Thirteen years later…
A pointed foot, dug deep into the ribs, was what woke her from her deep slumber. “Eleri! You stupid, lazy child, wake yourself! You will not make me late to prepare King Claudius’s breakfast. Up, orphan!” There was another swift kick, and then a shuffling as her tormenter hastily exited the room. The echo of clumsy footsteps sounded from the long, winding staircase near her bedroom.
The call of a nightingale made Eleri’s eyes open slowly. The bird chirped outside her window as though greeting Mother Earth with its song. Sunlight streamed into the cramped, dirty room, lightening the shadows that had stowed away there. The darkness glimmered with a life that had been hidden away until Dawn slid its fingers between the shutters.
There were other sounds besides that of the bird, which reached her ears in a symphony. The nearby wheat field, gaily swaying in a light breeze, sighed and moaned like a chorus of woodwinds. A cricket on the windowsill used his back legs to lend his services to the violin’s cause. Even the hooves of the wild, stampeding horses in the woods added percussion to the medley. But, not even a whisper of the music issued from inside her tiny corner of the castle. She could not use her voice to create her own pleasure. It was forbidden. Every morning she would awake and defy orders in her own way, finding her music in the churnings of the outside world. She rolled over, face to the wall, trying to regain a morsel of rest.
The door swung open with an incredible bang. “I said, UP!” Bony fingers dug into her shoulders and hauled her into the air. The woman who battered viciously at Eleri’s prone body was Morales, the task master who presided over all servants of the castle. She whirled the girl around and stooped her crooked back to look into her face, pebble-like eyes narrowing over her bird’s beak of a nose. It was like standing before the executioner after being proclaimed guilty by the court.
With a swift jerk of her wrist, Morales produced a scraggly comb from somewhere within the folds of her black robe and began mercilessly tugging it through Eleri’s long tangle of honey blonde hair. “Every day, every single day since you arrived, I’ve done nothing but play nursemaid,” she muttered under her breath. Satisfied with her grooming job, she clucked disapprovingly at the dirty nightgown Eleri wore. She crossed the room to a small wooden chest and removed a clean dress and apron from it. “Get dressed and be downstairs in five minutes. That’s five, not six! Five!” She forced the clothing bundle into Eleri’s chest, pushing the child back two full steps with the force of the contact, before stomping from the room in a huff.
Eleri twitched as the scratchy material of the gown rubbed against her skin. She stood before her looking glass and held the articles of clothing before her petite frame. A smile spread over her face. “You’re a duchess, visiting from a faraway kingdom, dressing in disguise to see how the real citizens live,” she whispered to the thin girl reflected back at her. It was her game, the fastest way she knew to imagine herself out of reality. She wasn’t Eleri, servant to the King. She was Princess Eleri, spinning in a gown of silk. She was Adventurer Eleri, ready to voyage to worlds both known and beyond the realm of imagination.
Then, her gaze paused as it traveled up to her face. She sighed. There, for all the world to see, was the thing that set her apart; it was what would never allow her to fit in. Behind her fragile lashes were not the common eyes of ocean blue or jade-like green or hazelnut brown. No, she had a hue that was almost as much of a curse as it was a gift to her.
People from all over the kingdom of Ambrist had heard of the mysterious child who toiled away daily within the walls of the castle. They called her Amethyst Eyes, for her glass-like eyes were the tender purple of the precious stone. Eleri had never met another child with the same feature, and no one could tell her why she possessed it.
There were stories, of course. Rumor had been that the she was a descendant of a rival kingdom, taken away during the blackest of nights as insurance against invasion. Other stories told of a vagabond girl who had wandered the forest for years before finally landing on the castle’s steps, where The Tyrant took pity on her since he had no children of his own. Some of the darkest tales said she had been kidnapped, and her family slaughtered. But Eleri had never known what was true and what was fable.
She only knew one thing: this was her life, the life of a servant. From the moment the sun showed his beaming face over the horizon to the time when the moon forced him from his place in the sky, Eleri’s time was spent toiling within the dark castle. She had no loving mother to run to for comfort, no caring father to hold her in strong arms and share his worldly wisdom with her. They had gone long before Eleri could even recall.
Her feet led her over to the small window chiseled from the center of her wall. There it was, Davenier, a town as full of hope as it was fear. It was the royal city, Ambrist’s crown jewel. She rested her elbow on the window ledge, leaned her cheek upon one hand, and gazed out into the distance. From her room, she could see the whole city spread out below her like the face of a coin. It was separated piece by piece according to profession. For so many years, she’d watched life go on from her third-story nest, part of that pell-mell world and yet separate from it. The Whispering Forest rose just past Davenier’s outer boundary, dark and ominous. Her home, Bonswerth Castle, or the Castle of the Tyrant as most townspeople called it, rose from the earth to a defiant height, almost as tall as the oldest trees of the forest. The two edifices stared each other down in a never-ending challenge. One as old and mysterious as time; the other steadfast and cold as death.
