My gown swirled in the storm but I ran anyway. They were still after me, armed men, baying dogs, all that blood… I shuddered. I wouldn’t think of that now. I could only think of running away, my nurse’s words still ringing in my ears.
“Run, child! I will find you. If you don’t run then all is lost!”
I willed myself not to think of my father, found dead a week earlier in some dark wood. I forced the thoughts away, replacing them with the man’s sword coming down over me… I willed myself to just keep running, empty. My feet were aching, blistered. And then I heard screams. They were mine, and they were someone else’s too, someone behind me.
I sped up over rocks, and hills, and plants, and slowly, the sound of horses and men fell away, and I could slow down. I thought I saw a plume of smoke in the distance. Maybe it would be friendly? Well, at least it was something to aim for.
The journey didn’t take long. Soon, I was standing in front of a little brick house, weathered and crumbling with age. The door was slightly open, and delightful scents filtered through. I was about to knock at the door, but stopped myself. I was no beggar! I couldn’t… But I had to. As demeaning as it was, I raised my hand, and tapped quietly on the wooden door.
“Who is it?” a creaking voice came from inside. There were a few quick, hard steps, and the door flew inward, revealing a small, wrinkled woman with white, gleaming teeth, and a bright, twinkling smile. Laugh lines had etched themselves around her icy blue eyes.
“And who might you be?” she asked, beckoning me through the door.
“I am…” I faltered. Who was I? Surely I could not be Rosalette, the Barron’s daughter. I would certainly be killed if I revealed who I was. The woman just stood there, looking at me patiently.
“I am Rose,” I finally managed.
“Well, Rose,” she said, stretching out a work worn hand. “I’m Nissah, and if you want to stay here, you’ll have to work for it,” she said, picking up the straw broom from where it lay in the corner.
I sighed, but extended my hand out to her. When she gave me the broom, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I had never swept before, and she saw it in a flash.
“What kind of girl are you that you don’t know how to use a broom,” she huffed, bustling over. “I expect you probably can’t dust or milk or garden either,” she said in distaste. “How old are you, child?”
“Seven,” I replied, sticking my chin out defiantly.
“Seven years old and never touched the floor with a broom!” she huffed. “Well, you can just go on your way then,” she said, pointing to me. “I don’t feed those who don’t help themselves.”
“Please, ma’am,” I said, though it galled me to say it. “I am willing to learn.”
“Well then,” she said. “Let me show you.”
After a grueling hour of sweeping, we both sat down at a rough-hewn, oak table. Nissah pulled hard cakes of bread from where they had been sitting in the coals keeping warm, then ladled a thick, delicious smelling stew from a pot over the fire and spooned it into a bowl made of some sort of clay.
“Did you make these bowls?” I asked when she had sat down with her own food.
The chairs were very comfortable, cushioned with some pretty, course weaving, and pads made of some sort of hair. Nissah looked at me.
“Oh no, a very old friend gave them to me, a girl I used to know.”
We ate in silence for a long time. Finally, I braced myself, and asked another question.
“How did you know I needed somewhere to stay?”
Nissah looked down at her wiry hands. “I have a way of reading people,” she said reluctantly.
The rest of the meal was spent in silence, but I could feel Nissah’s eyes on me the whole time, studying me. Finally, after dinner, she said, “Well, I expect with your first day away from home, you will be tired, Rosalette.”
I jumped out of my seat, overturning it, trying to run. Nissah rose quickly and took my hand.
“It’s all right, child, I won’t tell. I want to help you, and your poor mother. Don’t ask me how I know. Most people in the kingdom would recognize your face.”
At first I felt a respect for her, finding out so quickly, but my respect quickly turned to anger when I remembered what she had me doing that day.
“And why would you have your future baroness sweep?”
Nissah smiled. “You have to learn to live like us, and survive on your own. Besides,” she smiled again. “I really do mean it when I say I don’t feed those who don’t help themselves. Now I would have made sure you were taken care of by someone else, but I wouldn’t have taken you in. Besides, it’s high time you learned to sweep. And it will be easier to disguise you if you are doing things like we do.”
I sighed, and leaned back in the chair, my anger gone. “Oh,” I said, looking at her with new respect in my eyes.
“But how will we disguise me?”
