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The Ghosts of Berghelm

By Jessica Hill All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Fantasy


Years have past since fire tore the heart from those living in Berghelm's shadows. Now, the lost souls from that evil night roam through the ancient trees, poisoning the forest where the last magic in Aerlann already struggles to survive... Bronwyn never feared the forest as others did. When she finds herself orhaned by a terrible evil, Berghelm gives her shelter and leads her to a new life: a life full of promising happiness like she never expected to experience. However, all the Spirits' Gifts come with a price. Bronwyn finds herself cast adrift in the forest she once called home, fleeing the terrible Darkness that stalks her through the trees. She can return only if she retrieves the ancient treasure the Spirits need to restore balance again. Should she fail, the people still living within the Great Forest are doomed to become ghosts, trapped by Berghelm's curse forever. The fanatical High Council and a perilous journey, are all that stands in Bronwyn's way on her quest to save everyone she has ever loved, even if it means sacrificing herself in the process.

Chapter 1

Imagine if you will, a forest filled with secret places, where shadows watch you from their lofty coniferous thrones.  A forest where the trees are thick enough to hold your house hidden within their branches, with moss that reaches for the topmost limbs like a slowly creeping slug climbing a blade of grass.  A forest where men often venture but are never heard from again. This is where I spent my childhood.  Beneath the long reaching shadow of the ominous trees, I chased the brightly-hued butterflies that danced among the wildflowers.  My family’s hovel sat within a stone’s throw, and I often heard my mother curse the shadow had cast on her life.  I didn’t understand this, not then, when innocent childhood still laid claim to my soul.

The forest didn’t evoke fear in my heart. While others swore never to stray from the single trail winding through the trees, I played on the border as though it was my own domain.  The roots that curved in and out of the earth sheltered me when I was caught out in the rain, and the wind through the leaves sang me to sleep on a lazy afternoon when I had managed to escape my chores.  However, even I didn’t dare venture past the first few trees.  When the sun set every night, I could hear the cries of haunted souls that resided in the darkness, and many nights, it disrupted my young sleep.  I would lay awake all night, concentrating on the grunts of the pigs so the pain of the Lost didn’t consume me.

The days I spent with my mother before the fire seem like one long event in my memory. Every day was so much like another; I’ve never bothered to count the breaks between them when I judge what memories were worth keeping and which were not. Did I fall and cut open my knee when I was three or five?  I might have been four when I first realized that my mother cried every morning after my father left to work the fields.  I know I was five when I realized that she cried when he lay with her at night, grunting like the sows I slept with, until he rolled off of her to exchange heavy panting for deep snores.  I know this because it was the following spring the fire came and freed us.  Yet, for the space of a breath, I knew my mother lived in pain each day.

She woke earlier than any of us.  I would wake up and see her bent over the hearth, stirring the contents of our small pot or pulling the hot kettle from the flames.  She would feed my father, standing off to the side until he was done, then see him to the door.  Once he was gone, she would smile at me while stray tears left trails down her dirty cheeks.She would give me a hunk of bread she had saved, or a chink of cheese that had been tucked behind the loose stone next to the pig-trough.  One time, when she found some wild strawberries.  We sat before the early morning fire and ate them together, laughing at our sneaky genius until the sweet gold we gobbled up so greedily was gone.  That’s the only time I remember her eating with me after he had left.

In the morning, while my young mind could be detained for the longest time, I would help her make the grainy bread we lived on.  In the warm weather, we would chase the pigs outside to eat so I could help my mother shovel their dirt from the hovel.  We would cut the long grass that grew in the fields around us and remake their bed, my bed, and re-stuff the mattress my parents laid claim to.  There were times my father came home for the midday meal and those were times of silence.  I would sit quietly next to my mother, watching him eat while I licked dry lips, and we would eat what was left when he was gone.  My favourite time was when he did not return from the fields at all, and my mother and I would take our meagre meal out into the sun to lay quietly in the grass.  With a stick, my mother would make marks in the dirt and tell me what they meant.  She said one day, reading would save me from our hard life, but that isn′t why I enjoyed it.  I lived for the times when I wrote out my name correctly, and she would take me in her arms and kiss my forehead.

