Penelope had only walked for an hour or two when the sky overhead started to grow dark. A breeze rustled through the canopy overhead, carrying with it the scent of rain that was to come.
Instinctively, she picked up her pace, though she knew that Cynara was a long way off, too far away for her to have any chance of making it there before the rain started to fall. The best she could hope for was to find shelter up ahead, but that didn't seem very likely.
She heard the first drops falling on the treetops before she could feel them, as a slight mist on her skin as she walked through open spaces between the trees. As the rain intensified, the water fell as a constant assault of droplets on her skin, saturating the ground beneath her feet and soon there was no protection from it even under the trees.
She trudged on through the rain, each step requiring more effort than the last. She'd gotten used to the drops of water falling on her exposed face and arms, but now her clothing was drenched completely through, soaking her to the skin, and the rain had reduced the dirt road that she was traveling on to a muddy mess. With each step she had to struggle to free her feet from the mud, just to have them sink down into the soft ground in front of her. All she could do was push her wet hair back, trying to keep it and the drops of water out of her face and eyes, as she pushed onward.
When she saw a house up ahead, Penelope was grateful and relieved. Putting any reservations she would have had for walking up to a stranger's house aside, she took off into a sprint and approached the front door.
As she paused at the door to catch her breath, she noticed the sign out front, denoting this place as a public tavern. Instead of opening the door immediately, she hesitated a moment. She'd never been in a place like this but had heard enough rumors to make her wary of what she might find inside.
But with the rain continuing to fall and knowing that she had almost no chance of finding another place of shelter ahead, she decided to take the chance. She reached for the door handle and slowly pushed the door open.
As dark and gray as it was outside due to the storm clouds, it took her eyes a moment to adjust to the brown-black darkness of the dimly lit room inside. Once she took a moment to become accustomed to the change in light, she stepped cautiously into the tavern. She hoped she would be able to slip inside without drawing attention to herself, but the sound of the falling rain and a cool gust of air, made the few patrons of the bar look up to see who had opened the door.
Penelope glanced briefly at the other people in the tavern. There were three large drunken men sitting at one table in the center of the room. One man stared at her, arms spread wide and mouth gaping as he paused in what seemed to be the middle of an animated tale, while the man sitting across from him swayed drunkenly in his seat, looking as if he was about to join their companion who was already passed out on the floor. A fourth man, much younger than the others, sat alone in the corner eating a bowl of stew. She tried to avoid eye contact with the faces that were staring at her and closed the door behind her.
She ignored the men in the room and made a beeline for the fireplace, interested only in letting the heat from its flames dry her dripping clothing and warm her chilled body.
Penelope dropped her heavy pack to the floor and wrung the water out of her hair and clothes. She glanced behind her briefly as she knelt in front of the fire. The men in the tavern made her uneasy, especially the young man sitting alone in the corner. The drunken men had already forgotten about her, but the younger man was still staring at her. She was glad to see that the one alert drunkard from the other table, realizing that his words were wasted on his companions, had joined him and taken his attention away from her. She hoped that they would forget about her completely and leave her in peace by the fire.
Satisfied that no one was going to bother her, at least for the moment, Penelope turned back to the fire, focusing only on getting dry again and thinking about what she should do next. She wondered how long should she stay in this place. Just long enough to rest? Till the next morning? Until the rain let up? She hadn't made up her mind, when her thoughts were interrupted.
"What'll it be?" a harsh feminine voice asked. Penelope looked up from the fire at a full figured woman wearing a dingy white apron. Her mousy hair was pulled roughly from her round face.
"Oh," Penelope started, her voice sounding more high and startled than she had expected. "I just came in to get out of the rain."
"No," the woman replied sharply with a rhythmic shake of her head. Her tone was forceful as if she had just caught Penelope trying to blatantly decieve her and she wanted it known that she saw through the lie. "You come in here and you're going to pay for something. Now what'll it be?"
Penelope frowned. She was annoyed at the woman's attitude, but for a moment she felt too bewildered to respond. "I just need to get out of the rain," she said again as the tavern owner appeared at the woman's side. "I don't have any money."
