That night was a long one. I was anxious for the next day so I fell asleep much later than normal. I was also disturbed by many dreams.
From when I was a baby till the age of ten I was raised by a widow, a very harsh widow for a fact. She occasionally beat me when she was really mad but if I worked hard enough then she would leave me be. So now, I know how to work till there was not an ounce of strength left in me. I did not hate her but I feared her. When I found my father and left the widow to help him, I tried to bury the fear. I thought it had worked, but every night when my mind was vulnerable the fear would resurface and present itself in the form of nightmares.
I would relive the past in those few seconds. But there was always someone saving me in each dream. I could never see his face clearly but he was always there. And he made my nights endurable.
So that night I had the same nightmares that haunted each sleep. When I woke, the sun was barely peeking over the distant mountains. I saw the sun and panicked. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be at the castle exactly at sunrise, during, or a little afterwards. So then I worried that maybe I was going to be late. I leaped from my mat and quickly combed my long hair. I splashed my face with water and then quickly made myself and my father some oatmeal. I woke my father and attempted to feed him the food but that was taking too long. I kept glancing outside as the sun slowly rose. Then Hannah came to my rescue as usual and took the spoon with her fragile hands and motioned for me to leave. I grabbed my satchel and raced from the house calling for Sabir at the top of my lungs. It turned out he was all ready as well as Tashina who even had her saddle on. I guessed it was Hannah who had gone the extra mile today. I stumbled down the hill in my hurry. Then I jumped into the saddle and kicked Tashina’s side. She whinnied in annoyance, “I know what I need to do here! No need to kick like those fools who treat their guardians like garbage!”
I winced, “I am sorry. I am just in such a hurry! Please run as fast as you can!”
“As you wish darling!”
I wasn’t quite prepared for the sudden jerk she gave so I nearly flopped over her rump. But I quickly reassembled myself and somehow managed to pull myself forward meanwhile squinting against the rushing air. Whenever we went galloping we always ran through lots of wind maidens. They would usually get quite angry, but they knew the occasion so they tried to move out of the way or actually run with us so that we were faster.
Tashina didn’t exactly know the way so Sabir led her through the confusing forest paths and onto the larger common dirt road. From there she knew the way. We swept into the city, a tidal wave of wind maidens, animals, and speed. The streets were still fairly empty but we were going so fast we nearly ran into one of the only people in the street. Tashina slowed only a little. She continued to gallop through the streets just not at a mind blowing speed. We made it to the castle just as the sun was at its halfway point over the mountain. I swung off Tashina. The stable boy, a tall dark haired boy with black skin and a crooked smile took her. I half walked half ran up the palace steps with Sabir at my heels. The same man who had told me about the job in the first place met me at the door as though he’d been waiting for me and only me. He hurried me down the halls and into the throne room, where the King, Queen, Prince and new Princess waited.
I kept my eyes to the ground and tried not to stare at any of them but I wanted so badly to see the Princess’ face. I bowed to the ground. The King told me to rise, “Rise young one.” And so I did. While I was standing I glanced up at the Princesses face. What I saw shocked me to the core. It was the ugliest face I had ever seen. Her styled hair was very dirty blond and almost looked gray. Her lips were thin and her mouth was small with two large teeth that reminded me of a rabbit. But then her eyes, they were huge, far too big for her small heart shaped face. Her nose was long and pointy and so thin it looked like a small spear sticking out where her nose was supposed to be. As for the rest of the royal family they were all quite good looking with very perfect features.
I had to take it all in, in only a few seconds because then the Prince required my attention. He smiled warmly at me, “Greetings, Willow of… of…” He paused embarrassed, “I am sorry, I have forgotten your title. This does not usually happen. May I inquire as to what it is?”
My face turned red, “Uh, well I do not really have a title. That would be why you do not remember, I am only a poor country girl.”
The Prince raised his dark eyebrows, he let out a long breathy, “Ahhhhhhh... My apologies, I did not realize that. But you are Willow, are you not?”
“Yes” I was somewhat confused at this point as to why the Prince was doing all the talking and the King was sitting in the background.
“Good. I have heard so much about you and your servants’ heart from my right hand man here.” He motioned to the right of him where a man very familiar, stood with a harp slung over his shoulder. He looked more like a minstrel then an advisor. His hazel eyes sparkled with mischief as he nodded deeply to me.
I was dumbstruck and in shock as I realized he was the man from the square. I barely managed to curtsy for him. Why is he here if he hates the royal family so much? I asked Sabir telepathically.
