Dana of the Whispering Wood - Cover

Buy Kindle edition   Buy print edition

Dana of the Whispering Wood
by Lesley Speller

Prologue

Annika breathed a silent prayer that the baby wouldn't be white as the next wave of pain tightened her belly.  She bit into the leather strap and tasted salt as she bore down with all her might.  Her silvery blond hair was wet with sweat, and she gripped the furs on which she lay.  Her sister pressed her knees while she pushed and whispered words of encouragement.  With one more great heave, her baby was born into her sister's arms.

She waited for long seconds holding her breath, until she heard the baby's scream fill the night air.  Annika smiled and held her arms out to take her child, but there was no smile on her sister's face.  She looked as if she'd been struck.  "Dagmar, what is it?  What's wrong?" 

Dagmar shook her head and put the baby in Annika's arms.  It was a beautiful baby girl.  She had ten fingers, ten toes, and beautiful emerald eyes that stared up at her mother.  It was hard to tell for certain what color her hair was because it was still wet from her birth. Panic started in the pit of her stomach and spread through the rest of her body.  "Dagmar, what color is her hair?"

Dagmar had gotten fresh water and a clean cloth and began to swab the baby's hair clean.  She shook her head.  "I'm not sure."

"Dagmar..."

"Hush, Annika, I know."  As the blood washed away, it became easier to see the color of the baby's hair.  It was pure snow white.

"Maybe it's silver, and it just looks white because it's still wet."  Tears were streaming down her cheeks. 

"I don't think so."

"But she can't be..."

Dagmar knelt down on the floor next to the mother and child.  "Annika, she's a white dragon."

She clung to the baby and wept loudly.  "No, I won't let him take her!  He can't take her!"

  Dagmar leaned her head into her palms and shook her head.  "We have to do what we talked about.  We'll tell them that she was born dead."

"But..."

"There is no other way.  He'll kill her if he finds out another white dragon has been born.  If you want her to live, we have to send her away."


Chapter 1

Kalina stood watching the girl working in the herb garden.  Over the years her hair, had darkened to a honey color that danced somewhere between brown and blond.  Her eyes had also faded to a deep, dark sea-green.  Dana gave her a warm smile. "How are you feeling this morning?"

"Much better. Thank you.  The brew you made did wonders for the stiffness in my hands."  Kalina smiled at her again, but the smile soon faded.  Though she still thought of her as the little girl who had terrified her when she became enchanted with some forest creature and chased it off deep into the woods, this was a young woman in her sixteenth year.  The fact that she was growing into such a beautiful and strong young woman should have made Kalina proud, but instead it frightened her.  She knew that the time would soon come when she had to let her go.  There were things that Dana was meant to do. 

Dana went over to the brook and peeked in to see if she was as dirty as she felt.  The face that peered back at her was covered in streaks of dirt across her high cheekbones and even on her nose.  She leaned down and splashed cold water on her face scrubbing a little to take the dirt away.  It felt good.  Even though the air still held the chill of morning, she had gotten very warm working in the garden, and the shock of the cold was exhilarating.  

After she was clean, she went back to the cottage and sat in the grass outside closing her eyes and relaxing in the sunlight.  Her mother had gone back in to finish the stew for lunch.  Dana had been out hunting the day before and had managed to get two large rabbits, so they were in for a feast.  The smell was already drifting out to her, and it made her stomach rumble.

As she looked at the little cottage she noticed that the low, thatched roof had lost a lot of its fullness in a storm that had blown through a few weeks earlier.  That wasn't so hard to fix.  She'd done it several times.  However, the shutters on the south side of the house had begun to fall apart, and that was another story altogether.  She'd never had to try to fix them before.  It was certainly lucky that the carpenter's wife from Silverwood was having a baby soon.  Maybe Dana could convince him to fix them as payment.

For as long as she could remember, she'd gone along with Kalina when she went to deliver the town's babies.  Dana had seen almost every child younger than herself being born in the little town outside the woods.  There were only a few people who refused Kalina's services for various reasons.  Dana hadn't actually performed a delivery yet, but Kalina said this was to be her first.  The carpenter's wife, Anna, was just a little older than Dana, and she had already lost two babies fairly early in the pregnancies.  The carpenter's family had been some of the ones who had refused to see Kalina.  They'd called her a witch and wouldn't have anything to do with her, but then, after the loss of her first two children, the young woman had demanded that they seek help from the old healer.  Fortunately, this child was almost ready to be born and seemed to be perfectly healthy.

