Learning the Secrets

Elsa rested her head on her chin as she stared out the window. She watched the merchants begin to set up their mobile shops for the Juniper Festival. She imagined herself as one of the young peasant girls skipping up the street to the music. She sighed as she sat on her mattress and smoothed out her blue velvet dress. Small beads of sweat were beginning to form along her forehead, right under her blonde, silky hair. Elsa thought that June was too hot to be wearing velvet, but her mother insisted she look nice. While she fanned herself with her hand, she walked out of her room and into the dark, damp hallway.

                She made her way down the long hallway towards the main staircase. Elsa had always thought there was something eerie about the way the candles never burnt out or melted down. She always managed to convince herself that the servants were very good- they replace them when no one is looking. But today, she noticed a strange smell that seem to be originating from the burning wick. Thinking she must be going crazy, she just ignored any qualms she had about the candles.

She lightly stepped down the stairs, and then she walked towards the dining hall. She watched as her father directed the cooks on which foods to make for the feast. Tonight, he would invite all of the merchants in for a six-course meal. Normally her father doesn’t let anyone foreign into the castle, but it has been customary for the king to invite the merchants in ever since the kingdom was founded.

Elsa knew that he would be very grumpy today because of the company soon to arrive, but she so desperately wanted to enjoy the festival from the street level. She didn’t want to stare at the booths from her window. So, she took a deep breath and spoke once her father was finished yelling at the servants.

“No!” his deep voice boomed. “I told you we do not use the best dishes for tonight’s feast! I do not care what my father used to do, I just know that I don’t like tonight’s dinner. So, use the best of the worst dishes. And do not use up all of the spices in the soup! Those are expensive!”

“Yes, your majesty,” a servant said in a squeaky voice.

King Tynan wiped away the spittle that had collected in the corners of his mouth and his beard during his rant. He ran his fingers through his short brown hair as he tried to collect himself.

“Hi, father,” Elsa finally said.

“Oh, hello Elsa. Do you need something?”

His voice was filled disinterest as he spoke to his daughter. It was a stark contrast to the fury the just recently filled his words.

“I was just wondering if you might let me go out to enjoy the music of the festival. I will be eighteen soon, and I was hoping that I might finally be old enough to go out. I get so tired of staring at the fun from my window. This festival only comes every four years, and I desperately wish to enjoy this one before you marry me off to some dunce.”

The king stared at his daughter with his beady black eyes.

“How about the answer, no.”

Elsa’s face fell and she turned to walk away before her father yelled, but it was too late.

“I give you a home and nice clothes and riches, but you wish to associate yourself with the poor people? What an ungrateful child. And all of your marriage prospects are none but the richest men of the lands. I don’t wish to hear you call any of them ‘dunces’.”

He made air quotes with his fingers as he said that last word. Elsa’s eyes filled with tears, but she visibly cringed with what her father said next.

“So, Elsa,” he began with a sickly sweet voice. Then he started to yell again.“You will never be allowed out of this house until you marry!”

It took every bit of willpower that Elsa had to not cry or run away. She learned that her fear only earned her a week locked in her room. So, she stared into her father’s eyes until he smirked with satisfaction and returned to yelling at the cooks. She took a deep breath as her bottom lip quivered. She would very much rather be poor and have freedom than have the entire kingdom’s wealth at her fingertips but never allowed out of the house. She walked out of the dining hall and towards the stairs.

Inside the wall under the stairs was a small closet. Ever since Elsa was a child, she had used the small closet to hide from her father. She often wondered why she ever asked her father for anything if she knew he didn’t care for her. She assumed it was because she always hoped he would change- he never did.

Elsa picked up a lantern from the base of the stairs and tucked herself in the small closet. She set the lantern on a small shelf and curled up in the corner. She picked up a book and read through the descriptive fantasy stories. She imagined herself in the world filled with fairies and magical beings. She wished she could have the amount of courage that all the heroes have; she wished she could just take a sword to her father and show him who the real boss is. The truth was that she was just a small fragile girl who could hardly hold back tears whenever her father spoke to her.

