Freya’s heart pounded in her chest as she sprinted through the scrub. Her sandals scattered tiny stones with each footfall, her honey-brown braids slapped her back and her long fringe fell into her eyes. Another rock whizzed by her head as she finally made it into the darkness of the shadow of the Wall. Due to the lateness of the day the shadow cast a great distance, making it difficult for her pursuers to see her. She ducked and dodged between the scraggy mass of thorny bushes that grew close to the edge of the Chasm.
In this part of Medar the combination of poor soils and proximity to the Wall meant that nothing grew particularly well, but this close to the Chasm the vegetation consisted entirely of tussock grasses and stunted plants, interspersed with scraggly pine trees.
Freya skidded under a particularly dense bush into a well-concealed hiding place. Her homespun leggings and leather tunic protected her from the thorny spikes above and the rough gravelly surface she was now lying on. This was familiar territory for her, and she knew that they wouldn’t follow her here. Most people didn’t dare come this close to the edge of the Chasm: a vertical drop to the depths of the land. But Freya had been here many times before and she was sure-footed and confident of her location.
She lay absolutely still, slowed her breathing, and listened for her pursuers. They moved through the bushes, only half-heartedly searching now, and their voices were uncertain as they approached the shadow. She concentrated on making as little noise as possible. They were just some of the village boys, a few years older than her, chasing her for sport. She was used to it; at nearly fourteen years old, she had never had any friends, due to her deformity. Her mother told her it had happened when she was about nine months old and was just learning to crawl.
Her mother, Martha, had been doing the weekly clothes wash. It was a laborious and sweaty job, plunging the clothing in the pot full of water, boiling above the hearth. She would use a stick to scoop the steaming clothes out of the pot and swing them at arms’ length into the scrubbing tub. Martha said she could’ve sworn Freya was sitting in the far corner of the room, playing with pine cones and yet, somehow, as she swung the streaming clothes from the boiling water, there was Freya pulling herself up by the edge of the tub. She had no time to stop the motion and had struck the baby fully on the left side of her face with the scalding clothes.
Martha had immediately dropped the clothes and rushed the screaming Freya to the nearest cold water, which happened to be in a bucket beside the door. She couldn’t immerse the scalded area under water for fear of drowning her, so she’d splashed handfuls of water onto the baby’s face as best she could, at the same time trying to console the screaming infant who writhed in her grip. It was lucky she had been able to cool the area so quickly, for although the skin was terribly blistered, it did heal and eventually faded to almost the same shade as the rest of her skin. But her left eye could not be saved: the iris had turned a milky green and the eyelid drooped, causing it to appear half shut. It had not taken long to realise that the child had lost all sight from the eye.
Despite the loss of one eye, Freya had grown normally in every other respect, and her mother had encouraged her to leave her fringe long, to conceal the abnormal eye as best she could. Nevertheless, it had been the source of much teasing and ridicule from the other children in the village. From a young age, Freya had learned to avoid them as much as possible and was quite content roaming around by herself.
When she was old enough, her parents gave her responsibility for looking after their goat, Nan. She got up early each morning to milk her. The warm liquid was delicious on their gruel, but barely enough for a family of four. Her older brother, Jack, was already seventeen and helped her parents to tend their crops—he had no time for his annoying younger sister. After she had completed her morning chores, Freya would release the goat out to the scrublands to graze at will on the sparse, tough grasses that grew at the village outskirts. Then it was off to school for the morning. She liked learning, but as none of the other children wanted to play with her, it was hardly a time she enjoyed. After lunch at home with her mother, and some quick chores, she was free to do as she liked, as long as she kept watch over the goat and herded it each evening into the lean-to adjacent to their home.
And so, Freya had become accustomed to solitude and, with the freedom to wander far and wide, she had explored the scrublands. At the village outskirts were the fields where the farmers grew their meagre crops. Beyond the fields, scruffy grasses grew in the poor soils, with gnarled, scrawny bushes dotted irregularly over the landscape—except for behind the village, to the west. In that direction, the bushes and scrub became thicker and denser, for in that direction lay the Chasm, and few people had any reason to go there.
to be continued…