Viviana's Story : Chapter One

That day: It started the same as every other day; I got up with the birds singing their morning chorus. It was late spring and my father was going away on his yearly hunt up into the mountains, he traded in furs and this was one of the best times to track the animals as they fattened themselves up after hibernating all winter. We lived together in a small cabin he had built when my mother was still alive, just after they got married and were still young and full of hope for the future. She had died when I was very little so my father had raised me, teaching me the way of the hunter and to read the forest around me. Some of the villagers were horrified that I was raised the same way a boy would have been, but I loved the freedom it gave me, and that I could best most of their sons in a fight.

I was humming to myself while wrapping up the food supplies and putting them in a bag for my father to take with him when I heard his soft footsteps crossing the living room, he swept me up into a huge bear hug just as he had done every morning of my life "Good morning my little humming bird" he said. "Good morning Papa, I've got everything ready for you" I said pointing at his bags by the door. He smiled and mussed up my hair, I mock scowled at him but he just laughed and went to the stove and helped himself to the porridge. I loved it when he laughed, the way his eyes sparkled, and the skin around his eyes crinkled up, except for the thin white scar that threaded down from his temple to his jaw. That day, it started so normally and so wonderfully.

We ate breakfast together before walking to the edge of our clearing where I stopped, "Next time you'll be old enough to come with me" he said with a smile "and be thankful you don't have to go stay in the village anymore!" I looked up at him saying "I'm ready now". He just shook his head, "Practice here in the forest near to home for me then, and we'll see."

I watched as he walked away down the forest path, he turned and waved when he reached the giant oak then disappeared into the trees. I was happy, he was the best hunter in the district, I was close to becoming the second best or so I thought, and he would return in three or four weeks laden down with furs for us to sell at market.

Except he never did. That was the last time I ever saw my father, in the spring of the year I turned sixteen.

Two weeks had passed and I was out stalking a deer, bow in hand I drifted silently from tree to tree, the deer stopped in a pool of sunlight to graze. I drew back my arrow holding my breath, sighted and just as I let go there was a loud crack from behind me and the deer startled away, my arrow brushing harmlessly past. I turned around to see a young man blundering along the main path from the village, striding over I recognized him, "Gods Granger, do you have to walk so noisily!" "Sorry, you know how much I hate the forest, I can't see anything" he said grumpily, not looking me in the eye. I frowned; he stood awkwardly still not looking at me, "What is it then?" I asked in exasperation. He shoved his hands into his pockets, "Some strangers have come to the village, and says they got some news." He scuffed one foot through the loam. "And?" I demanded coming to the end of my temper. He glanced everywhere except at me, "I been sent to bring you in, the elders have called a meeting." That was strange, I hadn't yet come of age and I was a girl, women and children weren't included in the running of the village. I shouldered my bow, "Fine, I'll go get my cloak and meet you at the edge of the forest." "They said to bring you direct" he muttered and I sighed at the stubbornness of the man, "Granger there is a late storm brewing, I'm sure you can feel it" he gave a slight nod, "well then I will need my cloak." I said turning and walking away.

He was still stood where I had left him, arms crossed tight over his chest, scowling into the trees. Seeing me he turned and started back along the path, I fell in step beside him and we walked in silence all the way to the village. Once there he led me to the church, as we walked past the first houses I saw the women peering out the windows and muttering together. There were other men going in when we arrived but Granger took me by the arm and held me back, "we'll wait until everyone is gathered, don't want you squashed in there longer than you ought." So we waited as dusk fell and it started to drizzle. I pulled my hood up and fidgeted, curious to know what was so important that they had called me out. Finally when I was almost bursting with impatience and the rain was starting to fall in earnest Granger touched my elbow and moved over to the door, I followed him in and we stood in the shadows at the back. The benches were full, it looked like every man old enough had come in and the room was filled with a hum of muttered conversation. I looked towards the front where a group of strangers stood to the side of the alter, a bubble of space around them, the elders gathered on the other side. Elder Daniel stepped forward and an expectant hush settled over the room, he looked older than when I had last seen him, as if his energy was just seeping out of him. He looked around the room and sighed, "Friends, I have called you all here because the news these men bring concerns us all." He stepped to the side and one of the strangers came forward, his clothes were stained from travel and he had deep lines etched into his face, but under the tan and beard he did not look to be much older than thirty.

