Author's Note/Disclaimer: I would like to give all my readers a fair warning now that by the time we reach Chapter Four there will be an increase in adult situations i.e. attempted rape, miscarriage, violence, death, and strong lanuage.
And thus, enjoy.
She always found the same thing hanging from her garden post, a bundle of leather bound herbs left in exchange for the vegetables taken from her abundant garden. Always the same knot binding the herb although, whoever it was somehow knew what it was that she needed. What she was looking for desperately in the forest surrounding Sweet Water. Her life was simple out in the forest, no women gossiping in her ear, no drunken men making passes they would regret the moment they became sober. Sarah Bard felt no real ties to the village that was her home since her beloved mother, Elizabeth, had died. Not even the comfort of her father could tempt her back into the depths of village life.
The forest was her home, the one true place that she felt truly happy, truly at ease with herself and the rest of the world. It gave her everything that she could ever possibly want. The forest gave her livelihood. Deep within the shadows of the wood, she found her herbs, taking careful clippings to grow in the soil surrounded by her fence. Not that the fence did much good when the stranger came to trade. Not once had she caught him taking from her, nor had she ever caught him leaving his offering. It troubled her to think that someone or something was able to come onto her property so silently and leave no trail, no markings of any kind.
Tucking the herbs under her arm she walked back into her small home, her bare feet chilled by the morning dew that soaked the grass. She lay the herbs down on the table pushed to the wall and glanced around her main room. A faint smile played upon her face as she picked up her knife from the mantle above the fire pit and made her way back to the table. Sitting down she began the task of cutting apart the herbs into more manageable bundles for drying. She saved the leather, it was the only clue she had to her mysterious benefactor. Once she had the peppermint strung up on the wall, she began the task of preparing for the journey into the town. It would take her quite a while to reach Sweet Water, at least an hour as long as she didn't stop to pick anything along the way that is. Brushing the dust from her thin, grey cotton dress, she stood up and gathered up her soft leather boots. Leaning against the wall, she pulled them on her feet, grabbed her walking stick with her right hand and tucked her knife into the top of her left boot. Pulling open her door she walked out into the morning air, she took a deep breath and began the walk into town.
Her emerald eyes scanned the trees and undergrowth more out of habit than weariness, travelers often found themselves at the mercy of the wood if they didn't pay attention. More than once Sarah had found herself staring down a wolf or large cat, her heart pounding a hard rhythm against her ribs. Each time she was sure that her life was going to come to an end but it never did. It made her believe that her mother was watching out of her, keeping her safe in the same woods that had claimed her life. Considering the manner of her mother's death Sarah faired remarkably well in the darkness that haunted the village and the woods. She carried a knife to please her father, Alexander, and partially to calm her own mind although she knew that if the time came to use it she wouldn't stand much of a chance.
Shaking the thoughts from her mind, she walked easy down the trail keeping her ears open from other travels and thieves that might be roaming the spring morning. Letting the scent of the forest seep into her bones she kept her feet moving, soon enough she caught sight of the sleepy town of Sweet Water and its people who had just began their mornings. Already the butcher was making his way into his shop followed closely by his wife. Part of Sarah sensed that something was ailing the young woman but she didn't want to approach her about it without first being invited. She learned a few years ago that people didn't enjoy having a woman tell them something was wrong with them.
Even when she was right. Rumors had been spread that she was a witch, it was far from the truth; she was simply a midwife who knew more than the average woman did, she had learned from both her grandmother and her mother to tune into the energy of the world. To listen to the persons aura and natural energy to figure out what was wrong. Sometimes they couldn't tell her what was wrong; such is the case with infants and young children who don't understand that they need to explain. However, even some adults had the same difficultly.
"Sarah? Is that you?"
Turning she felt a smile tug at her lips as recognition lit her eyes, Beth, the butchers' wife hadn't apparently gone inside as she thought. "Beth, it is good to see you again. How are you and Edwin fairing?"
Straight to the point, that was Sarah, even as a young girl she got the heart of the conversation before anyone else could breach the subject. Beth glanced down as she thought of how to put her answer into the proper words. Mild silence fell upon the two women; gently Sarah reached out and touched the sandy blonde girl on the shoulder causing her eyes to lift.
"Tell me." Even Beth could hear the soft command of Sarah's voice as she smiled at her, taking a breath to steal her nerves she spoke.
