One of Anna’s favorite childhood memories was that of listening to her mother stories in front of the fire with the sound of her father’s forge in the background. They were the same stories that all mothers tell their children, but to Anna, the fair damsels, brave knights, evil villains, and fierce dragons were strange and unfamiliar when spoken of by anyone but Mavourneen Black. It didn’t matter that the stories were a little different every time due to Mavourneen’s imaginative embellishments, because it was the odd details she loved best.
Anna’s favorite story was the one Mavourneen told her nearly every day, the one about the handsome prince that fell in love with the lowly but beautiful beggar girl. She knew it from beginning to end, upside down and inside out, but she always had to hear it just one more time. At least, she had to hear it one more time until the day it was spoiled for her.
She was eight years old that fall morning, sitting as usual with Mavourneen in front of the fire. Papa had been in the forge for several hours already. Alban Black’s reputation as the most skilled smith in Lelian meant a steady income for the family, and long hours spent sweating over the fires for Alban, shaping this tool for that farmer, some horseshoes on occasion, or a sword for an up-and-coming knight when they were lucky.
“One day, the prince was riding through the streets when he saw her standing there on the corner,” Mavourneen recited in her story voice. There was no one in the world with a story voice like Mavourneen’s, as rich and warm as the spiced cider that was sold in the tavern a few streets away. “She was wearing the same old, gray dress she’d been wearing for weeks and her face was dirty, but she was still the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.”
This was Anna’s favorite part. She squirmed in delight but stayed still enough for Mavourneen to finish braiding her hair. “Was she on the corner to beg, Mother?” she asked.
“Why, no, Anna,” Mavourneen replied. “Some kind person had given her a basket of flowers, and she was selling the blossoms for copper coins.” She knew how Anna loved this version, and she herself loved telling it. “The prince rode over, nodded to her, and asked, ‘How much for the whole basket, fair maiden? I ride to a woman in the city who has my heart, and I mean to make these flowers a present for her.’”
“What did she do?” Anna asked, already knowing the answer.
“She was moved by the prince’s words,” Mavourneen continued, “and wondered what exceptional maid had won the heart of this handsome prince. She counted the flowers and named her price. The prince took the basket from her then got down off his horse, knelt before her, and said, ‘Take your flowers, my lady, and come with me to my castle. I love you with all that is in me. Marry me, and—“
“’Live with me forever.’ Always a different story, but always the same speech.” Bran, Anna’s twelve-year-old brother, came in from the yard behind the house with a pail of water drawn from the well outside. It wasn’t typical for families in the neighborhood to have private wells, but as a smith, Alban was afforded the privilege.
“There are limits to even my storytelling abilities, young man,” Mavourneen told him, then she smiled and finished her story. “The beggar girl was so happy she could do nothing but say yes. The prince rode off with her to the castle, they married within a month, and lived happily ever after.”
She tied a ribbon at the end of Anna’s braid and kissed her on the cheek. “Come on, pet,” she said. “Help me get some breakfast on the table.”
Anna scampered off into the kitchen while Mavourneen slowly got to her feet, one hand on her swollen stomach. She was supposed to give birth to Anna and Bran’s new brother or sister any day now, but in the meantime it was taking her quite some time to get around the house.
She followed her children into the corner of their house they’d set aside for cooking and eating. With their help, she set the table and laid out the rest of yesterday’s bread, some fruit, and a pitcher of the water Bran had drawn. She then sent Anna into the forge to fetch Alban.
Anna usually kept away from the forge with its heavy tools, scorching fires, and loud noises, but she didn’t mind it so much in winter when it was cold outside. It was still a fairly warm autumn, though, so the air inside Alban’s workshop felt thick and heavy. She wended her way through the dark shapes until she came to Alban’s side at the anvil as he hammered away at the blade of a scythe.
“Papa?” she said. “Mother says it’s time for breakfast.”
Alban set down his hammer and replied, “Well, it’s right about time, my girl; I’m hungry as a bear.”
He scooped her up, tossed her onto his shoulder like a sack of grain, and carried her back through the forge amidst her giddy laughter. They were almost to the side door leading to the house when it burst open and Bran rushed through it.
“Father!” he exclaimed. “Mother says the baby’s coming!”
Alban set Anna back on her feet. “Go send for Mother Nell,” he ordered. “Anna, child, you go play outside.”
Anna never needed to be told twice to go play. She ran off in search of Rafe while Bran went to find the wisewoman to act as midwife.
Rafael Cooper was a tawny-haired, freckle-faced eight-year-old boy who lived three houses away. He was known as a bright, charming, good-natured, and decidedly devious little boy, always with an ear-to-ear grin and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
She found him outside his father’s workshop munching cheerfully on an apple. He saw her coming, reached into a pocket, and tossed her one, too.
“Thanks,” she said, buffing it on her sleeve before taking a big bite, letting the juice run down her chin before wiping it with the back of her hand. “Bran went to get Mother Nell. Mother’s having the baby now.”
“Do you want a sister or a brother?” Rafe asked.
They’d talked about this for months now, and Anna had loved to change her mind throughout, giving a different answer every time for different reasons. Rafe himself was the youngest of seven children, and after four other sons and two daughters, the Coopers had decided to spoil their last little angel.
“I want a sister, you ninny,” Anna told him. “I want to tell her the story of the beggar girl and the prince.”
