“Elf! Elf! Come here, Elf!” Cook was always yelling at poor Anya. “Where is that girl?”
Anya carried the heavy bucket of water as fast as she could into the kitchen from the outside well.
“There you are! I thought you had run off for sure this time. Well, don’t just stand there, stoke the fire before my supper turns cold!”
Three weeks had passed since the selection process, and Anya knew her duties well. Sweat dripped from her face as she rushed to follow orders. Her sole relief was from the late winter air she relished when going to the well and back.
Kitchen Elf. That’s what she was. The smallest, most invisible worker there, and always underfoot it seemed. Her first day there she spilled three buckets from the well. One was in the kitchen itself! She got a right yelling for that, she did.
“Here’s your water, Cook.” Anya poured the water into a pot on the cooking range and immediately bent over to check on the heat.
Cook ladled some of the water from the pot into her skillet. “My gravy’s almost went hard! You better be faster next time!”
Stoves had to be lit and kept hot from before dawn until after the last meal was cooked in the evening. Water had to be drawn for all the family, servants, and meals. Fifteen or more hours a day, Anya worked as hard as she could. She was always tired, and her hands were blistered and raw. But at least now she knew when to rise, in what order to do her chores, and how not to get yelled at … well, almost. “Elf! Where’s my pot? When I called you to come get it, I expected you to wash it. I need it now! Get to it, Elf!”
Anya quickly washed and rinsed the pot and brought it to Cook before she could get fussed at any further. Just shy of too old to work, Cook was crabby and bitter. Her husband, like so many men of the queendom, had disappeared one day on a mission for the Queen. Rumor was he had been thrown from his horse and killed. They found his house roaming the edges of the town fully dressed and loaded as though her husband had simply gotten off and forgotten to get back on.
Anya went back to her sink. Cook stayed at the range and shouted from over her shoulder, “You’ll have to work this job for at least a year before you can move up.” Oh goody. Another lecture on servitude and how to perform her duties. “I was the kitchen’s Elf for three years before they let me help my Cook. And then another 15 before I became Cook myself!” Cook added some more of the water to the gravy and tasted it. “Ah! Perfect!”
Anya used to complain about her job at home but stopped when her mother started to show concern. Just last night Anya had the pleasure of hearing her mother tell her for the umpteenth time, “I wish you would come back and work with me and your brother in the fields. At least then if you needed help, I would be there. The days are only as long as the sun is up, and you work six in a row, not seven. The Director said you could come back if you wanted to. You wouldn’t be so tired all of the time, and we could talk. You already know everyone else there and would enjoy yourself.”
But Anya didn’t want to go back. She was dry, warm, and well fed. Although her days were longer, she got a lot of time off and still made more each year than working in the fields. She knew her mother was more lonely than worried, but Anya also knew this new job was better for the family and her. Besides, Terrence still worked with their mother, so she wasn’t really alone.
Anya took the empty bucket and put it under her sink before someone tripped over it and then started on the dishes. Scrubbing dishes was hard. Her concrete sink was shallow and low, almost like it was made for a small child. Scantly high enough to allow a bucket to catch the water as it drained underneath, Anya had to bend over the whole time, making it painful to stand up straight when she finished. Then she had to dump out the waste water before rinsing and drying all of the dishes. It was boring and smelly, but no more difficult than her previous position where she bent over weeding half the days.
Stuck in her corner of the kitchen, she was right in the way of anyone needing to use the door to the stairs. Those servants who delivered the trays of food to the royal family passed behind her as they came and went. The work counters met her from the other side, making her feel penned in. The ranges stood behind her, forming a dividing line halfway through the kitchen. Every overflowing pail had to be delicately toted between all the servants at the counter, and all the servants working the ranges. She often wondered why her sink wasn’t next to the entryway. It would make things so much easier!
When the rest of the staff went to eat in their dining room every day after breakfast and lunch, she finished her work alone. This became her cherished part of the day. It allowed her time for a relaxing meal while visiting her friends and reveling in the freedom she now had, or time to just day dream and do the dishes at a leisurely pace while all alone in the kitchen. Now she understood why Taika wanted the job as Librarian. The act of being with one’s self was very freeing.
After Anya finished the last pot for the morning, she hung it on the already loaded adjoining wall. She then grabbed the plate of food on the work counter the other servants had fixed for her and went outside.
The wind promised to turn into rain, and the leaves were budding from the once slumbering trees. Livestock nibbled at the new sprouts in the pastures. Spring was coming soon; she could smell it. The stables weren’t too far of a walk, so she went to talk to Gevin. She liked to watch him work, helping when she could and sharing her meals; but today he wasn’t there.
