Romena woke me up in the morning, just before dawn breaking the sky. The air was cold and I shivered under my thin layer of clothing.
“Come, Alice. Make haste! You must leave before they come.”
I rubbed my eyes tiredly. I pulled myself together and washed my face with cold water inside a bucket at the back of the house. Romena didn’t look as weary as she did last night. In fact, her face was set in determination as she shuffled around and busied herself with tasks. For an old lady with a walking stick, she sure walked fast.
She came back with a set of clothing and thrust it towards me.
“Go change. These belonged to my son. They should fit you nicely as you are remarkably built for a female.”
She pulled out a long layer of white clothing that looked like a bandage.
“We need to bind your chest, Alice. Now this is very important. Your path to Sirandil will be dangerous. I fear you will travel on a thorny road filled with dangerous people. It’s better that you disguise yourself as a man. In this world, women are not taken so kindly. If they see you without a male, they will take you with no hesitation.”
“Wait, you mean, I should disguise myself as a man during my time here?” I said in bafflement. Seriously, to go that far?
“Do not underestimate the wickedness in this world, Alice. Women are often preyed upon. Please, to give this old lady peace. Disguise yourself. Do not ever show to anyone that you’re a female.” Her eyes pleaded with me.
Bewildered, I allowed her to sit me down on the bed and took off my tunic. She wrapped the white cloth around my chest carefully and flattened my breasts. I didn’t have big breasts in the first place and I think we were both thankful for that. It would’ve made the job to conceal my gender more difficult.
Next, I donned a black tunic, featuring a long hem that fell somewhere between my hips and my knees. It felt light and comfortable to wear which I hoped would make my journey more pleasant. I wrapped a brown, leather belt around my waist and fastened the buckle. Despite my reluctance, Romena handed me a bag of coins and strapped it on to my belt.
“I’ve no need for it anymore, Alice.” She simply replied.
She also hung a small knife in its sheath on to my belt and a small rope. Heck, I looked like I was going mountain climbing; or on a death crusade. I put on knee high leather boots, their soles thick and slightly muddy from the previous owner. I pulled a face but didn’t think much about wearing a dead man’s clothing. Just think about the practicality, Alice. I could almost whistle to myself to clear my brain.
I grabbed a fistful of my hair and looked at it mournfully. Would I need to cut it in order to dress as a man? It would be a shame. I kept my hair long as a memento of my mother.
“Would I need to cut my hair?” I asked Romena.
“Why do you want to do that?” Romena asked, confused.
“Don’t I look like a woman with long hair? How would I fool people that I’m a man?”
“Oh Heaven’s child, do not worry about that. They would see you as a male, despite your femininity. Women don’t wear breeches. We simply wear dresses. Besides, a lot of males keep their hair long. It’s an honour to have long hair. It’s a mark of a warrior.”
Satisfied that I did not need to cut it, I ran my fingers through my hair to untangle some of the knots. Times like these I wished for a hair brush. I pulled my hair back and tied it with a hair band.
Romena also wrapped a brown, woollen cloak over me and fastened a brooch in the middle. I nearly melted with pleasure at the unexpected warmth, my body heat cocooned under the cloak. And lastly, she fetched a sword standing against the wall near the fireplace. She came to me with the sword resting on both of her palms.
“You were clutching this sword when I found you. I gathered that you took it from the battle?”
“It’s a good sword. It’s made from a fine, quality metal. It’s a knight’s sword, the blade is still sharp. I’m glad you managed to take the sword of our enemy rather than a pitchfork. I managed to find a scabbard that fits nicely with the sword. It belonged to my late granpappy. He used to own a sword too.”
She sheathed the sword into a plain, leather scabbard and hooked the scabbard on my belt.
“You will need this sword, Alice. It will help to increase your chances of survival for the world is wicked and full of monsters.”
She opened her front door and urged me to follow her. “Come. We must make haste.”
I quickly followed her. She pulled a horse from its stable by the reins. My face went pale. I’ve never ridden a horse before.
“Come, Alice.” Romena urged me again.
I walked slowly, constantly aware of the horse looking at me with its huge, black eyes under the heavy, thick eyelashes.
Romena patted the horse and handed him some sugar cubes which he lapped hungrily with his mouth. Ugh, that’s gotta tickle. My hands hovered over the saddle, unsure of what to do.
“Sorry, Romena. I’ve never ridden one before,” I said truthfully.
“It’s not that hard, Alice. Put your feet on the stirrup and hoist yourself on the saddle.”
I clutched the horse’s mane with my hand. I put my other hand on the horse’s back and with a deep breath I stepped on the stirrup and pulled myself up. Holy crap. I forced myself not to fall. I fought not to squirm on the saddle. The leather saddle felt uncomfortable. The ground suddenly looked quite far.
“Alice, don’t be scared. The horse can sense if you’re scared and you will only agitate it. Trust the horse’s instincts. He will take you where you want to go.”
I held the reins with my hands. “Okay, gotcha.”
Romena smiled and handed me something warm wrapped in cloth. “Breakfast. I made some bread this morning and I put in some apples. Now we must bid good bye, Alice.”
“Wait, you’re not coming with me?” I asked confused. “Romena, come with me before the army comes. It’s still not too late.”
Romena shook her head and raised her knobby hands. “No, Alice. I shall remain here.”
“But you will die,” I choked in surprise.
“And I’m ready for it. Don’t worry about me, Alice. I’ve already decided to die here with my husband and my sons. I will join them shortly. Believe me, Alice. Thanks to you, I can die in peace. It was destiny who brought you to me and I am relieved to be part of the prophecy.”
She held my hands tenderly, her eyes glistened with tears.
