My life continued as an idle pace as I discovered the joys of the countryside. I heard myself think. I sang to myself as I attacked the momentous prospect of righting the dwarves' neglected abode. I studied the accounts with Dieter over tea and learned as much about this foreign race, attracted to money as moths to light, as I did about dollars and sense.
I was almost totally happy. I forged friendships with the dwarves, and they became as much, if not more, my family, than my employers. Edritch assumed a fatherly position over me, which touched me keenly, for father I had never had.
But I did not forget the shadowed and incongruous life I had lived before. I almost longed at times for my prison, for my stepmother's cruelty and even more for the stolen moments at the well with my secret prince.
By now he must have married a noble maiden, though I would have been more than suitable, because I had been forced to abdicate my home.
Soon I would discover, in another unexpected turn of my life, that no one from my former kingdom had forgotten about me, either.
It all came back to me in the form of a Drummondi nomad visiting the cottage. I was alone, for it was Dieter's first day in the mine with the others. As I swept, I was attracted to the sound of her singing outside the cottage. I peered out the window and saw all of her bohemian grace. She was a very old woman who moved with the carelessness of the unfettered, and she was pushing a cart full of tinkling things.
Her eyes lit on me with a sparkle as she conversed with me through the open window. "I thought this cottage to be inhabited by men only."
I was seized with caution. Neither Edritch nor Dieter had mentioned this particular solicitor to me before.
"Don't be afraid, my dear. I suppose you don't get many visitors in the woods. Come out into the light. I want to have a better look at you. You're a very pretty maiden."
"I cannot, madam. I am bound to continue my work."
"Can you not spare a moment, mistress, to draw me a little water from your well before I travel on?"
When I saw how aged she truly was, I felt ashamed of myself for being suspicious. That was not my nature now. I was a free woman, after all.
After I had drawn her all the water she liked, she appeared much refreshed and grew animated. She wanted dearly to show me some of the trinkets from her cart. I could think of no reason to refuse her.
She examined my long, black hair with zeal. "You have no ornaments," she protested.
"I have no need for them, madam," I said with a rueful smile. "I have no sweetheart, and I have no prospects amid my present company."
"None?" she asked, her eyes penetrating mine. The gypsies were known for intuiting things one did not want to reveal.
Memories of the prince washed over me. I thought of how I had gone to him in rags, and still he had found me lovely. My mannerisms and kind words had been my only ornaments.
"There is someone you loved once," the old bohemian said, "who has vanished from your life without a trace. But I foresee that he will come into your life again. You must prepare yourself, my sweet."
"That's impossible," I said, but I could not conceal how her words arrested me.
Before I could protest, she slipped a black comb into my hair, a pretty thing I had admired covertly as she turned it over and over in her hands, an ornament inlaid with mother of pearl and brilliant gems. "Madam, I have nothing with which to pay you."
"This is a gift in return for your generosity. Your pure water has restored me, and I thank you."
I stared after her as she left, the bells on her cart tinkling merrily. I went to the mirror to look at my hair with the pretty comb, and I wondered if the gypsy's words were true. Would I really see my beloved again?
There was no hiding my new trinket from Edritch's keen eyes, and I soon found myself explaining the old woman's visit to the dwarves. They were more alarmed than I had expected. None of them had seen this woman, or any gypsy, in their territory before. Gypsies did not normally attempt to sell to dwarves, since the race was more interested in gold itself than its material offerings.
"They must know that a human lives here now," I rationalized, and even as I said it, I felt a sense of foreboding, because if word had reached Drummondi that a lone woman was living with dwarves, my hiding place was in jeopardy. Indeed, after the gypsy's visit, I was less comfortable in the cottage, and I lived with a sense of fear.
I saw the old gypsy again a few weeks later. I heard the trundle of her cart's wheels and went to meet her with water this time. She seemed even older and more withered than before. This time, I wanted not trinkets, but information.
"Madam," I said, "I have not seen this lover as you promised."
"In good time, my dear. He will come for you in time."
"From where will he come?" I asked.
"He will come for you from the North."
This caused me to shiver, because the Prince was from a Northern territory.
"He will come for you on a white horse. He will carry you back to his castle."
I gasped. "Castle. You speak as though my lover is royal."
"I cannot say but what I see. Now, my dear, I have a gift for you."
She reached into a trunk and withdrew a black embroidered corset. I regarded the item with surprise. I knew it was suited for a princess, but such beautiful things I had never worn. I had dressed in rags all of my life.
"I can give you nothing in return," I protested.
"I will tell you a secret. The water from your well has a special life-giving property. It nourishes the body and restores the soul to right. I would give a dozen of those corsets for another dipper's full from your well."
I obliged her with another dipper's full and accepted the gift she offered. The old woman helped me lace the corset properly, since I knew nothing of such things. It was very tight and restricted my breathing. The comb in my hair was uncomfortable, too. The tines pricked my scalp and sometimes gave me a headache. But I could see that these things made me more beautiful, as I wished to look for my secret prince when we met again one day.
When the old woman left, a flame of hope in my heart burned more brightly, even though I knew I should have no reason at all to hope.
Now I began to dream of how my prince would come to me. Word would reach him of how I had run away from the castle. He would learn of my stepmother's bad deed. He would take me to his home, where I would be safe. I would no longer have to hide my identity or feel frightened. Thoughts of his love were like the sun emerging from behind a cloud. I gave many of my afternoons over to these fantasies.
The dwarves saw that I was discontent, and that there was nothing they could really do for me. But one evening they held a grand little party for me, with only the eight of us in attendance. Edritch played an old organ which had been in disuse for a number of years. I danced with all of them, and we told stories around the fire. I told them about my childhood at the castle, my happy days in the forest, and how I had met the prince.
The dwarves grew sad when I told them the old woman's prediction that he would come for me on a white horse. But they knew that our arrangement could be only a temporal one. It gave our following time together a special significance.
A few weeks later, I saw the old gypsy again. She was more debilitated than before. I realized that she must be ill, and that was why she sought the life-giving water from our well. I hastily brought it to her again. She was too weak and tired to speak for a while, and we sat together near the stream till she had recovered her breath.
Then she withdrew an apple from her pocket. "This is not an ordinary apple," she said. "It was given to me by my leader to rid my body of its afflictions. In return for your kindness, I will give you one-half of this apple. Though your youthful body has no need for healing, it will keep you from being worn down by the hard work you do each day. Your hands and face will remain soft and fresh when your lover comes for you."
I refused the apple, for the lady had need of the entire fruit. She laughed and told me that a bite of the apple was sufficient to heal her. She convinced me very persuasively till I took a bite. I intended to give her the rest of my half, but when I tasted of the sweet fruit, a lethargy fell over me.
I lay back on the mossy banks and grew aware of the sound of the rushing water, the birds in the trees. All of my senses were heightened. My skin flushed. The world around me felt as though it were spinning. I turned on my side to look for the old woman, but I found myself alone.
I began to grow afraid that the magical fruit had a bad effect on those whose bodies were not diseased. My body grew clammy and quivering. I crawled on my hands and knees toward the dwarves' cottage, but my strength left me in the dooryard, and I expired there with the hens pecking around me in the grass.