Once upon a time, there was a lovely young maiden who was fair of skin, dark of hair, startlingly intelligent, and warm of heart. She dwelt in a castle, but rarely did she ever behold the finery of the grand ballrooms nor the gilded halls of the music rooms. For her status was that of the lowliest castoff maid involving days that were spent scrubbing the hard stone floors and fulfilling every frowned upon errand that was considered beneath that of all the other servants.
Thankful for a respite from her mortifyingly menial tasks, she currently stood shivering in front of the fireplace of the meager servants’ quarters she shared with another maid of the castle. The frost was especially bitter this winter and it appeared the flames in the fireplace were determined to grow dim. As the castle staff had been cut to half-rations on everything from food to firewood, due to the anticipated arrival of the prince of the Kingdom of Truth. The lady of the castle – who did little credit to her title – was of the mind that the handsome prince should forego his quest for the long lost maiden of light and take a fancy to one of her daughters, instead. And in her effort to spare no expense in sprucing up the rather neglected castle, the servants were mastering the art of numbing the pangs of hunger gnawing at their stomachs as they continued going about their burdensome duties.
Suddenly, the door to the young maiden’s frost-filled room burst wide open with her sister in servitude rushing into the room.
“Shut the door, quickly. I’ve a mind to catch this little beast and warm him over the fire” she ordered.
And the young maiden hurried to close the door while the other servant scrambled to her knees and crawled all over their room trying to catch the speedy varmint. The rat had a mind of his own, however. And every time the two young maids thought they had him cornered, he would escape through their legs one way or another in his attempt to find his own way out of their confined quarters.
Their worldly possessions were decidedly few, yet in a matter of seconds their humble abode was turned completely topsy turvy with their tattered blankets ending up strewn all over the floor. Until at last, the young maiden managed to step on the rat’s tail while the other servant grabbed him and wrapped him in her apron, so as to prevent his escape. Leading to the void in her eyes of suppressed hunger, gleaming momentarily with the anticipation of a tasty dinner that evening.
Her thoughts were interrupted, however, when a small box fell to the floor. And while the young maiden rushed to pick it up, she was too late. For its contents had spilled to the floor and albeit, dimly, the glowing embers in the fireplace made the soft sheen of her pearl necklace, unmistakeable. The servant girl’s eyes widened in fear as she took in the sight.
“Thou has best return that to the rightful owner, immediately. Aye, I’m not of a mind of being accused of theft and feeling the rope against me neck, all on your account” she stated while trembling with fear.
The young maiden felt at a loss for words. She understood her sister-in-servitude’s apprehension, but couldn’t quite fathom how to explain the cause for her possession of such an uncharacteristically elegant piece of jewelry for a lowly servant. So she quietly returned the box with the pearl necklace back to its hiding place underneath the blankets on top of her wooden frame cot.
“Hast thou gone daft?” the servant queried further with genuine fear making her voice quaver as she did so. Once again, stymied for words, the young maiden remained silent, prompting the servant girl to drop the rat to the floor and forcefully grab the young maiden by her arm.
“I am the rightful owner” the maiden murmured softly, knowing that it would be difficult for anyone to believe that a castoff castle maid could come by such a possession, honestly. And seeing the fear mixed with incredulity reflected in her friend’s eyes, she further explained that “The necklace was given to me by the herb woman who took care of me before she passed away and I was sent to work here.” There was a slight catch in her voice as she spoke. For the maiden had loved the herb woman dearly as the only mother she had ever known. And she found herself fighting back the tears longing to stream down her worn, yet still lovely countenance.
The servant released her viselike grip on the young maiden’s arm and stepped back a few paces.
“I be knowing the most trustworthy seller in the village. He would gladly let you hawk it to him in exchange for a fair sum. Why you could even buy a nice warm cape and some bread for Christmas and . . . .”
