Published on 2011/02/20

A Stranger in the Village

Dan Shelton

Balo and Grego walked into the village square. Grego was a tall and muscular farmer. He walked upright with large strides. His friend Balo the blacksmith was smaller and tubby. He wobbled along on his deformed leg, cursing the gods who had done this to him with every painful step.

In the village centre, they began to draw out water from the communal well. When they’d finished, Grego saw a figure crossing the far side of the square. It was the woman called Lorna, the latest arrival to the village.

“She’s beautiful, don’t you think?” Grego said.

Balo grudgingly agreed. “Maybe so, but she’s hardly spoken to anyone since she arrived. She seems secretive, like she’s got something to hide.”

“She could be shy.”

“She could be a murderer on the run for all we know.”

“Nonsense,” retorted Grego. “I’ll find out who she is. I’ll simply be polite and ask. She’s just a person like you and me.”

* * *

Lorna returned to her little cottage on the outskirts of the village. Right now, and probably for the rest of her life, this place would be her home, and she cursed the gods for doing this to her.

In the mirror on her wall, she inspected herself. Her beautiful golden hair encircled her face and cascaded down her back. But her face, her eyes – she could swear that lines were appearing; the signs of age on her smooth, pale skin.

A loud knock at the door distracted her from her thoughts.

She opened it to see a tall, well-built man. He was handsome, but in a rugged way. He had his hands behind his back.

She raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”

“You’ve been here awhile and we haven’t had a chance to be introduced. I’m Grego, a local farmer.”

“And what do you want?”

Grego tried to ignore her bluntness and continued, trying as best he could to remember the speech he’d prepared.

“I’d like to welcome you to our village and present you with a gift.” From behind his back he brought round a large earthen jug with a wooden stopper in the spout. “It’s a local wine we make here. It’s quite potent but very tasty. I think you’ll like it.” He handed it over. Lorna took it without enthusiasm. “Also, if you’d like anybody to show you around the village and introduce you to the locals, I’ll be at your service.”

She wrinkled her nose at the smell coming from the jug. As graciously as she could she said, “Thank you, that’s kind of you. Good bye.” And she closed the door.

* * *

In the local tavern later, Balo asked Grego how it had gone.

“She thanked me for the gift.”

“And what did you find out about her?”

Grego shrugged. “Well, so far, not a great deal. She’s probably just a bit shy.”

Balo laughed. “Ha! I told you, didn’t I? Secretive is what she is. Bad news.”

“It’s early days yet,” Grego defended. “You’ll see.”

Balo moved on his stool and winced, lines of pain streaking his face.

“Your leg?” Grego asked, though he knew the answer.

“Damn the gods,” Balo cursed. “They can be cruel and bloody-minded when they want to be. What did I do to deserve this…” he struggled to find words to describe the deformity, which had been inflicted on him.

Grego agreed. The gods could be cruel and nonsensical in their treatment of the mortals. He remembered the draught and the plague that had been inflicted on the village. My parents died in that plague too, he thought bitterly.

* * *

A small river ran along the eastern side of the village, coming from the mountains far to the west and flowing eventually to the great northern sea. Lorna took her meagre collection of clothes to the river to wash them.

She sat at the river bank among the elms and willows and the twittering of birds high above and splashed her bare feet in the cold waters. She remembered this river. She stood, pulled up her skirt and splashed about like a child with a big smile on her face. Never before had she thought that such pleasure could be found in something so simple. The caress of the water on her skin felt good.

The sound of a branch snapping underfoot caught her attention. She stopped mid-splash and looked to the shoreline to see that farmer from the previous day. A sheepish look eclipsed his face.

“Are you spying on me?” she demanded. She dropped her skirt to cover her legs, even though it was now getting wet in the water.

“I thought you might want some help.”

What a pathetic excuse, she thought.

She went back to the river bank, where her clothes were still waiting to be washed. He joined her.

“I can wash my own clothes, thank you,” she told him.

“The river can be dangerous too,” he added.

“I know. I can handle myself, don’t you worry.” She wished he would go away. She didn’t want him or any other villagers pestering her.

Grego persevered. “Did you try the wine?”

