January 10th: Fairy Tales
Wildflower
, by Keshia Swaim

Her lungs felt like fire by the time she finally collapsed by her pond.  “Pond” was a romantic term, it was more like a puddle.  But it was hers.  One of the few things that was.  And her brother was trying to take that away from her.  Even as she told herself she didn’t really hate Garric, she knew that she did.  Every since that hunting trip six summers ago.  The one that her Da never came back from.  Garric just took over, like he could really take Da’s place.  And now he had arranged a marriage for her!

Britta forced herself to sit up.  She ran to the pond to calm down.  Thinking about the conversation she’d heard would only make it worse.  She crossed her legs and tried a   few calming breaths.  It didn’t work.  Even the flowers growing on the bank were                                                                                            mocking her.  How dare they be bright yellow and red, dancing in the breeze as if the whole world wasn’t falling down around her!  Weren’t wildflowers supposed to flourish when life was happy and peaceful?

Garric had traded her off to some man from the mountains.  The Mountains!  The thought lodged in her throat like a huge lump of bread that she couldn’t swallow.  The forest was all she’d ever known.  The trees were her best friends, this pond, the only place she felt at peace.  Imagining a life surrounded by rocks, never seeing wildflowers again, was more than she could bear to think about.

Wiping her eyes, Britta stared at her reflection in the water.  Light brown hair blown across hazel eyes, thin lips and a narrow chin.  She knew she wasn’t the most beautiful girl in the village, but she wasn’t ugly either.  Not that looks matter.  She smiled bitterly at the girl in the water.  If it wasn’t Cael of the mountains, it would have been someone else.  That’s all a woman could hope for.  But Britta had never wanted that life. Marriage, even to someone in the next village, would be a cage.  She longed for the impossible.  In her dreams she ran freely through the trees, caring for the forest and nothing else.

She was so caught up in her fantasy it took a moment for Britta to notice the change in the pond’s surface.  It began to shimmer slightly at the edges, the way it always did before it showed her a vision.  Britta felt her body stiffen and her eyes were glued to the water.

A large hand struck her across the face, knocking her to the floor.  Both of her arms had evidence of old bruises.  But when she looked up, her eyes showed no sign of anger.  They didn’t hold any emotion at all.  The man who had struck her calmly returned to his meal.  He had a handsome face, square jaw line and wavy golden hair.  But his eyes were blurry and red-rimmed, evidence of too much drink.

Britta crawled across the floor to comfort a screaming infant, carefully staying out of the large man’s reach.  She hummed an old lullaby and rocked the boy until he fell asleep.  Her face looked almost peaceful as she looked at the sleeping child.  Then she winced at a command and stood, gently laying the boy in his cradle before walking back to the table.

Britta stared at the pond’s surface, willing the vision to come back, but all she saw was her own reflection staring back at her.  For the millionth time, Britta wished that there was someone she could discuss her visions with.  Someone who could tell her what they meant.  Grandmother talked about a time when those who had visions were respected, exulted, even.  But those days were long gone.  Since the time of the dark skinned invaders, anything dealing with the old ways was shunned.  The seers had been put to death, burned in a pit.

No one knew about the things Britta saw in the pond.  She had always known it wasn’t safe to discuss the visions, even ones as disturbing as the one she had just witnessed.  Questions raced through her mind.  Why didn’t she fight back?  Why did her eyes look so dead?  Who was that man?  And the boy, was it her son?  When was this?

The sun had started to sink before Britta felt calm enough to go home.  She had no idea how she was going to pretend everything was fine.  She knew eavesdropping was wrong, but when she heard her name in whispered tones, she couldn’t help it.  Now she had to go back and pretend she didn’t know her fate was sealed until her mother broke the news to her.  She had no hopes that her mother would stand up to her brother. Mother always did what Garric told her to do.

She didn’t need to hurry home.  The whole place was in such an uproar Britta doubted anyone had even noticed she was gone.  Mother, Garric, his wife Tia, and even a few neighbors were bustling about preparing for “Garric’s friend” from the mountains.  So that’s how it will be.  They don’t even have the courage to tell me the truth.  Cowards.

“Ma” Britta began as soon as she caught her mother alone.  “Why don’t I spend the day with Jayon tomorrow? Then there will be one less person for you to trip over.”

