The next morning dawned clear and bright. Birds sang out a merry tune as the children went about their morning chores. The Duchess may have had a royal title, but she was a firm believer in elbow grease. Each day the children were roused by the rooster, and began their day by making their beds, getting dressed and washing up. Breakfast was served, and was to last no longer than 30 minutes. Each child was expected to wash and put away their own dishes. Hattie, the maid was the only housekeeper in the household, and The Duchess made sure the kids did their part to help keep things orderly. Herman, Hattie’s husband, took care of the day to day needs of running such a large estate. Repairmen and Gardeners reported to Mr. Jim, and everyone else to Herman. It was ultimately Herman who decided what was important enough to disturb Aunty Bella with.
Ms. Snippet taught the children in what had formerly been the Ballroom. They were grouped by ages, and she spent time with each group as the day progressed. Lunches were prepared by Hattie, and little brown bags lined a side table from which the kids took their sacks and ate at their desks or out on the grounds in nicer weather. At three o’clock the kids were let out to play before dinner. They went off into their separate crowds, amusing themselves until the bell rang to call them to eat.
Britta and Natalia immediately headed toward the little footbridge. Straining their ears, neither girl could hear any music at all. Disheartened, Natalia slumped down on the bridge, dangling her feet above the trickling creek. Fishing the coin out of a pocket, she stared at it, flipping it over one side and then to the other. She memorized every line. She could see the tiny leaves covering the mighty oak, her thumb tracing the trunk and branches. Closing her eyes, she listened to the sounds of the forest surrounding her. Over and over her fingers played at the relief of the oak tree printed on the coin. Soft humming began to emerge from low in her throat.
Britta sat cross legged on bridge, next to her little pixie friend. She loved it when this happened. Natalia would somehow reach through the veil of reality and into the fantastic world of her stories. Each of the other orphans had witnessed it, and all believed in their Fairy Princess. Fascinated, Britta watched as the barrier was about to be breached, and Natalia’s magic would open whole new worlds to a girl whom this one had cast aside.
Slowly, Natalia began to glimmer, as if seen through a glittery fog. Her copper curls seemed to blaze with a light of their own. The impish grin widened, and a silvery laugh came bubbling out of the child. Her blue eyes reflected a kaleidoscope of colors. Jumping to her feet, she ran across the footbridge, laughing and twirling. The melody that had begun from her lips seemed to spread around the forest echoing off the trees. Britta followed the carrot top through the paths. Always the glittery fog moved with the child, the music carrying them along happily.
As their journey progressed, Britta noticed that although she felt uncomfortable to be going deeper into the woods, Natalia had no such reservations. The coppery hair bounced up and down as its owner climbed fallen tree trunks and made mad right and left turns. Always the melody floated around the girls, inviting them just that much farther. The older girl felt both enticed and frightened by the music. She worried that she might become a slave to it, unable to do anything other than that which the music compelled her. She couldn’t abandon Natalia though, and the child was showing no fear or worry. Past thickets of blackberries and over creeks, Natalia hurried on. At some point, Britta had missed exactly when, the child had produced a flute from one of her many pockets. Her tiny notes danced off into the surrounding forestry, begging to play along with the ethereal chorus that had brought them this far.
Britta’s ears had never heard anything so harmonic and playful. It seemed that Natalia’s song and the other were performing some intricate ballet of sound. Each answering the other, having a conversation with no words. Natalia’s flute piped out high little questions, and the nameless partner of this strange duet would reply with eager whistles. The sound of the other minstrel was a mixture of a birds song; sometimes nightingale, others mockingbird or robin, and hidden instruments. Lying just under the surface of this was the accompaniment of the wind whistling through the treetops and the gurgling of a nearby brook.
Back and forth the girl and the disembodied chorus conversed through the music. Britta felt her reluctance slipping away inch by inch. Since she had reached the age of eleven, she had never felt comfortable in the forest, but had many fond memories of playing there as a young child. The deeper the pair moved into the thick trees, the more she found herself feeling like a child again, not a young woman approaching adulthood. Out of breath, she flagged behind, straining to keep Natalia within her line of sight. Britta was very athletic, preferring to be out in the open air, running and climbing than studying as her twin did. To be outrun by a kid almost a quarter her age irritated Britta enough to give her back her second wind, and she was off like a flash after the musical glowing that was slipping farther away.