The heavy tread of soldier feet across the floor boards above rained debris on my hair. I didn’t care. Huddled between the almost empty flour barrel and a bin of eye-ridden potatoes, I was safe. Breathing the scents of dirt and darkness freshly disturbed, I prayed for the stranger stranded in our barn.
Where could he escape to?
They would search the barn. They always did.
Press gangs, the latest danger under the Enforcer’s regime, were usually the worst of our worries. Thankfully Father was in the fields, Mother and Ander had left for Suzette’s farm with the morning sun. A journey that took hours, they would be safely ensconced in her kitchen by now. I alone remained.
I had spotted the band of men when they turned off the road. There had been plenty of time to hide in the storage cellar, but not to warn the handsome stranger in the barn.
My gut twisted over like kneaded dough. I was such a coward.
A crash above jolted me from my thoughts.
“Nothing here of value,” one man called to another. The clatter of Mother’s pot rack plunging to the hearth stones drown all other sounds. Father would have to un-dent pans tonight.
“Porintate! Cease that ruckus, idiot!” the leader ordered.
“The weasel said he saw the westerner headed this way,” the first voice complained.
“He must’ve passed by without stopping,” a third suggested.
Someone kicked the slop bucket. It skittered across the uneven boards above me. The stench of rotting apples, turnips, and cabbage filled my nose as glops of liquid dripped on my hair and face.
A distant yell, probably from the yard, pulled anxiety into my chest. I strained my ears, fearing what I might learn. Had they found him?
“Barn is empty, sir.”
The man in charge swore in explicit detail. My cheeks burned despite my heavy sigh of relief.
“What was that?”
Clamping hand to mouth, I pulled back so my shoulder blades dug into the earth behind me. Cold wetness seeped into my scalp. The acidic sting of onion assaulted my eyes.
Please protect him, Deus. I plead with every fiber of faith I possessed. He was a God of miracles, right? Lord Mynth’s son had survived the battle of Catrona to return and offer us hope. My sister Suzette married and delivered a healthy child despite her limp. Surely He would spare the blond stranger from the press gangs of the Enforcer.
“Get moving!” the leader barked. “He must have continued without stopping. Catch some chickens for our supper. Shift your lazy bones. The Enforcer says the traitors are somewhere in the valley.”
“A reward for those who find them too,” the second voice added.
“Yes, Porintate, now stir your carcass. You are blocking the door.”
After a short period of yelling and cursing as they captured the chickens, they finally left.
I raised my hand to pull myself up when sound above made me pause.
Had they returned? I listened to the silence. Perhaps one of the goats had wandered into the house.
I jumped. My head struck the potato bin. A cry of pain uttered unbidden seemed a small matter as stars blossomed across my vision.
He heard. Heavy footfalls crossed straight to the loose boards. Before I panicked, he worked the first plank free.
“Are you alright?”
Relief flooded me at the sight of his worried features. It was my blond stranger.
“They didn’t find you?”
“Of course.” He pulled the next board out and then offered me a hand. No, it resembled a bear paw, massive like the rest of him. He lifted me up, with one arm.
I was not a delicate woman. Mother called me sturdy from birth. A sharp contrast to frail Suzette, I rarely fell ill and always managed any task set to me. So, when the stranger hauled me from the cellar with no visible effort, it took my breath away. Once on my feet, I had to step away from him to catch my equilibrium.
“Your head throbbing?” He lifted a hand toward my slop-crusted mop of mud-colored hair.
“Yes. The pain will pass. I have experienced worse.”
He frowned at me. With blue eyes the shade of a summer sky and thick blond hair, he looked like none born in the valley. Stranger still was his perplexed gaze.
“Thank you.” I straightened my filthy skirt, swatting feebly at the dust streaks.
“I will come back and check on you later.”
My head came up of its own accord. “What?” The word slipped past my lips before I caught it. My cheeks warmed. “Sorry, it’s just that…” I stumbled to a halt when I focused on his face. All thoughts fled.
He was smiling. He waited politely, but I couldn’t speak. Words mobbed my thoughts, but they all were wrong.
“Might I know your name?” he asked.
He nodded and strode toward the door, stooping to not hit his head on the lintel.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and managed to ask, “And yours?”
He paused outside the doorway, lowering his head so he could see me still standing midst the pots and slop in the kitchen.
“Svhen Bejork.” He straightened and then paused. Leaning a hand against the outer wall, he lowered his voice. “I am in the service of Tourth Mynth. Should you need me, send someone to the ruins and ask for Svhen.”
Then, after another bone-melting smile, he was gone.
It took me a full three minutes to gather my senses. I scrambled to the door in time to spot his broad shoulders disappearing among the trees beyond the barn. Watching after him until even the gleam of the sun on his head was out of sight, I clutched my hands to my chest like a ninny.