Anna curled up into a tighter ball, clutching the bed covers to her as someone shook her shoulder.
‘Wake up, child. Ye don’t want to be late.’
With a groan, she sat up. The small room she shared with her sisters was as dark as a tomb. Not even the birds were awake yet. She staggered out from under the bedcovers, pulled her shawl around her shoulders and smoothed down her tunic. The brisk air hit her as she stepped into in the small courtyard beside the living quarters at the back of the shop. Breaking through a thin layer of ice coating the barrel of water near the door, she splashed her face and hands with the frigid water.
Ma was kneeling in front of the hearth rekindling the fire when Anna re-entered the family room. She stood up and thrust a generous serve of beans wrapped in cornbread into Anna’s hand.
‘Come, I’ll walk ye to the palace. Nerra can get the family breakfast.’
Anna’s fingers fumbled as she grabbed her small bundle of belongings and followed her mother through the shop and into the dark, silent street.
They walked up the hill to the western service gate of the palace. The charcoal sky faded to dove grey, a band of light swelling above the distant snow-capped mountains in the east. The crimson walls of the Palace loomed closer; walls that she glimpsed every day but had never once passed beyond. The service gate was flanked by turreted towers and two muscular guards with spears. A quiet word from Ma and they were waved on.
Together they stepped into the Palace grounds. Anna pulled her shawl tighter, her eyes darting from one new sight to the next. Ma led the way through a maze of buildings and yards – stables, kennels, storerooms, and barracks, corrals and training rings sprawling out next to the massive three story palace building. Guards and servants bustled about in the grey light. Anna hunched her shoulders, a jitteriness bubbling up inside her. Her mother touched her arm.
‘Cousin Chaska works in the kitchens, child. She’ll look out for ye.’ Ma’s voice was choked with tears.
Anna stared at the gravel path.
‘I know this be hard for ye, Anna, but if ye make the best of it, good things will come.’
Anna pressed her lips together. How could it when this wasn’t what she wanted? She shook her mother’s hand off her shoulder.
As they reached an open grassed area in front of the palace kitchens, a black and white tarrawong lifted its strong grey beak and warbled a welcome to the waking sun.
Continued…Part Three: The First Day