Long ago, on a day like so many before it, a distant clock tower chimed the hour. The sun rose, casting its radiant light over the snow-laden land. In a small shack on the edge of the village, the golden rays warmed Ruby’s face. The young woman gripped her blanket, her one luxury, and snuggled her sleepy face into its warm embrace. The fire had died long ago and she held onto the warmth of her bed as long as possible in the cozy haze of dawn. She dared to open her eyes. The glistening snow shone beautifully outside, and the sun, nestled on the horizon, greeted her.
Ruby gasped, jumping to her feet. The cold floor on her bare skin shocked her awake but was not nearly as effective as the realization that she was, once again, late. She traded her nightgown for her dusty dress and ragged apron, threw her hair up with haste, and pulled on her bright red coat and boots as she stumbled out the door. Ruby flew over the snow toward the village. She followed the scent of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls and the clang of the blacksmith’s hammer. Everyone in town loved Ruby and everyone knew she suffered from a bad case of tardiness.
“Late again Ruby!” chuckled the baker as she ran past. He tossed her a muffin, knowing she needed fuel for what lay ahead.
“Thanks, Felix!” Ruby called back, stuffing her mouth with the warm bread.
She passed the grocer, the blacksmith, the candlestick maker, waving with a smile at everyone as she went. The village sprang to life and the bustle began, but Ruby had no time to enjoy the liveliness. She wound around people, weaving through obstacles, and eventually ended up at the castle gardens. She slipped through the thick foliage and quietly sought out her secret hole in the back wall where she could sneak into the kitchens unnoticed. Just a row of hedges twice her heigh stood between her and the wall. She knelt down and crawled through the tangled branches when a tiny squeak caught her attention.
She paused a moment before continuing on, but the squeak once more found her ears. Snow soaked through her dress and froze her knees. Time urgently pushed her forward. But she stopped and looked around for the source of the squeak. Her eyes landed on a lump of mottled fur, barely hidden by the edge of the shrub. She eased forward and found a rat with a crooked tail, lame leg, and eyes full of sorrow. Her soul ached at the thought of the little guy’s heart pumping furiously as he ran from a hawk. It had surely been a close duel, the rat barely escaping with his life. Ruby reasoned his chances were slim, but with proper care, he might just make it. She scooped him up, brushed the snow from his fur, and placed him gently in her apron pocket.
“We’ve got a long day ahead of us, but you’re under my care now,” she whispered as they squeezed through the stone wall.
The kitchen’s heat already sweltered as the staff hurried about cooking more food than could possibly be necessary. She blended in perfectly. Ruby hung her coat and went to work. She grabbed a handful of linens and headed to the queen’s chambers. But not before placing a handful of nuts in her apron pocket.
She made the bed and rolled the old sheets to the laundry then moved on to dusting various trinkets before Princess Abigail found her.
“Mother knows you were late again,” the child sneered, her nose in the air.
“I’m so sorry Princess,” Ruby bowed her head before the girl and quickly returned to work.
“Mother also said apologies are worthless if you don’t change your actions. Of course, I never have to apologize for anything. A princess is nothing short of perfect.”
Ruby endured excess words from the queen and her daughter on a daily basis. She learned to ignore them and continue on. The slender child, clad in shiny jewels and frills turned dramatically and headed for the door. She left Ruby relieved for her early departure.
“Oh,” the child in the doorway’s grin grew wide and wicked, “Mother said as punishment, you’re to clean the chamber pots today!” Princess Abigail giggled with malicious vigor all the way down the hallway.
In between tasks, Ruby would take the rat from her apron and wipe his fur. She’d talk to him sweetly, and wrap him in scraps of warm cloth. She fed him the nuts from the kitchen and dubbed him Pistachio. Pistachio snuggled into her apron a rested well with a full stomach. He listened as Ruby endured verbal abuse from the castle’s occupants. And he listened as she went about her work, singing merrily as she did. Room after room, she kept busy, worked diligently, while still finding time to tend to Pistachio. He admired how she made games out of her tasks and maintained a pleasant attitude.
As the sun dipped low in the sky, Ruby tended to her last chore of the day: cleaning the queen’s bath chamber. There’d be clothes to take to the laundry, drain and scrub the clawfoot tub, then wrap up with mopping and watering the plants. She reached for the doorknob, but it opened before her. Queen Violet stepped out, draped in plum robes of velvet adorned with beautiful gold filigree. It was the only thing beautiful about her.
She looked down on Ruby and spoke, “You better not be late another day, lest it be your last,” she smirked and opened the door wide for Ruby to enter, “I want this room spotless before you leave,” she let out a chuckle accompanied by a snort. Her heels clicked down the hallway, the echoes marking her departure.
