Frost had contorted the grass overnight to make it look as if mother nature had slicked it back with grease. The horse’s hooves crunched and cracked on top of the frost ladened grass, causing hoofprints and a steady beat of crackling noises where they stepped. A light fog covered the grass in a blanket about a meter high. Jasmine opened the sliding window on the side of the carriage allowing the cool crisp morning breeze to flow in. The smell of horses and the damp morning dew-covered wilderness was heavy in the late autumn air. The longer she travelled, the more she missed visiting the waterfall deep in the forest surrounding her home. Then, one morning, she found the ice-cold stream on one of the hunts that her brother, Isaiah, had forced her to participate in. She had run away, following the fast-running stream for what seemed like forever, abandoning that little pony her father had given her before the trip before she came across the small clearing that was home to the miniature waterfall. Almost every day after that, she went back: Every day to that clearing to calm her head.
As soon as the sun had set, a commotion was already stirring outside the carriage. Muffled sounds came from the guards yelling their orders to each other. Jasmine closed the window and opened the tiny vent that allowed her to speak to her driver.
“What’s going on now?” She asked, annoyance evident in her voice.
“One of the other carriage’s wheels has fallen off, my lady,” he responded.
“Didn’t I ask you to lose the ‘my lady,’ I mean, I’ve known you for 17 years after all” “Deepest apologies, my lady-I mean, Jasmine.”
Letting a small sigh, she responded, “Thank you, Louis. Let me know when you receive news on how long this break will take.” He gave a short nod in confirmation before Jasmine closed the vent to the driver’s seat and sat back.
A few moments passed, where Jasmine sat idly fiddling with her gloves, before a knock, along with Louis yelling through the closed wooden vent, saying that the knights resolved the issue and that the party would be moving again soon. They had been travelling for just over two weeks now, and with the castle so close, the party had all become restless. It was a race against time to beat the heavy winter snows across the mountains.
They made camp around an hour after sunset, and by the time the party had stopped and she had stepped out of the carriage, the servants had already prepared a tent as well a warm meal that was brought to the tent about half an hour later with a side of black tea. Again, tendrils of the stream licked off of the plate, licking the frigid air. After she finished gulping down the food, she pulled out a book titled ‘The Wicked Widow’ and began reading long into the night, until finally, the small wax candle she had brought herself burnt out. Then, with no light source, she drifted into a light slumber just as the birds began their morning calls.
The guards woke everyone at dawn, and the party began moving shortly afterward. They still had a day or so of travelling before they reached the Verglass estate. Halfway through the day, when the sun was in the middle of the sky, they stopped for a brief lunch of bread, cheese, and any leftover provisions from the trip. When she and the others finished their short lunch, they resumed their journey back home. Louis began humming a classic tune in the north. It was a lullaby that Jasmine’s mother often sang to her as a kid. The words were not in the common tongue, and every syllable was pronounced sharply and enunciated with a varying range of clicks from the tongue. Despite sounding rather harsh usually, the song flowed beautifully, and every word made her body thrum with nostalgia. Eventually, the old lullaby caressed her into a deep sleep, only to be awoken by their arrival at the castle.
As she stepped out of the travel-worn carriage, relief washed over her body. Seeing the large gray walls with vines streaking through the cracks and the well-trimmed gardens covered with a small layer of snow sent a pang of safety and belonging through her body, even as they were wrapped in the blanket of nighttime. Some of the servants had gathered outside and were taking the luggage inside and the stablehands that were taking the horses to the stables. Everything seemed similar to when she had left except for the layer of winter snow covering the grounds and the ice that now froze over the ponds and the fountains.
The inside of the Castle, however, had changed drastically. Heavy winter curtains and large carpets made of animal furs had been set out in preparation for winter. At every fireplace, there stood large heaps of neatly piled firewood. Helen, the head maid and Jasmine’s maid since birth, guided her to her room. She spoke about the matters of the castle and how Jasmine’s brothers and father had yet to arrive and were still dealing with the conclusion of the war. Tzitanu had been at war with the two neighbouring Countries, Lorencio and Nynniaw, for three and a half years. Jasmine’s father, Percival, was one of the five generals of Tzitanu and the acting king. Her brothers, however, Isaiah and Darius, were Knights. Her eldest brother, Mikael, used to be a commander but died in one of the earlier battles last year.
After arriving at Jasmine’s rooms, Helen fetched hot water for Jasmine to bathe.
“How were your travels, my Lady?” she asked very politely.
“Ugh, It was horrible. It began snowing as soon as we left, and the horses were skittish the whole way because of the terrain and cold. When we finally arrived at the Duke’s estate, the Ball had to be cancelled because nobody could get over the mountain pass. Apparently, an avalanche had blocked the border.” Jasmine said, clearly pouting.
“Did you at least get to see the Duke’s newborn child?” Helen tried to maintain her usual polite composure, but hungry for gossip, her eyes spoke otherwise.
“Mhm. He was very…..cute?” Jasmine replied, lacking the same interest as the maid.
They exchanged more of what little happened at the castle and the cancelled Ball before Helen left and Jasmine retired to her bed. She lay there, staring at her ceiling, and the murals that had been painted there long before she was born depicting some battle between beasts and humans. She had named it the ‘Fairytail war’ one night when she was little. Despite her tiredness from her travels, she could not drift off to sleep. Finally, after 30 minutes, she gave up on trying to fall asleep and instead got dressed in preparation to sneak out of the castle.
