"The Virgin"

By James Berardinelli

    Ponari was still a virgin. The condition, which was to be admired in girls under the Age of Maturity, rapidly became an embarrassment the longer it persisted past a girl's 15th birthday. In the northern community of Santimon, a tiny village of some two hundred souls, the expectation was that every female would reach her Maturity, lose her virginity, get married, and have a baby (although the order might be different). But that wasn't the case for Ponari to the profound dismay of her mother.

    It wasn't that Ponari was afraid of sex. In fact, she was quite interested in it. The stories told by some of her friends made her curious about what it might be like and she knew about the basic mechanics by having watched the village's animals. But scratching an itch - and that was how she viewed it - wasn't worth the ultimate price. She wouldn't succumb to a moment's relief if it resulted in her being trapped in Santimon for the rest of her life. The instant she opened her legs to any member of the town's male population, her fate would be sealed.

    Ponari was comely and, as a result, had no shortage of suitors. Had she been so inclined, she could have had her pick among Santimon's eligible young men. Some were more assiduous than others in pursuing her, but she rejected them all: young, old, handsome, ugly, strong, weak, smart dumb... They all lacked the single defining characteristic that was her requirement in a potential mate: wanderlust. Sadly, seemingly everyone currently living in Santimon seemed determined to spend the rest of their lives in Santimon. Except Ponari.

    At the moment, she was seated cross-legged on the hard-packed dirt floor of the one-room hovel she shared with the rest of her family. Her mother, two brothers, and younger sister had all made themselves scarce, leaving her alone with her father, whose normally genial face wore a scowl of disapproval. Ponari knew what this was about. Her outspokenness had once again gotten the better of her. Earlier today, her mother had demanded that she accept the courtship of Bulgari, the only son of one of Santimon's elite families. Ponari's ill-considered response had been: "Before I let him inside of me, I'll fuck Mayor Grunback's donkey." It hadn't been the wisest thing Ponari could have said but wisdom rarely governed her words.

    "Your mother is upset," said Ponari's father. Debanrack, as was his wont, understated the situation. The last words she had heard from her mother were: "You ungrateful little bitch! We'll see how much your prized virginity is worth after you've spent a few days in exile!" Janelle was prone to hyperbole, but it wasn't a threat to be taken lightly. Exile from Santimon could be tantamount to a death sentence.

    Ponari nodded glumly.

    "What you said was disrespectful, and you know I don't tolerate disrespect."

    The punishment that followed was expected. She lay across her father's lap as he lashed her five times across the buttocks with a leather strap. Tears stung her eyes but she refused to cry out, and her father was more gentle with this manner of discipline than her mother would have been. When Janelle whipped her, she wouldn't stop until Ponari whimpered. Even in her pain, however, Ponari's mind worked. She was being punished for the manner in which she had addressed her mother not because of her continuing refusal to be courted by village boys.

    When she had replaced her undergarments and retaken her seat gingerly, Debanrack asked her an unexpected question. "Is it that you like girls?"

    It would have been easy to answer in the affirmative. Women with those preferences were accepted and housed together in a single house where they could indulge themselves with each other at night while performing duties the benefitted the community by day. They were not asked to marry or to bear children. But Ponari wasn't one of them and joining them in their house would just be another kind of trap. A lie and a trap.

    "I like men," she said. "But not the ones who live in this village."

    "I thought so. My daughter through-and-through." Debanrack hadn't been born in Santimon. He had spent much of his youth traveling the North with his parents. Debanrack had come to the village as an orphan only two years shy of his Maturity after his family's caravan had been set upon by bandits. He had been the sole survivor. He often expressed a desire to "go out and explore the world once more" but, like all residents of Santimon, he never went beyond the edge of the farthest field. The village was a lodestone that held its population close.

    "Eventually, you'll either have to marry or join The Women. One way or the other, you have to earn your keep. If not as the wife of some hard-working man, then you can do what The Women require of you at night to keep a bed under their roof. Your mother has agreed to allow you to remain with us for another three seasons. By the middle of next Summer, however, if you remain unwed, you must go to The Women. Or face exile."

    She wondered, if it came to that, whether her father would allow it to happen. She knew she was his favorite child; he had always doted on her. Perhaps he would elect to join her in exile, thereby giving him a chance to do what he had always desired. That was wishful thinking, however. Debanrack loved Janelle. It was something Ponari couldn't understand. Her father was a handsome, caring man - the kind of person she might have agreed to marry if there were others like him in Santimon. Her mother was a fattened sow whose beauty, if it ever existed, had been lost to the passage of years.