Dana had been learning to heal from Kalina since she was a little girl.  It was amazing.  It was a little bit magic and a little bit knowledge.  You had to know what herbs helped with what ailments and how to prepare them, but there was much more to it than that.  You also had to understand how the energies travel in the body.  If something was doing harm, then it interrupted the way the energy traveled and that caused pain.  Healing it was a matter of allowing the energies to flow freely again.  Kalina had always told her that she was more gifted than anyone that she'd known.  Dana suspected it was only because Kalina loved her that she thought so.  It was true that healing had always come rather easily to her, but she was certain that it was more because her mother was a wonderful teacher than because of any gifts she possessed.

Kalina's voice drew her out of her thoughts, and she opened her eyes.  This was the old woman who'd raised her as her own child, even though she had no reason in the world to do so.  Kalina had found her in the garden of her small cottage in the Whispering Wood sixteen years ago with nothing to her name besides a fine green woolen blanket.  She'd taken her in, named her Dana, and raised her with all the love any child could want.  Kalina's long, wavy, silver hair fell loose around her shoulders and her wrinkled, little face screwed up in a frown.  She peered down at Dana with ever-sharp eyes the color of the sky on a cold winter day. 

Dana knew she was in trouble by the look on her face.  "Yes, madam?"  She gave her the sweetest smile that she could muster and blinked up into her eyes.

Her mother laughed, knowing instantly what she as up to.  "Don't give me that look.  Didn't I ask you to get me some chamomile blossoms?  If I don't have them soon, then there is no way that I can get them dry before Anna's baby is here.  She will need something to calm her nerves during the labor, and we used all of my herbs at the last delivery."

Dana stuck her bottom lip out a little, "But the only place it grows is in the old fort, and it's so far away, and I am terribly hungry." She stood up and gave the old woman a hug.  "You wouldn't send your only child out hungry into the forest, would you?"

Kalina smiled at her.  "Of course not, dear.  First, we eat this lovely rabbit stew, then you go out and get it for me." 

The stew seemed to taste better than anything that Dana had eaten in her entire life.  It filled her empty stomach making her warm all over and leaving her feeling even lazier than before she'd eaten. 

When they were through, Dana climbed up into the little loft where she slept and found her small satchel for herbs and also her light green, lamb's wool shawl.  It was the same blanket that she'd been wrapped in when Kalina found her.  The old woman often said that fairies must have spun it themselves to keep her safe until someone came for her. 

Her mother's voice rang from below, and she knew that she'd been dawdling again.  "Coming!" She called back and started down the little ladder. 

When she reached the bottom, she turned to see the old woman glaring at her.  "If you don't go now, then you won't be back before sunset.  You know how dangerous it is for you to be walking around in the forest at night."

"Yes, ma'am.  I promise that I'll be as quick as I can."  She threw the bow and quiver over her shoulder too in case she happened across another yummy meal on the way.  "But if I am a little past sunset, assume I am coming home with something good to eat." She smiled and kissed her good-bye, before starting off in the direction of the old fort.

It was a nice walk but very, very long. It took a good three hours of following the little brook upstream.  The brook had actually once run right through the middle of the fort.  There was hardly anything left of the walls, just high piles of stones around perimeter that crawled with bright green flowering vines.

As she came to the fortress, she could tell that something was strange.  It wasn't, as it usually was, completely motionless and peaceful.  Now she caught the scent of smoke, and she could hear the sounds of men.  Not just men, but warriors.  There was a faint clanking of metal against metal.  She recognized the sound instantly.  She'd heard it once when there were soldiers who came through Silverwood.  They had been wearing armor made from small interlocking rings of metal that made the most musical sound when they walked.

Dana approached cautiously, peeking around the opening that was left from the little brook's entrance into the fortress.  She couldn't see anyone, so she assumed that they must have been on the other side of the fort and not actually inside.  Her hands shook a little at the prospect of being cornered alone with a bunch of soldiers.  Kalina had always warned her what soldiers did if they found a young woman alone in the woods.  She shook it off.  If she didn't get that chamomile, then the Carpenter's wife wouldn't have anything to calm her nerves during the delivery.

She ducked inside the walls and stayed low, making her way to the place where the chamomile grew.  It had obviously been a house.  The small outline of stones was lined on all sides with the herb she was looking for. It was still early for the flowers, but she was lucky enough that the unusually warm weather had brought on the blooms sooner.  They were everywhere. 

Dana laid her bow and quiver down in the grass and crawled on her hands and knees gathering the flowers on the path.  Then thinking that she could add the chamomile to her herb garden, she dug up a few plants and pressed the dirt tight before placing them in her satchel.  After that she put the blooms she had picked in her quiver with the arrows to keep them from getting covered in dirt.

