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A young girl sprinted across the grounds surrounding Heila castle. Her auburn hair caught the sunlight, bringing it to life with streaks of blonde and red. It was early summer, and the earth was alive with color, smells, and sounds. The roses clung to their trellises, giving off their sweet perfume. Wildflowers grew in great quantities along the moat of the castle.
The girl ran down the cobblestone path leading towards a large stable. Sweat started form on her brow. The day was unusually hot, a foretaste of the scorcher to come later in the year. Her pale lilac dress stirred the dust from behind her, dirtying the hem. She reached the cool shade of the barn and climbed the ladder that led up to the hayloft.
Horses nickered, quietly swishing their tails to rid themselves of pesky flies. Every few minutes or so, one would whinny loudly, demanding more food or water.
She crawled silently along the stable rafters. A pair of pigeons was disturbed by her creeping and took flight, their wings rustling loudly.
The stable boy in the stall below paused in his work and listened intently. Pigeons didn’t fly without a reason.
Heart pounding minutes slowly crept by, but the girl remained completely still. If she was caught now, all was ruined.
Eventually, the boy shrugged and continued his task of spreading clean straw in an empty stall. A few stems of hay fell on his head as a breeze drifted through the barn. He thought nothing of it and continued his work.
One of the king’s horses struck its stall door angrily. The boy dropped the pitchfork to see to it. “All right Torc, I’m coming, I’m coming!” He grabbed a water bucket and left to fill it at the well. The stallion snorted anxiously until the boy returned with the cool water. The chestnut plunged his nose into the bucket and took a few draughts before he allowed the stable boy to place it in his stall. With the stallion satisfied, the boy returned to the box stall he had been bedding.
The girl peeked over the edge of her perch and stared down at the stable boy as he worked. His blue jerkin was stained in some places and torn in others. Worn leather pants gave way to heavy leather boots that were a few sizes too large for him. His sandy brown hair was cropped short in the servant’s manner. Hazel eyes kept watch over the horses.
The boy paused again, reached for the water flask at his hip, and took a long drink. He replaced the flask and sighed, wiping the sweat from his forehead.
The smells of the barn were what he had been raised on: the musty smell of hay, the sharp burn of horse dung, the sweet smell of leather and saddle soap. Sometimes if the wind was just right, he could catch faint whiffs of the blacksmith hearths.
“Look out below!”
The boy’s head snapped up just in time to see the girl leap from the hayloft. They tumbled across the stall floor in a tangle of arms and legs. The boy pulled himself free as soon as the stable had stopped spinning and stood up. “Katrina! What were you thinking? You could have been hurt! Then Horace would have my head served on a platter to the king!”
Katrina giggled and pulled a piece of straw from her hair. “You worry too much Elric. No one knows I’m here, you know that.”
The boy shook his head. Katrina, or Kat as he often called her, had taken on the habit of visiting him once a day for a few hours instead of doing her lessons. Elric enjoyed her company and often skipped a few hours of work to spend time with her.
“And besides El,” She continued, “You know you’re glad I’m here.” She smirked playfully again and touched the horseshoe scar over his right eye.
A foal had struck him there when he had been very young, leaving an image of its hoof on his face forever.
Elric brushed her hand away and pulled her to her feet. His skin warmed pleasantly where Katrina’s fingertips had been. He hoped she wouldn’t notice his cheeks turning slightly red when a blush overtook his face. Quickly, he cleared his throat and led her out of the barn. “So what’s on the agenda for today?” He asked as they passed the stone well that rested just outside the palace walls.
Katrina hooked her arm through Elric’s, taking two steps for every one of his. She tugged at the shoulders of her dress; the fabric was itchy in the early summer sun. “Let’s go swimming El!” She broke free from the stable boy’s arm and dashed down a dirt path that led to a small waterhole.
“But Kat!” he called after her, “We don’t have our bathing suits.”
The pool was shaded by trees that lined the shore, they broke briefly to reveal a sandy beach. The ice cold water was crystal clear, large boulders from a nearby cliff could be clearly seen at the bottom.
