Summary: Felicia was sold into slavery as a babe, and raised to be both taciturn and obedient. Yet even as she plays the part of the perfect servant, her thoughts are never quiet and her opinions never half-hearted. Her one true dream is to be nothing other than free. This story traces four years of her life. Each year is spent with a different owner, who range from the cruel Lord Enlar to the kindly Lord Henry, from the decadent luxury of Prince Gregory's domain to the humble abode of Michael's farm. Along the way, she meets and overcomes what romantic tribulations she encounters. In the end, she must chose between that which she loves, and that which she needs.
The Enlar Estate
Every kingdom, no matter how remote or exotic, was built on the backs of unfortunates. A king will never pin up his sleeves and drop to his knees in the mud. He passes this duty onto his inferiors, who then pass the task onto their inferiors. In the end, all work is accomplished by the class that has no inferior. That class would be the slaves and vassals.
A slave ever since I could remember, I have called several households my home. Never have I felt the grazing of satin across my skin, nor have I tasted the fine spices from far away lands. I have known hard work all my life. One can usually find me on the floors scrubbing the wood planks clean of dirt tracks. I have never experienced a life in a fine manor, nor have I suffered horrendous winters in small huts of the poor. None of my masters have been particularly cruel people. They usually choose to ignore me throughout their days of work.
When a precise moment came that I was allowed to gaze in the mirror, I was never impressed with what I saw. My skin was browned from all the years of exposure to the sun. My eyes were dark and my hair was the shimmering hue of burgundy, thin as a blade of grass and just as straight. I didn't have blinding refinement nor the witty charm of my fellow workers. If I had not looks or humor to set me apart, I had my own thoughts.
In a world such as mine, many would consider a woman thinking as dangerous. In a woman's life, what is the use of thought? We were created for one purpose: to have children and to tend them. We were not created to read or write or do mathematics. But I could not help being fascinated by the foreign sweeps and dips of letters or the painful logic of numbers. And when I was alone on my small cot, ready for sleep, I sometimes pondered deep thoughts, such as politics and philosophy. When my master conversed with his associates, I would sometimes listen in and hope that someday I would be able to do the same. Their conversations intrigued me, and every day I thirsted for more knowledge.
I'd been sold several times over my life. It was usually due to the fact that the master could no longer afford to feed me. And at the age of fourteen, I was beginning to become a liability. A young woman sometimes attracted unwanted attention and distracted workers. There were always the chances that the slave woman would have a child, and that the child would need to be fed as well.
Of course, I wasn't aware that I was being sold until a tall bearded man with Lord Enlar's emblem strapped across his chest came into the tavern one day. Lord Enlar was the local noble, though he rarely appeared in person to anyone of negligible status. I knew little about Lord Enlar and his family. Life went on in this small town as if he did not govern them.
"Sir Sefton, you've arrived!" I heard my master say through the wall. I was currently sweeping the cobwebs from the rafters in the kitchen while a few of his cooks bustled around, preparing brew and bread. "Would you like something to drink?"
"I've not much time," Sir Sefton snapped. "Just show me what you've got."
"Of course," the master gushed, then slammed his way into the kitchen. All work stopped as the cooks and myself looked up to watch him. My master was a short, balding man more annoying than frightening. Sir Sefton, on the other hand, was tall and gruff, speaking through a bushy graying beard. It was clear that his knight career had not treated him well.
"You said you had three girls?"
"Yes, sir." My master motioned toward two smaller girls working the hearth, and then to me. "Come and stand in front of Sir Sefton quickly."
The two other girls were a few years younger than me, with faces covered in soot and dull eyes, for they had no thoughts to get them through the cold nights and the exhausting days. As long as I held onto my dreams and my hopes, I would not lose the spirit that danced in my eyes.
"These are them?" Sir Sefton growled, looking incredibly displeased. "They look like street rats."
