Chapter One

Chapter One

Grainne, Empress of the Northlands, woke slowly to the morning light filtering into her sheltered bower in the Imperial Palace of Pallantia.  She blinked and smiled at the dream she had woken from.  Such an odd dream, too – a child hidden in a treasure chest, a daughter when she had borne her Emperor-husband only sons and one of those a surprise and the joy of their silver years.

She was still absently smiling to herself when her sons entered to greet her over breakfast as was their custom.  The youngest, little Illian, ran up to her joyfully to climb into her lap and help himself to a jam-covered biscuit.  He was barely five years of age and such a delight, at once boyish and manly.  He had also only recently left the bower to a chamber of his own near his brothers.  Close behind Illian, and smiling at the younger’s antics, was nineteen-year-old Marus.  He paused to place a kiss on his mother’s cheek before accepting a biscuit of his own from Illian, ever helpful and generous.

The eldest, twenty-one-year-old Jules, leaned against the doorframe, watching all of them.  “Good morning, Mother,” he said, bowing slightly, “you seem happy today.”

She started when she realized that she still wore the smile.  “I had… a most unusual dream.”  She looked at her sons and felt a swell of pride.  They were all so handsome, so similar with their dark hair and noble features, and yet so different from each other.

“Dream, Mother?” Illian asked, looking up at her.  “What did you dream?”

She hugged her son close.  “I dreamed that I found a door hidden in the earth.  The door opened to a tunnel that led to a paradise.  And in that paradise there was a treasure chest that shook and cried.  In the dream I opened the chest and found a little girl inside and I knew that she was a daughter for me.”  She paused, remembering the sorrow in the child’s voice when she looked at her with tears in her eyes, calling her Mother and reaching up to be held.  “She had golden eyes.”

Illian bounced in her lap.  “A sister?  You dreamed me a sister?  Where is she?”  He looked around, as if to spot her hiding in a corner.

Jules smiled, but it was slightly mocking.  “It was just a dream, Little Brother.  Dreams do not come true.”

Marus, though, shook his head.  “But Mother is from Castellan, and the dreams of Castellan’s royal daughters… are sometimes more than mere sleeping imaginings.  Mother,” he put a hand on her shoulder, gently, “do you want a daughter?”  He asked the question carefully because much hinged on the answer.  If the dream was not something which his mother wished to see come about, then he would do nothing.  If, on the other hand, she wished to have this dream made real… well, then it was his solemn duty to see to fulfilling the wishes of his mother.

Grainne smiled at her sons, the delight of her life.  “I am proud of my sons and would not give them up for anything, but…” she paused, “but yes, I wish I had a daughter to teach them more gentleness, to be their heart, and to be protected by their strength.  And… I wish I had a daughter for me, to share all it means to be a woman.”

Marus smiled.  A thought occurred to him that it would be interesting to test this dream, to test the unquestioned belief that even he shared in the power of the dreams of Castellan’s royal daughters.  “Then let us search for this doorway.  If we find it, and find a girl-child all alone, then she can be a daughter to you, and a sister to us.  If not, then we have not truly lost anything in searching.  An afternoon with our mother?  What loss is there in that?”

Jules lifted a single eyebrow in doubt.  “What about Father?  Does he not have a say?”

Illian stretched out his arms.  “I’ll ask Father.  He’ll give me anything and I want a sister!  Let’s find her quick!”

Laughter filled the bower, and even Jules smiled.

The Imperial family kept a private shuttle for outings like this and Jules was quiet as he piloted it away from Pallantia.  He listened to the sound of running feet as Illian ran from window to window looking to see if he could see a doorway below them.  Never mind that they weren’t even certain what they were looking for.  This was all one big wild goose chase, of that Jules was certain.  Still, Marus had a point; what harm was there in looking?  Except… he didn’t want to hear Illian cry when there wasn’t a sister with them upon returning to the Palace.

He wasn’t expecting to hear his mother gasp with surprise.  “There it is.  The Door in the Earth.”  Illian and Marus rushed over to look out the window and then Marus came forward to stand at Jules’ shoulder.

“Is it a door?” Jules asked.  It couldn’t be.  It was simply impossible to consider that it could be that easy.

Marus chuckled low.  He knew his brother, knew how he thought and his stubborn pragmatism in contrast to the almost romantic eagerness to believe that characterized Illian.  “It’s a land formation and it certainly looks like a door to me.  Circle around and I’ll show you.”

It was a plateau that certainly had the shape of an arched doorway rising up from the lands below.  Jules landed the shuttle atop it and the family exited the vehicle to look around; Marus staying at their mother’s side with one hand ready for her in case she needed it to keep her balance.  Illian led the way shouting.  “Sister?  Sister, where are you?”  Even Jules had to laugh at the utter sincerity in his voice.

Marus seemed very determined.  He looked around at the windswept land with a focused eye, looking for something, but he wasn’t certain what.  After a moment he turned to look at his mother.   “Next is a tunnel, is that correct?”

Grainne nodded; she still remembered following the passage carved into the soil, roots hanging from above and all around her.  “Yes.”