"Good people, I bring troubling news from the north beyond the mountains, there are rumours of a witch who travels in the moonlight and steals away with the children."

"Fairytales!" some fellow at the front shouted out.

"You brought us here to listen to bedtime stories" another joked and there was a scattering of laughter.

"That is what I thought," the stranger said shaking his head, "but my men and I travel these lands at the kings' command, to listen to rumours and stories, to sort truth from the tales, to hunt out those who would oppose him." At this there was a flurry of whispers across the hall. There hadn't been a kingsman in our village before, not that I could remember.

"Are you saying this witch is real then?" one of the fisher men asked, worry creasing his face. He had a wife and five little children at home. Some of the other family men also looked concerned.

"Whether it is a witch or not we still do not know, but the truth in that story is that children are going missing. It started in the north, in the villages around Allwinters Fjell, but has been spreading. I bring you this warning; keep a close watch over your children, bring them home in the evenings and lock your doors."

A hubbub of conversation broke out, some men were calling for more information, others were sceptical, the fisher man and some others stood up and started to push their way to the door. I turned to Granger "What's that have to do with me?" I asked, he shrugged, "Maybe they think you should move to the village." "Well that's not going to happen, anyway my father will be home in a few weeks." I answered. I turned back to look around the room, my eyes wandered to the front where the strangers stood surrounded by people clamouring to know more. Their leader stood in the middle, but he wasn't listening to them, he was watching me I realised with shock. Our eyes met and he nodded slightly his hand over his heart, I frowned and looked away, that was a formal greeting and it confused me. That was how us younger ones had been taught to greet the elders, with respect and deference, so why would he pay such attention to me. I turned to Granger about to ask if we could leave, but he was standing rigid, staring at the stranger, his face had flushed.

"Granger?"

He turned and gripped my arms, "Do you know that man?" he sounded so fierce. He was angry. I shook my head "I've never seen him before!" He let go and I rubbed my arms and he had the decency to look sheepish, but then he went back to glaring across the room.

"Granger" I said again, "can I go home now?"

He looked back down at me and shook his head, "Elder Daniel said he needed to speak to you." He looked around the room, "Come" he said, leading me around the edge which was mostly clear as more people had left. We wound our way to the side of the alter and Granger left me in the arch of the sanctuary before going up to the Elders, they spoke a minute and he gestured my way. I fidgeted with the corner of my cloak, I didn't like the way this evening was turning out, Granger was confusing me, he was acting so protective which was strange, he had always teased me before. Now he was acting like a grownup which was funny, he was only two years older than me. I shifted from foot to foot and then hearing footsteps I looked up. Granger was coming back; with him were Elder Daniel, the stranger and three others: one elder and two of the kings' men. One was carrying a sack over his shoulder. I greeted them with a low nod as was fitting for the leader of our village; I looked up in time to see that all three of the strangers had touched their heart in greeting and my stomach started to turn somersaults. This could not be good.

"Viviana, this is Lord Damion, a member of the Royal Guard and a friend to your father." Elder Daniel said. I looked at him and then at Lord Damion not sure where this was leading. "How do you know Father?" it was the first question that came to my mind and it spilled out of me before I could catch it, I blushed feeling like a child. But he just smiled slightly, "Your father would guide us through these forests and over the mountains when we needed to travel unnoticed. He was the only one who knew all the secret paths."