“Thank you, Alice. Thank you so much. I fear your road may be forged with thorns and violence but you are the child emerged from blood and death. I have all faith in you, Alice. I know you will save this world.”
“Romena, that’s not true. I can’t even ride a horse properly,” I said in frustration.
“His name is Kyrie. Take care of him for me, Alice. I hope my horse is useful to you.”
“Thank you for everything, Romena. But I must persuade you to come with me. I do not want to leave knowing you will die.” I tried to cajole her to come with me again but she was already shaking her head.
Kyrie suddenly froze before he tapped his hooves on the ground in restless motion. His ears cocked irritably and he snorted heavily. I held on to the reins tighter.
Romena stopped to listen before her eyes grew wide in horror. “They’re coming. Go, Alice. Go!”
“Come with me.” I shook my head.
“Alice, I’m too frail. And I will not leave this place,” she said stubbornly. She reached out and slapped Kyrie’s rump. “Go!”
The horse neighed and galloped forward. I clutched the reins and clung on for my dear life. My cloak billowed backwards against the wind.
I looked back, my hair whipped my face. Romena was standing watching me with her hand in the air.
Go. And may the gods be with you.
I tried to steer the horse back but I did not know how. Knowing I left Romena behind to her fate, I let the tears fall as Kyrie galloped towards the horizon, just as the first light broke the sky into millions of fractured suns.
I closed my eyes throughout the entire journey. My face was buried close to Kyrie’s neck and my hands clutched his thick mane rather than the reins. I could feel the wind blowing fiercely as he galloped through, my cloak flapped loudly behind me.
It was only when I felt the horse was slowing down into a trot that I finally lifted my face from his neck. I looked around me in amazement. Oh hell, where was I now? The road ahead was becoming more sparse and broken, before it blended into the forest ahead. I carefully jumped off the horse, and stretched my back, for it ached after the long hours of horse riding.
The forest was full of lush green; tall trunks of trees with their leaves perching high at the top, the sun splitting through the branches. The forest floor shone like spotlights of a disco ball. I pulled Kyrie with me using the reins as we waded into the forest, holding to the small comfort of the sound of Kyrie’s soft hooves on the grass. The horse huffed and he shifted his legs backwards but I held on the reins tight and murmured a few comforting notes. I grabbed an apple from the cloth and offered him one. Kyrie ate the apple greedily and I took another apple and ate my fill.
I heard the rushing sound of water and we followed towards the noise. Sure enough, there was small stream gushing down, splitting the forest. I kneeled down and cupped a few mouthfuls of the spring water. To my delight, the water tasted clear and very fresh, like dew drops in the first morning. It tasted better than any water I’ve tasted in my world. Kyrie also followed suit and soon, we were silent apart from the gulping sounds of drinking water. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and pulled out a piece of bread. I sat on a boulder and chewed the bread mechanically with my teeth, admiring the scenery around me.
It was breath taking and I wouldn’t have minded spending the rest of my day relaxing here. I tilted my head back and inhaled the clear, wonderful aroma of nature. There was no pollution here. The breeze was cool and delicious to my lungs.
I got up and tied the reins around a tree trunk.
“Be good, Kyrie. I’m just going to get some more food.”
The horse huffed and stamped with its hooves but I merely patted his neck before I set off to explore.
My boots were comfortable to walk in as I climbed over some rocks and explored the forest, looking for something to eat. Sure enough, some trees bore heavy amounts of apples. I pulled some down, storing some in my pockets for Kyrie. I found some berries in bramble bushes and popped a few of those delicious, blackberries into my mouth.
I pulled my tunic with my fingers and sniffed. Shall I also take a bath? There must be a river somewhere or waterfall. I walked towards the upper stream, pocketing more berries from the brambles. An apple dropped from my pocket and I bent down to reach for it when a shadow flitted across my vision. Huh? I looked up and froze. In front of me, there was a strange looking creature.
It reached barely to my waist. It was naked, its grey skin sunken to its bones. It didn’t look like it had much meat in it. Its face was pretty oval, with its mouth stretched wide. It had a small, stout nose and large, beady eyes. It had long, pointed ears like an elf. Its back was hunched as it looked at me with its huge eyes.
I kneeled there, surprised. It looked like...Gollum from Lord of The Rings. Wow, they actually have a creature that looked like Gollum! I picked the apple and stretched my hand out, offering the apple to it. It looked pretty...cute if you could ignore that hideous skin. Aww, look at him looking at me like that…
I almost made a cooing noise before it opened its jaws wide and gnashed its teeth. My eyes widened in horror. Its mouth was covered with long rows of razor sharp teeth that looked like chainsaws and when it snapped its teeth together, it sounded like a meat grinder.
It jumped after me and we collided. I yelled as we rolled down the forest floor. I tried to push its shoulders away from my face as it gnashed its jaws at me. I was such an idiot. No wonder it looked at me with gooey eyes, I was its food! And I was luring it with my own hand.
We grappled on the forest floor. It was surprisingly strong considering its small body. I gritted my teeth and tried to push it off me but it was relentless. Spittle from its jaws splattered my face and I blanched with revulsion. That little bastard grabbed my head with its hands and banged my head repeatedly against the rocks underneath me. My screams became muffled as I struggled, my legs thrashing wildly.
A sudden burst of dizziness and nausea claimed me as he brought my head down again and smashed my skull against the rocks. My teeth rattled and I bit my tongue, drawing out blood. It only caused the beast to howl in hunger before it brought its jaws down to feast on me.
I lost my hold on its shoulders and I could only watch helplessly when it crashed down towards me. But before it could bring its jaws an inch from my face, he suddenly disappeared from view. Through my blurry eyes, I saw someone had bludgeoned that little beast with a rock.
My vision clouded and I faded into unconsciousness.