Hannibal’s Elephant Girl, Book One
The path came out of the pine forest, wound beside a large gray tent, and down a gentle slope into the main camp. Many tents and wooden huts dotted a series of low hills, spreading across the landscape like a small city.
I followed the aroma of cooking food to the gray tent where a woman stood beside a fire in the morning sunshine. She sliced vegetables into a simmering pot. Several tables with wooden benches circled the hearth.
She reached for a turnip and glanced my way. Her honey-almond eyes narrowed on me.
“Where did you get that cape?”
I looked down, shuffling my feet in the dirt. I didn’t know what to say.
The woman came toward me, with the knife in her hand. I stepped back.
“That’s Tendao’s cape. Where did you get it?”
I pulled the cloak tighter around myself, then remembered the young man. He’d told me to ask for a woman who would give me something to eat.
“Do you know of Yzebel?”
“I’m Yzebel. Why do you wear Tendao’s cape and ask for me?”
She came closer and grabbed the cloak. I looked at the knife in the woman’s hand, then back at her face. Knots bulged in her clenched jaw, and her brow furrowed, distorting her beautiful face.
I held the cape closed, but Yzebel was too strong for me. She yanked it open. The sudden change I saw in her astonished me. Her stern features transformed so completely, it seemed another person had taken her place. The irritation and anger quickly softened into compassion and tenderness.
“Great Mother Elissa!” Yzebel stared at my bruised body. “What happened to you?”
Yzebel wore a patchwork dress of faded yellow and brown, with a ragged apron tied around her narrow waist. She had her long, dark hair bound up in a twist of braids. She wasn’t old, not yet even to the middle of her life, but what I found most remarkable was her unwrinkled face; the color of creamy cinnamon, her features were soft, like moonlight on silk.
I glanced down at my body and saw the many cuts and bruises. Only then did I realize what a terrible ordeal I’d been through. I hurt all over, especially the back of my head. I remembered being sick and hot, so very hot, before they threw me into the river. But beyond that, little of my memory remained. Weakness swept over me, and I felt brittle, like a broken limb in a cold wind. I shook my head in response to Yzebel’s question.
“You’re so thin.” Yzebel gently pulled the cape closed and put her arms around me.
If anyone had ever embraced me before, I couldn’t remember. I let go of my rock and hoped she didn’t hear it hit the ground.
“Your hair is wet.” She took a long strand, smoothed it back over my shoulder, then reached for my hand. “Come over here where it’s warm.”
Yzebel led me to the fireside, where I sat and leaned back against a log. The fire warmed my aching body, and the smoke from the crackling pine knots wrapped me in a pleasant, soothing smell. I stared deep into the fire, watching the flames leap and dance. The fire seemed like the flicker of life itself.