Suddenly, Elsa heard a loud commotion as the merchants made their way into the dining hall. She slowly opened the small door. She kept her head turned so that she could watch to see if either of her parents was coming near. She was so preoccupied with making sure her parents didn’t see her that she ran smack into someone.

“Oh my lords, I am so sorry,” Elsa said.

She looked down and saw she had knocked over one of the young soldier boys.

“You should watch where you are going miss-”

His voice cut off. He was brushing off his uniform when he spoke, but when he stopped he was staring into Elsa’s green eyes.

“Y-your majesty,” he stammered as he bowed his head.

He jumped to his feet and bowed again.

“I-I’m so sorry, I should have watched where I was going. I didn’t mean to say this was your fault. Just please don’t tell your father I was so rude.”

Elsa just looked at him and smiled.

“Don’t worry about it. Oh, and please don’t call me ‘majesty’. I don’t like to think that I actually am related to that dunce.”

She jammed her thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the booming voice. She listened to her father as he yelled at the merchants to form a single line coming into the castle. The boy laughed and his black eyes sparkled. They were dark like her father’s, but they had happiness inside, not evil.

“Okay, well then what should I call you?” he asked her.

“What do you mean,” Elsa inquired.

“Well, I am moving in the castle to learn the trade of swordsmanship from the head guard. He told me I showed promise.” He beamed with pride, then continued talking. “Anyway, I’d like to think we might see each other more, so I would like to know what I should call you.”

A smile played on her lips.

“You can just call me Elsa. But if my father is nearby, act like you don’t know me at all.”

The two laughed until King Tynan noticed them talking. He started to make his way toward them. Panic filled the young soldier’s eyes, but Elsa was used to the fear of her father coming towards her.

“Just kiss my hand and tell me your name,” she muttered.

“What?” the boy responded.

“Just do it!” she said, her heart pounded as her father neared them.

She didn’t know what he would do to her if he caught her having a casual conversation with the common folk. She widened her eyes in fear at the soldier, silently continuing her order for him to act as if they had never talked.

“Very pleased to make your acquaintance, Princess,” the boy said as he gingerly took her hand and pressed his lips against her fingers. “I am Broden. I will be training with your head guard. I plan to become a swordsman to fight for the kingdom.”

Elsa tilted her head up to put her nose in the air and act as if she was better than Broden.

“That is very noble of you, young sir. Good luck with your studies.”

She gave a small curtsy and turned to find her father immediately behind her.

“Elsa? What were you doing talking to that boy?” he asked sternly.

“He was introducing himself, father. He told me he would be living in the castle to train from the guards. He planes to fight as a swordsman, you know,” she replied with the utmost respect. She didn’t want to set her father off again.

“If that’s all it was, then fine. I don’t like you mixing with the commoners.”

Elsa noticed a touch of fear in his voice. Her father isn’t afraid of anything. If he is, he just kills it. What about Broden could make her father so worried?

“No, sir,” she said with her head down.

“Run along then. I have a dinner to attend!”

She turned towards the library and Broden continued to walk in the direction of the king. His eyes screamed fear as Tynan stopped him by grabbing his shoulder. For once, Elsa could not understand what her father was saying. He was whispering so softly that she doubted if Broden could hear him. Instead of hanging around to discover what would happen if she were caught eavesdropping, she continued to walk down the hall towards the library. Her heart nearly stopped when she felt someone touch her arm. She knew better than to scream, so she turned to see who it was. Broden was standing next to her with a grin on his face.

“Okay, you can’t do that,” she told him. “I thought you were my father!”

“Oh, and you think he could sneak up on you like that?” he asked her.

They both laughed quietly, afraid the king might hear them talking. Elsa glanced down the hallway at her father walking away, and she motioned for Broden to follow her to the library.  The two ducked into the musty room with many books and closed the doors. They smiled at each other, happy they didn’t have to worry about the king getting mad at them for talking.

“What was my father saying to you?” Elsa asked him.

Broden froze. The smile on his face melted into anxiety and fear.

“You can tell me. I hate him just as much as you do. I’m not going to tell on you or anything.”

He remained quiet and still. Elsa could only hear the sound of his heavy breathing.

