The overcast sky and the chill in the air didn’t help bring out the color, though. Even the leaves, which had turned golden and red, appeared faded as they littered the yard around Finn’s house.
Now that I was here, I wasn’t sure what I should do. I wrapped my arms around myself and swallowed hard. Did I go knock on the door? What did I even have to say to him? He left. He made his choice, and I already knew that.
I looked toward the palace, deciding it might be better if I went home without seeing Finn. A woman’s voice stopped me, though, and I turned to Finn’s house.
“I’ve already fed you,” a woman was telling the goats.
She walked through the pasture, coming from the small barn on the far side of the field. Her worn dress dragged on the ground, so the hem was filthy. A dark cloak hung over her shoulders, and her brown hair had been pulled up in two tight buns. The goats swarmed around her, begging for a handout, and she’d been too busy gently pushing them back to notice me right away.
When she saw me, her steps slowed so much, she nearly stopped. Her eyes were as black as Finn’s, and while she was very pretty, her face was more tired than any other I had seen here. She couldn’t be more than forty, but her skin had the worn, tanned look that came from a lifetime of hard work.
“Can I help you?” she asked, quickening her pace as she came toward me.
“Um…” I hugged myself more tightly and glanced up the road. “I don’t think so.”
She opened the gate, making a clicking sound at the goats to get them to back off, and stepped outside of it. She stopped a few feet in front of me, sizing me up in a way that I knew wasn’t approving, and she wiped her hands on her dress, cleaning them of dirt from the animals.
Nodding once, she let out a deep breath.
“It’s getting cold out here,” she said. “Why don’t you come inside?”
“Thank you, but I—” I started to excuse myself, but she cut me off.
“I think you should come inside.”
She turned and walked toward the cottage. I stayed back for a minute, debating whether or not I should escape, but she left the cottage door open, letting the warm air waft out. It smelled deliciously of vegetable stew, something hearty and homemade and enticing in a way that food hardly ever smelled.
When I stepped inside the cottage, she’d already hung up her cloak and gone over to the large potbellied stove in the corner. A black pot sat on top of it, bubbling with that wonderful-smelling stew, and she stirred it with a wooden spoon.
The cottage looked as quaint and humble as I’d expect a troll’s cottage to look. It reminded me of the one where the seven dwarves lived with Snow White. The floors were dirt, packed down into a smooth black from wear.
The table sitting in the center of the kitchen was made of thick, scarred wood. A broom sat propped in one corner, and a flower box sat below each of the small round windows. Like the flowers in the garden at home, these bloomed bright purple and pink, even though it was way past the season for them.
“Will you be staying for supper?” she asked, sprinkling something into the pot on the stove.
“What?” I asked, surprised by her invitation.
“I need to know.” She turned to face me, wiping her hands on her dress to clear them of spices. “I’ll have to make rolls if I’m feeding another mouth.”
“Oh, no, I’m okay.” I shook my head, realizing it wasn’t an invitation. She was afraid that I would impose myself on her meal and her family, and my stomach twisted sourly. “Thank you, though.”
“What is it that you want, then?” She put her hands on her hips, and her eyes were as dark and hard as Finn’s when he was upset.
“What? You…” I floundered, surprised by the directness of her question. “You invited me in.”
“You were lurking around. I know you want something.” She grabbed a rag from the metal basin that served as a sink and began washing the table off, even though it didn’t appear dirty. “I’d rather you come out and be done with it.”
“Do you know who I am?” I asked softly.
I didn’t want to tout any superiority, but I didn’t understand why she was reacting this way. Especially if she knew that I was the Princess, I didn’t know why she’d be so curt.
“Of course I know who you are,” she said. “And I assume you know who I am.”
“Who are you?” I asked, even though I knew.
“I’m Annali Holmes, lowly servant of the Queen.” She stopped wiping the table so she could glare at me. “I’m Finn’s mother. And if you came to see him, he isn’t here.”
My heart would’ve dropped if I wasn’t so confused by the way she was treating me. I felt like she was accusing me of something, and I didn’t even know what.
“I—I didn’t—” I stuttered. “I went for a walk. I needed fresh air. I didn’t mean anything.”
“You never do,” Annali said with a tight smile.
“You’ve only just met me.”
She nodded. “Maybe so. But I knew your mother, quite well.” She turned away, putting a hand on the back of one of the dining room chairs. “And I know my son.”
I understood too late where her anger came from. Her husband and my mother had been involved in an affair years ago. Annali had known about it, so of course she’d taken issue with me. I don’t know why I hadn’t realized it sooner.
Here I was, messing up her son’s life, after my mother had almost ruined her life. I swallowed hard and realized I shouldn’t have come here. I didn’t need to bother Finn or hurt his family any more than I already had.
“Mom!” a girl called from another room, and Annali instantly composed herself, forcing a smile.
A girl of about twelve came into the kitchen carrying a battered schoolbook. She wore layers consisting of a worn dress and wool sweater, looking tattered and cold despite the warmth of the house. Her hair was the same dark mess my hair had always been, and she had a smudge of dirt on her cheek.
As soon as she saw me, her jaw dropped and her eyes widened.
“It’s the Princess!” the girl gasped.
“Yes, Ember, I know who it is,” Annali said with as much kindness as she could muster.
“Sorry. I’ve forgotten my manners.” Ember tossed the textbook on the table and did a quick, low curtsy.
“Ember, you don’t need to do that, not in our own home,” Annali chastised her tiredly.