He was incredibly ordinary as most pages go.
Thaniel Hew was an average-looking boy with blue eyes and dark hair that stuck mostly in an upward direction. He grew up with a page for a father, a humbling profession that kept Thaniel quiet and modest, thoughtful and sweet.
His closest friend was a princess of Valhalla named Priscilla Faust. She and Thaniel were the only children of the same age running about in the mansion, so the king and the queen allowed them to play together. They believed Thaniel, a humble and hard-working boy, would be a positive influence on their youngest daughter.
Priscilla was beautiful with dark golden hair and sharp gray eyes that sometimes looked green in certain lighting. She was confident, unafraid to be honest, oftentimes a little too blunt, and, should you ever cross her, a little monster. Which was why she enjoyed having Thaniel as a pet—er, friend. He never said a harsh word about her, and he was always obedient.
Thaniel never meant to be so submissive, but it was habit, and he had no choice. He was in a lower caste level after all, something the two friends forgot about whenever they played.
Priscilla and Thaniel were close. They shared secrets and dreams. They snuck into each other’s rooms at night to continue playing or reading in the dark. They shared their first kiss at ten, deciding that it wasn’t as magical as the stories led it to believe. They grew closer still, to the point where at fourteen, Priscilla had made the startling statement that they would one day marry. She’d said this just before she was about to leave for finishing school.
Thaniel was surprised she’d say such a thing out loud. “Still making jokes till the end?”
She wasn’t joking this time. “If I want us to be married, then we will—even if you’ll be a page. You just wait and see. I’ll be back in three years and officially be princess. I’ll announce you as my fiancé, and no one can refuse me that.” Priscilla softened as she kissed his cheek. “I always get my way, remember?”
Thaniel wasn’t sure what to respond, so he hugged her and she left for her carriage. He stood on the mansion steps and watched as it clattered away on the cobblestone path.
His father joined his side. “That girl is trouble.” A phrase commonly attributed to the youngest daughter.
“I know.” While his father always warned him about her, often in a joking manner, Thaniel thought it was because he felt threatened.
Through Priscilla, Thaniel knew he could rise above being a commoner, and he knew his father was a little afraid that this would create a rift between them—one above the other.
Thaniel never felt the need to tell his father not to worry. Thaniel was never going to abandon him, never going to forget where he came from. He was going to keep his princess and his father—a growing family—and he was going to have his happily ever after.
Priscilla didn’t really think about what she was doing when she’d made that promise. Now that she was finally attending finishing school, she was a few steps closer to learning what the rest of her life would be like… and so she wondered what role Thaniel would play in it.
Riding in the ornate carriage, on her way to a horrid finishing school with equally horrid girls felt more like a punishment. She’d begged, bribed, threatened, and cried about not going to finishing school. She didn’t want to leave the mansion knowing that Hilda, her older sister would be there. Hilda was only older by three years, and she had just returned from finishing school. Her superiority complex had grown so much worse.
The king and queen were getting older, there was no denying it, and she thought ahead to the future. Because they were so close to age, either Hilda or Priscilla could be named queen. The Valhallan council had the right to help choose, and they would make their decision in three years, to allow for Priscilla to go and complete finishing school as well; it was only fair.
But they also had to have a fiancé. Which was why Priscilla learned to keep Thaniel close. He was the only good young man she knew of, and she didn’t want to be paired off with another prince, a complete stranger for political gain. She wanted someone who would care about her and respect her, and that was definitely Thaniel.
However, Thaniel would be stuck taking orders from Hilda while Priscilla was gone. Thaniel would be incredibly good to her. He never denied Priscilla anything, so what’s to say he wouldn’t do the same for Hilda? For anyone?
Also, Thaniel was closer to Hilda’s age than to Priscilla’s (by less than a year, but it still weighed on the young princess’ mind). Hilda would have to be on her best behavior for three years and hope that she could win Thaniel’s heart by then. Neither of the princesses was going to find someone like Thaniel, a model example of a good, young man. Even the king and queen knew this, for they treated Thaniel like he was a son.
Hilda wasn’t as beautiful; everyone knew this and Priscilla felt better telling herself so. There were times when Hilda’s personality would match and, while Priscilla never admitted it, she was also as equally horrible. There were times when she chose to play the royalty card, seeing as it was how she got her way so much. She hated doing so in front of Thaniel.
Not only that, but, in all honesty, Priscilla wasn’t all that certain about Thaniel’s feelings for her. They were close, and he had seen every side of her. They were only fourteen, and there was still plenty of time before either Hilda or Priscilla had a chance to become queen… but three years could pass so fast, and she couldn’t help thinking of it now. Would Thaniel really want to spend the rest of his life with her? He would have three years without her to find out what it would be like not to.
The carriage suddenly lurched to the right, tossing Priscilla against the door. Disheveled and immediately annoyed, she opened and stuck her head out the carriage window. “Driver? What’s going on? What was that?”
The man was bent over the front wheel. “The wheel snapped in two, Your Highness. It must be repaired.”