“What’s wrong, Broden?” she asked him, feeling worried again. Something strange was certainly going on.

After a moment, he finally spoke.

“Don’t worry about it. Please don’t ever ask about it again.”

Elsa knit her thin eyebrows together in confusion, but shrugged when he didn’t say anything else.

“Okay, I won’t,” she replied.

She wrapped her four fingers around her thumb in a fist and touched it to her mouth. It was the kingdom’s universal sign for a promise. Elsa had no clue where it originated. Maybe it was because if you told a secret the king might pummel you. She laughed to herself at how true that thought was.

“What’s so funny?” Broden asked.

“Nothing,” she said, waving her hand for him to forget. “Are you hungry?”

He thought for a moment and then sheepishly nodded. Elsa smiled at him.

“Go hide behind one of the book stacks. I’ll be right back.”

She slipped into the hallway leaving Broden alone in the library. He followed her instructions and crouched behind one of the many shelves adorned with books. After a few minutes, he started wiping dust off the spines of the books to amuse himself. He stopped suddenly when he read the title of one of the volumes.

“Poison Sword Diary,” he said out loud.

He craned his neck to see if Elsa was coming back yet, and when he didn’t see her, he carefully pulled the book off the shelf. He coughed and sneezed a few times from the displacement of dust. When it settled, he cracked open the pages to the middle. The words were written in a messy script, not like any of a scribes’ writing. It was also written in purple ink. The only time Broden had ever seen purple ink was on the illustrations of important manuscripts. It was never used for writing. He was so mesmerized by the strange book that he didn’t hear Elsa return. He clapped the book together and shoved it back on the shelf before she saw him. She didn’t like the king either, but she may not appreciate a stranger looking through the books of the kingdom. He started to sneeze some more from all the dust.

“I do wish the servants would clean these shelves,” Elsa said as she handed him a linen cloth. “Of course, I’m the only one who reads in the castle, and my father wouldn’t busy his servants with pointless dusting. He would much rather have them out cultivating the poison garden.”

Fear crept onto Broden’s face as he thought of the book he had found.

“I’m just kidding, Broden. We don’t have any gardens.”

She smiled and he managed a nervous laugh. He had heard the other young soldier’s talk. The garden is in the middle of the woods about a day’s walk from the castle. So, Elsa was either lying to him, or she really was never let out of the building. He wouldn’t have even known she was the princess if it wasn’t for the silver necklace she wore. A clover surrounded by flames was strung on a chain. Each member of the royal family wore one. Something told him that Elsa was just that naïve to not be aware of what her father did. She probably didn’t even know what that necklace meant.

A sharp knock came from the door of the library. Elsa motioned for Broden to hide again as she took a tray from a small girl.

“You must be hungry, miss,” the girl said while staring at her shoes. “That is enough food for three, if I may be so bold to say so.”

“I am hungry Vivienne,” Elsa replied sweetly.

Then she took two rolls off the platter and stuffed them in the servant’s pockets. She put her fist to her mouth as she had done earlier, and sent Vivienne on her way. Elsa carried the tray of food over to Broden and sat down on the floor next to him. Out of habit, she smoothed the skirt of her dress down and folded he legs to the side like a lady.

Broden arched an eyebrow at her princess behavior. She hit him lightly on the arm.

“It’s out of habit. If I didn’t do that with real people around my mother would punish me!” she explained to him.

“Oh, and I’m not ‘real people’?” he asked playfully.

“You know what I mean,” she said as she rolled her eyes.

She tore a roll in half and stuffed the large piece in her mouth, mocking him with her bad manners. He did the same, and they both laughed. When they managed to swallow the doughy bread, they stared at the platter of food, suddenly not hungry anymore. In synchronization, they both clutched their stomachs in pain. Broden and Elsa looked at each other with confusion and fear.

Quickly, they ran towards the window and vomited onto the back lawn. Elsa slid down to the floor, covering her mouth. Broden continued to be sick out the window. After a few minutes, he took a seat next to her. His eyes silently questioned her, and she noticed his eyes were bloodshot. A rhyme she learned when she was young immediately popped into her eyes.