"Then you'll have to leave," the woman replied, crossing her arms over her chest. "You either pay for something or you get out."
From where Penelope stood, the taverness and her husband, peering over her shoulder, looked so ominous, scowling and large. As they loomed over her, she felt helpless and frustrated all over again. She was only trying to do one simple thing, get out of the rain, and they wouldn't even let her do that. She sighed and was about to resign, reaching for her bag to go, when the man's expression seemed to change. His eyes softened with kindness and pity. He touched the woman's arm gently.
"Now, Doris, dear," he said quietly, so that only Penelope and the woman were close enough to hear. "The girl's just sitting here, out of the way. She isn't causing any trouble. Why not let her stay until the rain lets up?"
The woman jerked her arm away from the man's touch violently. She looked as if she might turn and slap him for some insult he'd uttered, but did no such thing. She kept her eyes locked on Penelope.
"Absolutely not. Let one vagrant sit here for nothing and soon the place will be swarming with them. Absolutely not," she repeated. "We can't afford to have people come in here and just hang around without paying for anything. Either she buys something or she gets out."
The man shrunk back, defeated. He looked at Penelope with a helpless shrug as if to say, "I tried."
The young man in the corner had been watching the encounter from his table across the room and was just rising from his chair to intervene, when he felt a restraining hand on his arm. For someone who was half-wasted, the drunkard was surprisingly strong. He managed to keep him in place as he continued regaling him with his tales.
Before the young man could move away or speak a wavery voice pierced the air. "I'll pay for her."
The young man, Penelope, and the tavern owners turned towards the doorway at the back of the tavern where an elderly woman appeared. She hobbled past the tavern owner and his wife, nodding her head slowly, with her attention focused only on Penelope.
Penelope raised her eyes and stared meekly at the approaching woman as the tavern owners seemed to fade into the darkness of the room.
From the folds of wrinkled skin, the hag's eyes flashed the yellow-orange glow of the fire light as she looked at Penelope. Her stare seemed to penetrate through Penelope's outer shell to the person within, making the young woman shiver from more than her damp clothing.
The old woman regarded the younger one's face. She lifted one finger with a long nail and pointed it at the girl's face tracing her features in the air. "So young," she muttered, barely intelligibly. "All this time and still unravished the years."
Wide-eyed, Penelope shrunk back.
The old woman's mouth opened into a broad grin as she laughed. "No fears, child. I don't bite."
Penelope stared at the finger with the long nail, still held suspended in the air before her. She had never seen anyone with fingernails so long. The old woman's hands reminded her of claws.
The crone turned to the taverness. "Yes, she'll stay in my room until the weather lets up and we'll get her a bite to eat. Weather like this goes straight to the bones."
The woman opened her mouth to protest, but thinking better of it, she closed it again without a word as the crone turned to leave the group. She sighed and shrugged, then motioned to Penelope.
"Come on, then," she said in that same harsh voice, with added impatience.
Only after the three women disappeared, was the young man in the corner aware that he was standing next to his table for no apparent reason and still gaping after them. He pried his arm away from the drunk man and started across the room, intending to follow the group to the back of the tavern. Thinking better of it, he slowed his steps, then stopped to talk to the taverner.
"You rent rooms here?" he asked.
"Not usually," the tavern owner answered slyly. When the young man removed a pouch from his pocket and dropped a few coins into the taverner's hands he added with a wink, "But I think I can talk the wife into making an exception."
Penelope followed the two women into the back of the tavern, but not without reservations. She wasn't sure if she should trust these strangers, but even this suspicious situation seemed better than going back out into the rain.
"Show her to my room, Doris," the crone said to the taverness. "I'll check on the stew."
The taverness only nodded in agreement and started up the wooden staircase.
The room was dark, lit only by the single candle Doris carried with her. As they made their way up the creaking rickety staircase, Penelope stayed close behind her to keep from stumbling in the dark.
