The Secret in the Woods
Pillar Walberg was a perfectly ordinary citizen of Cupola. He paid his taxes on time, played mock sword fights with his son, helped his wife around the house, and was completely wrapped around his little girl’s little finger. He had no intentions of changing his perfect life of ordinariness when he left one morning on his way to work. After kissing his family goodbye and telling them when he would be home, he exited his nice wooden house with its slate roof and two rooms without a worry in the world.
He smiled and waved good morning to his good friends and neighbors, the Wolf’s, before beginning his walk down the awakening stone streets of his Cupolian neighborhood. His pleasant whistle followed him off his small side street and onto the wide stone thoroughfare already filling with merchants, vendors, customers, beggars, and anyone else with an errand to run. There he headed west, towards the castle.
The moment he entered the courtyard through the main gate of the castle walls, he stopped and saluted his superiors, as policy demanded. Although his sudden halt caused several people to bump into him, he properly maintained his rigid stance until allowed to continue on. Afterwards, he habitually dodged a stray arrow from one of the practicing archers, which, unfortunately, knocked over the packages from one of Ms. Schnee’s many shopping trips. Jumping into action, he picked them up for her and carried them to her next destination. This proved to be quite unpleasant because not only did she have dreadful onion breath, but she used it to go into great detail about her collection of small dogs. Finally, his torture concluded, and he was able to traverse the courtyard and exit through the north gate, where he followed the path to the stables.
Pillar was one of Queen Pernicity’s knights. This meant he did anything the Queen deemed appropriate for knightliness. Sometimes he paraded around in shiny armor to make her look special, while other times he stayed close to members of the royal family for protection in case anything should go wrong. Not that it ever did. In fact, Pillar couldn’t remember a single incident of unpleasantness inflicted upon the royal family. Ever. That must include unpleasant tasting food because the only reason Pillar had been sent out this morning was to replace a recently butchered deer that tasted “off”. He thought the Queen a bit ridiculous, but it was not his place to ask questions, only to follow orders.
He entered the long wooden building and found his squire and horse. It wouldn’t be long before his son, Terrence, would be old enough to start training. He would be eight this year, and Pillar already had a small short sword picked out for him. But would he even want to be his squire? Sure, the boy listened to his stories with alert eyes and a gaping mouth, but children’s interests often change as they grow up. As he mounted his gelding and thanked his squire for his work, Pillar decided it didn’t matter what Terrence became, he would make sure his son was the best skilled whatever-he-wanted-to-be in the queendom.
He trotted his horse east, past the riding fields, past the Queen’s gardens, and to the forest’s edge. Once within the trees he slowed to a walk and aimed his horse towards the area the Queen had “recommended” he try today. She had insisted deer caught from that neck of the woods tasted better than from anywhere else. Considering Pillar couldn’t remember there being enough animals in that area to hunt, he had his doubts.
The area was lovely though. It reminded him of the walks he and his wife, Birgit, had taken before they were married, and of the wild grassland where he liked to take his two children to play spoonpole.
His youngest, Anya, was but four years old. A precious child with delicate blonde hair and emerald green eyes, she loved daisies and dirt pies. While he felt for his wife, he chuckled at the thought of what she might be having to put up with today. Just last night he had come home to a disheveled and irate Birgit scrubbing out manure from Anya’s hair. The wee spitfire had sat sulking in the washtub, while her mother chastised her for having yet another fight in the Queen’s cow pasture with a boy from down the street. Pillar smiled at the memory. Yup, Anya was a handful already. He could only imagine what she would turn into.
He neared his hunting spot and dismounted to continue on foot. The morning was still young; dim rays of sunlight could be seen peeking through the canopy. He tiptoed through the quiet woods and kept his breath as shallow as possible, for fear of making a sound. His ears strained to hear the slightest disturbance. He froze when he heard it. But it was no deer. He furrowed his brow in concentration. What was that? Why, it sounded like a woman talking!
