Lilly and Maeron entered the kitchen garden and continued until they came to the kitchen entrance, Barathon following behind. Lilly lifted her hand and placed it on the painted wooden door which swept smoothly up, recognizing her authority to enter. Inside the busy kitchen Lilly used to opportunity while Barathon was still outside and grabbed some bread rolls and sweet cakes that had just been removed from the oven. Cooks and bakers swarmed the spacious kitchen, giving orders like generals and swinging spoons and spatulas as if they were sword, pointing and scolding. A heady aroma of newly baked breads, cookies in the oven and dinner preparations filled the air.
Lilly grabbed a dishcloth to wrap it in and put it in her silk bag which was beginning to bulge. Maeron snatched a cold milk bottle from the cooling shelves as well as a bottle of juice that was standing on a table. One of the kitchen helpers had just finished turning the apples and oranges to juice. He scowled at Maeron but didn‘t say anything when Maeron scowled back. Maeron had a leather satchel where he now placed the bottles, along with rich, yellow butter and some redberry jam. Lilly barely managed to snatch a kitchen knife from a shelf before Barathon entered and they hurried along, out of the swarming kitchen. On the way out she filched a filled bread roll, crusted with nuts and seeds. There was always room in her stomach for one sweetie more.
From the kitchen, they took the corridor to the right which would lead them to the main foyer in the end. Even though this corridor was rarely used by anyone but the palace staff beautiful paintings adorned the slightly shimmering walls which were the colour of the palest pink rose like the palace itself. Here and there were flower pots with blossoming flowers of every kind and colour and over the openings into other corridors vines wrought themselves around and around, forming the intricate patterns, delicately decorated with blooms. They passed a number of servants on the way but no one asked what they were doing there, they were used to seeing Lilly and Maeron scampering all over the palace. A gracious nod and smile or murmured greetings was all the reaction they got. Liliana greeted everyone with a smile, she knew everyone of the palace staff by name, unlike some who had lived here for far longer than she had lived.
Lilly and Maeron knew that no matter what time of day, there was always a crowd in the main foyer. People coming and going to the palace for various reasons all went through this area and usually lingered about.They heard the din long before the glittering crowd came into view. When going to the palace, one put on one‘s finest. And if you lived there, well, you only had the finest. It being summer time the colours were a riot of all the cheeriest colours of the rainbow. Green velvet competed with red silk and blue satin tried to over-shine pink brocade. Everything was loose and flowing, draping and swirling. You could see every type of creature that habited Faery here, from the tiniest pixie to the greatest giant. Well, almost all. Dark elves never graced these halls with their black and lethal beauty. To that rule there was only one exception and as Lilly burst into the foyer she all but ran into it. She would have lost her balance had not black and graceful hands steadied her carefully on her feet.
"Sometimes it helps to look where you‘re going, princess,“ said a familiar, quiet voice that still managed to convey amusement. She looked up, smiling, and met Cain‘s azure blue eyes, so startling in his ebony face.
"I‘ve found it to save me from a nasty fall on many occasions.“ The corners of his mouth quirked in the smallest of smiles and his eyes sparkled with humour. "You should try it sometimes.“
"Ha,ha,“ Lilly rolled her eyes. "Very funny.”
He looked at her quizzically. "Where were you going in such a hurry, by the way?“
"Nowhere. Just working my way to the courtyard, that‘s all. I‘m running late for an appointment. With a teacher.“ Lilly felt she was overcompensating for her untruthfulness but Cain’s attention was pulled by a guard who waved him and he didn‘t notice anything amiss.
"Well, don‘t let me keep you then. Have a nice day, your highness.“ He gave a small bow and hurried over to the guard. Lilly turned irritably around and, sure enough, Barathon has caught up with them and was now talking to some vaguely familiar merchant while keeping one eye on her and Maeron. She cursed. Very quietly though. If her mother caught even a whiff of talk about her daughter, the royal heir, cursing in a public place, there would be hell to pay. Payment being in the form of several lessons in court etiquette, all primly and soberly doled out by the dour Lord Arandur, Master of Ceremonies. She shuddered at the mere thought.