I heard a slight growl behind me, “He must have some plans! Maybe he’s a spy or assassin undercover.”
“We must reveal his plans! But I know not how!”
“Either way, we shall not do it now, you have not even gotten the job yet.”
A smile tugged on the man’s mouth and laughter filled his eyes. Then I noticed that my mouth was wide open and my eyes were bulging out of their sockets. The Princess snickered but quickly covered her mouth. My face turned red once again and I quickly turned my attention back to the royal family. The Prince looked slightly confused, “Do you two know each other?”
I opened my mouth to reply but the man spoke before I could utter a single word, “Yes, but we are mere acquaintances.”
The Prince nodded and then turned to the Princess. As soon as his eyes found hers, they melted like butter. Seeing that look in his eyes made me feel as though I were in love with the Princess as well, “This is Princess Stephanie.” When the Prince said her name it sounded as though it was the most precious thing that had ever existed. I almost believed it, “You will be her personal servant from now on. You will keep her company when I am gone and you will help with anything she needs help with. Do you understand?”
I nodded, “Yes your majesty.”
The Prince smiled and then turned to the man behind me. I was surprised he had been standing there all along.
“Elisha, my messenger, will take you on a tour of the palace grounds. Pay careful attention. As soon as you are done you must report to the Princess’ chambers. Is that clear?”
“Yes, your majesty” I said again.
“You are dismissed.”
I curtsied low and left the room. As soon as we were out of sight Elisha turned to me and offered his hand, “I am sorry I have not had time to introduce myself properly, I am Elisha Winstok, His Royal Majesty the King’s messenger. If you ever need help with anything I would be more than willing to help you, though I will be gone quite often. May I inquire as to how you know Lance Regen?”
I paused and looked at him suspiciously. A kind smile lit up his blue eyes and crinkled the corners. He seemed nice enough, “Um, I met him the other day in the town square. Was he not the one that recommended me?”
“Yes, he was…” Elisha frowned deeply, “You must’ve made quite an impression. He’s very harsh when it comes to picking friends or even recommending someone.”
Elisha winked and smiled irresistibly. I couldn’t help but smile back and blush at the same time. He was very handsome and charming. He had long, blond, curly hair, it looked so soft and bouncy, I felt a sudden urge to run my hands through it. I shook my head and tried to pay close attention to the places he was showing me instead of his hair.
He took me through the kitchen and introduced me to the head cook. She was fat and jolly just like cooks should be. I liked her very much, but I could never remember her name no matter how many times she told me. It was something long and funny sounding. Sabir didn’t like her very much at all. As soon as we walked into the kitchen the cook dropped her tools and ran to give Sabir a huge suffocating hug. Sabir growled and tried his best to release himself from her grip but she held him until he finally nipped her lightly. And even then she thought it was his way of showing affection. After that Elisha showed me where the royal chambers were and where the princess slept. Then he took me to the gardens, through the court yards and to the stables. I saw Tashina in one of the stables. Her eyes brightened when she saw me, “Did you get the job?”
I winked slyly, “I certainly have the job and on top of that, this charming man that is giving me the tour, I really like him.”
“Well that seems quite delightful!”
I nodded and blushed.
Elisha looked at me, “I want you to meet our stable boy, Bavol.” He turned away from me and cupped his hands over his mouth, “Bavol!”
Almost immediately a boy, maybe sixteen or seventeen, with black skin, violet eyes and black hair peeked around the corner of the stable building. I smiled shyly at him. Bavol stepped out and offered his hand, “Hullo lady, I am Bavol.”
I took his hand and he kissed it very lightly, “Welcome to the palace. I am sure we’ll become great friends.”
I grinned, “I would like that.” I blurted and then blushed thinking the words sounded bold.
He nodded and winked, “As would I.”
Elisha rolled his eyes and pulled me gently away, “Now don’t go falling for his fatal charms.” And then he added as soon as we were out of hearing proximity, “But no doubt, he’ll make one very loyal and helpful friend. So making alliances with him will certainly do you good. Now come along. There is much more to see before lunch break.”
We toured the rest of the castle and then Elisha took me to the kitchen for a quick lunch. As we walked into the doors I heard angry cursing and plates smashing. Elisha heard it too. He took a defensive step in front of me. Sabir seemed angry that Elisha was taking his position, “Tell him that is not his place. He can flirt with you all he wants but he can’t take my position to protect you!”