Doris opened the first door at the top of the stairs and then stepped aside. "This is it," she announced flatly, without enthusiasm, and motioned impatiently for Penelope to go inside. As Penelope cautiously stepped into the room, the taverness was already making her way back downstairs.
Penelope walked slowly into the room, taking a careful look at her surroundings. It was a nice room, cozy and decorated in warm colors. To her right was a simple desk and a plain wooden chair. On the opposite wall, directly in front of her was a large bed, covered with warm blankets. Against the wall on her left was a glowing fireplace.
Penelope crossed over to the hearth and sat down next to the fire. She warmed her hands for a moment, before unpacking her belongings and setting her things by the fire to dry.
The crone stood at the kitchen table, a wooden bowl in one hand and a clay bottle in the other. She set the bowl down and uncorked the bottle before carefully tapping the powder from the bottle into the bottom of the empty bowl. She recapped the bottle and returned it to its place in the back of her herb cabinet before taking the bowl to the stove where a large pot of stew was simmering.
When the taverness returned to the kitchen, she stood in the doorway a moment, watching the old woman ladle the stew into her bowl with shaking hands. She crossed the room, to give her teacher a hand, but by then the task was done.
"What is this all about?" the taverness asked. She tried to be respectful to the elder woman, but she couldn't stop her tone from sounding demanding. "Why did you have me show that little beggar to your room and why are you feeding her my food?"
The old woman answered calmly as she carefully stirred the stew she had poured into the small wooden bowl, "To you she's a beggar, to me she could be the key that I have been looking for."
"Key to what?" the taverness asked, curiously.
For a moment, the crone seemed to ignore the question as she arranged the stew and a piece of bread on a tray. She seemed to pause a moment in thought before speaking out loud to no one in particular, "Yes, I am sure of it. She is the one. She knows."
The taverness, more confused than ever, watched silently as the old woman lifted her tray from the table and walked unsteadily across the room.
"Let me carry that for you," Doris offered. The older woman's balance was so unsteady that it was very unlikely that she would make it up stairs with the tray unspilled.
The crone handed over the tray without protest and lead the way back to her room. When she opened the door, Penelope, who had changed into drier clothes, looked up from her seat in front of the hearth. "You look like you could use a warm meal," she remarked, prompting Doris to set the tray in front of Penelope. With a nod from the elder woman, the taverness silently left the room, closing the door behind her.
Penelope was feeling very uncomfortable. She glanced at the tray sitting next to her but hesitated to reach for it.
"Go ahead," the old woman urged before taking a seat in bedside chair.
Reluctantly, Penelope picked up the bowl and took a bite of the stew. She savored the rich flavor of the warm broth and took another bite. It had been months since she had eaten anything so good.
The crone grinned to herself and leaned back in her chair. "What's your name, child?"
"Penelope," the crone repeated, testing out the name. "What brings you to this place? It's not safe for a young girl like you to be traveling all on her own."
"I don't have much choice," Penelope answered shortly between bites.
"What a shame," the old woman said sympathetically. "You remind me of a poor unfortunate girl I came across long, long ago when I was still young. The poor girl had no one and she was with child . . ." The old woman paused and then changed the subject. "What's your story, child?"
Penelope hesitated. She wasn't sure if she wanted to tell a complete stranger her life story. She kept it brief. "I'm going to visit my brother in Cynara. Our father died and there's no one else to tell him the news."
"I'm sorry to hear that," the crone said in her same cool, but sympathetic tone. "It must be a burden for you to travel all the way from Amphidelphos alone with grief. You did come from Amphidelphos, didn't you?"
"Yes, how did you know?"
"There's only two roads that go to Cynara from here. One is from Amphidelphos and the other is from Atraphyllus. You seem more like an Amphidelphian to me. When you've been around as long as I have you get a sense of where people come from," the old woman paused and closed her eyes in a brief moment of rest. When she opened them again she asked, "What's the news from Amphidelphos? I don't get to travel as much as I'd like anymore."
