A Sneak Peak... A CURSE AND A QUEST 

1

She lets out a sigh, taking in the cottage; dirty windows with rotten wooden frames, all the colour long bleached out by the sun and lack of care. The old bricks are crumbling and the whole building looks off kilter, leaning slightly, unsafe or just ugly? She shrugs. It hasn’t fallen down around them yet, and if it does, with any luck it will be a quick and painless death. The door never shuts properly, and they have nothing worth stealing so nobody has ever bothered to fix it. It lets in the cold and the damp and occasionally a particularly persistent rat. The whole building looks dank and depressing; it certainly doesn’t fill Elliot’s heart with joy to see it, to know she has to go inside it, to put up with having to live there.

She pulls the door open and the mouldy, fousty smell hits her. She’s used to it but it’s always an assault on her nose when she first steps inside. The surrounding forest always smells so good in comparison, especially on a wet morning when the air is full of the scent of dewy grass and wet leaves.

The room is empty and she’s glad of that. There’s nobody to see the expression on her face; she can’t help it; she should be grateful to have a roof over her head and somewhere warm and dry to lay her head. It’s cosy when the fire is on, and fuel for their fire is in plentiful supply because of where they live. The heat and smell of the fire and the only two things that make living here bearable. She sets and lights the fire immediately; if she’s home, the fire is always on. Her father and brother can never be bothered; they’d rather sit in the chilly gloom than actually get off their backsides and light the damn thing.

She sits watching the flames for a minute, letting the warmth and the burning smell consume her. When it’s too hot to sit so close, she tidies up. They don’t have much so how does it always look so messy? She folds the threadbare blankets and places them on the chair, and then she takes the dirty dishes through to the kitchen. It’s not really a kitchen, not one that anyone would recognise. It’s a table in the corner of the room, where they pile their plates – three of them and their cups – three of them, and any meat Elliot catches. Right now, there are two dead rabbits and a pheasant; they don’t help with the smell of the place either.

She empties her sack from the market; she swapped a rabbit for a stale loaf of bread; definitely not a fair swap, but she’s so sick of meat, she was happy to take it. She didn’t notice how hard the bread was until it was too late. If they cook a rabbit the fat with help soften the bread, but it would have been better to have fresh. She’ll make sure to check next time. She picked up ale from the tavern on her way past, bartered for the work her father does for them, and so they will eat and drink plenty tonight.

While she waits for her father and Zak to come home, she sweeps and readies the cooking fire outside. She gathers more fire wood and fills the washing bowl from the river that runs through the forest. They are lucky to live so close to wood and water.

They have everything they need.

She sighs again. It’s a lie she tells herself every day and she hopes one day she will believe it.

The knock at the door startles her; nobody ever comes to visit them. And if they did, they wouldn’t knock.

The soldier at the door smiles politely and she gawks at the sight of him. He’s wearing royal livery and looks so clean and fresh and wholesome. His hair is perfectly oiled, his uniform is perfectly pressed. There’s nothing grubby or grimy about him. He’s shiny and wonderful. He looks so out of place standing awkwardly outside her dirty and dishevelled cottage, which she matches so perfectly.

She pulls at her tunic and tries to pat her wild curls down, wishing she didn’t look as awful as she knows she does. There is nothing pristine about her.

Then she panics slightly; has something happened to her father or her brother? Are they in some sort of trouble? Is that why this soldier is at her door, looking so conspicuous?

But he’s smiling.

He wouldn’t be smiling if there was something wrong. She still hasn’t greeted him, and she clears her throat, feeling a blush creep up her neck and across her face; he must think her an absolute imbecile.

“Can I help you?”

He nods and salutes at her, making her want to laugh. He’s so formal. He holds out a cream envelope, so clean and bright; again, it looks out of place here.

She doesn’t make a move, just stares at the envelope, and so he extends his hand, pushing the envelope against her hand, forcing her to take it.

She does. There’s nothing written on it. She turns it over, but both sides are blank.

She looks up to ask him what it is, but he’s gone. She shakes her head and looks at the envelope again.

Already her grubby fingers have marked it and the creamy, elegant envelope is sullied, smudged, grimy.

She closes her eyes and sighs again.

She takes it inside the cottage and sits beside the fire.

She wants to open it; her curiosity is piqued.

And then she remembers, and tears fill her eyes and her heart suddenly feels like it might burst out of her chest, and the drab and miserable cottage she hates, suddenly feels like the warmest and cosiest and sweetest cottage anyone could ever hope to live it.

Princess Isobel – the sweetheart of the whole Kingdom – is about to turn sixteen, and this just has to be an invitation to the party.

It has to be. She turns it over and over in her hands, grubby smudges forgotten about – this is her invitation to the party of all parties. She holds it against her heart – her hatred of princess Isobel all but forgotten.

Elliot has heard all about the party from the villagers in the marketplace. It’s all anyone has talked about for weeks, and she’s hated to hear a single detail about it; she was so sure she would never be invited. Not after what she did.

But here’s the invitation – very real in her hands.

