?"

"Observation is the importance. You will be safer, better fed, and better negotiating, if you are able to look at a room and spot all its details, or look around a forest and spot the plants and animals that can feed you or harm you before making your next move."

Elga nodded and said, "Thank you, Master."

Electra continued the observation game until Elga could answer correctly two out of five rounds and come close on another. Finally, she said, "I think you are as ready as I can make you in a week. The rest, you will have to gain from reading your journal and writing in it. I have a special task for you, tomorrow."

Elga took a deep breath and said, "Yes, Electra-dona. What is it?"

Electra smiled and said, "I will tell you in the morning. You don't need to worry. It will not be beyond your skills or harmful to you in any way. You trust me, don't you?"

Elga said, "Yes, Mama. I trust you."

Electra reached out and stroked Elga's cheek and brushed her hair back behind her ear. And for a few moments, she was nothing more than Elga's grandmother; there was no council telling her her granddaughter had to leave town; Electra was not the master explorer giving her apprentice firm guidance and harsh lessons or tasks; Elga wasn't having to face unpleasant tasks of weighty responsibility; and there was no wide world waiting to devour her present self and spit out someone different in her place or swallow her up to be unaccounted in the village forever. She was just a young woman who had a place in the village and at her grandmother's hearth.

Elga sighed with deep contentment.

Electra smiled and let a few tears roll silently down her cheeks.

Elga nuzzled her grandmother's hand.

Electra reached up and stroked her granddaughter's hair.

Elga smiled and said, "I should try to get some sleep so I'll be ready for tomorrow's lessons."

Electra said with mock sternness, "You'll need your sleep. I have harder things for you tomorrow. So hard, I don't know how you'll sleep, anticipating them."

Elga giggled and swept out of the room, but Electra let the merry mischief fade from her eyes and said to herself, "Tomorrow's tasks may be harder than all the ones I have given you before."

--Posted on 2023/09/12

32. The Girl and the List

Elga stood beside the field just outside town, her hand resting lightly on the top rail of the fence.

Her grandmother had told her that she would be packing her pack, today. But first, "I have a few items I want you to pick up in town."

Elga closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and looked down at the envelope in her hand. She had to get supplies, so she might as well open it and look at the list. The village wasn't going to get any less daunting by standing here. She unfolded the list and looked at the first item. She would just take it one thing at a time, and she'd get through this. Dried deer meat from the hunter. She could do that. She hadn't had much interaction with Ryne, and she didn't think he had any special dislike for her. She set off toward his house.

Ryne's hatch was natural wood from the area, a brownish cream color, with a leaf motif around the inner half of the circle, each leaf painted green. Elga didn't think it matched the tan bricks and gray mortar of the house. The colors weren't displeasing together, but it felt like a plant in a metal pot. Still, she lifted the leaf-shaped knocker and smacked it down a few times.

Ryne opened the hatch and looked down at her with a curious expression before beaming at her and saying, "Elgafrida! I didn't expect you. What can I do for you?"

"Master Ryne-se, do you have any venison ready for travel?" she said.

"Yes, I still have some of the last batch. How much would you like?"

She told him, and he told her the price. She counted out gemstones as he measured out the meat. While he was doing this, he kept up a stream of thoughts about the recent and coming events in the village. He said he was proud of her and of the fact that the village had an explorer after so many years, that he was disappointed in the council's decision to send her off so soon, and that he had some advice for her.

"You're an explorer, but also a trader. Make sure what you take to trade isn't something they make where you're going. It's less about prices and making a deal. It's more about finding a need and filling it."

She thanked him for the meat and the advice and bid him take care.

He said, "You take care, yourself. We're all going to be watching for word from you, and I wish you'd come tell me about your adventures first, when you return. Nizen, for now."

As he shut the hatch behind her, she stopped and looked at her list. And scratched her head.

She had expected a list of specific supplies she would need, but the second item didn't seem very specific, at all: Obtain something you want from the one who has it.

How was she supposed to do that?

She thought first that she would go back and ask, but that was not the way an apprentice explorer should think. She needed to be self-reliant, if she could. What did it seem to mean? Someone has what I want. I need to get it from them. I need to figure out what I want that someone else has. It has to be something that I want, and someone specific has to have it. It's not just a thing I want. It's a specific item. It's not something I can buy, because it is being held by someone. It's a task that will not be easy. This is something that is not correct, and I must make it correct.

Or my grandmother is having a laugh at my expense. She'll listen to my tale of overcoming a conflict with someone in the village and say, "Oh, Elga. I only wanted you to pick something as a goal and reach it by figuring out how to get it. Silly girl!"