Ruby stepped into the room, her smile faded and shoulders slumped. Vases lay smashed and towels lay strewn about thoroughly soaked. Mud tracked across the floor and clung to the sides of the tub.
“What on earth happened here?” Ruby sighed. Something ran into her shins, knocking her to her knees. She steady herself as something hot and wet slapped her face. Ruby raised her head to gaze into the amber eyes of the world’s scruffiest dog. Her radiant smile instantly returned to her face.
“I bet you did this,” she said stroking the puppy’s damp fur. He looked at her expectantly, tail wagging furiously and tongue flopped to the side, “How am I supposed to clean all this with you running about?” She posed the question to herself and scanned the room for a leash. Nothing. The puppy nosed her apron, sniffing it with curiosity. She pulled away, afraid the prodding snout might harm Pistacio. But the small rat popped his head up and sniffed the dog in return. He wrapped his tiny fingers around the edge of the pocket.
“Are you sure?” Ruby asked.
The rat looked at her face in return and Ruby took the action as an answer. She scooped out Pistacio and his cloth and fashioned a bed for him on an end table. He burrowed back into the warmth before popping his head out ever so slightly. The puppy ran to the end table, skidding to a stop a mere inch before hitting it. He looked up eagerly at the rat but refused to bother him otherwise. Satisfied, Ruby set to work, face aglow with joy once more.
Night fell long before Ruby completed her chores and left the castle behind, Pistachio in tow. Fresh snow fell from the silver speckled sky. She gripped her brilliantly colored, yet tattered coat tight and walked quickly. She passed through the village where most people already sat in their homes for dinner. The alabaster moon glistened off the snowy streets, and warm firelight glowed through frosted windows. Scents of meats and spices wafted on the air, and the tavern sounded alive with happy patrons. Ruby longed to take her time and enjoy the sights and smells, to join the people in the tavern and dance and sing. But the night was far too cold, and far too late.
Ruby reached her door to find a letter fixed to a ceramic pot. Inside she placed the items on her table and started a fire. Returning to the mystery package, she opened the letter. She instantly recognized the crude penmanship as belonging to Axlan the Blacksmith.
When my wife and I failed to see you walk through the village before we closed up for the day, we reasoned you’d been kept late. Knowing that you work hard for the Queen, Lorilynn insisted that I bring you some of our stew and bid you a restful evening. We hope you enjoy it and that it warms on what is sure to be a frozen night.
Ruby cherished the couple’s kindness and fixed the pot over the fire to heat the delicious gift. She sat down to a delicious meal and every other spoonful of broth went to Pistachio. After dinner, she quickly tidied her room and tucked Pistachio into his cloth on her nightstand. She told the sleepy rat a short bedtime story before drifting off to sleep herself.
The next morning, the clocktower chimed in the distance. The sun once again beckoned Ruby to wake. Once again, she took a look outside and realized she was going to be late. With no time to snuggle under the covers and allow her body to gently rise, she sprang out of bed. She threw on her dress, her apron her socks with perfected ease. She grabbed her boots, her coat, and of course, Pistachio, and she raced out the door.
She trotted down the path and onto the main road. As she passed through the village a curious sight befell her eyes. Not a soul trespassed the streets. The snow lay untouched, the forge stood cold, and the baker’s ovens were bare. The sun rested low on the horizon. Ruby slowed down to examine the area.
“What’s going on? Is it possible I’m early?”
She pondered the thought, and though she was sure she rose from her bed late, what else could explain the sleeping town? A glance toward the clocktower confirmed her suspicions. Her concern abated, she continued to the castle. The guards stood at the gates, unwavering as always, but suspiciously still. Years had passed since Ruby last used the gates. She couldn’t wait to see the surprise on her friends’ faces when she arrived not late, but early. But as she entered the castle, the halls were, like the village, devoid of life. She checked the clock in the main hall. It read the exact same time as had the clocktower she spied minutes earlier. Perhaps it was broken. She moved from room to room and each clock read the same time as when she’d passed through the village.
Pistachio crawled out from her apron and rested on her shoulder.
“One clock could be broken, dear Pistachio. But every single one? Do you know what’s happening?”
The rate stared at her blankly and blinked.
She inhaled deeply and let out a long breath, “Well,” she thought for a moment, “I still have work to do.”
Ruby went about the rest of her day as usual. She took her time as she cleaned room after room, pausing every so often to play with or feed Pistachio. Though the silence caused her heart to grow lonely, she remained grateful that no one could speak harsh words to her or create extra messes for her to clean. When she completed her work, she packed up Pistachio and headed home. The village stood empty and pristine just as it had that morning. Ruby tried with all her might to squash a growing fear as she walked through the undisturbed streets. She fixed a simple meal for her and her rat before going to bed with the sun still peeking over the horizon.