Jules shrugged.  He still wasn’t certain if he really believed in something as intangible as his mother’s dreams, or the dreams of any woman for that matter, whether she was born of the Castellan royal line or not.  Still, they had come this far and he would be remiss if he didn’t do his duty and assist them to the best of his ability.  In this case, it meant interjecting a bit of logic to the matter.  “If this is the door, where would the keyhole be?”

Just then Illian shouted to them.  “Mother!  Marus!  Jules!  I found it!”  He had, indeed, found the tunnel, a sloping path dug into the earth itself and hidden by a rocky overhang.  It was also, coincidently, in the keyhole position on the plateau door.  Jules had begun to feel very strange as his mother’s dream came to life around him.

They walked down the tunnel together, Jules and Marus helping their mother around various obstructions.  Illian ran ahead and then back to them several times, impatient with their slow progress.  Finally the tunnel opened up into a cavern filled with trees and plants, and illuminated by light reflected off a crystal ceiling.  Grainne gasped in surprise, and joy.  “It’s the paradise.”

Illian ran off shouting for his sister and Jules frowned.  “I hope he doesn’t get lost.  This is a pretty big place.”

In a sheltered nook beneath a tree’s roots in a paradisiacal garden enwombed in a cavern, a blue-eyed girl with gold-blonde hair streaked by white woke with a sudden gasp from a deep sleep.  For a moment all she did was lay still, her chest heaving with deep breaths as if she had suddenly woken from death.  Then she put her hands flat against her face and struggled to calm the frightened trembling and hold back the tears that burned at the corners of her eyes.

She had dreamed of freedom.

At least it wasn’t madness.  Or death.  Yet, at least.  She was still alive and even though she despaired of ever escaping this beautiful entrapment, so long as she was alive then she had something.

Powerless, trapped, dream-taunted and slowly dying a little more each day, but at least she was alive.

She sat up with a sigh and wiped the tears from her face, leaving smudges behind.  Lying here crying her eyes out wasn’t going to change anything.  Might as well start her day.  She started to crawl out of her den and caught her knees on the hem of the shirt she wore.  She was struck again by how short she had grown.  The shirt was way too big for her, but it was the only part of her clothing that she could still wear and even all alone she wasn’t running around nude.  Child’s unformed body or not.  She extricated the shirt from below her knees and slowly managed to half-crawl, half- slide herself out of her den.

Once in the open she stood and brushed off as much of the dirt as she could.  Then she stretched and yawned and then started walking towards a calm pool rubbing her eyes, humming a tune to herself.  It was a song she’d heard, oh, lifetimes ago it seemed.  When she’d been a child for real, with only possibilities before her, listening to a woman singing to herself as she danced around a kitchen.  At least it was upbeat and she could dance a bit to the music in her head.  She reached the pool and paused to kneel beside it for a moment.  She looked at her reflection with a sigh.  A child’s face with too-large eyes looked back at her.  She touched the streaks and smudges on her cheeks, her fingers following her cheekbones up to gently touch her ears, the slope of the curve, the point at the tip.  Yes, it was truly her face.  She must be somewhere between six and five.  Too much more of this and she’d be too small to take care of herself.  She had to find a way out of this paradise of a prison soon or the whole issue would be moot, and no one would ever know what happened to her.

The tears started up again as she pulled the shirt off and dropped it beside her before slipping into the pool.  She let herself sink into the water, burying herself below the surface before she had to come up for air as she sobs broke loose of her.

Why?  That was all she wanted to know.  Why is this happening to me?  Why am I being made to suffer?  What purpose is there in this?  There was no answer.  But then, didn’t really expect one.  It wasn’t like there was anyone to get answers from.  And why do I dream of things I’ll never have?

After a while she scrubbed her face clean and then floated a bit before crawling out of the pond to air dry before putting back on the shirt and starting her search for breakfast.  There had been rumblings deep in the cavern of late, noises which had kept her awake more than one night in fear.  She knew that she needed to explore and see if anything had changed since she had found herself trapped… but she was so afraid of being disappointed.

The first few years had been marked by constant searching for some means of escape, but every tunnel she’d found led back around to the cavern.  It was almost too much to hope that something had finally changed.

She was just climbing a tree to get to the sweet fruit it bore when she stopped completely still at a noise she thought she’d never hear again.  It almost sounded… sounded like voices raised in speech.  It was impossible, hers was the only voice heard in this cavern for as long as she’d been here.  She dropped to the ground and, more out of terrible loneliness than anything else, she raised her voice in song and then was abruptly silenced as a boy emerged from the brush.

He was a sturdy boy, about five years of age, with dark black hair that curled around his round-tipped ears and almost to the lace collar of his suit.  His clothes were made of fine cotton and velvet with lace accents and the knees of his breeches were dirty.  The styling made her think that his was a medieval world, or something close to it, though an odd past/future mix was not impossible.  She’d seen stranger worlds.  Noble… and Human, or something very close to it.  His clothes, if his was a medieval world, were noble.  Common born boys would not have the lace no matter what world he came from and their clothes would be much simpler in cut and design.  He grinned when he saw her and she wondered at his simple acceptance of finding a lone girl-child in the middle of a cavern lit by the reflected light of a great crystal, especially one with ears like hers.  “Hello.”

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