Thovalon Kingdom, May 2, 991 AD
The last breath I take is a big one before my head is pushed down and I am submerged underwater. I clench my eyes shut, and I can hear the faintest sound of a man’s garbled voice. He is speaking to the crowd that has gathered around him.
He goes on and on while I am slowly losing the air in my lungs. Before I am forced to take in water to release the burning sensation, the pressure holding me down is gone, and I resurface quickly, gasping.
Pulling myself together, I see our church’s old, rugged priest smiling gently down at me. He then speaks, his voice warm and kind, “Welcome to the Christian world, young Ellie.”
His smile is contagious, and I find my lips tugging up into one while everyone around us claps. My mother is also here, standing to the side and smiling just as lovingly. Her hands reverberate with the others, the jewelry on her wrists clinking noisily.
I can’t help but admire her. She is not a classic beauty, but her features add up to make her striking. Poise has been her middle name, although I have never seen her disheveled in my entire life. Donning a simple white dress with long sleeves embroidered with golden thread, her attire speaks of simple sophistication. Her hair is done up in a perfect bun, yet a few silver strands fall loose to frame her round face. Affixed to it is a golden tiara embellished with rubies, sapphires, diamonds, emeralds, and pearls.
The priest holds out his hand to me and I grasp it. He helps me out of the barrel, and as soon as my feet hit the ground, I feel the priest wrapping a blanket around my body. I tug it securely around myself before sliding my feet into the slip-on shoes I wore for the ceremony. I eagerly walk up to my mother, the queen of this land, feeling like an entirely new person, as they say.
She puts her arms around me and pulls me close to her as we walk to the door, and spectators congregate around me.
She asks, her voice just above a whisper, “Ready to go home and get dressed in your nice dry clothes?”
A frown mars my forehead as I think about going back to the castle. The only children around to play with are my two elder brothers, who are both bullies. However, that matters very little because, for the rest of the day, I wouldn’t be able to play.
I would most likely be forced to learn more embroidery, sheets of music, or rules of etiquette. My days, such as these, are extremely boring, and I find my brothers’ daily lives to be much more interesting.
I hesitate just a few steps outside the church and turn back to glance once more at those who have gathered for the big day today. They are enjoying each other’s company and conversation, with snacks and sweet wine. The last thing I hear before the church doors close behind us is the low hum of their chatter. How the young princess, being me, is now a true Christian.
I whine, looking up at my mother with pleading eyes as we enter the loud and busy streets of the kingdom. “Mother, I want to play with the other children, not go back to the castle.”
She stares down at me, her eyebrows knitting as she stops on the path. “Ellie...” she mutters. “I understand what you desire, but your father will not allow such behavior to stand.”
She reaches down to gently stroke my cheek with her thumb as she continues. “Perhaps I can speak with your father into letting you get some free time to play with your brothers.”
I flinch at her touch, backing away from her with a fierce glare, before spitting angrily, “You know that will never happen! Father hardly ever grants me free time for myself! Anyway, I don’t want to play with my stupid brothers. All they do is mock me.”
“Ellie!” My mother hushes me in a scolding tone, her pouty, small lips pursed in anger. “Stop your tantrum at once. We are going back to the castle. You are not allowed to play with those children. Your father and I have already discussed this.
She tries to reach out to me, but I pull back again, despising how mother and father try to control who I am to play with and when.
“I do not care! I will do what I want! If I want to play with Samuel and Margaret, then I will!” I hiss out.
With this, I start running down the busy streets. I hear my mother calling out to me, asking me to stop.
I have to be fast because once mother gets on her horse, it won’t be long before she finds me. She always knows where I am going and when I would get there. She knows how to track me.
Somehow, I think I understand the reason for that. She is not only a queen, but she was once a princess to a kingdom up north. A kingdom where women were warriors which is unheard of here, and from what I know, she used to hunt too.
She’s told me about it in her bedtime stories, tales of her courage and instincts and how well she had hunted. But all that had ended when my grandfather gave her hand in marriage to my father to create an alliance between the two kingdoms.
I quickly cut through an alley before zigzagging into another. She is quick, no doubt, but I am quicker. Unlucky for her, I have the same blood running through my veins, I think smugly as I run onto a new street. The people here get startled by my abrupt appearance, and I think I make one woman yelp.
I ignore them, rushing through, the blanket around my shoulders long gone and discarded in the alley as I continue sprinting forward, trying to outrun and outsmart my shrewd mother. She will probably be mad when she finds me...
I don’t want to be punished and not be allowed to go anywhere without guards following me. I refuse the last bit of my freedom to be taken away from me.
It feels nice, the air whipping through my hair and the sun kissing my pale skin. I can barely hear the voices of the people and the noises of the town with the speed I am flying through. I smile as I look over my shoulder and see no one at my heels.
I think I have gotten away from her...for now.
“I can’t believe you ran away from your mother to play with us again,” remarks Margaret after I get dressed into an outfit she had, in exchange for my silk dress.
I am happy to be rid of it. I much prefer Margaret’s plain and well-worn cotton dress. Though it is tight and falls shorter than it should be, it does not matter much since I’ll be playing outside anyway and would most likely get dirty.
She is younger than me by two years, probably the reason why her clothes do not fit me properly. She looks much different than me. Her hair, just like her eyes and skin, is brown; although, it is not the natural color of her flesh. The dirt caked on her skin hides the golden bronze hue, caused by her playing in the sun the whole time.
In essence, Margaret is my complete opposite. She is far from royalty—she is poor, just like her older brother, Samuel, who is my age, but that hasn’t stopped me from playing and socializing with them against my parents’ wishes. They are my true friends, unlike the snobby children of father’s men.
