As far as the boy was concerned, no one would dare disturb a master warrior such as himself while he slept. Walls of grimacing stone surrounded him on all sides and muffled almost every sound, including the thunder that stirred the storm clouds outside. The tapping of raindrops on the arch-shaped window matched the pace of the boy’s softly thumping heart. Squeezing a fistful of one of his many woolen blankets, the boy snuggled deeper into his pillow and released a warm sigh. Chocolate brown curls spilled onto his tiny forehead, occasionally waving their hands when the boy blew an especially hard breath. His chubby lips curled into a smile in reaction to a pleasant dream he was having, likely his last one for a long time. A flash of white light sprang from the window, and when a pound of thunder followed, the door to the boy’s bedchamber opened. The boy began to blink.
A hooded figure whose cloak stretched down to the floor entered the room with a sputtering torch in hand. The figure stuck the torch into a stand and turned to crouch at the boy’s bedside. The boy lifted his head, and as soon as he did, another lightning flash revealed a ghostly hand reaching for him. In that moment, it felt as if all the organs in his body switched places. He opened his mouth to scream, but the hand clamped over it and a female voice hissed, “It’s me, Diana.” The figure pushed off her hood and unmasked the sweaty, heart-shaped face of a young woman with dark brown hair and matching eyes. The muscles in the boy’s body eased, and curiosity flushed out the initial adrenaline rush of fear.
When the woman removed her hand, the boy inquired, “What’s wrong?”
“Get dressed,” ordered the woman. “I don’t have time to explain.”
“Tell me what’s wrong!” demanded the boy.
“Shush!” she urged. “Your questions will be answered later.”
With a shove, the woman finally motivated the youth to obey her orders, and then turned around so she could pack a few of his belongings into a small brown satchel. Meanwhile, the boy stripped off his sleepwear and replaced it with brown trousers, a long-sleeved white shirt, black boots, and a brown cloak. He mentally sorted and discarded endless explanations for her behavior; the most likely one in his mind was that she was planning a surprise star-watching field trip. He still didn’t know the constellations as well as she did.
When he turned around, the woman was standing beside the window and was jerking her head toward it. The boy’s eyes broadened upon seeing the rope in the woman’s grip, and she held out a hand to him. He could easily guess that if this was a field trip, it had not been approved. His heart began to thump faster.
“Trust me, my love,” encouraged the woman. “I shall start climbing down the rope, and you shall follow me. Do you understand?”
The boy wanted to ask why he needed to climb down the rope, but after seeing her glare, he decided that nodding was a better option. There was a flash of the fabric of the woman’s skirt as she swung one leg over the edge, and then the other. The small boy mimicked her actions (minus the flying skirt of course), hoping his sweaty palms or shivering muscles wouldn’t make him slip. He blew out a sigh of relief when his feet were back on the solid floor of the castle grounds. The thunderstorm continued to grumble overhead, but the boy had never been afraid of storms like this—even when blasts of electricity lit up the sky and thunder seemed to shake the earth.
The tower that the boy lived in was a small, insignificant thing that had only his chambers and a spiral of stairs underneath, while the other massive towers competed for the highest height possible. However, it had one unrealized advantage: it was at the corner closest to the secret exit in the exterior wall. This exit led to the mountain forest that stood behind the castle, an additional dark green fortress of protection. Some said that invisible tree spirits roamed those woods to defend against any evil invaders. The boy hoped that those rumors were true.
He pinched his mouth shut when branches clawed through his skin, and he continued to press after the woman. After climbing their way through the thicket, they eventually circled around to the sleeping village in front of the castle. A bay horse with a white star on his forehead trotted towards the woman, whom the boy could feel was shaking as she held onto his shoulders. He reached up to squeeze her hand.
“Thank you for coming, Mordecai,” thanked the woman.
“Of course, m’lady,” replied Mordecai, who bowed his head in respect and turned as the woman helped the boy climb onto his back.
“Remember, take him to the Whispering Timberland,” she reminded the horse.
“Aren’t you coming with me?” asked the boy.
“I don’t think that’s—”
Another bolt of lightning shot out from the heart of clouds (only now did the boy notice that they seemed to be directly above the castle grounds), and an explosion of what looked like black glass burst from the tallest tower. Horrified, the woman slapped Mordecai’s rear end to send him running (if under any other circumstances she had done that, the talking horse would have never forgiven her for the rude gesture). A gasp of shock strangled the boy’s throat and tears stung his eyes as he watched the woman race towards the castle. The young boy’s screams for the woman could not be heard over the thunder of the sky or the thunder of Mordecai’s hoofs on the hard ground. The boy wanted to jump off the horse to run after her, but he knew that if he hurt himself in the fall, he wouldn’t do her any good. He yanked at Mordecai’s mane to try to turn him around, but Mordecai only galloped harder in the opposite direction. Before he knew it, the only home the child had ever known had disappeared into the darkness.