Chapter One: I Pull The Stunt Of A Lifetime
Twang! The snap of the guard’s bowstring rings throughout the stadium. The arrow flies through the air, straight and true. For one wild second, I think this it. This is how it will end. I just have time to think, Fifteen is too young to die, before the arrow finds its mark, burying itself up to the shaft—in the dirt between my feet.
I heave a sigh of relief. Safe. I take a step forwards, towards my brothers, before my brain registers the snapping. It sounds almost like an echo of the first arrow loosed, but louder. Three more arrows sprout from the ground in front of my boot as a forth whizzes over my shoulder. Either these guards have terrible aim or they’re trying to make a point.
“Halt!” I look up, searching the packed stands for the speaker. “Don’t take another step!”
It’s one of the guards, but his uniform is slightly different. It’s the same navy blue with red piping and the crossed swords emblazoned in gold over the heart, but a bright crown has been stitched above the swords. His sword’s sheath is a little more intricate and the cap perched on his head identifies his rank: captain of the royal guard.
“Drop your weapon!”
Weapon? I haven’t got a weapon, unless you count the wooden sword I used during the tournament. If it was in my hand, I would let it fall in a heartbeat, but the trouble is, it’s already lying on the ground near the weapon’s rack, right where I discarded it to free my hands for climbing.
I stand there, frozen, unsure what to do. The captain steps a little closer to me, edging his way down the stands and putting himself in front of the royal family. He has an entire squadron of armed men ringing the stadium, ready to shoot me down as soon as he gives the word, but he looks…nervous.
Movement to my right catches my eye. I turn my head in time to see a young man, maybe a couple of years older than me, shoulder his bow. He’s the last armed person in the stadium to ready his weapon and looks supremely unconcerned. As he knocks an arrow, the sun glints off something in his hair. A golden laurel, one of the two promised to the champions of the tournaments. He must be the winner from the village next to mine.
With barely a glance in my direction, he releases the arrow. It flies straight at me, but just like the others, it does me no harm. Instead, it collides with the stick clutched in my right hand, ripping it from my grasp. The arrow continues on its way to the earth. It sticks out from the dirt, quivering, as the shattered remains of the stick scatter on the ground.
Oh. That weapon. Right.
It had seemed like such a great plan: whip out a stick, declare myself a witch, and claim the golden laurel as the winner of the tournament. It certainly got the other girls to back off right quick. Unfortunately, the royal guard decided that my lie was actually a threat to the royal family.
Maybe I should have taken into account that fact that witches are always evil, before I convinced the entire audience that I am one. If I really were a witch, maybe I could jump through time, rewind to the safety of ten minutes ago. But I can’t, because I’m not.
I may be incapable of traveling through time, or performing any other magic, but my mind still flashes back to yesterday, before any of this happened.
l l l
My life is changed forever by the short man’s arrival outside my family’s door. He looks like a pompous pig someone stuffed into a suit. Will, still muddy from earlier today, opens the door cautiously. None of us has ever seen someone so richly dressed. The man brandishes a letter with the king’s seal on it.
I’m out in the garden, sword fighting with Tom, my oldest brother. I’m dressed in a shirt and pants that Will has outgrown and have dirt smeared on my face. Tom and I are using the wooden swords our father made us.
“Keep your guard up!” I say to Tom, slapping him with the flat of the blade. “No, not that far up.”
I smack him again. He lunges for me, but I dance away, twirl in a circle, and dart behind him. Smack. Tom may be two years older than me, but I’m far better with a sword.
“Ahem!” the man says, trying to attract our attention.
“Hey! Get over here you two!” Will shouts.
I turn away from Tom, noticing the man for the first time. While I’m distracted, Tom hits me with his sword. I fall into the mud, laughing. In a flash, I’m back on my feet and sparring with Tom again.
Will sighs. “Just a moment,” he tells the man. Then he walks over and stands in between us, preventing further fighting. “We have a guest.”
I wipe some mud off my cheek, making the smear worse. “Okay, okay. Tom, I clearly won that.”
“No you didn’t!”
“Yes, I did.”
“Children!” Papa calls.
He and Mama are standing in the doorway. Tom, Will, and I trudge over to them. Hattie peers around Mama’s legs. Hattie is seven, and she’s terrified of strangers (and just about everything else). The man gives my brothers and me a dirty look before clearing his throat. He gives his paper an important little shake and begins to read.
“Every girl and boy who has seen at least fourteen summers—but not more than twenty-five—is invited to attend a contest,” he says. “Her Royal Highness the Princess Avaysia Rosalind Christiana Regalda needs an escort to her imperial wedding to his Majesty Prince Alexander Nathan Peter Corona, the firstborn son of His Excellence, King Louis of Flumen. At the tournament, the contestants will battle each other, and the winners will be the escorts.”
He blathers on and on about what a huge honor it is, but I’m more interested in the gold that the escorts will receive upon their return. My family could definitely use some spare money. We aren’t destitute, but a little extra never hurt. And besides, if the princess needs protection, then they are looking for people who are competent with a weapon. I can best almost any of my friends in a swordfight, though quite a few of them won’t admit it.
“When is this?” Papa asks.
“Tomorrow at noon,” the man announces. “I shall see those who are eligible there.”
With that, he turns and marches off down the road. Tom and Will look at each other. Their faces split into huge grins.