"Come on, no time to waste,“ Maeron said and dove into the crowd. After a while they felt sure they‘d lost Barathon so they squeezed between people coming in the main door, leading to the bright courtyard. The sun sparkled off the white and grey tiles and shimmered on the numerous fountains that filled the air with glittering drops, giving precious moisture on this hot summer day. Birds of every conceivable colour bathed in the pools and their chirrup and chatter competed with the steady stream of people going to and fro the palace. They made a run for the far right entrance into the gardens, laughing at how easily they‘d left Barathon behind in the palace. He probably didn‘t have a clue they weren‘t still there. They hurried through the statue garden, passed the entrance to the labyrinth and entered the part of the garden that had the secret door. They took care not to be obvious where they were heading and the last part of the way they hurried from tree to tree, growing more and more excited. When they came to the rose bushes, covering the small door, they looked around and, satisfied that no one was in sight, lifted the heavy branch with their arms well covered and crawled under. Lilly‘s bag was where she‘d left it and she grabbed it on her way out. Once through she waited for Maeron before sprinting for the path, leading to the river. Free! She laughed as the breeze caressed her sun kissed skin and tossed her shoes off into the high green grass. She‘d get them on her way home.
"Come on!“ She shouted at Mearon who was right behind her. "Race you to the river!“
He grinned. "Looser takes first shift of the oars!“
They burst out of thicket close to the small inlay where some of the nobles stored their boats, Lilly just a hairbreadth behind Maeron who shouted triumphantly as he came to a halt near the edge. Lilly narrowly avoided careening into him and skidded to a stop mere inches from the edge of the ice-cold water. She scrunched up her face and glared at the gloating conqueror. "Ok, you win. This time. And not by much!“
"Yeah, yeah, enough talk slave, to the oars with you!“ He pushed her in the direction of green, sleek boat that lay moored close to where they stood, swaying gently on the waves of the river. Lilly jumped gracefully into the boat, stored her two bags and positioned herself behind the oars. Meanwhile Maeron unfastened the landing ties and pushed the boat into the river. The current was quick to pick it up and within moments they were born away from the bank and into the middle of the river. Both Lilly and Maeron were competent on a boat and spent a lot of their free time on one boat or another. Lilly inhaled deeply and enjoyed the intense feeling of freedom that flooded her. She felt so confined sometimes in the palace. All these rules and codes and restrictions...It was like being trapped in a gilded cage and she longed to be free of it. When she complained about it to her mother, Queen Ellethwen, only smiled gently and said she‘d get used to it. That‘s she‘d learn, with time, to meld and sway these bars so that eventually she‘d all but forget they were there. When Lilly muttered in protest her mother would sometimes sigh and shake her head and look her with such sadness in her eyes. "You‘re so much like your father, Liliana, that it frightens me sometimes. It frightens me and at the same time I love you all the more for it. There will never be anyone like him. If only you could have known him....“ As composed and graceful as Ellethwen always was in public Lilly sometimes saw tears in her mother‘s eyes, especially when Ellethwen was looking at her. Once in a while she had even heard her mother crying, when she thought she was alone. A number of men would walk across Faery and beyond, barefoot, if it would have given them the slightest chance of winning Ellethwen’s regard and hand. There was no hope of that. The beautiful Queen of Faery would remain a widow as long as she lived and being a loved ruler in a mostly pacified land, that was a long time. She had given her heart to the young prince Andaer when she arrived to court, fresh from the country, and she would remain true to him for all time. That also meant no more children, which again meant that Liliana would sit on the throne one day. Willing or not.
Lilly shook her head free of those depressing thoughts and focused on her surroundings. It was a truly beautiful day and she would enjoy every minute of its precious freedom. She watched the banks of the river as they glided past. Tree branches dipped into the river and seemed to caress the smooth surface. Here and there faeries of various sizes flitted about, diving in and out of the trees like dragonflies. Farther back she saw fields being tended by farmers and their families, the golden wheat flowing like an ocean in the breeze. There, apple orchards, there, peaches. The tall, holy silvery moontrees dotted the landscape everywhere, the dark-red flowers stark against the silver-white leaves. In the distance she saw the Arudiedhel mountain range stretch its narrow spires into the skies, snow glittering on the peaks, like glittering gems.
"It‘s beautiful, isn‘t it,“ murmured Maeron, looking as captivated as she felt.
"Yes. It is,“ she replied. She didn‘t really have to row all that much, she just guided the boat along. The pace wasn‘t that strong, it would be hard work going back but well manageable, what with both her and Maeron strong and used to handling boats.