"I am sorry, sir. I had not anticipated your arrival so soon. I would have had them cleaned up for you--"
"Be silent," Sir Sefton barked, then began to inspect the three of us. It was usual routine for me by now. He checked us for illness, and then would squeeze our arms to assess our muscle. It was obvious that our next job would not be an easy one. "I don't like this one." He pointed to the girl with gold hair and bloodshot green eyes. She was trying to cover up shivers. "She is sick." His gaze snapped over to the two of us. "And the other young one looks as if she couldn't pick up a kettle." He then nodded at me. "But this one will do. She is older, but I'm sure that her age will aid her in work."
So I left my old master and followed Sir Sefton to his horse, which was tied outside. He rode upon a well-mannered dark bay with a white blaze down its domed face.
"Can you follow?" Sir Sefton asked. "Tying you up is a hassle."
I nodded sharply, aware that knights and other men of authority hated verbose females.
"If you run, I will have no problem chasing you down," he continued, his eyes severe. "My horse against your legs are no equal match."
"I will not run," I promised him, and I would not. I'd tried it once when I was a small child and I still had a dent in my left shoulder from where the man hit me with the blunt of his sword.
"Make sure that you don't," he spat, then straddled his horse. "And stay in front, where I can see you."
I did as he bid. He nodded in satisfaction and we began to march smartly toward the southern hills. I had no idea to how far Lord Enlar's castle would be. I'd walked far distances before, but I preferred not to, for my footwear only consisted of thin leather slippers haphazardly sewn with a clumsy needle. I dared not ask Sir Sefton. A slave cannot look her master in the eye, let alone ask him a question directly.
I knew little of how I came to be a slave. I was told by those that had been close to my mother that it had not been her choice to have a child, that she'd been only around my age when she'd given birth to me. Exhausted and sick, my mother tried to earn money for herself and her daughter but could not. In order to save herself, she sold her daughter for food. It was not the most noble thing to do, but of course that was how many slaves became property. I was not ashamed of my mother. She'd only done what she thought she had to do and I was probably happier as a slave. I always had a roof over my head, and though work could be harsh, I never went to bed terribly hungry. There were times when I longed for a mother, like the ones I heard in so many fairy tales. I wanted a mother to hum me to sleep, and to sit at my bedside when I grew sick. Eventually I grew out of such daydreams and returned to reality. No one would be my mother. Even as I grew to be a young woman and as my body changed, I knew that no one, not even the older women that lurked in the household, would give me advice. So I had learned to bite my lip and never voice my thoughts to those who were not close.
We stopped for the night by a small running stream. Sir Sefton said little as he made a fire and set up a small hammock to sleep on. He tied his horse to a picket line, and finally decided it would be safer to tie me than to sleep while I was free. I didn't even have the grace of a picket line. A rough, thick rope circled my wrists and held me against a big oak tree. Sir Sefton was kind enough though to give me a few scraps of meat and soup from his dinner, and I went to sleep with a warm stomach and dry clothing.
The next day we rose just as daylight touched the hills, and once again I walked in front of Sir Sefton's hefty bay horse, forcing my tired feet into hasty strides.
By midday, I could detect the silhouette of a stone structure in the distance, surrounded by tiny hovels. It took effort to keep myself from running toward it. I'd never seen a castle before, and it amazed me. We soon neared the lord's town, where the streets were paved with smooth stones and shops sold their many golden trinkets and baskets of raw produce. The town was larger than I had ever seen. There were even some houses with more than one floor. People of all shapes and colors crowded the streets, shouting to the masses. Donkeys, oxen, goats and sheep darted across my path, some pulling carts and some amidst huge herds being driven by shepherds. Brigades of horses trotted through, carrying atop their backs tall knights with straight spines and stolid faces. I tried to keep my face from revealing amazement, but sometimes I failed. The buildings began to thin as we approached the cold outline of the stone castle. The feeling approaching me was that of . . . disappointment? What had I expected? Somehow I had wanted a warm sunset behind bright battlements, lined with golden trimmed flags and lit torches to ward off the oncoming darkness. But all there was were cold stone walls and long prairie grass gently swaying in the breeze.