“We can so win this!” Tom shouts.
“We’ll be famous!” Will cries.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” I ask.
They look at me. “What?”
“I can beat both of you!” I exclaim.
“Sounds like you’ve got some competition,” Mama says.
“They don’t want a scrawny fifteen year old,” Will replies.
I pull my sword out and smack the top of his head with it. “First of all, I’m not scrawny.” I turn on Tom and use my sword to sweep his feet out from under him. He hits the ground. Hard. I repeat the move on Will before he has a chance to get away. “And secondly, they said anyone over fourteen summers. Why would they say that if they didn’t want someone my age?”
I sheath my sword and extend my hands to my brothers. Instead of using them to pull themselves to their feet, they jerk me forwards. We roll through the mud, wrestling and laughing.
Mama sighs and walks back into the house. “Dinner is in fifteen minutes.”
“Yeah!” Hattie adds, her only contribution to the conversation so far.
“And the Grim Reaper is coming in five!” Will tells her.
Hattie squeals and races inside, calling for our mother. She’s so gullible.
“So are you really going to go?” Will asks me.
“Course I am. Just cause I’m a girl doesn’t mean I can’t fight. And I have a secret weapon.”
“Oh?” Tom says. Will just rolls his eyes.
“Yup. I can do this!”
I put my hands on the ground and kick my feet into the air. I walk around on my hands until Tom pushes me over. I hit the ground rolling and pop back to my feet. I’m about to tackle him when Mama comes back outside, Hattie clutching at her skirt and clinging to her hand.
“Go and wash up for supper,” she tells us. “You might want to use the river. And will you please tell your sister there is no such thing as the Grim Reaper?”
“Aw, Hattie, I was just pulling your leg,” says Will.
“Nuh-uh! You never touched me!” she insists.
“Sweetie, ‘pulling your leg’ means that someone is tricking you,” Mama explains.
Hattie sticks her tongue out at Will and buries her face in Mama’s dress. “He’s mean,” she whines.
“Go,” Mama says, waving Tom, Will, and me off. “I’ve got to finish getting dinner. Hattie, would you like to come help me?”
We head off for the stream that runs through the town. While we’re washing away the mud, Thomas, a friend from the village, comes running up. He’s out of breath and grinning wildly.
“Hey, girlfriend!” he says, all tease and playfulness, bumping his shoulder into mine.
“Hi,” I say, bumping him back.
I’ve never been like the other girls in my village. When we were all little, they leaned to make cornstalk dolls, while my father taught me to read. When the other girls advanced to cooking and cleaning, my brothers took me out to the woods and taught me to hunt and fish. While the girls were taught embroidery, I was starting fires and climbing trees. By the time they had started giggling about boys, I was an accomplished swordsman and agile enough in the woods to be taking lessons from squirrels and deer.
Annie, Thomas’s actual girlfriend, runs up behind him, tripping over her cumbersome skirts. She glares at me, as though it’s my fault Thomas calls me “girlfriend”, that he so casually bumps into me when his movements are always carefully calculated around her. I stare straight back, knowing my violet eyes will make her uncomfortable. Everyone finds them so.
“Did you hear?” Thomas asks. “About the princess?”
“Yes,” Will replies.
“Are you going to compete?” Tom says.
“Of course! Are you guys?”
“Yes,” Will answers.
“Definitely,” Tom agrees.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I chime in.
“You’re going?” Annie asks.
“No. It isn’t really my thing. Thomas is going to win for me, though.”
She gives him a sappy sort of smile that he misses completely. He’s too intent on demanding more information.
“Is she really going?” Thomas asks Will, gesturing to me.
“Yeah. You scared you’re gonna get beaten by a girl?” he replies.
I love it when my brothers stick up for me. Usually we’re knocking each other into the dirt, but when it counts, like when the other boys refused to let me tag along, they’re always there for me. When the ringleaders of the group stopped coming around, the others let me come along fast enough. Once they got used to the idea of running wild with a girl in their midst, there was never any doubt that I was one of them
“No. Why would I be scared of a scrawny thing like her?”
I scoop up a handful of dirt and throw it at him. He ducks and sprints away. I chase after him.
“Coward!” I call. “Next time I throw something at you, they’ll be geraniums!”
Thomas is very allergic to geraniums, a fact that made for a hilarious afternoon when Annie picked him a bouquet of flowers, which happened to contain geraniums. She blames me for that day, since I recommended the particular type of flower, knowing the reaction Thomas would have. I still think she should be grateful, since that day led to them ending up together.
Will and Tom grab me by the arms and toss me into the river. Sibling bonding time has officially ended.
“You need to learn to act like a lady,” they tease as I come up, spluttering.
Teasing me for being a tomboy is one of their favorite things. Still, I know they mean well. If I did go and turn myself into a perfect little lady, they wouldn’t know what to do without me.
By the time we make it home, we’re all dripping wet. Mama isn’t pleased, but she gives a resigned sigh as we troop in. “I don’t know why you let her run wild like that,” she says to Papa.
Papa shakes his head, grinning. “Look how much fun they have together. I wouldn’t take that away from them.”
Hattie frowns. She looks up at me with folded arms, her dark eyes sullen.
“You outta be more lady like,” she declares.
“And where would be the fun in that?”
“You gotta learn to cook and clean and do women’s work. Otherwise you’ll never get a good husband.”