Now she wishes she’d paid more attention to the gossip. She knows the entire village has been invited – that was the rumour, anyway, though Elliot was sure that wasn’t going to extend to her or her family. This is a special nod to the people who live closest to the castle and are part of what’s known as the royal mile. There will be hundreds of special and esteemed guests, but apparently it was Isobel’s idea to include the common people. Not that she’d ever refer to them that way – she probably calls them the king’s adorable and adoring subjects.

She knows Isobel’s dress is being made by the finest tailor, especially shipped in from Spain, made with the finest materials – including gossamer and a silk that’s never been worn by anyone outside of the Spanish royal family.

She remembers someone telling her, despite the uninterested expression on her face, that the food will be unlike anything anyone has ever seen. The king has brought the finest chefs from France to cater for the party, a feast that nobody could imagine. At this point Elliot had pretended to throw up, but now she can barely contain her excitement.

She also knows that the birthday party is part of the formal celebration of Isobel’s betrothal to the Prince of Zanarler. He’s the finest Prince to ever be born or some such nonsense, but now Elliot cannot wait to see true love up close in all its swooning glory.

What will she wear?

She has no clothes and no money. She cannot wear her usual uniform of a threadbare tunic and short trousers to the party of all parties. She cannot-

Her mother! They still have a trunk of her mother’s things upstairs. There might be a dress. She lays the envelope containing her invitation deferentially onto the small table by the fire, making sure it’s not so close that it might burn, and then she runs up the stairs, falling and banging her chin on the step, swearing under her breath and scrambling to her feet.

She opens the trunk; it sits at the bottom of her bed and she has never opened it before. It’s too painful to remember her mother and Elliot has enough pain in her life just dealing with her day to day life and the grim reality of how it has turned out so far, without looking for more.

The smell of her mother – clean, always clean, and flowery hits her when she opens the trunk and Elliot feels a flush of shame. She cannot think of her mother without worrying about what she would think of her little family. They’ve turned into a band of ragamuffins and she knows it would pain her mother. She knows it would pain her mother to know how catastrophically wrong their new life at the castle turned out. She knows she would worry about how thin they all are, how little they get to eat, how little good stuff they get to eat. She’d be mortified that Elliot is so dirty and unkempt. Despite her weekly dunk in the river, the grime is part of her now and she never can get herself completely clean.

“Sorry mam,” she whispers, feeling foolish and angry and defensive all at the same time.

She couldn’t have known on that fateful day they arrived at the castle how it would turn out, and although she blames herself and she knows her brother and father secretly blame her too, she cannot undo the past. Like her mother always told them when she was warning them not to be unkind or act on their bad tempers, you cannot un ring the bell.

There is a beautiful cloak in the trunk – too nice for her to use; she’d only ruin it. She picks up a plain grey dress; she can remember her mother wearing it. She pulls it close and breathes in; it still smells of her mother. Tears prick her eyes. Her mother wasn’t fancy, but she was always clean and smart and lovely. The opposite of her daughter. She picks up the cloak again, it’s so soft and obviously fancy – there’s a thin lining of fur on the hood and Elliot runs hers fingers over it.

There’s nothing she can wear. But she refuses to let the disappointment dampen her mood. She stuffs everything back in the trunk and goes downstairs.

The invitation is still there; she didn’t dream it.

Isobel must have finally forgiven her and she’s glad. Maybe her father can get more work now, and her brother too. Nobody will give them a full time position and they are forced to do menial jobs for low pay or to barter their services for food and ale.

Hope fills her up and she looks around the drab interior of their little cottage; this could change everything. This tiny envelope represents more than just an invitation to a party; it represents forgiveness and possibility.

The wax seal, deep red and thick, with princess Isobel’s seal stamped into it looks too good to break and Elliot can’t help but feel nervous as she uses the dagger from her boot to slice the envelope open.

She pulls out the thick piece of parchment inside. It’s the same cream colour as the envelope and Elliot only wishes she could keep it clean. She will treasure it forever.

She reads the words out loud, feeling a shiver at how formal and fancy it is.

“His royal highness King George wishes to invite Gregory and his son Zak to the-”

She pauses and scans ahead. Gregory and Zak. Her father and her brother. Not her.

She reads it again in her head, panicking, scrambling a little bit, desperately wanting to see her name written in ink alongside the rest of her family. His royal highness King George wishes to invite Gregory and his son Zak to the sixteenth birthday celebrations and betrothal ceremony of princess Isobel.

She turns the parchment over, but the reverse is blank. Her name is not there. She lets the paper fall to the floor, the envelope with it and sinks into the one comfy chair they have, hot tears burning her face.

“I’m not invited.” Her voice is small, tinged with despair. Anger and upset filling her, she crumples the parchment in her hands, grabbing the envelope as well and tearing at them – the parchment is such good quality that she can rip it, however hard she tries. She lets out a cry of frustration and throws the invitation and the grubby envelope into the fire.

She just won’t tell her father and her brother. Typical spoiled and spiteful Isobel. Why not just ignore them completely? It’s just plain nastiness to invite the rest of her family and not her.

Elliot is furious, pacing the room and seething with rage.

If Isobel was here, she’d punch her again. Twice as hard as last time.