All three of us sat in a horse cart covered with a blanket draped across a pole, barely leaving enough room to sit upright. During our journey back to their mountain, we whispered if we talked at all. The driver stomped on the cart floor and yelled in a language we didn’t understand but learned meant: Stop! Quiet!
The fair one is Bridget, and the dark one is Sala. I’m Anya. Each of our villages is far apart. We speak the same language but with different accents. Our stories are the same. Someone took us from our beds while we and our family members slept. They threw a blanket over our heads, carried us out, and threw us into a horse cart, and no one heard us scream.
We are ‘fresh blood’ to these people, our abductors. We heard them tell the man they paid to take us. They chose new girls to replace the dead ones to keep their Mountaïn clan alive.
Nika, the grey-haired crone, was in charge of this strange, quiet group of four women and four men. Nika was neither mean nor kind. She gave us each a heavy blanket woven of soft blue, moss green, and ochre wool. They smelled of sage and lavender, which must have kept the moths away; No mends or holes from moths. But I missed my quilt.
The sun spilled its rosy light through the treetops when our journey started. The scent of pine trees and earth mingled with the sounds of familiar birdsongs told us we were still moving through the forest for that day. Nika opened the back of our cart and provided a water basin to wash our hands and faces. Then gave us large, sweet apples that we gobbled up.
They'd cut our long braids off near our scalp and dressed us as boys and kept us in a covered cart during the day. No one looking for us would find us. I am surprised that it is so much more comfortable in the summer's heat without my heavy long hair.
Nika led us back to the cart, then gave us bits of wool. “Plug up your ears, girlies. We’re goin’ into the Fey country. They’ll tell ya’ lies, sing, and use voices familiar to you; anything to lure you into Fey world, which is harsh on our kind. Don’t have notions ‘bout joinin’ them.”
I’d heard stories about the Fey who lived deep in the forest. People blamed when someone went missing. Maybe it wasn’t the Fey after all. I felt safer with my captors than with Fey and followed her orders.
Early on the second morning, we noticed a change in the atmosphere and peeked out through the back edge of the blanket. We gazed with wide eyes at the seemingly endless plain filled with tall grasses and red, blue, purple, and white wildflowers.
The wagon stopped, and Nika told us to collect daisies, yarrow, and poppies, then taught us to weave the stems into crowns, small enough to fit on a walnut. They gave us this task because we were new to the Fey and they’d recognize us should we return. We were Mountain folk now. She walked with us as we carried the colorful crowns, small bits of cloth, and wool and told us to gently and respectfully place these items at the edge of the forest. They were gifts thanking them for our left, saying they were offerings to the Fey for our safe passage.
I noticed three huge lonely oak trees in the distance and we reached after many hot hours of travel. Their shade offered blessed relief from our sweltering covered cart. The people laid their covers in a circle and we were told to join them.
I noticed Bridget staring at something in the distance and turned to see what caught the attention of this fair, trembling girl. I shaded my eyes with my hands, but saw only the edge of the forest and then the grassy meadow. She often stared at something or someone that none of us saw, so I dismissed it.
We ate, then rested under the trees as the sun baked the rest of the meadow.
When we began traveling again, Nika removed our tent-like covering, giving us cool, breezy relief.
We stretched out, enjoying more space. Sela and I leaned against the rough wood sides while Bridget was against the back, still staring at something only she saw. Sala and I lay on our sides and slept to the horse’s hooves’ lullaby while she stared into the distance.
A firm hand gripped my shoulder, and I sat up. “Look, Anna!” I turned my sleepy head toward where she pointed and sucked in a surprised breath. Massive, awe-inspiring Mountains left me feeling disoriented and in awe of this massive black and purple sight with white tops looking like icing on a cake.
I asked the girls, “Have you seen mountains?”
Sala shrugged, looked at them, then shook her head. “No.”
Bridget didn’t seem to hear me and sat, shivering and whimpering. Her pale blond hair shone in the sunlight like the gold altar cloth in our church back home. I gently put my fingers beneath her chin. She looked up, but not at me. Her large green eyes held flecks of bronze, as tears flowed down her cheeks. I understood why these people wanted her, a bright jewel among their dark crowns.
“Bridget, you must try to be brave. We will look after each other, and maybe life won’t be so bad.” She turned her head toward me but still evaded my glance and didn’t speak, so I continued, “They treat us well when they could be mean. Take some breaths and you might feel better.”
She breathed with me and held her head a little higher.
“Try to smile?”
Sela looked at her and laughed, saying, “Damn, that’s more like a fright mask we wear at the harvest fete!”
I laughed, too, and patted Bridget’s hand. You can't force a genuine smile. At least she stopped trembling. She looked up, but not into my eyes. It was as if she saw something strange or frightening there. She was younger than I first thought, perhaps eleven or twelve, her breasts didn’t rise beneath her shirt. I was fifteen, and Sala said she was sixteen, but I’m not sure she told the truth. It was common to betroth or marry girls of sixteen during that time. However, she had a very womanly shape.
Sala’s black hair reminded me of raven feathers and sunlight revealed blue highlights. Her dark eyes spoke for her, narrowing to slits in anger, which seemed to be most of the time, but fringed with thick dark lashes and large and beautiful when she laughed. I wouldn’t want to be on her bad side.
That night, the full moon glowed bright white in the cloudless sky, it was almost like daylight and I wondered if my parents and brother gazed at that same sky, missing me, wondering where I was. I pushed that thought away as my throat grew tight, and I squinted tears away. After all, I told myself, had I stayed in my village, I’d soon be married to the cooper’s son and leave my family, anyway. I had no fond feelings for him; he was large and clumsy with a nasty temper. This new life might be better.
After we’d eaten and sat near the large fire, someone played a violin, the music sounded like warm honey might make. The people raised their hands toward the moon as if hoping to catch it should it fall as the song that sounded like all the sad notes strung together played.
We watched as they fell to their knees, then leaned forward with their hands pressed against the earth. Nika took small objects from a cloth bag. I moved forward to get a closer look and felt disappointed to see just stones. She laid them out to form a triangle, with a larger stone in the center.
Sela tilted her head and muttered something under her breath. Briget leaned against my side, raising her knees, gripped her legs against her chest, and trembled once more. I put my arm around her for comfort.
The men lit a small fire at the top of a low hill nearby. Next, the four men and four women lay on their backs of the grassy slope, forming another circle with their heads toward the fire. They reached to each other and held hands. Feet apart, and I imagined they looked like an open flower seen from above. Nika went back to her carriage.
Bridget lay on her blanket on the ground, curled up like a kitten. Sala stood and stared at the sky, her hands braced against her back and her feet apart, and prayed or chanted in tones too soft for me to hear. Did she know more about our captors than she shared?