There was once a couple who lived in the Greatwoods. They owned a shop in a village and worked hard at it. They would order in supplies from villages around them and sell them to their own villagers. Thanks to them people living around them were able to acquire things that they would never have access to otherwise and they became very much respected. And eventually they had a little girl and their lives were complete.
But life had passed on a bit before they were blessed with a child. They loved her and raised her to the best of their ability and when she was old enough she started to help around their shop. She would help stock the shelves, carrying goods from the storage basement and sweep and polish the floor. As the years went on she started doing more until she reached the age of fourteen and took over delivering groceries once a week to the people who lived out in the woods.
To begin with this was a simple job, one which the girl looked forward to. She would put on her green cloak, shoulder a backpack full of the less delicate supplies and then pick up her basket that contained the items that could be broken. She would spend the rest of the day walking through the forest, greeting her far flung neighbours and enjoying the fresh air and peace of the wood.
But after a while things began to get dangerous. A pack of wolves moved into the area, known mostly through their howls in the middle of the night. A little while later word of bandits attacking lone travellers started being whispered. The couple were worried about their daughter and suggested that she might stop the deliveries. But she loved her days walking along the trails in the trees and wouldn’t hear of it.
So they went to see a local witch, hoping that she might have the answer.
The witch lived deep in the forest, in the Heartwoods where few dared venture. The shopkeepers and their daughter closed the shop for the day and set off before the sun had fully risen. To begin with they traveled through the light but as they got closer to their destination a dusk fell, the trees crowding closer together and blocking out the sun. Then, at a little before midday they arrived at the clearing where she lived and saw the witch.
She was the antithesis of her surroundings. After the gloom of the Heartwoods the bright patch of sunlight that shone into the glade was almost as blinding as the witch’s smile upon seeing them. She was out working on her garden, her glossy black hair falling in ribbons down her back.
“Welcome,” she cried, straightening up and dusting the dirt off her hands. “Come in, come in. I was just about to have a cup of tea.”
The family exchanged a look but it seemed rude to refuse so they followed her in.
The witch’s house was built back onto one of the gigantic Heart Trees. Once through the door they found themselves in a large room, with tables and chairs scattered about and a cauldron bubbling over a fire. In quick order they found themselves pushed into plump, comfy seats while the witch busied herself with cup and leaf.
As they drank the aromatic liquid they explained why they’d come, the girl scowling at the very idea she might need help. She finally interrupted her mother as the tale was coming to the end.
“We would go with her…”
“But they are old and there’s no point. I can look after myself.”
The girl’s father sighed and shrugged helplessly. “So we have come to ask you. Is there anything you can do to keep her safe? A weapon or something?”
The witch shook her head. “I don’t sell weapon or anything that makes it easy to hurt people. But I might be able to get your girl a guardian creature.”
Her parents exchanged a relieved look. “If it will protect our daughter then that would be fantastic.”
The witch gave them a bright smile. “Wait here, I’ll be right back.”
The witch disappeared through a curtain in the back of the room and vanished from sight. Not from hearing though, a couple of bangs, thumps and a loud roar escaped and fled past them. The parents exchanged another look, this one worried, remembering all the bad things they’d heard about witches. The girl, however, sat up straight and looked eagerly towards the door.
After a few moments and a lot more worrying cacophony the witch returned. In her arms was a kitten, a white so pure it was almost glowing, except for a smudge of black on top of its head. It was looking around with curious green eyes that settled almost immediately upon the girl.
The parents exchanged a final look as the kitten was deposited into the girl’s arms and started purring as it was held close. “Is that it?” the father asked.
“That’s it,” the witch replied with an easy smile.
“So when danger appears it’ll grow big and frightening or….?”
“No, it is what it is. This will keep your daughter safe.”
They weren’t sure but there was no arguing with a witch so they thanked her and left.
Over the next week they kept a close watch on the kitten, waiting for it to do something special or dangerous but they waited in vain. The kitten behaved completely normally. It would spend the days darting about the shop, chasing dust or sunbeams, sleeping in comfortable places and yelling for fresh food.
After the week it was time for the girl to go out on her deliveries again. Although they couldn’t see how it would help her parents urged her to take the kitten with her, which she did with joy as she had fallen in love with it. With her cloak, her basket, her backpack, and the kitten she set off.