“How about the one about the princess trying to escape the ogre that’s going to eat her?” Rafe suggested, throwing the apple core into the street.
Anna smiled and threw her core after his. This was one of their favorite games. It was tag in its essence, with Anna in the role of the princess in grave danger of being roasted and eaten by the bloodthirsty ogre—Rafe. They ran through the city streets, screaming and shouting, tripping people up, and occasionally colliding with some obstacle that seemed to come out of nowhere. They’d been at it for hours when Anna froze in the middle of the street and allowed Rafe to run into her headlong. “Bran!” she cried.
There was her brother heading towards them, wearing the amused expression of an older sibling about to poke fun at the young fry.
“Has Mother had the baby yet?” Anna asked.
“Not yet,” Bran told her. “Father told me to come keep an eye on you. What are you playing? Prince and beggar girl? Dragon and witch?”
“No,” Rafe replied, shaking his head so emphatically it shook his hair out of place and back again. “It’s princess and ogre.”
“And who is the ogre?” Bran inquired. “I’ll wager it’s this one.” He pointed to Anna.
“That’s not funny!” she declared.
“It’s not,” Rafe added. “If she’s the ogre, then that means I’m the princess!”
Anna forgot her indignation in order to tease her friend. “But you’d make such a pretty princess, Rafael.”
Rafe bristled. “And you’d make such an ugly ogre, but that’s the point, isn’t it, Penelope?”
Since Anna liked her middle name as much as Rafe liked his proper name, they both responded to such insults with an undignified tackle, rolling around in the dust with each trying to pin the other until Bran separated them. “Now, that’s not very princess-like, is it, Anna?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow.
Being accused of unprincess-like behavior only annoyed Anna even more, so she changed tack again. “I’m not a princess, Bran,” she said. “I’m a beggar girl.”
“Then that makes Rafe the prince,” Bran told her.
Rafe made a face. “The prince and the beggar girl got married,” he groused. “I’d rather be an ogre.”
“And I hate to tell you this, Anna,” Bran continued, “but the prince only marries the beggar girl in the stories. In real life, he wouldn’t even buy flowers from her.”
“Yes he would,” she insisted. “He’d marry her, too. Now come on, Rafe, we don’t have to get married. I’ll be the beggar girl, and you’ll be the prince for once.”
“I’ll be the prince,” Bran offered.
“You’re not handsome enough,” she sniffed.
“I’ll be the prince, if no one minds.”
The three of them looked up at the newcomer. They’d never seen him before; he wasn’t even dressed the same way most were in this part of the city. But he was handsome enough.
“All right,” Anna said. “Do you know the story?”
“You mean the prince and the beggar girl?” the boy asked. “Of course.”
“And Rafe can be the dragon, and Bran can be the evil wizard,” Anna added.
“There’s no dragon or wizard in that story,” the boy pointed out.
“There is in one of my mother’s versions,” she told him, settling the issue.
So the beggar girl, prince, dragon, and evil wizard embarked on a perilous quest that took them to nearly every corner of Lelian. The game went on all afternoon, and it would have ended perfectly if it hadn’t taken them to the wealthier part of the city.
When the prince was about to take the beggar girl away to his castle, a group of boys burst into the street from an alley between buildings. They were pretending to duel with long sticks, but stopped when they saw the band of adventurers.
“Constantine,” one called, “so you’ve decided to have fun with riffraff instead of us?”
The other boys started laughing, but Anna didn’t see what was so funny.
“Is that your new girl?” the first boy asked, pointing at her with his sword-stick. “Is she going to be your princess? Were you going to marry her?”
“No,” the boy named Constantine snapped defensively.
“I’ll bet you were,” the other boy taunted. “You were going to rule over all the peasants of the land with a beggar queen.”
Now Anna felt the sting of the boy’s words. So did Bran and Rafe, and they both wore sour expressions. None of them were beggars, but the new boys were evidently born into privileged families and didn’t make the distinction. Constantine was insulted as well, but for a different reason. He was a proud boy who simply despised being teased. “You keep quiet, Aglovale,” he cried, “or I’ll hit you so hard—“
Aglovale laughed and swung his stick. “Do your worst.”
With that, the boys disappeared.
Anna turned to Constantine and said, “Don’t let them bother you, they’re just bullies.”
Constantine, however, had suffered too severe a blow. He stormed off in a different direction, brushing between them all and pushing Anna so hard she fell sideways into a puddle of mud and muck.
“Hey!” Bran shouted. “You leave my sister alone, you hear me? Next time I see you, I’ll give you a beating you’ll remember when you’re an old man!”
It didn’t matter that they would probably never see Constantine again; Anna felt slightly better that her brother had taken up for her, but it couldn’t entirely banish the hurt of being so roughly shoved and the shame of being so filthy.
Rafe held out his hand and helped her to her feet. She wiped the mud from her face and tried not to cry as Bran put his arm around her shoulders and led her back home. “I’m sorry, Anna,” he said, “but that’s what really happens. The prince pushes the beggar girl into the mud.”
Anna held back her tears until they reached the other side of the city. She held them until she couldn’t hold them anymore, and when she finally started crying, they ran down her face leaving clean patches on her cheeks.
There it is! Off to a good start, you think? Gotta get back to work now!