Wondering where he could be, she walked back to the kitchen, dropping some crumbs for the chickens to eat on her way. Sometimes she could get them to take them from her hand. They especially liked it when she found a fat grub or some other tasty bit. One hen would grab hold of it and sprint ahead of the others, who would in turn see what she had and try to head her off, grabbing the goody from her beak as they ran past. The main rooster would stand still and stare, eyes wide and clucking in a fatherly fashion. Then the group of tacklers would chase the new leader until Anya’s whole lunch break was spent watching hens pass worms.
On occasion, she would imagine her dad coming home. He would tell about being held captive by an evil monster, and that’s why he’d been gone all these years. She would hear how he had broken free, slayed the monster, and brought home its treasures. Then her mom could quit the fields, her brother could be a slayer, and she could … she could … wow. What would she want to be if she could be anything?
She sighed. “Time to get supper ready,” she mumbled. Without an answer to her question, she filled the water barrel and went inside to fuel the fires in the ranges again.
There were three ranges in all, which made for twelve cooking eyes. Usually only one or two of the ranges were used at a time. In addition to the ranges were two giant fireplaces inside the western wall. Their fires were rarely lit for any meal but supper; and even then, only one was ever used. Tonight, they were going to roast one of the Queen’s goats, so Anya began kindling one of the fireplaces for it. Its newborn flames heated her already warm face. She didn’t want to think about what it would feel like in the summertime here.
She cleaned the servants’ dining table and added their dishes to the towering piles already made from the rest of the castle’s lunches. An older girl of about sixteen reached her usual workstation next to Anya. Her solid brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail, though several pieces fell about her. “Don’t worry, Anya. Cook isn’t as bad as you think. She’s just impatient. Once she starts to trust you, she’s a lot better to work for.”
Anya had taken the “Don’t speak unless spoken to” rule seriously. Therefore, this was the first time she had really talked with another member of staff.
“I’m Basil by the way,” the other girl offered after seeing Anya’s hesitation.
“Thanks, Basil. How long have you worked here?”
“Since I was your age. Most of us in here started at your age. I got my promotion to Cook’s Assistant this year. That’s why you got hired on,” she said with a wink. She brought her head closer to Anya’s and whispered, “I plan to get married next year.”
Anya gasped loudly.
“Shh!” Basil made sure no one heard. “We’ll have saved up enough by then. Won’t that be grand? No more working in the kitchens!”
“Does he work for the Queen?”
“Yes. He’s Mason’s Assistant. Mason says he shows real promise and should be able to become Mason himself at the next opening. Won’t that be wonderful?”
Anya smiled and continued her washing. One of Terrence’s friends had worked for a Mason, and he made good money. So that part would be nice for Basil. But marriage? Yeck!
That evening’s dishes were so abounding Anya didn’t have time to eat her second meal. She went straight from pots and pans to after supper plates and utensils, completely unaware when everyone else had left.
“Hey, Anya. You had supper yet?”
Anya jumped, nearly dropping her dish. “Gevin! You scared me to death!” She glanced around the empty kitchen. “Where did everybody go? What time is it?”
“Time to go home, Ahnny.”
“Oh. I can’t. I have to finish these first.”
“Want some help?” He reached for a nearby towel. “Here, I’ll dry.”
He jostled around the kitchen putting up the freshly dried dishes while Anya cleaned them. When she finally finished, she didn’t even bother to rinse off. She simply laid her head onto her arms over the sink and closed her eyes.
Gevin threw his towel on the counter. “Hey. Come on. They left yours on the table.” He gently nudged her and steered her to her plate.
She ate slowly, too tired to enjoy it or even truly feel hunger. Meanwhile, Gevin walked around the kitchen, looking at everything. He poked his head into the servants’ dining room. He sniffed at a pot still sitting on the range top.
When she had emptied her plate, she ran it through some sudsy water, removed her apron, and threw it in the basket of dirty clothes along with Gevin’s towel. Then she sleepwalked to the door, bumping into Gevin every few steps.
The cool night air hit her when she stepped outside. Her lungs sucked it in deeply, awakening her with new energy. “Freedom! Just think. This time tomorrow I’ll be free for a whole week! No rising early, no raw fingers, no bad smells, no yelling. Do you know I had to scrub one pot three times before Cook decided it was clean enough? And then I had to make a new bucket of cleanser, because I was running so low. I got filthy used grease all over me, and half the plates came back with giant chunks of chewed fat on them. It was an utterly disgusting day.”
“At least you didn’t have to play in manure.”
“So that’s where you were! I came by during lunch and couldn’t find you. I didn’t realize it was that time of year already.”
“Remember how we would spread it in the gardens every year?”