“I didn’t have time,” she lied. “I will try it later.”

“What do you think of our village?”

“It’s small.” Will he never desist interrogating me?

She looked down at her bundle of clothes and suddenly did not feel enthusiastic about washing them. If I give him something to do, perhaps he’ll shut up, she thought.

“You can help me with my washing,” she told him. “I’ll sort some into a pile for you to do.” You’re not getting your hands on my undergarments, was what she meant.

For the next hour, they washed her clothes and beat them against rocks to force the water from them. At the end of it all, they barely looked any cleaner. Is this what my life has become? she thought.

Even so, she had to admit that Grego had been a great help. He was big and strong and polite, despite being a simple farmer. His hands and face were lined from years of working in all weather, ploughing and seeding the land.

Could I actually be developing feelings for him? she thought, and not without a little disgust.

* * *

They returned to her cottage and began to hang out her damp clothes on her small, wonky washing line. As they did, she could see his eyes wandering in her direction, roving over her body. She liked his shy admiration of her. It made her feel the need for intimacy, but not then, and maybe not with him.

“Thank you,” she said when they’d finished. “I don’t want to keep you from your work.”

Half-concealed disappointment passed over his face. But he smiled and said, “I had a great time. We should do it again.”

She smiled guardedly. “Perhaps.”

* * *

After Grego had gone, Lorna went into her cottage. The jug of wine he’d brought yesterday caught her eye: a gesture of friendship and kindness. She ran a finger down the side of the jug – it was rough and coarse, and reminded her of Grego’s skin. She hid it in a cupboard, out of sight and mind.

One thing that wasn’t out of her mind was the small wooden box sat on her mantelpiece. Its humble appearance belied its contents. The one and only thing from her former life, which she had secretly salvaged. It could be used but once. Her former self would not hesitate to wield it; but her new self, would she want to use it? Lorna put it away in a cupboard too.

After a while, unbidden, her mind drifted to thoughts of Grego…

* * *

Grego called round for each of the next few days. She was pleasant to him and they talked, though she revealed little about herself.

On his latest visit, he insisted that she try the wine he’d gifted her. She tried to resist but gave in. That was not like her. Her old self was headstrong, often defiant. But the new her – in this new life, which had been thrust upon her – was maybe a little softer, a little kinder.

She took a sip and quickly gulped it down. It tasted foul. Compared to what she used to drink, this was like dirty water. Her refined pallet was not used to such crude flavours.

“It’s nice, don’t you think?” Grego asked, already on his second tankard.

“It’s like nothing I’ve tasted before,” she replied.

* * *

The lines of his face were like crevices as she encircled it in her hands. His life was written in these lines, she realised. His eyes were small and blue-grey. The shadow of stubble defined his jaw and cheeks.

When she touched her lips to his she knew what was missing from her life (had it always been missing?): love, that most raw and essential of emotions. She hungered for passion, love. She hungered to feel.

She unlaced the front of her bodice and revealed her body to him. She threw her head back. Her golden hair hung down, reaching to the floor. His touch on her exposed flesh sent a quiver through her body.

She gave herself to him, body and soul.

* * *

Lorna lay in bed, thinking about the amazing week she’d had with Grego. Through the open window she could see the twinkling sky above her, the abode of the gods. Her thoughts turned to that momentous day, barely a month ago, when she had been summoned to stand before the Council of the Gods. When she had been not human but immortal. When she had been Cleona, Goddess of the Seas.

She’d dressed in her best pearl-coloured toga and titivated herself until she’d decided she looked as perfect as any goddess ever could.

She knew that the Council was unhappy with her conduct. She’d been before the Council too many times already. They called her reckless and irresponsible. But she considered herself to be a free spirit, not restrained by the rules of stuffy old gods like those on the Council.

She expected to be found guilty and receive a hardy slap on the wrist, perhaps a few labours as punishment.

With her head held high, she stepped into the chamber and walked to the centre. About her, watching from the viewing galleries, were her god and goddess peers. Among them she spied Plintu, a pleased smile on his face. I bet he’s loving this, she thought. You little bastard.

She faced Albertoni, the leader of the gods.

