The next morning, the married couple was rudely awaken by Grandma Seilee snarling, “Get up! Get up you worthless daughter-in-law!”
Kisha bolted up right and her husband growled, his look shot daggers through the tent at the location of his grandmother’s voice.
Kisha called, “I am coming, Grandma Seilee,” as she hurriedly dressed for her days running. When Kisha stepped out, the old woman seemed to have aged twenty years. Her skin pale and drawn as she huddled close to the fire, hunched over like an old witch.
“Are you okay, Grandma Seilee?”
“NO! You should have been up hours ago. I’ve been freezing out here while you stay warm and snug in there!”
While the old woman ranted on the various injustices in her life, Kisha quickly made breakfast. It took a bit longer than usual, since Grandma Seilee did not move an inch to help. Jasmine arrived at her usual time, but grandmother complained of her tardiness. Kisha saw the color drain from the younger woman’s place and decided to have a word with Gof or Maia. She did not want the poor girl to travel with this ill-spirited woman, if possible.
After breakfast, Kisha excused herself to Jasmine, for the other two women were off doing their daily toilette. She scampered across the camp to Grandma Kira’s wagon but found the old woman gone. Instead, she spoke to her daughter, Canta, a woman with a warm and friendly eyes.
“Canta, I have taken the Doe’s Place, so I know I am not worth much, but could your wagon take my younger sister, Jasmine today? I fear my new grandmother is taking her frustration with me out on her. She is very sweet and mostly reads from her books; I’m sure she will be no problem, at all.” She watched the older woman’s face and could not read it.
“Of course, we would love to have Jasmine with us today. Please send her over anytime.”
“Thank you! Thank you Canta, and will you tell Grandma Kira I thank her as well, for, for everything?” She grinned and ran back to tell Jasmine the good news.
She arrived in time to see Grandma Seilee climbed into the carriage. Jasmine stood nearby and her face brighten when Kisha told her she would spend the day in Grandma Kira’s carriage. The younger woman stayed a bit longer as together all three women packed the belongings in and around the older woman. The slid boxes under their seat, bags in nooks over their heads, and even traveling blankets in the netting hanging down from the roof, all under the malevolent glare.
Later, Kisha and Maia accompanied Jasmine to Grandma Kira’s wagon. When they got there she did not see the old woman, but her two daughters welcomed Jasmine into their sunny carriage with smiles and promises of games and books. Kisha envied the companionship but knew it was her punishment to miss out on such activities. She promised herself that when she was no longer in the Doe’s Place, she would seek such traveling days with her neighbors. Maia, too, looked on with a little envy. Kisha wondered why her mother-in-law did not visit other neighbors. Maia and Kisha walked back in silence to her husband’s wagon.
Kisha looked around for Gof and spied his wide shoulders and narrow waist on the other side buckling the animals into place, her heart rose. His dark beard and soft lashes sent her heart aflutter and she looked down in case anyone saw her. Maia, had already climbed into the wagon. She made her way to the back of the vehicle, smiling to herself. He peeked around the carriage and saw her and his face split into a huge grin. They stood there smiling at each other when the call sounded for the caravan to head out. She waved and he blew her a kiss.
This morning, the fourth morning of her sentence, started out unlike the others. This morning, her legs wanted to run.
As her husband’s horses picked up speed, so did she and she wanted to go even faster. But with a long day ahead of her, she held herself in check. She realized that before she mostly jogged but now stretched out each stride as long as she could and it felt wonderful. She kept pace with the horses as they climbed higher and higher into the foothills. The slopes grew steep, but Grandpa Herbert was right; she was getting stronger.
Kisha kept up with her husband’s wagon for the entire morning. The neighbors in the carriage behind her husband waved to her and called out periodically as she ran. Kisha marveled that, though she was under a punishment, her neighbors gave her only encouragement.
“Do you need water, Kisha?” One of the women called from the window as it bumped along the dirt road. Kisha shook her head, smiled and lifted her goatskin.
Once the long stream of wagons approached a particularly, long climb and Kisha could not keep up pace with the two horses drawing her husband’s wagon. Over the next hour, wagon after wagon passed her on the trail. And when they did, children and women would greet her and cheer her on and men would wave and nod.
Kisha’s mind was full of thoughts as she ran. Finally, with the fresh air and the steady beat of her own soles on the ground let her mind wander freely. She wondered what had made her mother-in-law so bitter and angry? Why was Maia so quiet? Why didn’t they have more friends? Would they be nicer if they did? How could she help Jasmine? The girl was too young to get married and yet, her life with grandmother seemed particularly harsh lately. She felt closer to her sister-in-law than ever before. Perhaps they could talk of books and games together during the washing up again. And then she thought about Gof.
Pride swelled in her bosom when she thought of her tall, handsome husband. She had a day of running ahead and then she would see him again. Part of her could hardly wait to be alone in their tent again. Kisha thought she had so many blessings to count.
Her stomach rumbled and she looked around for Grandpa Herbert. He trotted along on Esmerelda at the back aways from the caravan. She stopped, turned and ran to meet him.
