Chapter 7 ♕
I was awakened by the talk of excited chambermaids from the hallway. Tonight’s party was a hot topic around here. Apparently nothing has been celebrated for the past two years, since the king’s disappearance.
My desperate groans filled the room as I sat up and ran my hands through the bird’s nest on my head.
A big advantage of my shed at home was that it was remote, so I was never bothered by traffic, people talking or loud noises. That went well with the fact that I was not a deep sleeper.
When the voices finally died away in the distance, I let myself fall back into the pile of pillows with another grunt. It took a while for my brain to bring up today’s activities again. It was Bethany’s birthday. The day on which she would hopefully meet her mate and also the evening on which I would say goodbye to this whole event, which later would become nothing like a bygone memory.
I stared at the ceiling. Work had already called me several times to ask when I would come back. Somehow it was nice to know that I was being missed, but I am also almost certain that it was only because I worked the hours no one else wanted without complaining.
It was my dream job, but I was not always appreciated there. Still, it was work, and I needed money if I wanted to open my own practice one day.
Still, I couldn’t resist and absently ran my hands over the silky soft blankets, knowing that from tomorrow night I would be back under the itchy sheets. Maybe Bethany would allow me to come back one day. I didn’t want to say goodbye to her forever. She was the first friend I made in a long time.
I decided to leave my ruminations for a while and get ready. Before I would surprise her, I decided to gather my things together so that I could fly home immediately after the party. It wasn’t much. Bethany had bought me some clothes, which I could keep after her insistence, and I also had some pictures of our time together.
After a few minutes I was all packed and dressed, and decided to surprise Bethany with breakfast in bed. So I walked to the kitchen. As I made my way there, I felt the irritation build up as I again had to undergo the sideways glances. I had put up with these all my life, so you’d think I would have gotten used to them by now. Unfortunately for me, this had nothing to do with my eyes or my appearance. What bothered them was the fact that I was a human being. Or maybe the fact that I was always around Bethany, added a voice in my head.
These people saw me as an intruder, and it was difficult not to agree with them. Because I was indeed an intruder. This was their safe haven. My kind already had the rest of the world, so who was I to burst in here and feel at home here. That thought put a huge damper on my good mood. I felt my shoulders go down along with the corners of my mouth.
I let the kitchen door slam behind me and immediately brought the attention of the entire kitchen staff to me. Each of them frowned at me, some even disapproving. I took a long breath and approached a woman closest to me who was preparing breakfast.
She was baking bread and didn’t look up, although I was sure she heard me coming. “Excuse me” I started uncertainly, but I was immediately confronted with her back. I wasn’t sure what I had to say.
“Don’t mind them,” said a voice behind me.
As I turned I had to put my head back to see the face of the owner of the voice. The man looked down at me in amusement. My first observation was that he didn’t look all that bad. That smile on his face was especially pleasant for a change. Because except for Bethany, I didn’t see many friendly faces around here.
He wore the same uniform that I had seen all the guards wear. He wore it well with his broad shoulders. His light blond hair hung in front of his face, accentuating his brown eyes. He had dimples in his cheeks from the broad laughter.
“You must be the human everyone whispers about,” he said, supposedly mysteriously.
“You call that whispering,” I said, with a sarcastic undertone, “because to me it feels more like they are this close to put their opinion on a board in bold letters and hold it up for me to read”. I underlined my words by almost pressing my thumb and index finger together.
The smile on his face widened. Apparently he thought my reaction was amusing. Then he reached out to me. “My name is Rowan. I’d say it’s nice to meet you, but apparently the rest of my kind has already ruined this for me” he said.
I couldn’t help myself and had to laugh. Then I put my hand in his. “Fortunately for you, it is not quite that bad. My name is Magnolia. Nice to meet you,” I said in return.
He changed position and leaned nonchalantly against the counter. “Were you hungry? Is that why you are in the kitchens?” Rowan asked, reaching over the shoulder of the woman who had just bluntly ignored me and pulling a freshly baked bread roll from the basket. She gave him a warning look. I suppressed a laugh, then shook my head.
“I came here for Bethany. I wanted to surprise her with breakfast in bed,” I said.
The atmosphere in the room changed instantly. Knives fell from hands, heads were swung in my direction and all faces had an expression of pure shock. Even Rowan’s eternal smile seemed to diminish for a moment.
