In a land threatened by cruel invaders from the east, Bridget Bramble lives in a small village where she barters herbs and carved buttons. When marauders target her village and murder her family, she flees into the woods. Armed with her Granny’s advice and a bag of magic buttons, she sets out on the perilous journey to Oakenwald, the fabled land where elves and men live in harmony. As she travels farther from home, she encounters malicious creatures from the worst kind of folktale.
Lost in the foothills of the mountains, Bridget meets the elf, Windswift the Wanderer. He offers to guide her across the mountain range. But what is the elf doing in human lands? Can an ordinary, or almost ordinary, human girl trust a cold hearted elf to lead her to safety?
Epic fantasy adventure and romance with darker overtones. This story weaves elements of folklore and a quest for a safe haven in a land where magic is real.
Bridget Bramble fastened the buckle to close the satchel and placed it on the table next to her basket. She spun on her toes, gazing at her cottage and breathing in the homely scene. The spicy fragrance of the herbs hanging to dry melded with the lingering scent of the barley cakes she had baked yesterday. Jars of preserves and powders lined the shelf above her plates, bowls and cooking pots.
She had lived alone in the cottage in the two years since Granny had died, following her tradition of supplying herbs for the villagers. But she needed to replenish her stock and this foraging expedition was overdue. She had used the last of the white fungus three weeks ago. The shell-shaped fungus grew only in a special grove of birches at half a day’s walk from her cottage. The trip had been postponed by tending to a sick child and a spate of rainy days.
The girl had recovered. Yesterday, the clouds had lifted and she had prepared for the day-long expedition into the woods garnering seasonal fruits, herbs and the white fungus. She planned to fill the basket with ripe berries and nuts. Everything was ready for her trip.
She tapped her fingers on the leather satchel. It held plenty of cloth bags to carry the foraged plants and a pair of leather gloves to protect her hands from thorns or poisonous oils. She had packed two barley cakes, a chunk of cheese, an apple and a leather flask of ale for her midday meal. She always carried her small knife, the fire starter and a pouch of medicinal herbs. Her cloak and hat were on the hooks by the door. She had fed the chickens and checked that the ashes in the fireplace were cold.
She lifted the brown felt hat from its hook, and jammed it over her head, pulling the rim low over her ears and forehead. Only her ponytail swung loose on her back. She grinned, as gleeful as a truant lad, and eager for a day’s freedom from humdrum chores.
A rap on the door made her frown. It meant a delay.
Annoyed by the interruption, she placed the satchel on a chair and went to see who was her early visitor.
Randall stood outside, an anxious expression on his face and a linen bag in his hand.
“Bridget,” he said, “I’ve come for the dried madder. We’re ready to dye a new batch of wool.”
“Come in.” She swept the basket off the table to make room for his bag. “Sit down while I fetch it.”
As she opened the door to the larder, her brother demanded, “Why are you dressed like that?”
She glanced down at her working clothes. Randall ought to recognize her outfit from their hunting expeditions with Papa. She had worn the same clothes for those weeklong trips in the wilderness. The boy’s trousers Randall had outgrown, a faded blue woolen shirt, a man’s leather jerkin and ankle boots. Only the jerkin was a newer acquisition, freshened up with a set of her horn buttons. She preferred the freedom of a man’s clothing for lengthy trips into the woods. If she were mistaken for a boy at a distance, it might save her unwanted attentions.
She said, “I’m going foraging in the woods.”
“Man’s clothes. You’re so unfeminine,” he scolded. “How can you expect to attract a husband if you go around wearing a man’s clothes?”
She squashed an angry retort. It was useless to argue with him. He was only voicing his wife’s opinion, likely shared by the old biddies in the village. She wrinkled her nose and sniffed. Her clothing had nothing to do with her unmarried state. He knew the real reason as well as she did. The blacksmith’s son had spread the rumor she was a witch and hated men. The lies were his revenge for the spell she cast when he caught her alone and tried to rape her.
Pressing his point, he said, “You shouldn’t be living alone.”
“I don’t want a husband,” she snapped and immediately regretted her outburst. Locating the jar with powdered madder root, she poured a quarter of it into Randall’s drawstring bag. “Here’s the madder. Do you need anything else?”
He thanked her, rubbed his short beard and stared at her for a moment. “You could come to live with us.”
Leaning her palms on the table, she dismissed his offer. “No. Hen’s teeth, Eveline and I would be at each other’s throats.”
He looked unhappy. “Bridget, I’m worried about Eveline. She’s bulging with the baby. Her ankles are swollen and she’s too tired to do her usual housework.”
“She should rest,” Bridget said. “The baby’s not due yet. Not for three or four weeks, I’d guess.” She understood his worries. Their first child had been stillborn.
“You’ll come, won’t you, to help with the birth?”
Touched by his trust in her healing abilities, she said, “I’ll be there. Send for me once the pains begin.” Ever since she was ten years old, she had assisted Mama and Granny at births. Now, she served as the village’s only herbwife. Despite the rumors, her neighbors often called on her to help with difficult births and severe illnesses. Her trip to replenish supplies of medicinal herbs was as important as making charms for healing. Sorting through the jars, she selected a mixture of shredded raspberry and peppermint leaves. “Give Eveline a pinch of this mix in hot water at midday and make sure she rests in bed.”