“Kisha! You are running the wrong way!” He gave a good-natured holler.
She waved back and shouted, “Grandpa, when shall we lunch?”
Two laughs greeted her and she remembered his wife would join him this day. Kisha looked up and wasn’t terribly surprised to see Grandma Kira atop Sega, one of the camels.
Grandma Kira called down, “Kisha, you run like a gazelle! So light and fast!”
The young woman did not no what to say, she nodded, grinned, and turned beet red.
“We will stop after the next ridge so we are out of the wind.” Added Grandpa Herbert.
They found a spot, near an outcropping of boulders to rest the herd and take a light lunch. This time, Grandma Kira and Kisha spread out the picnic. Between the two of them they made it look like a feast.
“Is that Maia’s stew? So delicious!” Grandma Kira crooned.
She nodded and then added. “Thank you so much for cleaning the binding for me. I don’t know how to repay you.”
“It is the least I could do for you, Kisha. The Doe’s Place is hard. You are truly strong; most women would not have fared as well.”
Kisha nodded and looked at her well-worn boots. The wind played with the hem of her dress.
“I do wish I could dress like a man to run in the Doe’s Place. The skirts get in the way. I keep tripping.”
Grandma Kira nodded. “I used to dress like a man.” The young woman gazed at her in surprise.
“Oh, many of us women have had to don trousers at one time or another. Maia, herself, used to wear them to drive her husband’s horse team after he died. Dresses are not just a hassle in the driver’s seat, the wind blows them up from below and you might as well wear nothing at all.”
The young woman tried to imagine her mother-in-law in trousers and could not.
“Do you think I can wear trousers during this time?” She whispered.
“You might be able to fit in mine.” Added Grandpa Herbert as he munched on some dried fruit.
Grandma Kira studied the girl. “You only have five, maybe even four days left at this speed.”
Kisha looked up. “I thought I had ten days to run; that would leave six more.”
Grandpa Herbert interrupted. “No, I think she’s right. We’ve been having some long days and I wouldn’t be surprised. We just have to make it over this mountain pass and the lagoon is on the other side.”
“We will climb those?” Kisha pointed at the tall, black forms looming before them. The elderly couple laughed.
“No, no, those are the Tendor Mountains and no one crosses them. No, there is a low pass just to the east there that takes us through.” Relief flooded her body, and she too started to laugh and then stopped. Sadness fell on her at the thought of having to travel again in the Torture Chamber. She sighed.
“What is it? Don’t you want to ride in the wagon again?” Asked Grandma Kira.
Kisha shook her head. “Grandma Seilee and Maia like the wagon dark, all day, every day. I hate riding in it.”
“Don’t you like to read, like Jasmine?” Asked Old Herbert. This time, Grandma Kira answered for her.
“No, Kisha get’s sick when she reads or sews. Isn’t that right, Kisha?”
Kisha nodded again. “Jasmine also does not care for the ride, I think. I sent her to your carriage because Grandma Seilee was in a bad mood and I was afraid they might take it out on the girl.”
“Yes, Canta told me.” She nibbled on some dried apricot. “So strange traveling with the curtains down all the time. It won’t do, especially when the babies start coming. Maia used to travel with her sister when Gof and his sister were in diapers. Many think it is unhealthy, but Grandma Seilee seems strong enough.”
The three ate in silence for a while.
“I will send you some trousers in the morning. If Herbert’s don’t fit, I have a few other pairs left over I was saving for my grandsons. It might go better if you ride with your skirt over the pants until you are back here with the goats.” The old woman suggested.
“That’s a wonderful idea! I want to run in pants but thought it would be awkward running by all our neighbors. Grandma Kira you are wise!” Kisha grinned.
They chatted for a while about the clan, the chief, and the many pranks one of his son’s pulled on various people, including Maia and Grandma Seilee. Finally, Grandpa Herbert said they should get going again, and everyone returned to their places. Sega lifted Grandma Kira and Esmerelda carried her husband, and Kisha returned to the flock and found the ewe and two goats.
Refreshed and rested, Kisha ran along the road and watched the landscape pass by. The dirt turned gray and the road began twisting and turning through the hills and valleys. Now cliffs and ravines appeared. At the top of one of these, she spied a lone wolf watching the procession. Kisha pointed it out to Grandpa Herbert.
“Yes, I see him. Just one is no threat; a pack is. Keep your ears open for their call and an eye out for any movement on the rocks. They like to spring down from above.”
Kisha did not like the sound of that, and she constantly scanned boulders and ledges for movement. Then a thought entered her mind and she voiced it to Grandpa Herbert.
“Grandpa, what do I do if a pack of wolves attacks?”
She almost repeated it, for he did not speak at first. “Excellent question, little Kisha.” He repeated the question to his wife; she traveled farther back and had not heard the first over the clamor of the herd. Something the old woman said, made him nod and he reached behind him and pulled out a long stick with a hook on the end.