“I don’t even care if they punish me anymore. What’s the worst they can do?” I wonder aloud, my lips pulled down in a scowl as we exit her small home and burst into the down-trodden streets. I then ask curiously, having not heard or seen him in her house, “But where is Samuel?”
Her eyes cast down before looking forward, “Recently, he’s been with Elizabeth, the girl whom we played with before. It seems he likes her. They were out by the ocean playing, the last time I knew. I didn’t want to get in the way, so I stayed home with mother today.”
I smirk mischievously, giggling, “Then why don’t we see what they are doing? Maybe interrupt a little bonding time.” I then make kissy sounds, hugging my arms around me, mocking what Samuel and Elizabeth could be doing, which caused Margaret to make a disgusted face and for me to laugh uncontrollably.
“Eww. I don’t want to think about them kissing. That’s gross. Kissing is for a husband and wife only,” she declares piously as we walk down the street, side by side, our steps moving in sync at the same pace.
As I gossip with Margaret, I bump into an adult wearing a black cape, forcing me to come to an abrupt stop. It is my fault as I was not paying attention.I look up to see an old woman with eyes whiter than any ghost.
I swallow as I stare at the scar over her left eye and stutter nervously, “Sorry...” I move past her and walk forward until the old woman snatches my wrist, making my heart come to a temporary stop before it thumps wildly in my chest.
She begins to cackle as she pulls me back to her; my eyes nearly bulge out of their sockets and so does Margaret’s. “You little girl.... have quite the future ahead of you. You’re one that I would like to call special.” She smiles, revealing her missing teeth, and the few that are left have turned black and are rotting.
“You shall be taken by a big bad wolf, or should I say, wolves.” She chortles before continuing her story, turning my arm around so that my palm is faced upwards. She points the long and dirty nail of her finger and traces the lines of my palm. “You’ll capture the beast’s attention with a feat that could only come from a brave warrior. Then you will become his in the act of a single ferocious bite.”
“What?” I ask, confused by the old woman’s rambling while Margaret looks concerned. Her lips grimace as she sticks by me, even though the woman is indeed scary.
“You heard me,” the old woman hums out. “You will become his...his wife.” Then she heaves into a dry cough.
I hear Margaret whisper, her tone nervous, “Ignore her. She’s a pagan and also a seer. A lot of the things she says are just crazy tales to scare us.”
The old woman frowns, tilting her head, her long and strangely white hair swaying from under her cape, then asks, slightly offended, “Crazy tales? No, no, no, no, what I see is all about the future, little one.” She then laughs before adding, “Just like I can see her future, I can see how jealous you will become of your friend someday. Both taken by the wolves, yet one is bound by the chains while the other has freedom.”
I pull my hand back from her and glaring at the woman, I state loudly, “That is enough. No more!” I then grab Margaret’s wrist and begin tugging her along with me.
The old woman cackles behind us, then she leaves me with one final message.“Once you hear the sound of the bell, both your fates will be sealed. There will be no turning back...for both you dearies.” She laughs again, but instead of growing louder, it starts getting softer as I march forward, holding Margaret’s hand tightly.
She then turns toward me, her forehead marred in worry. “Do you think she is telling some truth?”
I scoff before retorting back, “No, but weren’t you the one to tell me she is just some crazy woman who claims to be a seer?”
Her eyes look away as I take a sharp corner. “Yes, but papa sometimes says what she speaks of can be the truth. She had foretold the gender of my brother and also mine before we were even born.”
I halt before smirking at her, letting go of her wrist. “It was a coincidence. Even I could have a chance at foretelling the gender of a baby. It’s either one or the other. Don’t worry about it, Margaret. There are no wolves here anyway and to marry a wolf is impossible—they would eat me first. She is just crazy and thinks highly of herself, despite her poor hygiene.”
She smiles slightly at the thought while nodding her head. I too smile and tease her, “Come on, let’s find your brother and Elizabeth.” But before we could even continue walking, we see them running toward us. I smile wider and say, “Or they can come to us.”
I wave to them, and once they see us, they run faster before stopping in front of us, out of breath. Raising an eyebrow, I ask coolly, “Are you two alright?”
I first look at Samuel, who is similar to Margaret in appearance, then at Elizabeth, who has long, curly blonde hair and blue eyes.
They both shake their heads, and Samuel is the first to catch his breath as he grabs Margaret by the shoulder. “We have to run and warn mama and papa. Elizabeth, Ellie, you guys too. Run home and warn your families.”
“Huh, what for?” Margaret asks as Elizabeth nods and darts in another direction, without giving us a chance to greet the girl. She is the eldest of our small group of friends, whom we have only known for a short time.
“Vikings! We saw their boats when we were playing on the beach. So did a couple of the king’s men,” Samuel exclaims loudly, his voice clearly shaken in fear. “We don’t have time to talk. We have to go home!”
“O-ok,” Margaret stutters, also alarmed by her brother’s attitude. As Samuel tugs her forward, she looks back at me over her shoulder. “Go home and find your mother, Ellie. We can play after the adults take care of everything.”
I nod as I watch Samuel yank his sister’s arm more aggressively, and she stumbles forward as they run in the direction of their home. I am left all by myself, thinking about the situation and as I turn around to run, I stop when I hear the sound of a loud bell. And just like that, my life flashes before my eyes.
The sound continues, the bell putting me in a trance-like state, and I think back to that old woman’s words. “Once you hear the bell, both your fates will be sealed. There will be no turning back...for both you dearies.” I then go back to her other words, about the wolves, and I can only feel fear. I have to run and get to mother and father. Perhaps that would change my fate.
I shake my head, dispelling all thoughts about the woman and start running like my life depends on it. But how was I to know at the time, no matter what I did, my fate had already been decided.