One day during one of their sword lessons, Caelen had some news for Anica.
“I have something to tell you, Anica, and you’re going to be thrilled,” panted Caelen as he put his sword down to end their practice.
“Okay,” Anica chuckled. She too, lowered her sword and stretched her arms. “Go on, Caelen.” Anica wiped the sweat from the back of her neck and took out a cloth to begin wiping down her sword.
The cloth was special to her. Like many presents Caelen had given to her on birthdays past, this one was another cherished gift. It was lambskin that once used to be white but now showed years of use on her practice swords and dull blades. Anica always made sure the cloth was well oiled before each lesson, this one being no different. She started at the base of the sword by the handle. Rubbing and wiping in small circles, she slowly made her way up the blade itself, always careful of the edge. When she reached the tip, she flipped the sword over and began again. She loved the feel of the oiled cloth between her fingers and steel, and how her sword felt after a good cleaning.
“Well, how would you like to train with my master and me?”
“That would be amazing! But… Caelen, I’m a girl and a handmaiden to the princess. Not only would I need permission, but I would also have to magically become a boy.”
“I already have both of those figured out. I told my master that you are a stable hand named Nic. I asked my master’s permission for you to train with us because someday you too want to become a squire and attendee. All you need do is cut your hair and wear stable hand clothes.” Caelen, having finished wiping his sword down, pulled out his water skin and took a drink.
Anica put the cloth away and took out her own water skin. She uncorked it, took a sip of the cool water, and put the cork back in place. She smiled. “I will have to wear my hair up so as to not bring attention to the fact that I cut my hair short.” Anica hugged Caelen, jumping up and down. “Yes! Thank you Caelen, thank you!”
Caelen hugged her back, letting out a laugh as she pulled at his shirt. Then while they walked back to the castle, Caelen explained to Anica how a boy behaves, how she would be expected to act as a stable hand, and how she must cut back on her laughing.
When Anica returned to her room, she placed her sword gently in a corner behind her small dresser and collapsed onto her straw bed. While exhausted from the lesson with Caelen, she still reeled from the good news. She was going to train with a real-life swordsman. This was everything she’d ever wanted! She passed out with thoughts of sword fighting in her head.
The next morning, Anica woke early well refreshed. She grabbed her sword from beside the dresser, held out her hair and placed the blade beneath it. Anica paused, thinking about the idea of losing her hair. It was a gift, from whom she could not recall, but something all her own. To lose something that was of her did not seem right. But I would gain so much, she argued with herself. She relaxed her grip on her sword and looked at her hair in her hands. What was more important?
Tightening her grip, Anica extended her hair. She sliced slowly, carefully so as not to cut her hair at an awkward angle. She felt every tug of the blade, every release from the ends. She decided to leave it shoulder-length so she could wear it up in a bun and hide the cut. After the last strand of hair was free, she looked in the mirror again. A stranger glared back at her, with tears budding in her eyes. It is only hair, she thought to herself. Boys with shoulder-length hair weren’t uncommon, especially for stable hands. She put her sword away behind the dresser, brushed the hair with the hay falling from her bed into a pile nearby (she’ll deal with that later) and quickly put her hair in a bun. She dabbed her eyes gently, smiled at her image, an attempt to hide that she’d just cut off a piece of herself, and hurried out her door to the kitchens.
Her mistress, Princess Nicora, was her usual cheerful self. Today though, Anica got through her duties and barely rose the princess’ ire. A few hours later, Anica was at the usual meeting place, sword in hand. Tonight would be the last night he was her teacher, for tomorrow they would be apprentices together.
“About time you showed up,” Calen called when she was within earshot.
“Sorry,” she giggled, “Hey! Where is your sword?”
“No swords tonight. I’m going to tell you all you need to know to pass as a stable hand.”
“Okay, go ahead.” Anica set her sword down and sat against a rock to listen. “Explain away.”
“Okay. Your name is Nic Rockshaw. You ran away from the kingdom of Daylis because you did not like their stable master, for he was cruel.”
“Is he cruel?” Anica cut in.
“Yes, very much so from what I have heard. To solidify your new identity, you will have to work in the stables a few hours each day.”
“But Caelen, when will I find the time? I’m already handmaiden to the princess. I cannot just disappear from her service; she will get suspicious.”
“Not really. You are with the princess first thing in the morning for several hours. After she lets you go, head to the stables for around three hours or so. After that is when we will train with my master for about two hours. Then the afternoon would typically be yours. If the princess needs you then, you’re free. Since the stable has many hands, no one will notice an extra not showing up for work at all hours of the day. So tomorrow you will report to the stable master.”
“Is this stable master cruel?”
“No, of course not. If he were, I would not send you there as a stable hand. I will advise you to show him respect though. Believe me, it will go a long way, but remember, do not let anyone know who you really are. You know the punishment for what we are doing; it’s a dangerous game we are playing.”
“Yes, it is, but that’s what makes it exciting.” Anica smiled. It was dangerous as Caelen stated, but adventurous as well. To defy the rules and her mistress . . . yes, this was going to be fun.
“Here is your uniform. And Anica, please be careful.” He handed her black and silver livery, similar to what she was wearing with some minor differences. There was a brown sash on both shoulders to identify the stable hands, and a sigil of a horse on the front.
“Don’t worry, Caelen, I promise.” She hugged him, this time without the bouncing and tugging.
They walked each other back to the castle. Tomorrow everything was going to change.
The next morning, Anica reported to Princess Nicora and her morning duties. Princess Nicora was in what Anica assumed must be a good mood because she dismissed her early, so she decided to go and look for Caelen. She could not find him anywhere, so she went back to her room and waited until she had to get ready for her new duties as a stable hand. After only an hour, Anica decided she could not wait any longer.
What’s the harm in going early? She thought. Anica put on the stable hand uniform and tied back her hair. She glanced in the cracked mirror on the dresser and hurried out the door.
When she finally arrived at the stables, Anica was bewildered by just how large they actually were, and still could not figure out how she got lost. Due to her wandering around and trying to remember which way she needed to go, she discovered she hadn’t practiced how to deepen her voice, or how she was going to introduce herself. She hid in the bushes, grunting a few times and practicing some lines, when she realized she was now five minutes late.
She walked into the stables and ran into a lad about her age. Anica fell over and landed in some horse manure.
“Oh, excuse me, I’m sorry,” the lad said, offering his hand to Anica.
“It’s okay, I’m fine.” Anica grabbed his hand, and he helped hoist her up. She brushed and dusted her hands down her pants, scraping off most of the poo and grime from her trousers.
“My name’s Pon by the way.”
“Oh, uh I’m Nic. I’m n-new here.”
“Oh Nic! I was sent to look for you. You’re late. The stable master is wondering where you are. You will find him in the back of the barn, to the left in the office.” Pon pointed out the direction.
“Oh, thanks Pon, I’ll see you around.” Anica started toward the direction Pon pointed, drawing the eyes of the other stable hands as she passed. She walked up to the closed door of the makeshift office and knocked.
That voice sounds familiar, Anica thought. She opened the door and stepped inside. The stable master, his back to her, sat at his desk doing paperwork. He seemed industrious. Anica stood there for a long while listening to a quill scratching against parchment. On the wall in front of him was dung covered overalls. Her eyes lingered to the back of his head. She wondered what he looked like.
When the stable master finally turned around, Anica was shocked. The hair and the eyes, the face was so familiar that she could hardly believe it. She nearly fell over from the shock of it.
“Well Nic it’s about time you decided to join us.”
Caelen just smiled.