Kisha slept well again and had to be awaken by Gof. She smiled and kissed his bearded cheek before she dressed herself. Grandma Kira and Jasmine had left her another clean binding and her heart warmed again to these kind women.
Once outside, Grandma Seilee hissed “You’re late, lazy ingrate! You are a worthless daughter-in-law, you know that?”
Kisha wondered what put Grandma Seilee in such a foul mood so early in the morning. Jasmine must have heard her complaining and it wasn’t long before the two worked together to make breakfast and assemble the lunches. All the while Grandma Seilee kept an unending list first of Kisha and then, Jasmine’s faults. When she began complaining about Jasmine, Maia quietly protested, but with no avail.
Gof did not hear this interchange, or little of it, for he was quenching his animals’ thirst on the other side of camp at the water wagon. Kisha kept her head down and stayed on her work, but Jasmine fumbled about, clearly upset. Kisha looked at her sister-in-law and saw tears streaming down the young face. She stopped and held the young woman’s hand. Jasmine gave a little nod and they kept working. They did not see Grandma Kira and her kin pass by behind the camp.
Gof returned for breakfast. He paused and looked at Jasmine and his wife. Kisha looked back at her husband and an understanding passed between them. He then looked at Grandma Seilee and his mother, Maia. At his look, Maia glanced down into her eggs and meat. Grandma Seilee suddenly found something to look at on the other side. Kisha sipped her morning cup of coffee and wondered what had changed her husband.
As the young women packed up the wagon, they talked quietly. Kisha asked Jasmine what book she was reading and Jasmine began explaining the story. Both relaxed a little as they worked and in no time they finished their chores and looked around. Maia was nowhere to be seen and Grandma Seilee had climbed in the wagon to sleep.
“Is it hard to run all the way, Kisha?” Asked Jasmine.
Kisha nodded. “Yes, it is hard.” She would have like to say more but knew Grandma Seilee’s sharp ears lurked just feet away from them and she had no doubt that every word she uttered would be used against her, eventually.
“Are you okay, Jasmine?” Instead of nodding, her sister-in-law looked at the ground. Kisha grew very worried. She did not like leaving Jasmine alone with her mother and grandmother but she did not think that in the Doe’s Place she could help. She felt isolated, powerless to help her young sister-in-law.
“I wish I could help you Jasmine.” Was all she could say. Tears welled in her friend’s eyes and she held her hand. Silently, they watched the rest of the camp get ready for the day. Too soon, it was clear the call would be made. Gof appeared from the far side of the camp and assessed the wagon, equipment and his animals. He crossed to his wife and sister and looked at Kisha but said nothing but affection showed plain in his eyes. Then he looked at his sister and put up a hand gesturing that she should wait.
Maia came out from between two wagons and looked over her shoulder as if waiting for someone. There was a shout,
“Jasmine!” It was her friend Nefrita running towards her. “Come ride with us today! Mamma says it’s okay!”
A smile broke across the young woman’s face and she beamed at Kisha, Maia, and Gof. Remembering that Kisha would have to run the entire way, her grin dimmed a bit but the young wife bade her sister-in-law to go, saying,
“You’ve earned it. Be with your friends, Jasmine. I will feel better for it.” The girl nodded and skipped off to the other wagon.
On this third day of her punishment, Kisha tried again to keep up with her husband’s wagon. Her muscles complained bitterly at having to run, but not quite as loudly as before. Although they started with a climb out of the valley, soon, they began a slow descent down the other side. Kisha stretched her legs and this time kept pace with the caravan. After twenty minutes her breathing found its now-familiar pattern with her pace. However, as the ground swelled beneath, her energy lagged, and by the time the train reached the next ridge, Kisha had dropped back to jog with her four-legged pacesetters, the pregnant goats and the solitary ewe.
The morning burned bright and the sun beat down on her brown dress. Sweat beaded her brow as she ran, but Kisha did not feel terribly uncomfortable. She watched the goats as they ran and again unhooked old Chester from another collared beast while they all trotted down the road. She listened to the animals calling to each other and smiled when a camel let out a particularly loud snort that sounded like Grandma Seilee. Clouds passed across the desert sky providing blissful moments of cool shade. To the south, the hills rose higher and darker on the horizon. On just the other side of the mountain range lay Pinkmar’s Lagoon and the end of her sentence.
Old Herbert and Kisha lunched alone in the shade of some Acacia trees near a dry riverbed. The goats grazed the nearby vegetation and the camels rested, chewing their cud. A cool breeze wound its way down the mountain and brushed her brow and billowed her head scarf. She smiled. Kisha drank cool water, ate spicy meat and fresh bread and even had some olives for dessert. Old Herbert also ate and watched his animals.