“Hello? Helen?” she called out softly into the hallway. She cracked open her door so she could peek through into the hallway. Nothing. Even most of the lamps had been put out. After confirming that the hallway was clear, she adorned her winter cloak that was made of heavy fabrics in a dark shade of navy embroidered with black stitching. She snuck silently down the hallway and out to the courtyard. When she was a child, she snuck out often, so often that guards were posted in attempts to stop her by her parents. Unbeknownst to them, she had memorized their schedules and posts and could easily maneuver around their feeble and lackadaisical attempts to keep her locked up. All she had to do was dodge the servants, and it was smooth sailing.
She crept across the courtyard towards the forest but unfortunately for her, she did not once look behind her and did not realize that her maid, Helen, had been tailing her for the past 5 minutes. Finally, just as Jasmine began to cross the final stretch of cobblestone before heading into the forest, Helen called out softly, “And where might you be going so late, my Lady.” Though Helen spoke softly, Jasmine still let out a small shriek from the shock.
“HOW DID YOU FIND ME!” she whisper-yelled while spinning around.
“Find you?” Helen scoffed, “I’ve been following you the whole time.”
“You lil fuckin’ ninja,” Jasmine muttered under her breath.
“My Lady!” said Helen, surprised by her vulgar language.
“Now that you know I’m out here, you might as well come with me,” Jasmine stated matter-of-a-factly, and before Helen could react, Jasmine grabbed her arm and bolted towards the forest, not giving her a chance to refuse.
Up atop the wall
“Hey, did you just see something’ down er’ “one of the guards atop the wall asked. “Hm what... newbie, it was probably a squirrel or somethin’, “the older guard replied. “don’ wake me up next time.” the older guard said, already falling back to sleep.
“My lady, what are you doing?”
“We are going for a nighttime stroll to clear my head,” Jasmine replied with slight sarcasm. Helen was privy to the fact that Jasmine had been sneaking out since she could walk but had long since given up on trying to stop her. Until today. “But this is dangerous.”
“For whom exactly?” asked Jasmine, finally slowing down to look back at the maid.
“You, me ....well…..I don’t know,” said Helen, not willing to surrender to Jasmine’s enthusiasm. “We should have at least brought guards,” she mumbled.
“Hey, cheer up, that’s what I have you for, right?” Jasmine said to which Helen rolled her eyes. They wandered for another half hour or so before reaching the small clearing that was basking in the pale silver moonlight. The stream, snaking through the middle of the ground, was reflecting the rays of moonlight towards the edge of the clearing making the tree’s needles, covered in ice and snow, sparkle like jewels on a chandelier. Jasmine slipped off her fur-lined sandals and sat on the shore, dipping her feet in the freezing, slow running water. She peered into the water, staring at herself in the reflection of the almost black waters.
As she sat in the bone-chilling water, a large bobcat wandered from the other side of the clearing and began cautiously licking up the water only after stopping briefly and deeming the water was either too far to cross or that she and her maid caused no threat to it.
“My lady…..” Helen began before being quickly shushed by Jasmine’s now raised hand. The cat gracefully licked up the way that cats do, albeit quite loudly. After finishing its drink, it began licking its paws, and in the midst of cleaning itself, it seemed to realize that two people were staring at it from the other side of the river and not moving an inch. It paused for a couple of seconds, seeming to re-analyze them, analyzing them to see whether they were prey or predator. Finally determining that it wasn’t in danger once again, it started cleaning its paws once more.
Jasmine and Helen sat in a trance, watching, enticed by the bobcat’s beauty. It was a rare occurrence to be this close to a wild animal, even more uncommon for an animal such as a Bobcat. After what seemed like an hour of silence, the cat finally got up and strutted away, swishing its tail as it walked. Then, it stepped into the dark forest and disappeared, leaving no evidence that it had been here except for maybe some splashes of water where it had been drinking.
“My lady, I think we should head back now. The stars are starting to fade, and the servants will notice if we come back after dawn,” said Helen, stifling a yawn.
Despite her stubbornness to continue staying out, Jasmine was exhausted. “Fine, but we’ll walk along the river for a bit more.” Jasmine was drifting off while walking and struggled to keep her eyes open. They walked along the path for a short while before finally deciding to return to the castle. As they turned to head back for the castle grounds, she realized what had happened.
“Wait. I forgot my sandals!” Jasmine exclaimed, instantly being roused from her previous sleepy state.
Helen, usually overbearing and overprotective, was acting differently due to the fact that she was exhausted and, against her better judgment, said, “Alright….I’ll wait here for you. Go grab your sandals.” Annoyed and itching to return and go to sleep, she let Jasmine go back alone.
For Jasmine, walking along the forest floor at night brought a different type of peace. The quiet yet faint sounds of nature, like the creaking branches swaying in the breeze or the dead pine needles crunching under her feet, made her feel a sense of calm deep in her heart. The clearing appeared in no time, and she walked over to the stream where the sandals were. As she bent over to pick them up, a glint in the corner of her eye caught her attention. She turned her head and almost screamed in shock. Lying in the river was a man in rough worn-out clothing similar to a beggar. The only defining part of his attire was a slightly black curved sword worn at his waist.