    Over the next few weeks, Ponari, like every other member of the village, was kept busy with the business of preparing for the coldest period of the year. Firewood, culled from trees in the nearby forest, had to be split, transported, and stacked. Grains had to be stored, meats cured, and furs made ready. It was an annual rite in which every man, woman, and child participated. Despite being a woman by age, Ponari's unwed status forced her to work with the children.

    She and Janelle were no longer on speaking terms, their final fiery exchange having exhausted any desire either had to converse with the other. So, as the temperatures outside plummeted, the frost between mother and daughter deepened. This distressed Debanrack but there as little he could do to thaw the glacier within his house. Until Ponari's marital situation was resolved, he was doomed to live a life of familial discord.

    Winter came and went as it always did, with its biting winds and heavy snows intensifying then abating. The Planting thaw brought with it not only more hospitable weather but the rarest of rarities: a visitor. Santimon was so far from any of the main thoroughfares in the North that only the most adventurous traders paid the occasional visit. The closest neighboring village was three days' travel by foot (although the journey could be made in a day on horseback) and the nearest big city, Andel, would take two weeks to reach. Outsiders almost never came to Santimon.

    The man's arrival excited interest and speculation. He wasn't some merchant seeking a new place in which to hawk his wares or a bandit who had lost his way. He was a man with a reputation throughout the North - one whose name was known even in an isolated community like this one. He was the famed adventurer Warburm whose feats, expanded by rumor to almost mythological proportions, were the fodder of taproom gossip.

    Warburm came without fanfare, entering the village from the north and heading down the rutted, muddy path that formed Santimon's main thoroughfare. His goal was The Tavern, the closest thing the village had to a pub. He was unaccompanied and on foot. Children playing in the street paused in their games to gawk at him and adults were equally nonplused. Warburm smiled cheerfully and waved at almost everyone he saw.

    As soon as she heard about the stranger, Ponari knew she had to see him. He represented what she so desperately desired: a life beyond Santimon. He was doing what her father dreamed of but didn't have the courage to pursue. Although she supposed Warburm must have someplace he called "home," he wasn't constrained by it. He was free, not trapped.

    Warburm didn't stay long and Ponari's efforts to contrive a meeting were defeated by her mother, who kept her bridled with an endless list of chores, most of which seemed designed exclusively to prevent her from joining in the general sense of excitement that had enveloped the village. By the time she was done, she was in a less than presentable condition, being badly in need of a dip in the nearby river, and the adventurer had already concluded his business with the village elders and was headed back on the road.

    There, at the southern entrance to Santimon, their paths crossed. No words passed between them, but Warburm, a bear of a man with a fine, thick mane of black hair and a wide, weathered face, grinned at her and offered a wink. Ponari could only stare back, hyperaware of how drab she must appear in her filthy peasant's dress with grime on her face and matted in her long, dark hair. Then he was gone and she was still there, no closer to escaping Santimon than before.

    Later that day, Ponari, unable to dispel the image of Warburn's wink and smile, approached her father. "Why was he here?"

    "Who can say with a man like that? To see the elders, but what he spoke to them about, we'll likely never know. They keep their own counsel and don't share their thoughts with the likes of me."

    "Who is he? Everyone speaks his name like he's a great man."

    "Depends on what you consider 'great.' He's known throughout the North, that much is true. Not all the tales speak favorably of him, though. In some, he's a bold defender of the peaceful and the meek, beating back raiding bandits from farming communities. In others, he does that job for pay, like any common mercenary. And in still others, he leads the bandits in their attacks. I've also heard tell he's on a religious crusade, having sold his sword to one of the zealous prelates. What's true? I don't pretend to know but the name of Warburm isn't one to ignore. It commands respect and fear."

    Respect and fear. Those words resonated in Ponari's imagination for the next several days. The more she thought, the more she grieved that she hadn't been more aggressive in courting the adventurer's attention. She romanticized it as a lost opportunity although, had she been honest with herself, it was no opportunity at all. The cheerful gaze he directed at her was no different from that with which he accorded every other citizen he passed in the street. There was nothing special about her, at least to him. She vowed that if she was given another chance, she would seize the opportunity.

