A/N - review please! I'd greatly appreciate it! :)

Life itself is the most wonderful fairytale - Hans Christian Anderson

Chapter One

If you asked me, I couldn't explain it properly. My thoughts found themselves on the tip of my tongue, ready to spill out, but I didn't know what it was I wanted to say. I could have just screamed, don't go! But that would have caused more worry than the situation deserved. The situation being that I, for whatever reason, felt something extremely bad was about to happen. I didn't know why, I didn't know what, but here is what I did know: I didn't want Prince Braxton riding horseback today.

"I think you should stay," I told him as he draped the leather saddle over his mare. He looked at me with a soft smirk.

"And why's that?" An amused smile played across his lips as he gave the saddle a quick tug, making sure it was secure. This was where I fell short in my pleas to convince him to stay, because I really hadn't the slightest idea how to explain it to him. It wasn't anything but a feeling. It was nothing more than intuition.

"Because I'll -" For a second my mouth remained open, but the words didn't form. Still, he looked at me with anticipation, curious what I had to say. No doubt he expected me to say something foolish. I wanted to prove him wrong.

"Because I'll…miss…you?" Apparently, proving him wrong was not within my capability. I almost covered my mouth immediately, but I stopped myself. I figured that would make the situation worse if I reacted in such an obvious, immature way. He chuckled a little, but I was too mortified to truly notice.

A gust of bitter autumn wind sent my long brown hair flowing freely across my thin face. I quickly gathered it in one hand, embarrassed I hadn't braided it like I normally did. Just what I needed, another thing to be bothered about. My gaze fell to the ground, as I studied the pebbles and cracks in the dirt. It wasn't like they truly interested me, but it beat meeting Braxton's eyes. I imagined he thought I seemed like a little kid right now, with my ridiculous concerns. He didn't need me to worry about him; he didn't want me to worry about him.

"You'll miss me?" He questioned with raised eyebrow and a teasing smirk.

"Well, yes, but that's not what I meant to say!" I scowled at him, flustered. I'd already known this wouldn't go well, but I'd decided to try and tell him anyways. Of course he didn't want to listen to me. Why would he listen to a kitchen maid?
"I'll be fine," he promised, and I couldn't argue. It wasn't his physical health I worried about. I didn't feel he would be in danger going into the woods. He'd been riding the forest trails for so long his horse's hooves are the very ones that formed the trails. I knew he could handle himself in a dangerous situation. It's just - I had this unexplainable dread things were on the verge of changing, an uneasy feeling that I couldn't shake no matter how hard I tried. I didn't want anything to change, especially regarding Braxton.

"You should get back inside. They need your help with supper by now, I'd assume." He grinned at me. "I'll be back before it gets too dark, Fay."

I loved the way my name rolled off his tongue, as if it held importance to him. As if I held importance to him. I liked to think his emerald green eyes sparkled only when he said my name, but that would be both arrogant, and untrue. His eyes always held that spark of excitement. He gave me another, almost pitiful, smile before mounting his horse. I usually loved his warm smiles, but this was the kind of smile you'd give to comfort a young child.

Star, his mare, let out an agitated whinny. He trotted a few hesitant steps in anticipation of the walk before breaking into a steady gallop. I was left standing there with my silly ominous worry.

I watched as he rode off into the forest that surrounded the castle grounds. Within a few moments, he was out of my sight completely, off on another one of his leisurely strolls. The soft echoes of the horse's hooves faded in the distance until the annoying sound of grasshoppers replaced it. The grasshoppers seemed to be trying, unsuccessfully, to blend together in harmony.