Katrina paused momentarily as she waited for Elric to catch up with her. Her bare feet were warmed on from which she stood overlooking the lake from about twenty feet up.
Finally, the stable boy emerged, panting for breath. He stopped, bracing himself on his knees. “Kat what…are we…doing here?” he gasped. The lilac dress was thrown in his face. He pulled the cloth off and held it at arms length. It smelled of lavender, no doubt the scent of soap that Katrina had bathed with that morning. He glanced back over in her direction and dropped the dress before quickly scrunching his eyes shut, “K-Kat!
What would your mother say if she saw you like that in front of me?”
The girl stretched her arms. With the bulky dress gone, she only wore a cream cotton dress with summer leggings underneath. She shed the skirt so the leggings and cotton shirt remained. “I don’t know El. You sound an awful lot like her, so you tell me.”
The stable boy opened one eye and laughed, ignoring that Katrina was standing in front of him in only her undergarments. “Katrina Angeline Rousk,” he made his voice higher to mimic that of an old woman, “What in heavens name do you think you’re doing? Tossing off your gown in front of a boy! God will frown upon thee if you keep acting like this. Come now, it’s time to practice your embroidery.”
Katrina laughed, “El, you sound like my nanny,” she giggled clutching her sides.
Elric chuckled; he liked to make Kat laugh. The girl turned away from him, her hands reaching to the sky. It was then he realized how tiny Katrina actually was. Her waist couldn’t have been more than a forearm across. The curves of her body flowed as smoothly as rippling water in a quiet stream. Elric shook his head violently; he shouldn’t be think if such things. He was lucky that he and Kat were allowed to be friends with her being the duke’s granddaughter and a relative to of the king. He was just a stable boy whose parents had died in the plague when he had been but a year old. That was fourteen years ago, and in two years, he would reach manhood and inherit command over the stables from his caretaker Horace.
“Watch this El!” said Katrina, standing at the edge of the rock.
His eyes went wide with horror. “Kat don’t-!” But it was too late. The young Maid swan dived into the clear water below. Elric threw himself down on the rock overlooking the ledge, his eyes frantically searching for the girl’s slender figure.
The water was alive with foam and ripples. Agonizing seconds passed before Katrina surfaced, whooping and hollering. “Come on Elric! The water’s refreshing!”
The stable boy looked at the height he was at and gulped. The highest he could stand to be was on the back of the tallest charger in the stables. Anything higher made the color drain from his face. He shook his head and inched slowly away from the ledge. “N-no way, it’s too high!”
Katrina dived and resurfaced quickly. “El you big chicken, get down here!”
The boy glared down at her, no one called him names and got away with it. “Fine!” he snarled. The blue jerkin was tossed near the dress, his boots followed. Elric back up a few paces and decided to get a running start. His feet left the rock when he flipped through the air, letting gravity pull him towards the pool below.
The cold water forced most of the air out of his lungs, making him surface quicker than he liked. His teeth chattered violently, his lips had turned purple. “I-it’s cold!” he gasped.
Katrina splashed him in the face, “You get used to it,” before diving again.
They swam for hours until they couldn’t stand the cold any longer.
Elric went to retrieve their clothes while Katrina rung the water out of her shirt and leggings. He returned and tossed her the dress and shoes. Pulling his jerkin on, he shook his head like a dog, spraying water droplets everywhere. His brown hair went in every direction, including into his eyes.
Katrina tied hers back with a piece of blue silk cord so it would stay out of her face as it dried. She took one look at Elric and burst out laughing.
The stable boy grinned awkwardly and combed through the rat’s nest with his fingers.
It was a pleasant stroll back to the stable, when a dark haired boy dressed in a crimson tunic sauntered up to them accompanied by three, much larger companions.
“Merrick!” Katrina gasped, trying to hide behind Elric.
Elric forced himself not to flinch as four sets of eyes burrowed into him.
Merrick spotted Katrina and turned his glare into a forced smile, “Good afternoon Kat.”
