Liesel felt nervous until she finished her chores and set off into the woods the next day. What if he didn’t come? The boy was certainly unusual, but there was a warmth about him that Liesel found herself craving. She really didn’t see how she could survive much longer without a friend.
Liesel had never known the meaning of loneliness before her mother died. She’d grown up with friends all over the city, and even after Amala had fallen ill, the girl always been able to find one of her grandparents to follow around the house or through the fields. And while Liesel wasn’t prone to idle chatter, she liked hearing other people speak. Living with the silent Warin was beginning to take its toll on her. She walked even faster as she sent up a prayer to the Maker that Kurt would indeed return.
To her delight, he was already standing where she’d left him, staring up at the small patch of sunlight and wearing a thoughtful look.
“You said yesterday that your grandparents’ home has lots of sunlight. There are other places around the world like that as well, are there not?”
“Yes,” she walked up as close to him as she dared and looked up at the beam, too. Without turning, he simply nodded.
“I knew it. Father was wrong. You know how I knew?” He finally turned his serious golden-brown eyes on her, and without waiting for a response, grabbed her wrist and began dragging her deeper into the forest. Liesel allowed him to lead her, although a wiser voice in her mind that sounded much like her mother’s wondered how far she should let this strange boy lead her into woods she barely knew. And yet, the heat of his hand was comforting in a way Liesel had never felt, and she didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so she let herself be led along until she heard water.
Without warning, they burst out of the trees and into a clearing that laid just at the edge of a waterfall. Liesel gasped as she looked up at the waterfall and saw a large patch of blue sky above it. Unimpeded, blinding sun spilled down into the water that lapped the sand not far from their feet. The roaring of the water was mesmerizing as it crashed down into a sparkling blue pond three times wider than Liesel’s cottage. The waterfall itself was about as tall as the church steeple back her in old city, and it was nearly as majestic in its bearing. Liesel found herself grinning ridiculously as she looked up in awe at the clear blue sky she’d missed so much.
“What is this place?” She had to nearly yell for him to hear her over the crashing of the water. He waved her over to a log on the other side of the clearing, a bit further from the noise.
“I found it when I was small. My mother had told me stories of places with lots of open sky, and I wanted to see for myself. My father says this is as big as it gets, but I never believed him.” He looked at her, his eyes suddenly burning with curiosity. “Tell me,” his voice was reverent. “Tell me about all of those other places!”
“Well,” Liesel thought for a moment. “I haven’t been to many of them myself, as I’ve only lived by the mountain, but I’ve read stories…” He nodded eagerly, so she continued. “In one kingdom, the rulers have greater powers than our king, or any other king, possesses. The man who is king now made a grievous mistake when he was a prince, and his entire kingdom was thrust into darkness. They would have all perished if it hadn’t been for a merchant’s daughter, who brought the magic back with the strength of her heart. Then there-”
“Wait, it was good magic?”
“Of course it was good magic. The next place they went-”
“But there is no good magic!”
Liesel huffed, finally tired of his interruptions.
“Are you a magician?”
“No,” he grimaced at her.
“Well then, how do you know that good magic doesn’t exist? Now, do you want to hear the stories or not?” Nodding, he got up from the log and flung himself down on the sand at her feet, closing his eyes and putting his hands behind his head. Mollified, Liesel continued.
“One of my favorites is the kingdom where the ocean meets the land, and the ocean folk are half human and half fish.” Kurt sat straight up, sand spilling out of his wild hair and down the back of his shirt. He was so focused he didn’t seem to notice, though.
“Tell me about that one!”
“I could tell you better if I had the book my grandmother gave me. It’s filled with drawings and stories from when she and my grandfather traveled the world. I could bring it tomorrow, and you could see for yourself. If you can’t read it, I can-”
“I can read,” he scoffed as he stood up and skipped a rock across the water. Liesel felt a bit guilty. She knew the story by heart, as she did every story in the book, but she hadn’t been sure he would want to see her again after this. By promising to bring the book, she knew she could buy herself at least one more day with him. With the hope of another meeting, she leaned back on the log and lifted her head towards the sky, allowing the heat of the sun’s rays to wash over her whole body. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been this gloriously happy. Time quietly passed as they sat in silence. Liesel tried to quell the questions that were raging inside of her, but finally she gave up and asked just one.
“If your father is so sure there aren’t places with open sky, why doesn’t he leave the forest to see for himself? It’s only a day and a half’s ride to the edge of the forest.” To freedom.
“My father doesn’t ever leave the forest. He has too much to do taking care of the family.”
