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Theodred's Tale  by Elana

Chapter 8 – Careful Enough

Elana eased carefully to her feet and settled Deore down into the folds of the carrying cloth. She sighed in relief as the baby stayed asleep, body limp and relaxed. Deore had been at her most contrary today, sleeping peacefully during most of the walk from their forest camp to Waymeet, only to wake as Elana approached the outskirts of the town. She had been cheerful and alert, eager to gaze in fascination at the exciting world around her, and completely unwilling to have her face covered. She expressed her displeasure with screams and thrashing when Elana tried. So Elana surrendered to fate, settled down in a sunny spot next to the stream, and played with her child. Deore was just beginning to flash an occasional gummy smile, and Elana was urged to new heights of exaggerated faces and ridiculous noises every time she was rewarded with a wide-eyed grin. Eventually they tired of the game, and Elana nibbled on the lunch she’d brought, trying not to dwell on her impatience as the sun moved across the sky. Finally Deore settled into contented nursing. The gentle babble of the brook had nearly lulled Elena, too, to sleep, when she realized the baby was finally napping.

Deore remained asleep as Elana carefully arranged the carrying cloth to conceal her face, then picked up her bundle and set off toward the town. She passed a few outlying houses, and then came to the first streets. She looked off toward the smith’s forge, where she could hear the ringing of Teolar’s hammer. Later, she promised herself firmly. First she must take care of the business she came for, and then she could enjoy a brief visit with her friends.

The town was busy, and she passed more and more people as she drew near its center, until when she reached the central square where the markets and stores were located, crowds surrounded her. The noise and smells and close pressing bodies were overwhelming after so long alone in the quiet forest. Exhilarated at first, Elana soon tired of squeezing between people to gaze at the variety of fruits and vegetables for sale, or to admire some trinket brought in trade from a distant land. No one took any notice of her; mothers with babes tucked in carrying cloths or toddlers strapped to their backs were everywhere. Clutching her bundle, she wove her way through the throng to the side street where the cloth merchant she’d done business with before had his shop.

The quiet inside after the door closed behind her was a relief. She spent a few moments looking at the wares on display, before approaching the merchant behind the counter.

“Ah, you’re back,” he greeted her. “Have you brought me another of those fine shawls? I’ve got three ladies waiting for one of yours. I told them they might have to wait awhile, seeing as how you’ve got a new baby and all. I see you’ve brought the little one with you. Mind if I have a look?”

He was reaching for the folds of the cloth almost before Elana could react. She stepped back, and put her hand protectively up. “No! No, she’s…sleeping, please don’t, you might wake her.” She stared, heart pounding, pulling the cloth tightly closed.

“Well,” said the merchant, somewhat offended. “If you insist. Let’s see the shawl.” Elana tried not to let her hands tremble as she opened her bundle and passed the folded lace to the merchant. He spread it out and exclaimed over the careful workmanship and intricate designs. He paid her the usual generous price, which Elana took half in coin and half in fleece. She had recovered her composure by the time he bundled the wool and passed it to her, and she promised she’d return with another shawl as soon as she could.

It was now mid-afternoon, and Elana decided the time had come to call on Roswyn. She set off through the maze of streets toward the smith’s house. Not far from the shop she passed a tavern, which, though still early in the day, seemed to be doing a brisk business. As she walked by the door, smiling and humming along with the merry music coming from within, the door flew open and a group of laughing, bantering men surged out. So engaged were they with each other that one man crashed unseeing into Elana, before she could react and step out of his way.

Elana staggered, and then recovered her balance, unhurt. The jolt, however, woke Deore, and she responded as she always did to an unwelcome surprise, with a loud angry wail.

“Oh, I’m sorry miss. Here, let me help you….” The man tried to grab Elana’s arm to steady her. She scrambled out of his way, trying desperately to sooth Deore without exposing her face to the man’s curious eyes.

“No, no, I’m fine, really. Really, it was nothing, let me just….” Deore was screaming and thrashing now. Elana turned away and pushed the folds of cloth aside. The screams were cut off abruptly as Deore seized the breast and was comforted. Drawing the carrying cloth back around the baby, she turned back, to find the man staring at her with a peculiar expression on his face. Surely he hadn’t seen anything. She’d been careful enough – hadn’t she? She smiled brightly at the man. “She’s fine now. I must be going….”

The man shook his head, as if to clear it. “Of course. So glad you weren’t hurt.” Sorry again.” He turned to follow his companions as Elana hurried off in the other direction.

A few blocks away, Elana stopped, panting, trying to catch her breath. Her heart gradually slowed from its mad race. Deore had fallen asleep again. There was no sign of the group of men. He couldn’t have seen anything, surely. He didn’t say anything. Or even if he did notice something odd about her, it won’t matter. He wasn’t sure; he’ll forget about it in no time. There’s nothing to worry about. Almost she convinced herself.