“You′re so smart little butterfly,” she would croon into my hair. “Just like your father.”

I didn’t know what she meant.  There was a keen dislike festering in my heart whenever my father was around.  His dark hair hung in greasy strings about his face like the cobwebs that clung to the corners of the ceiling.  His eyes, such a clear blue, were as piercing as ice, and he often looked on me with distaste, spitting on the ground as though the very sight of me left a bad taste in his mouth.  He was tall but hunched over.He worked for the lord who owned a great manor house over the crest of the hill behind our home.  He would bring home bottles of the lord’s own wine, and those nights, my mother and I walked as though the floor was littered with eggshells.  If he were to hear one crush beneath our feet, he would fly from his chair and attack my mother.  It was her fault, he would scream.  She never fought back.  There was a time when she might have, but as far as my memory could tell, all she did was let her dull, yellow hair fall forward to hide the purple hue of her swollen eye.

Some mornings, mother would chase me from the house with my breakfast in my hand, and I would retreat to the comfort of the forest in day light. The butterflies did not venture so far into the shadows, but the trees were companion enough.  Their voices comforted me, their leaves sheltered me, and I longed for my mother to follow me into their depths so we could be princesses of the trees together.  Every now and then, a fox or a raven would join me.  I knew them to be the same ones, for the raven had green eyes that watched me as I played, and the fox acted as though tame, allowing me to grab the soft tuft of his tail while he lead me about.  My mother would listen to me tell her of them, but she dismissed them as childhood fantasies.

A morning came that dawned dark and grey despite the looming summer season. My father’s mood was as black as the clouds above.  His pock-marked jaw moved slowly as decaying teeth worked at the heavy grains of his bread.  He had a small, stolen flask tucked into his pants which he drank from before he stood to leave.  My mother stepped forward to take his plate from him, biting back a startled cry when he grabbed her arm before she could pull away.

“I won’t be here till late,” he grunted. His cold blue eyes did not look at her, but he grabbed a lock of hair that fell over her shoulder and rubbed the greasy yellow strands between his thumb and forefinger.  “I found soap yesterday.It’s in my bag.  You should wash yer hair.”  His eyes met mine and he spat.  Without another word, he stood and left.  My mother collapsed against the table with relief when he was gone.

“Mama, can I wash my hair too?” I asked.

“Not today my butterfly,” my mother replied, wiping her eyes as she straightened.  She pulled her hair behind her head and tied it there with a leather thong. “Please go and play somewhere else today.”

I hung about the corners of the house for a time, watching as my mother filled a pot with water and dragged a small wooden basin into the house.   The pot of hot water barely filled the bottom of the tub.  After filling it again to boil, my mother went outside to get more wood for the fire.  I stared down into the pot but the wait was excruciating.  Before my mother could return, I scampered outside in hopes of seeing my fox friend.

The clouds in the sky weighed down on the earth, and the forest reached eagerly for the moisture they contained.  The trees groaned as they swayed, their dance a gentle rocking that made me sleepy.  The fox was nowhere to be seen; neither was the raven.  In the grim light of the day, the shadows of the forest seemed impenetrable, so I followed the edge of the forest for awhile, until I had to skirt around a thick brush of brambles that directed me towards the fields where the men worked.  Already the crops were nearly as tall as I was.  I walked by some of the men without notice.  There was a loud rumble that rolled across the countryside before the clouds let their dams break loose.  The rain came down in sheets.  I reached out my hand and could scarcely see in front of my outstretched fingers.  Another round of thunder shook the ground beneath my feet and I ran.  I felt my heart race and salty tears mix with the water on my cheeks.  I hoped I was heading home, but when my bare feet slipped in the mud I fell forward onto a patch of smooth stones. My dress was soaked up the front.  I was sobbing when I looked up and gasped.

