FOLLOWING THE COW’S PATH • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

He split her like a bloodwurst and left her like butcher’s ware — cold dead meat drawing flies.

But Friedegunde my sister was more — not a surrenderer and not silenced. I held my scream, knowing she hadn’t screamed but fought — breath all saved for the fight.

Tight in her broken hand was a fine stamped button from his coat.

Men hereabouts wear that sigil in fealty, but only two would sport it in gold.

Graf Ingulf was a rough harsh man but said to have honor, in his way. Ingo his brother did not.

I told no one. All holding justice in their hands dined at Graf Ingulf’s table.

I kissed my sister and swore with the taste of her blood in my mouth I’d find justice myself. Then I ran shouting for neighbors to help me carry her home.


She’d laughed when we called her Gundele — said pet names didn’t suit a big strong girl like her.

She’d been walking home with the egg money from market day when he’d stolen the only thing of value — leaving the few silver pennies, spattered with her blood, on the ground. Now I was alone but for chickens and the little cow.

I felt as though my heart was bounded up with thorns.


It had been every night for a month now, the same thing.

Hear me, and follow me, said my little cow Mandelchen, and we will find justice for Gundele.

It didn’t feel like a dream.


I went to milk her next morning. Such depths in her great dark eyes!

Afterwards she flicked her great brush of a tail and knocked the wooden cup off its nail, straight into my hands. Then she stamped.

“Well, little heart,” I said, “if you’ve a plan in your head you are smarter than I am,” and I let her out.


Though knowing the way to the common meadows she wandered close to the road instead, and I kept walking and wondering what strangeness this was.

And just past the hard curve — where great trees blocked and shadowed the morning sun — were blood and broken smashed things — panting of terrified horses and moaning from human throats.

A broken axle, the two liverymen dead — and Sabine, lady to Graf Ingulf, crawling from the carriage, her little maid after her, sobbing.

It was as though my dream of vengeance had veered off-course and yet I felt myself masterful.

“I’ll help you, my lady!” With my arm bracing her and the little maid pushing, we got the countess Sabine out onto the rutted verge. Her belly was a hillock, precariously rising from torn skirts.

Mandelchen bellowed behind me. I fished out the cup from my pocket, filled it with hot sweet milk and knelt to Sabine.

“This will strengthen and hearten you, my lady.”

She drank as though starved and I filled the cup again for the little maid, bruised and cut but not worse.

The horses too were bruised and frantic; one lamed but the other sound.

“Help me,” I said to the girl and we unhitched it.

“The village is nearer — have them bring a wagon filled with hay.” I ripped a badge off one of the crumpled men.

“Show them this — they’ll come quick enough back with you.”

I knelt so she could scramble up by my shoulder; the horse dwarfed her but she managed to grip on and knee the beast right.

Again I filled the cup. Gräfin Sabine’s color warmed with each swallow; she was tender-faced; I’d say poorly matched to her lord.

“By God’s grace the child will be unharmed,” I said.

“It is my first,” she said; “much rides on it.”

“God sorts all as He will,” I said.

I tore a strip from my shift and soaked it with milk — such full udders, and not long after the morning milking! — and I cleaned the lady Sabine’s scratched face. “You will not lose your beauty, my lady,” I said.

“Let God take it but grant me the child,” she said.


They were quick with the wagon — grim-faced to be dragged into Graf Ingulf’s business. The little maid began to climb down but I told her stay and pillow the Gräfin’s head.

The lady Sabine gripped my hand as they lifted her. “That milk — it eased me as nothing has these six months gone. I must have it, and you to bring it — you and the cow both I must have.”

I told them not to rope Mandelchen to the wagon.

“She will follow, as a little sister clings to the elder,” I said.


Graf Ingulf and his brother were a three-day ride from the burg; it would be a week, nearly, til they rode thundering back.

“Not everyone will rejoice, my lady, that you survived the danger,” I said. Since that grim morning she had kept me close.

“No,” she said.

“The axle’d been cut before it splintered. I will guess the coachman knew and had been told where to drive fastest; his foot betrayed him, my lady — he was caught in the traces and couldn’t jump clear.”

“Who can prove that now?”

“I can; the axle was saved out and hid in the wagon that brought you home; and it lies beneath the straw my cow sleeps on. I told them to leave the tending of her to me.”

“Are you some sort of angel that you come to save me?”

“I am an avenging one; Ingo your brother-in-law ravaged the life from my sister and left her for the crows.”

I showed her the button that I had kept pressed against my heart, covered as it was with my Friedegunde’s blood.

“This is her life’s blood spilled on the sigil of your husband’s house but you know as I know it is not your husband’s button.

“We have one enemy between us, my lady, and God will show us how to make him pay his debts.”

Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.)

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