When Largee became aware of his prisoner's flight she was furious, and set off at full speed in pursuit. She overtook her just as the poor girl, overcame by fatigue, had lain down to rest in a cave which the stone had formed itself into to shelter her. The little dog who was watching his mistress promptly flew at Largee and bite her so severely that-
The screeching, the voice that immediately sent the girl out of her stories and into reality. She quickly hide the book beneath the straw pile, that also severed as her bed. Gabrielle got up from the kitchen floor and while she knew she should not take a moment longer, but she could not help, but do this last thing. She turned her gaze to the mantle above the fire place. On the mantle sat a small and simple altar that the girl had made with only the barest of materials. The only thing that stood out on the altar was a small wooden statue of a woman with a veil covering her hair. She clasps her hands and bowed her head to the statue.
"Oh, Lady Hestia of Hearth and home. Please guide me for this day." The girl spoke in a small voice
"Gabrielle, get down here this instance!"
At that, she dusted off the soot from her apron and started her way into the main room, where she was hearing the shouts coming from. When Gabrielle arrived, she saw her stepmother and stepsister. Her eldest stepsister, Rosella was sitting up prim and proper, while Estelle ,the younger, was seated, slumped down on the couch, looking bored. Her stepmother was standing up and pacing. Her stepmother's face snapped to hers when she Gabrielle's footsteps enter the room. Gabrielle immediately bowed, before her stepmother.
"Greetings, My Lady Isodara."
She did a curtsey to her unimpressed stepmother. Her stepmother's green eyes peered down, not quite meeting Gabrielle's blue ones. Lady Isodora looked everything a noble woman should be: she was poised, graceful, and beautiful. To the outside world she was soft-spoken, kind, and motherly. However, in the actual manner and especially to her stepdaughter, a different side was shown.
"Why didn't you come when I called you?" Demanded Isodara. She crossed her arms and stared down at her. Gabrielle kept her head down.
"I was sleeping in" She lied, not wanting her stepmother to know of her books. Isodara did not look well upon girls with "strange" hobbies. Reading was for scholars, merchants and people of the state, not girls.
"Lazy creature, after all the things we do for you. You still show yourself to be lazy and spoiled. " Isodara shook her head.
"After you get doing what I summoned you here to do. I want you to wash all the floors on the second floor as punishment for your laziness."
Gabrielle merely nodded, she learned long ago that protesting it only made it worse. She bowed her head again, trying to be as meek and submissive as possible in front of her stepmother.
"What need you have of me, Lady Isodara?" Gabrielle asked in the most polite voice she could manage.
"As you know my lovely daughters have finally come of age." She pointed to her daughters on the couch. Rosella smiled proudly, but Estelle slumped her shoulders, and looked like she couldn't care less.
"Since our wonderful victory over the Kodasians last fall, thanks to our prince. We have entered an era of great prosperity. Also it is time for both our prince to choose a bride." She turned to her daughters on the couch, "And I see two wonderful and beautiful candidates right here." Rosella smirked a bit, and Estelle rolled her eyes and stood up.
"No, thank you Mother. I have no desire to be the bride of a cursed prince." She picked up her green skirts and turned to leave the room, but her mother stomped her foot.
"Hold it right there, Estelle. I can't believe that a woman who prides herself so much on her intelligence would believe in curses." Estelle looked back at her mother, and shook her head.
"It would be foolish to believe I know all the answers in the world and not a thing like blessings and curses could exist." At this Rosella finally spoke,
"I think curses are silly." Rosella brushed her blonde curls behind her ear, as she stood up. Her pink dress decorated with glitter sparkled with every rustle she made. "The king would never allow a cursed heir to take the throne and besides how could a curse prince bring us such prosperity."
Estelle looked at her older sister, and shook her head. "Just because a plentiful harvest comes in the fall that doesn't mean a harsh winter won't follow."
Rosella rolled her eyes at her sister, "Well, whatever. If you don't want Prince Adrian then that means less competition for me, hmpf."
"Good." briskly, replied Estelle, and she once again tried to leave, but was stopped, once again, by her mother.
"Now," Started Lady Isodara, "I don't want to hear about curses or anything else from either of you. You are both going to the balls and try your best to charm Prince Adrian with your wit, beauty and charm, and that is final."
Rosella curtsied, "Of course, Mother I wouldn't dare disappoint you, unlike some." She said, casting a not so unsubtle insult to her sister. Estelle said nothing, but it was clear from her face that she was not happy about this.
