Penelope stood in the doorway of her parents' old house, feeling the warmth of the bright sun on her skin as she looked out across the fields. The winter had been unusually long and bleak, or at least it seemed that way to her, but spring had come at last. The days were getting longer and warmer and the earth was reawakening.
She could feel the reawakening inside of herself as well. So many days she had spent alone, waiting. Every day she would stand at the window gazing out across the fields, hoping that she would see someone making their way back home.
At night she dreamed about seeing their dark silhouettes coming over the top of the hill. She would always recognize them immediately and run across the barnyard to meet them halfway, welcoming them home with tearful embraces.
But that never happened. And now, after so many months had passed, she realized that it probably never would.
Standing in the open doorway, she shut her eyes and took a deep breath, taking in the scent of new plants and fresh life. She decided that this was it. She couldn't just sit there and wait anymore. She had to take matters into her own hands.
She walked over to the kitchen table where she had left the bag she had been packing and took a final inventory. A change of clothing, bedding, cooking gear, and the sparse amount of food she had left was all she had packed so far. She debated with herself a moment, wondering if she should take more with her. It was hard to decide, considering that she didn't know how long or how far she would be traveling. Her journey could last a few days, a few months, or even longer. She hoped that she would only have to be on the road for a few days, but she didn't count herself that lucky, especially after all that had happened. This trip would take longer, she was sure of it.
She lifted the pack from the kitchen table and balanced the weight of it in her arms. She tried to imagine being on the road for months, carrying this pack across her shoulders all the way. She didn't want it to be packed too heavy, but she didn't want to be caught far from home with no means of getting food or supplies. With a sigh she dropped the pack back on the table. For a moment she had almost talked herself out of going, but the thought of spending months sitting here waiting, seemed even less appealing. She had spent enough time doing that.
Penelope wandered around the room wondering what was left in the house that would be worth bartering, but wouldn't take up too much room in her pack. She wished she had some money left to take with her, but that had run out months ago when she was more concerned about surviving the winter than financing this journey. Even then she had little resources.
Everything of value that her family owned had been stolen or destroyed in the attack last fall. The furniture, the pottery, and the dishes had been knocked over and broken in the ransack. Their jewelry and other smaller items had been stolen. And worst of all, her family had been scattered in the night, and not seen since. She had cleaned out the broken pieces and salvaged what she could. She let the valuables go. Now it was time to go after the most important thing and find her family again.
Her mind made up for the moment, Penelope added a few more items to her pack, practical things that would hopefully be worth something if she needed to trade, but still useful to her if she didn't. After fastening the pack shut, Penelope slung it over her shoulder and took one long last look around her. This was the house that she had lived in for all seventeen years of her life, but for the last few months it hadn't felt like home. She didn't know how long it would be until she stood under this roof again, but she vowed that when she did, things would be different. That was the promise she had made to her father after his death.
Penelope closed her eyes tightly and took a deep breath. Enough time had passed for her to accept her father's death, but thinking about it still stung as if it were happening all over again. She could still picture him slumped over in that muddy alley, his bloody fingers clutched over the gaping wound in his side. That was her final image of him before she left him there to die alone.
"But I had no choice," she was quick to remind herself. She had wanted to stay and help him, but he insisted that she go. She hesitated only until she heard someone coming, then she heeded her father's orders and ran. If she hadn't, she would probably be with him now on the other side and there would be no one left to carry out his final request.
Penelope quickly opened her eyes, brought back to the present by a remembered promise. How could she have forgotten?
Setting her pack down beside the door, she went over to the fireplace and knelt down in front of it. She reached up into the chimney and ran her fingers against the rows of rough stones that made up its wall. When she felt one of the stones slip, she pulled at it until it came loose. After dropping the loose stone to the floor, she reached into the empty space that had been concealed behind it and brought out a small metal box. She leaned back, ducking to avoid hitting her head on the fireplace, and settled into a sitting position on the floor.
She turned the box over in her hands. It was a plain metal box, without any markings or ornamentation. For something that was small enough to fit easily into a pocket, it was unexpectedly heavy. By the weight she knew it contained something substantial, but since it was sealed shut, she didn't know what was inside. She had never known that it or the loose stone inside the fireplace had existed until her father had told her to get it. But since his last words to her were to instruct her to take it with her before she left home, she knew it had to be something very important.
Penelope studied it a moment, wondering what its significance was. Unable to come to any conclusion, she gave up and rose to her feet with the metal box in hand. Carefully, she packed the box in with her other equipment before slinging the pack over her shoulder and finally stepping out into the bright spring morning. The day she discovered the box had been, by far, the worst day of her life, but she had better hopes for today.
Penelope closed the door behind her and started across the barnyard towards the road. She walked slowly so she could take in the familiar sights around her, well aware that it might be a long time before she would see them again. All around her the world seemed to be coming to life again. The last rain had encouraged the plants to raise from their winter slumber. Along the side of the house, her mother's flowers were starting to grow again. After their mother had died, Penelope and her sister had taken up the task of caring for them. This year they would be on their own.
She walked on past the barnyard, past the charred remains where the barn that held the family's livestock and yearly harvest once stood. She remembered vividly the way it had looked that night when it had been set aflame.
She could still picture the orangish glow of the flames illuminating the dark night and the shadows of her family members rushing back and forth across the barnyard as they struggled to put out the blaze. By the next morning the barn was gone, reduced to a pile of charred wood and ash.
A large dark spot still remained there now as a grim reminder of the past, but in the months that had passed, rain and snow had washed away some of the ashes and new plants were starting to grow again.
Penelope didn't linger in the barnyard, but instead continued walking towards the road that lead to the village. The thought of going back to the village where her father had been killed made her feel queasy and the realization that the people who killed him and were responsible for the attack on her home could still be there had her nerves on edge. But she was determined to take that route. If she was going to take this journey, she couldn't start it by showing she was afraid. She had to take a stand and make this step, otherwise she would never make it through whatever might lay ahead.