"A wanderer has come," said Elwyn. "My mother is with her."
I wiped my rolling pin carefully with a cloth and put it down on the counter. "How is she?"
Elwyn's face twisted into a sad smile. "She is as they ever are. She has at least not been damaged in the forest." I knew she was thinking of the last wanderer who had come. A girl of twelve or thirteen, she had been so savaged by beasts when she found the doorstep of Elwyn's cottage that she had not survived the night. That had been nearly two years ago, and the memory still brought a shadow to both of our faces.
The wanderers were always young girls, of no less than eleven nor more than seventeen years, and they had been coming to our village since I was a child of like age. Sometimes two or three would come in a year; sometimes years would pass. Elwyn's cottage was at the edge of the forest, and so more often than not it was she or Tarawen her mother that first found them. They would be rubbing their eyes, looking around in some combination of wonder and terror, babbling their strange speech.
We tried to do our best by these girls, but it was never good enough. Some of them went mad. Some of them slipped off into the woods when we weren't looking; we found some bones, aye, but I like to think that perhaps some of them made it back to where it was that they were going, when they lost their way and ended up here. None of them ever spoke Westron, but I remember one spoke some words fair in the Elvish tongue – at least, that's what Tarawen claimed it was – and we thought she might do all right. But she refused to work, and I had to beat her, of course; and when Denesar offered to marry her she spit in his face. We found her body in the river.
If only one of them had stayed with us, had kept her wits and her sanity, we might have used her to interpret for the others. But this had never been the case. As Elwyn and I hurried to her cottage, I hoped that this girl might be different.
It was with a heavy heart that we entered Elwyn's cottage, for we could hear the screaming while we were still outside the gate. Tarawen shook her head and told us sadly that the girl had been pounding on the door and calling out in her strange language ever since Elwyn had locked her in. "Poor dear," she said. "She's a pretty one, too. I hope we can save her."
"I hope so too," I said, and Elwyn and I looked at each other for a moment; then I nodded, and Elwyn took the key from her pocket and unlocked the door to her store-room.
The screams broke off when the girl saw us. She curled her lip in a sneer and thrust out her chin, but I could see the marks on her face from her tears. She demanded something of us, I don't know what. I held out the cakes I'd brought from the shop, and the jug of sweet juice. At first she sniffed at the juice with suspicion; then she drank it down, and a cake quickly followed into her mouth. She was hungry, the poor child. I wondered how long she had been lost in the forest before she had found Elwyn's cottage.
While she ate and drank, I looked her over. She had perhaps fourteen years, maybe fifteen, and she was dressed in strange garments of the same style that the other wanderers had worn; faded blue leggings that clung tightly to her body – obscenely tightly, in my opinion – with a hooded tunic that was split down the front to reveal a tight under-shirt underneath. The under-shirt was decorated with a pattern that looked like runes, although not runes in any language I recognized. (I have copied them here from memory: AC/DC.) Her shoulder-length hair was brown with streaks of blonde, and her face was painted about the eyes, blue on the lids and a tear-streaked black around the rims. I wanted to hug her to me, but did not dare.
She finished the cake, then a second. Then she said something to me in her language.
I shook my head. "I'm sorry, dear, I don't understand you."
She repeated what she had said. Her head swiveled rapidly between Elwyn and me. More urgent-sounding words spilled from her between breaths that were turning to sobs, and I took her hand carefully in mine.
"I'm Kyra," I said, as gently as I could.
She eyed me with distrust. "Kyra," I repeated, tapping my chest with my other hand. Elwyn and Tarawen copied me, saying their names and tapping their own chests.
I held up our joined hands and tapped the girl's chest with my other. "And you?"
"Heather," she said, and she burst into tears.