    As the world warmed with the approach of Summer and the date of Ponari's sixteenth birthday - the day on which her fate would be sealed - she became increasingly agitated about the bleakness of her future. Should she yield to the pressure still being applied by Janelle and give herself to one of the village's unwed young men? Should she resign herself to a life among The Women, giving and receiving pleasure only to those of her gender? Or should she take the ultimate risk and allow Santimon's elders to exile her?

    It shamed her to admit she lacked the fortitude for the last option. While exile offered the ultimate freedom, it was also likely an experience that would kill her. She knew nothing about living on her own. Her ability to find food and drinkable water was limited and she had no working understanding of geography. If she struck out on her own, the likelihood was that she would either become the lunch of some wild beast or a victim to a band of marauding bandits. If that happened, she would lose her virginity and her life. The wilderness wasn't kind to lone travelers, especially when they had little working knowledge of basic survival skills. Accepting exile would be as foolhardy as it was brave. Unless her father agreed to accompany her, which was a remote possibility at best, exile equated to suicide.

    If she had been more attracted to the female form, entering the abode of The Women would have held some appeal, but she craved the touch of a man. That left only one alternative - the one her mother had been preaching since she was a little girl. Find a man, taking him out into the fields on Midsummer's Day, and let him fill her with his seed. A season later, when she began to show, a wedding would be arranged and, two seasons after that, she and her husband would have their first child. Santimon's newest citizen - the most recent unfortunate to be caught in the village's subtle snare.

    Late in the evening on the last day of Planting season, Debanrack approached Ponari as she was churning butter. His countenance was unusually dark. Ponari paused in her work to hear what dire news her father brought.

    "The elders have made a decision about you. It's what we expected. You have until the week after Midsummer's Day to choose a husband or to join The Women. Either is acceptable. If you refuse both options, you will be given a satchel full of provisions, led blindfold a half-day's journey from Santimon, and left there to fend for yourself. There would be no restrictions on your future movements as long as they didn't return you here. If you were to violate your exile, you would be subject to execution."

    Ponari gaped. It was the harshest judgment imaginable - the kind of sentence reserved for criminals. Was guarding her virtue to be regarded as an act as vile as murder, rape, or theft?

    "I pleaded with them but to no avail. Their word is final. Ponari, I know you have no regard for any of the boys in this village and I understand your not wanting to be tied in marriage to any of them. Won't you consider joining The Women? I'm told there can be great pleasure in the things they do at night and it won't leave you with a swollen belly afterwards. You can continue to be a valued and respected member of the community."

    He wanted the best for her; she knew that. But taking the offer was no better than marrying the Mayor's son. Still, exile terrified her. She wanted to cry out in frustration. Why couldn't she continue as she was? Do her chores, help her family, aid those who needed her aid? It was all so damn unfair.

    When she didn't say anything, Debanrack added, "You're going to have to choose. You can't keep ignoring it and hoping it will go away. You have seven weeks. Then your fate will no longer be yours to decide."

    Then, on the next day, Warburm returned.

    He sauntered into town as if he was on pleasure walk. As on his previous visit, he offered smiles to everyone he encountered and hale greetings to those he remembered from his previous visit. Despite his seeming good cheer, his strides were purposeful as they took him toward the hall where the elders met. Although they might have been expecting him, his arrival was a complete surprise to everyone else, including Ponari.

    She was in the fields when word of Warburm's appearance filtered through the village grapevine. She immediately set aside her work and headed to what passed for a center square. A number of people had gathered, most motivated by idle curiosity. Her father was there.

    "Why is he back?" asked Ponari. Debanrack intuited the reason for the urgency in her voice.

    "I'm not sure, but there are rumors. Dire portents. Heard tell there's a large mass of marauders gathering to the north, up near The White World. Warburm is the leader of a group that plans to go up against them. We're the nearest inhabitation to the proposed battleground and he hopes to make Santimon the staging area for his band. With the elders' permission, that is."

    "Why would they give that?"

    "Because if they don't, Warburm will go elsewhere and Santimon will be defenseless if the bandits strike in this direction. This is a peaceful settlement with no warriors. We wouldn't stand a chance if that happened. The elders don't have a choice."

    "Then he'll be here for a while?"

