The soft spring breeze fanned through the apple trees, whispering through the budding leaves. A shower of pink and white blossom descended gently on the little girl knelt beneath the boughs, her eyes closed in concentration, her head bowed in silent prayer. She shook the clinging blossom from her long hair, gave a quiet sneeze and lifted her head to scrutinise the space between two rows of lemon trees, convinced she had seen unnatural movement from the corner of her eye.
Annabella focused, her eyes never wavering from their dedication. She narrowed them at a rotten stump before her eyes widened, the misty blue emphasised by lashes as long and white as the winter frost. After a year of basic rations and taxing work around the castle the chubbiness had grown out of her cheeks and she was admired as one of the cutest slave amongst the elves she was forced to serve. Her woven tunic was frayed and filthy, the slave clothes recycled until they were scraps of material. The grubby skin and mud under her fingernails didn't bother her. She knew she would never enjoy the posh dresses and expensive jewellery the distinguished elvin women wore.
She would watch them, at dinner and on their afternoon walks in the rose gardens with their parasols to protect their pale, perfect skin from burning. She would marvel at the glittering diamonds, enthralled by the way they twinkled with all the promise of every penny spent on them, mesmerised at the shimmering emeralds, glittering blood-red rubies, the sparkling of sapphires and all manner of precious stone around noble necks and royal fingers, each individual stone worth more than Annabella's life.
She didn't seek to obtain any for herself. Humans were not permitted to possess such things.
The hedgerows up ahead were rustling. Annabella gave a shrewd smile, retreating behind an ancient oak tree, complimenting herself on finding such a good place to hide. It had also been her idea to desert their morning duties and play hide and go seek in the gardens with the other children. Lady Victoria wouldn't be pleased by her unacceptable behaviour when she heard of it, but Annabella never had time to play anymore.
She had been watching the children of the elves, not long after her arrival at the castle, spying on them as they chucked a ball to each other on the lawn, laughing, carefree and content in their rich lives. One boy had initiated a game and he was it , closing his eyes and counting to a hundred before pursuing the other children who hid. Annabella had been jealous, an emotion she hadn't experienced until then and when she suggested to the other child slaves they play it they were at a loss. Some had never played a single game in their lives. They had never sang a song, or skipped with a rope or learnt how to swim. Annabella had memorised the rules and taught them how to play. They adopted the game into their lives and played it whenever they could, even if they were to be punished.
Slaves were not allowed to play by the law of elves. It was illegal for them to read, write, gossip, sing, laugh, love or have anything that resembled fun. Slaves were meant to cook, clean, sew, wash, garden, labour and most importantly obey their elvin masters and mistresses without question, protest, or argument. They were to be polite and respectful at all times. If any of these rules were broken they were beaten by Poppy-Anna, the slave overseer, who would whip them with birch twigs until their buttocks until they were raw and bleeding.
Sometimes they were disciplined by Lord Blessing's only legitimate son, Raphael. He liked to kick and punch slaves if he believed them insolent or defiant. It was worse if they lied. When Annabella had first come to the castle she was told tales of humans that had lied to Raphael and vanished, never to be seen again. There were rumours he secretly had them crucified in the forest and on wild, stormy nights their dying screams could still be heard. Annabella didn't know about crucifixion but all the child slaves despised him for his cruelty and predisposed hatred of children. Most slaves badmouthed him behind closed doors, as did some of the more audacious elves who disapproved of his bullying.
Not all elves were as disgraceful as their counterparts. Few could be fair, honourable, even compassionate elves that took no pleasure in abusing humans and didn't regard them as less than the scum floating on the surface of a pond. The Lord had two daughters who fit that profile. Lady Sabrina hadn't harmed a human in her life and Annabella had practically been raised by Lady Victoria. She had bathed her, clothed her, sung her to sleep and night and taught her how to walk and talk. She had taken risks, educating her in reading, writing, mathematics and logic, encouraging her not to put those skills into practice unless it was absolutely vital. Lady Victoria was the closest thing she'd ever had to a mother.
There was more activity in the bushes ahead. It might have been a bird. One of the sparrows she often saw hopping around. Or maybe something else. She thought she heard a girl's laughter. It could have been a trick of her imagination. More blossom cascaded over her but she kept her eyes on the bushes she had placed under surveillance.
"Don't find me," she muttered under her breath, wishing it to be true. If she could do magic she would have weaved a charm to make herself invisible to the human eye.
With a small smile she shimmied away from the tree, keeping low.