The girl flinched when he used Elric’s nickname for her. “Afternoon Merrick.” She only acknowledged him out of politeness.
“Hanging around Scarface again are you? Imagine what my father would do to him if he knew about this.”
Katrina stepped out from behind Elric defiantly, “You wouldn’t dare!” she hissed.
Merrick crossed his arms and chuckled, “Oh but I would—unless you agree to let me court you.”
The girl looked at Elric dismayed, but the stable boy only jammed his hands into his pockets and scuffed the dirt with his boot.
“El, do something!” she pleaded.
“What can I do? He’s the king’s son.” he mumbled.
Katrina proceeded to stomp off when one of Merrick’s lackeys grabbed her arm. She struggled aggressively, but the bigger boy was too strong for her.
Merrick smirked in the stable boy’s direction before signaling to the others that it was time to leave.
Elric ground his teeth together angrily as he watched them go. He hated Merrick as much as a person could hate. The prince was jealous of the stable boy, because Katrina had chosen Elric over him. To get revenge, the young prince mistreated his mounts and forced Elric to care for them, making it so he and Katrina couldn’t meet. Merrick knew how much Katrina meant to Elric and constantly reminded him of his status as a peasant, and how the king would never allow him to ask for Katrina’s hand.
“Let me go!” Katrina screamed, digging her heels into the ground. “El help me!”
Anger boiled within Elric’s stomach that, mixed with the hatred he felt towards Merrick, sparked life into his still body
One of Merrick’s cronies looked as if he was going to strike Katrina when Elric leaped forward shouting. He crashed into the boy that was holding his friend hostage, ramming his elbow into his stomach.
Katrina fell to the ground. She shook herself and looked up.
Elric was fighting well against a boy that was easily twice his own size, but a blow to the head stunned him long enough for Merrick and the others to jump into the fray. The largest individual held Elric in place as the other three took turns punching and kicking at his head and stomach.
Merrick caught him under the jaw and Elric tasted blood. He almost black out, but bit his tongue and concentrated on the pain. He slammed his head back, ramming it into his captor’s nose. The boy crumpled to the ground howling in pain. The other two charged at him. They were quickly disposed of with kicks to the knees and guts.
Merrick shook with rage. He spotted a large stick at his feet and picked it up, wringing his hands around the smooth bark.
Elric punched one of his opponents in the jaw, grabbed his shoulders and directed his knee deep into his gut.
“El watch out!” Katrina shrieked.
The stick cracked over the stable boy’s skull. Elric’s vision blurred dangerously as he reached up and touched the side of his head. His hair was sticky and matted with his own blood.
With his opponent dazed, Merrick gained the upper hand, slamming Elric to the ground. “I’ll show you to mess with me Scarface! Katrina is mine! You stay away from her!” his punches grew harder before Merrick was thrown roughly off to the side.
Elric lay in the dirt breathing heavily, his vision edged with black.
Merrick shook his head, his eyes widened in shock when he saw Katrina standing over him, hands balled up into fists. “W-what? K-Katrina I-”
A sharp slap cut him off, “Merrick you…you jackanape! I would rather die than become the wife of a pompous swine like you!”
The prince blinked in surprise, “But…but Elric-”
“Elric is kind and gentle unlike you! You run your poor animals to the ground and expect them to work the next day. While he stays up all night tending to the horses that you run lame! He cares about them more than he does his own life.” She turned on her heel and helped Elric to his feet.
He leaned heavily on her, barely conscious from the beating he had received.
Katrina took a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped the blood from Elric’s face. She gasped when she reached the wound caused by the stick. Blood oozed from it, turning the surrounding hairs a sickly black.
“Come on El, we need to get you to Sister Tabitha. She’ll know what to do.”
“Kat…” he whispered faintly.
“Ssshhh,” she told him, “You’ve lost a lot of blood, save your energy.”
Merrick watched them go, cold fury building within him. One of his companions turned to him. “What do we do now?”
The prince’s fists clenched and unclenched, “We wait until an opportune moment presents itself and then—we get revenge.”