    "I'd wager at least a week, perhaps more. He needs to gather his men and give them ample opportunity to rest before leaving." Debanrack paused as if debating whether to say more. Eventually, he continued. "While he's here, Warburm will be accorded the hospitality that befits a man of his standing and the one who might well be the savior of this village. There will no doubt be a feast in his honor and he will be given whatever his appetites require: ale, food, and… women."

    Ponari said nothing.

    "You recognize that Warburm isn't constrained by our conventions. Obligations that might bind those of us living in Santimon don't apply to him." Debanrack knew his daughter's mind and could see the plan developing. It might seem appealing to her but she was naïve to the ways of men with women and how the world worked beyond the place where she had spent her entire life. Here, taking a girl's virginity was a proposal of marriage. Elsewhere, it was a bit of fun. Seasoned warriors like Warburm bedded plenty of maidens and married none.

    "I'm no empty-headed fool, Father. But if he… likes me… maybe he'll take me with him. Not to wife but to warm his furs on his travels elsewhere. All I need is a protector on the road to another village or city." Anywhere that isn't Santimon.

    "And you think what's between your legs will be currency enough for that? With someone like Warburm?"

    Ponari nodded. It would have to be. She had run out of options.

    That evening, in Santimon's overcrowded tap room, Ponari was officially introduced to the great adventurer Warburm as he sat at the bar and downed tankard after tankard of Santimon's finest ale. His wide smile rarely slipped and he offered compliments generously: to the barkeep, the serving girls, and anyone who purchased him a round. Ponari, under her father's watchful eye, sat down next to him as soon as the stool became free.

    With a twinkle in his deep blue eyes, Warburm regarded her speculatively. "Lassie, you be the prettiest little thing I done seen all week."

    Ponari couldn't hold back the blush. She was complimented so infrequently that this offhand comment delighted her more than she could have anticipated. "Thank you." The words were spoken quietly in the voice of a shy girl in the presence of a great man. She hoped that was what he liked. She could have been brazen but she suspected Warburm might find such an approach commonplace. She judged he saw himself in the role of a maiden's protector, although it was probable he would expect more than a chaste kiss for payment.

    "How be it that your husband lets you sit this close ta me?" He placed a hand on her leg above her knee, just below where her skirt ended. A shiver traversed her body. His touch was warm and gentle and when his hand began to slide ever so slowly up, she was careful not to give any indication it was unwelcome.

    "I have no husband." In Santimon, where there were no whores or unmarried women past the Age of Maturity, men offered their wives for companionship to men such as Warburm. Knowing of this tradition, he would have assumed Ponari was being sent to him by a husband eager to curry favor. But, if she was unmarried, that would mean she was younger than her manner and appearance indicated. Not wanting to give offense by courting a child, he removed his hand.

    Guessing the trajectory of his thoughts, she leaned close enough so that only he could hear her next words. To combat the noise level in the small, boisterous room, her lips nearly brushed his ear. "I'm past my Maturity. A year past, in fact. But none of the boys of this village have what it takes to satisfy me. They're provincial and think only of their own pleasure and securing their line. I want more in exchange for what I can offer."

    Warburm's expression was one of surprised delight. At that moment, she knew she had his attention. Seriously had it. The question was: Now what? Village fishermen said that hooking the fish was often the easiest portion of the catch. Many of them wriggled free and the strongest often snapped the line after consuming the bait.

    For her next move, Ponari did what came instinctively. After allowing the tip of her tongue to swipe across her upper lip, she smiled at Warburm then rose and left the taproom. Her final words to the adventurer lingered behind her like a perfume: "I hope we'll meet again somewhere less crowded." Once outside in the cooler air, she took a deep breath and headed home. She was sure this shouldn't be rushed. If her father was right, she had time. And if Debanrack wasn't right, it wouldn't matter anyway.

    As she lay in bed that night, Ponari felt alive in a way she had before experienced. Her flesh tingled, especially where he had touched her. She imagined this was how it was for men when they went on a hunt. The recognition that failure was possible made it all the more enticing. And with Warburm as the prize... There was something about him, something untamed that made him unlike any man of Santimon. The words she had spoken to the adventurer, that none of the boys of the village could satisfy her, were true. She perhaps hadn't realized it until she said it aloud but that understanding lay at the root of her dissatisfaction with marriage. It wasn't only that she didn't want to be trapped in Santimon for the rest of her life playing out the pantomime of every woman she knew. It was that she didn't want to be ensnared by one of the male sheep of the village. Warburm was here to stage a war party to attack a force of bandits and she doubted any of the good citizens of Santimon would accompany them. It turned out she was wrong.