“Did I say something wrong?” I asked slowly.
Nobody said anything, in the end Rowan seemed to feel compelled to speak. “That’s not it. It’s just— ” he began, putting his hand on his neck for a moment, uncertainly. He took a long breath and then motioned for me to follow him. I glanced over my shoulder at the staff, who had meanwhile gone back to work with their faces turned white, and followed Rowan out the door.
He checked that there was no one around to hear us and then started talking. “Everyone here is always doing their utmost to avoid Princess Bethany. It’s not her fault. She is always friendly and the people like her. It’s her brother. The king has a reputation. He doesn’t tolerate anything when it comes to his little sister. He had staff tortured because he said Bethany was not receiving the appropriate support and care,” Rowan said, softer than before.
I was stunned to hear his words. The king sounded monstrous. I had noticed in recent days that Bethany was not approached by many people. Her servants never looked at her and turned white at every question or request she had. I couldn’t blame those people.
But at the same time, I felt pity for Bethany. It had not been her fault that her brother was intolerable. I thought about this for a moment, but then made a decision. This whole situation had nothing to do with me. Her brother was not here and I would return home tonight. The least I could do was make this day unforgettable for Bethany.
“Thanks for the warning,” I said sincerely, “but I’m still going back into those kitchens anyway and prepare breakfast for Bethany. It would be quite something if a piece of burnt bread would land me in jail”.
I said the latter as an attempt to lighten the atmosphere in the sky, but Rowan just looked at me uncertain. He was a full-grown man, in his mid-twenties, tall and a skilled warrior. But even he feared the king who wasn’t even around.
“It was nice talking to you, Rowan. Thanks for everything. Maybe someday I’ll see you somewhere,” I said, turning around, leaving him alone in the deserted corridor.
As I tried to close the door silently behind me, I softly started singing Happy Birthday. With a full tray I walked towards the bed, where the pile of blankets began to move gently. Eventually a head appeared, and Bethany slowly emerged. She looked at me with wide eyes.
For a second I was afraid that I had made a big mistake. I could almost see myself hanging in the dungeons, hanging from my wrists on metal chains. But then Bethany started to laugh and cry at the same time. To my great relief I immediately saw that it was positive. I waited patiently for Bethany to sit up with her back to the headboard, then put the tray on her lap.
“Did you do all this for me?” Bethany asked breathlessly, looking in amazement over all the food. I nodded in satisfaction. I had come to know her taste through the several times we had breakfast together. Bethany had a real sweet tooth.
“Of course it’s all for you. It’s your big day, isn’t it,” I said with a smile.
With Rowan’s words still in the back of my mind, I sat down on the edge of the bed and watched in amused Bethany attack her breakfast. “So what would you like to do today?” I asked her.
She raised her eyebrows doubtfully for a moment, but I think she got an idea almost immediately. “I want to run with you,” she said. I looked at her questioningly. “In case you hadn’t noticed. I have only one form and that one is incapable of running,” I informed her.
Bethany laughed so hard that the bite of the pudding she had taken almost spurted out of her mouth. “I didn’t mean it that way, either,” she said, and for a moment her smile seemed to fade. She stared at the covers. “I don’t have many friends here. People avoid me to avoid problems with my brother, so I never have anyone to run with. I haven’t released my wolf for a week and she’s getting restless. Usually Cayden makes time to come with me, but he was apparently sent to a secret location by order of the council,” she said gloomily.
Those words sparked my interest, but I decided now was not the time to ask questions. “If you want to run, we’ll run,” I said gently.
“This is already the best birthday ever” she said excitedly.
I inadvertently frowned at that comment. I had only brought her food and agreed to spend time with her, if that was enough to make this the best birthday ever, I didn’t want to know what birthdays she’d had before.
I could speak from my own experience that my last few birthdays hadn’t been national holidays either, but I had just skipped it and worked whole days. Bethany had people who could take care of her, but simply chose not to. That was much worse.
Again I decided not to say anything to protect the relaxed atmosphere and motioned for her to continue eating so we could leave immediately. The party was to start early tonight, and it took some time beforehand to get ready. So we didn’t want to lose a second.