“Who says I want a husband? I can catch my own food and start my own fires.”
“And how you gonna build a house for yourself?”
I jerk my chin at Will and Tom. “These jokers will help me. And Papa. I can take care of myself, Hattie. I don’t need a man to do everything for me.” I shake my head at her, knowing it will drive her crazy. “Silly child.”
Hattie makes a face but doesn’t continue the argument.
l l l
The next afternoon, Tom, Will, and I set out for the tournament. Mama waves goodbye, and Hattie wishes us all good luck. I hope one of us will win. I feel more and more nervous as we approach the castle.
“Boys to the left, girls the right,” a squat man says.
He is directing children of all ages into several different pens that are farther down the road. Will and Tom head for the boys’, which is a lot more crowded, and I go to the girls’. I brush a loose lock of my hair behind me ear, wishing I’d thought to tie my hair back.
I spot a stick lying in the dirt. I scoop it up and swirl my hair around it. Perfect. Now my hair is out of the way, so I can fight without it bothering me.
“Why do you have a stick in your hair?” a girl asks me as I join her in the pen.
“So I can skewer you with it when you ask stupid questions. Why do you think I have it in my hair?”
“It looks ridiculous. Girls are supposed to be pretty. That isn’t pretty.”
“Are you going to win by being pretty?” I say. “Because that doesn’t sound like the best strategy to me.”
The girl blushes. “What’s your strategy then?”
“I’m quick on my feet and good with a sword.”
“What’s your name?” she says.
She sticks out her hand and we shake. I notice that she has tough hands and a dagger is poorly concealed beneath her jacket. Maybe she isn’t as shallow and weak as I’d originally thought.
“Nice to meet you,” I say.
“Like wise, I’m sure,” she replies.
“Are you the princess now?” I ask.
We both start laughing.
“The boys will go in first.” I look up. The squat man is addressing all the teens. “The girls will go next. Top three of each group faces off with the others. Last one standing is the winner. The rules are as follows: There will be no biting, hair pulling, maiming, breaking, and bloodshed. Weapons are provided; if you have your own, you can pick it up on your way out. Intentionally injuring another is grounds for immediate dismissal. If you are hit with a blow that would ordinarily kill or seriously injure, you are out. If you wish to withdraw, merely raise both hands and run to the sidelines. Those with both hands in the air are not to be attacked. If, however, they should attack someone else, they will be removed. If they do not move immediately to the sidelines, they will be removed. Those who no longer wish to participate may leave now. Any questions?”
There is a moment of silence.
“Excellent. Gentlemen, if you please.”
He corrals them through some huge wooden doors. Tom grins at me, and Will wiggles his fingers in a toodle-loo gesture.
I hear a gong ring as the doors close. I listen to the sounds of fighting, but it doesn’t take long for the gong to ring again. The squat man reappears. He waves the girls through the doors.
“Ladies, it is your turn. Leave any and all weapons here.”
As Eileen hands over her knife, I run my fingers along the wooden door and admire its stability. Eileen gives me a weird look when I smell it. She raises her eyebrows quizzically.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“These are oak doors. Oak is some of the strongest wood around. The trees are tall and hard to climb as well.”
“And you know this why?”
“Mm-hmm. Let’s go.”
I follow Eileen through the entrance. We are in a circular arena. The walls slope upward, and seats line them. At ground level, there are several benches and racks of weapons. I notice none of the weapons are lethal.
“Arm yourselves,” the squat man tells us. “At the sound of the gong, the tournament begins.”
I sprint to the weapons and study them carefully. There is a bow with blunt arrows, not really my strong suit. Heavy wooden shields—not really my style, but one can always come in handy. I grab the lightest one and continue. Lying in the dirt is a long wooden sword, exactly like the one I practice with at home. I pick it up happily. It’ll work perfectly.
Girls swarm around me, squabbling over who should have what. I back away into the center of the arena to wait for the gong. It doesn’t take long. Immediately, about six girls scream and throw their hands up. They dash to the sidelines and sit on one of the benches. The people in the stands laugh. I see Tom and Will chortling along with them. They must be two of the winners from their round.
A girl comes from nowhere and tosses a rock at me. I do what comes naturally and deflect it off my sword. I heave up my shield, but I can barely carry the thing. The girl runs for me, and I dodge, sticking out my foot. She trips over it and falls. I drop the shield on her, pinning her down. I lightly tap her on the head with my sword.
Then I help her to her feet. She grudgingly puts her hands up and walks to the sidelines. Quite a crowed has gathered over there by now. I fight another few girls (and easily beat them) before I notice anything strange.
“What are they up to?” I ask Eileen, gesturing to a knot of girls.
“Don’t know.” Eileen raises her stick and is about to smack me with it, but I parry.
“Do you want to team up against them?” I ask.
“Might make it easier.”
We both lower our swords and shake hands. I’m heading for the gang of girls when they turn. All have determined expressions. They must have formed an alliance, because they don’t fight each other. They head straight for Eileen and me.
It is six against two. So I do the sensible thing: I run. Eileen is right behind me. The other girls smell an easy victory and shout in triumph. But I don’t ever give up that easily. I sprint for the weapons rack. When I reach it, I pull myself on top of it.
“What are you doing?” Eileen demands.
“How did you even get up there?”
“Lots of practice in trees.”
“You climb trees?”