“Out of the question.  Garric especially wants you to meet Cael.”

“What could I possibly have in common with a man of the mountains?  You know I hate dinners with strangers.  It would be easier for both of us if—”

“No nonsense Britta.  You’ll be there, and I want you to wear your feast day dress.”

Britta watched in silence as her mother bustled away, calling something out to Tia about the good rug.  “Worth a try,” Britta muttered to herself as she headed to the hut.  Maybe he’ll be handsome.  Handsome and kind.  And we’ll come for long visits every summer.

Britta did not sleep well.  Everything, from the owl hunting in the woods, to her mother’s snores from the next pallet, made her eyes sting with tears.  How many more nights do I have here? One?  Two?  When the first rays of sun peaked their way through the door flap, Britta swung her legs off her pallet and crept to the door.  Garric was there.

“Where are you headed so early?”

“I’m going for a run.”  Britta lifted her chin defiantly.  “I run every morning.”

“Not anymore.  Ma and I think it’s time you give up you’re childish habits.  You are a woman now.  It’s about time you act like one.”

“Ma and I?  Ma and I?”  Britta could feel her voice rising, but she didn’t care.  “How dare you!  You have no right to take Da’s place.  I don’t need you. I—”  Britta stumbled back, cradling the cheek where Garric had just slapped her.

“By the Spirits you’re stubborn, Britta.  Do you think I wanted this?  That I wanted to have to take Da’s place?”  Garric spun on his heal and stalked off.

For a split second, Britta felt bad about her outburst.  Then she remembered what today would bring.  Da would have never arranged a marriage behind her back.  He would want her to be happy.  Garric always made decisions that benefited him first, and others second.

Britta sighed and went back inside.  She pulled on her feast day dress and sat patiently as Tia plaited her hair in an elaborate coil around her head.  She knew that arguing would just make things worse, so she sat in silence, trying to think about her options.

The hard truth was that she didn’t have any.  She wished again that there was some other path for a woman.  But women married and had children.  Men were traders, hunters, religious leaders, and craftsmen.  Women?  Women were breeders.  Good for nothing more or less.

A woman did have the right to refuse a proposed suitor.  Britta knew that.  But to what purpose?  Garric would just choose another man, possibly worse just for spite.  She was trapped.  Just as she felt panic tighten in her chest, she heard the steady clomping of hooves and Garric’s voice raised in greeting.  He’s here.

Britta busied herself with the final preparations for the meal, desperately trying to ignore the voices just outside the hut.  Spirits, he’s here.  I can’t do this.  I need time to think.  There has to be a way.

“Mother, Britta, come out here.  There is someone you should meet.”  Garric called through the door flap.

Britta shuffled to the door behind her mother.  Head down, like a proper young woman.  “This is Cael of the West Mountains.” Garric was saying.  “Cael, meet my mother, and Britta, my sister.”

“You did not exaggerate, Garric,” Cael chuckled.  “You’re sister is as fair as a wood nymph.”

At least his voice is pleasant.  Britta braced herself and met the eyes of her future husband.  Her heart turned to ice.  His eyes were clear, dancing in the sunlight, and he was smiling broadly, but it was him.  The drunk man from her vision.  Britta gasped and felt the color drain from her face.  Her mother shot her a warning look, but the men just laughed.

Surely not even mother, not even Garric, can make me do this.  As soon as they see how cruel he is, this madness will be called off.  But if Cael was a cruel man, he hid it well.  Dinner went smoothly, Cael exclaiming over the cooking and Garric making jests.

Aside from a few suggestive winks directed at Britta, Cael was a perfect guest.  Even when the wine came out, he drank only sparingly, and Britta could see her family welcoming him into their hearts.  But Britta knew what he was.  Or at least what he would be.  The visions never lied.  Sometimes the things she saw happened almost immediately, and other times they were glimpses into the distant future.  But they were always true.  She would be trapped with this man, in a cage of stone, if she didn’t do something, and quickly.