"We have been trying for a child and now the blood has stopped, the other women I speak with tell me that I am with child. I don't trust their judgment in such matters, not as much as yours."
Sarah felt a rush of pride wash over her, she pushed the feeling aside and concentrated on the other woman. "Come to the cottage within the week, bring that husband of yours and we shall see if you are indeed with child. Until then, rest, put your mind at ease. Lord knows that Edwin needs you to have a calm head about you."
Beth nodded and pulled Sarah into a hug causing the midwife to go tense, she hadn't been touched in months and the sudden warmth of another person made her uncomfortable. As soon as the other woman released her, she had taken a step back. She watched as Beth made her way into the shop where the sounds of her husband's curses could already be heard. No doubt, that he had sliced his finger open again in his rush to get the mornings orders completed. Shaking her head Sarah turned; slowly making her way towards her father's run down hovel. She couldn't stand to see her father living in such squalor but there was nothing that she could do to help him. Well, that wasn't completely true, she could move back into the village. Such a thing was unthinkable in her mind, the very thought of being at the mercy of the gossips made her skin crawl.
It made her wonder how her mother had been able to stand living within the boundaries of Sweet Water, being constantly seen, watched. Her entire childhood she spent at Elizabeth's side, learning and gathering everything she could. At her mother's passing, she inherited the black leather bound book filled with numerous hands. The journal had been handed down for generations, midwifery a trait, skill that was handed down to each female child. Sarah was lucky that she was given the book, without its knowledge she wouldn't have been able to heal as many people as she had. So many infants would have perished with the first snow fall; young mothers unable to endure the pains of being with child, all the wounded men that came to her door step with the hopes that she could help them.
Sarah was the healer, one of the best known and trusted medicine women for miles. Her step faltered as she approached her father's home, something was wrong, there was no smoke issuing from the chimney. Disregarding her manners she opened the door without knocking, the sight within freezing her step. Once more, she found him laid out in the middle of the packed-dirt floor an empty bottle near his hand. Kneeling down she moved the bottle away not bothering to ponder at its contents, knowing Alexander it was probably the local brew. Potent and heavy on the tongue, it was capable of making even the most seasoned drinker rethink ever picking up another glass. Clearly, her father wasn't among the wise when it came to taverns Fire Whiskey. Pushing him over she ran a careful hand over his weathered features, eye lids fluttering he tried to focus his gaze. The simple task was beyond him this morning.
"What has caused your drinking such a vile concoction?" she asked softly as she eased him upright. Smoky green eyes looked at her from under bushy greying eyebrows; she could see the pain in those eyes, the regret.
"I miss her, my pet," he whispered, his voice crackled with pain.
"As do I, but she gone. Get to your feet, da," she said gently pulling him to his feet and easing him into the chair by the table. Alexander held onto her hand when she moved to stoke the embers lingering in the fire pit. Looking back at him, she felt pity rise in her chest at the sight of him so broken, so lost in his own memories.
"Come back, pet, please," he whispered.
"No, da, as much as that would please you it would not please me," she pulled her hand away and coaxed the fire back to life. Leaving him the chair, she worked around the small space, pumping water in his iron kettle and hooking it over the fire to heat. She had taken care of him more than once when he fell to the memories of his wife. Sarah should have remembered that the anniversary of Elizabeth's death was the day before; if she had realized she would have spent the night at his side to keep him from stumbling into the bottle again. Although nothing she could do would keep him from it completely she could have stopped him from drinking himself into nothingness.
"I can't stay on my own, pet," Alexander was getting desperate, he needed someone at his side to make the emptiness go away and no one else in the village would dare spend time with him outside of the tavern. They liked his stories but that was the end of their fondness for him.
"I can do nothing to aid you, not as you wish me too," she knew her words were bitter and hurtful but she couldn't allow him to believe he still had power over her. Not anymore, she had stopped listening to him the day she left to build her home in the wood. It was pure luck that she found the small cottage tucked neatly into the trees. All that she had to do was make repairs and mark her land out from the rest of the forest.
Alexander had tried and failed to keep his daughter at his side, he had also failed to find a man to her liking. Although it went deeper than he knew, none of the men in the village had true interest in her. Nor had she ever developed a desire to become a house wife. The woods held her captive, her mind filled with images of the trees and the sunlight as it streamed through the canopy high above her head. Her mother had been the same way, disappearing into the woods early in the morning only to return as the sun began to set.
