When Penelope arrived at the village, she found it just as it had always been. The merchants had their goods set out on display and were calling out to the passers by. The villagers hovered around, visiting with each other or haggling with the merchants on the prices of goods. Children and livestock ran loose in the street, blissfully ignorant, roaming and playing without a care in the world. The young women were gathered around the fountain giggling and gossiping like they always had. Not much had changed here and that surprised Penelope. Her world had been turned upside down, but the neighbors carried on as if nothing had happened. But why shouldn't she be the only one looking over her shoulder, wondering what was lurking in the shadows?
Penelope walked along, keeping to herself. A few people gave her strange looks, as if she looked vaguely familiar, but she was otherwise ignored. She was grateful not to be noticed.
By the time she reached the fountain in the center of the marketplace, she was starting to feel more at ease. No one had noticed her so far, and it didn't look like anyone was going to bother her. She was just starting to feel proud of herself for being so brave, when she noticed that the young women gathered at the fountain were staring at her. As soon as she returned the stare, all of the girls but one looked away and started whispering to each other.
Without changing the pace of her step, Penelope locked eyes with the other girl. She didn't know the girl personally, but she knew who she was. The girl was one of the Tarpus clan and therefore not a friend.
Obviously, by the malicious look in her eyes, the other girl knew who she was too. She stared Penelope down, glaring at Penelope as if she was the evil one and not a victim in all that had happened. Penelope was sure by her expression that she would have spat at her if she walked any closer, but the two girls only watched each other suspiciously until Penelope had passed the fountain.
Once Penelope had walked past, she didn't look back and she was relieved when the Tarpus girl didn't initiate a confrontation. Penelope continued on her way, deciding she would be glad once she had left the village completely behind her.
Once she was out of the village and on the wooded road to Cynara, the travel was quiet and Penelope felt more at ease. Getting through the village had been her biggest worry for the moment and now that she had passed that obstacle unharrassed, she started to relax. For some reason she found being alone on the road comforting. She wondered if, after all those months, she had just gotten used to being alone.
Penelope walked quickly along the narrow road under the airy canopy of budding branches. Deep breaths of fresh air and her pumping legs sent the blood coursing through her body. She thought of little other than making the trip to Cynara and the beauty of the surrounding landscape. She almost smiled to herself. For the first time in months she truly felt like she was alive.
After midday her pace began to slow and finally she stopped for a rest and a bite to eat. As she took a seat on the ground her entire body started to slow down and her mind fell back into her dark thoughts. She had to face reality. This journey wasn't going to be just a pleasant walk through the woods. She hoped that it would be easy, but she knew the odds were that it wouldn't be. She only had one lead, and a flimsy one at that.
Last summer, before all the trouble in the village started, her second eldest brother, Stephanus, and his family had left home to move to a nearby village. His decision to leave had been sudden and he never gave a full explanation as to why he was leaving. One day he was working on his plot of land on the farm and the next day he and his wife and children were packing to leave.
"What if he and Dieandra and the children never went to Cynara?" Penelope wondered as she sat along the roadside. "What if they did come here last summer, but since left? What if the people who attacked us moved on to Cynara and scared off Stephan and the children... or worse? Then what will I do?"
Penelope took a deep breath and tried to shake the thoughts from her mind. No. She wouldn't think like that. They would be there. They had to be.
"And if some reason they aren't," she decided as she lifted her head and stared forward over the road and into the woods. "I'll worry about what to do next when I get there."
Penelope gathered her things and rose to her feet, dusting off her skirt as she slung the pack on her back and headed back to the road.
She walked slower than she had when she first started on the road, a little less cheerful and a little more contemplative. She felt better when she was moving and taking action, but her enthusiasm had been dampened. Somehow the day didn't seem as pleasant, the sun wasn't as bright, and her familiar solitude wasn't as comforting. The road to Cynara seemed to get longer with every step she took.
She closed her eyes tightly for a moment and tried to focus on a distraction. She thought of her family, the way they used to be years ago, before all of the trouble started. She could almost see and hear them in her mind.
The empty house that she had waited in all winter had been so different when she was growing up, it was a busy, bustling home full of people, full of life. Penelope was the youngest of seven children in her family and even though her oldest siblings were married with children of their own, they still lived nearby and were frequently at the house, stopping by during the day or occasionally gathering in the evening for large family dinners.
Like Stephanus, their eldest brother, Davideus, also had a plot of land on the family farm that was set aside for him and his family. Although he managed his own home independently, he was often at the house to chat with Father about farming business, to offer help, or ask for his advice. His wife, Ophelia, and their children would sometimes come with him to visit with the family or work together on household chores as well.