Britta slept fitfully.  After dinner, she’d overheard Garric and Cael talking as they tended the horses.  In the morning, Cael would officially ask for Britta’s hand.  And they would leave the next day for his home.  Two days!  That’s all she had left.  She knew she would not miss her mother.  And she certainly didn’t mind being away from Garric.  But the thought of leaving her beloved forest hurt too much to think about.  Next spring, when the ground was a riot of color, wildflowers as thick as a blanket, what would she see?  Rocks?  Moss?  And what about the songbirds, and the deer?  What could possibly live on rocks?  Crows? Scavengers? Eventually, she fell into a restless sleep.

Britta jolted upright on her pallet.  She’d heard something.  A voice carried by the wind.  “Run, run run” the voice seemed to be chanting in her mind.  Run?  Run where?  I have no place to go.  Then, suddenly, she knew.  The trees.  Run through the forest.  The forest would protect her.  The forest was her true family.

Silently she rose.  She could hear her mother’s gentle snoring, and she could make out the lumps on each of the pallets.  Everyone was still asleep.  She held her breath as she crept out the door, and then she headed to the trees.
As soon as she was in the forest she broke into a full run.  She ran past her pond without even stopping.  Britta didn’t have a direction or destination, just “away”. As far away from her home, her family, and more importantly, as far from Cael as she could get.  Several times she tripped over tree roots, tearing the skin from her hands and knees, but she kept going.  Finally she collapsed in exhaustion at the base of a huge tree, and almost immediately fell asleep.

When she woke, the sky was much lighter.  The sun must have been up for a few hours.  Gradually, Britta became aware of the birds chirping.  Not their usual songs of greeting, but something much more urgent, like a warning that a predator was near by.  Suddenly, she heard it.  Stomping through the brush.  Something large, that had no skill at stealth.  Britta cursed her stupidity silently.  Of course Garric would know to check the forest.  I should have known he’d come after me.  She felt hot panic rising up in her throat.  She hadn’t taken the time to think about what would happen if she were caught.

Almost before she could think, Britta was on her feet again, heading deeper into the trees.  If she could just find a safe place to hide, maybe she wouldn’t get caught after all.  She wound her way through the trees all morning, carefully avoiding roots, small branches, and soft spots in the ground.  Anything that could give away her path.

Britta finally stopped, startled, when the full force of the sun shone suddenly in her eyes.  She was at the edge of a clearing she had never seen before.  Slowly, she realized she could no longer hear her pursuers.  There was something not quite right about this clearing. It was a perfect circle.  Obviously not natural, and yet there was no                                                                                                               sign of human habitation anywhere.  Britta had just decided to turn back and go another way when she heard a woman’s laughter behind her.

“Go ahead child, the clearing is perfectly safe.”

Britta whirled around, but there was no one there.

“Come forward, Britta.  Long have I waited for you to arrive.”

Startled, Britta stepped into the clearing.  “Who are you?  How do you know me?”

“I have no name. I am simply Protector of the Forest.  And as for your other questions, no, I am not a phantom, and no, you are no longer being pursued.”

“But, how? Who?”  Britta rubbed her forehead, trying to arranger her thoughts.

“Sit.  We have much to discuss.”

A woman and two chairs appeared out of thin air.  Britta collapsed into one chair as the mysterious woman gracefully sat in the other.

“I know your troubles Britta.  I have watched you a long time.  Most of your life, actually.  I can offer you a place of safety, where you will never be forced to marry or leave this land.”

While she was talking, Britta examined the strange lady.  She did not have the misshapen ears that would give her away as a sprite, or the shimmering aura of a shifter.  She was beautiful.  Tall and thin, with dark curly hair and eyes the color of a deep lake. At the offer of a place to stay, Britta forced herself back to the conversation.

“Why?  I mean, why would you offer a place for me to stay?”

“Because,” the lady smiled, “you remind me of myself, many years ago.  I can teach you how to control your visions, and many other things you cannot yet imagine.”

“I thank you, Lady.  And I would like to stay with you.”  Britta replied, barely able to contain her excitement.  Finally!  She had someone to discuss her powers with.

“Before you agree,” the woman said, raising her hand, “there are a few things you must know.  If you choose to stay with me, you will probably never be able to see your family again.”

Britta snorted.  “That does not bother me, Lady.”

“As I told you earlier, Britta, I am Protector of the Forest.  Time passes differently here than in the outside world, but one day I will fade.  Are you willing to take my place as Protector?  It would mean that you can never leave the forest.  It will be your family.  The animals, your children.  It is a lonely life, with little thanks.  But the forest will prosper as long as its Protector stands guard.”