"Pick up the pace," Sir Sefton ordered. I hadn't realized I'd been lagging. I obliged accordingly and kept up a quick march in front of the iron shoes hitting the gravel under our feet.
We stopped outside of the drawbridge. Two men wearing Enlar's purple and green coat of arms stood outside, holding long spears where, at the top, small flags fluttered in the breeze. Sir Sefton nudged his horse sideways with his spur and acknowledged the taller man with the gray eyes and the full head of red hair.
"I'm Sir Sefton, and I've come with a gift for Lord Enlar. May I pass?"
The knight stood aside, nodding solemnly. Sir Sefton's horse pushed into me with its shoulder and I stumbled onto the thick wood of the drawbridge. The moat looked most unpleasant with green slurry water that smelled of human waste. The bottom was lined with what looked like pointed rods. I gulped, wondering if there was a good reason Lord Enlar barricaded his castle so well. I saw no men in the towers or trekking along the crenellated wall, so I supposed it was all just for show.
The drawbridge was yanked up behind us. After passing through a wrought iron portcullis, we passed into a large cobblestone bailey, with beautiful green hedges and even a small pool filled with the water drainage from a ledge alongside the wall. The enormous stone Keep rose up in front of me, notched with windows that looked like black eyes glaring down at me. There were wooden planked houses alongside the Keep which must have been where the guards stayed and lived. I'd been expecting a more lively scene. Only a few men trotted across the bailey and they glanced at neither Sir Sefton or me as we passed.
A scrawny boy fled down the Keep's steps and stopped in front of Sir Sefton. Sir Sefton addressed him from atop his horse. "Inform Lord Enlar that Sir Sefton has come with a gift of gratitude for his services. I wish to dine with him and stay the night until I am able to ride out in the morning."
The boy nodded sharply and took off through heavy oak doors, disappearing into the intimidating keep. Sir Sefton waited impatiently, tapping his knee. He mumbled something like "silly formalities," but I could not hear the entire sentence.
Moments later, the boy was wheeling back out of the keep. "Lord Enlar welcomes you, sir, and asks that you stay as long as you wish."
"Marvelous." He jumped off his horse and threw the reins into the boy's hands roughly. "When you cool him out, walk him until he is completely dry. I do not wish my horse to colic in the hands of strange stable boys."
From an archway to my left, a lanky blonde man perhaps several years my elder strolled purposefully toward Sir Sefton.
"What is it you wish, sir?" the man asked, bowing low and looking up at him with brilliant blue eyes.
"My horse. Be extra careful with him. He's prone to colic and chills."
The man took the horse, running his hand down the bay's neck. "He is a magnificent horse. Your wish is my command. There will not be a wet hair on him when I turn him out to drink and eat."
Sir Sefton nodded with a slight smile on his bushy lips. "Thank you, good boy."
"May I ask his name, good knight?"
Sir Sefton seemed to love the title "good knight." He also seemed to enjoy the chance to brag about his charge. "Mansel was a gift to me from the king himself. He may be old, but when he was young, there was not a land creature faster."
The stable hand bowed again. "I do not doubt it, sire. He shall be looked after as if I am housing the very king in my stable."
Sir Sefton nodded as he inhaled sharply, then began to unload the things from his saddle along with the young boy's help. The blonde man, with his kind blue eyes and bright smile, turned to me. He didn't say a word, but there was a tenderness in that glance that I'd seen few other places. Though my clothing was dirty and my apron clumped with spider webs, he did not scowl. I gave him a tiny curtsy, to his amusement. He winked, bowed slightly at the waist one more time, then took Mansel to the stables that lay just beyond the archway. I longed to know the stable hand's name. He may not have been dressed like a scholar, but there was intelligence and humor in those eyes.
"Come," ordered Sir Sefton, ascending the steps, carrying a small burlap bag full of his belongings. The boy staggered behind, his arms full of the knight's scabbard, his bow, and his arrows.