I smacked the side of Sabir’s head, “Flirt?!”
“Of course, you’d have to be a great fool not to tell he’s trying to impress you!”
Elisha looked over his shoulder, “Would you mind waiting here while I check to see what’s going on?”
I nodded. Elisha opened the door and the shouting became clear. I could hear an angry woman’s voice along with the slightly familiar scared voice of the cook. Elisha closed the door behind himself but I opened it and peeked in.
I saw a tall thin woman dressed like a wild native warrior from the forests picking up plates and chucking them furiously at the cook’s head. The cook barely managed to duck in time. The wild woman was shouting something in a strange foreign language. Suddenly she grabbed a knife from her belt and rushed towards the cook. Elisha leaped to action. He threw himself in the woman’s path and bulldozed her over smashing her into a wooden cupboard. The woman’s eyes were wide with surprise but that didn’t stop her. She raised her knife to stab him. Elisha grabbed her arm and swung the woman around him, throwing her into a bucket of soapy dish water. She screamed and cursed, slapping the wet floor with her open palm.
Then she spoke in a language I could understand, “Elisha you foolish idiot! I want to kill that wench! I want to tear her apart limb from limb! Why do you stop me every time? I loathe you!”
Elisha chuckled and helped her up, “You will for sure face severe punishment if you kill the best cook in the realms.”
Then he looked towards the door and smiled at me, who was staring wide eyed and mouth open, “Come in Willow. It’s safe now.”
I opened the door and stepped carefully on the slippery floor. Elisha moved to help me. The woman narrowed her eyes dangerously, a jealous streak flashed through her eyes. I blushed and looked away from those murderous eyes. Just for a second her eyes flickered down to Sabir’s much more effective burning glare. She jumped slightly and returned to glaring at me. Elisha saw the glare and smacked the woman lightly across the cheek, “No need to be rude. This is the princess’s new personal maid, Willow.” Then he turned to me and winked, “Willow, this is a frequent visitor to the royal family. You will be seeing each other quite often so I suggest you get off to a good start.”
I curtsied and forced the best possible smile I could render onto my frightened face. Bayanai glanced from Elisha to me and then nodded very stiffly, “I’ll do the best I can under the circumstances.”
“Under what circumstances?” Elisha asked.
“You’re blind Elisha, blind!” Bayanai said and then turned and left us pondering her words.
Elisha led me from the Kitchen, “Please don’t mind her. Just be somewhat submissive and she’ll be satisfied. Just don’t be too submissive then she’ll for sure take advantage of you. As long as you are under Sabir’s protection she won’t dare to lay a hand on you. So I recommend keeping him at your side at all times.”
I thought of the wild, murderous look in that woman’s eyes and shuddered. I took a handful of Sabir’s soft fur in my hand. He let me. I quickly changed the subject, “Speaking of guardians, where is yours?”
“Mine is a grizzly bear and he’s outside at the moment. He unfortunately doesn’t fit in the halls of this castle very well, with all the other traffic.” Elisha chuckled, “He’s a huge softy but he scares the wits out of most people.”
I shivered thinking of the huge animal. I preferred somewhat smaller animals. Big ones had always scared me, even horses, until I got one.
Elisha led me through many halls and then up a flight of twisting stairs and then through more halls. By the time we made it to our destination, I was breathless. Elisha chuckled and led me by the hand towards a specially designed door, “Don’t worry, I’ll be here the first week to help you find your way in the mornings. From then on the Princess was willing enough keep you by her side and let you live in the castle with her.”
I froze and jerked my hand from his, “Live here?”
Elisha glanced down at my hand, “Uh, yeah? You should be happy to receive such an offer.” He looked up at my face with quizzical brow, “Is something wrong?”
I blushed, “No! I would be honored to live in this castle! But there is a predicament… My father, he is mentally ill and he needs my attention, especially during the evenings…”
Elisha’s eyes brightened, “Well then my dear Willow, we shall have to make accommodations for your father here as well. The Princess, I am sure, will be thrilled. She has such a kind heart!”
My heart fluttered at his use of ‘my dear’. I blushed once again. I think I must’ve blushed more than I ever have in my whole life, in just that one day. He saw my blush and smiled mischievously.
I looked down at the floor, “But what about our lot of land out in the country! I could not bear to sell it!”
Then a soft melodic hypnotizing voice spoke, “I will send my gardeners to tidy it up every week. And it will not be sold.”