He crept toward the noise to investigate. One foot delicately in front of the other, he neared its source and peaked around a holly bush. It was a woman! Well … maybe. If that was a woman, it was the ugliest one he’d ever seen. Not that he would ever be so unknightly as to mention it, of course.
There was a cottage nearby, where she was drawing water from a well, but that didn’t make any sense. Humans didn’t live outside of Cupola, at least according to everything he had ever been taught or heard, unless you counted flabbertails. But flabbertails weren’t real ... were they?
He stayed hidden behind his holly bush and watched the woman take the bucket and carry it towards the cottage behind her. She was talking to someone, he noticed, but he couldn’t see who. “Who in the gramwhats is she talking to?” he whispered aloud.
Just then, as if to answer his question, a small, brown monkey came out from behind the well and joined the woman. She was talking to the monkey. And he was talking back! Not in human speech of course, but they were definitely conversing.
He could take no more. His curiosity getting the better of him, he stepped out from behind the bush and cleared his throat to get her attention. She turned to face him, nonplussed. He had to use all of his might not to gasp and step back in reaction to her appearance. Until now, he had only seen the back of her, wild thin hair and lopsided joints. But the front made “ugly” sound almost kind. One of her eyes was smaller than the other, and her massive nose stuck out like an awkward chimney with a wart on it the size of a baby mouse. Actually, he wasn’t sure it wasn’t a baby mouse.
He caught himself tilting his head and staring at her inquisitively and immediately jerked himself upright. He bowed and announced his name and occupation as was customary when introducing one’s self. “Pillar Walberg, Royal knight of Cup—”
But the woman didn’t let him finish. Instead, she screeched something about the Queen, he couldn’t really be sure what, and then raised a stick up into the air. When she brought the stick down, a bright light blinded him and POP! He was a stag.
It’s difficult to defend oneself when one is a deer. By the time he had enough wits about him to think to run, it was too late. He was in a cage.
His cage rose off of the ground and floated into the cottage. It seemed to be controlled by the stick the woman was holding. He vaguely remembered childhood stories of people with sticks doing odd things, like changing a man into a deer in this case, but only gullible people believed those stories. They were just silly flabbertails. But this was no flabbertail. This was very real and very, very scary.The cage carried him down into a basement where dozens of other cages lined the walls, each containing its own animal. He could only assume they were once human too, like him. The woman with the stick produced a food and water dish for him to eat and drink out of, along with some straw to lie on. He tried talking with the hag, pleading with her, but, being a deer, that didn’t work out too well. The other animals started vocalizing now, filling the room with barks, squawks, squeaks, and growls. The woman walked upstairs and left him alone in his confinement, surrounded by angry caged beasts. And so there he stayed, his ordinary life made extraordinary without any further explanation as to what happened or why.
Anya yanked at her caught hair. Wasn’t she old enough not to have to do this anymore? “Ick! Stupid prickleberries!” She dropped the plump green berry into her basket.
“I can’t wait … ugh … until tomorrow … OUCH!” She jerked her finger back. A drop of blood oozed out of where a thick thorn stuck out. She pinched the end of the thorn with the fingernails of her other hand, tight enough to not let loose, but tender enough not to snap it in two. Left alone, prickleberry thorns eventually wormed their way to the bone, where they took root and made the invaded appendage shrivel and fall off. The last thing Anya’s family needed was fewer hands to work the fields. She pulled the thorn free and flicked it aside.
“Anya dear, are you ready?” her mother called.
Anya raised her head over the top of the bush to see what she had left. Just one more prickleberry bush to go and she was done! “Almost,” she answered.
Eight years had passed since her father’s disappearance. Eight years of Anya, her mother, and brother working Queen Pernicity’s blasted fields. Anya pushed away into the depths of the last bush and began picking at its remains.