“Oh. Do you have a large family?”
“You could say that,” He stared out at the waterfall. Liesel shook her head to herself in confusion. Never had she met anyone so determined to be mysterious. Not long after, it was time for her to leave. When they stood to go, Liesel hated staying goodbye to the waning sun that was now beginning to sink. More slowly than the first time, they made their way back to the edge of the forest. Liesel realized as she lifted her skirts that the run had put more tears in her dress than she would be able to mend in one night. It had been worth it, though, she smiled to herself. When they were near the path, he stopped.
“Don’t forget to bring your book tomorrow,” he said before turning to go.
“Wait!” Liesel had an idea and spoke before she had time to lose her nerve. He turned and looked at her with an open expression. “Would you like to come back with me…just for a few minutes? You could meet my father, and I could show you the book there.” But he was already shaking his head.
“My father wants me to stay out of the town.” The disappointment must have been evident in her face, however, because he added more kindly, “But I will be back tomorrow.” And with that, he was gone.
“I don’t think you could stand out any more if you tried,” Kurt shook his head as he handed the book back. It had met near disaster the first day Liesel had tried to carry it to the waterfall. She’d caught her dress on a bush and nearly dropped the book in a puddle. From then on, Kurt had taken to carrying it for her. Every day, they read another story, and every evening, he asked her if she was coming back the next day. Liesel had enjoyed it immensely, having someone else as interested in her beloved book as she was, but she was somewhat concerned about what she would do when they ran out of stories. It had been a week already, and there were only a few dozen left. The more she got to know the boy, however, the more she dared to hope that he would want to visit even after all the stories were gone.
“A girl walking through the forest alone in a red cloak, carrying a book is just asking for trouble,” he continued with a frown. Liesel smiled and stood up straighter.
“Not so much a girl. I turn fourteen today!” Kurt held his hands up and gave a mock bow.
“My apologies, my lady. Happy birthday. Now, may I have your permission to return home?” Laughing, Liesel curtsied back and turned back towards her own home. It had been the best week she’d had since her mother had been well. Kurt was indeed different from any boy she’d ever known back at home. He still had an untamed look in his eyes, and his walk could only be described as stealthy. The paths he led her down were imperceptible to her eyes, and he would often stop and listen for sounds she never heard. But for an inexplicable reason, she felt safe in his presence.
Liesel’s mother had warned her about boys when she’d turned twelve.
“They’re like wolves, Leese. They have little on their minds aside from eating and chasing girls. You’re turning into quite the pretty young woman. Don’t be giving them reasons to think you want them to chase after you. When you are old enough to marry, your father and I will find you a good one, but don’t be paying these hooligans any heed now while you’re young.” She had nodded at some of the boys Liesel had once played with, as she continued to hang up laundry on the line in their yard.
“What about Father?” Liesel had asked. “Wasn’t he a hooligan once?” Amala gave a loud laugh.
“Now where did you hear that?”
“Grandfather.” Amala had rolled her eyes.
“Fathers always think young men are hooligans…all of them. That’s why the Maker gave girls mothers, to help them find the true men among the boys.”
Liesel sighed. How she wished Amala could meet Kurt. She was sure her mother would have liked him. He was different from the boys she had grown up around. His wild ways were a bit alarming at first, but he was gentle. He was careful with his words. Liesel could see him weigh his thoughts before speaking. How she just wished she could hear more of what he really thought instead of having to guess at his silence so often.
As Liesel neared the cottage, she knew something was wrong. The door was ajar, and she could hear a strange wailing from the inside. Sucking in her breath, she steadied herself for what she was sure to find. It was the fifth time that week her father had come home in such a state.
Sure enough, as she pushed the door open, he let out another wail. She set the book in a cupboard where it would be safe before turning to face the mess on the floor. Warin lay stretched out on the ground, flailing his arms about as he groaned. Liesel could smell him from where she stood.
“Where ha’ you been?” he moaned at her when he finally realized she was walking towards him. “I been callin’ you all day to make it stop!” Feeling her face flush with anger, Liesel hated the way he slurred his words.
“I wouldn’t have to make it stop if you didn’t spend so much time at the tavern,” she muttered as she expertly grabbed him behind the arms and started dragging him towards his bed. His hair was covered in dirt, and one eye was black. Liesel could only guess he‘d said something foolish to one of the burly travelers who often frequented his favorite tavern.
“Don’t you sass me, daughter!” he yelled loudly and tried to point at her. Choking back a gag from his stench, she managed to haul him up onto his straw mattress before removing his boots and shoving his feet onto the bed with him.