“With hard work, a bit of makeup, lots of sun, and a hat,” she said. “Oh, and a change of clothes. Even if those travel clothes are torn and stained, they are still finer than what you would see a peasant girl wearing.”
I sighed, and Nissah seemed to notice how tired I was.
“All right, child. We will continue this in the morning. Right now, it’s time for bed.”
She led me to the back of her house, to a sack full of sweet smelling straw.
The morning afterward, I woke to the sound of chirping birds, a relief from the nightmares. Wondrous smells greeted me, but when I opened my eyes, Nissah was not there. I wandered out into the cool morning and found her bending over a little plot of tilled earth. Vibrant flowers and plants were in this, supported by crude wooden stakes. Nissah looked up on my approach.
“Good morning, Rose,” she said brightly. “This will be one of your daily tasks. Come, let me show you, and then we’ll have breakfast.”
It felt good working in the soil with her, oddly comforting and down to earth. After we had finished, we dusted the soil off our hands, and set in to eating the wonderful bread and mushrooms Nissah had prepared. The light was just peeping from the doorway when we finished, and Nissah took the dishes to the stream and quickly cleaned them. Then, she went into the very back of the hut, and pulled aside a curtain along one wall, brown, and crumbling with age. She took down two sheathed knives, glinting silver in the morning light.
“What are these for,” I asked, bemused.
“Defense,” she said, tossing one to me. I barely caught it. “If someone was after you, they might come after you again.”
In response to my questioning gaze, she said, “You talk in your sleep. Now, let’s get going.”
The next few hours were some of the hardest of my life. Nissah was not a gentle trainer, but a fare one. Despite her age, she was strong, quick, and firm, giving me more bruises than I care to remember. But for the first time in a long time, I felt free, something that rarely happened in the cold, grey castle, the prison of responsibilities. I almost felt happy.
The next seven years of my life were spent tending in the front garden, and doing other assorted tasks as nissah instructed. Every day, Nissah and I would do our training session, and every day I would get a little quicker. Once, I even beat her, and believe me when I say she wasn’t easy to beat. The woman was fair to me, never treated me ill or gave me too much work. She fed me well, gave me a bed, and some time to myself. She taught me all she knew of herbs for healing and poison, of combat with the knife, of cooking and housekeeping, and a thousand other things too numerous to name. And yet I could not forget who I was, Future Baroness Rosalette Don Eqarelle, heir to half the kingdom. How could I, when every night I dreamed of it?
I would be shaken awake by my nurse, who said that we were going somewhere, on an adventure. She hurriedly got me into my traveling clothes, and hustled me out to the waiting carriage. It was freezing out, and I shivered against her large form. My mother got into the carriage too, and we were off. I don’t know when I fell asleep, or when a sudden jolt awakened me, but it did. I heard cries and swords… and then suddenly there was something aimed for my face, slashing downward, glinting in a shaft of moonlight. But Nurse was too quick. She had grabbed me, and thrown me from the carriage. All I could see was the blood streaming down her face. She was out after me in a flash, and we were running. In between gasps, she panted, “Child, never let anyone know who you really are. I am going to have to leave you. Flee…”
And then I would wake before I could see her blood in the light, behind me, see the sword that I remembered so clearly. I would make myself awaken, and be back in the little bed in Nissah’s house.
Some days, when the dream was particularly vivid I would go to the woods, and look at all the lovely flowers, gathering herbs for tea or soup. One day, I had wandered quite far from the little cottage. I had been following the scent of posies in case of sickness this winter (for posies can help nearly anything) when a twig snapped just to my right. I had brought my knife as Nissah insisted I always do, and I had it out in a flash. As I drew it from its leather sheath, a man jumped from behind a large oak tree, a knife in his own hand. In moments, we were on top of each other, grappling for each other’s knives. He nearly had my hand pinioned, but I wrenched it from his grip, the knife slashing at his belly. It struck home, and with a groan, I rolled away, refusing to look at what I had done. But something caught my eye, dropped in the tussle. It was a creased and folded piece of paper. I opened it and read:
We are to be undone. If we can strike this last blow, then we may not be overthrown, but even if we are, at least we will have done something. The girl is living in the woods as Rose, with some old peasant. Sometimes, she goes wandering in the forest. Catch her when she is rambling, away from the house and the woman. Then do what needs doing.
