I stared up at the rolling gray clouds, feeling the cool wind caress my face like a gentle hand. The smell of dirt mingled with grass wafted to my nose on the breeze. I closed my eyes to relish the peaceful moment. My dress was getting damp from laying so long, beginning to seep into my bones and chill me. I never minded the cold or the rain. It was one of the few things I could still feel.
I felt a rain drop on my cheek and knew an onslaught would follow. Rain was constant here, but it made everything lush and verdant. I grudgingly pushed myself up, brushing off my skirts. Night was falling; the safety that daylight provided was slowly easing away. I checked the knife in my boot, making sure it was secure. The other, more obvious dagger at my hip stood as a visual warning to any passerby that sought to harm me. I had nothing they could steal, except my body or whatever food I’d managed to hunt or scrounge.
After father left for the war three years ago, things were different—harder. My brothers and I never heard from him after he left. I remember standing on the docks, waving in farewell as a flood of numbness washed over me that never again left. It had crept into my heart and made itself at home. I was thankful for it, for without it I wouldn’t be able to handle my responsibilities.
I trudged along the muddy road as the pace of the rain escalated. Home was soon within view, a quaint little cottage made of stone and wood, surrounded by a large garden and a weeping willow. Off to the right was a small barn that housed our horse and few goats. James, my eldest brother, was bringing in a bucket of water from the creek. We were lucky to still live here. With no mother or father, places like this on the outskirts of the kingdom were usually raided. Thankfully my brothers were strong enough to defend it with the help of the neighboring farms, who kept a watchful eye on us.
James saw me and waved in greeting before ducking inside. Malcolm was likely still in town, seeing as he hated being anywhere that reminded him of father. I tried not to begrudge him much for that; everyone handled their emotions differently. Thankfully, I had none left.
As I passed the willow, I glanced over to the roughly etched headstone, wet with rainwater. I didn’t remember much of my mother, and no one ever talked of her. All I knew was that she had fallen ill and in turn become insane. After trying to burn down our cottage, she pitched herself off one of the many cliffs surrounding the kingdom and into the sea. It was extremely lucky they found her body. Father refused to talk of her.
“What’s for dinner, Kate?” James’ deep voice boomed from the back room. This was almost a joke now.
“Same as everyday.” I didn’t hate the fact that we were poor. Again, it was something I was numb to. I just couldn’t stand the pitiful looks the people in town always gave us. I’d perfected a stony glare for the godly priests who only gave us sympathetic glances instead of food. Not that I’d accept it.
I set to work on our small meal of dried venison and two potatoes, hearing Malcolm riding up in the distance. Being seventeen, he would soon start his mandatory military service. Although he acted tough, I knew he was scared to death. People couldn’t easily hide their thoughts from me. James, on the other hand, was too brave. He had already served his year and fought in a few battles. Sometimes I wished I had been born a boy. Their lives were still dangerous, but in a different way.
Malcolm entered, his dark curls dripping wet. He had a small smile on his face today. “Here,” he tossed me a bag that was surprisingly heavy. The rough burlap scratched at my dry hands. It was a bag of apples. My stomach growled. Fruit was difficult to obtain, unless you were lucky enough to grow it in this harsh climate.
“Thank you,” I smiled, though I knew it didn’t reach my eyes.
“About time you made it home.” James growled, sitting heavily at the table and reaching for the the jug of water.
James was twenty, broad shouldered and handsome. He had the same piercing blue eyes as Malcolm and I, but blond hair instead of dark brown. I often envied him for that.
“The poor horse just couldn’t trot any faster.” Malcolm teased, pouring himself wine instead of water. I reached for the wine as well, but James snatched it from my grasp. I glared.
“You’re a young lady of sixteen. You don’t need wine. Yet.” he smirked, taking a long drink himself, his water suddenly forgotten.
“Yes, we’ll have to save an entire cask for your wedding night!” Malcolm teased. They both burst out laughing at my expense. Everyone knew of my coldness, my dislike for anything sentimental. There were only two things I loved in this world, and they were sitting across from me. I readied my retort, preparing to fight James on this subject once again.
“Who says I’m getting married in the first place?”
James rolled his eyes, chewing hard on the tough meat. “You’re not living here forever. We’ll find you someone nice, with land and hopefully some money.” his tone ended the conversation, but I still pursued it.
“And what dowry do we have for my poor husband-to-be?” I smiled coyly. A dowry was considered a necessity for someone to marry. Malcolm snorted.
They erupted with laughter. It was sadly true, but I didn’t care.
“I’m serious, I’m never getting married. I’ll never bow down to a man.” I pushed my plate away, crossing my arms defiantly. James sighed, leaning back. Without father or mother, James knew he hadn’t raised me to be a proper, meek woman. He’d almost encouraged my tenacious spirit, knowing it would keep me safe in this harsh world. He seemed to be regretting it now, though.
“Kate, nothing is happening right now. Alright?” he stared at me, challenging me.
“Good. Because it’s not going to.”
He rolled his eyes, a small smile hinted at the corners of his mouth.
“God help the poor man you do marry, though.”
That night, I crawled onto my bed of straw, pulling the quilt tight around me to keep from freezing. James was snoring in his room, the only room in our cottage. Malcolm was reading in front of the dying fire. I curled up, silently praying as I did every night for my father’s return. It felt hopeless after all these years, but then again, without any ounce of hope there would be no reason to exist.