To the north lays a dark, mist-shrouded mountain. It bends and twists its crooked way toward the sky, reaching for the unachievable. At its base stand sentries, broad, needled pines among taller spruce, each vying for a spot in the weak sunlight that makes its way past the mountain. They cover the ground in fallen needles, cloaking the earth in a blanket of spiny pins.
It's a lonely place, a place for someone broken or someone lost. Someone cast out by whatever family they never knew, abandoned, perhaps in the midst of the dark woods, or at the gates of a castle, like me. I used to wish I could have met my parents, known where I came from, who I was descended from. Then I realized that whoever they were got rid of their newborn child simply for the sake of not wanting her. If they’d truly loved me, they’d have made it work, no matter how little money they had.
Here, in this rusted-out keep, no one knows love’s name. The king pretends to love the queen, and she him. They need the money from the alliance their marriage wrought. The servants, they keep an eye out for their own. They feel no love for a vagrant like me. The knights are too busy, above those of my position in every way. Even the kitchen staff rank higher than castle wards. They make that abundantly clear.
I suppose I do have one friend, if he can be called that. Edgar, the crippled old man who trains the knights, took me in one day. He taught me to swim, to read and write, and most importantly, how to blend in. My pale hair and smoky eyes stand out amongst the wispy-built castle folk, their luscious dark locks and jewel-like eyes. It’s often a point of contention for me, the differing looks and strange, sturdy body the gods gave me. It’s clear I’m not from anywhere near here; a foreigner, and I’m treated as such, I fear.
Once, after a maid tripped me in the hall, Edgar helped me up. He told me to watch for the stray feet, the look in someone’s eye that means they’re up to something. He said not to worry, after a few tries, dodging them would be easy. Problem is, that was never the part that hurt me.
I often looked up at the mountain shading our castle, wondered what was out there. Were there more like me, or was I alone? Were there perhaps dark-haired people elsewhere being ridiculed for their differences or were they simply superior to me? It usually worked to relax me, calm me down. I used to take a deep breath and hold it for as long as I could, then let it all out in a big rush, letting go of my fears and anger. I would feel my heart lighten and know that the day was possible, that I’d be fine for another few hours and then I could rest, lay down in my short, lumpy bed and sleep until morning.
With morning came a new day, and new tortures, but they were never all that bad. Life certainly was simpler back then. No panic, or struggle, just me, my work, and a whole lot of people. That all changed the day the princess sent me to get bread.
The castle was particularly poor, a fact they sought to hide from the townsfolk. And failed to. They bought their bread from a little shop just outside of town. Half the hut was filled with a massive brick oven, white stained yellow from years of smoke, wear, and aging. The other half was counter space. I didn’t know a person in town who didn’t buy their bread from there, save old Aggie, who made her own. They had every type of bread, in every color of the rainbow. Little yellow turmeric buns spiced with cinnamon and cloves, big fluffy white ones perfect for sandwiches, crusty brown ones made with molasses. My favorites were always the ‘everything’ loaves, the ones with bits of nuts and seeds and dried fruit poking out, everything in the shop they felt like adding. Each bite was a new flavor, another adventure. I could have eaten nothing but those for the rest of my life and been perfectly content.
That day, the order came down from the head chef that the bread boy (yes, they had someone just for the bread) was sick, and the princess, when asked what to do about it, had flippantly called for the ward to be sent instead. That was my name here, ‘the ward’. Not Rose, not even one of the insulting names I was sometimes called, simply the ward. I took it, like everything else they threw at me, unhappy but unable to speak out. If I was to be the ward, I was going to be good at it. So I went to fetch the bread.
I arrived at the shop just as they were opening. My bag of coins was ready, the most money I’d held in my entire life. A squat, wide wagon waited just around the corner, set to trundle the bread up the slight rise to the castle. I, of course, was first in line, chipper and excited to complete the first mildly interesting thing I’d had to do in weeks. The big spruce door squeaked open, hinges protesting, then hit the far wall with a little too much force. BAM! I flinched back, set my shoulders, looked square in the eye of the portly woman behind the door, held out my bag of coins, which I knew would be more than enough for the appropriate amount of bread, and called, “Twelve of your finest, ma’am.”
She frowned, glowered at the bag I handed her. “Where’d you get all this coin?” Her voice was harsh, accusatory.
“The castle. I’m supposed to be buying bread.” That was obvious. I cringed mentally.