The door swung open with a mighty whoosh of air and in the middle of the stone floor stood a beastly man of such great proportions that the hall seemed small in comparison. I'd never seen anyone so portly in my life. He wore fine silks and jewels. Sir Sefton lowered himself on one knee to greet him. Lord Enlar nodded in welcome impatiently, then turned to the boy. "Go take the knight's things to his chambers, boy."
The boy hastily bowed and took of for the gently curving staircase that rose behind a magnificent chandelier, the host of about fifty slim ivory candles with gentle flames.
"What is this gift you speak of, Sefton?"
Sefton nudged me in the back with his hand. I stepped forward, head bowed and hands folded in front of me. Lord Enlar's eyes went dark as he looked to Sir Sefton for an explanation. "What is this, Sefton?"
"An able bodied servant for you, milord. She may not look like much, but I'm sure she pulls twice her weight. She carries no sickness, and she is obedient. I heard you were looking for more work, so I provided it."
Enlar looked as if a fly had just wedged itself between his teeth. He pursed his lips and waddled forward, heaving his enormous weight in my direction. I resisted the urge to step back in fright. His eyes looked me over in disdain.
"A bit old, don't you think?" he asked, his eyes finding Sir Sefton. "Young women slaves can . . . distract male visitors. I'll have no distractions in my castle, Sefton."
"I understand completely, sire. But who is to say she must be seen? After all, is it not accepted that slaves are to hide themselves from higher company at all times? She can work in the kitchens, if you like."
Lord Enlar sniffed haughtily, grabbing my arm and inspecting the palm. My blisters had gone to calluses years ago. They bared evidence of years of hard work. I tried to keep from staring at his size. Three chins trembled underneath his jaw. His fingers were like raw sausages and his hands were swollen as if wracked with some disease. "Well, she might do some good, if she is placed strategically." He clapped his hands loudly, and spun around to face a short and stout woman bustling in his direction, dressed in a plain brown frock, completed with a stained apron and white wimple.
"Happy, take our new recruit and show her around the kitchens," he remarked dismissively, giving me a rather violent push toward Happy. "Now, about that dinner, Sir Sefton . . ."
I hid a small frown. Sir Sefton had paid gold for a present to Lord Enlar, and yet Lord Enlar took the gift as if he resented the sentiment. As much as I hated being a gift passed between lords and knights, I had to disdain the way Lord Enlar looked at favors as if they were as common as the stones that lined his castle walls. Perhaps if he ate less and showed a bit more gratitude, people would enjoy his company more.
"Come on, quickly now," ordered Happy. After pushing through several doors and careening down several plain stone hallways, we were finally spit from the Hall into the bailey. Happy did not stop to let me take in the surroundings. She pulled me in the direction of the kitchens, which were further from the Hall than I had expected. How was food to get from the kitchen to the Hall quickly? I understood the reason why the kitchen was so far away, for fire was a dangerous tool and could torch the entire castle if not contained, but I couldn't help but wonder how everyone fared the distance.
The kitchen was hot, but it was filled with pleasant smells and the alluring sound of gentle conversation. Several women, most of them older than me, stirred around giant ovens. Others cut fruits and vegetables, while the last of them pounded their fists into dough and mixed batters. Happy grabbed my shoulder and quickly named all of the women, as if her time were more precious than my own.
"This is Margaret, Brie, Carmen, Morgan, Ingrid, Leslie, Jewel, and Daisy. Leslie, will you take care of Felicia? I must attend to Lady Mary."
Then she was gone.
Leslie was frail, yet there was something different about her that attracted me to her immediately. She had fiery green eyes, pale complexion and cheeks etched with traces of laugh lines. It was as if she were trying every moment not to laugh. Despite the sweat that soaked her braids, the hue of her hair was a magnificent gold that I had not seen equaled. She was probably the most beautiful servant I had ever seen.
"Welcome, Felicia. My name's Leslie." She led me toward a large wooden counter top, decorated with flakes of dough and batter. "We've been needing someone to make bread. Poor Daisy's been doing it all by her weeself." She jerked her head toward a rather weak-looking Daisy, who was Leslie's opposite. She was very short woman with beefy arms and a stern, plain face. She didn't even look up at me when Leslie introduced me.