But if I go back to her and say I picked out a necklace at the artisans' guild and bought it, she may say, "Oh, Elga. I wanted you to think hard about what you were leaving behind and decide what you wanted to take with you, face the problem of talking to others about your wishes, and grow from this. Silly girl!"

If I'm going to be a silly girl, I'm going to do it while taking the path that leads to growth. If I'm wrong, and she thinks I'm silly, at least I won't think I wasted the task on a bauble I won't care about in a month.

Setting her jaw, she thought about the task. It should be something that was out of place if she didn't have it. Something that she wanted because it belonged to her. Something that required her to show she was worth being an explorer.

She realized it could be something that was easy now but hadn't been a week ago. And she knew what it would be.

A half hour later, she stood in front of Reado Baker's house, where she had finally caught up with Kela, Lio, and Tura. In her hand, she held a branch, and the three children looked at her as though expecting her to hit them with it.

She said, "Tura, I want you to come with me."

Kela and Lio looked at Tura and jogged off to return to their game. Tura stepped a little closer to Elga and stuck out his chin. Elga nodded and led him toward Jirako Booker's house. When they arrived, she said, "I have fulfilled your task. I want my figurine."

She handed him the branch, and he looked at it, then looked up at her.

She said, "May I please have the figurine?"

The puzzlement on his face finally cleared, and he set the branch on the side of the road and said, "Sure, Elga. I thought you'd get it back the next time, but you never played Four Fates with us again."

With that, he ran into Jirako's house and came back after a thousand heartbeats with the three-inch tall carved bird in his hand. It was a stout bird with wings half extended, stooping on a tiny furry rodent. He placed it carefully in her hand and said, "I'm sorry. I knew that it was precious to you, and I knew I asked too much for it."

Tura turned and ran away, calling without turning back, "Nizen, Elga!"

Elga let her shoulders slump and then took a deep breath and let it out. This task had been both easier and harder than she'd imagined, in different ways. She opened her list again and looked at the next item: Find someone who wants something you have.

That completely baffled her. She didn't know of anyone who had expressed a desire for anything she had. She decided she would have to come back to that one. The next item was no easier: Tell someone something you have to tell them but haven't. This was hard because it didn't baffle her, at all. She had more than one person she hadn't told things they ought to know. She headed toward the inwid meadows.

"Master Shep— I mean, Virgil-ku," she said. "I think you should know that I think you are very kind and an honorable man. I appreciate what you have tried to do for me. If things had been different, I think we could have been close friends. And now that I see we are not too far apart in age, I might have even, in ten years or so, considered becoming your wife—"

No. She shook her head to clear it. That was too cruel and embarassing. She was glad he hadn't been where he could hear when she'd said it. She was leaving. If she married, it would probably be someone in another village. She couldn't leave things worse than if she said nothing. She thought about other people in the village and changed where here steps were leading.

And she banged on the clouds and sky hatch with a smile on her face. This time, she knew her words would make things better, not worse.

"Ansa-ku," she said, when the hatch opened to reveal the master weaver, "I admire your water blankets. I admire the way you honor your apprentices by making their early efforts into something beautiful. And I appreciate that you didn't make me sound awful when you rejected me at the meeting. That means much to me."

"Elga-ku," Ansa said, "you will be great explorer."

After that, the woman just smiled at her. Finally, Elga nodded and gave her another smile before turning to go.

Again skipping the item about having something someone wanted, she went to the next item: Tell your parents some parting words. She could say these to her mother without much problem, but her father would be a bit harder. She went to her mother first.

She knocked on the hatch as any stranger would, a little confused at the feeling that had prevented her from walking straight into her own house. When her mother opened it, she said, “Ma, I’ll be leaving the village soon. I wanted to say a word of parting to you.”

“You’ve been leaving this village for months, Elga.”

That wasn’t fair. She said, “No, Ma, I haven’t. I’ve been a villager all my life. I only recently found that the questions everyone should ask themselves would lead me to oppose the beliefs this village holds more dearly than makes sense.”

Her mother threw up her hands and said, “I don’t understand why you had to stand by your fancies, but at least my crazy mother gave you a way to save face.”

