An old woman with a sunken mouth came out onto the stoop. As she surveyed the peaceful courtyard, her wrinkles deepened as she frowned. “Where’d that blasted girl go?”
The old woman slowly heaved a deep breath that puffed out her sagging chest and raised her hands to her mouth. All movement in the courtyard stopped in terror, spying the old woman’s actions.
The first syllable reverberated across the courtyard like a sharp clap of thunder. The dog yelped, scrambled up, and turned to run into the manor, only to knock his head hard on the closed door. He scratched at the door with his paws and barked urgently. The birds darted to their nests and hid their beaks beneath their wings. The horses reared up their massive heads, and their eyes rolled as their ears dropped back to dampen out the echoes of that horrifying sound. The cat fell out of the tree and landed in the fountain with a loud frightened yowl. The chipmunk dropped its half-eaten nut and scurried back to its burrow.
The old woman did not take note of the sudden change in mood of the courtyard, except to aim a half-hearted kick at the dog to stop his barking. She heaved another breath—
With the second syllable, the sunlight cracked and shattered into darkness, and a cold stormy wind kicked up to bolster fallen leaves through the air. The dog howled as if in the clutches of death. The bedraggled cat dashed to the barn. The horses in their stalls began to rear up on their mighty legs as their coats became flecked with foam. The water in the fountain began to boil.
The woman paused to reclaim her breath and finish the pronouncement of the dreadful name. With her chest half full of the air needed to pronounce the third and final syllable, a light melodious voice came from the stables. “What is it, Aunt Patrice?” All the animals let out a collective sigh when they heard the girl’s voice.
“You haven’t swept out the kitchen like I told you to this morning!” shrilled the old woman.
“I was planning to do it after I hung up the wash,” called back the girl.
“And how do you plan to do that when you haven’t done the wash yet?”
“I was just getting to that!” promised the unseen girl.
“You better. I’ll be watching you,” the woman said.
“Yes, Aunt Patrice,” replied the girl. The old woman scowled in the direction of the stables and stepped back into the kitchen. Sensing that the old woman was gone, the girl stepped into the courtyard from the stables. A kitten peered out of her apron pocket with large curious eyes. With a little giggle, the girl pushed the kitten back into the pocket.
“We don’t want Old Aunt Patrice to see you and threaten to make you stew, now do we?” she said lightly. The young maid skipped to the fountain and picked up the basket of linen she had left sitting there and began to unravel one sheet out of the heap to begin the wash. The kitten climbed out of her apron and precariously walked along the rim of the fountain on his small kitten feet.
The girl was a pretty girl, about sixteen years old. She had corn colored hair that fell to her shoulders in light carefree curls. Her eyes were a pretty hazel, and her form was lithe and movements graceful, even though she’d known heavy chores all her life. She quietly hummed while she worked. Her voice was as pretty as her physical form. Slowly the peace of the courtyard returned. The sun peeked out from its hiding place and beamed his smile once more onto the courtyard. The birds called to each other and took flight. The dog lazily walked over to the tree and flopped down at the foot of it, while the horses began to munch on their oats once again. The cat came slinking back to the scene of the debacle and began to weave himself between the legs of the girl, while the kitten after making one complete circuit of the fountain edge returned to the girl and chirped his triumph.
“I don’t know why Aunt Patrice always begins to scream my name whenever she wants me. The manor isn’t that large. She could just find me easy enough and then scold me in person. No need to threaten the end of the world by calling to me,” the girl told the kitten. The young kitten chirped to her in sympathy. The girl sighed and scrubbed the sheet harder. “What if one day she says it completely? I’ll lose her just like my mother.”
“Excuse me, miss, may I trouble you for a moment?” said a man from behind her.
The girl yelped and dropped washboard and bed sheet into the fountain, scaring the kitten, which jumped straight up into the air. It landed precariously on the very edge of the fountain. The stranger deftly reached out and snagged the teetering kitten and tucked him into his arm.
“Oh, you startled me,” gasped the girl.
“My apologies, miss. Please forgive me,” the stranger said with a courtly bow. The stranger was dressed in the bright, parti-colored tunic of a bard and a lyre was strapped across his back.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” said the man straightening from his grand bow. “I am Master Varrick, the minstrel, and you, my fair maiden would be?”