Randall picked up the package. “You’re a good sister. I shouldn’t grumble about your clothes or how you choose to live.”
She gave him a goodbye hug to prove she still loved him despite their disagreements. Holding the door open, she watched him limp down the lane toward his house in the main village. Eveline might gripe about her sister-in-law’s weird habits, yet she never berated Randall about his lame leg. They were happy as a couple. Was Randall right? Would she also be happier with a husband? Maybe. If she found a man to love her and approve of her skills in herbcraft and carving magic buttons. She shook her head. Nobody in this neighborhood fit that description.
When her brother hobbled out of sight around a bend in the path, she returned to her kitchen and replaced the jars in the larder. Glancing though the window at the sky, she considered her delayed trip. She had meant to leave at first light, and the sun was already halfway to its zenith. Even walking fast, she could not reach the birch grove with the white fungus before late afternoon. Should she extend the trip and sleep overnight in the woods? The autumnal weather was mild and she had often camped in the wilds during the week-long expeditions with Papa.
A shout erupted from the lower village.
Bridget groaned. Not another interruption.
Armed men were marching in a double line along the road into the village. She counted a column of fifty soldiers. Their helmets, sword hilts and spear points glinted in the sunlight. They wore thick doublets over leather kilts dyed dark red. A helmeted man rode a black horse in the vanguard, his blood-red cloak billowing in the breeze. Walking behind the leader, another man carried a banner, flapping in a blur of red and black. In the rear, other men led horses pulling two empty wagons.
As they advanced, her trepidation grew. Why were they entering the village? Had they come to collect tithes for King Athelric? Surely it was too early in the season. The tithe collectors always came after the harvest was gathered. And none of the king’s soldiers wore red kilts. Who were these strangers?
Elder Grantham stomped onto the road to confront the leader of the foreign troop. Old Grantham called himself the village chief and fancied he ran the place. He raised his hand and asked a question, his words inaudible at this distance.
The cloaked leader barked an order.
A man in the front rank punched his fist into Grantham’s face.
The gray-haired old man crumpled, his body thumping onto the road.
Aghast, Bridget gulped. Grantham might be a pompous ass, but what hellish person would mistreat a defenseless old man?
A woman screeched inside the adjacent cottage.
The enemy leader gave a hand signal.
The foremost ranks split into groups. Five men rushed into the nearest cottage and dragged the occupants onto the road. A second set of men entered the house and carted out boxes of valuables. They worked methodically, moving from one cottage to the next in an organized manner.
Villagers yelled in anger, or screamed and begged for mercy. The raiders beat off the scant opposition and herded the others into a field.
No wonder there was little resistance, Bridget thought bitterly. Two weeks ago, Jarl Keegan had commandeered eight of the strongest men in the village and the best riding horses for his troop. He had led them away to Castleton in response to a command from King Athelric. Since their departure, no messages had come from the Jarl or his men. Rumors swirled around the neighborhood about battles and marriage celebrations, although nobody knew the truth.
Suddenly furious, Bridget resolved the horrid foreigners would not capture her or steal her best buttons. Shutting her eyes, she rubbed her fingers over the charm-inscribed buttons on her bracelet and considered what to do. Her cottage stood on the edge of the woods, up a small lane and well separated from the rest of the village. She should have a few minutes respite before the raiders arrived.
Randall and his pregnant wife lived in the main village. But she had no way to defend them against the attackers. Few of the spells in her scant knowledge of magic were designed to harm people. She had only once used her best weapon, the repulsion spell, to escape when the blacksmith’s son had grabbed her. Repulsion made an effective defense against a man at close quarters, but it would not work on an enemy at a distance. Her only option was to flee before the invaders captured her.
Luckily, her man’s clothes were good for running and she had a day’s worth of food. What else could she take for her flight?
A scream, abruptly cut short, propelled her into action.
Her thoughts buzzing in alarm, she ran to the chest by her bed and grabbed her most precious belongings, the blue bag with her best buttons, her sewing kit and carving tools. She stuffed them in a second satchel along with a spare shirt. She hesitated over her three books. The herbal treatise and book of ballads were too heavy to carry a long distance, although she decided to keep her great grandparents’ travel journal. Its pages had a wrinkled cover of oiled leather. She tucked the small book into the folds of the shirt. Returning to the fireplace, she grabbed the tin cup for heating water. Finally, she surveyed the shelves in the larder. The jars of preserves were too heavy, but she added three apples, the rest of the barley cakes, a bag of shelled walnuts and strips of smoked mutton in store for the winter.
She arranged the straps of the two satchels crosswise over her shoulders. Flinging her cloak over her back, she fumbled to fasten the button at her neck. She nudged the rear door ajar and peeped out. Just beyond the doorsill, a well-trodden track led uphill into the woods. Raspberry and currant bushes lined the path and provided a screen from the marauders in the village.
Heart thumping in fright, she lowered her hood over her head. She crouched below the tops of the bushes and scurried up the path into the shelter of the trees.