“Tomorrow my wife will ride with me.” Kisha looked up at his smiling face. He continued. “We have been married all our lives and I still look forward to when she joins me here at the back of the train.”
“I thought women weren’t supposed to ride out here.” Kisha asked.
“True, true, but when you get to be old you can change the rules. My wife, she changed the rules.” His broken grin shone with pride. “Like now, normally, you would not speak to a man outside your family; at least not without other relatives around, right?”
Kisha nodded and looked down.
“Don’t be ashamed. I do not see Grandma Seilee out here or Maia? I was there when Chief Morocono ordered your husband to keep his place in the train. He sipped from his goatskin. “Gof wanted to travel back here with you.”
“Truth is, we have to talk, communicate. I am old, so I shall call you my granddaughter for now.”
He munched on some nuts and watched the clouds move overhead. “I must confess, I never liked Seilee; she’s a bully. I told this to my wife; who is very wise and do you know what she said?” Kisha shook her head. “She said Kisha’s problem is not that she has a new grandmother but that she does not have two new grandmothers.”
Kisha laughed but she had no idea what Old Herbert was talking about, Gof’s father died when he was thirteen and he had told her his father’s parents had died long before that. She tried to remember who Old Herbert’s wife was, there were three or four older women in the group and none of them spent much time with Maia or Grandma Seilee. Now that she thought of it, their campfire was rarely visited by anyone except during holidays.
Kisha saved some of her lunch for later and stood up ready to go. Grandpa Herbert, as she thought of him now, also readied himself for the road. As he petted the velvet nose of Esmerelda he looked over his shoulder and called. “You are stronger today Kisha, you will finish this journey with honor.” His head gave a little bow and he climbed on his ride.
Kisha warmed with the compliment. How she had missed the companionship being bound to Grandma Seilee and Maia all day. She thought of her mother and sisters and missed them terribly. She had had quarrels with her family but her mother-in-law and her mother seemed angry all the time. She thought of this as they began jogging along the road and up another hill.
As the day wore on, the inclines grew longer and the declines, shorter. Kisha began playing games with herself to make it up the slopes without stopping. She would challenge herself to run to a rock and then to the next. She would give herself points if she kept up with the goats and take away points if she dropped back or walked. Another one she tried was crossing through the goat herd while they jogged ahead. She concentrated on passing between the animals without touching them. Some ran close together, but others preferred space around them.
“What on earth are you doing, little Kisha?” Grandpa Herbert finally called down.
She blushed and replied.
“Playing a game.”
She thought he would tell her to stop but instead he just laughed and repeated “A game!”
The afternoon flew by and before she knew it, the sun lay low on the horizon. This night, fear crept in early. Their journey had brought them to rolling hills and the black wall of Tendor Mountain Range loomed before them like a dark omen. Kisha searched the skies for the moon and saw none.
“Grandpa Herbert! Where is the moon tonight? Do you see it from up there?” She called.
“The moon has not risen yet, little one. It probably won’t for hours yet. But we have the stars.” he sensed her concern and added “I have an extra lamp here, if you need it, but try to run without it. Sometimes starlight is all you need on the road.”
Kisha nodded and kept jogging. She stopped the games and pushed on. Something small and dark darted across the road and made her jump.
“What was that, Little Kisha?” Grandpa asked, for he urged Esmerelda to her side.
“Something small and brown. A mole or a rat, I think.” She answered.
“Keep an eye out. They are rock rats and are harmless but if you see a whole bunch of them all at once, tell me. It means a sand serpent is around.”
Kisha nodded and hoped that moment would never come.
The stars came out in all their brilliance, casting a sparkling net across the deep blue sky. It provided just enough light to cast subtle shadows on the rocks and valleys. As they climbed through the foothills more rodents darted here and there across the path at times. Sometimes they shot to the west and other times to the east and one poor confused creature raced along under the goat’s hooves for a time before it finally made up its mind.
The road ran due south but the ground beneath changed from rock to sand to hard packed earth. Kisha found the sand the hardest to run on , so tried to avoid it, if possible. The center of the road and the far edges usually provided better traction, and so she chose these spots, even in the dark. Running along, the ground turned sandy and her feet sunk down with each step. She scanned for firmer spot on the road as she loped, but saw none.
Suddenly, several brown shapes darted across from right to left. She yelled “Grandpa!” and a scream sounded from one of the goats.