“Um, if you want to speak to the mistress of the house, I’ll go fetch her,” the girl said, turning to run away before the minstrel could stop her.
“Aunt Patrice!” yelled the girl, running toward the kitchen.
“What is it, child?” the old woman asked, coming to the door.
The girl skidded to a stop and pointed back at the bemused minstrel. “There’s a minstrel here,” she panted.
“Well, what does he want?” the old woman asked impatiently.
The girl shook her head. “I don’t know. He asked me my name.”
The old woman pressed her lips together and stalked over to the fountain. Varrick bowed again with a flourish to Patrice. The old woman was not impressed. “You might as well go. We have no coin here for you,” she said, putting her fists firmly on her hips.
“I understand, my lovely madam, but maybe you could offer a poor, tired wanderer a place for the night and a small something to fill his belly in exchange for an evening of fine tales and songs,” he offered gallantly, not dissuaded by the immediate dismissal.
“You can’t stay here tonight. There’s another manor about a half mile up the track that I’m sure will be happy to have you,” the old woman said.
“Oh, but madam, I’m afraid I might not be able to make it there. You see I have traveled for many days with little to eat and even less rest. I may fall down helpless on the track before leaving sight of your house,” he said.
The girl’s mouth formed a sympathetic ‘O’. The old woman’s mouth puckered in frustration.
“Can’t we let him stay?” the girl asked, plucking at Patrice’s sleeve. “It would be a mortal sin to turn him away only to have him go to death’s door.”
“Oh, I’d wager that it’s a few more miles yet till he arrives at death’s door, but if you’re going to fuss at me all night, I suppose that we’ll have to take him in. But only one night. Tomorrow morning, you’re to be on the road without a backward glance,” the old woman said sternly to the bard. Varrick smiled graciously and bowed.
“We have no fancy stuff here. Only a little beef, a few potatoes, and hay filled beds to sleep upon. You won’t find a cushion in the manor to sit, so if you want refinement, I suggest you leave now,” Patrice warned, turning to go back into the kitchen.
“A warm bed, hot food, and pleasant company are all the comforts I need,” Varrick declared with a wink to the girl. The girl blushed and lowered her eyes.
“Well, you’ll find barely that here,” Patrice said with a warning scowl at the girl.
Varrick made himself quite at home in the manor. He propped his feet up in the kitchen, sitting on the only chair and sipped at a cup of milk that the girl had poured him before she’d disappeared to finish her chores. He was quite intrigued by the place. How could an old woman and a slip of a girl have the place all to themselves? Where were the men folk?
Patrice’s mouth screwed up in disdain when he asked the question, and she spat into the fire before answering, “They all left. The girl’s father died in the last war, months before she was born. The mother was left all alone. Neither side had any family that she could call upon to help her.”
“So you’re not the girl’s real aunt?” Varrick asked.
“No, I’m just the cook, but I raised her. Her mother died when she had the girl. Her last words were the girl’s name. An ill omen. With both parents dead, and no real authority to keep them in check, most of the servants began to run off. The local magistrate didn’t pay any mind to ol' Walter’s summons. The manor had never won his favor. The girl was the rightful heir, the magistrate said, so it was her problem. He appointed Walter and I her legal guardians, since none were forthcoming, but Walter was only an old lackey. None of the servants would accept him as lord of the manor. They stole brazenly and took for the hills. A few farmers have stayed on, but much of the land sits fallow. We’ve barely been able to pay taxes these past three years. Walter died last winter, leaving the girl and me here alone. That girl has been cursed since the day she was born.”
“A sad tale,” Varrick murmured.
“Yes, but we have no time to cry,” Patrice said, bustling to prepare the evening meal.
“And none of your neighbors will help you? Take the girl in and watch over the land?” Varrick asked.
“I already told you, the girl’s cursed. None of the other families want to have anything to do with her or her property.”
“A pretty maid with a large dowry but no suitors,” Varrick commented to himself.
But Patrice heard his aside and glanced darkly at him. “She’ll do all right. No suitors are needed.”
“I’m sure that she’s a capable girl, but every young woman needs a man to watch over her,” Varrick reasoned.