Sighing Sarah turned to look at her father, her heart aching as she remembered listening to his stories, seeing the smile on his face. He loved telling her stories as she was growing up, sitting by the fire in the night his soothing voice washing over her until she fell asleep at his feet. She missed those days, when he was happy and not drinking every night. Elizabeth had completed him. She was the glue that held him together. Pain filtered into her emerald eyes making her throat tighten, she hated thinking about her mother and the morning that they got the news.
They had spent the night worrying, Alexander tucking his young daughter into her bed with words of promise that everything was fine. That sweet Elizabeth would be here when she woke up. She wasn't. It broke them both when the hunters brought word to them carrying her between their arms. The reason behind her death was unknown, strange markings covered her arms and chest but there was no pattern to them. No answer among them. No one in the town could offer words of comfort to the remaining Bards, their hearts shattered and their souls lying in tatters around them. Alexander began to make up stories to ease Sarah's mind but they did little to help her.
Six years after her mother's death she left, finally having enough of the pitying glances at the girl raised without a mother, at the girl who gained more pleasure in the wood with the boys than with the girls in home.
"Sarah, you shouldn't be out there on your own," he finally said, raising his chin. Bright eyes met his and he knew without a doubt that she was going to make him regret saying such a thing.
Without a sound, Sarah turned on her heel and walked out of his home, closing the door behind her. His head sunk to the floor, he should have known better but he couldn't stand the thought of losing his child to the same wood that took her mother. She needed a protector but no one would have her, nor would she allow a man into her home unless she was offering him aid.
Sarah walked through the town with her head held high; she didn't have any coin although that didn't bother her in the slightest. The meat she had would sustain her for a while. Her garden was fine, even when it was raided in the night. She had nothing else in town to do except for visit the shops and make small talk. Find out if any of them had a need for her skills.
The shouting that echoed out of the butcher shop that made her freeze mid-step, her heart sped up when she thought of Beth being in the shop. Her feet rushed towards the shop, pushing open the door and grabbing on the blond-haired woman near the wall. She didn't know what else was going on but she wanted Beth out of reach. Beth didn't put up a fight as she was taken from the shop, her ears ringing from her husband's fury.
"Sarah?" she asked slowly, bewildered by the sudden appearance of her friend.
"What's got Edwin in a fury?" she demanded taking her around the corner and out of the street.
"Matthew doesn't want to pay what he owes."
"I see. I suggest that you stay out of his way, don't want his anger to target you."
"He wouldn't do that," stated Beth placing her hands on her hips, eyeing her friend carefully. They all knew of Edwin's temper but that didn't mean she had to allow the thoughts into her own head. She already felt his wrath once and she didn't want to let the others know how bad his anger could get. Sarah knew more than the others in Sweet Water did but she didn't press for answers or demand to know the truth when it wasn't offered. She was a good friend, even while she remained at a distance, the distance made it all the better when she came to call.
"That's all well and good, Beth, still be careful. For my sake," Sarah said with a gentle smile, she felt strange telling her friend to beware of her own husband but she didn't want to leave her without a word or two to think of. Releasing the blond-haired woman, she took a step back and listened to the distant sound of shouting, it would come to blows or Matthew would concede his debt and make good on what he owed. Sarah believed it would more likely be the latter of the two knowing how nasty Matthew could be when he desired. She hated thinking such ill about her once childhood friends but it could not be avoided now.
She watched with cool eyes as Beth walked back into the Butchers shop, slowly the voices eased down to a normal level. Sighing she glanced around, looking for something else to do in town but coming up with nothing to keep herself there any longer; her father had fallen again and she wasn't willing to help him this time, Beth had the potential to be with child and Edwin's rage would get the better of him before too long. All the things she ran away from, all the things she loved and hated about the people who once kept her company. Now they offered nothing more than a slight annoyance and once in a while they gave her happiness but that was rare with a visit.
Allowing her feet to carry her out of Sweet Water, she began the journey home, pausing to enjoy the scent of wild flowers and herbs. The small pouch on her waist slowly growing thicker as she filled it with careful cuttings. The gradually dimming light made her walk even slower as she carefully picked her way through the forest; she rarely used the trail once the suns light began to fade. There were far too many rogues and thieves that claimed it as theirs in the night for it to be safe for a lone woman. Thus, she used the game trails to get back to her small cottage at the heart of the forest.