“No!” the maiden vehemently exclaimed, shocking her companion. And then in a softer tone explained that she had considered hawking the necklace often, especially during this hard winter’s frost. But the herb woman and told her to keep it always. That it would tell me who I am, she recollected in her own private thoughts with a far away look in her eyes.
Realizing that her companion was speaking in earnest, the servant girl righted their lone wooden stool. And, flabbergasted at the revelation, simply collapsed onto the seat. Resting her elbow on her knees, the servant briefly hesitated before proceeding with “Were I to ever own such a fine thing. Me thinks I should fancy myself a delicate lady-in-waiting to a beautiful princess. A kind princess, if you can imagine such a thing. But me thinks she would be good and kind to the servants. Someone filled with caring and purity, someone like . . . like . . .like the long lost maiden of light!” she exclaimed happily. Making even the young maiden laugh slightly. For all of the castle staff thought this young prince’s quest for the lost maiden was fanciful rubbish. And one that was costing them half their rations, at that.
Replacing her momentary reverie with the reality of the life that lay before them, the servant girl sighed. And while reaching for the rat, who appeared to have been stunned into stillness by the revelation of the pearl necklace, as well; stated
“Alas! Don’t be telling anyone what I be dreaming. I wouldn’t be wanting the others to be thinking I’m not knowing me place.” And then she exited the room with the rodent in tow. Presumably, to see if she could convince the cook to spare them some boiling water.
The next morning, the head of the staff sent for the servant to summon the young maiden. Surprising her, for she was usually considered too lowly for the head of the staff to deign to speak her directly. However, the maiden did as she was bid, hoping all the while that the servant girl hadn’t revealed anything concerning the pearl necklace. Much to her relief, the stern head of the help informed her that since the prince was rumored to be approaching soon, the lady of the castle had ordered that the horses be kept fresh. So the young maiden was to go to the village and purchase the remaining herbs and spices that had been found wanting for preparing the Christmas Eve banquet. And if any coins should be unaccounted for, her rations would be reduced to nil on Christmas.
Returning to her destitute dwelling, the young maiden reached for her thin cape. With the howling wind outside clearly indicating that this was yet another chore she’d been given since no one else wanted to confront the cold wind all the way to the village and back again. She reached for the box with the pearl necklace and stowed it in her cape, lest word get out to the rest of the staff that it existed. And braving the cold outside, the young maiden tried her best to stay on the path and keep as warm as possible. But as she progressed from shivering with cold to trembling with icy frost coating her thin cape, the young maiden decided to take the shortcut to the village through the woods. Common knowledge held that it was filled with bandits and fraught with danger, but as she lost all feeling in her feet and legs due to the chill of the frost, the young maiden heeded not the dire warnings. And sensing that all appeared to be well, she even felt light enough in her heart to begin singing.
The command to halt soon interrupted her song, however. As a group of ten muscle bound rough looking men surrounded her in the blink of an eye. It was surreal that so many ruffians could appear so quickly unnoticed from behind the trees, but the fierceness in their gaze was certainly real enough. And as they began circling in tighter around her, the young maiden wondered if this would be her end.
“Neigh!” the sounds of horses and plenty of them manifested themselves just then. Which shifted the attention of the wild ruffians away from the young maiden, since only a prince could be accompanied by such a throng of stallions. And knowing that treasures were for the taking if they could raid his party unawares, they hit the maiden on the head, knocking her to the ground, before dashing off to waylay the prince and his entourage.
The iciness of the snow aroused the young maiden out of the blackness of her temporary unconsciousness and upon coming to she hurried towards the village as quickly as she could. But as the throbbing in her head receded, she paused. The prince! she thought to herself. She knew him not, but she knew that she must do something if she could. So recalling that she had a high-pitched singing voice that carried, she began singing as fully as she could for the prince “To beware, that ruffians were near.”