“Well guess who gets to collect it. That’s right … me! There’s this huge pile where we put all of it when we clean the stables, and then every winter we take it down to the gardens in carts. I’m glad it’s only once a year! My hands are blistered from all that shoveling, and I seriously think I broke my sense of smell.”
The bricked courtyard was almost barren as they walked across it, then through the arched gateway, and onto the main street. They passed shops, large houses belonging to those of wealth, empty merchant carts, and several dogs scavenging for food. They soon turned onto a side street of less elegant housing. As the buildings got smaller and shabbier, they turned off the stone and onto their hard dirt alley. These homes were more cramped than those nearer to the castle. The thatched roofs often had gaping holes in them. Some of them had been covered with bits of cloth. Others remained uncovered, letting the rain in and the smoke out. Behind these houses was a foul, shallow ditch flowing with the raw sewage that got dumped in it every morning and evening. Every so often the rain would sweep it out a bit, allowing some relief for the residents nearby.
“I remember when these houses weren’t even here.” An old man stood over his cane, hiding in the corner of the hovels.
“What? Did you say something?” Gevin asked Anya but glanced around for the voice’s owner.
“Before the Field, Cupolians covered the land. They only journeyed to the castle when they had a need.” The old man’s nearly blind eyes stared off into space. “No one was hungry then. Any ol’ witch could wave their hands and mend … whatever they needed.” He animatedly waved his hand at a sizable hole in a nearby roof’s house, and then stood there in a trance, neither moving nor speaking.
“Oh, that’s very interesting,” said Anya hesitantly. Gevin started tugging on her arm to leave.
The man tapered off as he spoke once more. “This was a happy place then. It was a happy place … a happy place.”
“Come on.” Gevin gently pulled Anya away. He looked concerned. After they walked for a while, Gevin relaxed enough to talk again. “Crazy old man! What’s he talking about?”
Anya felt sorry for the man, but something he had said made her wonder. “What about all those stories we heard in school? You know, magic?”
“Those are flabbertails! Only wackadoos believe that nonsense!”
“Oh really? Then what’s a flabber?”
“A flabber. If you don’t believe in magic, if it’s all nonsense, then what’s a flabber?”
“It doesn’t matter what a flabber is. All I’m saying is if you go around telling people you believe in that garbage, they’re gonna think you’re as nutty as that old man is. I don’t care if a pink dragon turns you into a fairy, you keep your mouth shut about it.”
Anya knew he was right. She remembered how this one kid got bullied something awful for believing one of those stories from the playground. And come to think of it, that man wasn’t exactly the Cupolian role model for sanity. Maybe it was all a bunch of rubbish.
Several more houses later, Anya and Gevin reached their own. Smoke floated from Anya’s chimney, showing her mother was already home and cooking supper. Even though Anya received her meals for free at work, her mother still had to cook for herself and Terrence.
Gevin stopped at his house on the left, and Anya opened the splintered wooden door to hers on the right. She called over her shoulder, “See ya tomorrow, Gev.”
Anya went inside and closed the door behind her. She tried to announce her presence, but all that came out was, “I’m h—!” before she choked from the smell. Her arm protected her nose and eyes while she surveyed the situation. Terrence was scrubbing his tan arms in a big metal pot of steaming, sudsy brown water, making Anya gag when she saw it.
Her mom was squatting next to the fireplace, stirring a small cauldron of food. “Anya, could you stir this while we wash?”
Anya nodded through watery eyes and took over while continuing to keep her free hand over her nose and mouth. Terrence finished washing his arms and emptied the used pot into the ditch out the back window with a splash. He then filled it with clean hot water. Meanwhile, their mother hung up a dividing sheet, separating the house down the middle. She unfastened her auburn hair with her callused hands and undressed, throwing her filthy clothes over the sheet for Terrence to take and hang outside with his.
The smell of the house was becoming tolerable, yet oddly gross, slowly changing from fresh manure to cooking food. Anya nearly gagged again. “And you wonder why I want to work in the kitchen instead of with you two.”
Her mother smiled understandingly as she lowered herself into the hot water. “I’ll put those clothes in to soak in the morning and wash them when we get home. How was your day, dear?”
“I’m getting better. I have a nice routine now. I didn’t spill or break anything this time. Gevin came by to walk me home and helped me with my final chores. He told me about your day. I’m sorry, but can you see how much better off I am now? I’m even making friends. There’s a real nice girl that works next to me, Basil.”
Her mother scrubbed her tanned and dirty arms with broken fingernails. “I suppose you’re right. I just miss you is all. We’ve been together for so long that…”
Anya knew what she was thinking of, her father’s disappearance. She had gone her whole life trying not to ask any questions. But this time, curiosity overcame her. Her voice was almost too small to hear when she asked, “When did he disappear?”