Patrice scowled into the pot of stew over the fire, but held her tongue. The girl came in and took the broom from out of the corner beside the fireplace. She kept her head bowed and wouldn’t look directly at their guest.
Varrick watched the girl openly and smiled when he caught her shyly looking at him. He was about to say something to her when he frowned. He suddenly remembered he still didn’t know the girl’s name. He laughed to himself, which drew the attention of both women.
“What’s so funny?” Patrice asked suspiciously. The girl came to a halt with her sweeping and nervously clutched the broomstick.
“I was about to say something to the young maiden when I realized I had no idea of what to call her.”
“Young maiden will do,” Patrice said.
“But a proper name would do better,” Varrick countered.
“Her name is cursed,” the old woman stated.
“I’ve only heard that for wizards.” Varrick turned to the girl. “Now don’t tell me, pretty one, that you’re a wizard. You’re far too young and lovely to concern yourself with musty books and old forgotten spells.” The girl retreated back behind Patrice in bafflement. She wasn’t sure how to answer the smooth tongue of the bard.
“Her name might as well be the most powerful wizard’s in the land for you’ll never find it out,” the old woman said, shaking her wooden spoon at Varrick. He laughed, thinking this was some sort of quaint country game. He’d never come across the like of it before, but he was willing to play.
“Is it Georgina?” he asked.
“What?” Patrice asked back.
“Her name. Is it Georgina?”
“No, her name isn’t Georgina,” Patrice replied.
“Is it Beatrice?”
“No,” Patrice answered again.
“Can you give me a hint?” Varrick finally asked.
“I told you, we won’t tell you. Now stop with your infernal questioning.”
Varrick decided to ask the girl directly. She couldn’t be as difficult as the old woman. “Come on lovely, give me a hint.”
The girl looked nervously from Patrice to him. “I’m sorry, sir, but like Patrice said, we won’t tell you my name. It’s better if you don’t ask us again.”
But Varrick would not be dissuaded. He was beginning to enjoy the game. He began to go through the alphabet, trying to guess the girl’s name, but only to receive shakes of the head and scowls from Patrice. The girl finally slipped away after twelve guesses. Varrick could tell she’d become uncomfortable with the game. After a few more futile attempts at guessing the girl’s name with the old woman, Varrick decided he needed some fresh air and maybe a private chat with girl.
He didn’t find her in the courtyard when he went outside, but he heard giggling coming from the stables. Two old horses stuck their heads out at him when he went in. As he scratched their necks, he heard a faint rustling from above in the hayloft. Varrick climbed quietly up the ladder and peered into the dim, musty loft. A small giggle sounded again. He pinpointed that it came from behind a pile of hay. The bard crept over and found the girl sitting in the hay with three kittens climbing over her as the mother cat snoozed beside her.
“If I were an artist, I would have to sketch this for my portfolio,” he said as he hunched down beside her.
The girl tried to scramble up, but Varrick stopped her with a hand to her shoulder. “Please don’t let me disrupt this pleasant scene.”
“Does Aunt Patrice know you’re out here?” the girl asked.
“I don’t think so. Is that a problem?”
“She wouldn’t like me to be alone with a strange man,” she said.
“But you’re hardly alone, you have let’s see—three kittens and a cat with you, and I’m not a stranger. I’m Varrick.” The girl looked at him a little distrustfully but didn’t try to argue. “You know who I am, but I have nothing to call you,” Varrick smoothly continued.
“We told you already. We can’t tell you my name,” the girl answered in a small voice.
Varrick gently grabbed her chin and turned her face to him. He was quite bemused with the girl and the mystery surrounding her. “What harm is there in a name?” he asked softly.
The girl’s eyes dropped, and she mumbled, “If only you knew.”
Varrick let go of her chin and looked at her speculatively. “Enlighten me then.”
The girl sat back and folded her hands together in her lap. “My name is so terrible,” she began, “That to speak it means death. The only time my name was ever spoken was when my mother uttered it to name me. It killed her.”
“Your mother’s death is terrible, but how could your name have killed her?” Varrick countered.
“Aunt Patrice told me. The birthing wasn’t difficult. My mother was fine, maybe a little weak but in no trouble. It was my name that caused her heart to stop. It was so terrible that no one has said it ever since. Aunt Patrice starts to occasionally when I’m lax in my chores, but I’ve never pushed her to it. I don’t want her to die. She’s all I have.”
