The years following Nul's seventeenth birthday were bleak. Her father died young, leaving his wife and three daughters to deal with the small bakery he'd owned. The other residents of the small village helped where they could, but many of her neighbors faced economic hardship as well. The lord presiding over the fief on which they lived was not a pleasant man. His people were heavily taxed, leaving them to weather the harsh northern winters with little food. Even still, young Nul did her best to be optimistic for her family and friends.
Early in the spring after her father died, Nul's eldest sister Idel became fed up with their lot in life. She left in a huff, insisting that she would find a rich lord to marry and bring her family good fortune. Their poor mother was so worried that she packed an enormous amount of food for Idel's journey. The lovely young woman left in a rush, so excited for her journey that she hardly heard her youngest sister's well wishes.
Spring faded into summer. Short two members of their family, the bakers worked tirelessly to keep the bakery open. The warm season was almost impossibly short that year, the cold biting winds of autumn were blowing threateningly at the door much earlier than normal.
Nul's middle sister, Emdra, confided in her worries for Idel. "What do you think has become of her?" Emdra asked Nul late one night as they lay in bed.
"I couldn't say. I hope she's alright." Nul, too, was worried.
"Winter is coming. If she hasn't a place to stay…." Emdra couldn't bear to finish the thought.
"I know. We must have faith in our sister. I'm sure she's found work by now."
"She will return to us," Emdra agreed, "perhaps with a handsome and rich lord for a husband! Maybe he'll have a brother for me to marry."
Nul said nothing on the matter. While her sisters were more beautiful than she, Nul was the most intelligent of the girls. Where her sisters entertained fantasies Nul preferred practicality. She would not fool herself.
With such a poor growing season, both sisters knew that little wheat had been produced in the small farming community. The winter would be a hard one.
Nul watched Emdra grow restless until she announced in the spring that she, too, would go searching for fortune. The family was struggling. Emdra could take it no longer. With a heavy heart, their mother made another large basket to send with Emdra on her journey. Nul watched sadly as her sister left, fearing she'd never see the young woman again. Still no word had come from Idel.
Nul's mother hired help that summer. With only one daughter to feed, she could afford an apprentice. Paying for help rather than the free labor of her children left Nul's mother impoverished. The aging woman was wasting away. Grief from the loss of her two eldest children had taken its toll.
Two years after her middle sister left, Nul made the decision to go searching for her small family. She assured her mother that she would return after she'd learned of their fate, that she'd do all she could to bring the women home. She made the apprentice promise to care for her mother while she was away. The boy had just come of age, though he had a good head on his shoulders. He was all too happy to help the pretty young woman.
Nul's mother had little food to give her youngest child for the journey. She apologized, but the young woman would hear none of it. Nul felt immense guilt for leaving. She could not take her mother's food as well. "I love you, mama! I'll be home soon, I promise." She waved to the old woman and the apprentice one last time as she began her trek in the same direction her sisters had gone.
A few short days into her journey, Nul was running low on food. She stopped at a manor beside the road hoping to do some work in exchange for food. One of the maids fetched the mistress and left Nul waiting in the study. An enormous mirror on the back wall forced the young woman to look at her appearance. She was covered in a thick layer of grime from her journey. Her beautiful chestnut hair which she'd kept tied in a long braid had lost its shine. It almost seemed to Nul that a stranger looked back at her if not for her striking green eyes. While her family had always been poor, their work was typically indoors and Nul had never been so dirty in her life.
"I understand you're looking for work, young lady?" a middle aged woman asked sharply as she entered the room. Her graying brown hair was wound in a tight bun. Many years ago, she had been beautiful but a life of ease had made her body soft and round.
Nul remembered her manners and curtsied to the woman politely. "Yes, ma'am. I was hoping I could do some work for you in exchange for food for my journey."
"Journey? What is a young girl like you doing traveling alone?"
"I'm searching for my sisters so that I might bring them home to my mother who misses them dearly."
"I see. Very well. There is one task you can do for me. It cannot be performed until the sun sinks below the mountains. In the meantime you will eat and wash. I won't have you tracking filth all over my house."
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you!" Nul exclaimed, excited for a bath and the chance to feed her grumbling belly.
The maids escorted her to a room and left her to bathe. A lovely dress was laid out for her to wear. The fabric was softer and more beautiful than anything Nul had ever laid eyes on. She wondered why the curt and conservative mistress of the house was being so kind to her.