"She always acts as if she's been told she's going to die," Leslie whispered. "Don't take it personally."
I had no intentions to do so. I'd met plenty of ill-tempered servants and many of them were more cruel than the frowning Daisy. "What will you be doing?" I asked Leslie, wishing I could work beside her.
"I've got quite a few pies to make." She winked at me in a rather familiar gesture, though I didn't know why. "I'll be standing close, so if you want to make wee talk, I'll be waiting patiently."
Then Leslie went to get fruit, walking with a self-defined bounce that made her seem all the more powerful. I contained a laugh as I imagined her in a long queen's gown, holding a golden scepter. I bet she'd play a better part than the queen herself.
"You better get working on that," Daisy snapped. "We've no time to tarry."
I sighed and went to work. By now, I was quite skilled at kneading bread. I didn't even to count how many times to fold the pliable dough around my fingers. Of course, nothing was new. I would soon be assimilated into my home by tomorrow morning and I would be treated as if I'd been here all along. A slave's arrival was not widely acknowledged. Even the servants failed to care.
My arms were exhausted by the time the kneading was done and the bread was cooked and stored. I didn't want to admit my weakness, so I continued on without complaint. After all, if a slave complains, there is little to keep her from feeling the slash of a whip.
I watched as many of the cooks dispersed after dinner was finished and the utensils cleaned. Only Leslie stayed. She caught me off guard when I was bent over, catching my breath.
"The first day is always the worst," she piped. I stood straight and looked over my shoulder at her. "It will get better, I promise."
"Do not fret. I'm not a stranger to aches."
Leslie grinned. Her teeth were all present, and even dared to gleam a nice soft ivory color. In the kitchen light, with sweat pouring over her face, she still failed to look any less magnificent. "I don't believe you've been shown around. Happy is most inhospitable to newcomers."
"I am a little lost, yes."
"Then cry no more. I will be your guide." She hooked her arm through mine, thrusting her chin into the air and marching out of the kitchen with a proud manner about her. I laughed and skipped along side.
"I claim this land for Queen Leslie and her accomplice, Felicia the Great," she snapped as I tried to hide my own giggles. "My first decree? I will tax the squirrels, build houses for the chipmunks, and provide dance instruction for the deer."
I could not believe it. After all my fourteen years, I had not met such a delightful creature as Leslie.
"What is you wish to see first, milady?" Leslie asked me, curtsying regally, as if she wore a gown of silk and satin instead of a frock made of muslin and twine.
"The stables!" I cried in exuberance.
"To the stables!" called Leslie, stalking haughtily toward them. She finally gave up the act when she neared the long structure, which was attached to a few large plots of land for the horses. Only three or four grazed on the lush grass. I felt my excitement grow as I watched two young colts frolic in a nearby paddock. They were gorgeous, like two children with high spirits.
"Why, sir knight," Leslie gushed, fluttering her long blonde eyelashes at an old plow horse, eating straw in slow, sure strokes. He looked at her with milky eyes. "Aren't you looking ravishing today?"
"Why thank you, milady," came a deep voice from behind the horse. I watched as the head of the blonde stable hand poked out from behind the plow horse. "But I do try to impress." He bowed ridiculously low, with his one hand swung wide, the other clutched to his stomach.
I turned to Leslie. I expected her to laugh and spurt out more banter, but she just blushed softly and lowered her eyes.
"If I may be so bold," the stable hand continued. "I must say you look rather breathtaking yourself." He snatched up her hand and gave her a light kiss across the knuckles. He finally seemed to notice me, and a boyish grin broke across his weathered face. "Ah, the girl with the knight. Have you come for a permanent stay in our lovely castle?"
"Yes, I have."
"Well, we're pleased to have you." He kissed my hand as well, as if I were a well-bred noblewoman. I was giddy with elation. "Now what reason would you two lovely ladies have to be out here with us mud-soaked creatures?"