The lord’s house rose above me like a palace. Its whitewashed, stone walls were covered by slowly creeping greenery that reached their thin vines towards the wooden shingles of the roof.  Real glass windows kept the rain out.  The rain wasn’t easing up, and despite my shivering, I only wanted to get home. The manor house was forbidden.  I hiccupped and wrapped my arms around myself.  There was a flash of movement in one of the downstairs windows, making my breath catch in my chest.  The wooden door next to it creaked inward, just as my small cry was lost in the din of the thunder’s gong. Before I could see who was emerging, I turned to flee.  My feet had sunk into the deep mud; I fell to my knees again.

“Where are ya going?”

I stood back up, preparing to launch into a string of excuses, beg if I had to, but when I turned around I was stunned to be standing before a boy hardly older than I was.  The rain had plastered sandy hair to his forehead, and when he smiled, four of his front teeth were missing. He wore fine does-skin leggings and a red shirt that clung to his small body as it became weighed down by the rain. He even wore sturdy leather boots.I stood silent before him, my eyes traveling from his boots to my own toes where they curled around the soggy dirt beneath them. His boots remained untarnished where he waited for my answer from the safety of the cobble stone walkway.

“Well?” he demanded, his hands placed firmly on his hips. “Don’t you wanna come in from the rain?”

I looked up at him, my eyes wide and my heart threatening to burst from my chest.  I looked around him to the open door but I saw no grown up waiting to take me to my father.  I gulped.“I’m not s’posed to be here.”

The boy’s smile grew wider and he held out his hand. “Don’t worry, I’m not either,” he laughed when my eyebrows went up.  “I′m supposed to be in my room with no supper because I tried to ride my father’s new stallion. I went to the kitchen to steal some food and I saw you out here.  You wanna come eat with me?”

I looked at his outstretched hand.  His hands were clean and fair, and when I put out my own hand, I realized mine was too. The rain seemed to have washed my fingers clean and so our hands matched as he dragged me back towards the house.  The cobble stones were more slippery than the mud, but the boy kept me upright as we scurried across the yard.  Once inside, he shoved the door closed.

I was surprised by the welcoming heat enveloping us; there were stove fires burning heartily from three places in the large kitchen. There were no adults to be seen, but I could smell bread baking, and there was a large mound of meat hanging over the fire of an open hearth.  Herbs and vegetables hung from the ceilings, and there were shelves upon shelves of preserves and covered crocks.  The stone floor was clean enough to reflect the dancing flames of the fires.

“Don’t move alright,” the boy said. He dug through a basket near the door until he emerged with two rags in hand.  He passed one to me before kneeling down to wipe the dirt and water I had brought in on my feet.  When the floors were dry, he stood to find me still clinging to the rag uncertainly.  “You’re supposed to dry off,” he said.  He took the rag back and rubbed his hair to show me how it was done.  “See?” His hair became tightly wound curls on his head.  I took the rag back from him and rubbed my own hair with it.  While I did, he left to gather up things from the shelves.  He disappeared into a cold storeroom for a time. When he emerged, his arms heavily laden with a full saddle pack, he gestured with his head that I should follow.

I shadowed him from the kitchen into a hole in the wall. There was a platform inside with a rope going up into the dark.  No sooner had the boy closed the door behind us, than there was the commotion of women returning to their kitchen chores. The boy put his fingers to his lips before reaching for the rope to pull us up.  He grunted as he struggled to haul us up into the dark, but after a moment I reached up to grab a length of the rope too.  I watched him as he yanked down on it and timed my own pull to match his.  It was hard, but we slowly climbed together.  After what seemed like ages, we paused at one.

“Open it,” the boy whispered.

I gave to door a shove. It swung easily on silent hinges. I climbed out, grateful to be back in the light.  The bag of food landed next to me on the floor before the boy climbed out as well.  He slowly lowered the platform back down before re-shutting the door and turning to face me.