After Bethany ate her breakfast, she put on something easy and led the way. I tried to distract her so that she wouldn’t notice that everyone was separating themselves even further from her today. I, on the other hand, watched everyone like a hawk. Some seemed surprised to see Bethany with a smile on her mouth. Apparently they thought what I was doing was both a good deed and a death sentence. But at least my distraction seemed to help. The little girl next to me was cheerful and happy all the way out.
She led us to a large clearing, where Bethany stretched to stretch her muscles. I watched fascinated, but kept a safe distance. Bethany looked at me from over her shoulder for a moment, grinned playfully, then changed at a glance.
I couldn’t suppress a scared yelp and backed away. You can’t blame me for that. I hadn’t seen anyone doing it since Bethany first changed shape in front of me. And aside from the occasional growl, wolves in their human form were no different from me. It had therefore been easy for me to push the whole wolf part to the back of my consciousness, which would have enabled me to accept the whole situation before. Unfortunately for me, that was impossible at the moment, given the creature standing upright on her legs reaching the same height as me.
It was Bethany, I could see that in everything. But that was also the first and the last reason that I did not immediately end up in a nervous breakdown. I trusted her, but nothing or no one else.
I slowly approached and reached out to her. Her wolf liked me, Bethany had told me. She was grateful that I had saved her and not left her alone when Cayden lost sight of her back in the woods.
Jade, that was the name of her other half.
The animal’s wet snout touched my hand and snorted. Immediately after she recognized my scent, I received a lick all over my face. Startled, and a little disgusted, I stepped back to rub the saliva off my skin. I heard a grunt that vaguely resembled laughter. Then I heard the rustle of grass and when I looked at her again I saw that Jade had lain with her stomach on the ground. There was an expectant expression in her gaze. It took me a while to see her intentions. I immediately shook my head.
“Absolutely not. You go get wild. I don’t think about climbing on your back. You can forget that right here and now, young lady,” I said sternly and crossed my arms.
She tilted her head and her gaze turned pleading. “But it’s my birthday,” those eyes almost seemed to say. After that, I couldn’t help but agree. With a healthy dose of reluctance I walked up to her and climbed on her back. I clamped my legs tightly against her flanks and clenched my hands into fists inside her.
I wanted to say one more thing, something about not going all the way, but before I could even form those words into a sentence in my head, Jade was already shot ahead. I opened my mouth to scream, but immediately closed it again and braced myself instead.
Jade ran for hours without stopping. Under my touch I felt her muscles tighten and relax again. I felt how badly she needed this. To feel free, even if only for an afternoon.
It was only when dusk began to fall that we returned to the clearing. Jade gave me time to slide off her back, before retreating behind a tree and transforming directly back into Bethany, who reappeared in clothing moments later.
In the meantime I had dropped onto the grass and was staring up at the darkening sky. It was unlikely to be a beautiful sunset, it went through my mind. I heard the grass rustle and knew Bethany had come to lie next to me. A peaceful sigh escaped her mouth.
“I wish we could do this every day,” she said softly.
Those words burst the bubble I had just been in. I sighed regretfully. “Bethany” I started, “you realize I can’t stay here. I don’t belong here. And besides that, I have a job and a house that I have to return to. I’ve grown to care about you so much in the past few days. I will never forget this time with you. But I’m going back home tonight. I want you to understand,” I said.
I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay here with her. But it couldn’t, because there was nothing for me here. And everything for me was there, at home.
“Are you happy there?” Bethany asked out of the blue. Her question surprised me, which made me think about it for a moment. “I think so,” I said, somewhat uncertainly, “after my parents died, that was the first place I found. It wasn’t much, it still isn’t. But it is mine. I worked for it myself and that means something to me”.
I heard Bethany sigh in defeat. “I’ll miss you so much, Maggie,” she said softly. Her voice was stifled by emotions. I didn’t want her to be sad, especially on her own birthday. So I took a deep breath, suppressed all the emotions that swirled through me like a whirlwind, and rose in one fluid motion.
“First we have a party that we have yet to attend. And let’s get ready first. We don’t have much time left. I’ll help you with your hair,” I offered and reached out to her. Bethany was instantly in a better mood.
We both knew what was going to take place later, that was inevitable. But until then, we could pretend we had longer than just this moment, than just this evening.