Out of the darkness of my disturbed slumber, into light I hurtled as I became aware of a bustle in the house. My eyes flew wide, and of course at first, I knew not where I lay, nor how I came to be in this place. Relentlessly my memories rushed on me and I relived all the terrors of the previous day.
My heart wrung within my breast anew as I considered my stepmother's betrayal, and the fugitive life I had begun the previous day when the huntsman had released me into the woods alone.
I had never before awakened with such pressing grief and regrets, but my disillusionment was quickly replaced with raw terror as I realized my encounter with strangers was imminent. To what extent they might hold me accountable for my intrusion, or betray my identity to my enemy, I did not know, and I was entirely powerless.
I was just rising from my bed when I heard them pounding up the stairs. I told myself they were only children, and yet I knew my assumption false as soon as I beheld them, all seven. Not children, but small, wizened men. My head spun as I realized I was much farther from my home kingdom than I had thought. These was the dwarves described by Drummondi nomads, the existence of which had oft been decried by my noble peers.
They had quite sensibly already ascertained that their home had been breached, and that the enemy was in wait for them upstairs, and arrived at the top of the stairs ready to do war.
I stared at them, a thousand questions rushing my mind as I strove, above all else, to protect my life by my own wits, a skill I had not exercised often within the castle walls.
"Gentlemen," I said cautiously, "I mean you no harm. I am a mere woman. I sought protection in your home because I have none of my own. I am prepared to leave quietly if you will allow it."
This deflated the worst of the tension. "Woman," the eldest said, sizing me up with an intelligence that I must admit charmed me as I considered the workings of this different species, "you do not have the look of a savvy traveler. Your dress and shoes suggest you have not been without a home for very long."
I leaned across the bed and leveled with him. "I was turned out of my home by my stepmother, who hates me."
Nothing could have sounded more believable issuing from my lips that the bitter truth. The understanding on their faces convinced me that they were not so different from me after all, and that these things were not unheard of.
Encouraged, I related my country of origin, which shocked them. They asked me if I had any idea how far from my home I had traveled during the night. Then, one of the dwarves insisted I stay for breakfast. He seemed much moved by my plight, and the others followed him in like sympathy.
I extricated myself from the bedclothes and righted the beds before following them downstairs and discovered anew the house that had seemed abandoned the previous day.
Because I did not wish to be of any further trouble, and because an idea was starting to form in my mind, I said, "You must allow me to make breakfast for you, as repayment for the board I have taken in your house."
The dwarves were surprised, pleased and curious. All, especially the eldest, were starting to sense I was something of an anomaly, noble and yet servile. My clothes were raw and my hands roughened, but my speech left an impression of education and refinement. I let them think while I did what I did best, and that was to keep house and re-establish order. I let my mind work as quickly as my fingers as I cleaned the stove and set a pot to boil, then inventoried the cupboard and set the usable goods from the spoiled. I would have to accentuate my core truth with some lies if I was to preserve my true identity. If word reached the Queen that I lived still, she would come for me, and she would not be likely to show mercy to my protectors.
I prepared the most graceful breakfast possible on a fresh tablecloth. The youngest of the dwarves, nearly a boy, gathered flowers for the table, which pleased me as I sought to set a stage which would impress.
"This is very good," the eldest, whose name was Edritch, commented empirically.
Ansolm and Dieter, the other two who had shown a personal interest in me, agreed in a savory aspect. I wondered, as I watched them, if it would be best to broach the subject of my employment directly or lead them to the suggestion themselves.
Edritch, however, was still considering my situation. "Being far from home with little prospect, I suppose you are looking for a position."
I met his gaze over my chipped tea cup. "I am not without prospect, yet, sir. I suppose there are other homes like yours looking to hire out."
"I find it curious, mistress, that you have not asked what we do during the night, nor how we sustain ourselves, isolated in the woods as we are."
"I have little notion of your customs, sir, and would not presume where my inquiry is not wanted. But, suppose you tell me, after all?"
He watched me keenly. "We mine from the richest cave in the known world, and we assume sole control. We do our work under the cover of night, so that others will not find our cave, and sleep during the day. We are in constant fear of being discovered by a rival company. I see an opportunity for your assistance, not merely as housekeeper, but to keep watch during the day while we sleep. We may even be able to make arrangements together so that it is safe for us to mine during the day."
I shrugged to indicate their business was not of greater interest to me than to secure my own safety.
"If you agree to the arrangement, Dieter will remain with you during the day to introduce you to our suppliers and tradesmen. He is for the time being in charge of maintaining our accounts, but he is growing old enough to join us in the mines, and because we are in need of another hand, we may propose to you a further advance as accountant."
I was not sure at first if Edritch was serious. I had never been useful for anything more than sweeping floors and gathering flowers in the woods. I studied the froth in my tea to avoid revealing my bubbling excitement.
I looked at Edritch. "I'm sure we may begin a trial immediately. If the situation proves unfruitful for either of us, we can of course discontinue with one another at any time." I concealed not only my hopes, but my vulnerability, for I knew in my heart this was to be my only prospect.
Thus began the first day in a new and unexpected twist of my life, as I went into a service for which I would be paid handsomely.