“Mama!” A cry pierced through the air, silencing the birds that had been chirping happily all morning.
“Mama!” The cry came from a little girl sitting under a tree, away from the trails. She was tied to the tree so that she could not leave the shelter the branches provided. Part of the rope was around her waist, the other around the trunk of the tree, with just enough rope in between to allow her to move around. Her small hands had tried for bells to untie the knot, but she didn’t have the strength. Tears had left their marks as they made their way down her dirty cheeks. The food in her basket was long gone and only a small amount of water was left in the bottle.
It wasn’t the first time that the girl had been left tied to a tree by her mother. Prevented from wandering off, as she usually did when left alone for several bells, she spent her time weaving baskets. Today, however, no material was at her side that could have been used to make a new basket. She didn’t remember how long she had been tied to the tree. What she did remember was the villagers shouting and yelling, calling her mother an evil one with a child spawned by Arom-Nok, and many other names she had never heard before.
“Mama,” she cried, but there was no answer. There hadn’t been an answer for a long time.
She remembered her mother picking her up in the middle of the night and carrying her away. The trip through the forest, away from the roads, never stopping, had been long. At dawn, they had sought shelter under a tree with a wall of branches. The branches were thick and long and reached almost to the ground. Mother and daughter cuddled up and went to sleep. When the girl awoke, her mother was gone and she was tied to the tree. The food basket and the water had been left within her reach.
She settled down, tired from crying and trying to free herself. Usually her mother would return after a few bells, bringing berries and water, and sometimes a piece of meat. Today though, she was nowhere to be seen. It was dark underneath the tree, but when the girl peeked through the branches she could see the sun high up in the sky. She heard the wind rustling through the tree. The noise frightened her.
“Mama,” her voice was reduced to a whimper. Too afraid to cry or call out, she moved closer to the trunk, pulled her knees up, and hugged them. Her long red hair slid in front of her face and she brushed it back with her hand. The girl felt tears well up again in her eyes. With her head on her knees, she cried herself to sleep.
The sound of chirping birds woke her. Peeking through the branches, she saw that the sun was still high up in the sky. She listened to the birds’ song and then decided again to try and untie the knot. She was hungry and thirsty. Nothing edible was left in her basket. She had to find a way to free herself of the rope.
“Mama? Mama, are you here?” Only the wind rustling in the leaves answered her. Her fingers searched for the knot in the rope. It was as tight as ever. She picked up a stick and tried to manipulate the knot. Her first attempts were unsuccessful; the stick broke before she made any progress. She tried another stick, but to no avail. Frustrated, she sat down. Suddenly, she remembered the sharp stone in her basket and reached for it. A quick smile appeared on her face. The stone in one hand, part of the rope in the other, she moved the sharp side over the rope and slowly started tearing the strands. Gathering all her strength, she worked until the rope was cut.
A big smile appeared on her face when the final strands were severed. Overjoyed, she picked her belongings up and left the shelter under the tree. Pleased with herself, she wandered through the forest looking for a sign of her mother, hoping to find water and berries. Her energy quickly dissipated, but she continued on. Just when her thirst became almost unbearable, she stumbled onto a spring. The bushes around the spring were full with ripe berries. Happily, she quenched her thirst and ate all the berries she could reach, then splashed in the water till her feet were cold.
“Mama will be happy when she hears about the berries.” she thought, and then remembered. “Mama! I have to find her!” Quickly, she took her basket, filled the water bottle, and continued her search.
Faint wood cutting noises reached her ear after she’d been wandering through the forest for most of the afternoon. She followed the sound and when voices became audible, she automatically hid in the bushes. Menes later, the girl’s curiosity overwhelmed her caution and she moved closer, pausing to listen when she could hear pieces of the conversation.
“… At least we have proof now that she worships Arom-Nok. I don’t think we’ll find the child.”
“You’re right,” a second voice agreed. “She couldn’t survive a whole night in the forest alone. I’m sure by now the wolves have gotten to her and nothing will be left. A fitting end for Anna.” The other men didn’t reply, but continued to chop more wood.
“We’ll stone the wench at sunrise tomorrow, and then we won’t have to worry about her any longer,” a third man remarked in a low voice, continuing the discussion.