    The next day, as she was planning to contrive another meeting with Warburm, her father approached her. "When they leave, I'm going with them."

    She shouldn't have been surprised but she was.

    "I can't in good conscience stay behind while they risk their lives in an action that will benefit this village more than most of the North. The elders seemed almost relieved when I told them, as if a guilty burden had been lifted from their shoulders. They know in their hearts it isn't right for Warburm to do this thing without someone from Santimon in his party. They promised me a position on the council if I survive, as if that was an inducement."

    "You're going alone." It wasn't a question.

    Debanrack laughed but it wasn't an expression of mirth. "Would you expect differently? I can't fault them, though. As the elders pointed out, the men of Santimon are farmers and hunters, not warriors. In a battle, they would be more of a hindrance than an asset."

    "Have you told Warburm?"

    "I'm on my way to ask him if he'll have me. I thought you might want to come with me."

    When they found the adventurer, he was in same spot where Ponari had left him the evening before. She briefly wondered if he had spent the entire night in the taproom then dismissed the notion. The place was a lot less crowded in the morn. With their curiosity about the famed adventurer sated, the population had returned to their chores and duties. Warburm was yesterday's diversion; they would find something new today.

    The big man smiled when he saw her. It was a warm, gentle smile, not the kind of ferocious baring of teeth Ponari had witnessed on large, round faces like his. "Lassie, you done come back ta me. 'Twas lonely after you left." The words seemed heartfelt, although Ponari couldn't be sure. She was out of her depth with him.

    "I'm back now," Ponari said, taking the same stool she had occupied the previous day. "This is my father, Debanrack. He has something to say."

    One of Warburm's eyebrows shot up. The adventurer rose and the two men clasped hands. The conversation that followed was short and consisted primarily of Debanrack convincing Warburm that he was capable with a bow and knife and unafraid to face death if it came to that.

    "I ain't in no position to turn down help if it be willingly given. Truth be told, I didn't expect anyone from this here village ta volunteer. I ain't gonna pretend otherwise, though: this ain't a sure thing. Them bandits be well armed and seasoned in fighting. Not everyone who goes north be returning that night. This ain't no empty 'glory mission.'"

    Debanrack assured Warburm he understood the situation but felt it was his duty to stand with the men who were risking their lives to save his village.

    "Then me and the others'll be more'n glad ta have you along with us. Be ready ta go in another few days."

    After Debanrack departed, the adventurer retook his seat. "Your father be a brave man."

    "He wasn't born here and that makes him different. He's willing to do what none of the others, whose families have been here for generations, can find the courage for. This village is populated by the weak and the craven."

    "That be a harsh assessment, Lassie. Just because a man don't want ta fight don't make him craven."

    "You don't know the people of Santimon but I do."

    "True, but there be at least one person of Santimon I got a desire ta know better."

    For the second time in as many days, Ponari felt the heat from a blush spread across her skin. She turned away to hide her smile.

    "Are you married, Master Warburm?"

    "Nay, Lassie."

    "Ponari. My name's Ponari."

    Warburm acknowledged the correction with a slight inclination of his head. "Nay, Ponari. I be not wedded. Almost but it done never happened. Now I be alone."

    "Do you have a home or are you always on the road?"

    "Aye, although I be more a visitor there than a resident. It be in a small town not unlike this one. Name'a Sussaman."

    From there, their conversation drifted to other matters. Warburm told her a little about the life of a wanderer and adventurer; it wasn't nearly as glamorous as stories had led her to believe. Ponari spoke to him about her dissatisfaction with Santimon although she avoided mentioning her current precarious situation. With her 16th birthday only days away and Midsummer less than two weeks past that, her time to make a decision was nearly upon her. Yet to ask Warburm if she could accompany him… it seemed presumptuous, especially since, by his own admission, he might not survive the upcoming encounter. To rest all her hopes on a man who might be dead in ten days' time wasn't a good plan, but she had no other.

    The two hours they spent conversing passed quickly. Against her will, Ponari had to bid him good day; she had neglected her chores, which consisted primarily of weeding the fields and caring for the fledgling crops that thrived during the North's short growing season. Those who sought to find fault with her work ethic and effort would delight in gossiping about how she wasted hours in the taproom while others toiled at their appointed tasks.

