Catherine reached for another wildflower, her not-yet-completely-developed child's mind already considering how that bright shade of purple would look on her wreath. Suddenly she froze, hearing a soft rustling in the bushes directly behind her. Long hours of outdoor play with her animal companions had taught her to recognize the distinctive sounds created by each different creature; the little girl could always tell whether it was Fawn or Raccoon or another little friend sneaking up on her.
This sound, however, was no animal, but it was very familiar.
Suddenly a heavy footstep sounded behind her. A millisecond later, she was lifted up off the ground. Her captor had a firm grip on her, despite the fact that one large rough hand had jumped to her mouth after the single shrill scream she'd released when she felt unfamiliar hands. Unfortunately, Catherine had wandered too far from home in her search for perfect flowers for her wreath.
No one came to her rescue. And even if they had, they would have been too late.
"Yes, I can already tell you'll be quite beautiful when you get older. In fact, you are already quite lovely, young Catherine," said a deep, smooth male voice. The voice was charming, quite pleasant actually. Little Catherine would soon come to hate that voice and, more importantly, its owner. "No wonder so many boys' fathers are already asking your father for your hand in marriage. In fact, it's rumored the lines of men start at your home and stretch all the way to town on a normal day. Even those cultured town men seem to think they'll have a chance at securing a beauty like you as their sons' brides. But no matter. I got to you first, and I will not be letting my claim go. My son will be the lucky man who gets the most beautiful bride in the region." He paused thoughtfully. "True, he is only seven now, but that is all the better. There is plenty of time to train you properly. No one who comes knocking on our door will find you hidden in the cellar."
Then a worry seemed to strike him. "But here now, you mustn't learn the way home. I shall have to knock you out. Apologies, my lady." Catherine could almost hear the laughter in his voice.
A foul-smelling cloth was held before the six-year-old's face. It would be her last piece of childhood freedom.
She coughed and closed her eyes, succumbing to the dizziness that rushed to claim her.
Groaning, I sit up in bed and glance at the little clock on the ground beside me. Five o'clock—in the morning. I imagine other girls my age would go back to sleep now, but I can't. Although I'm only eleven years old, I have a lot of household duties to attend to.
Quietly I put on my pale-blue dress, tugging the hem gently to smooth out wrinkles. I find a comb in the near-darkness and slowly detangle my long brown hair in front of the one small mirror in my room. Once all the snarls are out, I brush my hair with long, gentle strokes until it shines. I lament the room's lack of windows, but I know it is due to the frequency of my past escape attempts.
I never got very far from the house. Each time, my childhood captor found me easily. He always dragged me back, seeming at first amused and then dangerously annoyed by my persistence. Once he began whipping me upon reaching the house, I stopped trying to get away from my fate.
Carefully I ease my door open, flinching at the loud creak of the hinges emphasized by the otherwise silent house. Not daring to turn on the lights, I find my way to the kitchen by experience and habit. A single word is written on the blackboard propped up against a stack of decorative books arranged on the counter: Pancakes.
I quietly open the refrigerator door, pulling out all the ingredients for the requested breakfast items. I line them upon the counter by the stove, just like I always do. I don't need to measure out the ingredients; I haven't had to for a very long time. Lots of practice—nearly four years of it—enables me to judge without any measuring utensils.
Into the large silver mixing bowl I put flour, milk, eggs, and other ingredients. I stir, trying not to let the whisk hit the sides of the bowl. I can't delay the cooking any longer, so I take a deep breath, brace myself, and turn on the stove, wincing at the loud noise it creates. Exhaling in relief when nothing happens, I reach for the frying pan. After positioning the pan on the burner, just the way I like it, I slowly pour some of the batter in.
By the time Mr. Fonrak and his son Connor enter the kitchen at long last, I'm just sliding the last pancake onto a plate. I carry two plates, each with their own large stack of pancakes, to the table and set them down gently. Only when I've set two places with plate, cup, knife, and fork—exactly where they should be, off by only a millimeter at most—and put the maple syrup on the table do I return to the stove to retrieve my own plate.