"Um," Penelope started, she rubbed at her eyes as she tried to think of something to say. Suddenly, everything about her felt heavy, her eyelids, her limbs, her mind. Her thoughts seemed to thicken like the broth from her supper, congealing together until they were only barely coherent. "I don't know. I haven't kept up lately," she muttered and set the tray aside. "If you don't mind, I think I need to rest now," Penelope said slowly. She didn't understand why she was suddenly so tired.
"Of course," the old woman acquiesced with a slight smile.
Absently, Penelope began gathering up her belongings that she had scattered across the hearth to dry and stuffed them back into her pack.
"What's that?" the old woman asked suddenly. The shrill tone of her voice seemed to pierce Penelope's ears. "What's in the box?"
Penelope slowly picked up the metal box that had been concealed under a piece of clothing. She stared dumbly at it for a moment before she could come up with the answer. She shook her head and blinked to keep her eyes open as she replied, "I don't know. But it's important and it was my father's."
"Can I see it?" the crone asked eagerly, as she leaned forward in her chair.
Penelope hesitated. "In the morning," she finally answered before putting it into the pack with the rest of her belongings. "Right now, I'm suddenly very tired."
The young man had waited anxiously at his table in the corner as the tavern owner took care of a few pressing duties at the bar. Once the tasks were finally finished, the young man followed the tavern owner upstairs to see the room he would be renting for the night. On the way, the young man casually questioned the tavern owner about the other rooms in the building and learned that the room at the top of the stairs, just around the corner from where he would be staying was occupied by the old woman, a boarder of the tavern owner's wife.
The young man waited for a few minutes after the tavern owner had left him to get settled and then went out into the hallway and approached the door at the top of the stairs. He paused a moment as he collected his thoughts. He had been caught off guard when the young woman had walked into the bar, but seeing that the older woman was there as well had him completely stunned. He couldn't believe they had all ended up in this place in the middle of nowhere all at once. What were the odds?
Pulling his nerves together, he took a breath, and reached forward, but before he could knock on the door, it swung open and he had to jump back to keep it from bumping into him.
The young woman stood in front him, clutching her belongings in her arms. Her eyes darted unseeingly from side to side. She acted as if she didn't even know he was there as she staggered into the hallway.
He stood aside and watched dumbly as she rushed past him and tumbled to the bottom of the stairs.
"What's going on?" the tavern owner asked as he and his wife came out into the hallway, alarmed by the clatter.
The young man stepped forward to help Penelope, who was gathering her scattered belongings at the bottom of the stairs, but a hand on his arm held him back.
Penelope hurriedly grabbed her belongings in her arms and ran out of the tavern.
"Should we go after her?" the taverness asked.
"No, let her go. I know where she's headed."
As the tavern owners went back into their room, the young man stood at the top of the stairs looking down after Penelope.
"Come," the old crone said to him, causing him to turn away from the stairs to face her. "Let's talk."
He glanced once more down the stairs where Penelope had disappeared before following the old woman into her room and obediently closing the door behind him as she ordered.
As the old woman went over to the desk, he stood lost in the middle of the room. He thought he didn't know what to say to her before, but now he found himself at a complete loss for words.
The old woman studied him for a moment before coming to a conclusion, "Yes, I thought I knew you. Your father has been very useful to me."
The young man blinked. The mention of his father seemed to bring him back to his purpose. "About my father," he began, hoping for an opening, but he was interrupted.
"I need you to do something for me," she said. "In the morning I want you to go to Cynara."
"I need you to take a letter to the warlord there. And if you come across that girl, hold her for me until I can get there."
"Who is she? What has she done?" he asked curiously.
"She has something that belongs to me and I need it back."
"What I need, is to talk to you," he said, trying to steer the conversation towards his own interests. "I've been looking for you for months. You're the only one who can tell me what I need to know."
"In time," the old woman said as she stood up and started to usher him out of the room. "Help me with this task and I'll tell you anything you want to know. I'll have the letter ready for you to deliver in the morning."
Before he knew what was happening, he found himself in the hallway with the door closed behind him and with no new information. He sighed and went back to his room. He could only hope that the crone would keep her word.