“All the time. In coming!”
The band of girls has nearly reached us. I seize Eileen’s hand and haul her up beside me. She wobbles and clings to me. The girls look at us like we’re lunatics, but that doesn’t stop their attack.
“Shake ’em out!” the lead girl says.
They grab the wooden structure and begin shaking it violently. Eileen falls off almost immediately, but I manage to stay balanced. That isn’t going last long, though. I do the only thing I can. I leap off and flip through the air.
It’s something I’ve done a million times before, but never in front of so many people. Complete silence fell over the stands as I land neatly on my feet and pivot to face the girls. Eileen is standing with her hands up, but she isn’t moving to the sidelines. Too shocked, I guess. She staggers forward a step, mouth hanging open.
The others don’t seem as amazed. They sprint for me. A wild idea occurs to me. I reach up and whip out the piece of wood that holds my hair back. Black locks bounce around my face as I point the wood at the approaching girls.
“Stop! Get back!” I shout.
I live in a world where witches and warlocks aren’t just stories to tell little kids. Most people actually believe in them, though I think it unlikely. But I hear a gasp of fear as I point my “wand” at each girl in turn.
“I am Emma Rose the witch! I should be feared! All of you must raise your hands and run to join the others, or I shall…uh…turn your hair into…uh…fire!”
I must sound convincing, because all the girls except Eileen squeal and throw their hands up. They sprint for the sidelines. Eileen looks horrified and backs up.
“You—you’re—a—a witch?” She stumbles back a few more steps.
“Pretty neat trick, huh?”
But of course, my stunt isn’t seen as a neat little trick. I am now a self-proclaimed witch. And witches are to be feared and obeyed. And—gulp—killed when possible. I guess I forgot about that part.
Immediately, two guards attack my brothers. With no real weapons, they go down easily. They don’t put up much of a fight, partly because the guards are carrying sharp swords and daggers, and partly because every archer in the place is pointing an arrow at me.
Twang! The first arrow appears between my feet, followed by the others.
“Halt! Take one more step, witch, and they lose their heads!” the captain of the guards shouts.
Of course being the genius I am, I take another step. Technically speaking, it should lessen the threat, since it’s a step away from them.
“Don’t hurt them,” I start to say. “They haven’t done anything wrong!”
The captain talks over me. “Drop your weapon! Do it!”
The guards holding my brothers give them each a small shake. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to keep my messes from hurting those I love, but I’m completely dumfounded. What weapon?
A boy with a golden wreath of laurels perched on his light brown hair stands. He’s the last person in the stands with a weapon to arm himself. He knocks an arrow, draws it back, and lets it fly. He hardly even bothers to aim, but the arrow rips the pretend wand from my hand, splintering it to bits.
Right. That weapon. I’d forgotten they think I can kill them all with a stick and some funky gibberish words.
I look around helplessly. “What do I do?”
It’s clear that they actually think I’m a witch. This means I’m a threat. My brothers are the only leverage they have on me. The royal family is in the stands somewhere and, if I were truly dangerous, now would be a great time to attack them.
Several more guards detach from their ranks and hurry out the door. It’s a safe guess that they are off to arrest the remainder of my family. More leverage. What have I done? What on earth was I thinking?”
“I’m not a witch! It was just a ruse! I didn’t think anyone would take it seriously, I just thought it would scare off the girls.”
“Execute her!” the king shouts. “We have no place for witches here.”
“No!” I scream as the archers pull back on their bows, ready to let their arrows fly.
I stare around desperately, searching for an escape. My gaze lands on winner from the other village in our kingdom. His bow is held at his side, unloaded, his head cocked to one side, like he’s thinking about something.
“Wait,” the boy says. “Your Majesty, if I may?”
“Speak,” the king indulges.
“What if we were to send her with the princess?” the boy asks. “It would be excellent protection for Her Highness Princess Avaysia if there were a witch along. And I would be there to ensure she doesn’t take her anger out on Princess Avaysia.”
The king ponders this for a moment. “It shall be as you say,” he bellows. “Put her family in the dungeon! We shall hold them to ensure good behavior.”
And just like that, I’m going to survive. Will and Tom are dragged across the arena and into the castle. They have the good sense not to fight. I want to run after them, but I know I’d be shot immediately.
The stadium begins to empty. I stand stock-still, my feet rooted to the spot. My father has taught me to be strong, and I will not let them see me cry. These horrid people will pay. But first, I have a package to deliver—a princess, to be exact.
When the stadium is vacant except for me, I fall to my knees in the dust. I wrap my arms around myself and cry, my head bowed down. Tears drip off my nose and splatter on the dirt.
Someone lightly touches my shoulder. I sniff and look up, brushing my hair out of my face. It’s the archer who didn’t armed himself against me. The boy who saved my life.
“What?” I ask in a watery voice.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“Terrific. I’ve just condemned my family, and everyone thinks I’m an evil witch. I’m just great.”
He grins. “Yeah, I guess that was a stupid question.” He extends his hand to me. “I’m Wren, the princess’s other guard.”
“You’re Emma Rose, right?”
I nod, looking at my hands, which are twisted together in my lap. “I guess I really scared everyone, huh?”
“I didn’t scare you?”
“Nah. Witches live in the forest, keeping to themselves. They wouldn’t come to a tournament. And they certainly wouldn’t reveal themselves to everyone like that. Besides, you’re too sweet to be a witch.”