Gabrielle stood there, feeling a bit ignored, but she supposed it was a good thing. Isodara had not even considered her a possible candidate for the prince's bride. Like always she had been thrown to the side. It was not like she was desiring to be the princess, but she wished her stepmother would at least treat her like her other blood daughters. Oh, what a foolish thought. Here she was dressed in rags and a servant's uniform while her stepsisters were dressed in lovely gowns. Estelle and Rosella were in fancy bedroom with their own plush beds; while was she sleeping on straw in the kitchen.
The girl tried not to think of it so negatively. At least she had a head over her roof and Lady Isodara wasn't forcing her to try to marry the prince. She knew of the curse. Everyone in the kingdom did. She was not sure if she believed it or not, but from what the people in the town had whispered about the prince and his merciless ways in battle, she was actually rather frightened of the idea of marrying such a man.
It was better to be married to the poorest farmer in the world; who loved you with all his heart than to the richest prince who was cursed to have no heart.
"Gabrielle." Her stepmother had finally turned her attention back to her.
"Yes, Lady Isodara?" She curtsied again.
"The prince is currently in town as we speak and a ball will be held in his honor tomorrow night. We must have the best dresses for my lovely daughters. I want you to deliver this order to Miss Goose." Miss Goose was the dress maker and the best in town. Gabrielle didn't have any problems with Miss Goose and was rather fond of her. She remembered, fondly, of going to her ship to get dresses while her mother and father was still alive.
"A ball?" She whispered, she hadn't been to a ball since her father was still alive.
Her stepmother nodded, "Yes, a wonderful and glorious ball, and a masquerade one."
"Very romantic and dreamy!" squealed, Rosella, who gave a trill. "All the music, gowns, dancing, and of course, the prince!" She gave a squeal of pure delight. Estelle let out a bored yawn,
"I rather stay home and play with my kittens."
Rosella let out a hump at that, "If you aren't careful those cats are all you'll end up with."
"Good, cats are better company than any men could be."
Gabrielle was secretly amused at the fight that was starting between her sisters, but kept any grins to herself. However, she couldn't help, but be envious that they got to go to the ball, but she did not. The girl had asked many times before, but the answer was always no. She often had gotten more punishments for merely asking if she could go. On explaining her absences from the ball, Lady Isodara had convinced most of the other nobles that since her father's death she had become a hermit and didn't want anything to do with polite society anymore.
Her stepmother broke her thoughts by slipping a piece of paper into her hand and Gabrielle looked down on it to see it was designs for the dresses that she wanted Miss Goose to make. They were very elaborate and rich designs. Just by looking at them Gabrielle could tell that Rosella would adore her's, but that Estelle would think she looked like an overdressed peacock.
"I will be on my way, Lady Isodara" and she slipped the paper into her apron pocked. Her stepmother nodded and dismissed her. Gabrielle walked back to the kitchen, as she heard her stepsisters argue, mostly with Rosella insulting Estelle, and Estelle making snide remarks back until their mother demanded they both go back to their rooms.
As she entered the kitchen, she felt something furry brush up against her ankle. She looked down to see a cat as dark as midnight at ankle. She bent to pick it up.
"Why hello, Astrid." The black cat meowed back at her. Gabrielle stroked the little thing. Astrid had been with her since her mother was still around. In many ways Astrid was the last piece of her family that she truly had left. She stroked her a few more times before setting her down.
"I have to go now, sweetie." The cat gave a meow, in almost a protest.
"I know Astrid, but you know my stepmother. If I don't follow her orders, right away, she will just give me more work and take away my meals. She walked past the feline and fetched her shawl from the rack and placed it over her shoulders. The shawl, like everything else she owned, was warn and shabby with many ill matching patches and stitches to it.
"Good day, Astrid and I pray you catch many mice." She then left the kitchen and into the bright sunlight. It was a beautiful morning. Gabrielle tucked her blonde hair behind her ear and set off. She actually enjoyed chores where she was set out on the town. When her father was still alive they use to take walks to the lake everyday where they would leave offerings to the nymphs and faeries. Oh, speaking of offerings...
The blonde girl wavered from her path a bit, and came to a river bank. She carefully, made her way to the side of it and looked down to the clear waters to the river bed full of pebbles and rocks. She hiked up her skirts to her knees and began to look through the wet bed. Gabrielle felt through the stones and peddles, as the water slide over her hands.
"Ah, ha!" She called when she felt it. She then raised her hands from the water to reveal a smooth and shiny peddle between her fingers.
"Yes, perfect." She quickly moved from the river bank and unto dry land; where she dried the pebble with her apron. "You will do just perfectly." She smiled brightly at the peddle before putting it into her apron pocket and continued on her way. It had been a while since her stepmother had sent her out and she intended to enjoy it as much as she could, but she was on a time limited. The blonde girl still remembered that she needed to wash the floors on the second story. If she was too late; Isodara might add even more or even make her loose her meager supper.