“There are some people in this world who can handle a drink now and then,” Amala had told her once, shaking her head after Warin had spent too much time at a tavern back in the city. “And your father is not one of them.” Liesel had always thought her mother wise in every way, but she was tempted to wonder sometimes where that wisdom had gone when she’d accepted Warin’s marriage proposal at the tender age of seventeen. Her grandparents certainly hadn’t approved of the match, not even her grandmother. For all Amala’s talk of listening to a mother’s sense to choose a good man, it seemed she hadn’t followed that sound advice herself.
To be fair, Warin wasn’t a bad man. Even in his drunken stupor, he’d never once tried to hit his wife or daughter. He’d always seen to it that they were well provided for, even if that meant spending hours nearly freezing in the woods in the dead of winter just to bring meat home for supper. When she was little, he would even lift her up onto his shoulders as they walked through town so she could see everything from above. Long gone were those days, however, and long had it been since Liesel and Warin had shared any kind of special bond. Amala had been the love that tied them together. And now Amala was gone.
When Warin was finally quiet, passed out on his bed as if death had taken him, Liesel cut a few slices of bread and cheese and went to sit on her own mattress, tucking her knees under her chin. Her chest tightened, and the food suddenly felt dry in her mouth. No. Liesel tightened her jaw and then began chewing again. She wasn’t going to let the sadness take her. She wouldn’t let the tears have their way, because if she gave them permission to come now, they would never stop. So she tried to think about home.
If she had been at home, and her mother had stayed well, Amala would have served Liesel a blueberry tart for breakfast in bed, as she did every year on her daughter’s birthday. The day would have been spent looking at cloth in the tailor’s shop, and Liesel and Amala would have chosen some for Liesel’s new dress. They would have gone out to her grandparents’ home for supper, and her grandmother would have made her favorite sweet bread with honey and milk. Then her grandfather would have told her tales of when he was a young man traveling the world, and her parents would have presented her with a new pair of shoes and some little bauble they’d picked up from one of the traveling merchants who came to town from distant lands.
Instead of making her feel better, however, the memories only made Liesel feel worse. Tearless sobs shook her body as she lay on her mattress in the dark. There was no blueberry tart or sweet bread this year, no new dress or new shoes. Her mother was never going to push the hair back from her face and greet her in the morning with a smile. She would never see her mother’s face again. Instead, she was stuck in a forest without light. The people ostracized her, and her father seemed to need the drink more than he needed her. Her grandparents were miles away, and she hardly knew her only friend. Maybe fourteen wasn’t so special after all.
The next morning didn’t start out any better.
“Don’t be tellin’ folks about what happened here last night,” Warin warned her as he rubbed his head. “A man’s entitled to a drink every now and then. Best we forget about it and begin anew.” With that, he’d pulled on his coat and left for work, not looking at his daughter enough to see the glare she’d been aiming at him all morning. She didn’t know why she’d hoped he would remember her birthday this morning. It wasn’t as if that was something he was ever likely to do on his own. And yet, she’d foolishly hoped.
Liesel spent the rest of the morning cleaning the cottage and tending to the horse. She slammed the cupboards and cottage door as much as possible, and their loud protests made her feel just slightly better. She was still in the same sour mood as she set out for the woods to meet Kurt, and only when she’d nearly reached their meeting spot did she remember that she had forgotten the book. Sure that Kurt would want nothing to do with her without the book, she decided to dawdle as she went, not paying attention to where she was really even going.
“There you are,” Kurt’s voice broke the silence as she kicked a pebble. “Why are you all the way over here?”
“I forgot the book!” Liesel huffed.
“So you’re getting yourself lost instead?” Liesel sent him a scathing look before turning back to find the pebble. Kurt reached out finally and took her by the elbow, forcing her to look at him. His voice was gentle this time, though.
“Liesel, what’s wrong?” Liesel felt her chin tremble as she weighed whether or not to tell him.
“I hate this place!” She finally spat out. “It’s dark and ugly here! Not even the flowers grow, and everything dies!” She wanted badly to tell him about her father, but the shame was just too great. Words of anger were much easier.
“Well, at least you’re in a bright red cloak,” Kurt’s voice was teasing. “I still think it’s strange, but at least I’ll be able to find you if you make it a habit of getting lost like this.” She just glared at him. “I’m sorry,” he apologized, all of the jest gone from his tone now. “It was a stupid joke.” He thought for a moment before taking her by the wrist. “Come with me. I want to show you something.” She said nothing, but let him lead her. The invisible path he took seemed to have no markings or reason to its twists and turns, but she was used to his odd methods of getting around the forest by now.
