Anca’s mind drifted as she stood in first light of dawn. All was still quiet in the market square. The frosty morning air bit her lungs as she sighed. Soon there would be people bustling all around. Merchants with wares to sell and villagers hustling about to finish preparations before the winter solstice festival began. Anca had managed to find some winter berries which she bundled with evergreens. Nosegays to sell to the women of the village. With luck, she would make enough to buy a meager meal, likely her only one that day. She pulled her tattered cape a little tighter around her, guarding against the chill.
Anca’s father was a merchant too. He traveled to neighboring villages. He had to. No one in the village would buy anything from him. Anca’s father tinkered with the goods he sold which caused them to break after only a use or two. He felt it ensured more sales. All it had done was give him a poor reputation. They lived utter squalor, in a dilapidated cottage, on the edge of the village. It was just the two of them now. Her mother had been taken by illness a few years ago. Anca missed her mother terribly. Her thoughts were disturbed by a sudden coming to life in the village square. Anca kept her eyes down, in humility, as she attempted to sell her pitiful offerings. She knew people only bought them out of pity. But their pity meant she would eat that day.
That night, tucked up as close to the few coals she could manage in the fireplace of the cottage, she ate the stale bread and bit of cheese her sales for the day had afforded her. There would be no winter solstice feast for her. She escaped into a fantasy world of her own making. It was the same story she told herself every night, as she sat alone. She would be selling in the square when a handsome stranger would spy her, look past her rags, and see her beauty. He would fall hopelessly in love with her and whisk her off to a beautiful castle. She would enjoy a feast every night, dresses of sumptuous silks, and she would never be cold again. Some nights, the handsome stranger was a Duke, others a Prince. But he was always charming, kind, and loved her completely.
A few weeks later, the bitter winter wind was keeping the villagers in doors. There would be no supper for Anca that day. She hadn’t sold a single bundle. She sniffled as she pulled her thin cloak tighter around her, starting her walk back to the cottage. It wouldn’t be much warmer there but at least she would be out of the wind.
“Excuse me miss,” came a deep, unfamiliar voice. “Can you point me in the direction of the Inn?”
Anca looked up into a pair of the most dazzling eyes she had ever seen. She couldn’t bring herself to speak.
“I was on the road and my horse has thrown a shoe,” he explained. Anca went on staring at him. His raven hair ruffled gently in the wind. He was wrapped in a sumptuous cloak, trimmed in fur. Anca shivered. “I’m sorry. Did you not understand me?” he asked again.
“The Inn is just over there, m’ lord,” Anca finally stammered, pointing with her ungloved hand.
The handsome stranger took her in a little more closely. “My goodness!” he exclaimed. “You must be freezing. What are you doing out here in such thin rags?” She responded with a meek smile. “Come, let’s get you out of this cold.” With that he removed the beautiful, crimson cloak from his shoulders, sweeping it around her with great flourish.
“Thank you,” Anca responded quietly.
“Please,” he said. “Are you hungry? I was going to take my dinner at the Inn. Won’t you join me?” Anca simply nodded in response.
This was it. Her fantasy come to life. A handsome stranger come to rescue her from her destitute. He guided her toward the Inn, opening the door and seeing her to a table. He ordered a meal larger than Anca could possibly have dreamed of. And for the first time in she couldn’t remember how long, she was warm. He spoke to her gently. He was so kind. She declined his offer to escort her home but when they parted, he handed over his gloves, making a gift of them to her. Anca didn’t feel the cold as she made her way back to the cottage that night. Had she only dreamed it?
The next morning, Anca tidied herself as best she could, wrapping an extra layer around herself. Making sure her hair was brushed until it shone. She made her way hastily to the market, hoping to catch sight of Domenic before he left the village. Having dinner with him had been like a dream but she didn’t expect her dream to continue. She would savor it for a long time to come. But she wanted just one last glance. She nearly gave up hope, reminding herself she would have his beautiful, soft, fur-lined gloves to remember him by when the door to the Inn opened. There he was. Domenic. Anca held herself back. She wanted to run to him but she knew better. He glanced around the square, smiling when he spotted her. Had he been looking for her? Anca decided not.
“There you are,” he said. “I was hoping I would find you this morning.” Anca couldn’t believe her ears.
“Yes, m’ lord,” was all Anca could manage.
He gathered her hands in his. Anca was suddenly afraid he was only looking for her to retrieve his gloves. “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you,” he began. “Anca, I have fallen in love with you. Please, leave this place and come away with me.” Anca thought she was dreaming. “I know this is all very sudden but I don’t want to be without you.” Anca looked away from him, considering his words.
“Alright,” she said finally.
“Really?” he exclaimed. “Oh Anca!” he breathed, lifting her from her feet and turning her about. “My horse is at the blacksmith. I will collect him while you gather your things and we will be away.” Anca was breathless.
“I don’t have any things,” she responded quickly. “I’m wearing everything I own.” She glanced with disgust at the ragged dress and threadbare cloak she wore.
“Anca,” Domenic said, lifting her chin and gazing into her eyes. “I promise, you will never want for anything ever again. Come, let’s be off.”
He wrapped the two of them in his cloak after she settled in front of him on his horse. Anca leaned back into his warmth. If this was a dream, she hoped never to wake up. In the next town, he purchased her new gowns and three cloaks. She insisted on keeping his gloves, even if they were too big. He promised to marry her as soon as they reached his castle. He would send word ahead to have the feast prepared as soon as they arrived.
The next fortnight passed in a blur. Domenic was everything Anca had dreamed of and more. He was kind and loving. He showered her with gifts. They dined on the best food, slept in the finest inns. Every night, she prayed of her gratitude. Her life would never be the same.
“We’ll be home by this evening,” Domenic informed her one morning. “Then we’ll be married. You will be my princess and everything you could possibly want will be yours. Servants to tend to your every whim. You will be happy.” Anca could hardly contain her joy. Her new home was only a day’s ride away. She would marry her prince and her life would be perfect.
But Anca became concerned when at mid-day, the road took them into a wasteland. There were remnants of what had once been a village. But it was deserted. The buildings appeared to have been burned. Stone chimneys stood here and there, marking where homes once stood. Smoldering rubble and ash were all that remained of them.
“Domenic, what happened here?” Anca asked in alarm.
“Don’t worry, my love,” he cooed. “Nothing to concern yourself with.” They rode on. But the scenery remained the same, scorched and dead. Anca’s anxiety started to increase.
They finally reached a large iron gate. Instead of vibrant, lush, green vines, it was covered in briars and thorns. The air smelled of sulfur. Anca recoiled.
“What is this place?” Anca finally asked.
“Your new home,” Domenic whispered in her ear, as the gates were opened. He tightened his arms around her as he urged the horse forward. Anca’s heart began to sink.
The grounds were more singed brush and thorns. The smell of rot and decay reached Anca’s nose before the moat came into view. It surrounded a formidable looking castle of dark grey stone. Chains creaked and groaned as the drawbridge was lowered to them. Anca nearly screamed when she spotted the three heads on spikes above the gate at the other end of the bridge.
“My last three princesses,” Domenic said, following her gaze. “They weren’t happy here.” Anca forced herself to swallow, chasing the bile from the back of her throat.