Finally her breathing was calm again, and she was able to dismiss the encounter, leaving nothing more than a nagging worry in the back of her mind. She continued on through the streets of the town. On the far edge of the town, where her stream came down out of the mountains and across the plain to pass into the inhabited area, the smith’s house stood warm and inviting. The forge was silent and empty now, its fire banked. Elana knocked on the door of the cottage that adjoined the forge’s shed.

“Elana!” The woman who opened the door was only a few years older than Elana, tall and blonde. The gaunt, hard lines of her face had softened a bit since Elana had last seen her. It was still less than half a year since the two of them had been freed from captivity.

“Roswyn,” Elana greeted her friend.

“And you’ve got Deore with you, I see.” The words were only a little strained. Roswyn looked anxiously around, then drew Elana through the door. “Here, come inside; it’s better if nobody sees you.” She shut the door behind them. “Sit down; let me get you some tea. How are you doing? I didn’t expect to see you here in town.” Her voice was solicitous, but slightly critical.

“I know I probably shouldn’t have come, but it’s alright. I kept Deore covered up so no one could see her. I needed to sell a shawl and get some more wool. I’ve been doing fine, mostly. We’ve got plenty of food, and I’m able to do everything that’s needed. But it does get so lonely, sometimes….” Elana trailed away, her throat closing.

Roswyn’s face softened. She set the cup of tea on the table in front of Elana, then sat down beside her. “I can only imagine,” she said, patting Elana’s hand a bit awkwardly. “You are doing so well to be taking care of yourself and a baby all alone. Here, let me go get you some bread and honey.” She abruptly stood up again and hurried off.

Elana composed herself, scrubbing the tears from her eyes. Perhaps it had been a mistake to come here. Roswyn was her dear friend, but there was a barrier between them now. Though Roswyn had accepted Deore for Elana’s sake, and promised never again to try to harm her, Elana knew that the antipathy that had once led Roswyn to attempt to kill Deore was only suppressed, not eliminated. The memory of her abuse at the hands of the orcs, and of the half-orc children she’d been forced to bear, was too strong. Not even though it doomed her friend to loneliness and exile, could she set aside her discomfort at the baby’s presence. Elana knew it was a huge concession for her just to let the two of them into her house. Elana resolved to make the visit short. By the time Roswyn returned with the food, Elana had a smile on her face.

“So, where are Teolar and Arteo?” she asked with forced lightness.

“Teolar is off at a tavern with a customer. He says he’s hoping for a big order from this man, so of course they must settle the deal over many pints of ale.” They both laughed. “Arteo is playing at a friend’s house. You should see him, I swear he grows another inch every time I turn around.” She continued to tell Elana the details of her family’s life and the gossip of the town, while Elana sipped her tea and listened, occasionally commenting, savoring the company as much as she could.

All too soon the late afternoon sun was slanting through the western windows, and Elana knew she must leave if she was to make it back to her camp before dark. Roswyn protested her going, but only weakly, and Elana knew she was really relieved. Deore had wakened a short time before, and Roswyn quickly excused herself and moved away while Elana changed her diaper. Absent were all the normal admiration and cooing a month-old baby would usually provoke. Roswyn studiously ignored the baby’s presence, and Elana said nothing to force the issue.

Deore settled once again into her carrying cloth, Elana rose to take her leave. Awkwardly, over the bulk of the baby, she embraced Roswyn, who returned the hug only a bit stiffly. Roswyn watched as the mother and child set off, following the course of the stream, out toward the mountains.

The sun had sunk almost to the horizon and Roswyn was in the midst of preparing dinner when Teolar arrived. The huge man greeted his wife with an enveloping hug and quick kiss. “So, what’s the news today?”

As Roswyn told him of Elana’s visit, she was surprised to see the look of alarm that spread across his face. When she was finished, Teolar shook his head gravely.

“This was a bad time for her to come. She couldn’t have known, but still, I wish she had stayed away.”

“What? What happened?”

“It’s probably nothing. It’s just that, in the tavern this afternoon, a man was asking if anyone had seen a woman with a… deformed… baby. A stranger here, he said. He claimed to be a relative, looking to help her, but I didn’t trust him. Of course I didn’t say anything, and no one else there had any information to offer either. I don’t know for sure it was Elana he was looking for, but still… I don’t like it. I worry for her. If someone got it into their head to go orc-hunting, she’s defenseless out there. But still, as long as she kept the baby well covered, and no one saw her, it should be all right.”

“Yes, she said she was careful. It should be fine.”

“I know. But still….” Husband and wife both stared out worriedly along the stream, before turning again to their evening tasks.

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