Author: Sandi aka umgaynow aka That Big Tease
The Stableman's Daughter. Always, she had been just The Stableman's Daughter.
"I beg your pardon?" the traveller glared in the direction of the voice, "I dare say, Madam! Who is telling this story? If you don't mind!" She rose to her feet, her expression shifting into another that was rather less friendly, "May I proceed then? Oh, very well...if you do insist..." she took a deep breath, blowing it out in such a fashion that the unkempt hair, which hung in her eyes, stood straight up for a moment, "Perhaps it was not precisely always..."
For it is true that Cordelia, the notoriously waspish lady-in-waiting, generally addressed her as peasant or wretch and I will grant you that her own father, when her bothered to speak to her at all, called her merely girl.
"There now, is that to your satisfaction? Excuse me, but if you would...to speak in the vernacular of the peasantry...sit down and shut up, then you might be better able to hear what happens next, now mightn't you? If you please, Madam! Do you wish to hear the tale or not? Well then...if you gentle ladies may be imposed upon to forgive a humble bard, should she now and again resort to the tiniest bit of exaggeration for dramatic effect, I assure you things will go much more smoothly. After all, there is no denying that the oral traditions of the region certainly set precedent for such...I mean really, if one occasionally indulges in a wee bit of hyperbole in order to...it's not like anyone has ever been...and I can't see the harm in a little...Pardon me? Ah...so we are agreed then? Excellent! Now where was I? Oh yes...thank you..."
The Stableman's Daughter. Not a soul had spoken her true name since that dark day when her Nona had been taken into The Lands Beyond. As her own Mum had passed from this world in bringing the babe into it, her grandmother was the closest thing to a real parent that the child had ever known. So, it was indeed a tragic day when the old woman had merged with the infinite, but still it was a tragedy which had befallen her in a year long since past. She had been but a mere slip of a girl then. All bones and brashness, with a wild shock of red hair, so unruly that it scarcely afforded even the briefest glimpse of the startlingly green eyes that stared out from beneath her pale brow.
How, you may ask, could something so fundamental as a name fall into disuse? And I will tell you the plain truth of it.
It was not, as you may posit, were you given to fancy, that her name was a holy name, nor even one to be feared. No. It was nothing so exciting as that. It was quite simply that the courtiers and townsfolk alike, regarded her much as they did the heavy oak table that sat in the great hall. Sturdy, yes...necessary, indeed...but ultimately replaceable...a fixture...consigned to the shadows and hardly worthy of notice. Just the stableman's daughter spoken in precisely the same way as one would say the pig or the chair or the chamberpot. In fact, it had been so long since she had heard the name pass another's lips, that she oftimes wondered if she would even recognize the sound, should someone deign to utter it.
Fortunately, our girl was strong of mind and determined of spirit and had made a solitary oath that she would not allow herself to forget. Fearing that if she did, she might indeed become that non-entity, that wretched piece of furniture, that the world around her saw when they bothered to look her way. So, whenever she could steal a moment alone, away from the ears of the gossips that thrived at court, in the form of fine ladies and scullery maids alike, she would speak the name aloud. Repeating it over and over again, until it became so formless and nonsensical that even she could not be certain that she was remembering it right.
And it is thus that we find her as our tale begins...reciting her ritual litany as she walks the nigh on ten miles between the manor and the marketplace.
"Willow...Willow...Willow...Willow...WillowWillowWillowWillow...my name is Willow...Willowy Willowy Willow...Will-ow...Will-ow...Will-ow...Will - Oh blast!" she snarled, having planted her foot smack in the middle of a fresh pile of ox dung.
Being the stableman's daughter, she was actually something of an authority on the subject of dung. After all, she'd scarcely drawn breath away from the foul stench of it in all of her two and twenty years. As for this particular pile, Willow could tell it was fresh by the core temperature and relative humidity of it as it squished through the hole in her shoe and oozed between her toes. Try as she might, she couldn't help laughing at the sheer typicalness of her predicament, if only to keep from falling to her knees and sobbing.
Here she was on her monthly pilgrimage to the forge, in search of new shoes for the baron's pampered ponies, while she herself had been wearing the same tattered weasel-hide slippers for nearly two summers. At this point, they were less a pair of shoes than an assemblage of holes and patches. Not that her situation was unique, for those of her station, it was quite simply the way things were and had been as long as anyone could recall. The horses ate better than she did, slept in warmer, drier quarters, were washed and groomed on a regular basis and in most cases, had never felt the sting of a courtier's whip on their backs. I'll get even with that harridan Cordelia one day, I swear on my Nona's grave.
Willow was also fairly certain that the horses had never been chased through the bowels of the castle by Wilkins, the lecherous tanner. Thankfully, for her sake, years of mucking out stalls and carrying water had made the redhead strong and nature had gifted her with a certain fleetness of both mind and foot. Also, a tenacity and ferociousness, if needs be, that belied her diminutive stature. Running and hiding were skills a girl had to master early on, when she was constantly surrounded by soldiers, tradesman, pages and even the occasional knight errant. From the time she'd come into her body and ceased to be believable as a young boy, the redhead had learned quite quickly that even the most high-born of courtiers was not put off by the stench of stable on her, once his baser urges took hold. Still, swift mind and swift foot beat drunk and randy on any day with a Y in it.
The moment she had been old enough to comprehend, Nona had begun drilling into her head the importance of protecting her virtue at all costs. If she was spoiled, no man would want her for his wife. Spoiled. What was she, a pail of milk? And Willow was certain that her grandmother was smiling down at her from The Lands Beyond. She had done her proud; for it would not be hyperbole to say that the little redhead was more likely than not, the only virgin of two and twenty in all the region, perhaps further on than that.
Admittedly, respecting her Nona's wishes had not been all that difficult. For she had no desire to be wife to any husband, years of watching the men who came through the stables convinced her of that. Much to her dismay, her father was not of the same opinion on the matter. He had, of late, been making noises about marrying her off to the first man who made him a decent offer. A spinster daughter of two and twenty was like a black mark on the name of a man, when other girls were often married by four and ten and either mothers or old maids by ten and six.
Willow knew that she must escape from the trap her father was laying for her and soon, but it would require a lot of planning and no small amount of luck. You see, simply running away was not an option. Everyone knew that a woman on her own could only be one of two things. A whore or a corpse. Since Willow didn't fancy either of those options, she'd need to come up with a third.