I dab at my eyes with my sleeve. “You think?”
Wren nods. “If you like, I’ll take you back to the castle. You’ll be expected to show up for dinner, witch or not.”
Wren holds out his hand and pulls me to my feet. I wrap my hair back around the stick. When Wren gives me a questioning look, I shrug.
“It’s a good way to keep my hair out of my face.”
Wren grins his crooked smile again. “Are you sure you aren’t just looking for trouble?”
I stick my tongue out at him, making him laugh. “I think I’ve caused enough trouble for one day, don’t you?”
“I’d say so. Ready to see the castle?”
“I guess. I hope my family is being treated okay.”
“I don’t know about you, but I think the dungeon sounds like a pretty rotten place to end up.”
“Oh, I really needed that right now,” I say. I hate myself for it, but my voice is verging on a whimper. Stupid girl! I think. Quit acting like a blubbering baby! Pull yourself together. Be strong. I take a deep breath. “Well, at least they’re together.”
“That’s one way to look at it,” he says. “Plenty of family bonding time ahead of them.”
Wren turns and walks towards the castle. I have to jog to keep up. Wren doesn’t say a thing until we reach the castle doors, which takes several minutes of swift walking.
“Dinner is a few hours. Don’t miss it.”
I nod, and he moves silently down the hall. I watch his retreating back, wondering if I should follow him. I’m bound to get lost in a great big castle.
After Wren is gone, I wander about, looking at the paintings and tapestries. I spend some time admiring a bowl filled with delicate glass fruit. I’m careful not to touch anything, because I’m sure I’ll break it.
Eventually, when my stomach has started growling, I meander into the kitchen. People are rushing about everywhere, and no one pays me any attention. It’s warmer by the fires, and steam fills the air. I can’t even imagine what is putting off all the aromas floating around.
I go unnoticed until a maid bumps into me. She wears the ragged clothes of a servant and has short brown hair. An ugly scar mars her round face. She squeaks and jumps back, but I don’t know if it’s because I surprised her or because I’m a witch (supposedly).
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t notice you there. Oh, I’ve never seen you before, have I? You must be one of the two selected to escort Princess Avaysia to her wedding. I hope everything goes well. Are you excited? Nervous? Both? Neither? I would be terrified if I was you. You know, you really should wash up for dinner. Do you know your way to your room? I could show you if you don’t. It would be no problem, no siree. I know my way ’round the castle real well. You gotta if you work here. I’ve worked here since I was a little girl. Course, I’m only thirteen now. My name is Zoë.”
She’s talking very fast, and says all this in a single breath. As she speaks, she flaps her hands about, and I see that they are also scarred. When she pauses to inhale, I interject my response, also speaking quickly. Zoë doesn’t seem like the type of person to stay quiet for long.
“I’m Emma. If you could show me to my room, that would be great. And I don’t know where we’re eating dinner.”
“Well, howdy, Emma,” Zoë says. “I’ll stick with you like a shadow the whole day. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask. I can show you the whole castle if you like, even the gardens. The gardens are real peerty, but you gotta watch for snakes. Once there was a snake in the garden, and my brother hit it with a stick. He got bite-ten, but he was okay, so don’t worry,” she continues.
I guess I get a very talkative shadow, I think.
“Zoë! Get outta here!” someone yells. “You know you ain’t supposed to be in the kitchens no more! Not after the pig!”
“I was just leaving, Britches! And that pig tasted mighty fine, burned bits and all,” Zoë shouts back. She leads me from the room, still chattering away. “Her real name ain’t Britches of course. We just call her that because she wears britches like a man instead of a skirt, like a lady. You don’t wear a skirt either. Why not? I guess it’s better that way, more maneuverability.”
I tune her out at this point. I have no interest in what Zoë has to say about skirt wearing. She talks nonstop until we reach my room. It’s clearly a guest room, plain and spotless. I prefer my little room at home, even though I have to share with Hattie.
“This is your room until tomorrow,” Zoë says. “I hope you like it here. I know I do. I’ve always liked it here. Once—”
“Zoë!” I snap. “I don’t mean to be rude, or anything, but can you please shut up?”
Zoë’s eyes widen, then she shakes her head back and forth very fast. Her hair flaps out around the bandana on her head.
“Oh, I’m very bad at shutting up. Me mama tells me to do it all the time, but I never can. Actually, she tells me to be quiet, me brother says shut up. Then Mama tells him it ain’t nice to tell someone to shut up, and Dan—that’s me brother, the one the got bite-ten by the snake—tells her to shut up, so she gets real mad, and they fight and yell, and then I’m not the only one making noise, and Mama forgets all about asking me to be quiet. Britches is always telling me to shut up, too. I always forget, though, and start talking again, quick as you please. See, I can’t be quiet at all, I’m babbling all over the place. My father used to say we shoulda named me Brooke cause I’m always babbling like a brook. Do you get it? Babbling Brooke? That was before he died. He was Taste Tester for the king, he was. Ate a poisonous mushroom by mistake and died almost on the spot. It was really quite sad.”
Zoë pauses to draw breath and I stop her before she can plunge into another tirade of words.
“Where can I find a dress?” I ask her. “I don’t think the king would want me to show up in this.”