The next morning Ruby awoke to the predawn darkness. She sat at the edge of her bed, thankful that at least the sun had moved. She took her time that morning, getting dressed with care and smoothing out her hair with a brush. She even made a modest breakfast. But as she searched for Pistachio, she found his makeshift bed empty. She searched under her bed, in her shoes, and behind her table, but the rat was nowhere to be found. Unwilling to waste the extra time she gained that day, she headed out for the castle alone. The clocktower chimed in the distance.
As she neared the village a large commotion drew her attention. Cheer gleamed on everyone’s faces, and from scattered conversations, she learned the castle hosted a special guest. No one seemed aware of the previous day’s conundrum.
“Ruby!” called Felix, “You couldn’t have picked a better day to be on time.”
“What’s all the fuss about?” she inquired.
“A wizard traveled from far away to visit the castle today. They say he has a special gift. You should get going so you don’t miss it.”
Felix hurried Ruby along, slipping a sweet roll in her hand. The path bustled with people, all voraciously trying to find a place in the castle. Fortunately, Ruby had her secret entrance. She squeezed through the wall and into the kitchen. She fought through another throng of bodies on her way to the throne room. Ruby barely fit in the chamber full of raucous gossip. She twisted her way through the crowd to the side where she miraculously found a bucket to stand on. Looking over the crowd, she spied the mysterious stranger. Next to Queen Violet in her plum robes and Princess Abigail in her pink frills stood a tall, slender man. He wore a robe of midnight blue. Beady eyes poked out through his bushy, mottled hair and beard. Ruby thought something about the old man looked familiar as he popped pistachios into his mouth, though she was certain she’d never laid eyes on him before.
Once the room filled with as many people as it could possibly hold, the queen stood up. Silence fell over the room and the woman began to speak.
“Thank you all for gathering here today,” Ruby rolled her eyes because the queen never thanked anyone for anything, but Queen Violet continued with false pleasantries, “We are honored to receive a very special guest, The Wizard Liri!”
The old man pocketed the rest of his nuts and stepped forward.
“Good people, I am here today to bestow a gift on one your own,” his voice boomed louder than anticipated, “I will share my talents with one very special person today.”
The room buzzed with murmurs of excitement. The Queen quieted the room once more, and not so subtly shifted her daughter closer to the wizard.
“I’ve met someone who impressed me greatly with her attitude,” he continued, “her diligence,” Princess Abigale stuck her nose high in the air, “and her kindness. This young woman shall, from this day forward, be blessed with the ability to live her life sharing her goodwill with those who value her. And through her good fortune, she shall never want for anything again. ”
Princess Abigail snorted as confusion crossed her face. A princess, after all, already commands the attention of the people and is showered with everything she could ever want.
Liri turned toward the queen, “Your highness, in bestowing this gift that will help your entire kingdom, I ask one thing in return.”
Queen Violet, barely paying attention at this point said, “Of course, what is it that you want?”
“I only ask that this person be protected from anyone who would wish her harm.”
The queen, believing her daughter the only likely candidate for such a gift, of course, agreed. A thin thread of shimmering magic flowed from The Wizard Liri’s fingertips as he bound the queen to her promise.
“Now, Ruby, please step forward if you accept this offer.”
The entire crowd erupted in surprised whispers. Surely he could not mean Ruby, the commoner who cleaned the rooms. Princess Abigail balled her fists and spun on her heels to glower at the wizard. But the room parted, clearing a way for Ruby. As she stepped forward on trembling legs, the villagers, who were all fond of her, softly congratulated her, patting her shoulder and offering kind words on her way.
She stood before the old man, at a loss for words. She’d never met this man before, how did he know her.
“Ruby, do you promise to help your fellow villagers, to live your life spreading kindness and love?”
The queen interrupted, “This is a joke right?” Her shrill voice cut through the room, “You’re kidding?”
Liri ignored her and focused on Ruby.
“Yes,” Ruby whispered, “But, why me? What have I possibly done to deserve this?”
“I’ve seen how hard you work yet you ask for nothing. I’ve watched you show kindness to even the smallest of creatures,” he leaned in and whispered the next words so that only she could hear, “How did you know pistachios were my favorite?”
Ruby gasped as she realized who stood before her. She threw her arms around the wizard, her tiny companion over the past two days, and hugged him. Pistachio had not disappeared after all, merely returned to his true self after she helped him heal.
Ruby lived her remaining days working for no one but herself. Day after day she used her magic to help those in her village however she could. And in the evenings she lived her life, enjoying her beautiful surroundings, sharing meals with her friends, and dancing in the tavern. She never again endured the harsh words of the queen and spread her natural light with everyone she met.