Urielle kept her eyes down as she entered the cavern two levels under the palace kitchens. Quick glances upward told her that King Myrinan was already there, standing on the bridge that looked over the giant’s forehead. Her step faltered when she saw the king, but she pushed forward, her heart thundering as she passed behind him on the balls of her feet, hoping not to make a sound. The king was unpredictable of late, and many a serving friend had lost their heads for small mistakes. The king’s entire focus was on the giant, though, who had a look of deep concentration.
Urielle went to the wall and retrieved the long handled scrub brush and bucket, which she filled as quietly as she could from the cauldron of minted water. With a deep curtsy toward the king, she climbed the stairs that ran up to the giant’s jawline. She paused briefly beside the giant’s ear.
“Good morning,” she whispered. “I’ll sing to you next time.”
She saw the corner of the giant’s lip curve toward her in a smile and she patted his cheek, finishing her climb up the staircase. He peeled his lips back from his smile and she began scrubbing his teeth.
When she returned to her chamber for a change of clothes later that day, Urielle discovered a girl sitting on the spare bed. Until recently it had been Darla’s, but King Myrinan had been able to hear Darla breathing from across the room, and that was the end of Darla. Urielle had liked her, though she hadn’t known her long. This new girl had alert eyes and a stillness to her that most folk didn’t share.
“Hello,” Urielle greeted, taking off her mint soaked apron and grabbing a fresh one from her wardrobe. “I’m Urielle. Tooth brusher. Do you have an assignment yet?”
The girl twitched her head at Urielle when she’d started speaking, reminding Urielle of a bird.
“Absulla,” she said. “I’ve been assigned to some lord’s son. Hendron, I think.”
Again that stillness had come over her, and Urielle found herself working on a puzzle. There was something off about Absulla. Something familiar, though, too.
“I know Hendron,” she said, smiling with assurance. “You’re lucky. He’s actually quite decent.” Handsome, too, though she kept that to herself. Hendron was one of the few noble born who didn’t mind a conversation with the help. He had spoken with her on several occasions, asking about her day, and genuinely interested, it seemed, in her well-being.
Josie came in the far door, and Absulla twitched her head at the movement. Just visible above her collar was the hint of a tattoo. Urielle stifled a gasp. Absulla was of the fabled tree folk. That was the puzzle. Tree folk were half legend. Traveling merchants told of them mostly, and most of those tales were half lie. It was said that the tree folk knew the secrets of the forests and the amount of magic they possessed depended upon the storyteller.
In the days before Urielle had been taken to serve in the palace, she’d seen only a handful of them, men mostly, with their strange braids and the tattoos traveling up the back of their necks. She never heard them speak, though she and the other children shadowed them as they made their way through market trading goods. At the forest they disappeared after a few steps, no matter how many children had followed along to see where they went. There were no people more mysterious, or more free of King Myrinan’s reign, than the tree folk. Absulla’s presence in the palace was either a sign of hope or a sign of despair.
Absulla had been studying Urielle’s discarded apron. “Whose teeth do you brush?” she asked with a frown.
Urielle laughed. She pictured what Absulla must be thinking. Still, she wasn’t about to speak of the giant if she valued her neck’s connection to her head.
“Big teeth,” she said. “I’ll see you around.”
She had the giantess to attend to before she went back for the evening scrub, and that was far trickier. The giantess was trapped under what looked like an ancient rock slide, making it difficult to access her mouth between giant slabs of jagged rock. She lay at an odd angle as well, which had her always moaning. Her cavern was deep under the castle, accessed by a hand carved tunnel with uneven stairs etched into it. The king barely ever visited the giantess, and only a few servants were spared to oversee her comfort. It was the giant who interested the king. More specifically, it was the things the giant made for him that interested the king.
“You must take it,” the giantess moaned.
“Take what?” asked Urielle. The other attendants had filtered from the cavern, and she realized that for the first time, she and the giantess were alone.
“The little king has him bringing a terrible creature into this world,” she said, her voice muffled by the leaning stones. “My love does as he is told, but the price will be too high. It is not worth my life. Please, you have to take the egg away before it hatches, or hope will die. Tell my love what I have said. Tell him I am ready.”
Urielle had no idea how to respond. She was snapped back to attention by the descending footsteps of one of the attendants on their way back down to the cavern and she resumed scrubbing the giantess’ teeth.
“I will,” she whispered into the hole between the collapsed stones closest to the giantess’ ear.
A huge tear escaped the giant’s eye when she whispered her message that evening, but he said nothing.
That night, long after snores filled the sleeping chamber, Urielle stared at the spear of light the moon cast across the ceiling. She could take the egg well enough, but what would she do with it? Servants weren’t permitted near the gates at any time of day or night. Only noble born had that kind of freedom anymore.
“Do you not sleep?” Absulla’s voice asked quietly.
Urielle turned to face the tree dweller. “How did you come to work here?” she asked.
The silence was so long that she assumed Absulla had drifted away into sleep. “I’m the last of my people,” she said, in barely more than a whisper.
In that, Urielle had an answer. Who better to help an egg disappear than the last of a mysterious people who had mastered the art of disappearance? As for a noble born to help them escape…
“I have something I need to tell you,” she whispered.