“Yeah, your clothes look a bit worn. I’ll fetch ya a dress and bring it back to you after you’ve had your bath, which Pat and Tom should be haulin’ up here right now. They’re new at the job, because the last bath-fixers got fired. They spilted all the water for the bath while haulin’ it up the stairs, and it got Princess Avaysia all wet. Her father got mad and threw them out. So now Pat and Tom do it, and they’re very good. They have spilled no water as of yet, though they only been doin’ the job for a few days. I is hopin’ they don’t get fired; they are some of the only people here who don’t mind me constant chatter. Oops, I’ve been talkin’ too much, ain’t I? I even talk to meself sometimes. Britches says I like the sound of me own voice, but I ain’t sure if that’s true. It’s just that I can’t seem to stop the words. They spill out of me mouth in an endless stream, and it rarely break. Lil, me friend, said I even talk in me sleep, though nowhere near as much. Do you talk in your sleep? How did you get picked from the tournament? Do you have a preference in dress color? If not, I wanna pick my favorite. I’m gonna leave you and go get that dress. Can I pick the color? Please say yes.”
“Go right ahead.”
“Great! Thank you so much. I never get to choose things like that. I only have two dresses, this is one of them, and they is both gray. I hate the color gray. I love the peerty fabrics the princesses git to wear, but those are for highborn girls and ones with special privileges, like you. I wish I were a princess. I think it would be fun. People waitin’ on you all day and night, getting’ to wear all sorts of finery, being admired, have lots of suitors and marryin’ a handsome prince who knows how to slay a dragon! Ooh, la! I wish every night on the first star that comes out. I’ll be off now, gotta get that dress!”
Zoë exits, and I can hear her talking to herself all the way down the hall. A few minutes later, a man and woman arrive, carrying a large tub filled with steaming water. I assume they are Pat and Tom. Without a word, they sit down the tub and depart.
Half way through my bath, Zoë reappears, carrying a bright pink dress, a brush, and ribbons. While I finish up, she sings some song about bathes. Apparently, she made it up herself.
“Oh, I like my baths hot, and not too cold. When I’m swimmin’ in ‘em I feel like gold. Water gettin’ muddy and skin gettin’ clean. Throwin’ out the water can cause quite a scene,” she croons, clapping out the rhythm. “Blah-dee, blah-dee, blah-dee, blah! Oh, singin’ my baaaaathiiiin’ sooooong!”
I think my ears might be bleeding.
“You is gonna look so beauty-full,” Zoë tells me as she brushes out my wet hair. “I ain’t never seen such shiny hair before. It’ll look peerty with the dress I picked! Pink is me favorite color. I ain’t never looked good a day in my life, or so me brother says. But Dan is always sayin’ mean things like that, gettin’ me all riled up. There now, don’t you look peerty.”
Zoë straightens the dress and ties a ribbon into my hair. She takes my hand and begins leading me to the dining hall, where I will meet the princess. Zoë prattles on and on, but I tune her out.
When we stop outside a door, I start paying attention to what she is saying. She plucks a fuzzy from my hair and looks at me expectantly.
“Any questions?” she says.
“How should I behave around the Royal Family?” I ask.
“Ain’t you cute! I just told ya, if you was listenin’. I ain’t got time to explain it all again. You gotta go in!”
Zoë opens the door and pushes me into the room. I stumble forwards and trip over the loose slippers Zoë put on my feet. I sprawl across the floor, looking like an idiot. I quickly stand back up and sit. Thank goodness there’s only one open chair, otherwise I’d have been certain to sit somewhere I wasn’t supposed to.
“Bit too clumsy to be a witch, if you ask me,” a whiney, high-pitched voice says.
I look over. It’s the princess. I can feel my face turning the same color as a strawberry. Stupid shoes.
“Are you all right?” Wren asks.
He’s sitting next to me, concern written across his face. I nod and stare at my plate. Which is when I notice that each place has been set with a huge array of forks and spoons.
“What am I supposed to do with all this silverware?” I question Wren under my breath.
“When in doubt, start from the out,” he whispers back.
They bring in the first course, some sort of soup. There’s bread to go with it. I pick up my spoon in one hand and the bread in the other. I dip the bread in the soup, just like I would at home.
Wren elbows me and hisses, “No, you don’t want to do that. ”
It’s already too late, though. Avaysia is watching me reproachfully. “Don’t you know anything about manners, Peasant?” she demands.
“Um…” I’m at a loss for words.
“Princess, it is possible that this is how she eats in her home,” a noble man says.
“Oh? Is this so, Peasant?”
“My name is Emma,” I say before I see Wren shaking his head slightly, eyes wide.
“And I can call you what I like! Answer my question immediately!”
Wren gives me a look like do what I do and bows his head. I follow his lead.
“I’m sorry Princess,” I say. “It is how I eat at my home.”
Avaysia flips her honey blonde hair and turns back to her food. She eats the soup in tiny, delicate sips. Mama did teach me some basic manners, but I’m not sure how much I retained. I try and copy Avaysia, which results in the soup sliding off the spoon and onto the tablecloth.
I quickly wipe it up with my napkin, but it leaves a large, smeary mark. I shift my bowl to cover it, but some of the soup slops over the edge and into my lap. It stains the dress, is absorbed through, and burns against my legs. I grit my teeth and don’t make a sound, hoping no one will notice.
