Written for the most recent challenge (Town Life) at the fe_contest LiveJournal community.


Despite the late hour, the local inn was brightly lit and noisy. She walked by as fast as possible without drawing attention, tugging the hood of her cloak over her face, even though the stifling wool felt sticky in the summer heat.

Her feet ached by the time she reached the outskirts of town. She hesitated for a second, closed fist hovering over weathered door creaked to reveal a sliver of candlelight and a cautious eye.

"Sylvie?" Frail fingers shielded tired eyes from the flame. "What's-"

She let the hood fall to her shoulders, and watched the elder's face fold in familiar disappointment.

"Oh, child. Come in."

More candles were lit, and a cup of tea she felt too overheated to drink was pushed into her hands.

"Does he know-"

"No-" She hissed at the habitual sting of antiseptic, as a soaked rag was pressed to her temple. "I snuck out once he fell asleep."

The old woman switched the cloth for a worn staff. Hesitant silence gave way to oft-repeated words.

"You know you can stay here."

"Don't be ridiculous! It's bad enough I'm here now."

She thought of the possibilities that stopped her from giving in – more late-night banging at the door, more broken ceramic, more blood-stained rags.

In the past she would have been met with protests. Now it was merely pursed lips. "Keep still, dear."

The cool glow near her face penetrated her shut eyelids. They flickered briefly at the sound of the elder's voice.

"I know why you don't want to stay, but it has to be better... You can open your eyes now."

The old woman had already started tidying the supplies as she blinked. She gingerly traced her newly sealed cut.

"You won't need to worry much longer." Knitted brows turned from the shelf-lined wall, and unexpected guilt made her look away. "I'm going to leave soon."

"You don't mean here though."

She shook her head. "I'm not even sure where yet."

"Is that any safer, going off by yourself?" The elder's frown deepened. "With all the talk lately of war-"

"I know that! I'm not dumb." She frowned too, but her voice softened. "I met someone. I thi- I know he'll help me."

She thought of the green-eyed boy who said she was too cute for such a boring town in his light accent. She liked to think that he meant it.

"As long as he's good to you, m'dear." The assured words didn't quite mask an uneasy expression.

"He is," she insisted.

She didn't mention not knowing him well enough to be certain, or the lies she used to placate his effortless concern when his fingertips brushed a black smudge, or flinching beneath his casual curiosity, because his good intentions felt too much like the touch that marked her in the first place.

She stared into her teacup, and wondered if it would always be that way.