“I’m starving,” he cried as he took the saddle bag to his bed.

I stood frozen in place while I looked around the room. The cold stone on which I stood was one of few patches of floor not covered by thick black pelts.  Two wooden chests sat against one wall.  There were two small beds, side by side, both with heaps of blankets.  Even pillows! The smell of food made my stomach rumble, so I took a tentative step forward.  Then another. Once I sat on the bed, I sank into the feather mattress and nearly jumped off again; I was terrified it might swallow me. I shivered, unsure if it was the cold of my wet clothes, or the sight of such apparent wealth.  The boy saw me shaking and smacked his own forehead.

“You’re cold aren’t you?”

He jumped from the bed and went to one of the chests.  He pulled out a girl’s dress and brought it to me. “Here,” he said.  “It′s my sister’s. She’s got tons of ’em so she won’t miss it.” I took the dress but made no movement to put it on. “Don’t worry I won’t look,” the boy assured me.

True to his word, he turned away. I took my wet clothes off and pulled the clean dry dress over my head.  It was a warm, and the soft fabric tickled my skin.  It had long sleeves and two yellow strips of fabric sewn to the sides to wrap around the waist.  The boy turned and flashed his toothless-smile at me. “It matches your eyes,” he said proudly.

“My eyes?”

“Didn’t you know that your eyes had green in ’em?” He cocked his head to one side as he considered the shake of my head. “Well maybe I′ll show you my mother’s mirror after so you can see for yourself. But I want to eat first, don’t you?”

I nodded and we both climbed back onto the bed.  I tucked my knees under myself and let my eyes look over all the food before me.  He had swiped some honey-glazed buns.  Cheese, dried fruit, fresh fruit, and even strips of salted-jerky were laid carefully out on the blanket. I felt my mouth begin to water, I reached a tentative hand towards one of the crusty buns.  The crust gave way to soft clouds in my mouth.  Before my companion could change his mind about sharing, I devoured what was left in my hand. My cheeks burned when I looked up at the boy, but he was not looking at me with alarm or disgust. Instead, he was smiling his toothless smile while he tried to bite an apple.  We sat together in amiable silence while we ate.  I wanted to try everything, to eat everything, but my small stomach, so used to going without, allowed me only a few bites of cheese and some dates before I was too full to eat anymore.

“My name’s Winnie,” I spoke up when I was finished.

The boy’s eyes crinkled in the corners as he replied, “I’m Eamon.”

I smiled.  Eamon, I rolled the name around in my mind while I watched him re-wrap all the uneaten food. When he was finished, he handed the saddle bag to me. “You should take it home. Then you can finish it.”

“Thank you,” I hugged the rough cloth to my chest like some kind of treasure. “But won’t your mam and da be upset?”

Eamon waved a hand in the air before furrowing his brow. “They won’t even notice. ’Sides, my da promised me a foal this spring, except now he said I’m not ready. Maybe he’ll think again if I tell how I took care of you. There’s a colt I really want, and I named him and everything. His name’s Bane and he’s the colour of a thunder cloud.” Eamonn’s eyes, which reminded me of dark wood, sparkled as he spoke.  “Da says I have to wait a couple years before I can ride him, that way we can both get bigger, but I told him I’m big enough!”  His lower lip protruded just a little further than his nose.  “I bet your father isn’t mean like that?”

I hesitated. “My da doesn’t really pay much attention to me,” I confessed. “But he′s awful mean to my mam.”

“What d’ya mean?”

I swallowed a lump building in the back of my throat. “He′s just mean is all. He hurts her and yells a lot.  Mam makes me hide quietly in the pig sty so he leaves me alone, but I wish he’d leave her alone too! She always does what he says and he gets mad anyway.  He tells her it′s all her fault but she didn’t do anything.” I was angry and hot tears burned my cheeks.  I dashed them away with the back of my hand.