I cross my legs beneath the table so the hot soup stain won’t touch my skin. It works, though I’m now balanced on one hip, leaning towards Wren. If I lower my angle at all, the soup burns me. I manage to make it through to the entree without messing anything else up, but just barely.
When the main meal is brought in, I feel relieved. It’s fish. I know how to eat this correctly. It’s the one dish I managed to master in Mama’s lessons. I select a fork and a knife from the army of silverware. When the fish is set in front of me, I dig in.
I slice it up in neat little chunks, just like Mama taught me to. I hold my fork as daintily as I can and begin eating. When silence falls around the table, I look up, wondering what happened.
Wren whispers, “No one is supposed to eat until the royal family has been served.”
How is it that he knows all this? Forgetting my lessons, I answer with my mouth full.
“What?” I ask.
Realizing my mistake, I swallow the fish too fast. It goes down the wrong pipe, and I suddenly can’t breath. I start coughing crazily, trying to unblock my windpipe. I finally manage to hack the fish up, and it lands on my plate in a slimy puddle. I gasp for air, attempting to slow my panting.
Once again, everyone is staring at me. Some with disgust, some with pity, some with a mixture of both. I’m so embarrassed that I want to run from the room. Or hide under the table. Or maybe both.
Then I think of what Tom would say. “You can face down a bear just fine, but when it comes to dresses? You’re cooked! You’re about as much a lady as my left foot.” In my head, I can hear Will laughing and Hattie squealing indignantly as I tell her I don’t need to be lady-like.
I’ll get through this meal if it kills me, I think. For them. I’ll do it for them.
Unfortunately, dinner’s horrors don’t end there.
For dessert, there’s some sort of what substance that looks like freshly churned butter. But who serves bowls of butter? I’m eyeing it suspiciously when I see Wren take a bite.
“It’s good,” he tells me. “They call it cream and ice, or maybe it was icy cream. We had it last night, too.”
I’m starting to understand why Wren seems so prepared for royal dinning. He must have won his tournament yesterday, then spent last night here. The thought reassures me. So maybe he messed up on his first night, too.
I use my spoon to scoop up a mouthful of the icy cream. I place it in my mouth, trying to be delicate. Whatever it’s made out of, it’s delicious. I eat another bite, then another.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Wren shaking his head. “Not so fast!” he warns.
But it’s too late. I can already feel the cold creeping over my head, burning into my brain. Pain sears through my skull, and I clutch my head with my hands.
“It’s so cold!” I shriek, all attempts at dignity forgotten.
I try and curl up into a ball, but the dress constricts my movements. The chair I’m perched on wobbles dangerously, spilling me into Wren’s lap. We topple over together, taking both chairs and the table with us. Dishes of the chilly cream and ice are dumped onto the princess as the table knocks her over and pins her to the ground.
“Get this thing off of me!” Avaysia screams, flailing about in a useless attempt to free herself.
“Princess!” a nobleman shouts, hurrying over to her.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m so sorry. I’m no good at proper dining. I don’t know what to do or how to behave. I’m sorry.”
Headache gone and all the embarrassment back, I leap to my feet. I sprint out the door, desperate to get away before the tears come. I’ve really done it now. They’ll just lock me up for good. Maybe they’ll keep my family as well.
I run this way and that, until I can’t keep going. I sink down in a corner and curl up. When I’ve calmed myself down, I convince myself that everything is going to be fine. They could lock me up, but aren’t they afraid I’ll just blast my way out? Besides, they still want me to accompany the princess to her wedding. Too much delay and she’d never make it in time.
I stand up and try to brush off the pink dress. It’s completely ruined. There’s the soup stain, smears from the cream and ice, a bit of fish on the front, and a large rip across the hem. I don’t remember the fabric being tearing. I’m also missing both the slippers Zoë gave me.
I decide to try to find my family. They’d be in the dungeons, which should be located in the lowest part of the castle. So I start working my way down, following the slope of the halls and descending every staircase I encounter.
After nearly an hour of wandering, I come to a heavy wooden door with a big brass lock. I try the handle, and it turns easily. I shove the door forward and step into the dimly lit hall.
“Hello?” I ask, peering into the gloom.
“Emma? Is that you?” I hear Will answer.
“Will? Are you okay?” I demand.
“Fine. A little cold and hungry, but unhurt. Everyone else is okay, too. What happened?”
I follow the sound of his voice to a cell. He and Tom are in one, Mama and Papa in a second. Poor little Hattie is all by herself in a third. She must be terrified.
I tell them about Wren and Zoë, and how disastrous dinner was. I notice Hattie has a cut on her arm, so I use the ripped hem of my dress to bandage it while I talk. Everyone seems to feel better when I say that they’ll be freed when I return.
“Is there anyway you can break us out of here before that?” Tom asks.
“Doubt it. Where would you go, anyway? Better just to wait here.”
“But it’s so cold here,” Will complains.
“And dark,” Hattie adds.
“I wish I had some light,” I say. I shape my hands into a ball, my fingertips on the opposite wrist. “A great big ball of light like this!”
I feel heat radiating from my palms as Mama says, “That would be nice.”
Suddenly, the heat sears across my hands. I wrench them apart. “Ouch!”
“What is it?” Papa demands.
“My hands. They felt like they were burning.”
“Oooh, it’s pretty, Emma. Look!” Hattie points at something just in front of me.