Confounded by his lack of success thus far in his quest for finding the long lost maiden of light, the hearty young prince contemplated the contents of his late father’s will. He knew many thought his mission was a fruitless one, for a maiden of light could not possibly remain undiscovered for such a long period of time. However, what the naysayers failed to consider was the urgency of the matter. It was his father’s desire that the kingdoms of Lux et Veritas, light and truth, be forever united. And if he didn’t marry the long lost maiden of light by Christmas of his twenty-fifth year, his brother was set to inherit the throne. A matter which the prince had given little thought to over the years since he harbored no ill will towards his sibling. But now that his brother had defied his father’s wishes and married into the family of sorceresses who thrived upon frosting out the light and plaguing the poor, the prince was scouring all the neighboring principalities in his search for the long lost maiden.
An angelic voice rang through the air, entrancing the prince by its beauty. That is until it dawned upon him what it was saying. And the first silhouette of a burly man appeared within the distant horizon.
Thankful that the forest bandits were too preoccupied by their visions of robbing the prince to follow her, the young maiden reached the village at last. Looking every bit the tattered and worn castoff servant that she was. Feeling the cold December air enshrouding her, the young maiden felt drawn to the firelight of a candle glowing in the window of the village chapel. She could hear singing coming from the inside. It must be the choir rehearsing for Christmas Eve, she reasoned. Yet, she did know her place. And the servants of her class were never permitted inside of the chapel. The lady of the castle had so ordered, so as not to have to be bothered by any charades of piety during her few requisite visits to the stone sanctuary.
But the soft glow of the candle’s firelight kept beckoning to her, so the young maiden silently slipped into the chapel and took a seat in the pew farthest from view. Flooded with relief for the first time that day, the young maiden closed her eyes and let her mind drift to the lovely music. Their clearness of tone was so beautiful, so much so, that before long the young maiden unbeknownst to herself began singing along. The melody was such a beautiful one and such a familiar one.
Startled, the young maiden soon found herself awakened by the cleric who was staring at her both frantically and in awe.
“How didst thou come by that last aria?” he asked her in both an authoritative and frantic manner.
“I . . .I . . .I’m not sure” the young maiden stuttered. For she was perplexed by it, herself. The aria had simply felt so familiar to her. Like something from a long lost infanthood.
“Think!” the cleric commanded now. “Thou must know whereabouts thou ever came by such a rare aria” for the prince had instructed the cleric to be prepared in the event he succeeded in his quest. And this eyesore of a damsel had just sung the aria of light, an aria even the chapel soloist had been unable to sing. And while it seemed highly unlikely that this impoverished imp could be the one, Christmas was the season for miracles, after all.
“Hast thou no explanation to offer?” the cleric pressed on. “Nothing to show who you are?”
At this last, the young maiden let out a low groan. For surely this learned man knew that no servant had anything to show for herself, must less a castoff one like she. But just as the hood of her cape fell back, revealing her long dark hair and the classic sculpture of her face, she realised that she did have something.
”I knew me place, I did” Aerona repeated over and over as she clasped the pearl necklace around Gweneira’s neck. “I just never was of a mind that ‘twould be here, waiting on ye for thy wedding day.” Gweneira smiled kindly. Aerona still found it difficult to believe that she was now the lady-in-waiting to the long lost maiden of light, as revealed by the inscription on the clasp of her necklace. An inscription with such fine lettering, that it had escaped Gweneira’s notice all these many years.
“Are thou still of a mind that I should hawk it?” Gweneira teased. “I could purchase a warm cape, some bread . . .”
“Off with ye” Aerona replied sternly, recalling her advice of yore. “The service will begin soon. And I’m of a mind to partake in advance of our savory Christmas feast.” For one of the first things Gweneira had arranged since being made known as the long lost maiden of the Kingdom of Light, was that there would be no more half-rations and provisions were being made for a Christmas dinner for all.
A short while later, as Gweneira was walking down the aisle, the prince’s heart beat with both love and admiration. For his father had been right to insist upon uniting the Kingdoms of Lux et Veritas, as here was the long lost maiden of light. And hers was the lovely voice that had prevented his being overcome by the impending danger posed by the bandits of the forest.