Little nose prints decorated the bottom of the frosted window pane. Brooke had grown just enough that she could rest her chin on the wooden sill facing the Dunwash River. If she leaned juuuust right, she could see The Kissing Willow.
Oh, The Kissing Willow. Brooke had seen the shadows of some of the young couples beneath it now and then. The notion was so romantic. Papa had huffed whenever The Warbler had gossip about people kissing, and ever since Miss Esthyr had taught her her letters, six year-old Brooke would sneak peeks at the daily newsletter. Fits of giggles seized her at the silly couplings. Maggie would never kiss Mr. Atan! He was too scary to kiss . . . and looked like a pretty girl too.
Huffing a despairing breath that fogged up the corner of the cold glass she leaned against the wall, chin on the window sill, arms dangling at her sides. The other girls had prattled on about kisses. At first it sounded gross. Boys were gross. Papa had said so. But then again, Papa was a boy too, wasn’t he? And he called her pretty and kissed her . . . well, not like Mr. Rheb had kissed Miss. Cisse. That had been a while ago though and . . . Why had the lady Cwen been visiting Mr. Rheb? Wriggling her nose she pushed the questioning aside. Papa’s voiced echoed in her head from when he’d grumbled about the gossipers of town. Besides, that didn’t solve her problem. She wanted a kiss under the tree!
No one had been under the tree in several days in spite of The Warbler’s tale-telling. Then her eyes widened, filling with an idea. Oh, and it was a good one.
“Where ya goin’, sweet-pea?” Papa called after her as she bolted from her room.
“Out!” she chimed sweetly, her little arms overflowing with her cloak, scarf and mittens. Before he could protest she was out the door and flying down the path to the road. Wrapping her scarf around her face as she dashed over the empty, snow-powdered street, Brooke nearly missed the corner that would take her onto the bridge.
Stopping in the middle of the cobbled way, the small girl shoved her hands through the arm holes of her warm cloak. Distant voices echoed from the far gatehouse. Someone was coming! Her little legs carried her as fast as they could go and suddenly she was there.
Droplets of frozen ice coated the dangling willow branches, reflecting the winter sun. Brooke had never been under the tree before, but it was magical! No wonder people kissed here! It took walking around the silver-barked trunk three times till she found it. Her way up. She’d never climbed on her own, but all the boys did it, so how hard could it be, really? Mittens clenched tightly in her teeth, Brooke jumped up to catch hold of the first branch and her legs scrambled till they caught a foothold, and she pulled herself up. The bark was slick with frost and ice, but she grasped the branches around her and pulled herself up to stand on the thick limb, ready to continue her ascent.
“Take that, branch,” she huffed with a triumphant grin. All she had to do was climb a little further up, hook her mittens on a limb, then wait for someone to come and rescue them for her. It was a good plan. A solid plan.
Higher and higher she climbed till she had made it, looping her red, knit mittens to dangle from a freshly sprouted branch. It was perfect! Looking around, she took hold of another branch and turned to clamber back down . . . and then she froze.
The ground was so far away! It didn’t look that high from the ground, but the more she stared at the roots protruding from the frozen earth below, the further away it felt. Brooke quickly flung her arms around the silver branch, her little heart leaping into a panicked gallop.
“You’re ok, you’re ok,” she muttered fearfully to herself, eyes still staring wide at the way below her. Sucking in a breath of frigid air, she summoned her courage and stretched a thin leg down towards then next branch. It was so close! For a second her chest swelled with hope as her toe brushed against the next step down . . . but then her other foot slipped, and with a frightened yelp Brooke pulled herself back up, legs wrapping around the same thick branch that her arms strangled.
Hot tears welled in her eyes. There was no way down! She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t! She could try to jump, but that might kill her! People died when falling from high places. Oh no . . . she might die! Papa didn’t know where she’d ran off to, and there was no guarantee anyone would hear her. She was so high up, no one would see her! Her lower lip quivered as the cold of the bark seeped through her warm layers. She was going to die in The Kissing Tree! After they found her cold, lifeless body then no one would kiss in the tree again and the tree would die without all the kissing going on and then the kids would make up a mean song to sing during play time and no one would have a happy ending and it would be all her fault! It was the end. She knew it.
“You stuck up there?” rumbled a deep voice from behind her.
Turning her head, vision blurred, Brooke saw a man . . . a tall man standing not a foot from the tree and just out of arms reach. She was saved!
“N-no,” she lied in a wimper, her lower lip jutting out as she attempted to put on a brave face.
The man grunted, then a soft, low chuckle followed, filling the mystical air within the willow’s branches. “Course you’re not. But I wouldn’t be much of a gentleman if I didn’t offer you a hand. Would you . . . care for a hand down?”
Brooke’s heart melted as she peered down at her rescuer. “Mmh-hmm,” she managed to respond, sniffing her cold nose. Big, strong hands hooked under her arms and for a moment she still clung to the tree.
“It’s alright. I gotcha,” said the man kindly. Swallowing, Brooke nodded and as soon as her grip loosened he bore her up and away to set her firmly on her feet. The man held her there for a moment as her legs wobbled, not letting go till he was sure she wouldn’t topple over.
She wiped furiously at her eyes and tear-stained cheeks as the man turned away. Her vision cleared she looked up at him as he returned to The Kissing Willow to retrieve her little red mittens. He was so tall! Taller than Papa. A bow hung behind broad shoulders, and a quiver of arrows sat at his side. It was Mr. Tebbernekk. She guessed it by his summer-colored hair, and she knew it was when he turned around by the scar along one side of his face and the clear, grey eyes that looked down at her.
A smile quirked at the corners of the man’s stern mouth. “What were you doing up there?” Eirikr asked as he walked back to the road, Brooke following like a lost duckling, unwittingly gawking up at him with big doe eyes.
The little girls face flushed crimson and she looked down, embarrassed. “Ijuswangekissed,” she admitted under her breath.
Eirikr’s head tilted curiously, but he crouched down, balancing on his toes. “Hey. You going to be alright?” he asked, offering her her mittens.
Her lower lip quivering, Brooke cast her arms around the man’s neck. “Th-hank you!” she exclaimed with a sob, hugging him tightly.
“Uhh — erm, you’re welcome,” he responded, reaching a strong hand around to hesitantly pat her back.
Sniffing in attempt to stop crying, Brooke’s face suddenly split into a beaming smile. Realization that she would indeed live suddenly surging through her, and with the knowledge that the tall, rugged Dalish hunter had been the one to sweep in like a knight in shining armour, the little girl planted a big, teary kiss on his bearded cheek. Skipping back, giggling at his shocked expression, Brooke turned and fled for home and Papa, leaving her hero behind.