It was not easy. Jana turned and looked back at the muddy road she’d walked along. This time, when she looked back, the village was out of sight. It was still early morning, but already she could see the smoke from the various fires in the village rising above the treetops into the clear morning air.
One of those fires would be her father’s as he heated up his ovens for his bread.
Jana almost turned back then, the smell of the warm bread in her nostrils. She had awoken to that smell every morning of her life, seventeen years of it.
She wondered if she would ever smell it again.
Jana heaved her sack of meagre belongings back onto her shoulder and turned back to trudge on down the road. She did not know much of what lay beyond the village, where either ends of the road in and out of the village led. All she had were the travellers’ tales she had overheard as she worked in the village inn. She was seven before she even knew the village had a name – Tundown – and that there were other places, bigger places, other villages, towns, cities and even other countries somewhere off along that road in both directions.
She didn’t know what travellers’ tales to believe. Some told of villains, some told of monsters, some told of wonders, some told of wealth and luxury beyond Jana’s ability to imagine. Her idea of luxury was some fresh bread warm from the oven eaten in front of the still hot oven on a cold winter day.
She did not know much, but one thing she had decided when the urge to travel had gripped her so tight and would not let go, was that only a fool would set off in the winter. She’d heard too many tales from the travellers of people dying out in the harsh snows of winter, lost in blizzards, found dead a few strides from sanctuary and safety, frozen to death in the cold. The snow and the howling wind tore life away as easily as it tore down trees in the woods.
Jana heard a rustle off in the wood at the side of the road. She gripped her belongings tightly. She’d listened to the tales of villains, robbers, kidnappers, rapists, and murderers. All lurked ay the sides of the roads ready to take travellers and rid them of their belongings, their dignity, their humanity or even their lives.
Life outside the village was cheap and easily lost, Jana knew that. Her hand felt down her side to the hilt of one of her father’s long sharp knives. Not the one that he used to split the sacks of flour open and divide up the dough, but one that was used to butcher meat. Jana knew how to butcher meat, and any arm that reached out for her from the undergrowth would find that out too.
Up ahead was the bend in the road she’d never been past. Burl would be up there waiting for her. They would go off to discover the world together.
Jana rounded the bend and stopped. Her sack fell to the ground at her feet. There, a few strides in front of her, she saw the blood. There were rivers of it, pouring from the still body of Burl lying at the edge of the road.
Jana took a step towards him, the undergrowth rustled around her. She turned to run. But she had not taken a single step before powerful arms reached out, pulling her into the bushes, the sharp knife at her side forgotten in her terror.