All thoughts of anything other than food left her head immediately upon her entrance to the dining room. A heavenly feast awaited her. Only Nul sat at the table, though she knew that so much food could feed her whole family for a week. She took a modest amount of food and though it was delicious she did not gorge herself.
Once the sun had set and darkness began to creep over the landscape, the mistress called for her. Nul arrived in the study eager to learn of her task. "You will spend the night watching over my brother," the woman informed her.
Perhaps the man was very ill and needed a caretaker, Nul thought. It was very sweet of the woman to watch over her ailing brother. "I'd be honored too, ma'am. You've been so kind to me."
She received a bitter smile which sent chills down her spine as the woman escorted her up many stairs to the top of a tower. She unlocked the heavy wooden door and held it open for Nul. "Do not fall asleep this night, young lady," the mistress commanded as she slammed the door shut behind the girl. Nul heard the lock click.
She lit a candle and looked around. All of the surfaces in the room were covered in a thick layer of dust. The room itself was chilly, and there was no wood in the fireplace to warm it. There were large tomes everywhere. Nul had never learned to read, but were she able she would not have recognized the language. It took her a few minutes of gazing about to realize that she was not entirely alone. On the bed near the window lay a body.
Cautiously, Nul approached. The body belonged to a man. He was tall and handsome with hair black as night. He had high cheekbones and a strong jaw line. His face was clean shaven and his mouth set in a line. The man's clothes were even more ornate than her own. He must be the woman's brother, Nul decided. How, she didn't know. He could be no older than thirty!
As she examined the man, Nul realized that he wasn't breathing. She gasped and took a few steps back, alarmed. She was looking upon a corpse! Why on earth would the mistress of the house want her to look after a corpse? Why would she even keep it? How was it in such a good condition? It had clearly been in such a position for many years! Nul feared that the woman was insane.
To calm her nerves, Nul set to work dusting the chamber. So dirty was the décor that it took her hours. She was grateful for the work, beginning to feel tired. Nul glanced back at the body every few moments to make sure nothing had changed. Once she'd finished her task, she sat in the chair beside the bed and stared at the body.
The man's arm raised. Nul stared in horror for a moment and then pushed it back down quickly. It stayed that way for a few moments until she had to do it again. "Stop that!" she scolded the arm, terrified that it might grab her.
The man sat up on his elbow when he moved for the third time and Nul looked on in horror. "I will not scream," she thought to herself. She snapped at the arm that if it did not lay down she would beat it. The body laid down and did not move for the rest of the night.
At sunrise, the mistress came to unlock the door. "You did not sleep," the woman noted. She seemed pleased. "Rest now in a bed we have set for you. Tonight you will do the same."
"I must continue my journey," Nul pleaded. "I have to find my sisters!"
"You have come to my house asking for work and I have given you food. Now you will work."
"Your brother is not alive!" Nul exclaimed. "Why must I look over a corpse?"
"I will hear no more of this," the woman snapped. "Go now and sleep." She locked the door to the tower chamber and a maid took Nul to a beautiful bedroom where she slept until evening.
Staying awake the second night was easier for Nul. She was not tired, and she was terrified of what that body might do if it became animated again. Once more late in the night the man's arm rose and she put it down. "No!" she said sternly, telling the corpse to stay a corpse.
Some time later, he propped himself up on his elbow. She squeaked out in horror. The man grinned at her. His eyes opened. They were a beautiful shade of blue and full of life. "You lay back down right now or I'll beat you!" Nul threatened in a shaky voice. The body did not move again for the rest of the night.
"Will you now?" he asked, amused. His voice was deep and rolled over her like honey.
"You were dead an hour ago!"
"I was," he agreed.
"How are you talking to me now? Have I gone mad?"
"No. I've been cursed. I see my dear sister has finally managed to find a girl who can stay awake."
"What?" she asked, startled.
"You are not the first she has set to look after me. The others have not stayed awake long enough to see me wake."
"What happened to them?" Nul asked, a sense of dread coming over her. The man shrugged.
"I've gone mad," she lamented, feeling faint.
The corpse stood and stretched. "No, I've been cursed as I said before."
Nul sighed. "Of course," she said still in a state of disbelief. "I'm Nul," she decided to humor the man.
"My name is Athis. I won't hurt you." He was every bit as curt as his sister, Nul noticed. The man sat at the table and began reading. For a while, Nul watched him. She remained silent as to not anger him. Nul grew bored of watching Athis read and let her own thoughts wander.
When the sky began to turn grey before dawn, he handed her a note scrawled on a small piece of parchment. "Give this to Martha. Don't read it."