As Varrick absorbed what the girl told him, a dark suspicion began to brew in his mind. The old woman was all the girl knew. She was the only human contact the girl had. Cloistered here in the manor with only her to speak to and receive instruction from, there was no telling what lies and old wives tales Patrice had fed to the girl. Varrick had gotten a pretty good impression of the old woman from his brief interview with her. She was bitter and angry, plus she was old, had lived a hard life, and who knew how sound her mind truly was. Even if the old woman believed all that she had told the girl about her name, it was still evil how afraid it had made the maid. Everyone deserved a name. It was their identity. It gave them a sense of being. Maybe the girl did not know that and would not understand it if Varrick explained it to her, but she had to feel it. She had to feel lost without a name.
“Girl! Bard!” bellowed Patrice from the courtyard.
The bellow startled the girl, and she jumped up. “That will be dinner. We have to hurry. Patrice does not like to be kept waiting.” She dashed down from the hayloft. Varrick decided that he must help the innocent maid.
In the kitchen, Patrice slammed a bowl of stew down before Varrick. Drops of broth splattered his tunic. He brushed them away with a glare at the old woman. The girl sat across from him and stared miserably at her bowl.
“You two were both in the stables,” Patrice stated, sitting down at the head of the small table.
“Yes, Aunt Patrice,” the girl answered quietly.
“And what were you doing in there?” demanded Patrice.
“We were visiting the kittens,” mumbled the girl.
“I should put those blasted kittens in a sack and toss them into the river. You dally with them too much.”
The girl’s head snapped up. “Oh no, Aunt Patrice, please don’t do that! I promise I won’t play with them anymore. I’ll be a good girl. Please don’t kill the kittens!”
Patrice snorted and ate her stew. The fear radiating from the girl’s eyes as she worried for the kittens made Varrick sick. The old woman had the girl on a string. The manor and land were rightfully the girl’s, yet the old woman had reduced her to a scullery maid who had to beg for even a small pleasure like kittens. Varrick knew that he must stop this.
“After dinner, you will sweep out the kitchen again. You did a piss poor job of it earlier,” said Patrice.
“Yes, ma’am,” the girl said, bowing her head.
The girl wielded the broom in silence as Patrice washed the dishes in a bucket. Varrick sat beside the fire and watched both of them. How was he to remedy the scene? The girl obviously would not tell him her name. She probably didn’t even know it, he realized. If Patrice had never spoken it, how was the girl supposed to know it? Maybe the old lackey had known and possibly told the girl, but that seemed unlikely. If he had, the myth of the curse would have been broken. Varrick would have to disprove the curse, but without knowing the girl’s name, he could not think of a way to dispel it.
He sat sullenly, staring out into space and thinking. The girl moved quietly about the kitchen sweeping. After she was finished, Patrice went elsewhere in the manor, possibly to prepare a room for Varrick to sleep in. When they were alone, the girl approached Varrick timidly and stared at the floor.
“Master Varrick,” she began quietly, “Please don’t dislike Aunt Patrice. She’s only trying to do what’s best. I know she can be harsh, but she doesn’t mean to upset you, just protect you.”
Varrick rubbed his jaw ruefully. “I wonder if really what she does is merely to protect herself.”
The girl’s brow creased in puzzlement. “How so, sir?”
“Come now, girl,” Varrick said as he got to his feet to pace the floor. “She has you here practically at her mercy. You are the rightful heir, she told me that, but who does the chores? She plays mistress while you play servant.”
“But she is old and can’t do them all herself. It would kill her,” the girl protested.
“Like saying your name?” Varrick countered.
The girl’s brow creased again, but she shook her head. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Why is your name so terrible? Why did your mother give you such a horrible name if she knew it would be to your detriment?”
The girl turned away and shrugged her shoulders. “I’ve asked Aunt Patrice countless times why, but she won’t tell me.”
Varrick took her shoulders and turned the girl back towards him. “Maybe she can’t tell you because the name isn’t horrible. Maybe it’s just something she made up.”