She came to the cross roads and in the center was a plague of a woman with a torch in each hand and she was surrounded by dogs. Beneath the plague was a large offering bowl. It was full of things ranging from acorns, stones, pieces of paper to even a few coins and a few minor pieces of jewelry. Despite it's public and ill-guarded place it was rarely stolen from due to it's rumor curses to be bestowed upon any who soled from this Goddess of the Underworld. A priestess would come at the end of the week to collect what had been offered at the crossroads.
Gabrielle bowed before plague and produced the bright smooth pebble from her apron pocket. She gently placed it in the offering bowl before saying,
"Great Goddess, Hecate. She of the Underworld Queen of witches, watcher of the crossroads. Let my journey be safe to and fro." She rose from her bowing position and smiled at the image of the Goddess. She knew her stepmother and stepsisters never gave a crossroads offering or even a prayer. Hecate was not a "fashionable" Goddess at the moment and that would lose Isodara's and Rosella's interest right off. Estelle never had an interested in Gods and the only prayer she claimed to have ever said was for them to leave her alone. Gabrielle found it funny that someone who believed in curses didn't care for the Gods. The blonde took one last glance at the plague before she made her way into town.
She loved town, the people, smells, and just the life that existed in it. Back at the manor she was often so lonely; with her only company Astrid and her books. While she loved her cat and her books; she supposed every human needed human interaction. Her stepmother would never give her time beyond giving orders and punishments. Rosella never acknowledge her except to tease her and get her help with something. Estelle just didn't acknowledge her, but then again she hardly acknowledged anyone.
Suddenly, Gabrielle thoughts were interrupted by a bump to her side. She looked down to see a little boy in a brown cap. He looked up smiling brightly at Gabrielle and hugged her tightly around the waist.
"Oh, Gabrielle!" He cried, "It has been so long since you have been in the village." He hugged her even tighter. The blonde put her hand lightly on his back and patted it.
"Why, yes it has Aaron."
"Is your mean stepmother keeping you locked up in the attic?"
"Oh, goodness no, I am not in the attic."
"Then where are you sleeping at?" He inquired, "Don't tell me you are sleeping in the same room you had; when your father was alive."
She hesitated for a moment, "I am in the kitchen, but it's nicer than you think. It is always warm because of the fire and it smells good from all the things baking in it." She tried to assure him.
Aaron gave her a look, "A kitchen is no place for a noble girl to sleep. Your stepmother is a witch!"
"Now, Aaron stop saying such things. She is not a witch and besides not all witches are bad and you know that." She lightly scolded him, "I am well feed and given clothing." Even if it is full of holes and patches, she added silently.
"Yeah, but are you happy?" He looked up to her with sincere brown eyes. He was honestly worried for her. Gabrielle remembered when she use to play with him in the gardens; before her father's death. That was before her stepmother had banned all commoners (who were not workers or servants) from attending the manor.
Gabrielle looked down, she couldn't bring herself to tell that deep of a lie.
"I know you can't be happy. "Answered Aaron for her, "I remember when Isodara sent all your father's library books to the village to be sold. The collection your great-grandfather started. I can't believe she got rid of all those books, just to make room for a ballroom."
Gabrielle sadly nodded, and looked down at Aaron, "Can I tell you a secret?"
He nodded strongly,
"I managed to take four books before she got ride of them. I am hiding them under where I sleep in."
Aaron smiled, brightly at this, "Clever girl." He gave a laugh, "I doubt they would even set foot in the kitchen so your secret is safe with me." Gabrielle smiled back at him.
"Gabrielle, I have some good news."
"What is it, Aaron?"
"My brother, John, is back from the war."
She clasped her hands together, "Oh, that's wonderful, I never imagined that any solider would be back so fast. The campaign only ended a month ago."
At this Aaron's face dropped, "Will he left...early." Gabrielle's face dropped as well. This could only mean one thing; desertion.
"I see," She said, with a nod, "I hope you enjoy your time with your brother." And pray he doesn't get caught by the prince. Everyone knew exactly what Prince Adrian did to deserters. She gave him a tighter hug at that.
"I enjoy talking to you, Aaron, but I must be on the way. I have to see Miss Goose." Aaron let go of her.
"Let me guess to get her spoiled daughter's pretty dresses for the ball; while you get nothing." Gabrielle looked away, but said nothing; confirming his suspicions. She readjusted her shawl.
"Good bye Aaron." She bent to kiss him on her forehead. A slight blush crept over his tan cheeks. She smiled down on him, before turning to leave. She continued her journey through town, Taking in the sights and sounds of all around her. It felt so good to get away from that manner and her step family. As she passed the baker's shop a voice came out.