A month crept by, filled with plotting and paranoia. It was everything Urielle could do not to fall to her knees in panic on those occasions when she saw the king. She felt that every one of the guards followed her with their eyes, and even mundane sounds made her jump. Absulla, on the other hand, seemed entirely herself. Hendron had agreed far more easily than they would have guessed, and paved the way for their planning sessions by demanding Urielle’s services after she had finished her long shift. It meant missing her daily meal, but Hendron always had food laying about, and encouraged Urielle and Absulla to eat whatever they liked.
“Why are you willing to do this?” Urielle asked him one day.
It had been Absulla who had secured his involvement, and as much as Urielle wanted to trust him, she had been in the palace too long to accept that he would risk his head for an idle reason. Urielle’s family had been torn apart, as had much of her village, before being pressed into service. Absulla had lost everyone and everything she held dear before the final, and most wounding insult to the tree folk – captivity. Hendron’s family had gained lands and wealth by supporting the king.
“Because I haven’t forgotten what’s right,” Hendron replied. “I’m spared much of the hardships, but I’m not blind to them. And I’m old enough to remember when it meant something to stand up for good.”
Urielle would have preferred a tale of horrible loss to match her own and Absulla’s, but his explanation would have to do. They had already shared their plans with him. If he turned out to be false, then as the giantess had said, all hope was lost.
“Tomorrow,” said the giant as she was preparing to leave one day.
His cavern was always occupied, and everyone shared a look of bewilderment at the giant’s solitary word. Urielle shrugged at her favorite guard and trudged to Hendron’s suite, trying to keep her face expressionless. Based upon Absulla’s instant understanding when she entered the room, though, she hadn’t succeeded.
“Tomorrow,” she reported. They gazed at each other in silence. There was nothing left to say.
The king’s guards stopped her the next morning at the entrance to the giant’s cavern, and she trembled the entire walk up the tower.
“Please,” she asked as the cell door clanged shut, “what is my offense?”
Had it been the look on her face after the giant spoke, or had Hendron turned her in? The guards made no reply. She had no window, so no way of knowing the time of day, but her body told her of the day’s long passing. Eventually she noticed that the dim light that had filtered in from the hall grew weak and turned silvery. Night had fallen. She shuffled down, trying to make her apron into something close to a pillow, when she heard a faint noise on the steps. A few seconds later, Absulla gazed in through the bars.
“Did they not catch you?” asked Urielle.
Absulla blinked at her. She was kneeling in front of the lock, fiddling with something.
“The king says you whispered something to the giant,” she said under her breath. “Our friend is waiting for us. Quickly.” The lock flipped and Absulla pulled the door open, somehow managing not to make it grate as it has when it had closed her in.
Urielle wanted to laugh. She always whispered to the giant. Words of encouragement mostly, sometimes she sang. It was the most innocent of her actions of late. No doubt King Myrinan planned to remove her head for it. ‘Well,’ she thought, ‘if the king is going to lop off my head, at least it will be for a good solid act of treason instead of a stupid, well meant whisper.’ It was likely the nerves, but she had to fight from laughing aloud.
The guards to the giant’s chamber were confused when they saw Urielle and Absulla approach.
“I’m to train this one,” said Urielle, “and then it’s the chop for me.”
The guards exchanged a dubious look, but they admitted the girls anyhow. It was all Urielle could do to keep from breaking into a run once inside the chamber. When the giant saw them, he exhaled as if he hadn’t breathed properly all day. Another tear escaped his eye. He lifted his lips to bare his teeth and Urielle climbed the steps, whispering, “where?” in his ear as they passed. The giant didn’t respond, but when they reached the top step, his tongue peeked through his teeth, carrying a black oval that felt hard, like stone. Absulla quickly tucked it into a bag Urielle had hidden under her coat and the two made for the door.
“It’s important that his breath is minted for our dear good king,” Urielle said, and Absulla nodded.
“Something don’t smell right,” said one of the guards, blocking their way.
Urielle wanted to scream. She knew these guards. Neither of them were particularly bright. All of the people the king used in the giants’ caverns were either dim or just didn’t speak much. While she liked to think she qualified for the latter, these two were most certainly the former.
“That’s because we didn’t actually brush his teeth,” she snapped. “Otherwise, we would smell like mint.”
“He didn’t mean actual smell,” said the other guard. “We saw you hauled away.”
“Yes,” she said, “and that’s why I’m training my replacement.” She blinked at them with as much arrogance as she could muster, staring them down and hoping that they wouldn’t see how much her hands trembled behind her apron. “If you’ll excuse us, I have one more training to do.”
The guards, mercifully, stepped aside. Urielle didn’t breathe until they had slipped out a side door from the kitchen and the cool night air washed over her like hope. They had done it. She couldn’t help but grin as she followed her friend’s silent footsteps through the shadows of the palace gardens. They would be hunted for the rest of their lives, but it would be worth it knowing that whatever creature stirred within the egg at her back had not fallen into their tyrant king’s hand. The world might never know what they had done, but that didn’t matter. She knew. They had saved the thing most precious under a tyranny. Hope.
Written by W. C. McClure. This may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome athttp://www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and please help support this indie author by telling your friends about this short story blog and buying W. C. McClure’s books http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!