The girl’s eyes widened, and she struggled out of Varrick’s grasp. “That’s not true. My name is horrendous. You don’t know.”
Varrick’s hands fell to his sides. “But you don’t know either,” he said softly. “I’ve never heard of a name being cursed. There are terrible words, but they only have power if you let them. And you don’t even know the name that keeps you in shackles. Why it could be anything like Hortense or Gilga!” Varrick laughed ruefully to himself. “But if it is one of those two names I suggest you change it. Pick something prettier.” Varrick jaw dropped, what he had just said ringing in his ears. “Of course! Just choose a new name!” Varrick exclaimed. His brain was feverishly excited by the idea. It could work. A new name would dispel the stigma surrounding the girl. She could have something to be called and know herself as. It would give her self-confidence and authority over old Patrice.
The girl stepped back and bowed her head. “Oh, I don’t know if I could. I mean what would I call myself?” she asked.
Varrick paused unsure himself, then he knew. “Usually one doesn’t choose a name for themselves. It is given. I will give you a new name.”
“You will?” the girl asked. Her eyes round and hopeful.
“Yes, let me think.” Varrick mused over the matter. All the names that he had guessed for the girl came back to him, and he quickly discarded them all. None of them would do. The girl deserved a superior name, not one rashly guessed. He knew many names from tales and ballads. He had all of those at his disposal, but only one would do. “Helen,” Varrick breathed.
“What?” the girl asked.
“Helen is the perfect name. Helen was a princess. It is said her face launched a thousand ships. The Trojan War was fought for her.”
“Oh, maybe another name then, one that isn’t so august might do better for me,” she said humbly, blushing.
“No, Helen is perfect. That will be your name.”
“But Master Varrick—” the girl tried to argue.
“No, it’s decided. You deserve the most precious name in history.”
The girl blushed more and smiled.
“Thank you, I’ll cherish it forever,” the girl said, backing out of the room.
Varrick sat back in his chair with a happy sigh. He’d done it. He’d fixed everything. The girl now had a name, and Patrice had lost her control over her. Everything was as it should be. As Varrick sat there, feeling good about himself, Patrice came back into the kitchen. Varrick gave her a smug smile. Patrice frowned at him but didn’t question his strange behavior. She went over to the fire and began stoking the flames. Varrick watched her, his smugness increasing. Patrice didn’t pay any attention to him.
The girl came back shortly. “Master Varrick, I’m still not sure if—” she stopped short when she spotted Patrice.
“You’re not sure of what?” asked Patrice. Her eyes shot to Varrick.
“Nothing,” muttered the girl. Varrick continued to beam his smug smile.
Patrice shook her head but didn’t pursue it. Varrick, though, wanted her to know his and the girl’s solution. She needed to know that she’d been defeated.
“She’s not sure if her new name is entirely suited to her,” announced Varrick. The girl’s mouth dropped open. They weren’t supposed to tell Patrice!
“You’ve given her a name? What makes you think she deserves a new one?” Patrice asked snidely.
“Because everyone deserves a name! It is indecent that you have kept the girl from having one!” Varrick said heatedly.
“I haven’t kept anything from the girl. She has a name. She doesn’t need another,” Patrice replied.
Varrick stood up in anger. “What good is that name? You keep it locked up in your head. We spoke before of wizards and how they keep their names private so no one can have control over them. Well, you have done the opposite to this girl. You’ve kept her name secret so that you have complete control over her. She is the one manor born; yet you are the one who reaps all the benefits. So to stop this, I have given this girl a proper name, one that can be said far and wide,” he declared.
Patrice clenched her fists. “You don’t know anything!” she spat, “The girl has a ‘proper name’; one you can’t erase with another.”
The girl stepped over to the old woman and took her arm. “Aunt Patrice, please don’t get upset. You know how your heart gets if you get over-excited. It was just a fancy that Master Varrick shared with me. I know I have a name. I don’t need another.”
“Helen,” Varrick protested.
“Please, don’t call me that,” the girl asked with her head lowered.
“See what you’ve done to her?” Varrick exploded, “You have her so under your thumb that she’ll never escape. You keep her locked up here without any future. Do you want her to grow old and mean like you?”
The old woman’s eyes blazed at Varrick’s words. “You know nothing!” She swayed and the girl hugged her to steady her.