"Hey!" The blonde turned to see a ginger girl, with a handkerchief tied over her hair exiting the bakery. Her apron was smudged by flower and icing. The ginger walked up to Gabrielle.
"Are you Gabrielle; Estelle's stepsister?" She looked at the blonde girl for a moment and nodded. Wondering what she could want with her and Estelle. The ginger girl reached into her pocket and pulled out a letter.
"Could you deliver this letter just to Estelle and only to Estelle; not letting anyone else see it?" Asked, the bakery girl. Gabrielle gave her a look, wondering about this. What was going on? Why did this girl want her to deliver this so secretly. Was Estelle in trouble? Estelle was always so cautious and practical. She couldn't imagine her stepsister up to any mischief.
"Please," pressed the Ginger girl, "I promise it is nothing bad, I swear on my patron Artemis." Gabrielle thought, swearing on your patron God or Goddess was a serious matter. So she decided; why not? Gabrielle nodded, and the ginger girl released tension in her face as she handed the letter to the blonde. Gabrielle slipped the note into her other apron pocket. She did a courtesy for the bakery girl.
"Have a good day." The ginger thanked her and went back to the bakery; leaving Gabrielle to wonder what that was about. However, she couldn't waist anymore time. She needed to get to Miss Goose's shop as fast as she could. She hurried the rest of the way until she came the dress shop. The door above the door chimed as she entered.
"Why I don't believe my eyes. Is that little Gabrielle coming to by my door." Gabrielle would turn and see a plump woman dressed in purple. The blonde girl immediately nodded, and both women ran for a hug.
"Oh, I remember when you use to come in here with your mother; back when I was fitting her for balls. Oh, she was such a beautiful woman and you take so well after her."
Gabrielle blushed at this, and shook her head, "I do not have my mother's beauty."
Miss Goose laughed, "Humble as always, and speaking of humble look at that shabby dress your stepmother has put you in." Miss Goose gestured to her dress, which made Gabrielle's cheeks turn crimson with shame. She wish she could present herself so much better to the stylish woman, but alas these rags were all her stepmother would spare her.
"They are comfortable." She told Miss Goose.
"With those holes and patches, I think not."
Gabrielle bit her lip and decided to change the subject she produced the paper of the dress designs for Miss Goose. She handed it to her.
Miss Goose went to inspect the designs an gave a hum.
"Well at least now when the menfolk complain about how much their taxes have raised since your father died; I can show them these not-so-humble dress designs as the reason."
Gabrielle couldn't help, but let out a small giggle at that. Taxes had increased greatly under Lady Isodara's rule and it is in no small due to the luxury she surrounded herself and her daughter's in.
"However," Came Miss Goose, "I notice there are, but designs for two dresses. Meaning one unlucky girl is being left out." She gave Gabrielle a once over and the blonde bowed her head in embarrassment.
Miss Goose rolled up the designs, "I hear that Lady Isodara likes to arrive to balls early, is that not true?"
Gabrielle nodded, "My stepmother has never believed in fashionably late and gets there, very early."
"Hhhmm..." went Miss Goose, "I suppose that leaves you all alone in the manor."
"Oh, yes it does; not that I mind it." She looked the quite time since it gave her time to read her books and play with Astrid.
"Would you do me a favor?" Asked, Miss Goose, "After getting ready for balls, my shop is usually such a mess. If you could come by and help tidy it up. That would be wonderful. After your step family leaves of course and I will pay you for it."
Money, thought Gabrielle. Her stepmother never paid her for her work, and maybe if she got enough she could buy a new book.
"Of course, I will."
The plump woman smiled, "Wonderful dear, just wonderful. Now be along dear, I am sure that stepmother of yours has plenty of work for you to do."
Gabrielle thanked her and said goodbye, feeling excited at getting to earn money and possibly another book. She had read the four books she owned so many times that she had memorized them well. A new adventure would be wonderful.
She happily made her way out of the village, however as she passed the crossroads; she heard the sound of hooves. She would turn to see none other than Aaron on horseback. The moment she saw his face she knew something was wrong.
"What's the matter?" She asked him, coming up to the side of the horse.
"It's my brother." tears were threatening to come out of his eyes. "He's been captured by the prince! They're going to executed him and I have to stop them!
At that moment, Gabrielle made a split-second decision. "I am coming with you too." She wasn't going to let one of the few friends she had left face the possibly of his brother's death alone.
"Then come on."
Gabrielle got onto the horse and straddled it. She wrapped her arms tightly around Aaron's middle and off they went in what would be a desperate rescue mission.