Elga’s anger boiled up. Her mother almost always did this to her. Anything she didn’t like was suddenly difficult to understand, as though any thinking person would have acted differently. Elga didn’t scream, though she wanted to. Instead, she kept her voice round and said, “You don’t understand because you don’t want to, Mother. You don’t want to understand; you only want to be angry, and so you find the disagreement and cling to it like soil in a pot. You water it until it’s tall and bushy. Then you point to it and say that it’s not your fault; the other person planted it. Mother, I’ve been a good daughter. You just can’t see that because I have stopped doing exactly what you want.”

Segna stood in stunned silence for a long moment. Then, she said tightly, “May the six gods keep you safe on your journeys and bring you safely home with more sense.”

Elga stared at Segna. Had she not heard a word Elga spoke? Suddenly too tired to go on arguing, Elga said, “I’ll just get my things and be on the way.”

Segna smiled, though her eyes didn’t look happy, and said, “Go ahead.”

Elga said, "Nizen, Segna."

Segna said nothing.

Elga went to the room that has been hers, picked up the few things she has chosen to keep, put her clothes in a sack, and left her home. She hadn't meant for the conversation to go the way it had, and she wiped at her cheeks, though no tears had trickled down them.

Now, the hard part. Elga almost laughed. Talking to her mother has been the easy part? Her father had been— distant, was the only word she could think of— for the last couple of years. Had Elga gotten used to it so quickly? She pushed that thought aside and made her way toward the middle of the village. She found him at his grocer’s shop, as she had expected. He sat today in a chair at the back of the front room, and she saw him as soon as she opened the hatch.

“Alwa, Pa,” she said as soon as she came through it. Her father kept gazing in the general direction of the hatch. Or perhaps at nothing, or at something only he could see. She walked up to his chair. He didn’t turn to her.

She said, “Pa, I have become an apprentice to the village explorer. I’ll be leaving town, soon.”

He didn’t look at her, but he said, “You found a job. It sometimes takes a while.”

There was no excitement in his voice, and no anger, and no sadness. It wasn’t empty of emotion, but it had no hint of interest. He spoke as if simply commenting on an observed fact.

Elga said, “Do you remember when I told you about the water ceremony? How everyone welcomed me into the village?”

“I remember,” he said, as though answering a question from the shirer or the council.

“Most of them seem to have withdrawn their welcome,” she said. “So I must leave as soon as the head explorer, my grandmother, your wife’s mother, says I’m ready.”

He said, “People can be very intolerant of those who don’t share their beliefs.”

Elga had tried, using words she thought might touch his emotions, but he’d responded with the same tone anyone would have used to comment on the fact that rain sometimes prevented a walk in the meadows. She sighed. She always tried to talk to him, when she could, but he never came near to her. He never hugged her, anymore. He never got angry. He never showed concern for anything. She wondered what had happened to change him into this person who was not flat but not caring.

“Pa, I still love you. No matter what.”

“Accepted,” he said.

Elga bit her lip. This was not going even as well as she has thought it would. He hadn’t spoken against her at the council. He hasn’t been there. Should she take that as comfort that he hadn’t rejected her, taking little interest in anything, or as an indication that he did reject her, not caring enough to come see her trial? She didn’t have any way to sort out what she was feeling, much less what he was.

She tried something else. She said, “I don’t know what happened to cause this distance between us, but I’m not angry with you. I don’t hold any blame against you. You are my father, and I love you.”

He said, “You are my daughter.” He said it matter-of-factly, not feebly or proudly.

Elga said, “I am very sad that I have to leave you, and that you do not say you love me anymore. I am very sad that we do not laugh and roll on the ground as we did when I was a baby.”

He said, again in that same tone, "You are a grown woman, now."

"No, Pa," she said. "I am only a little girl."

"You will do well on the road," he said.

Elga sniffed and blinked to keep the tears from flowing. She said, "I will, because I must. Nizen, Pa."

"Nizen, Elga," he said.

Elga turned and walked out, sure that he did not care if she stayed or went. But after the hatch closed, he sighed and let his gaze fall on the little pin in his shirt that she had given him after his fortieth winter. And tears rolled down his cheeks.

--Posted on 2023/09/26

33. The Girl on the Edge

Elga stood outside the chandler's yard for the second time in a week.

She had again skipped over the item on her list about finding someone who wanted something she had. But standing here, she wondered if that one might be easier to do next. None of this would get easier by delaying it, though. She stepped into the yard and made her way over to the shelf where Itari stood, arranging newly finished candles.

"Itari-se," she said, "I would like to buy some candles."

Itari turned to her smoothly and said, "Elga-dona, what can I get for you?"

Elga gaped at her.