I'm going to win, the thought, elated, the hour is almost up, he isn't going to find me…
"Boo!" shouted a victorious voice behind her.
Annabella almost jumped out of her tunic and skin as another gust of wind scattered blossom over everything. Her heart pounded painfully in her throat before slipping back down into her chest as she turned to confront the person that had crept up on her.
Julian leant casually against the oak tree, as if he had been there longer than she had. There was a smug expression on his mucky face, his stained tunic flapping around his scabby knees, bare feet concealed by blossom. He was two years older than her and his hair was as black as hers was white. When she looked into his dark blue eyes she saw a wisdom beyond his years, something just beyond her reach. She knew little of his past. He was as much a mystery to her as he was to the other humans. All she knew was that he hadn't been born at the castle or bought from another. He had taken her under his wing upon her arrival, helping her integrate into slavery.
She stuck her tongue out rudely at him.
"I thought for sure I would win this time," Annabella grumbled, brushing dirt off her hands, "The orchards are out of bounds!"
The orchards were right on the edge of the estate, furthest away from the castle. They were secluded by a high stone wall, so old it had crumbled as she climbed it. The trees were enchanted to tend to themselves, only visited by gardeners to harvest the crop. Annabella had thought it the perfect place to hide, knowing Julian would check the kitchens, the stables, the granary, the buttery and the gardens. She hadn't predicted he would come here, to a place she was sure he hadn't ventured into before today.
The orchards were usually empty but today the children heard voices that alerted them to the fact that it was not. These were not the voices of other children, nor of other humans. Both the children panicked simultaneously and ran in the same direction, dashing behind a bush large enough to conceal them from the approaching elves. Annabella was bold enough to peer through the gaps as shadows flitted past, stealing her breath. Her armpits stung with hot sweat. Julian was breathing heavily, his big, beautiful eyes engorged with the fear she felt, lips quivering. Annabella pressed a finger to hers, eyes widening in a silent plea.
Be quiet. Be still.
Julian relaxed his breathing a little, body still tense, legs muscles taut. He crouched next to her, too afraid to peek through the leaves and see who was meeting in the orchard. Annabella wasn't. She knew the meeting was a secret one from the hushed, anxious voices. This was no ordinary gathering.
"He thinks I am still away at war fighting those repulsive ogres," drawled an arrogant voice that Annabella recognised immediately, "The stupid old fool. He has no idea…"
That was Raphael, the Lord's son and heir, the cruellest elf Annabella had ever known. There had been whisperings and rumours circulating about his early return from the ogre wars. The sightings had remained unconfirmed. Until now.
Annabella shuffled forwards, twigs poking her stomach and scratching her arms. She didn't want to miss a single syllable of what was being said.
"Did you get it?" demanded an impatient female voice, once that that she wasn't familiar with.
She saw the shadows shift on the grass and a young elvin woman stepped into view. Her hair was composed of platinum blond rings, some of the piece pinned back to dangle stylishly around her shoulders. The face that was impossibly beautiful was also vain and white as snow. Her robes were fashioned from expensive royal blue silk, embroidered with pearl beads, a necklace of diamonds sparkling on her pale chest. She was glaring at someone with steely eyes, her expression most displeased.
"It wasn't difficult to get," said a third voice, deep and male and unfamiliar, "You just need to have the right connections. I have it here. It should be easy enough to slip into his drink without anyone noticing."
There was movement of shadows. The woman remained were she was, scowling, cold eyes following someone Annabella couldn't see.
"How soon can it be done?" she said stiffly. There was something else in her features now, cruel and cunning, like the way Annabella thought a hunting hawk might look before it swooped down and devoured it's prey.
"The banquet," Raphael replied. Annabella didn't need to see him to imagine the blood thirst on his face. "We wait till the banquet celebrating five hundred years of elvin rule. I want to see the look on the face of every elf in the room when he chokes to death on his own wine."
His voice was dripping with amusement and wickedness. Annabella had missed the first, fundamental part of the conversation. Who were they conspiring to murder?
She risked sneaking closer, a grave mistake. One of the twigs snapped too loudly, alerting the elves to an unwanted presence nearby. All the heat rushed from Annabella's body and she retreated, dismayed. Julian's face was a frozen mask of horror.
"I do believe someone is spying on us," the woman said icily, silver eyes flashing with fury, lips set in a mean, unforgiving line.
Annabella closed her eyes and prayed passionately in her mind to whatever deity would listen to a scruffy human girl about to be disembowelled.
Don't let them find us. Let them think it was some sort of animal.