    The next day, Ponari was in the fields around midday when Warburm sauntered out to join her. This drew some surprised glances from others working in the vicinity. The warrior attempted to help, mimicking what he thought his companion was doing, but Ponari could immediately sense he was not used to this brand of work. His weeding, for example, was clumsy and inexperienced. Instead of inserting two fingers into the soil to grasp the root, he pinched off the crown.

    "I can tell farming isn't among your talents," said Ponari, smiling.

    Warburm chuckled, amusement suffusing his features. He was newly cleanshaven, a razor having shorn several days' growth of hair on his chin and above his upper lip. Ponari studied him, wondering if perhaps... Does this have anything to do with my comment yesterday about disliking men who hide their faces under mats of fur?

    "Sometimes I fantasize 'bout what it might be like ta live a simple life. But I know I'd get bored. Some people don't mix well with stability. It can be tiring ta always be moving, ta never know where your next meal be coming from or where you'll lie down your head, but there be a thrill ta that too. In a place like Santimon - no disrespect meant - but every day be like every other one. That ain't no life for me. And I suspect it ain't no life for you, either."

    For a moment, she thought he was going to ask her to come along. When she looked into his eyes, she was sure of it. But the invitation never came. Maybe he realized he was in no position to offer her anything and wouldn't be until his confrontation with the bandits had been resolved. Still, his not saying the words left her with a sense of deep disappointment, as if something had slipped away.

    They continued talking for a while after that but Ponari's heart wasn't in their discussion. Her responses became distant and monosyllabic. Sensing that something had changed between them, Warburm excused himself and returned to the monumental task of preparing to engage the bandits. Other mercenaries had begun to arrive at Santimon - the hour of the confrontation was growing closer.

    Over the next week, as preparations for the northward assault outpaced those for the Midsummer holiday, Warburm's absorption in battle preparations didn't allow him opportunities for additional conversations. Ponari's birthday passed without comment; even her father, who always favored her with a kiss and a small trinket to mark the day, didn't remember. He had moved out of the house and gone to live with the mercenaries in their camp, claiming that it was important for him to bond with them if he was going to fight alongside them. With him gone and Warburm no longer in the village, Ponari felt alone and vulnerable. Janelle was seemingly counting the days until she would be rid of her daughter.

    The band of mercenaries departed five days before Midsummer, leaving just past dawn for the trek to the north and west. Warburm's best estimates were that the march would bring them into contact with the bandits on the morrow. He didn't expect it would be a long fight but he warned that it would be bloody and the casualties on both sides would likely be high.

    Before departing, Debanrack came to bid his family goodbye. As her father took his leave of her, Ponari couldn't keep the tears from welling up.

    "Here now, don't cry. I'll be back in time to celebrate Midsummer then we'll figure out a solution to your problem. If I come back a hero, they won't be able to send you away if I don't agree with the decision."

    "And if I don't see you again?" It was hard to say those words but harder still to imagine that this was the last time she might speak with the man who had been as much a companion as a father for sixteen years.

    "I won't lie and say it's not a possibility. But the two-hundred men I'm going with are all stout fighters. I have confidence in them. Warburm is keeping me in reserve; I'm good with a bow and he wants the archers behind the hand-to-hand ranks, picking off bandits that try to outflank us. And if something happens then at least I'll have died for something. Too many people in Santimon just get old and stop living. Die in their sleep or wither away. That's not for me and it's not for you, either. When it comes to make your decision, let your heart guide you. Don't be afraid of the unknown."

    Those aren't words he would be saying if he thought he was coming back.

    The departure of Warburm's fighting force was hardly noticed by most of the village. Debanrack was the only inhabitant of Santimon to accompany them and they had established their camp far enough away in the woods that only those who ventured to the edges of the western fields were aware of their presence. For the next three days, life continued as always with the village readying itself for the most joyful holiday of the year.

    On the third morning after the men's departure, Ponari found herself near the abandoned campsite, straining eyes and ears in an attempt to hear some sign of men's impending return. She knew the die had already been cast. The battle was done. Now it was a matter of waiting to learn the result. Logic informed her it was too early for word to come, but that didn't prevent her from loitering for nearly an hour, her patience thin and nerves frayed. There was a knot of anxiety between her breasts that wouldn't go away. I'll come back tomorrow and then there will be word.