After what seemed like an endless walk, he let go of her wrist and bent down next to an old hollow log.
“What do you think this is?” he asked softly. Liesel stared at the log with contempt. She had the idea a lesson was coming, but she really couldn’t care less.
Kurt gave a faint smile. Silently, he lifted the log enough for her to spot something furry beneath. In spite of herself, Liesel leaned in to get a better look. Then she gasped in delight. A fawn was curled up, hidden by the shadow of the aging wood. It looked soft and sweet as it stared up at them with trusting eyes. Softly, Kurt lowered the log again.
“Her mother will be back soon,” he whispered. “It would be best for us not to distress her.” For the first time that day, Liesel allowed herself a small smile. The fawn stayed nestled in her bed as they left. She was the very picture of serenity, something Liesel hadn’t felt much since her mother fell ill. But even more comforting than the baby deer, however, was Kurt’s affection towards it, the care he took to keep the creature comfortable, and the desire to spare the mother anxiety. The sweetness of the moment was like a healing balm to Liesel’s wounded soul.
“Thank you,” she mumbled as they walked, suddenly embarrassed of her petulance. It wasn’t Kurt’s fault her father was a drunk, and although she truly did hate the forest, there was no reason to insult his home to his face. To her relief, he gave her a broad smile, the biggest he’d worn since they’d met.
“I’m not done yet.”
They continued exploring for the rest of the day. Liesel was in awe at the amount of life the shadowy woods sheltered. A nest of baby birds hidden in the shelf of a crooked tree, and flowers that bloomed without sun were all placed near her normal path, but without help, she never would have seen them. He showed her how to find berries that were safe to eat, and a poisonous plant with healing milk.
“It looks lifeless at first,” Kurt conceded as he held his hand out to help her climb the cliff face of the waterfall. “But these woods harbor more life than one could ever know.”
“I believe you,” Liesel puffed as she struggled up the steep incline behind him. “Why exactly are we going up here again?” The sun that covered the forest floor at the base of the waterfall was warm and unadulterated. The cliff itself, however, had enough trees resting atop it to escape all direct sunlight of its own. Still, Kurt pushed them higher.
“Just think of it as your birthday gift.”
By the time they reached the top, Liesel could tell it was much higher than she’d originally guessed. The cliff face was at least twice as high as her old church steeple at home. Perhaps even more. Her dress was stuck to her body with sweat, and she was breathing so hard she could barely speak.
“What,” she huffed, “are we looking at now?” As she stood up, she had to work to keep her face from falling. All she could see was more forest on both sides of the thin river that fed the waterfall. Kurt just smiled, took her by the shoulders, and turned her around. Liesel nearly fainted with joy. From the top of the waterfall, she could see that they were surrounded by miles and miles of green treetops. But to her left, to the west, she could see the outline of a mountain.
“My mountain,” she whispered as she fell to her knees. “You gave me my mountain.” Tears coursed down her cheeks, but she let them fall. They were tears of joy. The contours of the four peeks were mostly hidden behind thick gray clouds, but she could see just enough to recognize it as hers.
“Why?” She suddenly turned and looked up at him. “Why are you being so kind to me?” He didn’t answer immediately, just returned her stare as a troubled shadow fell over him. His young face suddenly looked old.
“It’s the most I could do,” he finally muttered. “The life you were chosen for is hardly the one you deserve.” Liesel had no words with which to reply. Her first reaction was to attribute his cryptic response to her mother’s untimely death and unattached father, but something, an undertone in his voice, send a shiver down her spine. An instinct somewhere deep in her stomach warned her that something was very, very wrong. But what could she do? She’d already tried to escape once.
She looked back at Kurt one more time. He was staring out over the treetops again though, and didn’t see her gaze. His set jaw looked as if it had turned to stone, and he had his lanky arms crossed defensively across his chest. If nothing else, she decided, she could take comfort in knowing that he cared. They might be powerless to stop the lonely end that seemed to be determined to take her, but through it at least, she would have a friend. And for that, she would be grateful.
Thanks for reading! If you’ve got a minute, I’d love to hear what you think in the comments section below. To read more of this sample, click here to go to Chapter 5. To buy this book, you can find links to all the major retailers here! It’s only $3.99 in ebook format, and $8.99 in print! If you like to get free reading material, including chances to beta read books like this, just join my email list!