CHAPTER 1

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18 Years Later


        "Leeaaaa! Make haste! We are going to get scolded again." Ophelia Edmonds was woken up to the shrilly voice of her friend and bunkmate. Shanna had risen with the sun hours ago and she had allowed her indolent bosom friend to sleep for longer. A repeated mistake she made daily. Pulling the coverlet off her friend, Shanna disappeared out the door.

        Ophelia hated mornings. Her mother always scoffed at her for it, but lucky for her, mother was a mile away, safely at home. She got off the straw mattress with much reluctance and stretched lazily. She then hurried to the water basin in the corner of the chamber she shared with Shanna in the servants' cellars of the castle. It was a small space, cramped with two beds and a frail old dresser. A crooked wooden chair sat against the wall on which her workaday black gown was laid flatly. Shanna had been kind enough to press it for her. Bless her, Ophelia thought. It reached her ankles and was frayed at the edges, not to mention the many smears that stained it. No amount of scrubbing with caustic soda would get it off. She desperately needed to get another cast-off dress from the laundress.

        Ophelia entered the kitchens which was buzzing with activity, desperately knotting the white apron around her slender frame. The kitchen was the only place in the castle that never slumbered. There was always an elderly cook, domineering over the kitchen maids and one or two spitboys roasting various kinds of succulent meat over the fires. Children born to the lower caste ran about fetching, carrying and washing as instructed. Her empty stomach grumbled at the luscious smell of prepping food. But before she could grab a piece of bread to quench her hunger the scowling voice of the head maid reached her.

        "Late again, Missy. I will have to get the steward to cut down your wages at this rate. Off to the ballroom with you." Mrs. Kenne huffed. She was a well rounded woman with aging hair. Ophelia had always known her to be kind, after all, Mrs. Kenne was the one who had taken her into employment, at the request of her mother. Nevertheless, she was very stingent and could be formidable if the situation demanded it. She disregarded the elderly woman's gulling with a roll of her eyes.

        "When you are done, the chambers in the south corridor needs a good scrub." Mrs. Kenne yelled at Ophelia's retreating figure. "And don't you dare I get complains about your clumsiness from the ladies!"

        Getting a bucket full of water and cleaning supplies from the supply chamber, Ophelia joined the cluster of maids heading to the ballroom. They walked down the wooden passageways that ran parallel to the stone walled corridors, trying with difficulty to not splash water along the way. The wooden passages stretched far and wide, turning and curving, giving off branches and dead ends, following the main corridors, opening into sleeping chambers, drawing rooms, libraries and hallways etc- It was hardly spacious enough for two people travelling in opposite directions to exchange. They were built into the castle structure to be used by maids and servants for their daily activites, for them to get about without hindering the nobles. Yet, every once in a while, a Lord, a Lady or a mischievous youngster could be found scampering through the servants' passages.

        Ophelia had found them scary when she had first started working in the castle at the early age of twelve years. Daunting stories of haunted ghosts and lost servants had engrossed her thoughts. Then she had met Shanna, who was the child of a poulterer and together they had spent many hours exploring the passageways in excitement when time had allowed it. Now, at the age of eighteen years she knew every nook, cranny and loose plank in the passageways.

        The path turned to the left, coming up short to an almost imperceptible doorway in the large stony wall. It was just large enough to admit a medium-sized person. The opposite side of the divide was covered by the back of a long tapestry. Pulling open the door and forcing the heavy tapestry aside the girls entered the massive ballroom in a single file.

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