“Yeah, this time there’s no escaping for her,” another man added. “We’ve been patient too long with her. Can’t have anyone ’round who believes in evil gods. She’s never seen for prayers. Says she talks to spirits of the forest. If you ask me, she plots with Arom-Nok and thinks of ways to do us harm. It’ll be good to be rid of her. Should have done that long ago. We need to protect our children.” No one in the group contradicted him. For a while only axes hitting wood could be heard.
Finally one of the men broke the silence. “Let’s head home! We’ve got enough wood. Besides, there’s only a bell left till sunset.”
Gathering the wood, the men loaded it onto a wagon without further comments. In silence they left the cutting site, pulling the wagon behind them.
Anna crawled out from under the bushes, confused about what she’d heard. “They know my name! They know where Mama is!” the thoughts swirled around in her mind, “If I follow them, I’ll find Mama!” Focusing on the part she had understood, Anna followed the men through the forest, keeping her distance.
When she recognized the path to the village Anna stopped, thinking and hoping to find a way to her mother. She felt tired from walking through the forest for most of the afternoon. At the edge of the forest, she curled up under a bush, and watched the sun set. In the distance wolves were howling. Anna sat up, frightened. Only with her mother nearby did she feel safe when she heard the wolves.
“Have to find Mama,” she thought. “Have to find her!”
Nochturon was now a big circle in the sky and all the stars were visible. Anna, remembering what the men had said about her mother, started to walk towards the village, determined to find her. When she entered the village a dog started barking. Wolves answered the barking from afar. Anna was frightened. Quietly she searched the village for the place her mother could be. After several tries, Anna found her in the middle of the village, near the well. She was tied to a pole, her hands and head in something that looked liked wooden bars with just enough room to fit around her neck and wrists. Shocked from the discovery, Anna stared at her. This was her mama! She couldn’t understand why her mother was tied up like bad people were.
“Mama is nice and she loves me! Why is she tied up?” The thoughts raced through her head. “She’s not a bad person!”
“Mama?” she whispered, “Mama!” Anna reached out and hugged her mother’s legs. The woman opened her eyes.
“Anna! Child! What are you doing here?” she whispered, “You can’t stay here. They’ll kill you if they find you.” Panic was in her voice.
“Was looking for you.” Anna stood up and looked at her mother. “Why are you tied up here?”
“The villagers did that. They don’t like us and if you stay here they’ll tie you up, too.” She swallowed hard. “Could you get me some water Anna, please?”
Anna found a ladle and filled it with water. Carefully she held it to her mother’s lips and watched her gulp it down.
“More water, please –”
“Wanna go home now, mama. Come on.”
“Anna, I’m tied up here. I can’t get free myself.”
“I can do it, Mama, got myself free, too! See!” Anna held the end of the rope up which still tangled from her waist. “I still have the stone!”
She pulled the stone out of her basket and sat down to cut the rope around her mother’s legs. The rope was much thicker than the one her mother had tied her up with and her progress was slow. Anna was determined and worked silently while Nochturon made its way across the sky. Tired as she was, Anna had a hard time keeping her eyes open. Every now and then she nodded off, waking when her head banged against the pole.
“Anna,” her mother began a few bells later. “You need to leave now! Sunrise will be soon and then the people will get up. I don’t want them to find you here.”
“Mama, I –” Anna began, but her mother interrupted her.
“I love you very much Anna, but you can’t stay here. It’s not safe for you. Please, Anna –”
“Nooooooooooo, I wanna stay with you!” Anna wailed and held on tight to her mother’s legs.
“Hush, you’ll wake the people.”
Anna fell silent, but didn’t let go of her mother.
“Anna, love, listen very carefully now!”
“I need you to go to our place. Wait there for me, will you?”
“And if someone else comes, I need you to hide in the forest; don’t let the villagers see you. Think you can do that?”
“Yeah, but –”
“No but, Anna, you need to go now! You’re a big girl, and you can take care of yourself.” Her voice sounded stern.
“Mama, you’ll come, right?”
“I’ll do my best to be there. Now go! I love you.”
Anna looked at her mother and understood. Tears in her eyes, she hugged her one last time and left. Hopeful that her mother would be with her again soon, she walked home.
Anna reached the weather-beaten shack half a bell later and went inside. Nothing looked the way they had left it. The place was a mess. The furniture was broken, the linen ripped, and the few wooden dishes they had were scattered over the floor. She checked the small pantry. Rats! Anna shrieked. Whatever food they had, was now gone. Tears flooded her eyes. Then she remembered what her mother had said. She was a big girl now and would take care of herself. She picked up a few things that seemed useful and placed them in her basket. Tired, she settled on the small cot and closed her eyes.