“Take the shepherd’s hook, Kisha. If wolves attack you can hit them with this or pull them off with the hook.”
Kisha ran to his camel’s side and took the shepherd’s hook from him. It was longer than she was tall and wide enough that her fingers did not quite meet when she grasped it. Someone had sanded the dark red wood smooth. Now, she ran holding it in one hand, when that arm grew tired she switched to the other.
Their little caravan traveled higher into the hills as night began to fall. Kisha assumed they had another hour or so after dark before they saw the camps, but she was wrong. On this fourth day of the sentence, they crested a hill to see the clan camping below, in a protected box canyon. Kisha smelled roasting meat and cook fires and sprinted down the long slope towards the camp. The herd of goats joined her and Grandma Kira and Grandpa Herbert laughed as she and her four-legged running partners leapt over a log on their way to their journey’s end. The old couple was not the only ones watching. It seemed the entire clan was out to look at the young woman sprinting home with forty or so animals around her.
As she neared, Kisha remembered the hook in her hand and used it to gently slow and corral the animals. She coaxed them into the night pen Grandpa Herbert’s sons had erected and they shut the gate by the time the camels joined the crowd.
Gof made his way through the throng of neighbors and hugged his wife. Only then did she remember, her skirts were tied up and with a blushing face, she untied the knots and let them fall back into place.
Gof looked at her at arms reach and said, “Every day you are faster, Kisha! And today you run and leap with the goats after being on the road all day! You are amazing!” And he gave her another warm hug.
When he released her she looked about and saw all their neighbors crowded around the pen, smiling. A girl yelled. “You are the fastest runner in the world!” Kisha blushed and hugged the little one.
“Thank you!” She smiled and then looked for Gof and Jasmine. Her husband stood grinning proudly, but she did not see her sister-in-law among the neighbors. Several touched her on the sleeve and congratulated her. Kisha did not know what to say, but said “Thanks, thank you,” and then she stopped and addressed them, it came out more of a whisper than she intended, “I did not do this alone. My husband, my little sister, my mother-in-law, and Grandpa Herbert and Grandma Kira have all helped me. I am so lucky and so thankful to have such wonderful friends and family.” Her eyes met Gof’s and again, they stood grinning at each other.
“Where is Jasmine?” Gof’s eyes dimmed a bit.
“Getting dinner ready.” But his eyes said more; they said Jasmine was having a hard time with it.
“I must go to her.” And she shot off towards their wagon.
She heard Grandma Seilee and Maia before she saw them. Her rants filled the air like noxious gas. Taking a deep breath, Kisha plunged into the center. Her appearance stoked her grandmother-in-law’s anger. She touched Jasmine lightly on the sleeve and caught Maia’s eye to let them know they were not alone and took over chopping the vegetables. They worked without talking, while the old matriarch sat on her stool keeping a running list of Kisha’s faults. Both Jasmine and Kisha assumed this would progress through dinner, however, in a few minutes, the older woman fell silent. Kisha looked around to see what had caused this and saw her husband had finished his chores and now stood behind the two girls.
Kisha turned and he said, “You are both fine workers and fine women.” Then he turned to his mother, “You are a good mother.”
To Grandma Seilee he said nothing, but slowly lowered himself onto the stool opposite. Kisha continued to make the dinner but stole a glance at Jasmine. Tears streaked her face and fringed her long lashes. She didn’t know why she did it, but Kisha put her arm around her younger sister and drew her close. Jasmine pushed her away and smiled and then laughed. The tension seemed to ease a bit and Maia and Kisha questioned Jasmine about her day in Grandma Kira’s carriage.
This time, Maia, Jasmine, Gof, and Kisha talked through dinner. This was a first. They mostly talked about the wolves. Kisha wanted to learn all she could, and her husband knew a great deal since he had fought them a few times. He told her their weaknesses and their strengths, where to hit with the staff and what to avoid. Maia explained how wonderful parents wolves can be and how they look after their own pups or their nephews and nieces. Jasmine had read more about the wolves in one of her books. Their only enemies are men and dragons; sand serpents rarely attack wolves. The four threw about theories for why this was. The discussion lasted through dinner and the washing up.
No one spoke to Grandma Seilee as they worked around the brooding woman. She sent daggers to Gof whenever she could, but he seemed to be wearing a coat invisible armor that night.
Maia stayed with Kisha and helped her get everything ready for the next morning, and it was she who saw the owl soar over. She pointed out the black silhouette against the starry sky to Kisha and they shared a moment of reverence.
Later, Maia walked Kisha to her tent. “Sleep well, Kisha.”
Kisha nodded. “You too, Maia.”
“Perhaps when you are done in the Doe’s Place, we can visit Grandma Kira’s wagon together.”
Kisha nodded, “Yes, that would be nice.” She shuddered at spending another day in Grandma Seilee’s torture chamber.
When Kisha opened the flap of her tent, there knelt her husband, with a hot basin of water, a towel, and a suggestive smile. She grinned, giggled, and closed the tent.
The Story Continues with The Runner: The Fifth Day