“Huh. Kid like you don’t need all this.”
“It’s not mine, ma’am. It’s royal funds, for bread.”
“The royals don’t have no funds. Broke as a leaky bucket.” Her eyes got that glint in them, the one Edgar had taught me to watch out for. I reached for the money.
“If you’re not going to give me any bread, I think I’ll take that back now.”
“Ah, take what back?” By now, a small-ish crowd had gathered, waiting for their morning bread. One woman was tapping her foot impatiently. They all seemed to be watching our exchange. “You folks!” the bread woman called, “you never saw this kid with no money, did’ja?”
“Aye, aye, she never had none,” one man said. His words garnered a chorus of ’aye’s and nods. She narrowed her eyes, set them on me like a pair of hunting dogs.
“You heard the man. This ain’t’cha money. It’s mine now, ya hear?”
“No, ma’am, I’m afraid it’s not mine. It’s the king’s money and he’d like to exchange it for some bread.”
“Who’s he gonna believe?” She leaned in close, breath like daggers pervading my senses. Onions and a must of spices hung on it. Eyes little, like a pig’s. Or maybe a bear. “You little foreigner? Or a bunch of trust-worthy, god-faring folk who’ve lived here years longer than you? At least we look like we belong here.”
I gave her a long stare. She seemed convinced she’d win this. If the king thought I’d been stealing, this could end badly. He’d have to be pretty stupid not to see through these people, but I didn’t want to take any chances. There might not be another way, though. I steeled myself, leaned in slowly so she wouldn’t notice me encroaching, and snatched the bag back from her. Or tried to, anyway. Her other arm shot out of nowhere to grab my neck, big, meaty hand wrapping around the delicate skin, forcefully pressing me back, lifting at the same time. I choked, fingers prying at hers’. I could feel her grip loosening, but choking me didn’t seem to be her primary purpose. She shoved me backwards and I stumbled into a tall, middle-aged man. He frowned down at me.
“She tried to assault me! Did anyone see that?” bread woman was gleeful, mouth splitting into a triumphant grin. She was a terrible liar, but definitely angry at me. I felt y face go slack with disbelief, then fear. They had cause to harm me now. I could hear the crowd muttering angrily.
Someone yelled, “grab her!” and I ran, feet slipping on the dusty, pitted track, leaving the squat trolley that was entirely too large for twelve loaves of bread behind. I could only hope I’d be shown more understanding at the castle.
Unfortunately, life got in the way. The head chef cracked me over the head with a wooden ladle when he heard the news, then went off to find someone who could punish me properly. I went to find Edgar.
“This might be the last time I get to see you,” I said, looking down. The blank, fresh plot met my eyes, dirt newly placed. The only flowers were the ones I’d placed on it last month, just like the three before it. I knew it was important to say goodbye, but I couldn’t seem to find the words. Instead, I forced a swallow past the brick in my throat, turned, and set off to face my misplaced judgement.
There was no jury. No executioner thankfully, but there was a judge. The king himself had dragged his weary bones from bed and sat regally in his tall chair. I hesitate to call it a throne. It was more of a glorified bench with arm rests. He had even put on his best robe. The cook complained extensively, ushered in a woman I recognized from the crowd at the bread shop, and left her to it. The bread woman herself never bothered to show up. It didn’t matter. The king was lenient and suggested banishment.
The cook wanted me killed. The woman wanted me tortured. What did I ever do to them? I could feel tears, hot and angry, well up at the unfairness of it all. I swallowed again, my neck still sore from the crushing grip it had recently endured. All my willpower was centered on my stoic refusal to let one tear drop. They wouldn’t get the pleasure. My face felt itchy and hot, and I knew it was red, patchy, the picture of an ugly, guilty convict in their eyes. Blinking furiously, all I could do was turn and leave as the king stated, cool and without emotion, “Banishment. Duration; all eternity. Now get her out of my sight.”
Guards dragged me away, seemingly happy about it. I didn’t try to struggle. My head hung heavy, anger and frustration making my feet leaden. I trudged past the gates, out over the rise, away from the castle and the village. I wouldn’t go through town. They wouldn’t see me beaten. Not if I had anything to do with it. I turned back just once, but I couldn’t see the castle through the trees. No matter. It hadn’t been a home, not really. Maybe it was back when Edgar was alive, but it hadn't felt that way for a while. “Bye, Edgar,” I sighed. So long to my only friend, the only world I'd ever known.