"I know them too" I said a little proudly, and then "was..?" that word didn't feel right. I looked at their faces and was filled with dread. Lord Damion looked me in the eyes, his were wet with tears, "Your father is dead child." The words were like a stone, dragging my heart down into a pit. I shook my head, "No, he is out hunting, he is coming back." I said, I was too hot and they were all looking at me. "We were to meet him in the mountains" Lord Damion continued, "He wasn't at the camp, it was deserted. We followed his tracks, but they were old. It looked like there had been a fight, there was blood on the stones." I just shook my head, this wasn't true, "No, he promised me he would come back" There was a ringing noise in my ears and my eyes were getting blurry with tears, someone took hold of my arm and I pushed them away. "We found most of his things scattered around, they are here." The man with the sack held it out but I was backing away shaking my head, "No." They were wrong, they had to be wrong. Tears were running down my face as I looked each man in the face, Lord Damion had tears on his cheeks. "You're lying!" I shouted, people were looking but I didn't care, "he promised" the words were almost a whisper, a plea for it not to be true. But their faces said otherwise. Lord Damion stepped towards me reaching out his hand, but it was too much. My head spinning I turned and ran for the door, gulping down a sob I dashed out into the pouring rain. I don't know where I would have run to if I hadn't crashed into somebody. He grabbed a hold of me and I screamed, beating him on the chest I tried to pull away but his arms wrapped around me pulling me close. I screamed again, full of anger and pain, shoving at him I looked up, Granger was crying too but he wouldn't let go. My stomach shrivelled up and a sob racked through my body, my legs gave way but Granger held me up as I cried and the heavens cried with me.

I didn't notice when he led me back into the church, when they took my soaking cloak and wrapped a dry one around me. I didn't see the glances between those left in the hall, or hear the hushed murmurs as the story was told from one to another. Granger almost carried me, my feet dragging leaden across the stones, into the sanctuary where the priest had lit the prayer candles. I crumpled into a heap on the floor and wept. I don't know how long I cried, or how long I sat staring blankly at the candles after my tears had run out, occasionally a low voice would speak in the main hall but I paid them no heed, I kept seeing my father waving from the old oak tree a smile on his face. I was drained dry of everything; I had no will to do anything so I just sat there as the candles burned lower.

It was probably early morning when Lord Damion came in, he sat and leant against the wall, I ignored him for a while, but eventually my need to know more won out. I turned stiffly towards him, noticing how cold my legs were but not really feeling it. "Did you find him?" I asked, my voice rasped like old leaves. His eyes were dark and his shoulders seemed bent by a heavy weight, "There was a body" he said after a time, as if unsure how much to tell me. "How do you know it was him?" if there was any hope. "I recognised his jacket, or what was left of it. It was the one with the stags embroidered on the collar." I nodded, that had been his favourite, he had told me once that my mother had made it for him. "And this was in his hand." Lord Damion said and slid something over the stones towards me. It bumped into my foot and I picked it up, I unwound the leather strap and held my fathers' dagger, the carved ivory handle gleamed dully in the candlelight and my eyes filled with tears again. Clutching it in my lap, the leather case warm in my fist, I bowed my head as the tears silently fell.