Britta didn’t even hesitate.  “Yes.  The forest is the only thing I love.  To never leave it is all I’ve ever wanted.”

Her training began immediately.  As promised, the Protector showed Britta how to call her visions to her, and how to determine if the event was happening now, or long in the future.  But there was so much more.  She learned the language of the birds, and of the four-footed animals.  The Protector showed her how to read the trees and the sky for changes in the weather and warning signs of a hard winter. She even learned why her beloved wildflowers flourished in areas of peace.

Occasionally, when Britta was practicing her visions, she would receive a glimpse of her family.  But she would quickly splash the water, scattering the scene before she could see what was happening.  Her family had been willing to abandon her, to send her off without even consulting her, and she no longer wanted them in her life.

The moon had completed many cycles before Britta began to feel guilty about deserting her family.  She would never return home, she knew that.  But she had left without an explanation, without a goodbye.  And then there was what the Protector had told her.

Britta had asked how she could be sure that her family would not look for her any longer.  The Protector said she caused the forest had made a false path, leading to a deep lake.  Garric and Cael had followed the path and determined that Britta had drowned.  As much as she tried to ignore it, a tiny part of Britta’s heart kept insisting that it was wrong to let her mother continue to think that she was dead.  Finally, she gathered enough nerve to ask the Protector for leave to go visit her mother.

“Lady, I need to go home.”

“This is your home now, Britta.”

“Yes.  And I will return.  But I need to see my mother again.  Just to let her know that I live.”

“Do you not remember what your life was there?  Why you ran to me for protection that day?”

Britta winced at the tone in the Protector’s voice.  She’d never sounded angry with her before.  “I haven’t forgotten, but I’m sure that Cael is gone now.  And you know they will not be able to hold me there.  Please Lady, this is something I must do.”

The Protector sighed, and for a moment Britta thought she could see a deep sadness.  “Go child.  But do not be surprised to find things much changed.”

Britta nodded and sprinted off towards home before she had time to change her mind.  It took most of the day to reach the edge of the forest, but Britta was barely out of breath when she passed her old pond and ran out from under the trees.

Something was wrong.  She knew she was in the right place, but there was no one here.  No house, no garden, nothing but overgrown weeds and wildflowers.  Slowly, Britta walked to a spot where the ground was a raised above the rest.  The hearth.  Britta fell to her knees and began digging.  It was covered under a few inches of dirt, but there was no doubt.  She recognized the mud bricks. She’d helped make them when she was five.

This was it.  All that was left of her home.  It was sometime after the moon rose that the Protector found her, curled at the based of the hearth, sobbing like a child.

Britta started at the touch on her shoulder.  “Come.  Let’s go home.”

Numbly, Britta got up and followed.  They walked in silence back to the heart of the forest.  “You knew!” Britta finally burst out.  “You knew all along, didn’t you?”

“No, child.  I did not know.  Not for certain.  It is as I told you, time passes differently here.”

“What happened?  How long have they been gone?”

The Protector shook her head.  “I cannot say.  Have your visions not shown you anything of them?”

Britta felt her cheeks burning.  “I didn’t want to see.  I banished all visions of home.”

The Protector nodded.  “Yes.  I did the same.”

“What do you mean?”

“I told you once that you reminded me of myself long ago.  I too, left my family for this life, and never saw them again.”
“Do you regret it?  The choice you made.”

“At times.  But there is no way to change what is done.  I will not hold you here against your will.  You are free to leave if you wish.”

“I have nowhere to go, Lady.  The things you have showed me are worth the price.  I just wish I could know that my family was not attacked by the invaders.  That they lived, and died,  peacefully.”

The Protector smiled.  “Did you not notice the wildflowers?”

*

Keshia grew up in a small town, graduated from a respected University, and landed a steady job. Then she discovered that reality is boring. She has made it her mission to save others (and herself) from reality by writing as often as she can. She’s had several short stories published, and her debut YA novel, Blood Bound, was published through Spencer Hill Press in October, 2013. When she’s procrastinating, Keshia can be found on Facebook, Twitter @KeshiaSwaim, or her blog, The Book Addict.


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