She had occasionally heard a tradesman or merchant address the village chief or the shirer as though they were his master, but she had never heard one speak this way to an apprentice. Was Itari mocking her? She certainly sounded genuine, but how could that be, since Elga knew Itari despised her? She couldn't make herself sure of it, either way, so she said, "I need to get a dozen plain tapers, two lavender pillars, and three lemon balm pillars."

"Of course," Itari said. "Would you be interested in a few mint tealights?"

Elga looked at her warily and said, "I think that might be useful. Yes."

Itari gathered tapers and pillars into two bundles and wrapped them in rag sheets, then put these in a cloth sack with a handful of the tealights. She held the bag out to Elga and said, "Three ruby exats, then."

Elga counted out the small gems into her hand and took the bag gingerly. Itari thanked her and turned back to her tasks as Elga sidled out of the yard, eyes wide.

She hurried down the way toward the tanner's shop. The tanners made leather from hides, of course, but they also handled the village's rope and yarn making. She spoke to the apprentice and bought ropes and cords in weights and lengths she could use for making a shelter, tying up bundles for carrying, and pulling herself up an incline, if needed. Her grandmother had supplied the words to use, but as the apprentice brought each length out, she knew what its use would be from her recenbt practical training. She coiled them carefully, paid the man, and carried them on her shoulders back to her grandmother's house.

Only when she got there did she remember she had not found someone who wanted something she had. She set the assembled gear she had brought on the step in front of the hatch and sat down with her chin on her hand and let out a long breath. Should she go back to town or ask her grandmother for help?

Elga suddenly felt too tired to think about it. So, she gathered her parcels, stood up, and went through the hatch.

Electra said, "Alwa. A fine return. I didn't expect you until later."

Elga said, "I have returned."

Electra smiled and said, "And how did you fare?"

"Some things were very hard. Others were easy. And a few were seriously confusing."

Electra picked over the things Elga had placed on the table and checked them off against the list. Elga pulled the carved bird figurine from her pocket and set it beside the other things. Electra asked, "The thing you wanted?"

Elga said, "Yes, Electra-dona."

"I see everything else. How did it go with your parents?"

Elga shifted her feet and said, "Pa did not care."

"He did not show any care."

Elga stopped, then said, "Pa did not show if he cared. Ma was angry, and I made her angrier by telling her she was wrong."

Electra nodded gravely. Then she asked, "What did you give up?"

Elga said, "My thoughts."

Electra scowled.

"Elga, people rarely want our thoughts. We give them because it makes them informed, not because they want them."

Elga blushed. Then she said, "Itari-se wanted my gems. I wonder if that's why she treated me like an important visitor when I was buying candles."

Electra said, "You are trying to distract me."

Elga let out her breath in a huff and then said, "I don't know what anyone wants from me, Master Explorer. I have never been told, as Tura heard from me, of something anyone wanted that I have. How do I know what people want?"

"Perhaps they tell you in other ways. Perhaps, for example, Itari wants your respect, even though she was hasty and unfair before. Perhaps that is the meaning of her behavior today. Or perhaps she wanted your gems, as you seem to think, and hid her true feelings to try to get more of them. Or perhaps, she wants to be rid of you and is making your exit smooth. Or perhaps, she wants to support you, now that you fit into a comfortable place in her understanding of the village."

"That is a large number of possibilities, Master Explorer! How do I know which one it is?" How do I know what they want?"

Electra smiled and said, "Usually, you only know if you spend more time in a place, watch for confirmations and refutations of your identified possibilities. And sometimes, you just don't know. But you go forward, trying to use the information available in the best way possible to reach a favorable conclusion to your negotiations. Much of exploring is similar to being a merchant. After all, we rarely stumble on things that will provide food and lodging on their own, so we must borrow a little from the merchants, a little from the minstrels, and a tiny bit from the beggars. If we don't do well enough with those skills, we might cease to be explorers and stray into being bandits. We don't want that, so learn these skills thoroughly.

"I'm disappointed you didn't find someone, but there isn't time to go back and do it over. We must pack your backpack and prepare for tomorrow. You are as ready as I can make you in the time we had. And as I promised, I am sending you out as soon as may be done. Tomorrow, it will be practicable for me to declare you ready for journey status.

"I would like to put it off and train you more, but you are a quick learner, and I know that, with your book and the skills I have taught you these few days, you are able to survive and thrive in the dangers of both the wild places and the places of men.

"Now, come. I have things to teach you about properly loading your pack."

--Posted on 2023/10/10

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.

--Posted on 2023/10/24

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.

--Posted on 2023/11/07

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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