"There it is!“ Maeron shouted suddenly, pointing ahead. And there, coming sedately closer, was the island with its grey ruins, pointing like a finger towards the sky. Lilly felt a shiver go through her. There was something infinitely sad about it. Maeron seemed to have felt it too for he fell quiet and in stillness they came nearer and nearer until the island cast its shadow upon them.
It took a little while but finally they managed to find a spot in the bank where they would be able to sail the boat right onto land. A perfect little landing. As it turned out, Lilly had been at the oars the entire time and so it was Maeron that hopped overboard and dragged the boat up onto the black, sandy beach. Lilly put away the oars, jumped over the side of the boat and looked around. Finally, after having dreamt about it all summer, they had arrived on the forbidden island. Her heart beat faster and a slow smile spread across her face. Her first, real exploration had begun.
They had to do some climbing after they’d crossed the sandy beach before they made it up to the island proper. When they got to the top they looked around, their eyes shining. Tall grass swayed around them and close by a copse of slender willow trees offered their shade to pale rockroses that grew around a couple of smooth stones. Birds sang in the branches as they feasted upon some unfortunate insects. They could hear the river flowing but there was a strange stillness about the place and they felt the need to be quiet lest they disturb the peace of the island.
"There is the tower,“ Maeron said quietly and set off towards it. Up on the island the breeze was stronger than before though not uncomfortably so, it was a hot day. Loose strands of white-blond hair that had strayed from Maeron‘s hairclip flew around his face but he didn‘t seem to notice. Lilly took a moment herself to redo her ponytail before she hurried after him. She didn‘t want him to enter the ruins first.
The tower was in the middle of the small island and dominated it thoroughly. It was even bigger than she had imagined and all but completely collapsed. The stone had been lightgrey but it seemed to be scorched, the stones were all blackened and even half-melted in places. She couldn‘t guess how many stories it had been, only two were visible and there was plenty of rubble both inside it and around. Before trying to enter it they circled all around. It was completely open to the elements and grass and moss grew in the cracks that lined the surface. When they approached a bird flew from one of the narrow windows, screeching angrily at being disturbed. There was no doubt that the tower had been viciously destroyed. But why? Had some evil sorcerer once lived here? Or a mad seeress? Somehow, Lilly couldn‘t reconcile that with what she felt. There was such a sense of tragedy here, such a sense of loss. Her heart clenched in her chest in response and she felt hard put to keep tears from welling from her eyes. She would not weep like some weak, pathetic little girl in front Maeron. She would never hear the end of it!
They finished their tour around the tower, often having to climb over big pieces of stone that littered the ground. Ahead was a gaping hole in the wall, it obviously used to be a door. The remnants of it lay in front of it, half buried under rubble. They approached the entryway gently, Lilly slightly ahead. A shiver ran through her when the shadow of the tower fell over her, goose bumps going up on her arms. Before entering she hesitated slightly, the feelings of sorrow all but overwhelming her. She wasn‘t sure the tower wanted her to step inside, to disturb. Maeron put his hand on her shoulder and whispered.
"Go ahead, I‘m right behind you.“
Him thinking that she might be scared did it for her and she stepped inside. Stone crumbled under her bare feet and she regretted throwing her shoes off earlier in the day. Her soles were tough after running barefoot much of the summer but some of the stones still had sharp edges and they cut into her feet. She stepped gingerly and found a bare spot where she could see smooth tiles. The windows were narrow so it wasn‘t full daylight inside. It was also almost unnaturally silent. No birds could be heard singing and the sigh of the wind and the gentle song of the river were nowhere to be heard. The silence added to the heavy sorrow that lay like a mantle upon Lilly‘s shoulders. She couldn‘t speak, it seemed like a sacrilege to do so. She looked around her. The walls were whole but there were huge gaps in the ceiling above them where light streamed through. A huge fireplace had been at one wall and this looked to have been a single room, a mostly collapsed stone stairs lay up to the first floor. Maeron headed there. Carefully he climbed up the stairs and managed to step over gaps without doing himself injury or falling to the floor. After having looked around on the other floor he whispered that they could enter and stand on part of it. Lilly found her way to the stairs and followed in his footsteps, taking great care where she put her feet and using her hands to grab hold as well, she did not want to fall here and injure herself. She managed to climb to the top and stepped carefully onto the dangerously looking floor. There was no way to tell where the stone was stable and where it might collapse. Maeron stood by the wall, close to her, looking over it. She joined him and admired the view. Here, on top of the tower, on the top of the island that sloped so that the tower stood at the highest point, the view was unobstructed in all directions and they saw far and wide. Only from the tops of the palace had she seen so much of Faery at a glance. It was truly breathtaking. For a long while they stood and admired the landscape. The undulating fields, the lush forests to the west, the river where she wound her way like a broad silver ribbon though the rich, green land until at last she disappeared on the horizon.
