Soul of the Wild Wood
By Brenna Hanson
Date: June 27, 2021
Ch. 11

The morning after Fate whispered sweet nothings in my ear and danced me through my wedding, she left me to figure out the next steps. The proof of her desertion looked to be about six years old. He stood, head cocked to the side in silent assessment of me. Judging by the set of his mouth, I hadn't won him over. I tugged the fur covering up closer around me. I might be the new queen here, but I was also a naked stranger who, until last night, had been the enemy. Needless to say, I did not feel regal.

A woman walked up to stand beside the child. She, too, cocked her head to the side and pondered me. By the look of the two, they were mother and son. She sent him on his way with a ruffle to his hair. His last look at me was full of a young warrior’s warning for me to watch my step. If I was still in Stonewood Castle and he was my younger brother I might have laughed. Circumstances being what they were I tried not to shiver. His mother came into the room and gave me a tentative smile. It didn’t reach her eyes. I understood. My smile in return did not quite reach mine either.

She crossed to a chest beneath the window and knelt to open it. Inside, she found a dress. When she shook it to release the wrinkles, the scent of lavender filled the room. She turned and held it up for my inspection. It was a lovely creation. Small stitches held a mosaic of pebbles to form ferns rising from the hem. Across the bodice, the same method was employed to display a flock of light blue birds winging above the ferns. Even in the court of my father, the recently fallen king of Stonewood Castle, I had never worn a dress of such fine craftsmanship. The woman stepped closer and I reached to run a finger over a bird near the neckline. I drew my hand back just before touching it for fear that I might dislodge one of the stones and ruin the dress. The woman frowned. She held the dress out again. I laid my fear aside to run a hand over the clothe, outlining the edge of the bird with my fingertip. She smiled then and gestured that I was to wear the dress. I glanced at the open door. I was not sure of the custom here, but modesty had returned with a vengeance after my bold dance through the forest clothed only in birdsong the night before. The woman nodded to me and laid the dress across the foot of the bed. She crossed to the heavy curtain at the doorway and let it fall then came back to help me dress.

“Do you have a name?” I asked to cover my discomfort. The woman looked confused. I tapped my chest and said, “Natalia.”

She smiled in understanding and tapped her own before making a sign with her hand beside her eye.

At that moment the silence of the place screamed in my consciousness. I realized that other than the sounds of daily activity, I had heard nothing since waking. The soft shuffing could be heard as a woman kneaded bread but no words were shared over it. The clinking and clacking of dishes echoed as they were washed but no call was made to bring any strays from the table. No orders to be about some needed chore rang out. No singing as those chores were done filled the air. Not one single human voice had reached my ear since I had woken. Thinking back, no one had spoken in my hearing since my brother’s guards had sworn their oaths to my protection.

I had a feeling of near vertigo and sat heavily on the bed unmindful of the pretty dress that still needed to be laced up. I felt my breath coming quicker at the strangeness. I had been prepared to hear and decipher a strange language. I had an ear for them or so my tutors said. I was not at all sure I could learn to live in silence.

“Can you speak?” I asked. I must have sounded near panic because the woman looked concerned and made soothing gestures. She touched my shoulder in a reassuring way and motioned me to stay where I was. Then she left the room, letting the curtain fall back to maintain my privacy.

I wanted to get up and pace. I was afraid that if I did, I would run from the room, the dwelling, the village, and all of the silent people. The only thing that stopped me was the dread that if I did, our kingdoms would once again be at war. Instead, I drew my heels up to the edge of the bed, wrapped my arms around my shins, and laid my forehead upon my knees. I rocked and worked to keep my breathing as calm as possible. The only thing I heard for what felt like an eternity was the sound of my own heartbeat in my ears.

“There now,” a voice filled with the crackle of age and long disuse said when the curtain swished aside at last. “It’s not all that bad, now is it?”

My head shot up and my eyes met those of a woman whose skin held more wrinkles than I had ever seen.

“You can talk?” I asked. My own voice squeaked with surprise and relief.

“Yes, though I am one of the few who remembers the language you use,” she said. She made a series of intricate finger movements to the woman who brought her. The woman pressed a kiss to the older lady’s brow and left the room.

“Do you mind if I sit?” the old woman asked.

“Please,” I said hurrying to help her to the chair.

“Ah,” she said. “Much better. This old body isn’t much for getting around these days. I’ve become far too accustomed to being pampered in the Tent of Wisdom. Still, when the new queen is in need, an old woman must do what she can.”

“I would have been happy to come to you,” I said. “I didn’t know…”

“Nonsense,” she waved my words away. “You, my dear, are the queen of my people. We’ll both behave as if that’s always been the case and soon enough everyone else will do the same. Besides, it will probably do these old joints a world of good to get some regular movement.”

“As you say,” I said hesitantly, “but you will let me know if it gets to be too much? A queen is not doing her job if her people are suffering needlessly.”

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