I shuddered, knowing what the note meant. I had to leave, and soon. Flustered, I picked up the posies, nearly forgotten, and fled for home.
Nissah had nothing to say about the letter. She only said, “You need not leave just yet. That time will come soon enough.”
So I stayed on at the little cottage, living out blissfully ordinary days.
It was on one such day that I met with the lady Orla, visiting from a neighboring city. I had dipped some water from the well, and was mopping up the dirt from Nissah’s front stoop when she arrived, riding alone.
“Girl,” she called out to me. “Do you live here?”
“Yes m’lady,” I replied, giving a curtsey as I straightened up, “an old peasant woman and me.”
“May I stay with you for the night?” she asked. “I am horribly lost, and I fear it too late to travel.”
By this time, Nissah herself had come out upon hearing a new voice.
“Of course,” she said. “You would be welcome here,”
That night, I saw her watching me, her amber eyes fixed on me as I worked. I swept, cooked, and did all the things that I did every night. Finally she stood up. “Nissah,” she said, turning toward the woman. “I need a maid at the castle. Would you consider parting with this girl?”
Nissah turned to the lady. “Begging your pardon, ma’am, but perhaps you had best ask her yourself. I am not her keeper.”
I turned around, looked at Nissah. She had been so kind to me, but I thought I was ready to move on. And if I didn’t, I was afraid that someone would come back, and maybe hurt her. I knew then that it was my time to leave. So when the lady turned around, a question on her lips, I said, “Yes,” before she could ask.
We rode out early the next day, I riding behind the lady on her white horse. The castle was a large, stone masterpiece, foreboding black, with spiked turrets and slits for arrows to go through. Something about the way the light slanted through gave the impression that anyone approaching was being watched. My room was up in one of the turrets, a plane, stone room. There was a threadbare grey rug on the floor, and a little hard chair, and a small, wooden bed with dingy white bedclothes. As dreary as this was, it was more than I had at Nissah’s house, and they would work me no harder than she had. I was trained for service by the head housekeeper, and set straight to work.
It happened on the most ordinary of days. I had been instructed to lay a tea service in the dining room, for there would be a visiting lady, and my Lady Orla wanted to receive her with the utmost courtesy and display of grandeur. This was a task that I enjoyed very much. I set out the little saucers and cups, painted with blue flowers. I spread the napkins and put them in the ornate golden holders on the mahogany table, and fetched the silver tray full of refreshments. When it was time, I heated the water and poured it into the floral teapot. Finally, I set down the decorative tea chests and the grand sponge cake in the center on the table. But it was missing something… Moving fast, I went to the field out back of the house, and plucked some wild flowers. I took a bright colored vase from the kitchen to put the flowers in. Then, I took one more flower, a single rose, and scattered some of its petals around the cake. There! It was finished, and I was finished for the time being with all of my duties.
A few hours later, I heard a rap at my bedroom door. Reluctantly, I put aside the needlework I was doing. “The lady wishes to speak with you,” said another maid when I opened it.
“Do you know why?” I asked, puzzled.
The girl shook her head. “No, but I suggest you hasten down. The other lady is still with her.”
I was surprised at this, but I went downstairs, a bundle of nerves.
“There you are,” Lady Orla said when I came in. “I wanted to thank you for doing such a lovely tea. Baroness Clare was…”
She stopped when she saw the look on my face, for I knew the other woman in the carved mahogany chair. Her light hair, green eyes, and sweet smile called to me more strongly than anything ever had. I ran to her, flung myself into her strong arms. I knew that Lady Orla must be watching but I didn’t care. “Mother!”
My mother looked as stunned and happy as I. She hugged me close, our tears mingling. My auburn hair was tangled around hers, my maid uniform crumpled, but I didn’t care.
“Did anyone else make it?” I asked, finally pulling away a little.
“Almost all of them did,” she said, a hint of sorrow creeping into her eyes, except your dear old nurse.”
Of course. I had known that, but had not wanted to realize it until now.
“Oh,” was all I could manage.
She hugged me tighter. “Come on, let’s go home!”
And so we did, home to a beautiful palace on the edge of a lake. Mother was in control of many pieces of beautiful, valuable land. I would have that responsibility someday, but for now, I was just content to be in her arms.
Jessica L. Hodges lives in the Pacific Northwest. Her piece “The Tea,” was written specifically for this journal.