“Heads down, eyes to the ground at all times. You get one chance at this, understood? One and only one. Don’t make me regret my decision to choose you girls,” Mia stated, marching us through the steamy kitchen to the back of the house. She was a trim, fit woman in her mid-forties with soft blonde curls falling to the middle of her back. Today she had braided it tightly, the slight touches of gray adding to the beauty of the intricate knot at the base of her neck. Her apron was tied at her waist, emphasizing the curves she still had from never bearing children. Mia ran the castle with a fierceness and competency she had been learning from her own mother at a young age; as the task of housekeeper was passed down generation to generation. “This garden is the beating heart of Hillfield Keep. We survive because of the food it provides, we heal with the necessary ingredients grown here because of it, and we please the Lady because of its beauty. This is more than a square patch of dirt and a bunch of weeds, girls. This is one of the most important jobs on the grounds and it is hard work.”
Sighing, I lifted my skirts to tread carefully down the moisture slicked steps and trailed the other five girls at the back of the line. My head pounded from the sudden change of pressure from the humid kitchen to the open, breeze of spring.
“Lily, can you tell me where most of the produce in our garden goes?”
Nodding, a girl toward the front pointed behind us to the castle walls. Her eyes smiled; a hint of mischief always present in the green depths. She hadn’t spoken since we were four, choosing to communicate only with signs and gestures. No one had ever discovered why.
“That’s correct,” Mia said, smiling in return at Lily. “Most think what we grow makes its way to the villages but the villages for the most part are self-sustaining.”
I turned away, the lull of the conversation boring me. The warmth of the sun soaked in my pores filling my heart with edged light and homesickness. I missed the smell of summer grass and traveling the creek beds, my feet dipping in the frigid clear water. I had been working at the castle for three months, traveling miles away from my home to Hillfield Keep on my sixteenth birthday. I had been put through the typical ringer, trying to determine where I would best be positioned: in the kitchen, as the ladies’ maiden, the gardens, collected eggs, milked the cows, and learned from the washerwomen. I held each position for a few weeks at a time, on a constant rotation to see where my talents lay.
To my dismay, I’d been hand selected for the gardens by Mia, easily the most favored job to be chosen for. Women of all ages envied the garden girls and their duties. I felt there was nothing to envy. While it could have been worse, I was not altogether happy with the position. I had no right to be choosy and no reason to be unhappy but against my own volition my eyes drifted to the stables.
“Is there a problem, Thea?”
“No, ma’am,” I whispered, turning back to pay attention to her tour with a sour sadness tugging at my shoulders. “Work hard, stay humble.”
A tight smile lifted Mia’s lips as I repeated the mantra all of us had been quoting since we first learned to speak. It was murmured after every prayer, at every end of the day when we sat down for evening meal, and each morning when we gathered before work. We were not to feel anything but the relief and satisfaction of strenuous or tedious work, of dirt under our fingernails, and sweat down our backs. My desire to be in the stables and not the garden would be considered shameful if I shared the confession with anyone. I would be punished until I forgot about the stables all together and accepted my fate.
“There are only a few rules here. I will run through them quickly, so please pay attention,” Mia crowed, marching us around the perimeter. “One, do not take anything from this garden for yourself. Two, you do not let anyone in this fence other than yourself and the girls surrounding you. Three, you don’t speak to the men when they pass. And lastly, you do not under any circumstances sing nor play while you work here. Nod if this is understood.”
Nods rippled through the group and down the line to me. Rebellion flooded my veins and my mouth opened of its own accord-
“Why can’t we sing?”
Hushed intakes of breath and sour looks were thrown my way as each girl turned to stare at my blatant questioning.
Mia brows knitted together when our eyes met, the sting of embarrassment flooding my cheeks.
“Thea, the garden is different than the stables. Here, everyone can hear you. In the stables, you’re out of earshot. That’s the only reason it’s tolerated there. I know the ache it must bring you but please, darling, do not sing here. Everyone could be punished for such an act,” Mia answered, pleading to my conscience. “It will be an adjustment for all of you but I promise it is well worth it. Think things over tonight and if you have questions for me tomorrow, we will go over them. Then the work begins.”
Signaling our release, I turned to go with the other girls before Mia reached out to stop me.
“Come with me,” she whispered, gently touching my arm.
I followed her obediently away from the gardens, out past the pristine yard, and into the back courtyard where guests were escorted in. The rose bushes were in full bloom, dots of pink and red and white dominating the space with out-of-place beauty. My feet drug against the dewy grass while my head continued to pound.
“Are you alright, Thea?”
Taken aback, I turned toward Mia and tilted my head in question.
“Child,” she murmured, “I’m no fool. I’ve been doing this for many years. I have never seen a more disappointed face when I’ve announced a garden position.”
Blinking away a sudden rush of tears, I tugged on my own apron and fiddled with a loose string. I had desperately tried to hide how upset I’d been that morning when Mia had pulled me into the garden group. Staring resolutely at the closest wall, I’d fought the tears and anger brewing under the surface.
“I just don’t understand, Mia,” I said, finally glancing up at her face. “I know I’m lucky to be granted a garden position but it was no secret how badly I wanted the stable spot. It was no secret how badly I’m needed there.”
My short first week of stable work had brought me back to life after having to leave my family and our animals behind. The ease I felt with the horses and the steady rhythm of grooming, exercising, feeding, and saddling for the royals had been the highlight of my days. Even after I’d switched rotations and been designated another spot, I returned to the stables every night. Greeted with camaraderie I’d fought for with every bit of my being, I’d finally found a place I felt safe. It hadn’t been easy gaining the men’s trust and favor; they’d spent days watching my every move like hawks before they realized I was secure and gifted in the area.
“Thea,” Mia started, taking a step back away from me, “just try to remain diligent.”
That was all she said before walking away from me, my gut dropping to the ground knowing I had no support from her. Sympathy maybe, but not support. Diligence. Deal with it.
In my heart I knew I wasn’t given the stable spot because it made me happy. No one was allowed to be happy here. We weren’t bred for singing and dancing and smiling. We weren’t bred to appreciate the beauty of a newborn foal or a stud’s rippling muscles in the paddock. We were bred for work. I’d been stripped of the one thing which brought me to life because it would’ve made me a target.
And targets died at Hillside Keep.
Copyright © 2016 Pearl Bayou