"Yes, Martha is my sister." He returned to the bed and laid down, and it felt to Nul like she watched the life fade from him. When dawn came Martha took the note and sent Nul to her room.
She was kept as a prisoner in a gilded cage for months. Athis would speak with her a bit when he first rose and then set himself to work. When he'd discovered Nul was illiterate, he gave her nightly lessons to complete. The young woman had decided that she liked Athis well enough, even if he was in part her jailer.
"How is your learning coming?" Athis asked of her at least once per week.
"Well, I think. Knowing what the letters mean is second nature now. I have gotten through most of the story books you left for me."
That was the first time Nul saw a smile on Athis' handsome face. "I'm glad. In my letter to Martha this morning, I will ask for a new set. If you will read to me your favorite of the stories so far, I can get a better understanding of what level you're reading at and the sort of stories you'd like."
Nul beamed. She'd been feeling rather lonely since Martha didn't speak to her much and the servants ignored her. The chance to interact with another person was a charming prospect to her. "Of course." She selected the childrens' book she liked best and read from it. Her mentor had few corrections for her.
"You like stories about virtuous women who work hard for what they want, and are happy in the end?" he asked after she'd finished.
"I do," Nul agreed with a nod.
"Very well." He chuckled. "Stories like this one remind me of you."
Nul flushed. "I'm flattered that you think so highly of me."
"You are a strong woman with a warm heart and a good head. I find that admirable, and to say it is honesty rather than flattery." Even when he was giving compliments, Athis seemed to be curt. His young lady friend had begun to realize that it must be a product of his upbringing. He was truly a kind man, though he did his best to hide it. He'd done a good deal for her in educating her. The number of jobs a woman could take were much greater if one was literate. Nul continued to work diligently through the spring and summer on her learning. While she enjoyed stories, the young woman also read about history, mathematics, and how to behave like a lady.
"You look as though you grow ever more sad, Nul. Tell me why?" he asked one night, unable to concentrate on his work.
"I left home when spring began to find my sisters. I've had no success and I'm worried."
He nodded. "Your sisters… do they look like you?"
"Yes. Idel is taller and very slender and Emdra is so lovely some people claim it is painful to look upon her."
"I see. I'm sorry."
"Sorry? For what? It isn't your fault."
"In part, I fear it is. I have seen them both."
"You have? Where did they go?" Nul was filled with hope.
"My curse has killed them." When Nul looked both hurt and confused he sighed and stood. Athis approached and sat beside her on the bed, taking her hand gently. "Every night I wake once the sun has gone from the world only to die again at dawn. We discovered the nature of the curse early on, and I've kept myself confined to this tower ever since. A young woman must be present for me to wake up, but if she sleeps when the magic strikes she will die."
"Idel? Emdra?" Nul's eyes filled with tears.
"They were both unable to stay awake. They were gone when I woke. I'm sorry."
Nul sobbed and Athis held her close. He felt awful for making the beautiful woman cry. He felt awful for killing so many. "I am a powerful wizard, Nul. Though I am confined to work very short hours, I will do all I can do find a way to break my curse so that I might have a chance at saving those who died watching over me." Nul had wondered what he was researching. She nodded, gave him a forced smile, and set back to work on her reading.
Nul's jailers were kinder to her after that. She mourned the loss of her sisters, of her freedom, and of her mother. The summer nights were starting to chill. Her mother would struggle alone for the winter. "What is ailing you, my dear?" Athis asked her one night.
"I worry for my mother. She is old and alone in the world except for me. Our family has always been very poor and winters are hard."
He nodded. "That must be why your sisters were here. They wanted the money to make your lives easier."
"Yes," Nul agreed.
"In the morning, you may go with a small escort to fetch her. She may live in the manor." Athis would do anything to put a smile on Nul's pretty face once more.
"She is a baker, and I think too old and frail to learn to be a maid," she said cautiously.
"For the grief I have brought upon her and her family, helping an old woman out is the least I can do. She will not need to work."
"Truly?" Nul asked, tears of relief and joy coming to her eyes. When Athis nodded she forgot herself and leapt up to hug him. "Thank you!" she exclaimed.
He smiled and returned her hug gently. "Of course. I'll send you with a carriage. I have much work to do so you must return within a week so that I might wake again."
"You will not put a maid in my place?" Nul asked, surprised.