"I heard it too," Raphael agreed, irked, "Check over there."
The woman strode out of Annabella's field of vision as the sun vanished behind the clouds, blotting out the shadows, protecting the elves' positions from her. She felt deserted by the Gods and flinched as another strong gust of wind blew blossom over them, as if revealing their location to the elves.
Annabella scrunched up her body, trying to make herself as small as possible, wishing more than ever she had the talent to be invisible. Julian was the opposite, expanding as she contracted, eyes darting in all directions like a frightened rabbit about to be ripped apart by the hounds.
"Here!" called the deep male voice and Annabella was seized the scruff of her tunic and hoisted into the air.
She writhed in the rough grip, kicking and punching fiercely in retaliation, limbs not long enough to strike her captor. Julian gave a cry of alarm as the woman appeared out of nowhere, gliding elegantly into view so suddenly, as if she had stepped out from under a veil of invisibility. She clenched Julian's shoulder, preventing him from running. Raphael walked around a crooked shed, his pale face flushed with rage.
"You!" he hissed with venom, pointing at Annabella with a long finger, unfathomable hatred in his eyes. She hadn't yet been able to work out where such loathing for her stemmed from.
The elf holding her shook her like a rag doll. Annabella's brain rattled in her skull. The callous treatment made her dizzy and unable to accept that she had Julian had been caught.
"Why are you here?" Raphael demanded dauntingly. He was an imposing figure with his handsome countenance and sleek chestnut hair. He went to no lengths to hide his dislike of her.
Annabella was smart enough to lie well.
"N-nothing," she stuttered, "I am just a slave. I live to serve the Blessing family."
"Then why aren't you at work?" the woman asked scathingly. Julian's skin had lost most of it's natural colour as her long, bronze painted fingernails pricked his shoulder. Blood seeped through the thin material and he grimaced in pain.
"They are skiving from their jobs. I bet they were playing," Raphael sneered, his lip curling with disdain, "And the brat is lying. They heard everything."
Raphael drew his sword from it's scabbard, a noise that made Annabella grit her teeth. He raised if for the children to see, metal shining in the sunlight. It was expertly fashioned with three flat, steely edges and a triangular point that had no doubt been used to slice open ogre chests, severe their limbs and pierce their hearts. Raphael positioned it next to Julian's heart now, the sharp point indenting his tattered rags. Julian whimpered.
"They must die," Raphael declared, his nasty smirk making Annabella tremble. She had never seen someone look so pleased at the thought of killing someone else.
His eyes flickered to Julian and back to Annabella, gauging her fear. He transferred the sword to her, aiming it at her neck. The metal was going to cut her throat…
"No!" the woman and Annabella both shouted in unison. Annabella gasped at the woman, astonished. The elf looked stunned at her own outburst and raised a hand to her mouth.
Raphael paused, the tip of the sword an inch from Annabella's throat, frowning crossly.
Annabella was more perplexed than relieved. Why would an elf, who clearly had no respect or fondness for humans, why would she care about seeing two human children killed?
"I never knew you had such affection for humans," the elf holding Annabella commented, genuinely surprised.
"I do not and I especially despise little children," The vindictiveness in the woman's voice was clear, "But we cannot be distracted if we are to succeed. Killing these children might bring complications later on. Even if they did hear there is nothing they can do about it. Nobody listens to children. No elf would believe them. They are only meaningless slaves after all."
She released Julian as an example of her own conviction and turned away, wiping the blood from her hand with a handkerchief. Julian didn't move a muscle, still afraid that the woman would change her mind and order Raphael to kill them for trespassing there.
But she didn't. She had let him go.
Annabella's captor followed suit. He lowered her to the ground and patted her head mockingly, as though she were a well-behaved pup.
"Wise words Aria," complimented the elf.
Annabella turned to get her first look at him. He was surprisingly short of stature for someone with such a formidable voice. His head was covered with a curly mop of yellow hair and facial similarities between him and the woman made her think they were somehow related. His eyes were black and almost as heartless as hers.
Raphael was fuming; his nostrils flared and face blotchy red. This was the angriest Annabella had seen him and she had witnessed some legendary tantrums. He was grinding his teeth, the largest vein in his temple throbbing. Still, he lowered his sword, reluctant, and replaced it after a moment of inner deliberation. The malevolent gleam in his eyes told her this wasn't the end of the matter. The next time they met she wouldn't get off so easily.
"Return to your work. Don't let me catch you playing here again."