Esmerelda the camel charged through the herd and she heard a loud crack as the whip sounded in the dark. Something had a hold on one of the goats, and the round stomach told her it was one of the pregnant ones. Suddenly another shape shot from Kisha’s side and drove itself at the trapped goat the same time as the whip cracked again. The shape raised itself and slammed into a black band around the goat’s middle. It backed up and crashed over and over. Kisha was amazed at old Chester’s perseverance and her heart warmed to the ram. Finally, the slithering monster released and the nanny goat scampered away.
“Move them to solid ground! Move them to rock!” Grandpa Herbert ordered.
Kisha helped him drive the herd up the road another fifty feet until they found firmer ground. Even then he pushed them farther up the mountain before he assessed the pregnant goat’s condition. It wasn’t hard to find her; she was the one limping.
He lit his lamp and handed it to Kisha to hold. “Yes, her leg’s hurt. Not broken, I think, but she won’t move fast on this.” He turned her around and checked all sides. “It looks like she’ll be fine. I’ll hitch her up on Sega at the back. He can carry her to camp. Tomorrow she can ride atop one of the wagons.”
Kisha nodded. “Chester really tried to save her!”
“Yes, funny that. Sometimes they try to help and sometimes they let the beast take them. Never can tell.”
It took them a while to bind the goat and raise her onto the camel. The creature struggled in her confinement and complained loudly for the first hour.
“She doesn’t want the rest?” Kisha called up to the old goat herder. He nodded.
“Goats prefer to travel on their own four feet.”
Not long after their run in with the sand serpent, Old Herbert and Kisha arrived at the camp. The climbed out of a valley and saw the glow of campfires down a canyon to the side. While they approached the settled wagons and tents, Kisha searched for Gof, but could not see him. Her heart sank until she heard a sharp whistle and the sound of running feet. He came from the back, still holding his plate.
“Kisha!” he called and ran towards her. She took his plate, while he wrapped his arms around her and held her close. “You’re early; we just sat down for supper.” He held her at arm’s length and looked at her up and down and then brushed a lock of hair from her brow. “You are so fast. I…”
“You’re wife helped me fight off a sand serpent! Saved a nanny goat, the one hollering atop of Sega.” Herbert called as he led his camels to them. The goats swarmed about the couple and one tried to reach Gof’s dinner plate. A few short commands and the creature went back to four legs.
Kisha and her husband helped Herbert and his relatives get the goats and sheep set for the night before they returned to the campfire.
Jasmine greeted Kisha with a warm hug. “You are okay! Here, have some dinner; you must be starving.”
Kisha greeted Grandma Seilee and Maia and then accepted the plate from her sister-in-law. The two young women sat together across from the older women. Gof refilled his plate and sat with them.
“I was afraid something had happened to you and Old Herbert had to put you on one of his camels; that was why you were early.” Jasmine whispered.
“No, not only that, but a sand serpent attacked one of the pregnant goats and we chased him off. Even Chester, the old ram, was butting his horns into the beast. It was amazing.” Kisha said and she took another bite of stew. “This tastes wonderful! Did you make this Maia?”
“Yes, I thought it might help make you stronger.” She blushed as she said this and lowered her eyes.
Grandma Seilee, growled. “Maia shouldn’t have to cook. She has a daughter-in-law to do this! You, Kisha, should be here and cooking!”
Gof stood up and stared at his grandmother. Her mouth snapped shut but her eyes burned. Maia looked like she wanted to speak but held her tongue as well. Jasmine inched closer to Kisha and she suspected the younger woman’s time with Nefrita’s wagon hadn’t lasted long enough.
“How was your day with Nefrita, Jasmine?” Kisha ignored the oldest woman’s glares.
Jasmine gave a small smile and then said, “Good, good. Her little nephews are such a handful! The baby is so sweet, though. He slept on my lap for a whole hour today.” And the two went on to discuss the adorable antics of Nefrita’s growing family.
As was fast becoming a routine, Kisha first shooed Jasmine to read her book, and Maia helped her clean up the dishes and get everything ready for the next day.
“Good night Maia. Sleep well.” She said to her mother-in-law as they approached their tents.
“Good night Kisha, I am glad you ran well today.” Maia looked as though again she would say something but instead she turned and opened the flap of her tent.
Kisha retired to her tent and found Gof waiting with a towel and bowl to wipe away the day’s run. After he finished cleaning her, she waved away the night dress and took him by the hand to their bed.
Although they had been married for almost two years, that night they made love like never before. The touches were now caresses and each kiss meant more than the last. Later, lying in her husband’s arms that night she fell asleep with a smile on her lips, listening to his gentle breathing.
The Story Continues with The Runner: The Fourth Day