With a slight sigh, I turned to the place I'd called home for nearly fourteen years now. The sunset illuminated the features of Briarwood castle in soft hues, but however pleasant it appeared, I didn't want to go back. I wanted to ride alongside Braxton one time, just one time. Even though I deeply hated the woods, I wouldn't mind visiting them once more if he accompanied me. He preferred to ride alone though, of this fact I was all too aware. I knew a lot of things about him, actually. It came with being a childhood friend to the Prince of Briarwood, but it still didn't change my position. I worked primarily as a kitchen maid in the castle, nothing more. I considered myself lucky to have that job. I knew my place, and it had never been and would never be beside Braxton.
The off-key chirps of the crickets seemed to rise in volume, causing me to quicken my pace to the castle. To think Braxton found the noises of the bothersome insects to be a soothing atmosphere in which to ride Star astounded me. I'm sure my sour mood exaggerated the annoyance of the grasshoppers a bit, but I didn't think one could really blame me. I'd tried to warn Braxton not to go horse riding and he'd treated me as if I were still the five year old girl he'd discovered in the forest so long ago. I'd become a young maiden - a woman - right in front of did he not notice that I was nineteen years old now, and I had changed so much over the years? If he had noticed, he failed to acknowledge it in any way.

My shoes dragged softly against the stone path that lead to the back door of the stronghold. The steady rhythm distracted me from the feelings of desertion that were creeping through my system. I must have looked as pitiful as an abandoned puppy dog.

Supper preparations were already underway when I entered the kitchen, and I almost looked forward to my daily task of helping cook dinner. Almost. The aromas of simmering stew and wine mixed together, taking the edge off of my dark mood - until Elloise, the castle's head chef, forced a half-full bag of potatoes in my arms.

"You're late, Fay," she hissed, "and I know where you've been off to," she whispered in my ear. Her words sent a chill through my spine, momentarily immobilizing me. I almost dropped the bag of spuds, which would have resulted in an even more threatening lecture from Elloise. If rumors spread of me being close to Braxton, the king might decide to yank my current lifestyle at the castle out from underneath me, and while admittedly it wasn't much, it was all I had. I settled my nerves and thought logically.

"I don't believe you do," I annunciated in as level a tone I could muster, "because that would mean you weren't in the kitchen, and if you weren't in the kitchen preparing for supper as the head chef, you've no right to threaten me for my tardiness."

"Nonetheless," Elloise spat, enraged at having been called out on her bluff, "You are late, and heaven only knows your reason why!"

"I lost track of the time." I informed her simply, refraining from adding any truth to the statement.

"Just peel the potatoes, you absent-minded orphan."

Her words stung, but I refused to give her the satisfaction of a hurt expression. I wouldn't discuss the details of my mother's abandonment with anyone, but there was a reason I harbored a deep loathing of the woods. The very woods Braxton currently rode through. A sigh escaped from my lips as I took a seat on a footstool in the corner of the damp room. Hoping it would be a distraction, I began my monotonous task. It didn't help - I was worried, and my mind brought forth the most unpleasant thoughts. Braxton, riding through the forest, against my warning. The forest. I hated that forest.

"Look at you Fayette, my beautiful baby girl. Look how big you've gotten!"

I loathed my full name, but mother insisted on calling me by it, even though she knew I preferred Fay. I walked alongside of her, my hand squeezed tightly in her own as we trudged slowly through a wooded forest. Her hand was ice cold, even though it'd been summer. The heat took its toll on me, all the more reason I grasped her hand, hoping the coolness of it would help. It didn't. Why of all days did she decide to pick berries in the forest today? She pulled on my hand, urging me along; I wasn't keeping up with her wider grownup strides.

"Hurry, dear, you must hurry! We're not far from the clearing now! We'll sit and eat berries there when we are finished, doesn't that sound fun?"

I nodded and quickened my pace as fast as my legs would take me. My feet crunched on brittle, dead leaves. The rustling noise the leaves made as my shoes kicked them sounded through the tall trees; trees whose shade only diluted the heat a precious little. I didn't pay attention properly, the sweet scent of pine that hung in the air distracted me, and I tripped over a small stump. I jerked my hand from Mother's as I braced myself for the fall. I barely saved my face from colliding harshly with the cool earth. Yes, it had been cool; I remembered how nice I thought it felt as I laid there in shock before mother scooped me up.