“Aunt Patrice!” the girl protested.
Varrick was about to make a scathing reply when a terrible howl echoed outside the manor. All three turned to stare at the bolted door.
“Wolves,” Patrice breathed.
“Oh no!” the girl exclaimed.
“Did you remember to lock the gate?” the old woman demanded.
“No, I forgot!” the girl cried.
Patrice swiftly went for the door, but Varrick caught her arm and pulled her back. “No, stay here. I’ll go lock the gate.”
Patrice pushed him off. “Don’t be a fool. I know my way better out there in the dark than you would at noonday.”
“But what if the wolves have already entered the courtyard? You won’t be able to fend them off for a second. I’ll at least have a fighting chance,” Varrick argued.
The girl grabbed a lantern and the fire poker and pushed them into his hands. “Take these,” she said.
Varrick threw open the door and charged out into the night. The girl quickly bolted the door behind him and went to the window to watch for his return. Patrice shook her head and twisted her hands. “Oh no, it’s happening again,” she whispered.
“He’ll be all right, Aunt Patrice. He’s brave and strong.” Patrice looked at the girl perched on the windowsill staring out into the pitch-black night. The old woman’s eyes misted over.
“Yes, of course. You liked him, didn’t you?”
The girl didn’t notice the old woman’s change in tense regarding Varrick. “I do like him, Aunt Patrice. I wish you two would get along.”
“I’m sorry, we didn’t,” Patrice said. She reached up to a hanging bundle of herbs and plucked a few leaves off of one. She hobbled wearily over to the table and poured the remains of the milk into a cup. She crumbled the leaves into the cup and stirred it around till the leaves sank.
“Do you hear anything, Aunt Patrice? He should be back soon, shouldn’t he?” the girl asked, still staring out the window.
“I don’t know. He may wish to check the animals in the barn and so on.” Patrice went over to the girl and held out the cup to her. “Here, drink this.”
The girl took it and sipped as she continued to stare out the window. “I wish he'd come back already,” the girl commented.
“Don’t worry about him. Come away from the window and let me brush your hair.”
The girl reluctantly got down from the windowsill and took a seat by the table to let Patrice brush her. The girl continued to drink her milk. As she got to the bottom, her face turned into a grimace as she saw the soggy leaves on the bottom. “Aunt Patrice, what are these?” she asked, holding up the cup.
“Something to help you sleep,” she answered.
“But I want to be awake when Varrick comes back,” the girl said. Her words slightly slurred as the potion took quick effect.
“You need your sleep,” Patrice said, patting her shoulder. She gently helped the girl to her feet. “If Master Varrick wants to see you, he will.” The girl drowsily nodded. Patrice helped the girl to her room and laid her down gently on her cot. Patrice looked down on her fondly with a touch of sorrow. She blew out her candle and made her way blindly back to the kitchen. She sat down by the fire and leaned her head back.
After dozing by the fire all night, Patrice stirred in the wee hours of the morning. She went to the door and unbolted it. Just outside the door rested the shovel, propped against the wall as if waiting. Patrice grabbed it and walked out into the dark courtyard. There was hardly a hint of dawn in the sky, but Patrice didn’t need light. She knew what she was going to find. Lying near the fountain was Varrick. His throat ripped out in one jagged gash. His face looked only half-startled, like his death came so swiftly that he didn’t have time to be much afraid.
Patrice grimly grabbed his arms and dragged the body out of the courtyard and buried him in a nearby cusp of trees. When she was done, she stuck her shovel into the soft earth and leaned against it, her body weary and aching.
She stared at the unmarked grave in remorse and spoke, “You just wouldn’t understand, maybe you couldn’t. Her mother gave the girl her first name, then she died. Walter began to call her Rosebud, saying she was beginning to blossom. He was struck by lightning that evening. A boy from the neighboring manor teased her with Ukky, a name more out of spite than anything. He fell out of a window and crushed his skull. Finally, you would have called her Helen, and now, wolves took you. When will you people ever learn? It isn’t the name that matters; it’s who you give it to.”
© June, 2014 S. A. Hunter
S. A. Hunter has written four self-published novels. One of her short stories appeared in Plasma Frequency Magazine.