The crack of breaking branches caught her attention causing her step to falter, looking around she tried to find the shine of animal eyes but saw nothing but the shadows of the trees. Taking a deep breath to steel her nerves, she started again, listening to the sounds that rose above her own footsteps. Once in a while, the mournful cry of an owl broke the silence, her heart racing as she kept her pace slow and careful. Running would only make her mind play even more tricks of her, walking and keeping calm would see her home.
Sarah nearly jumped out of her skin, spinning around she searched for the animal responsible. No man made such noise when he was stalking, rarely would an animal make such noise but her mind was already playing cruel tricks on her. The monster that got her mother was coming after her, surely that must be what was causing the unnatural crashing through the underbrush. She heard another crack as more branches broke around her, she took off towards the trail, thieves be damned if there were any. She wasn't remaining in the forest a moment longer than she had to, what was left of the suns light would give her enough to see by on the trail. Once her leather clad feet found the packed dirt of the trail, she relaxed slightly, her breathing ragged as she bent at the waist with her hands on her knees. She kept her head down until she began to feel more at ease, only then did she straighten up and look around. It took her a moment or two to recognize where she had come out at, blinking she turned and started walking again, she was still a few miles from home and the sooner she got there the safer she would feel.
Sarah distracted herself with old songs her father used to sing, her voice quiet and gentle as she sung the words. Her heart slowing down as the happy memories flooded into her mind, they wouldn't stay for long she knew that but they helped her when she was scared on moonless nights. Part of her longed for companionship but she doubted that anyone would have her, she was too strange to allow others into her life. Even the towns' folk treated her with a mystic respect, few of them believed her to be a witch. This might have been true if she truly wanted it to be. Her heart held too much love for her to dive into dark crafting, although that didn't stop her from using the earths magic for her cures. No one seemed to mind that part of her witchcraft.
A dark shadow moved through the forest in front of her, easing onto the trail to block her path. Slowly her feet realized they needed to stop, there in the middle of the path was a great wolf. Glowing golden eyes stared into her freezing her down to the bone, her breath caught in her throat as terror worked its way into her heart and soul. The wolves of Sweet Water were claimed to be monsters, horrible, blood-thirsty beasts that devoured the lives of many lost souls. Was she going to join them? Is another life going to be taken by the wolves?
The wolf didn't move from the path, his large feet spread wide as he glared at her. His great muzzle opened to reveal needle like teeth that glinted with spittle. Sarah found herself more interested in his coloration than his teeth although he clearly wanted to scare her, get her to run. His fur looked grey, streaked with white and black; for a moment, she thought that he was covered by a gray fire. A wolf cloaked in fire couldn't exist but clearly, his markings made him look so, and he was so large. Larger than the wolves that the hunters claimed to see were much smaller, more the size of dogs. The grey wolf in front of her looked as if he came up to her breast, huge and mighty, even at the distance he was.
Neither of them moved for the longest time, until finally, the wolf growled and turned away making his way back into the shadows of the forest. The moment his tail disappeared into the shadows he was gone, Sarah couldn't see any trace of the wolf, not even movement gave him away, no sound reached her ears to suggest which way the wolf was moving. Nothing, it was like, he completely disappeared. Sarah took a shaky breath and unclenched her fingers from her dress.
"Come on, get home," she whispered to herself, forcing her feet to start walking again. Her cottage came into view sooner than she expected but then again she was all but running down the trail. Pushing open her front door she collapsed against the wall, tears springing into her eyes as she sunk down to the floor her knees to her chest. She was terrified, her mind filled with dark images of wolves and blood. She saw what they left when they made a kill. A deer carcass ripped open, entrails spilled and torn, ghastly chunks of meat ripped from its flanks. Every cell in her body feared that she was going to become like them. Nothing more than a meal for the wolves. What saved her from such fate; perhaps the wolf wasn't hungry? Whatever the reason she was thankful.
Sarah picked herself off the floor and walked through the archway into her bed room, she wanted to sleep even though she knew that her dreams would be filled with those golden eyes. So deadly and strong, she could see then when she closed her eyes even now. Tired, she collapsed on her straw mattress, pulled her quilt over her shoulders and willed herself to sleep.
Glowing golden eyes haunted her dreams and peered through the window of her bedroom from the distance of her fence. The great wolf watching, stalking her movements.