The Foundling

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An unwelcome wedding

It was moving day. Unna’s eyes roamed the interior of the place she and Alfiva had called home these past five years. It seemed so much larger now, stripped bare of all their belongings. It also seemed somehow dead inside; hollow without the trappings of human occupation. Unna supposed that emptiness was only temporary; some new family would move in and make the place a home again.

“Won’t the house get lonely without us, Mama?”

Alfiva stared up at Unna, her wide blue eyes solemn. Some found it unnerving, the way such a small child mirrored their thoughts back at them. Unna found it oddly comforting to be so implicitly understood. Yet, she worried at what pain such a gift of empathy might have in store for her daughter. What curse might it become?

“Not for long, Love. The house will have a new family.”

“Just like us, Mama?”

Unna did her best to smile through her trepidation.

“Just like us.”

Moving day brought more changes than just where the two of them were to lay their heads at night. Two were about to become three. It was Unna’s wedding day, though she had trouble thinking of it in those terms. Today she would bind her future - and Alfiva’s - to that of a widowed huntsman from a neighboring village. If she had a choice, Unna would have preferred to raise her daughter in solitude in the home Dag had left her. Unfortunately, the village elders had other ideas. They had made it clear that doing so was not an option. No one wanted a changeling child in their midst.

The neighboring village knew nothing about Unna’s strange little girl, and the huntsman was only nominally one of them anyway, spending all his time in his precious woods. To the village elders this marriage was the perfect solution. So even though the man only came courting once, they pressured - threatened - Unna into accepting his proposal quickly.

“Come along, Alfiva. It’s time to go.”

Mother and daughter made their way outside, shutting the door tightly behind them. A little cart stood waiting, loaded down with the few things Unna and Alfiva owned. Blankets, furs, cooking pots, and clothes. Most of it fit into two small chests. Buried at the bottom of one was the strange blanket and the note extolling Unna to cherish her precious gift. Unna wasn’t sure how much anyone had told her new husband about her daughter’s origins; he’d never given her a chance to say anything. So she tucked the evidence away, hoping the right time to speak would come quickly. After all, it wouldn’t take him long to notice that Alfiva was special.

Alfiva was almost to the cart when she stopped in her tracks, blue eyes wide in sudden remembrance.

“I almost forgot,” she chirped, whirling around and darting back to the house. She stopped in front of the door, placing one small, pale hand on the plain, weathered wood. “Goodbye, House. Thank you for for keeping Mama and I safe.”

Unna watched her daughter with a bemused expression as little girl gave the wood door a quick peck of a kiss before darting to the cart.

“Ready to go now?”

“Yes, Mama. I’m ready.”

After lifting her daughter up into the back of the cart, Unna climbed in unaided, settling her skirts around her ankles and pulling Alfiva into her lap. The priest driving the cart studiously ignored them.

“Don’t mind him,” the priestess whispered. She road in the back of the cart with Unna and Alfiva. “He’s just a superstitious old goat.”

The attitude of the local authorities towards Alfiva was split. The village elders and the priest feared and shunned the child as a changling, a cursed being. Only the priestess, the goddesses bless her, saw Alfiva for what she was; a gentle, blessed little girl. As such, the priestess did her best to fight the superstitious “old goats”, but there was only so much one woman - especially one young and new to her position - could do in the face of so much male opposition.

“It’ll be alright,” the priestess said, patting Unna’s shoulder. “I spoke with their priestess. She says he’s a good man, just very lonely since his wife and children died.”

Unna shuddered involuntarily. Since her betrothal had been announced, well-meaning “friends” had crawled out of the woodwork to share with her every bit of gossip they could dig up on the huntsman.

“Supposedly they lost the third babe in childbirth. Poor woman was so distraught she gave up living. But some say he murdered his wife and little girls in cold blood.”

“I heard they never found any body but hers.”

“Well I heard they never found any bodies at all.”

“It’ll be alright,” the priestess repeated, her solemn voice cutting through the whispers in Unna’s head. “It’ll be good for Alfiva to have a father.”

The woodsman’s house sat in the middle of a small clearing. From a distance it seemed a nice little home surrounded by yellow flowers. Closer inspection revealed that the shudders hung precariously from dry, cracked leather hinges. Only the door, which boasted iron hinges, hung straight. The flowers were wild, and scattered about the property haphazardly, though they might have been intentional at one point in the past.

All this Unna took in as the cart rolled to a stop in front of the sad dwelling. She couldn’t help but wonder what she’d gotten herself into. As if to punctuate the point, one of the shutters chose that precise moment to fall off of the side window. The half-rotted wood splintered on impact with the ground. Unna winced.

Alfiva took it all in with a child’s wide-eyed innocence. To her mind the house had a magical quality, with its green mossy sides and weathered logs. She hopped down from the cart and marched up to the door with no reluctance whatsoever. It was only when her hand came to hover over the rusted iron latch that the child hesitated.

“Alfiva, come back here,” Unna called. “You can’t just barge in unannounced.”

Saved from the need to touch the hateful metal, the child scampered back to the cart.

“Why not, Mama? We live here now, don’t we?”

“Not quite yet, Love.” Unna crouched to bring her eyes to the same level as Alfiva’s. She brushed an unruly golden curl back behind the child’s ear. “There’s still a few things the adults need to say first.”

Both mother and daughter jumped when the door to the cottage burst open, flying back upon its hinges to bang against the cottage wall. The shutters rattled dangerously, but none of them joined their broken comrade on the ground. The woodsman marched across the dooryard without a care for the door or the shutters.

“Bo Erikson, I presume?” the old priest asked, climbing down from the cart’s seat as he did so. Bo grunted in the affirmative. The priest waved for Unna to join them.

“I can’t imagine anyone here feels much need to stand on ceremony,” the priest said, his rheumey eyes glancing from Bo’s surly countenance to Unna’s stoic expression and back. “So on that note, I declare the two of you wed and grant you the gods’ blessings. Let’s unload the cart.”

Unna stood slack-jawed as her newly declared husband grabbed each of her little chests in turn and dropped them unceremoniously upon the ground. The priestess gave Unna’s shoulder a sympathetic squeeze and aware smile before climbing up next to the priest. Without so much as a backwards glance the priest clucked to his mule and the cart rattled off back down the forest path. Unna, stunned to the point of numb, stood watching, all her belongs in the mud at her feet.

“Can I go in now, Mama?” Alfiva asked, tugging on Unna’s skirt and eyeing the open door. If she could get in it before someone closed it she wouldn’t have to touch the metal latch.

Bo glanced down as if just noticing Alfiva for the first time. His expression didn’t soften any.

“They mentioned you had a child. A momento from your late husband?”

Unna cringed, but braced herself to explain. Bo didn’t give her a chance. He picked up one of the chests and marched off towards the cottage.

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