She had almost completely forgotten the sounds of the soldiers as she worked.  It only took about half an hour.  Just as she was finishing up, she heard heavy, booted footsteps coming in her direction.  She pulled her things close to her body and pressed against the short, stone wall that had once made up the outside of the house.  Her mouth went dry, and her hands shook.  She heard those footsteps coming closer and closer to her. 

Dana saw his shadow on the other side of the stone wall.  It was truly enormous.  She felt her hands begin to shake.  The arrows in the quiver began to bump into each other and make the tiniest sound.  She prayed that the man didn't hear it.  Unfortunately, her prayers went unheeded. 

Agonizing pain shot through her as a hand came down and grabbed a fistful of her hair hauling her to her feet.  It felt as if he would rip her scalp from her skull.  A gruff voice whispered into her ear. "And what have we here?  A little spy?"  He turned her around and looked her up and down in a way that made her think of slimy things.  He was a huge man in leather armor, which explained why she hadn't heard him at first when he was walking toward her.  "You should answer me, you little brat."  His breath in her face made her sick to her stomach.  It stank like rotting meat.  He had a thick beard with bits of food stuck in it, as if he hadn't washed his face in days.

"I'm just gathering herbs, sir. I'll be leaving if I am being a bother."  Dana could hardly speak.  Her mouth was dry, and she was shaking all over.

He reached up over her shoulder to grab something behind her, and the stench of sweat was so horrible that it brought tears to her eyes.  He pulled an arrow from the quiver with it came a few blossoms tumbling to the ground.  "Then explain what you need these for."

"I was just hoping to find a little meat for my mother on the way home."

He took the sharp edge of the arrow and pressed it against her throat.  Her heart skipped a beat as it scratched her skin.  "So you were planning on stealing from our King's woods."

She was confused.  "No, no.  I had no plans on stealing from anyone's woods.  I was just going to hunt on my way home in the Whispering Wood."

A strange look crossed his face.  "No one is stupid enough to go far enough into the Whispering Wood to hunt there."

She'd heard the tales of ghosts and wood spirits that haunted the woods, but she'd lived there her entire life and the only glimpse of anything even out of the ordinary had been when she saw a tiny fairy in the wild roses that grew close to the brook.  "But, sir, I live there."

"Oh, then you're not a spy, but you're a spirit or a witch.  Either way you have to be dealt with."  He lowered his stinking mouth to her throat and breathed in deeply.

"Ian!" A voice sounded behind him loudly, and he stood up straight.  “What do you think you're doing?"

Dana used the opportunity to move back away from him so that the arrow was no longer cutting her neck.  The man who'd just walked up was wearing a set of the armor made from rings, and it jingled as he walked.  His hair was fiery red and his face was clean-shaven.  He appeared to be much more civilized than the other.  The filthy man who had been gripping her held now only to one of her arms, although it was still so tight that it hurt.  "Sir, I've captured a spy and a thief."

The red-haired man looked her up and down and then let out a laugh that could have shaken down the rafters, if they hadn't fallen years before.  "A spy?  She looks more like a child than a thief and a spy."

"But, sir, she admitted that she was a thief.  She was planning on stealing game from the King's forest."  He seemed a little shaken by the man who spoke to him now.

The red-haired man turned his eyes on her again.  They were a deep hazel color that sparkled with amusement. "Is that true?"

She shook her head, "No, Sir.  I hunt only in the Whispering Wood.  It's where my mother and I live."

"The Whispering Wood?"  He raised an eyebrow.  "Well, if that's true, then it's not exactly theft, although those are also technically his lands.  We will have to take this up with the King."

The huge oaf of a man dragged her along behind the more civilized one.  She was sure if she survived this she was going to have a terrible bruise there in the shape of his hand.  They entered a small encampment.  All the men stood and watched the three of them.  The way they looked at her, like she was meat, made her sick to her stomach.  They were all gathered around fires, most of them cooking their evening meal.  That reminded her that Kalina would be terrified if she didn't come home, and it made her all the more sick.  The scent of cooking meat and slaughtered animals which had not been taken far enough from camp as well as the stench of too many men living too close to each other was everywhere. 

There were tents all around that were made of dirty brown material held up with long wooden poles.  Dana dropped her eyes to the muddy ground.  When they stopped, they were standing in front of the largest of the tents.  The red-haired man went inside, and she heard muffled voices.  A moment later, he pulled back the flap of the tent and nodded. 