Audacia, the second oldest in the family, had taken over the responsibilities of running the family household after their mother had fallen ill and later passed away. Even after she married and gave birth to her only child, she stayed in the family home to manage the household as her own. Her husband, Alastor, had no objection to the arrangement. As a soldier, he was often away for months at a time and was glad that his wife and daughter weren't left on their own.
Besides, Audacia and her daughter, Zakorias' four youngest children still lived in the household. Zakorias, as his father and grandfather before him, didn't believe in prearranged marriages as many families in the area did. Among the Brandier clan, marriage for love was valued above marriage for convenience. Unusual as it was, Zakorias didn't pressure any of his children into marriage, despite the fact that even his youngest daughter was considered to be above marriagable age by the standards of most members of the community.
Nikolais was the oldest of the unmarried siblings, middle child overall. He had been in love and deeply infatuated with a young woman from the village. He had secretly hoped to ask her to marry him, but before he had the chance, she left him for another young man in the village, one of the Tarpus clan, of course. Broken hearted, Nikolais had left home, to get away from Amphidelphos and try to find his place in the world, just before the family's home had been attacked last fall.
Mariandra and Sthenelus, the next youngest, like Penelope, had both been living at home at the time of the attack. During the attack, Mariandra had gone off with Davideus and Ophelia to find their son, who had wandered off amidst the chaos. In the morning, only Sthenelus, Penelope, and their father returned to the house. Sthen was the only one of her siblings she had seen after the attack and because of that, he was the one she had the least hope of seeing again.
Penelope sighedand blinked back the tears that were threatening to form. She couldn't even think of the good moments of the past without being brought back to her current situation. She wondered if she'd ever be able to think about her family without remembering how they were taken away from her.
Penelope's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of approaching hoofs. She stepped over to the side of the road to let the riders pass, but the sound stopped just behind her. Penelope turned to see what was going on, just as the pair of cloaked riders jumped down from their horses. Before she could react, one of the men had grabbed her by the arm and clamped a hand over her mouth.
Penelope tried to shout out, but the stranger's large hand muffled the sound to an unintelligible whimper. She struggled to get free, but the man's grip on her tightened as he turned her around and dragged her backwards in a quick, seemingly effortless motion.
The world around her seemed to spin out of control in an instant blur of trees and ground and sky. She was pulled back quickly and brought to a stop with a jerk as her back slammed into the solid trunk of a tree that stood along side the road.
Her mind was racing, dizzily. She was still trying to comprehend what was happening as her arms were forcibly pulled behind her and her attacker appeared in front of her.
He was dressed in dark colors, with a hood pulled over his head and a scarf covering his face. He clamped a strong hand firmly against her mouth as the second man held her arms tightly, pulling them backwards and wrapping them around the sturdy trunk of a tree.
Penelope stared at him, her eyes wide with fear. She whimpered, trying to shout out or speak, but her voice was caught in her throat.
The man moved closer to Penelope, until they were face to face. He stared at her sharply and almost seemed to grin when he read the fear in her expression. With his free hand he drew a knife from his pocket and held the blade up to her face. He turned it from side to side, causing the sunlight to glimmer off the blade, making sure she didn't miss it.
"Don't scream," he ordered. He kept his voice low and raspy, speaking in a hoarse whisper. His tone was stern, allowing no doubt that he meant what he said.
Slowly he drew his hand away from Penelope's mouth and she gasped for a breath of air. When she didn't scream or call out the man seemed pleased.
"What do you want with me?" Penelope spoke quietly. She tried to make her words come out calmly and evenly, but, even with her low tone, her voice wavered.
The man snorted an amused breathy laugh. He stared at Penelope with a smirk, but said nothing.
The glassy look in his eyes sent a shiver through her body and her heart racing. She panicked and screamed out for help.
"It will do no good. There's no one around for miles," he warned her, but she yelled out again. A high pitched scream that made him wince.
Quickly he clamped his hand over her mouth. She bit down on his open palm as hard as she could, until he called out in pain and pulled back his hand. She tried to jerk herself loose, but the man behind her pulled tighter on her arms, until she cried out in pain.
The cloaked man in front of her shook his hand quickly and then grabbed her neck, pushing up on her throat, until she was stretched to her tiptoes. He lifted the knife to her throat and leaned in closer, until his face was mere inches from hers.
"No more cute stuff," he spoke in an even, yet menacing tone, just as he had before. "Or else. Understand?"
Penelope tried to nod or speak, but failed to do either. The man seemed to take her squirming as the answer he wanted and continued.
"I know who you are," he whispered as Penelope held her breath. "Daughter of Zakorias. See, I speak the truth, don't I? Your family, they're all dead, like you should be."
Penelope grunted and squirmed, but the man pressed harder on her throat.