Her mother dried off, and Anya helped her push the pot through for Terrence. “It’s been eight years now.” Her mother got dressed, fixed herself a bowl of stew, and sat on her and Anya’s bed. Anya saw her eyes begin to water. “At first they thought he had been killed or captured, but—,” a small sniff escaped. “When the months passed by with no word or rumors from anyone anywhere … they presumed him to have run away.” She glanced at the divider before resting her gaze once again upon Anya. Then she laid her spoon in her bowl, and raised her hand to stroke a rogue hair from Anya’s face. “He was proclaimed a coward. Our severance pay was stopped, and I had to go to work in the fields. It was the only place that allowed me to bring the two of you with me.
“Terrence was so young, younger than you are now. They paid him half a day’s wage until he was too old to justify paying him such meager wages anymore.” Her eyes smiled at her daughter with pure love and adoration. “But you. You were even younger. And such a hard worker too! Though they could only push you so much. I still remember the time you got fed up with planting lettuce seeds. You said it wasn’t fair you had to do it solely based on you being the smallest. Then Mr. Spade asked you how else they were going to get into the ground. So you threw them. All over the lettuce patch. At first, he was so angry I just knew he was going to fire us. But when all the other workers started laughing, he finally changed back to his regular color. We had lettuce springing up everywhere that year!”
Anya looked down and smiled. She didn’t remember that. “Why would Dad leave?”
“He didn’t!” Terrence jerked the divider down, wadded it up, and threw it under his bed. His dark, wet hair overshadowed his face even more with his anger. “Dad would’ve never left us! They’re just too friggin’ greedy to pay anymore.”
“Come on, Mom. You know it’s true! If he hadn’t’ve been declared a deserter, then we would still be getting a stipend for him disappearing in the line of duty!”
“Of course, dear. I simply don’t see the need to get all upset about something we can’t change.”
He filled his own bowl with some of the stew. “One of these days we will change it. I’m going to be a slayer and bring home hoards of treasure.”
Anya rolled her eyes. “Terrence, Cupola hasn’t needed a slayer in over twenty years. The only reason we still have Mr. Derelict around is because he hasn’t died yet.”
He attacked his stew with his spoon. “Slayers don’t need Cupola. We work for ourselves.”
“Why do you think I still work in the gardens? The off season gives me time to practice with Bradley and Fergus. Bradley’s got his own sword now and has been training us to be his assistants. I’m going to buy me a sword and learn to use it. Then, we’re gonna find us a troll and take its hoard.”
Their mother’s face took on a stern expression. “I thought you used your off time to cut firewood.”
“Well, yeah, but that only takes up so much of it.”
Their mother gave him a look that clearly said, That firewood better come first!
Anya asked, “And where, pray tell, are you going to find this troll hoard?”
He put down his empty bowl and went to bar the door and close the shutters for the night. “There’s not just trolls. Slayers are licensed to kill any being known to be a nuisance to the queendom, no matter how small that nuisance may be. Aaaannnd, we get to keep their hoards as payment. There’s dragons and narfels and gramwhats and all sorts of things out there waiting for us.”
Anya started rinsing their supper bowls. “Dragons? You’re telling me you believe in dragons?”
“We may not find any dragons, but furry little narfels with their pitiful little underground collections are easy enough to find.”
Anya knew his “slayer” buddies. They were as inexperienced and amateurish as Terrence in that department. No one had ever heard of a real dragon before. They were merely another flabbertail children talked about at recess. And no one complained about being terrorized by narfels, but trying to tell Terrence that was like trying to, well, slay an imaginary dragon.
As Terrence finished talking about all of his ridiculous plans of becoming a famous slayer, Anya changed and slipped into bed. She wanted nothing more than to close her eyes and fall deeply asleep. Sleeping was when the dreams came. Dreams allowed her to be anything: rich, older, younger. She had even flown before. But she couldn’t sleep, not tonight. Something kept running through her mind.
After her mother slipped into bed with her and should have already been asleep, Anya heard a muffled sniffle. “Mom?” There was no answer, but she knew her mother was still awake. “Why would they think Dad ran away? Have other knights run away?”
Her mother sighed and propped herself up. “Yes. It seems more men disappear every year.”
“Have any of them ever come back?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Why doesn’t anyone go after them?”
Her mother sighed, “It is deemed too dangerous by the Queen.”
Anya heard Terrence snort at their mother’s answer.
“Come on, dears,” soothed their mother. “One more day of work, and then we all get a rest.”
“Good night, Mom,” said Anya.
“Yeah, night,” called Terrence.
Sometime later, she wasn’t sure when, Anya’s mind finally slept.