Lilly frowned. Dark clouds were amassing on the horizon and drifting towards them, and the sun was already lower in the sky than she had previously realized! They had a long way to go home and she had hoped to make it before dinner. Now they would be lucky to make it before it became dark!
"We have to go! It‘s much later than I thought,“ she said and bit her lip.
"We underestimated how far the island was downstream, we‘ll never make it! Mother will furious!“ Maeron exclaimed, dismay on his face.
Lilly didn‘t say anything, thinking how her mother the queen would react when her single, precious child didn‘t turn up for the obligatory dinner and wasn‘t anywhere to be found. She shuddered at the thought. They turned around and headed downstairs. While going down Lilly noticed something glittering by the fireplace, where a single ray of light fell on it. When she made it to the bottom of the stairs she wound her way across the room and stooped down. There, half buried under rubble, was a silver necklace. Excitement poured through her and with a small sound she reached for it. It was shaped like an oval and had a heart shaped, red ruby in the middle. The long, fine silver chain lay under the rubble but with a little nudging she managed to pull it free. She rubbed it against her sleeve and held it so she could inspect it. It was gorgeous. Easily the most delicate, beautiful necklace she‘d ever seen. She put it over her head and went back to Maeron where he stood by the door, waiting impatiently.
Before leaving the tower she looked around it for the last time.
"Thank you,“ she whispered. Somehow she felt a kind of acceptance and sense of purpose fulfilled touch her. She swallowed and followed Maeron who was hurrying away, down the slope.
"What did you find?“ He asked as she caught up.
She showed him the necklace and his eyes bulged.
"Wow. What a prize! I guess no one been there since the tower was destroyed or they surely would have found it! Lucky you. No knife or rings for me?“ He grinned.
She shook her head, smiling. "Sorry.“
They all but ran down to the boat, worry driving them on. Lilly thought of Ellethwen, her mother, and how terribly worried she would be. Guilt started to gnaw at her. Her mother was used her disappearing for hours at a time but Lilly never missed mealtimes. It was like a silent contract between them, that Ellethwen wouldn‘t fuss overly much about her wanderings and instead Lilly made sure to show up during meals. Her not being there would make her mother sick with worry, she‘d think there was something wrong. There would be a search...For the first time Lilly wished she had one of those small magic mirrors that made it possible for people to speak across distance. She usually tossed hers away, she didn‘t want to be bothered when she was out playing and the same thing applied to Maeron. How she wished for one of those in her hand right now.
They hurried to the boat and Maeron jumped aboard as Lilly untied it and shoved it into the river. When the water reached her knees she climbed onboard as well and took the seat beside Maeron, they‘d make better time if each held one oar. They took long, powerful strokes and the boat made good speed from the island, up the stream. It was much heavier than anticipated ough and Lilly realized with a dread that the river was actually a lot narrower here than upstream, near the palace. They‘d been so focused on the island as it grew nearer that they hadn‘t realized that they were going much faster than before. She clenched her teeth and said nothing. They‘d have sore muscles in the morning, that was for sure. Thank the Goddess they were both in such a good physical shape, having rowed and climbed trees all summer.
"Those clouds are moving awfully fast, Lilly,“ Maeron said, looking worried.
She looked up and saw that the dark clouds were, in fact, not drifting closer, they were approaching at an alarming speed. She cursed.
"We‘ll have to put to land near some farms further upstream and ask for horses. Now we won‘t make it until late tonight. That’s a storm coming.“
Maeron agreed. Lilly still wasn‘t overly worried about the storm, per se, only that it would delay them. She was confident in hers and Maeron‘s abilities to manage to the boat and besides, they‘d only have to row a little while to reach the farmlands. Around here was mostly forest and she didn‘t know the area. There might be some mischievous tree sprites about that could easily lead them astray and making them loose their way in the trees. All harmless fun for them but a real source of worry for someone new in the area, especially after dark.
It was shortly after that it happened.