"As far as anyone is concerned, you are too. You cease to exist. Understand?" he asked, but didn't wait for an answer. "You've done a good job of playing dead so far, so don't change now. If that's going to be a problem, then we can arrange it for real." He lifted the knife blade to eye level. When she looked sideways, Penelope could see the metal turning in the man's hand. It mesmerized her for a moment. Her body felt weak and her heart felt like it was about to leap from her chest. She could hear it pounding in her ears.
Her eyes darted sideways and she looked into the masked man's dark eyes. He, too, seemed mesmerized by the turning knife blade and pleased by the power it gave him. Slowly he turned back to her with a grin.
Penelope tried to nod, but she couldn't move her head. He read the look in her eyes and was satisfied.
"Let her go," he barked a command to his accomplice. He released his grip on Penelope's throat, allowing her to lower her body to the flats of her feet.
"Is that it?" the accomplice asked. His voice sounded almost youthful. "We're not going to rough her up or anything?"
His grip on her wrists lessened slightly and he rubbed his hands along her lower arms in a rough caress.
While he was caught off guard, Penelope tried to pull away from him, but he caught her wrists again before she could move far. As she jerked her body forward, she pulled the accomplice with her, causing him to fall face first against the back of the tree.
He didn't waste a moment recovering his balance. In an moment his grip tightened on her wrists and he forcefully pulled her back towards him. Being much stronger than her, he quickly won the struggle, and Penelope crashed backwards into the tree trunk.
As a dull pain seared through her head and back, she moaned in pain and gave up the fight.
"Looks like we might have to," the other man said. "Let go of her."
This time the accomplice released his grip and Penelope slumped against the tree, letting her arms fall to her side. As she tried to pull herself to her feet, the man in front of her sent his fist across the side of her face. As her head swung to the side and she started to fall, she caught a flash of bronze reflected near the man's chest where his dark cloak fell open.
She fell to the ground on her side and rolled back down the slight incline on the side of the road.
The men glanced down at the motionless body and remarked, "That should keep her out of trouble," before retreating back in the direction they came from.
Penelope laid still long after the sound of her attackers' horses faded away into the distance. When her stillness was at last disrupted it was by the quick convulsion of an escaped sob. Once the first broke through, she could no longer contain her emotions and they spilled out as the familiar feeling of hopelessness washed over her again.
She had tried to keep the doubt out of her mind once she had made up her mind to take this journey. She knew there would be obstacles, but she had tried to convince herself that everything would work out alright. It was the only way she could do this. Without at least the illusion of optimism, she wouldn't have been able to leave home.
At the same time, she knew that she had to be realistic too. The world was a dangerous place for a young woman traveling on her own. The chances of her making this journey unharmed and to find her family alive and well weren't high.
But she wasn't expecting this, not on the first day, a slap in the face literally and figuratively.
"I can't do this. Why did I think I could?"
Almost as soon as the question came to her, she realized the answer. Her conclusion was no more heartening, but she found it oddly calming. "There isn't anything else I can do."
Slowly she pushed her upper body up from the ground, into a sitting position. She wiped the tears from her face hastily and lingered on the sensitive place on her cheek, where she had been hit. A bruise was sure to form at the spot, if it hadn't started to already. Her reddened eyes looked at the forest around her, the brown-grays of winter touched by gold-greens of summer. Something lying on the path in front of her caught her eye and she crawled over to it for a closer look.
It was a bronze disc, perfectly round in shape and only slightly smaller than the palm of her hand. The chain that had held it around the neck of her attacker was broken but still attached to the medallion. Carefully she picked it up and examined the embossed pattern on the front. The pattern was a familiar one, a lion's head framed below by a crossed pair of peacock feathers. Just as she expected, it was the crest of the Tarpus clan. At that moment she knew the feud was as strong as ever and it looked as if the other side might win it once and for all.
Penelope stood in the middle of the road, holding the medallion, trying to make a decision. Could she go on? Was it a lost cause?
Where she stood, the worn path was straight, a crisp break in the trees and brush growing thickly on either side. So definite, it visually marked out her options. To the right lay Amphidelphos, the skeletal remains of what was once her home, where her attackers still lived as if nothing in the last months had changed. The left led to Cynara and beyond. The road was dangerous and unknown. Maybe her family was still out there somewhere, but maybe she was chasing a dream. Even if she took the risk, she might never find them again.
Ultimately, there was really no choice to be made. There was nothing to go back to. She had little left to lose and everything to gain. She knew she had to move forward.
She took one more look at the medallion before sticking it in her pocket and fetched her bag from the ground where it had fallen. Dusting both herself and the bag off, she stepped back onto the path, continuing onward to Cynara to find Stephan.