"I will put no one else in danger. My research can wait a week." The young woman was so excited that she could not concentrate on her reading or keep quiet enough to let Athis work. In truth, he did not mind. He enjoyed being able to bring her such joy.
Nul's mother had fallen ill while she was away. The apprentice had been true to his word and taken care of her. When they saw young Nul arrive in a carriage drawn by fine horses, they were shocked. That she wore a gown which cost so much it could have fed them for a month was strange to them. Nul's mother allowed her daughter to sweep her away to the castle and they left the bakery to the loyal apprentice. He would be able to support a family of his own thanks to their generosity.
The women laughed and cried together, ecstatic to see each other. Nul's mother wept when she learned the fate of her elder daughters and worried for the youngest. Nul insisted that Athis was truly a kind man and he did not mean to hurt anyone.
"You love him," mother said knowingly to daughter.
Nul blushed. "He is a good man, and handsome. It can never come to pass, far above our station as he is. He's taught me to read, mama!"
"Much as my heart aches for your sisters, I know that they would be proud of the woman you have grown into," Nul's mother said with pride. They were arriving back at the manor, and the sun was beginning to set. "I cannot see how any man could deny you love."
Nul smiled. "You are sweet, Mama. Thank you. Let's get you inside and into a comfortable bed so that you might rest." The sick old woman agreed, exhausted by the journey.
Nul went to wake Athis that night. She dusted and tidied the place as she had her first night. She had three cups of tea to keep herself awake, knowing what would happen if she gave in to the drowsiness. Even so, she wanted very much to see Athis.
"You were only gone for three days?" he asked when he woke, surprised. "Have you not slept?" concern filled his voice and eyes when he saw Nul.
She blushed. "No, not today. We traveled long, and you said you had important research to get back to."
"Not more important than your wellbeing!" he exclaimed.
Nul smiled. "I'm sorry to worry you. I promise I'd never fall asleep before you wake."
Athis sighed and took her hands in his. He was warm. Nul always felt at ease when he touched her. "My dear, I would never forgive myself if I were to wake up and find you dead. You have been the best companion a lonely old man could ever ask for. Nul, you mean more to me than my research ever could."
Her cheeks flushed a deep red. "You aren't really so old." Her heart screamed with joy. He cared!
Athis chuckled. "How is your mother?"
"She is ill, but the doctor here says one of your potions will cure her pneumonia. Thank you. You've saved her life."
His hand reached up to stroke her cheek gently. "I would do anything to see you smile."
"I missed you while I was away," she confessed.
"Were I capable of thoughts, they would have been consumed by you. Marry me, Nul. I know that I would be an unconventional husband, but I love you. You will want for nothing." Never before had Nul seen the confident man nervous.
She smiled. "It would make me very happy to be your wife."
Athis pulled her into his arms and kissed her face. "I feel like the luckiest man alive!" he exclaimed as he swung her around.
Nul clung to him, giggling like a school girl. "I love you, Athis," she whispered.
"And I you, my darling savior." As he spoke it seemed like a great burden had been lifted from his soul. His voice held bitterness no longer.
"What do you mean?" she asked, confused.
The great wizard began to glow. If either had looked out the window, they would see the graves of all the young women who had died watching over him do the same. "As with most vile curses, mine can be broken with love," he explained. "I had hoped that you might come to love me if we married, but that you already do makes my heart glad." Athis gave her a soft kiss. "We will not wed until your sisters can be there to see it," he promised.
Martha was overjoyed to see her brother again when she came to free Nul for the day. She was not surprised by the news that he desired to marry the girl, he'd confessed his feelings for her in his letters. With a light heart, she reported that the gardener had found all of the women who had died over the years lying asleep above their graves.
Nul wept with joy and spent the day with her sisters and mother. The girls remembered eating a great meal, and being too tired to stay awake all night. They had thought it silly to watch a dead man sleep. Nul explained the curse and what had happened.
Martha and Athis promised to support Nul's family. They certainly had the money to do so, and Athis felt it was the least he could do for his future wife. The other women were all sent on their way with a peck of gold, a peck of silver, and a magical potion to bring them good fortune as restitution for their suffering.
Athis was able to return Nul's mother to good health with his vast knowledge of potions. She and Martha became close friends. Nul's sisters were able to search for husbands of good station, for which they were overjoyed.
A few months later, Athis and Nul wed in a grand ceremony. Nul wore the most beautiful gown she'd ever laid eyes on and her sisters carried her train. Both bride and groom glowed with happiness. They would live out the rest of their days in peace, able to live normal lives and raise a family.