It didn't take long for Hazel to wake up. When she raised her head from the upholstery of the carriage, her lady was already beside her, waiting quietly. Nobody else was there. Smiling, Katherine helped her to sit up. "Silly girl, you shouldn't have put yourself in danger for me. I nearly died from fright!"
Sheepishly, Hazel avoided her eyes. "I just... I... "
"It's okay.", Katherine sighed. She felt the urge to pat the other girl's head, but decided it would be too strange in the end. Even if she was a sweet child at heart, Hazel was taller and older than her. In both cases not much, but still.
Talking Hazel's hand in hers, she searched for these shy green eyes. "My dear..."
Hearing her lady address her, Hazel stilled like a frightened little rabbit. Katherine squeezed her hand to reassure her. "Hazel... thank you. You risked so much for me. I... " she laughed helplessly. "I don't even know what to say. Sometimes I thought you're too timid, but today I realized that when you want to, you can be really brave. Maybe even braver than me. So, come on, be a bit brave and look at me!"
Embarrassed, Hazel raised her eyes, only to look away again. Katherine softly touched her cheek and turned her head back, until she met her maid's insecure gaze. "Whatever happened to you in your past, I'm sure it isn't your fault. You are a great person. Be proud. Don't be afraid to show them all what a great girl you are!"
A few seconds they looked at each other, one girl determined, the other insecure, then Hazel's eyes welled up. In a sudden motion, she leaned forward and coiled her arms around Katherine's waist. A heart-wrenching cry escaped her lips, and she buried her face in Katherine's shoulder. She wailed like it was the end of the world.
Katherine just held her until the crying creased. Her own eyes were welling up, but she blinked it away decisively. When her dress was already thoroughly wet on the area of Hazel's head, she heard her maid mutter something. "I don't deserve it... I'm just a slave... I don't deserve it..."
"What slave!", Katherine blurted out and held Hazel away from her. "You're absolutely not, you hear me?!"
"But I was, milady, I was a slave! I don't deserve your kindness!", Hazel suddenly retorted, a devastated look on her wet face. Her eyes were swollen and her small nose bright red like her hair. As if these words had broken a dam, the whole story rushed out of her mouth. "They were aristocrats, the Iceflower family. I was born as a slave in their household, like my mother before me. I don't know who my father is, I don't even have a last name, much less anything else!"
She stopped and looked at Katherine as if she expected her to say something now. When Katherine didn't react, she averted her eyes, and continued a bit slower.
"M-My mother always cared for me. She worked as hard as she could endure, even more than that. But until the moment of her death, when the fever overtook her weakened body, she told me to not hate them, to be grateful. She told me that we would be dead if it were not for the Iceflowers. That they gave us a roof above our heads and let us live. But - but - "
Hazel gasped for air, a hand clutched into her chest as if her heart was hurting too much to continue.
"It's okay", Katherine assured her and took Hazel's hands into hers. "You don't need to pressure yourself. I'm here with you."
The maids hands were cold and trembled, but when Katherine took them, they held tightly onto her as if she was Hazel's only anchor. "Please, milady... I- I need to finish this!"
"Take deep breaths", Katherine advised her. "Slowly. There is no rush. I won't go anywhere."
Hazel's breathing stabilized soon, but the grip around Katherine's fingers only tightened. "There was... a man. An Iceflower. He... I-I couldn't do anything! They - they were my masters and I... but then they sold me. After doing all this to me, they just sold me away! I was devastated back then. Frightened. My mom always told me, we would be killed if we left the Iceflowers. I believed her. But then..."
Hazel's eyes looked into the distance as if she could see the past in front of her. Inwardly, Katherine prepared for the worst. What else had happened to her innocent maid? When Katherine thought about what Hazel's words about the man of the Iceflowers implied, a dangerous glint flashed through her eyes. Iceflower, she swore to herself, if I ever get the chance, I will eradicate this man and his whole family! Even in the Icelands, slavery was forbidden since decades.
"Then", Hazel continued slowly, "the servant of the buyer brought me away from there. For a few days we stayed at an inn, then he told me his master had liberated me. Just like that. 'You are free' he said. It was strange, and it frightened me. I thought I would be killed, because my mom said... you know. So I begged him to not set me free, to let me stay with his master and serve him. He told me his master had no use for me, that I should go. I knew, I wasn't worthy, but I continued to beg and followed him everywhere. Everything was strange and new to me, I'd never been much outside.
After a few months, the servant told me that he knew people who were in need of maids. That I should choose one of them and let him and his master be in peace. I've never once seen this master who liberated me, but I'm sure he is a good man. At least his servant was a good man. He told me three nobles who searched for maids. One was of very high rank and the other was a friend of the Iceflowers. I never wanted to meet that family again.
In the end, I chose the earl, because he was reclusive and of low rank. I thought it was a save option. I was glad when I heard that I didn't even have to see him, but would only be the maid of a lady who would reach the mansion shortly. Your maid, milady. I'm not worthy of serving you. I was but a lowly slave and I don't deserve - "
"Stop!", Katherine interrupted her timely. "It's not for you to decide who is worthy of serving me. I don't want anyone else, you hear me? You are not just a maid for me, I would take you as a sister if I could. But that would be too much for you right now, right?"
Katherine laughed awkwardly when she saw Hazel's eyes grow wide in shock. It even stopped the remainder of her tears from falling. Katherine rubbed her chin in as she was thinking loudly. "Yes, it's best not to do this. It would only put you in unwanted danger. Besides, I can't even provide for myself right now. But still, in my eyes you are my sister and nobody is allowed to do anything bad to you anymore. Not even you yourself are allowed to. I never want to hear you calling yourself a slave again! Or telling me you don't deserve the better life you have now. If anyone ever tries to hurt you, you have to tell me, okay? I will protect you!"
A bit numb from shock, Hazel could do nothing but nod to her lady's command. Her head was swirling, but in her heart she now understood that her life was changing. She was no longer a slave. She was no longer a tool, but someone her lady wanted to protect. The man back then had set her free, but her lady was the one to show her how to live a free life. With her help, maybe she could become a whole new person. No, becoming a person in itself would already be enough. She dared not hope for more yet. But maybe... in the future.