"We must hurry, Fayette, you wouldn't want your father to worry, would you?" My mother chided, becoming more agitated. She brushed a few leaves out of my hair and dusted off my dress. Since it was torn and dirty already, I didn't understand why she treated it as if it were new and I'd just ruined it. The rest of the walk blurred together; more trees, more countless leaves scattered on the forest floor. I found no path to guide me back to the village, and that unsettled me. We continued in silence until we reached the clearing.

"You stay here, alright?" She placed her hands on my shoulders and looked at me seriously as she requested this. "Mother will go and pick us some berries to eat, alright?"

"I can help!" I informed her, wishing to be seen as a big girl.

A soft, almost hurt expression crossed her face. "I wish you could help, darling, but it's dangerous, you understand?" her eyes gleamed with playfulness, but her dark mood smothered her attempt to calm me. "I'll tell you all about it when I'm back, dear, does that sound fair? You just stay here and rest. It's been quite a walk."

I nodded, suppressing tears threatening to fall. I was very afraid. I didn't like the forest; I didn't like how it felt so inescapable to me. I didn't want to be alone in a place that made me feel so very small and insignificant. Mother hated it when I disrespected her, so I simply agreed. I sat down on a pile of leaves and leaned against a tree, enjoying the coolness the earth provided.

"Alright, Fayette darling. I'll be back. Mother loves you very much," she whispered, her voice shaky, unstable, but at the time I didn't know why. I thought she might be catching a cold, which I suppose demonstrates how thoughtless I'd been. It was summer and catching a cold was practically impossible.

Her figure disappeared into the woods, and I waited, scared to move, terrified of becoming lost. I waited, my fear diminishing as I watched a few butterflies drift lazily in between the trees. I waited, until my rear end became so sore I decided to lie on my back for a while, picking up leaves and throwing them in the air. I giggled slightly as they fell back to earth, the edges of them glowing as the sun shone through them in their descent. I waited until my eyelids felt heavy with sleep. I slowly drifted into a peaceful slumber amid my pile of leaves. Why shouldn't I have slept? What did I have to worry about? I'd been afraid of the forest, yes, but it'd never crossed my mind to worry about my mother's return. Mother said she'd be back and I believed her.

I awoke to the mild darkness of sunset, and was greeted by the gentle thud of a horse's hooves. The creature lifted one hoof up and set it down again, as if to a rhythm in his head. He might have been trying to vocalize this rhythm with a few whinnies mixed into his steady steps. On the horse sat a man and a young boy who couldn't have been more than a year older than me. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, smearing dirt on my face in the process. They looked at me, puzzled. Had our roles been reversed, I imagine my expression would have been the same. It took a few seconds for the picture to fully sink in, but once it did, I understood crystal clear. My mother hadn't come back yet, and I didn't even know where to search for her. The forest looked the same to me; every twig, every branch, every leaf. There would be nothing to distinguish where I'd looked and where I hadn't, except this circular clearing in which I sat. I was afraid to leave this clearing.

"Little girl," the grown man grumbled in a deep voice, "what is your name?"

I looked up at him, my dark brown eyes starting to gloss over with tears, my lower lip wobbling a bit though I fought against it. Big girls didn't cry, Mother taught me that.

"Fay," I answered in as even a tone I could.

"Did you hear the news? She has yet to return!" A fellow chambermaid named Rosalba, a young woman too thin to be healthy, announced. The way she spoke demanded attention, jerking me from my thoughts, and requesting all ears heed her pointless chatter. It worked; all of the women who seconds ago had been working tirelessly on food preparations focused on her. The chopping of a few final carrots to be thrown in the stew became softer, so the woman slicing them didn't risk missing a single syllable. Elloise stopped mid-rant - apparently a newer server had dropped a few scraps of food, earning her a stern lecture. Even the broth simmering in the large black kettle hanging in the kitchen's fireplace lessened in volume, as if listening in. Rosalba's words would no doubt be nothing more than embellished half-truths regarding the princess's disappearance.

