The day starts like any other. The handmaids stand at the edge of my bed awaiting my eyes to open so their shift could begin. Breakfast on silver trays was cradled by the youngest of the four, Clara. She was small for her age, and her hair, blonde and wild, was braided down her back in an intricate pattern. Despite her youth, Clara was gifted in her approach to magic. When the other handmaids thought I was asleep, I could hear them chanting their ancient poetry to strengthen the wards of the castle. Chief amongst the voices was Clara, whom I could hear above all the other crones and maidens. She was a force.
As I rise out of bed, Meredith gathers the bedding and reveals my nightgown, of course pulled up to my thigh from tossing throughout the night as I had grown accustomed in these trying times. Small conflicts in the West had grown to full blown war and of course my son and husband, royal and beholden to ancient traditions of military service, were on the front lines despite our opposition. I do fear I may never see them again. The war between our Royal ranks of the ancient ways against the Puritan rebels seemed to only grow more intense at every letter I received from the front lines.
The sun shines through the thick winter drapes. My first line of defense against the bitter chill. Clara kneels near the bed and offers the usual breakfast items: sausage, bread, and clotted cream. I look down at the child and asked her how she was. While royal, I was of the people and had grown quite fond of Clara.
She smiles and replies, “Fine, ma’am.”
Meredith, the ever present head handmaid, rushes to ready my vanity for the morning preparations. Yet today there was something in the air that I had not felt in sometime – excitement. The air seems to buzz even to my still-tired body and mind.
“Is there something happening today?”
“Yes, ma’am. You are to be painted today. A portrait that I’m sure will survive for hundreds of years,” Meredith said.
The handmaids all smile in one accord to signify that they were, in fact, more excited for the portrait than myself. Sitting in a placid state for hours on end while some artist paints me and yells at me for moving my chin doesn’t seem to be fun for me.
From a side table, Meredith pulls a beautiful dress that I am to wear for this special occasion. The bodice was cut low, of course, to expose half my breasts to show that I’m not of Puritan ideologies. Dark red, almost black flowing fabric gave pause because I was known for my colored wardrobe, not for darkness. However, before I could protest the fashion choice, I noticed a puffy accented sleeve of rose red. The pop of color brought me joy.
“Ma’am, the seamstress made this just for the portrait,” Clara said, taking away my breakfast as I finished my last bit of toast.
“It is quite beautiful. Do you like it?” I asked.
“Oh, yes ma’am. I do believe you will be radiant in the dress.”
I smile and begin my dismount from my overly-stilted bed frame. Once on the ground, the handmaids begin their service: brushing my hair, pulling away my nightgown, and cleaning my body. This was the routine every day and they were efficient and conscious of my comfort. It was an expert display of service.
As Clara joins in on my dressing, I notice in her pocket a book peaking out.
“What are you reading, Clara?”
“Oh, it’s my personal spell book. I put all the magic I learn in it and see how I can improve it,” Clara said.
How insightful for such a young child. She has taken her learning in her own hands. While I know very little of magic, this is a quality all young women should have.
“May I see it?” I ask, my arm outstretched toward her pocket.
Clara slowly reaches into her pocket and grabs the book. She extends the small tattered book toward me.
Thumbing through the book, I notice one spell that has many different writings all over the page. An indicator that she had truly thought about this work. I ask her about the page.
“Oh, that spell….” She hesitates. “It’s an immortality spell.”
I was shaken that this child would be interested in magic that seemed to be rather complicated and perhaps impossible.
“Can you tell me about it?” I ask.
“The spell uses a conduit to hold the person in a set time. If the conduit is stronger than the human body, then whoever is connected to it will live as long as the conduit is still preserved.”
“That sounds interesting. Do you think it will work?”
“Yes, ma’am. I believe it could work, but there is an issue with the spell. The person has to be on the edge of death.”
“Why would that be?”
“When someone is between life and death, it opens up a path where the Witch can connect the essence of the person to the conduit.”
“Well, that does seem to complicate things, doesn’t it?” I answer, with a smile on my face.
I hand the book back to Clara and thank her for telling me a bit about what she had been studying.
The team of handmaids has completed their work and there I stand. Dressed in my vestiges that would be painted and seen throughout history.
Meredith steps toward me, letting me know that the artist has arrived and I was asked to meet him in the drawing room. I lower my head to indicate I am ready and we make our way to the mysterious artist.
The drawing room has become a full studio filled with a large easel, drop cloths, and the window drapes had been drawn open to allow the winter sun to shine brightly through the windows. An ornate chair stands in the center of the room. It had been carved from the strongest oak, it seemed, with lions on the arms to signify our family’s crest.
“Ma’am, shall we begin?” the artist asks, snapping me out of my observation.
“Yes, I believe we should.”
The artist was a master of his craft. The hours that went by were unnoticed by myself and by the handmaids who were in attendance. He made the process painless and comfortable.
When he finishes, I stand and walk over to see the portrait. There I was in my whole form. I was placed into the canvas and had become art. It was a feeling I had never felt before.
Suddenly, there is a crash at the door.
“Death to the heathens!” a man shouts as he bursts through the doors of the drawing room wielding a sword made of silver. The silver sword was an indicator of the Faowery, the Puritan tribes that believed we royals were descendents of monsters.
“You will pay for what you’ve done!” the man screams as he waves his sword through the air. He strikes the artist in the neck and blood flies into the air, painting the walls crimson.
“Please, no!” Meredith screams.
The man lunges toward her and his sword meets her breast, finding its way through her back. Blood drips from the tip of the blade that protrudes from her posterior.
As he pulls the blade away from Meredith’s now limp body, he looks to me, cowering on the ground.
“You don’t have to do this!”
“I must cleanse this world of the evil you continue to spread,” he proclaims.
His blade rises high into the hair and with a crash of bone I feel a bitter chill come over me. While my body, in shock, was cold, I could feel the warm blood flow down my body. My breathing begins to stitch with every inhale and exhale.
“You swine!” screamed Clara.
She stood behind the murderous Puritan holding a sword that she had grabbed from the display on the wall. With force, she skewers the man. He falls to the floor along with Clara, who still holds the sword’s handle.
In shock, I can think only of Clara. Was she alright?
“Clara, Clara, are you alright?” I ask, gasping for air.
“Oh ma’am, I’m fine. But you are not. How can I help?”
“Clara, there is nothing you can do. This will be the end, but I want you to be safe, please go, hide!”
“No ma’am. You have been a mother to me. I cannot see you leave this world.”
Clara reaches into her pocket and reveals the book she had shown me earlier.
“No, you don’t have to use magic to save me. I need you to be safe, please run and hide.” I choke.
Without a response, Clara begins her chant. The words of an ancient tongue escape her small mouth. With each chant the air thickens and begins to warm around us. A powerful wind begins to whip around us, levitating my hair and Clara’s in a vortex of power. Chant after chant, Clara’s words intensify. The sun shining through the windows grows more intense and my breathing becomes more strained. Then finally: darkness.
The day starts like any other. The handmaids stand at the edge of my bed waiting to start their shift. Amongst them, a young girl, Clara. My hero.
[Written by Sheldon Slinkard.]