Shouting woke her bells later. Quickly she left the shack and hid in the bushes. Just as she felt safe to leave her hiding place, she heard voices. The villagers were approaching the shack. Anna pushed herself deeper into the bushes. She watched in horror as the men tore down the shack, stacked the pieces, and set them on fire. She listened to their gloating about how they had killed the evil one, and understood that they were talking about her mother.
“I’m a big girl now!” Anna whispered to herself, repeating her mother’s words in her mind. “I won’t cry!” but the tears started flowing anyway. Helplessly, Anna stared at the blazing fire. She barely noticed the villagers walking away one by one, leaving only a handful behind. By the time the fire had burnt down, she was full of hatred towards the villagers. Anna watched the remaining men put out the fire. After the last villager had left the site, she crawled out from underneath the bush.
“I’m a big girl now,” Anna told herself, wiping the last tears from her cheek. “I can take care of myself!” She turned and disappeared into the woods.
Anna followed the creek uphill in search of a place to sleep. The events of the past days had left her in emotional turmoil. One moment she was crying, missing her mother, the next she was angry and kicking her foot against a tree. Wandering aimlessly, she discovered a creek and decided to follow it. Alongside the creek she found various berries. Sleeping under bushes when tired and walking alongside the creek in search for a better place to sleep, Anna lost track of time. Towards the end of another day of wandering, she found what seemed to be an abandoned cabin. The setting sun provided just enough light to let her look around. It was dirty inside. Cobwebs covered the window and the fireplace was cold. In the gloomy light, she noticed a few shelves, a table, and a chair. A broom was halfway hidden underneath the table.
“Tomorrow,” she thought when she noticed the broom, dropped onto a bundle of old hay in the corner, and fell asleep.
Anna woke the next day when the sun made its way into the cabin. She turned and let out a scream. A man was sitting on a stool in the middle of the room. His hair was unkempt, his beard reached down to his chest, and his clothes had holes in them. He had dark skin. Anna had never seen a man as dark as he was. She looked at her hands, then at his face, and back at her hands. Anna sat up and moved into the corner, her back to the wall, and stared at the man.
“Whatcha doin’ here?” inquired the man suddenly.
Anna pulled her knees up and put her arms around them. She didn’t speak.
“Got a name?” His voice sounded loud to her after the silence of the past days. She continued to stare at him.
“You understand what I say?”
Anna nodded slowly.
“Can you speak?”
Anna nodded again.
“Good!” He stood up, walked to the other side of the room, and poured water in a cup. Slowly he moved back to his stool and offered the cup to Anna.
Anna nodded again, but didn’t move.
The man moved closer to the girl and handed her the cup. She drank quickly.
“More!” Anna held out the cup.
He took it, refilled it, and gave the cup back to her.
Anna emptied it without stopping. A sigh escaped her.
“Got manners?” he looked at her.
Anna looked down and whispered “Thank you.”
He nodded. For a while, neither spoke. Finally he repeated his earlier question: “Got a name?” He looked straight at her.
“Anna,” she answered after a few moments of silence. Her voice was barely audible.
“So, Anna. Whatcha doing here?”
Anna didn’t answer.
“Where’re your parents?”
“Don’t have any,” she whispered. Tears formed in her eyes.
“No need to start bawling,” he told her briskly, “Haven’t got any either.”
Anna swallowed her tears, and looked at him in surprise. “What’s your name?” she asked shyly.
He was silent for a moment, considering her question. “Name’s Tobias Held, you can call me Tobias. Are you hungry?”
Anna nodded again.
“Well then, go outside and wash up.”
Tobias watched her make her way to the creek and wondered what had happened to her. Her loss of parents must have been recent. He estimated she must be five or six years old. She was dirty, looked like she spent the nights on the forest floor under bushes. He wondered how long she’d been out there on her own. The nearest village was more than a day’s walk for him, behind the hills. If she’d come along the creek, then the nearest village was a good two-day walk. He didn’t care for the folks in either village, not after what they’d done to him.