"I was on a tour." I paused for a moment, and then decided to keep up the noblewoman charade. "I believe, good sir, I do not have the honor of knowing your name."
The stable hand opened the stall gate and slipped into the aisle with Leslie and me. "I am Nicholas, a lowly stable hand, at your service." Once again, he dipped at the waist.
"Felicia. And it is a pleasure to meet you, good sir." I curtsied.
"Felicia. A pretty name for a pretty girl." He gave me an innocent unarming smile. I liked this man. I knew of few men I liked, finding most of them authoritative, angry, aggressive, and crude. But this Nicholas was quite a delight.
"Nicholas is quite talented at flattering young maids to death," Leslie murmured, her green eyes fixated solely on Nicholas. "Try as he might, he hasn't managed to get a single one to like him."
Nicholas laughed. It was a good, hearty laugh that filled the stables with its mirth. "As you have noticed, Leslie is no damsel in distress. If anything, she puts damsels in distress."
"Don't make me cuff you, stable boy," Leslie reprimanded, yet a tiny smile played on her pale lips.
"A tour!" Nicholas blurted, returning to the subject. "Of course! I shall give you the tour of your lives. I know every horse, every stall, every pasture in this stable."
"He has the impression that we care," Leslie whispered under her breath.
"Oh, I would love for you to give me a tour," I breathed. Every day I saw all kinds of horses, and yet they still contained magic that had not been sated. Leslie groaned and rolled her eyes but stayed silent.
"Of course. This way."
It was apparent early on that Leslie was not fond of horses. She would smile and nod, but her eyes were blank and her face cold. I didn't want to displease her, but oh, how I loved the horses! Sir Sefton's horse Mansel came to me and thrust his nose into my shoulder. A few others begged for treats. There were a few young foals that hid behind their mothers, just as shy as toddlers. Nicholas clearly had a way with animals. Several dogs would pounce around his heels, licking his fingers, and the horses would watch him pass with bright eyes and attentative ears.
"You are quite mad," Nicholas exclaimed as I stroked a filly's silken mane affectionately. "These horses warm up quite nicely to you."
"I have a woman's touch," I informed him, smiling softly.
"Fel, we must be going," urged Leslie, glancing up at the dark sky. "If we don't get some sleep, we will have trouble waking at dawn."
"Of course." I turned to Nicholas. "Thank you so much. I don't understand how the ladies can resist you, my good sir."
Nicholas gave me a smug smirk and kissed my hand once more. It was odd, having someone kiss my hand. No one had ever done it before. "It was a pleasure showing you around, Felicia."
"Come, come," urged Leslie, pushing her hands against my shoulders. As she passed Nicholas, I felt her falter, and turned to see her eyes catch his. For a moment, they gazed at each other in a single meaningful glance. Then Leslie shook her head and gave him a hasty goodbye. The trip back to the keep was unusually silent.
"You and Nicholas . . ."
Leslie sighed, as if there were a great weight on her shoulders. In the torch light, I saw the tortured expression across her beautiful face. "I will be truthful with you, Felicia. Nicholas is far greater a man than the king himself. This I am sure of. Yet he is not able to seek happiness with a woman."
"Why is this?"
"With what is he to support her with? He has no gold, nor silver, nor goods to trade. He is a very poor man."
There was a long silence, in which I tried to process this information. I'd never thought that eyes could express such emotion, but the tiny glance Leslie and Nicholas shared was of great pain.
"You . . . love him?"
Leslie's voice was sturdy, yet beneath it was this thick layer of agony. "Oh my, yes."
I knew little of love. My mother had never loved me enough to keep me. I had no friend, nor master to love. All the men I'd met before Nicholas were fools. What was love? What were its powers? How did it make one suffer so much that one's own sorrow could be seen in their very eyes?
"And yet you do nothing?"
"Let us not speak of this, Felicia. It tortures me so."
I turned back to get a fleeting glance at the stables. In the distance, I heard a sad nicker of a horse in the moonlight. I shivered and followed Leslie into the Hall to sleep.