Priscilla gingerly stepped down from the carriage, mindful of her skirts. They were deep in the woods and already running late. They wouldn’t get to the school until well into the next night. “Is there anywhere we can go to get a new one? Fix this one? Why isn’t there a spare?”
The man consulted a map to avoid her questions. “There’s a witch village nearby.”
Priscilla shuddered; she hated witches. “I suppose we have no choice. How do we get there?”
“Bring your belongings and load it onto one of the horses. We’ll ride to the village and see what they can do.”
The witch village was as dark and dank as Priscilla had imagined. Everything was built with blackwood (magical wood from trees that were rumored to have been watered with the blood of witches). It was as if the entire place had been burned and stood standing in a charred remain.
An old woman with beady eyes stood at the gate. She looked like the very definition of a fairy tale witch, the bad kind. “To what do I owe the pleasure, my little princess?” she said hoarsely.
Priscilla mustered all the will she had not to recoil and reveal her disgust.
”We are in need of a new carriage wheel, madam,” said the driver, completely unfazed. “Or, someone who can repair this wheel I have.”
“We are willing to pay anything,” Priscilla chimed in. Anything to leave at once.
The old witch nodded. “You are in luck. Our only witch who is an expert in practical magic is here. Let me summon—oh!”
A small burst of purple smoke materialized next to the old witch, unveiling a young girl. She looked about Priscilla’s age, except with brown hair and plain brown eyes. Priscilla noted she didn’t look like a witch, but it was only a matter of time before her plainness turned to ugliness. The young witch wore a dark cloak, opened in the front to reveal an equally black dress that revealed her knees. Priscilla didn’t like witches, and she especially didn’t like this one.
The old witch swatted the young girl’s arm. “Don’t do that, Mandolin. None of us like it.”
“We all have a flair for drama, Mags. Mistress Stone encourages keeping up appearances.”
The princess noticed how differently the young witch spoke, her r’s harder than normal, like a few of the staff in the mansion—including Thaniel. “Where are you from?” Priscilla asked, surprised the question slipped out.
The girl turned to her with emotionless eyes. “Did you need something, princess?”
Priscilla was immediately insulted by her tone. “You cannot speak to me like that, witch.”
“I can speak however I like, bitch.”
“Ladies, please!” said the driver. He gave the princess a pleading look before he turned to the young witch. “We need this wheel repaired or a new one. We’ll pay anything if you would take the time to help us. Please say you will.”
Priscilla scoffed, embarrassed the driver would ask a witch for help like that.
The young witch smiled at the driver. “Since you said please....” She gestured for the two halves of the wheel.
Mandolin set them on the ground, getting on her knees, studying the parts where the wood snapped; Priscilla noted how quick she was to get dirty. “You need wood varnish by elves—they do the best work. That’ll keep the wood from being so easily damaged. Not even fire will scorch it.”
“Would you happen to have some?” the driver asked.
The young witch dug into her cloak, producing a small bag she could stick her whole arm inside of. “My last bottle. Getting to the Elven woods is a long trip, even from here.” She dipped her index and middle fingers into the bottle, and then she ran them along the broken edges of the wheel before pressing them together. She picked up the fixed wheel and the bottle. “There you go. Apply the varnish to the other wheels. A fresh coat every month is enough.” She handed both the wheel and the charmed varnish to the driver, who was very happy.
“I suppose you want payment?” asked Priscilla. She reached into her dress pocket for her coin purse. “How much do you want?”
The girl looked at her levelly. “Your money’s no good to me, princess.” The older witch smiled.
Priscilla smirked. “Are you sure? You could use a new… everything.”
“Your Highness, please,” said the driver. “We are very grateful. What would you like?” he asked the girl.
The young witch stared at the princess. “I want an honest thank you.”
A little surprised, Priscilla took a moment to respond. “What?”
“I want an honest thank you for my help.”
“Thank you, young miss,” said the driver, bowing slightly from atop his horse. “Thank you for your help.”
“I appreciate that, but I didn’t need it from you,” the young witch replied. “I want it from the princess.”
Priscilla scoffed. “Just as soon as you apologize for calling me a female dog.”
The young witch startled the princess by immediately bowing. “I apologize, princess, for calling you a female dog. It was disrespectful, and I am sorry.” She raised herself, a challenging expression on her face.
The princess straightened up on her horse. “Driver, please proceed back to the carriage and have the wheels repaired by the time I get there.”
Perplexed, the man followed the order. “Just be careful,” he said quietly to her in passing.
Turning back to the witch, Priscilla said, “I do not need to thank you for something you already have to do, witch. It is your duty to aid the royalty that owns this land—allied to us or not. We allow you to live here, so be thankful for that.” This was not exactly true, but Priscilla was sure she would not be questioned.
Surprisingly, the young witch didn’t appear angry. She actually smiled. “Okay, princess, but don’t forget what I tell you. Don’t expect any help from any witch in the near future, because you will not get it until you are thankful for the help you have received and will receive.”
Priscilla kept her dignified appearance as she turned and left, but she still felt a cold shiver down her spine.