Memories of his wife and son flooded back, and Tobias swallowed hard trying to suppress them. Their untimely deaths could have been prevented if the people had helped. Yet they stood by as his wife hemorrhaged after the birth of his son, and none of the women would help nourish the baby. He’d traveled to the next village for help, the screaming infant in his arms, and they refused him, too. Grief-stricken, Tobias had buried his son a week after his wife, gathered his few belongings, and left the village. Since then he’d stayed away from both villages and the villagers left him alone in the woods. They knew he was living up here, far away from anyone; he was certain of that.
Once a year Tobias traveled to Dargon. It took him a month to do the round trip and trade fur and small furniture. He had just arrived back home this morning, when he found the girl sleeping on the hay.
He pulled his bag open and reached for bread and dried meat. This would have to do for now. Tobias had no idea what to feed a small girl. He still wondered what he would do with her when she came back into his cabin. No one in either village would take her in; she’d have to live on the streets or in the woods. She’d never make it through the winter.
Anna had walked to the creek and stuck her hands in. The water was cool and as she bent down to wash her face and hands, she heard the birds singing. She liked this place; it was peaceful. It took her a while to get the dirt off, but she wanted to do a good job. Satisfied with the result, she went behind the bushes to relieve herself. When she looked up, she noticed the fruit trees near the cabin and two goats grazing peacefully in a small fenced area. Slowly, she made her way back to the cabin.
“Clean!” she said holding out her hands, just as she had done when her mother sent her to wash up.
“I see,” was Tobias’ answer and he handed her a slice of bread and a strip of dried meat.
Anna’s eyes opened wide in amazement. Dried meat was something her mother had given her on special occasions only. Maybe this was a special occasion.
“Thank you.” Bread and meat in hand, Anna went and sat on the hay and began to eat slowly. The meat tasted salty, but it was good. Both ate in silence. Tobias finished first and turned to her.
“You may stay for a while if you want, but you have to help do the work around here.” He paused and waited for Anna to swallow.
“I can?” she couldn’t believe her luck.
“Yeah, you can. What can you do?” he wanted to know.
Anna thought for a moment and took a look around the cabin. “I can clean up,” she finally started, “pick berries, find mushrooms, climb trees, get water, wash my clothes, –”
“That’ll do for now,” interrupted Tobias. “When you’re done eating you can start cleaning up in here.” Anna nodded and Tobias got up, went outside, and walked into the forest to set new traps.
Anna placed half the bread and the remains of the dried meat Tobias had given her into her little basket and set it on the table. She would save it for later. He had said to start cleaning up and that’s what she would do. The cabin was small. On one side was a fireplace with a kettle and some chopped wood stacked next to it. The table stood in the middle of the room; a stool fit nicely under it. On the other side of the room were a few shelves on the wall with cups and plates made of wood, and then there was the pile of hay on which she had slept. The only window was covered with some kind of translucent material. She carefully touched it; it felt soft and slightly gave way under her fingers. Cobwebs were all over the cabin, covering items long-untouched. Anna remembered the broom underneath the table, pulled it out, and started to clean up.
It took her the better part of the day to free the cabin from the cobwebs and the dust, but she did it. She refilled the water bag with water from the creek, washed the few cups and plates she found, and set them back on the now clean shelves. For menes she admired her own work, proud at what she had accomplished.
When she couldn’t deny her hunger any longer, she set the bread and meat on the table and filled the cup with water. Slowly she finished what Tobias had given her. Anna remembered the last time she and her mother had shared a meal. Her thoughts went back to the events of the past days. “Mama,” she whimpered, tears welling up in her eyes. “Mama! Mama!” Sobbing uncontrollably, Anna threw herself onto the pile of hay and cried herself to sleep.
Late in the afternoon, Anna went back to the creek to wash her face and hands. She was still tired from all the work and crying. Slowly, she made her way back to the cabin. She was wondering where Tobias had gone and hoped he would come back soon.
Tobias made his way up the hill, setting traps along the way. He had worked for several bells; with some luck they would have fresh meat tomorrow. It surprised him that he already included the girl in his thinking. Suddenly, he remembered that he’d left her alone for most of the day. Quickly, he made his way back to his cabin. He halfway expected her to be playing in front of the house and was concerned when he didn’t see her. When he entered the cabin, he found her sleeping soundly on the hay. He looked around the cabin. It was clean. All the cobwebs were gone. Tobias smiled and nodded to himself. Looking at her, he noticed for the first time the face full of freckles. He reached for a blanket and placed it over her small body. She looked vulnerable. It was then that he decided to let her stay.