Eamon let out a slow whistle as he shook his head. “I’m going to tell my father.  He will put a stop to that right away.  I saw him have man whipped at the last moot cause he beat his dog to death.  I bet he’d make your da stay in the stocks or something for beating his wife.”

My heart raced and I reached across the bed to grab Eamon by his collar. “No you can’t, you can’t tell your father!  If you did then da would know I was here and he′d get mad at mam again. Please don’t tell, please!”

Eamon’s eyes widened. “Alright I won’t I promise.”  I sat back on my heels again with a sigh of relief while I hugged the saddle bag to my chest.  The rain outside had eased so that only a drizzle misted the window pane of the room.

“I need to go now,” I said at last.

“Alright, but I still wanna show you my mother’s mirror,” Eamon said. He grabbed one of my hands to drag me to the door.  He opened it a crack to peer out into the corridor.  There was no one in sight, so he pulled me after him down the hall to another room that shared a wall with his own.  It was a bright and cheerful place, with colourful tapestries hung throughout the room. There was no fire in the hearth, but somehow, the blue and violet woven rugs and plush chairs gave the room a warmth that could rival a summer day.  There was no bed in this place, but there were several trunks and a low table covered in brushes and ribbons. Eamonn let go of my hand to run over the table. He grabbed a large polished plate that rested against the wall and brought it over.  He held it in front of him even though it was almost as big as he was; only his head and his legs could be seen around it.

“Go ahead and take a look,” he told me, breathless.

I took step forward to examine myself. My hair was tangled from the wet curls that had dried in the warmth of the house, but it still caught the light of the room to shine with golden radiance. My face was round and rosy, although the borrowed dress hung loosely from overly slender shoulders. I was mesmerized by my eyes.  They were not like my mother’s at all. They were a melody of green and amber, with flecks of brown. I leaned in closer to examine the small details of them, amazed by how different they seemed.  My father’s were an icy blue, and as I looked at myself, I was pleased to see I looked nothing like him at all. Im pretty, I realized with a smile. My small teeth gleamed back at me.

I looked up at Eamon. “Thank you.”

He smiled back before taking the plate back to the table. When he returned, he had brought a small silver comb with him.  It was only the size of his palm but it was covered with finely carved vines and little opals in the shape flowers. When he offered it to me, I took it as though it were as delicate as the wings of a butterfly.

“For me?”

“Something pretty to remind you of how pretty you are,” Eamon replied with a blush as he regarded his booted feet. “My father says all pretty girls should have pretty things.”

I tucked the small treasure into the saddle bags with the leftover food. No more was said between us while Eamon led me back down to the kitchen. There were too many working women in there, so we had to back track to the main entrance.  We snuck past two well-dressed ladies, who were too busy chatting to each other to notice two children pressed against the wall in the shadows.  The double doors at the main entrance swung open on well oiled hinges.  Though the rain had all but ceased, there was no one visible in courtyard beyond the courageous robins who were already feasting on the worms trapped by the puddles.  I hesitated to return to reality.

“Will you come back again?”

I turned to look at him. He was looking down at his toes again where they dabbed a small puddle in front of him, turning the pale tan of his boots a dark brown as they soaked through the leather. “I don’t know.”

“You should,” Eamon replied seriously. His eyes met hers and they were on fire with urgency.  “I can sneak you food and we can play.  When my stallion is grown I’ll take you away and give you lots of pretty things. I′ll even find you some shoes.”

I laughed. “I don’t need any shoes,” I held up my hardened feet to show him.  “I bet my feet are tougher than yours.”

Eamon frowned at my response but could not seem to put his concern into words. “You should go before someone sees you.”  His voice was snappish and I was startled into fleeing.  I had reached the other end of the courtyard when I heard him shout. “I′ll come for you someday!  You’ll be my lady!” I glanced over my shoulder, but he had already run back into the warmth of his house.

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