Rosalba cleared her throat before continuing, clearly enjoying her moment of undivided attention. It wasn't as if being a chambermaid presented any opportunities for entertainment outside of the kitchen gossip. It had practically become an unspoken contest to see who could bring the best local stories to the table. The kitchen news as of late had all revolved around her, the missing princess of the neighboring kingdom. Her disappearance created tension between the kingdoms; they blamed us for her sudden absence. Because our kingdoms coexisted in a paper thin peace, this meant talk of war invested a large portion of everyone's mind lately.

"Princess Amira is still nowhere to be found?" Elloise displayed a look meant to be concern, but her love of gossip shone through in her eyes. In all honesty, she looked like a child who'd just been given a sweet treat but had to pretend to be unhappy with it lest it be taken away.

"A messenger from their kingdom arrived today," Rosalba continued, too engrossed in her moment to directly answer Elloise's question, "and he demanded the entire castle be searched in three days' time or the king of Gallia will declare war."

At this news, the women who had already earned a lecture from Elloise by dropping a few pieces of food repeated her offense. Her hand jerked off the edge of the cold slab counter, knocking a few pieces of diced onions to the ground.

"Gertrude!" Elloise scolded.

"I'm sorry, so sorry ma'am -"

"That will come out of your rations, I hope you know."

Gertrude bowed her head in a mixture of guilt and disappointment. "Terribly sorry, ma'am," she repeated, "I was startled."

Finally, I thought, someone reacted to the news in what seemed to me the most normal way.

"Can he do that? Can the king of Gallia have guards search the castle?" Gertrude asked, her voice shaky. "What if we go to war?"

That was the question that should have crossed the other chambermaids' minds, but it appeared only Gertrude and I valued our own safety above the initial thrill of fresh news. Elloise didn't like having to face the actual reality of it. She wanted the rumors to be merely lighthearted talk, and let Gertrude know as much by directing her signature blood-curdling glare towards the poor woman.

"Are you done with the potatoes yet, Fay?" Elloise hissed, throwing the same glare in my direction; obviously she had plenty of maliciousness to go around, why spend it all on one person? What a waste that would be. I nodded, having just finished the last one. Thank goodness, because who knows what hypocritical words might have rolled off Elloise's tongue otherwise.

I didn't know what Elloise had against me - well, that's not true. My first day in the castle I'd screamed because a spider crawled over my foot. The noise caused her to drop a whole pot of soup she'd been about to serve the king and his guests. She'd been scolded severely, and blamed it on me. I was five at the time, and a girl, so of course the king refused to hold me accountable. Elloise faced some horrible punishment (that's what she always says when she reminds me of it at least). Although at the time I braved many things even boys my age cowered from - such as climbing trees to almost the very top, or jumping off the highest ledge into the village lake - I feared spiders like the plague. Worse than the plague in all honesty, because at least with the plague when you died you never had to see another spider again. My paralyzing fear of spiders had long since disappeared - well, it had lessened somewhat. Elloise's grudge against me hadn't.

"All finished," I informed her with a comforting smile, not wanting to provoke her foul temper any further. That was difficult considering how short a fuse the deranged woman possessed. Instead of thanking me, as if she ever did, her glare twisted into a look of sinister skepticism. Her eyes narrowed into slits that accused me of lying, even though the proof of my hard labor rested in the bucket full of peeled potatoes right beside me.

"I do hope the princess is found, alive and well!" Rosalba desperately tried to win back the attention she'd lost. I knew Rosalba better than to believe her display of concern; the princess being found dead would provide a better story for her. She and the kitchen staff would list off their suspicions of who the murderer could have been, the more outlandish the suspect the better.

"Heaven can only tell, poor girl." Elloise sighed in a moment of what might have been genuine pity before reverting to her cold and uncaring self. "Hurry up everyone, dinner should be on the table within the hour."