I look down. Where my hands had been cupped now sits a glowing ball of light. I stretch out a finger and gently prod it. It’s warm, but not too hot. I place my hand beneath it and push up. It floats up and bobs around by the ceiling.
“Emma...you really are a witch,” Tom sounds dumbstruck.
“Make more! Light up the whole place,” Will instructs.
I clasp my hands together again and again, creating a whole fleet of little lights. They bounce into each other and light up the dreary space. I’m forming my fourteenth when the door bangs open.
“Emma? Are you in here?”
It’s Wren. Why’s he looking for me?
“Right here,” I call.
“I kind of thought you’d find your way to your family,” Wren says.
I introduce him to my parents and siblings.
“You take care of our little sis, you hear?” Will asks.
“You got it.”
“We’re going to get out of here eventually,” Tom warns. “If anything happens to her—”
It isn’t rare for my brothers to be protective of me, but no one would guess it by how we play. But if something does happen to me in the Sylvian Woods…
“It won’t be Wren’s fault,” I interrupt.
There’s a few seconds of quiet as Tom and Will glare at me. So much for protective. Then Wren tactfully changes the topic.
“It’s a lot brighter than I thought it would be. ARen’t dungeons supposed to be dark and cold?”
“That’s my fault,” I tell him. “Turns out, I really am a witch.”
“A witch,” I say.
I clasp my hands together, picturing the ball of light. It floats out of my hands and joins its brethren at the ceiling. Wren’s eyes are full of wonder, and his mouth hangs open.
“Emma,” he breathes. “They’re beautiful. How’d you make them?”
I shrug. “Magic. How else?”
“A witch. A real witch. I just can’t believe it,” Papa says. “Who would have thought?”
“What else can you do?” Hattie asks.
I look into her eager eyes. “I might be able to get you guys out of here. I could set you all free!”
I envision all the locks popping open and point my finger at them in turn. The barred doors swing out, creaking a little. I’m expecting everyone to jump out as fast as they can and run away with me, but no one moves except Hattie. She runs to Mama and snuggles down in her arms.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Well,” Papa says slowly. “Think about it. The king already believes you’re a witch. If you broke us out and we all disappeared, he’s going to know who did it. And where would we go?”
“Home wouldn’t be safe,” Mama chimes in. “I know your intentions are good, Emma, but it would be better for you to safely deliver the princess. Then we could all go back to our house and be happy.”
“They do have a point,” Wren agrees. “Besides, who else would escort Princess Avaysia to her wedding?”
“They could find someone else to take care of their precious princess!” I say scornfully.
“The wedding is in 15 days, Emma. And it’s a 12-day journey through the woods. If we leave tomorrow, we’ll get there two days before the wedding, just enough time for her dress to be made and the rest of the preparations completed,” Wren tells me.
“So?” Will asks. “They could find someone else and still make the deadline.”
“It’d be real tight. This wedding is insuring that there will be no a war between the kingdoms. It will offer us protection. If the princess misses it, who knows what will happen?”
I sigh. “I guess that makes sense. We should do what’s best for the kingdom.” I lift my hand, and the doors all swing shut, clicking as the locks reengage. “But I’m leaving Hattie with my parents, and all the lights can stick around, too.”
“Fair enough,” Wren says. “Now, let’s get you up to bed. We’ve a busy day ahead, and you should be well rested. No half asleep guards on this trip.”
“Is the princess awfully mad?” I ask.
“I don’t think there are words to describe her anger and disgust with you,” he says cheerfully.
Wren chuckles. “You’re still coming, though. The king ordered it. He seems to think a witch would offer his daughter excellent protection, no matter how bad her dinner manners. Personally, I agree.”
I can feel my face flushing. I bid my family goodnight and farewell, promising to come back soon. Wren leads me from the dungeon and back into the bright corridors of the main castle.
“So how is it that you know your way around this place so well?” I ask.
“I don’t. I found someone who does, though. Her name is Zoë. She told me that when you didn’t return to your room, she worried you might have lost your way. I confided that you probably went is search of your family, and she took me to the dungeons. Which reminds me,” Wren raises his voice to shout out the door. “Zoë! I found her!”
Zoë appears, grinning at me. “There you is! I was worried you had gotten yerself all turned around in here. It can be easy to get lost, ’less you know the castle like I do. My, oh my, I hears about dinner. What a disaster! Why didn’t you listen to me when I told you what to do and what not to do? Ah, well, you can’t change the past.” Zoë pauses for a moment, but lets out a gasp when she notices my dress. “Yer dress! The one I so cara-ly selected. Why, it’s ripped and stained! You tore the hem clean off! What ‘ave you been doing? I never shoulda picked you the peertiest dress I could. Shoulda know you’d mess it up. You’re jist like Britches, never wearin’ no dress properly!”
Zoë continues to rant all the way back to my room. When we arrive there, she opens the door and shoves me in. “Yer night things are on the bed. So are yer travel clothes fer tomorrow. Try not to mess them up, ya hear? Sleep good now.”
To my surprise, she pulls me into a quick hug. Then she yanks the door shut and walks away. I can hear her talking to Wren as she leads him down the hall. I smile to myself and change out of the battered dress. I braid back my hair and snuggle down under the blankets.
Tomorrow is a big day, and I need to sleep. My thoughts wander back to my family and how our lives used to be before I drift off.