She’d always wondered why things had turned out the way they did. Her family didn’t have to work in the fields when she was younger. They used to have a happy life with good food and fun times. Now the only time they had good food was during the harvest season. Speaking of which, Anya twirled one of the prickleberries between her fingers and then popped it into her mouth. It squirted the insides of her cheeks with a satisfying burst. She allowed herself to close her eyes and relish the flavor before diving back into the spiky leaf-monster one last time, an accurate description as the thorns felt like teeth, giving her the sensation of being eaten alive.
Was this what happened to her father? Had he found a bush somewhere and been eaten by it? Of course not, she thought. What a silly idea.
She desperately wanted to know more about him, like why or how he left, but asking had always made her mother so upset that Anya had learned not to. All she remembered was one day they had to move across town into a smaller house in a smellier neighborhood and go to work, all three of them.
“There.” She plopped the last handful of berries on the last day of harvest into her basket and called out to her mother, “I’m done!” She wriggled her way out of the branches, yanking her hair free from their thorns as she went. She placed her basket in the cart with the others’ gatherings and waited in line with her family for her pay.
“’Bout time!” Terrence said. “I’m sleeping in till noon tomorrow.”
“Are you going to cut firewood again this winter?” their mother asked him.
“Yeah. I’ve already got a couple lined up for next week.”
“Can I help again?” Anya asked. Being younger and smaller, she wasn’t the best helper, and she knew it, but she certainly tried.
“Yeah.” Terrence sounded more like he giving in than appreciative.
Anya rubbed her dry, scratched and salty skin. They had been there since the first rays of sunlight, the dewy ground sticking to their feet, and the air making their skin clammy. She always relished the morning’s coolness, because she knew what the afternoon brought.
She wiped the sweat out of her brows before it could sting her eyes and peered over her shoulder at the now barren plants. She remembered her first day as a field worker. Since she was the youngest, they gave her the worst jobs there. She had to poke the seeds into the ground so the adults wouldn’t have to bend over so much. They forced her to pick the tiniest weeds missed from when they went by with their hoes. They had seemed to think it was easier for her since she was so much smaller. At least she didn’t have to do that anymore. They still made her gather the last berries though. She jerked her fingers through her sap and juice encrusted hair. “Ick! I’ll never get this out of my hair!”
“Yes you will,” her mother said. “I’ll help you wash it.”
The line moved forward, making it her family’s turn to get paid. Anya bit back a snarl as the overseer dropped her measly few coins into her palm. She was still getting paid less than the adults, just because she was younger. It wasn’t fair, but it’s not like she had a choice in the matter. Unless she could make money on her own elsewhere, she, along with every other Cupolian in the same boat, would remain reliant on the Queen’s needs. And the only place the Queen needed Anya and her family this year, and every other year it seemed, was in the fields.
Anya put the coins in her pocket. Most of their pay would go to the family’s present necessities. The rest would go into savings for the winter, when they didn’t get paid. What odd jobs they could find, like Terrence’s cutting firewood, helped, but it didn’t cover everything.
Hints of the coming evening brushed against them in a breeze on their way home. It brought with it smells of cooking meals. “What’s for supper tonight, Mom?” asked Terrence.
“Dumplings and beets,” answered their mother.
Anya swirled her tongue into the depths of her mouth, trying to savor what was left of the prickleberries. They’d had dumplings and some type of root vegetable every night this week, but she knew her mother did the best she could. Even Terrence didn’t complain, though Anya had heard him grunt when their mother had answered.
As their small, one-roomed home came into view, Anya had a passing memory of her old house: the bigger and better house, the one with her father. She tried not to think of those memories. His face grew hazier every year, and that just made her sad.
But this year was going to be different though, she told herself with an upturned chin. This year she turned twelve, and something special happened to children who turned twelve in Cupola.
For one, they didn’t have to go to school anymore and learn all those “important” things, like how to work numbers and count money so they could figure their taxes for Queen Pernicity and the Royal Court. For another, they got to take part in Selection Day. That thought put an immense grin on Anya’s face, because Selection Day was her ticket out of those fields!