It was afternoon when I finally stood up, everything ached, including my heart. I walked stiffly towards the church door trailing my fingers along the wall, hardly noticing the feel of the rough stone. I paused in the doorway, the sunlight glinting off of wet surfaces momentarily blinding me. Granger was sat hunched up on the steps, but seeing me he jerked up. I wandered out into the road; the few people out there murmured their condolences as they walked passed. My feet took me towards the river, I was dimly aware of Granger following me but paid him no mind. I didn't think where I was going or what I would do, only knew that I had to be out of the church that felt like a tomb, out of the village and away from the people with their pitying stares. I guess my body went automatically along the paths it knew best as I found myself following the river to the curve where it cut through the edge of the forest. I went along the river's edge to where it tripped into a quiet pool and sat down in the sun on a large boulder. Drawing my knees up to my chin I gazed aimlessly into the water, I couldn't think because then my thoughts were of all the things I had ever done with my father. So I just sat and was one with the forest. I did not notice when Granger sat down beside me, only that he was there when the chill of evening drew me back into my body. "I want to go home now." I said, he just nodded and helped me up, then handed me my cloak. It had dried in the sun and it was only when I put it on that I realised how cold I was. I shivered and started into the trees, Granger stepped up beside me. "I'll see you safe there." He said. I shrugged and carried on, what did it matter if he was there or not. We walked in heavy silence as dusk fell quickly beneath the trees. Getting home I unlocked the door and wandered in, then stood lost in the main room. I didn't know what to do now. But Granger moved passed me into the kitchen, I listened dully as he built a fire in the stove and warmed up some water. I was still stood in the middle of the room when he came back in carrying a cup of tea. He pushed me down into my chair by the fireplace and gave me the cup before building up the fire and breathing life back into it. He knelt in front of me, wrapping his hands around mine and the cup, "Drink it, then sleep and please Viviana, don't do anything stupid" he said, letting go of my hands he watched my face until I gave a slight nod and lifted the cup to my lips and took the smallest of sips. He stood and went to the door, turning he said "I'm sorry" then left. I frowned into the tea as I took another sip, when had he become so gentle, and when had he learnt to make tea. I finished the drink; it was easier to do as I had been told than to think of anything else. I slid my feet out of my boots and leaving my cloak runkled over the back of the chair I padded over to my fathers' room, pushing open the door like I used to when scared by a storm or woken by bumps in the night, I looked at his things and my lip began to tremble. I climbed into his bed and crept under the blanket we had stitched from my childhood memories. Holding his dagger and curled up around a pillow I cried myself to sleep.

The next days were a stream of emptiness, I didn't have the energy or desire to do anything so either lay on the bed all day or sat beside the fireplace. I don't know how many days had passed when there came a soft knock on the door. I stood listlessly and pulled it open, Lord Damion stood there, and his men were at the edge of the clearing with their horses. I looked blankly at him, he looked me over and rose one eyebrow "may I come in for a moment?" he asked. I shrugged and walked back in sitting again in my chair. He walked in and put a basket and sack down by me, "Some gifts from the villagers and their condolences." I turned my face away so he wouldn't see the tears threatening to fall. "And your fathers' things we brought down with us." I took a shuddering breath and nodded, I didn't dare speak. He stood looking at me for a moment more before turning back to the door, just as he stepped out I spun in my chair "Wait!" I cried, frightened to be alone again. He looked over his shoulder at me, outlined by the sunlight behind him. "Don't leave me alone" I begged, a tear slipping down my cheek. He came back in and knelt in front of me, wiping the tear away with his thumb he shook his head. "I can't stay, my king commands it" He said and I started to cry, he held my head between his hands, "But you are your fathers daughter, his blood, the blood of heroes flows in you, you are strong, remember that when things feel too much."

"But I'm afraid to be alone" I whispered.

He smiled gently, "But you never will be, you are part of this forest, full of living things and secret ways that only you know." He lifted me up and drew me outside, "This is your kingdom" he swept an arm wide, taking in the clearing and stream and trees, "Live! And be a part of it." He commanded, "and you can always visit the village when you feel the need to talk to people!" he added wryly giving me a squeeze. I smiled slightly at that, he stepped down off the porch and looked at me, "Promise me Viviana that you will live, and be good at it? The King and I may have need of you here one day." He held eye contact until I nodded then spun on his heel and strode back to his men; they mounted up, nodded in farewell and moved off to the south.

I stood in the sunlight listening to the forest around me; I could hear the birds in the trees, the rustling of a small animal in the undergrowth, the stream chattering over stones. Live! They all seemed to say. I looked down at my crumpled clothes and wrinkled my nose, turned back inside and cleaned myself up. Took up my bow and arrows and went out into my forest, my father had been the best hunter in the area, I would live to make him proud by becoming the best in the kingdom.