Raphael turned his back on them, shoulders hunched. Annabella thought she heard him growl.
Julian hastily nodded and garbled an incoherent apology before running away to see to his shunned responsibilities. Annabella lingered, hesitant to move under the gaze of incensed elves. She looked up at the female. There was something about this woman she really didn't like. She had disliked elves before, many of them, the men for their conceitedness, the women for their pretty, forbidden belongings. This was entirely different. She really didn't like her and sensed the feeling was mutual. It was more than dislike she felt, it was not aversion; it was a foreboding warning that this was not an elf she should cross. The woman was untrustworthy, uncaring and selfish. Her silver eyes revealed all this and much more. They were bright with repulsion as she glared down at the bemused child.
The unnamed elf stepped between them, severing the connection.
"Be on your way now."
His voice was gruff with a no nonsense attitude. The woman dropped her gaze to the grass, though Annabella knew someone like her couldn't be intimidated by a human child.
She shook herself from the trance, having been temporarily sucked in by those disturbing silver eyes. Without another word she turned and walked away briskly, ignoring the blossom and the elf eyes scorching her back. She made it to the wall and slipped through the gate. As soon as she was certain she was out of the elves' sight she broke into a rapid run, not stopping until she reached the castle.
Annabella yanked the heavy, steaming sheets into the basket and heaved it atop a small pile, the stack almost toppling over from the latest addition. She stopped them wobbling and prevented herself from being crushed in the process.
The laundry rooms were small, cramped and foggy. The whole maze of tunnels smelt strongly of the imported rose and lavender soap Lady Blessing favoured. It was always humid and Annabella started perspiring as soon as she stepped inside, her damp tunic clinging to her sticky skin. The women washed the clothes and bed linen by hand in enormous metal tubs, the children dried and pressed the clothes and the girls took them away. It was tougher on smaller slaves. Annabella struggled to keep up with the place. She had already been canned three times that month. Poppy Anna liked to make an example of her for the other children.
It was even more strenuous today. Three of the washer women had died during the night from the latest spout of human influenza and many others had fallen ill with the virus, rendering them unable to work in place were sickness was easy to spread. This increased the velocity and meant Annabella had to contend with both washing and drying. She was beginning to feel the ache in her muscles. She panted, hauling more soaking sheets from the rusted tub.
"She is evil," Annabella muttered to her friend Kelina who was scrubbing riding breeches caked in mud, "I could feel it."
Kelina gave her a sceptical glance before rinsing the breeches and handing them over. She was a year older than Annabella, not much taller but much plumper from the food she pinched from the larder. Her brown hair was frizzy from the thick moisture in the air and her shabby tunic was drenched.
"That's magic that is. You know humans can't do magic."
"I know," Annabella said quietly, biting her lip, "But if you'd been there you would have felt it too. I'm sure Julian did."
"I'm far more interested in what you heard," Kelina's eyes sparkled with excitement. She did enjoy hearing about elf scandals. "It sounds like a plot to murder an elf. They must be why they met in the orchards, to keep it a secret."
"It does, doesn't it? But it can't have anything to do with us. Humans aren't supposed to dabble in elf affairs. It's probably some old rival Raphael wants disposing of so he can steal their woman or fortune. Maybe both."
They fell silent when a girl came to collect the baskets. She had no qualms over reporting rule breaking. Talking was forbidden. Kelina was petrified of being punished and Annabella had been punished more times that month than most slaves were in a year. Other slaves thought her stupid for being so rebellious. She only dodged harsher punishments because she was Lady Victoria's ward.
When the girl left Annabella picked up bed sheets with white crust and bundled them into a fresh tub. Suds rushed over her hands as she scoured the sheets, removing all blood, ink and other, unidentifiable stains. Kelina sprinkled more soap on the surface of the grey water, sloshing it around to make it dissolve faster. Someone was shrieking about rats and other women screamed hysterically, thrashing at thin air with their aprons. Annabella couldn't see much else in the vapour that surrounded them.
"It sounds like you're lucky to be alive," Kelina was half disapproving, half admiring, "If I were you I'd forget about what I heard. It could get you into trouble…and you already cause enough of it."
Annabella smiled pluckily at her friend, taking her words as a compliment. She was never afraid of a new challenge or adventure. But perhaps Kelina was right this time. All elves were dangerous and Raphael was the most dangerous of them all. This time Annabella could do the sensible thing and stay away, no matter how curiosity called her to investigate more, no matter how much she wanted to expose Raphael.
She wouldn't give Raphael an excuse to hurt her.