The disgusting man let go of her arm with a little shove toward the tent.  She stepped inside but kept her eyes low.  The tent didn't stink like the rest of the encampment.  It held a faint scent of lavender.  Her eyes drifted a little up so that she could see booted feet on a man who was seated in a large wooden chair.  Next to the chair were another set of booted feet standing.  She made a bit of a clumsy curtsey on unsteady legs trying her best to be polite.

A deep, rumbling voice asked in an amused tone, "Well, Keefe, what have you brought me today?"

"Milord, one of your men caught her in the ruins and believed her to be a spy and a thief."  His voice sounded a little amused as well.

The King spoke again, "Well, little spy, may I ask your name?"

She continued to look only at his feet.  "Milord, I beg you.  I'm not a spy, but my name is Dana"

"Dana of the Whispering Wood," the man called Keefe corrected.

"The Whispering Wood is it?  I am King Arlan, Dana.  May I ask what you were doing near our encampment?"  His voice was still amused, but now it also held a hint of interest. "And, Dana, I would prefer that you looked at me when I spoke to you."

"Yes, Milord, I wasn't sure..."  She raised her eyes and saw before her a man of enormous size.  He was wearing black, leather armor with silver studs all over it.  His hair was a blend of dark brown and gray, and it hung just to the tops of his shoulders.  His eyes were a warm brown color.  "Milord, I was just gathering chamomile for my mother." She held out the bag that she had filled with chamomile plants, and Keefe took it showing the King that it contained only the plants.  "You see my mother is a midwife.  One of the ladies from Silverwood is having a baby very soon, and she will need it to calm her nerves.  We'd run completely out."

"So your mother is the healer, Kalina.  She is one of the finest healers in the land. But surely you can't be her natural child."

"Oh, Milord, she would be so honored to hear that even you think her so very talented," Dana offered a timid smile, “"and no I'm not her natural child.  I'm a foundling."  She glanced at the man next to the King and then back again very quickly.  She only got a slight impression.  He was very young, probably not much older than herself.  His hair was black and his eyes looked almost exactly the same as the King's in the same deep brown.

King Arlan's eyes followed hers, and he smiled.  “Oh, forgive me.  This is my son, Patrick."

She looked back at the man standing next to him.  He had a proud, rugged look about him.  It was obvious that he was an important part of his father's army.  He was dressed in battle-worn armor and a tunic with his father's colors.  It was a blue background with a golden lion ready to fight emblazoned on it.  Dana gave another rather wobbly curtsy.  She was becoming more and more certain that at any moment she might embarrass herself all the more by fainting in front of them.

Father and son exchanged an amused look and then the King spoke again. "So we have established that you're innocent of the charges of spy. What of theft?"  He looked again to Keefe for an answer.

"It seems the young woman has plans of hunting on your lands without permission."  He held up the bow and quiver, which he had taken from the oaf.

"Child, that's a serious accusation.  Is it true?"

She looked down at her clenched fingers and then up again.  Her heart was pounding in her ears, and she wasn't sure exactly what to say.  "Actually, Milord, that is true.  And to be perfectly honest I've done it many times before.  I hunt in the Whispering Wood not far from my home.  It's just that food has been so scarce lately, and I always worry for my mother's health.  I never knew that it was stealing.  As one of your men said before, no one ever hunts in those woods."

The King thought it over for a moment.  "Yes, everyone is too afraid to hunt in those woods, and since you and your mother could not possibly make enough of a dent in the animal population to make much of a difference anyway, I am willing to make you a deal."

Dana was a bit confused over what she could possibly have to offer to him.  "A deal, Milord?"

He smiled warmly at her.  "The deal is that you and your mother are allowed to have anything off the land in the Whispering Wood so long as you live there provided you do one service for me."

She smiled genuinely at his kindness. "Yes, Milord?"

"The only thing I ask of you is that, when my son finally chooses a wife and she is expecting their first child, either you or your mother come and be her midwife."

The young man, Patrick, sighed.  "Father, do we have to go over this again?"

"I know, Patrick, but one day you'll be married, and you'll need a good midwife.  So, child, is it a deal?"

"Yes, of course, Milord.  I can give you my solemn vow.  That either I or my mother or both of us shall be there."

King Arlan smiled, "Well then a deal is struck.  Please escort this young lady home, Keefe.  It's getting dark, and we can't have anything happening to my grandchild's midwife."

"Yes, Milord, of course."  Keefe bowed and turned toward her.  She curtsied again and backed out the door.

"Thank you for everything, Milord."


Buy Kindle edition   Buy print edition