“Cleona, Goddess of the Seas, you have been brought here to answer for your crimes. You are charged with numerous counts of recklessly discharging your powers over the human world. How do you plead?”

“Not guilty.”

With the gravitas of age and superiority, Albertoni said. “The Council has found you guilty. We will no longer tolerate your disregard for our rules and your irresponsible conduct. It is the decision of the Council that you be stripped of your godly powers and returned to the earth as a mortal. Henceforth, Cleona, Goddess of the Seas shall be Lorna, mortal of earth.”

At first, she did not comprehend his words. But as they sunk in, the implications of what he had said struck her. She screamed out, “You cannot do that! You can’t do that! I am a goddess!”

Albertoni was stoic in his response. “It is already done.”

* * *

As a goddess she had had the best of everything: the most expensive food and wine; servants and sybarites willing to do her most insane request; her sexual desires fulfilled whenever she chose; unlimited powers over human affairs; the adoration of her followers, and their fear when it pleased her.

But now, in her human, mortal life, she had something she had never possessed before. As a goddess, it was a word that meant little to her. As a human, it was a potent force: love.

If she was until her dying day a mortal, then she could be happy with this life. Her goddess-self was truly dead.

* * *

Grego shook Balo awake. Balo opened his eyes to see his friend. An oil lamp had been lit to dispel the darkness. Balo squinted. “It’s the middle of the night, what is it?”

Grego was frantic, pacing the room. He babbled, “I have been so stupid, stupid! Curse me for my idiot brain!”

“What are you prattling about?”

“Foolishness, Balo, such utter foolishness! A fool to love! Deceived and fooled I have been. A god called Plintu appeared to me, a former lover of the Sea Goddess, Cleona. He told me that he was wronged by her, as many mortal and god have been. And to take his revenge, he revealed to me secrets. Terrible secrets. The plague and draught that bighted our village was caused by her," he said. "Your leg too was her doing. He also told to me the biggest secret of them all: Cleona was punished for her crimes by being returned to earth as a mortal – a mortal living in our village. That mortal is Lorna!”

Balo gasped. The plague, the drought, his leg; all cruel punishments she had inflicted. “I must tell the villagers!”

* * *

Lorna awoke to the sound of angry villagers approaching her cottage. From the window she could see them, armed with pitchforks, axes, spades, whatever had been at hand. Their jagged silhouette was lit by the oil lamps they carried. She heard shouts of “Slay the monster!”

She knew then that her identity had been revealed. The goddess who had brought them so much misery was among them. They sought revenge.

How could I allow this to happen? she thought. Her former self Cleona would never have allowed this.

Realisation dawned like a hammer blow.

“I have been a fool,” she shouted into the air. “Corrupted and weakened by crude human emotions! Stripped of my true nature! Tamed by love!”

I am forever a goddess.

She spun on her heel. Already, she could feel the call of the little box in the cupboard, pulling at her mind as though by invisible string.

She ran to the cupboard and pulled out the box. She ripped the lid off and removed the fist-sized item within. Even in her mortal form she could feel its power, its majesty. The orb glowed an angry red.

She confronted the mob outside her cottage, the orb held out before her. The villagers stopped as they saw her, suddenly fearful of the fallen goddess. The orb glowed fierce and bright. A wind developed, causing her clothing to flap about and her hair to fly about behind her.

The villagers felt the winds surrounding them, pulling at their clothes, yanking their weapons from their hands. A few fled into the darkness of the night in fear.

Lorna levelled her gaze on the pathetic humans before her. She saw the fright in their eyes. This was the power she craved and needed; love was nothing more than a distraction.

The orb glowed brighter. She held it above her head. A dome of red light grew to encompass the entire village. As her final act, it would be obliterated, along with everyone here, herself included.

Lorna opened her mouth to utter the final words of destruction - but felt a pain in her back, then blood began to fill her mouth and dribble from her lips.

She slumped to the ground. The orb fell and smashed, its glow dying. The winds ceased.

Grego looked at the knife in his hands, her warm blood covering them. He fell to his knees, tears in his eyes.

Dan Shelton writes about anything that comes into his head. One day he intends to finish writing a novel. He likes chocolate and Star Wars.