Everything was fine to begin with. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. The girl had five homes to visit and five houses were visited without a problem. Bag and basket empty she started along the well worn path for home. See, she thought to herself. I knew my parents were over-reacting.
The kitten, who up until then had been sleeping peacefully in the now empty basket, suddenly sat up and started staring off the side of the path. The girl stopped, unsettled by the sudden movement. Then a moment later the kitten pounced from the basket, hit the ground and sprinted into the woods.
“Kitten, wait!” the girl cried. Barely stopping to think about what she was doing she dashed after it.
Through the trees and the underbrush they went, sticks splintering under the girl’s boots, the kitten a seldom seen white blur in front of her. The girl ran faster, not wanting her beloved pet to get lost but after a while she realised that she hadn’t seen the kitten in a while and, despite her intentions, it was now her that was lost. She stopped and tried to make her way back home.
Then suddenly she stumbled into a glade and, looking up, came face to face with the bandits.
There was nothing else they could be. There was no reason for a gang of twenty men to hang out around a fire in the middle of the day, dressed in mismatched armour and clutching weapons. There was a moment where they all just stared at each other. Then the bandits were scrambling to their feet and the girl found herself surrounded and crowded back toward the fire in the centre of the clearing.
“Well what do we have here?” one of the bandits asked. “And what will we do with it?”
Another of them shouldered his way to the front of the group. He was bigger than the rest and his hair hung in a lank ponytail down his back. Judging by the way everyone deferred to him, he was the leader. “You know what we do. We take everything she has,” he growled at the one who had spoken. Then he leered at the girl. “And maybe have some fun with her.”
But the girl had worked in her parents shop since before she could remember and, though she was terrified, she knew how to negotiate. “Sure, you could hurt me,” she said as calmly as she could. “But would that be the most profitable thing to do?”
The bandits were still moving closer to them but their leader, who was the leader for a reason, forced them to back away. Turning to the girl he asked, “What do you mean?”
“Well,” said the girl, thinking quickly. “I work at my parents shop and they’re very successful. They bring in a lot of money. Every week I have to walk this path and give people groceries. What if I also paid you a small amount as well? Then you would have a consistent income stream, which would benefit you more in the long run.”
The leader thought about it for a moment. “I have to problems with this proposition,” he eventually said.
“What are they?” the girl asked eagerly. They were negotiating! She could do this!
“The first,” the bandit leader said slowly, “is what you said about a small amount. There’s a lot of us, as you can see. I’m not sure a small amount would cover all of us.”
“I can give you more than a small amount,” the girl said. “Tell me what you need and I’ll look into it.”
“Well that brings us into the second concern. Which is, if we let you go now then we don’t get anything for a week. If we even trust you to come back.
“No, what I think we’ll do now is that you’ll lead us to your village and your parents’ successful shop.”
The girl wanted to say no but she didn’t have any choice. So she agreed, picked a direction and started walking
Luckily the bandits weren’t locals and so didn’t know the forest. Knowing this the girl lead them off in the wrong direction, wracking her brains as to what to do next. It was only when a howl split the air that she knew what she had to do.
“What was that?” the leader of the bandits asked.
“Oh, that was just the shepherd’s dogs,” the girl lied. “They can be a bit loud.”
From the look on his face he didn’t buy it. Thankfully he didn’t have to for at that moment the wolves attacked.
The pack crashed through the trees in front of them, running at full pelt. For a moment it looked as if they hadn’t expected the bandits to be there but then they changed direction and charged. The first few bandits fell to their teeth before the rest were able to unsheathe their weapons and charge in.
The sound was devastating. Howls and yells, screams and cries all blended together into an almost physical blow. The girl turned and, leaving it all behind, ran back through the woods, searching once again for her path. She walked for what seemed to be an age before she found herself back in part of the woods she recognised.
The girl finally made it back to the path and there she found the kitten, curled up in a sunbeam. Carefully, she scooped it up and started walking back. It didn’t rouse, just snuggled into her arms and started purring.
As the girl walked to the door to her home she hugged the kitten close and whispered in its ear. “You may not have done anything to help but I love you anyway.”
It stayed peacefully asleep and did not reply.