Silently I sit at the table, slowly eating my pancakes the way I've been taught—deliberately, neatly, chewing every bite thoroughly. I know by now that my task is to sit quietly while Mr. Fonrak talks to his son. Neither Connor nor I speak unless spoken to.
"So," Mr. Fonrak begins in the smooth, deep voice that I was destined to forever hate, "Connor, there's a pile of wood outside with your name written all over it. You should do that first, right after breakfast. Then you might check the crops." Mr. Fonrak always phrases his orders as suggestions, but it's not like a person has any choice but to obey. Even without the threat of corporal punishment, Connor's father has an air of authority that only the absurdly foolish would defy.
"Yes, Father," replies Connor. That's just about the only thing he ever says to Mr. Fonrak. Like me, he's been trained thoroughly in how to behave around Mr. Fonrak—and adults in general. Absentmindedly Connor spears his last piece of pancake with his fork. He stares out the window behind me as he chews, lost in contemplation.
I turn to my left, dragging my gaze away from Connor's handsome face—even though I'll have to marry him whether either of us likes it or not, it's some small consolation that he's most definitely not ugly—to Mr. Fonrak, swallowing my mouthful of pancake. I set down my fork, careful not to let it resound against the wooden table.
"Yes, my lord?" I still think that's a dumb form of address, but I've painfully learned to use it.
Mr. Fonrak looks sternly at me. "Don't just sit there eating. There are beds to be made, laundry to wash, bread to bake... your schedule is far too full for you to waste time eating. Hurry up, girl. Connor, you should get going as well. Whatever are you thinking about?"
"Well, Father," Connor replies hesitantly, "I think... perhaps it is not right to hold Catherine here against her will. It has already been four years since you... she... you know, the incident in the wildflower patch, and... Sometimes at night, I can hear her crying. So... I think you should let her go back to her family. Surely they miss her, and she clearly misses them."
"Why, you insolent, ungrateful little... Do you know how much trouble I went to, to make sure she'll marry you, and no one else? I took her from her home when she was six. I trained her, and raised her. I hid her whenever the authorities came looking. These four years, I've taught her the things she'll need to know as your wife!" Mr. Fonrak reaches for the whip hanging over the fireplace. "Come outside with me, Connor. Now."
The second the door clicks shut, I spring up from my seat and collect the empty plates, washing and drying them before putting them away neatly. Trying to ignore the horrible sounds of the whip just outside, I head upstairs to make the beds and clean the rooms.
That's just one of my many daily chores. The others include laundry, baking, making the grocery list, cleaning the house, mending clothes, looking clean and neat while I do chores involving getting dirty, etcetera. It's a long list, but I'm getting used to this routine.
A knock sounds at the door. "Study," Mr. Fonrak orders his son, pushing a thick, well-worn, red-bound book across the table. He pauses, then his face softens and he ruffles his son's dark hair on his way out of the room. "You did a good job with that wood," he comments softly, almost awkwardly. "It's cut pretty evenly."
From across the room, I can see Connor's eyes widen, not quite hidden by the open book in front of his face. It's not quite the first time his father has praised him, but it's rare for Mr. Fonrak's comments to be positive. "Thank you, Father," Connor finally replies.
Mr. Fonrak grabs my arm and pulls me to the kitchen. "You know what to do," he tells me coldly, looking pointedly at the trapdoor to the cellar.
With my free arm I reach out and lift the door. Unceremoniously, Mr. Fonrak pushes me in. "You might organize the supplies while you're in there, but your face, hands, and dress better be clean when you come out. And not a sound," he warns before setting the trapdoor down soundlessly.
I hear his footsteps retreat, then the door opens and he says, "Hello! Come right on in, I'll call him. Connor! It's your Aunt Mackenzie!"
Oh, terrific. It's one of the few pushy people who know I'm here in Mr. Fonrak's house.
"Come in, come in, sister. This is certainly a welcome surprise. Wait—what?"
All I hear is a muted female murmur. Then Mr. Fonrak repeats loudly, shocked, "You say you're staying only for a few days, and you want to take Catherine with you when you leave?!"
There's some muffled debate, then he practically shouts (against what he's taught Connor and me, I might add), "Absolutely not!"