The engaging circus below wasn’t what usually captured Eleri’s gaze, though. She leaned out over the ledge, stopping only slightly before losing her balance, and felt the corners of her mouth stretch wide. This angle let her see a small section of, not where the villagers worked, but where they lived. A small field situated off to the east of the castle stretched humbly into the hills, dotted here and there with family cottages. Thin trails of smoke rose from a few, evidence of women preparing breakfast before their men left for the day. Eleri’s fingers tightened on the stone beneath her. Her thoughts painted a picture of a warm front room where a mother and father kissed goodbye every morning, where the children lay cuddled in bed through the adjoining doorway. What she wouldn’t give for a taste of the life cradled within those hills.
From down below, a shriek traveled along the stone walls and tore her from the fantasy. “Five minutes, Eleri!”
After hastily swapping out her nightgown for the servant dress, Eleri left her room and began to descend the castle stairs. Remember, you are a duchess today, she insisted to herself. She lifted her head up slightly and drew back her shoulders. The annoyance that crossed Morales’ face when she saw her made Eleri smile inwardly.
Morales held out a tall, pronged instrument before Eleri’s foot left the final step. Her face was stern. “I want you to go clean the stables this morning. King Claudius has important visitors today, and we must be presentable in every way. Don’t shirk. The stable hands will be reporting to me on your work,” she instructed crisply.
Eleri’s fingers curled around the handle of the pitchfork. She glanced down at her stubby nails, stained black with the dirt and grime of her castle work. Without a word, she trudged off to follow orders. Her mind, though, was hurling back insults at every step. This is a page boy’s job, not a servant girl’s, she thought reproachfully.
The stables smelled of horse and sweat and more that she didn’t want to dwell on when she appeared before the wide-set doors. Wisps of straw lay scattered about in all directions and muffled the sound of her movements. A boy came forward, not much older than she, and handed her a large wooden bin that came up to her waist. Morales must have told him she was coming. Eleri noticed the boy was determined not to meet her eyes. He shuffled off the moment he was certain she knew her duties.
With a sigh, she moved to the first empty stall. The stench was horrendous, even worse than at the entrance to the stables, causing her to take a step back and look longingly at the outside world. The courtyard with its dappled shadows and loudly flapping crimson flags called to her. Her hands tightened on the handle of her pitchfork, and she turned dutifully back to her task. The pile wasn’t too big. She could handle this.
The first load made her arms shakes so much she almost dropped the pitchfork. Her chest swelled as she tried to take in great lungful’s of air, giving her the strength she lacked. Still half of the waste missed the bin when she attempted to dump it in. She lowered the pitchfork and felt the slight ache that raced through her bones. Not for the first time, she mentally cursed Morales, but she bent her knees and took up another shovelful, smiling softly when her arms didn’t quite shake as badly as before.
“Eleri!” an eager voice called out.
She whirled around, nearly sending her burden flying across the floor. The sight that met her eyes filled her with a slow-building warmth. The girl who had called out to her was a slender, smiling youth just a couple years older than herself. “Mira,” Eleri snapped under her breath. The girl’s long red hair danced in a non-existent breeze as she trotted up to Eleri’s side. “What are you doing here?”
Mira arched a delicate eyebrow at her. A mischievous spark lightened her hazel eyes. “I overheard the task Morales assigned to you. She’ll never notice if I slip out for a bit,” she explained. Her mouth spread into a grin that always seemed too big for her face. Eleri loved that grin.
“But you’ll get punished for helping me if she catches you!”
The exclamation was met with a harsh laugh. “What beating haven’t I already endured from her? I’m not leaving you to muck out this place on your own.” She planted herself firmly before Eleri, feet spread and hands on her hips, daring her to argue.
Challenging her was useless, and Eleri knew it. She peered into her friend’s eyes for a moment, searching for even the smallest hint of hesitancy. She found none. She never did where it concerned Mira. It was either dive in headfirst or enjoy the sunlight on the shore with her. “I can never win with you anyways,” she muttered, bringing that grin to Mira’s face again. Without a word, Mira strode to the corner of the stalls, where all of the tools used by the stable boys were hung in methodical order, and came strolling back with an instrument almost identical to the one Eleri had been given. Together, they turned and re-entered the stall, sunlight glinting off the prongs of their pitchforks. The pile of waste before them was an adversary, a rival army.
It was an army they would defeat together.