“Bloodshot eyes means it’s time to die,” she whispered.

She could almost hear Broden’s heart speed up in panic and fear. She reached under the folds of her dress and unbuttoned a hidden pocket. She pulled out a small bottle of green liquid. She put three drops on her tongue and motioned for Broden to do the same. Fear was written all over his face, but he instinctively knew it would help him.

He handed the vial back to Elsa and she tucked it back under her skirt. She watched Broden closely, and after thirty minutes or so, his eyes returned to normal.

“Are you okay?” she finally asked him.

He nodded slowly, afraid to talk. He asked her what happened with the expression on his face.

“My father told me that sometimes the cook tries to poison our family. He gave me the vial when I was a little girl. He told me that rhyme, and if I ever saw my reflection with red eyes, along with a sick stomach, I needed to take three drops immediately.”

Broden eyed her with suspicion. He did not believe the bread was poisoned by the cook. But, there was no way to prove that the king did it.

“Well, thank you,” he finally said to Elsa. He picked up her hand and kissed her fingertips. “You saved my life.”

Elsa pulled back her hand and blushed. Suddenly though, fear jumped into her eyes.

“Vivienne!” she screamed.

She burst through the library doors and heard the boisterous music coming from the dining hall. She knew she would have gone somewhere secret where the king wouldn’t see her eating the rolls. Elsa ran down the small hallway that led to the back lawn. She gasped when she saw the little body lying motionless against the wall. She ripped the pocket out of her dress and poured three drops into the girl’s mouth. Her heart pounded as she waited for Vivienne to open her eyes, but she never did.

She slowly stood up and turned away from the girl. Broden was standing behind her and comforted her with a hug.

“You didn’t know,” he whispered. “It’s not your fault.”

Elsa only cried into his shoulder. She wiped away her tears after a few minutes and began to walk back to the library. She heard heavy footsteps though, and knew her father was headed towards the book room. She grabbed Broden’s hand and ran out the entrance to the back lawn. They ran until they were well hidden by the trees. Her heavy gasping proved to Broden that she had never run before in her life. When she caught her breath, she stared into his eyes.

“What did I do to that girl?” she asked him.

“It wasn’t your fault! You were being nice and feeding a starving servant. There was no way you could have known that it was poisoned. You can’t be so hard on yourself,” he told her.

“Hard on myself?” she shouted angrily. “I just gave that girl her death sentence and you are telling me not to be hard on myself? That’s like telling me it was fine for me to kill her!”

Elsa stomped away from him, going further into the trees. She liked the feeling of freedom, and she started to run. She heard Broden calling for her in the distance, but she didn’t care. She had never been this close to nature before. She just kept running and running until she felt like her legs might give out from underneath her. After she had travelled a long distance, she came upon a gate.

“No one lives in the forest,” she said to herself.

She stepped lightly around to the side where she saw a woman picking plants out of a garden. Afraid of being seen, she stepped backwards to hide behind a tree. But, her foot snapped a fallen branch and the woman whirled around. Elsa stifled a gasp.

Broden had finally caught up to Elsa and stood panting near a tree. Finally, he noticed the gated garden and Elsa hiding behind a tree. He quietly snuck over and stood near her. He followed her gaze and saw the woman picking the plants. He also saw the sign hanging on the inside of the gate. It was a diagram, with pictures of allthe plants and their names next to it. He read the title at the top of the wooden sign.

“Poison garden,” he muttered as he breathed out.

He heard Elsa gasp. She turned to face him. Momentarily, he forgot about the garden.

“I’m sorry, Elsa. You are absolutely right. It’s not okay that girl died from a roll. We could go talk to your father and have the cook fired,” he told her.

Elsa just shook her head, continuing to stare at the woman.

“What’s wrong?” he finally asked her.

“The castle really does have a poison garden,” she said.

“Yeah. I’ve heard the rumors from the other guards. They’ve seen it-”

She pressed her fingers to his mouth to silence him.

“I was saying that the castle really does have a poison garden.” She swallowed hard. “And my mother is it’s gardener.”

The End

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