    It didn't take that long. The late afternoon was casting long shadows and Ponari was stacking firewood - a year-long task that continued even when indoor fires weren't needed - when a shape approached from behind. The man's sudden presence was so unexpected that Ponari dropped the bundle she was carrying. She never imagined Warburm could move so quietly. One look at his face, grim and marked with new cuts that would become future scars, and the knot in her chest tightened until she found it difficult to breathe.

    He didn't have to say the words. They weren't necessary. Instead, he enfolded her in his big arms and let her bury her face against his leather jerkin. She wept silently, trying to be strong. Warburm, solid as a tree, held her tight until long after the tears stopped.

    "He died a good death. When my time comes, I wish I would go so well. Some of them bastards got through our lines and was going for the wounded. Your father took 'em down, all except the one that got him. His notched six arrows and brought down six fuckers. I be proud ta have fought alongside him. All the men, hardened warriors through-and-through, think the same."

    Numb, Ponari nodded. Someday, she assumed, it would matter to her how Debanrack died, but today wasn't that day. Today, all that mattered was that he was dead and that her last hope had died with him. Now she was truly alone.

    Warburm left her for a short time so he could inform her mother and the village elders. Apparently, the mercenaries had won a great battle, scattering the bandits far and wide across the North. Casualties had been light - less than two-dozen dead and twice that wounded. The bandits had lost perhaps half their number but Warburm was concerned that the remnants might reband. For that reason, he intended to remain in the region for a while.

    That night, as if by unspoken agreement, Ponari found herself in the small cottage the elders had designated for Warburm's accommodations. She had nowhere else to go. Her mother didn't want an "ungrateful" daughter intruding on the family's grief. Ponari could sleep in the fields - she had done that before, although in less tragic circumstances - but the adventurer made it clear that she was welcome in his room. He gave her the bed and stretched out on the floor, claiming to sleep better with hard-packed dirt beneath his back than on a straw-stuffed mattress. She didn't know if it was true or not but she was thankful for his generosity.

    Ponari lay awake for most of the night, listening to her sleeping companion snore. What would become of her? With Debanrack's death, she had lost her one advocate in the village. Some part of her had believed that, when it came time for her to make her decision, he would have provided a magical solution. She had counted on him. Now, all that remained was her cold, bitter mother with her brutal sense of what was right and wrong. And, unless Ponari capitulated and married one of the local boys, she would be in the wrong. Two more days and two more nights. That was all that remained to her.

    The next day, she went out to the fields as usual and worked harder than she ever had. Through exhaustion, she sought to banish loneliness and fear. It worked. Once, looking back toward the village, she saw the imposing figure of Warburm standing there, his gaze directed at her. By the time she returned to his cabin after picking at the evening meal her mother allowed her to share, her thoughts were only of sleep.

    Warburm was waiting for her. "Tomorrow be Midsummer," he said quietly as she collapsed on the bed. "In some places, this be the high holiday of the year. In other places, it be just another chance ta drink and whore."

    "It's a celebration like no other here. Many people become promised to each other." Her words were without inflection.

    "Aye. Your father done told me what it means for you. I admire your courage, Ponari, for standing up ta them all the way you've done. For knowing your mind and standing firm. For not marrying some milksop just because it were the easy way. Can't say I know many people - men or women - with that much steel in their spine. That be why I made a promise ta your father. He asked but he didn't need ta. I woulda done it any way."

    Warburm rose from the chair across the room and came to sit on the bed. Gently and tentatively, he rested one hand on her left thigh - an intimate touch but one she could easily brush away. She didn't. Her heart started to race. Her weariness evaporated.

    "What did you promise him?"

    "You know the answer ta that, Lassie."

    He leaned toward her and, all at once, she could feel the warmth of his body, smell his distinctly male scent, and feel his breath on the side of her neck where his lips first brushed her skin. The touch of his tongue on her flesh combusted so forcefully she was unprepared for its heat. The hand on her leg began a leisurely journey upward, its eventual goal as unmistakable as the promise Warburm had made to Debanrack.

    "I'm a virgin," she whispered. It sounded like a confession, a sin for which she craved forgiveness.

    "I know, Ponari. I know. Ain't nothing we can't fix together tonight."

    The next morning, when the sun crossed the horizon to herald the arrival of Midsummer's Day, one of Ponari's defining characteristics had been swept away in a tide of passion and tenderness. She had made her choice and it was one she wouldn't live to regret.