When buds are twisted too tightly, they will never bloom beautifully, my grandmother always said, all the more so after she’d witness my staying in my little corner of the room at a party in our house while the other children played with each other. But she did not know that I was surrounded by friends in my own world, in Castle Farouche.
That is…I didn’t think she knew.
She did catch me that one time, standing in the dim basement before a door that was supposed to lead nowhere, with my hand on the doorknob, and my face twisted into a grin.
She’d come to fetch me for dinner. She’d come to warn me that we had guests for dinner.
My mother would not have given me such a warning if she’d come to get me.
They both knew me too well.
When I first opened the door, less than six months had passed since we’d moved into the new house. It was bigger, because we took my grandmother in. She got a room on the first floor, so she wouldn’t have to climb up the stairs. She had…well her bones hurt her when she walked up stairs.
I knew I would like the house. It had an attic (our old house did not). I thought I would be spending most of my time in that attic, once I cleared all the dust and cobwebs out, and found myself a hidey-hole where even my father could not find me out.
But on our first day in the house, I decided to go see something I’d overheard my parents talking about. A door in the basement that opened up on a wall of brick. It was some mistake in a renovation that the previous owner had tried to do.
My parents were busy moving boxes, so I told my grandmother I was going down to the basement to look for a toy.
I lied because my father had told me not to tamper with the door. He was afraid I would get hurt. That it would fall on me or something. The doorknob had no lock in it. I just wanted to look at it, open it, see the brick on the other side, see the odd sight for myself, and then go back upstairs.
I took a camping lantern down there that first time, because my father had not installed a new bulb for the basement light yet. And there was only a little bit of light coming from the little window at the top of opposite wall.
I opened the door, and it creaked a little on its hinges, but swung open easily. And I saw…black. Like a darkened room. I frowned. I’d set the lantern down at the foot of the stairs. I fetched it and held it up to the open doorway.
And I still saw only black.
I started reaching out but stopped when I felt my stomach lurch.
I glanced around me, without turning my back on the open doorway. I saw a box that had some of my mother’s old school things. I reached inside and found a small notebook. I tossed the notebook at the open doorway, expecting it to hit the wall and fall to the floor.
But the notebook vanished into that darkness.
And then I started to hear something.
Something that usually filled my heart with terror.
Laughter, music, glasses clinking, people chattering.
It was the sound of a party.
Normally, I would have slammed the door shut and raced upstairs. But for some reason, I didn’t feel scared. Or even just anxious.
I felt…curious still.
So curious that I drew closer.
I reached out. I watched my hand pass into the darkness and keep going. I did not hit a brick wall. I stepped forward, and my arm was past the threshold to my elbow. I stepped forward again, and now my whole arm was almost through. I was face to face with the darkness and still unable to see past it.
I took another step…
“Welcome, my liege! It’s been too long. Or has it been long too?” a man in a red velvet suit said to me, just before he bowed.
Stunned, I quickly swept my gaze around the room I had just entered. A girl about my age in a split skirt that was as black as her hair, her fingernails, and her glossy boots was sitting on top of a chest that was set at the foot of a large canopied bed. Flanking her on one side was the largest and most long-haired dog I’d ever seen. He was the size of a pony! Flanking her on the other side were three lanky people whose faces all looked the same, and so I thought they must be triplets, though one of them wore a dress, and two wore trousers.
“They’re waiting for you downstairs, Lark,” the girl said, smirking at me as she crossed her arms. “But if you skip it, I’m sure no one will mind.”
“They’re all having a wonderful time,” one of the triplets said.
“All thanks to you,” said another of the triplets.
“And your boundless generosity,” said the third.
I said nothing, but just gaped at them. I gulped and was about to speak when the dog stepped toward me and sighed.
“We haven’t mistaken you for someone else, if that’s what you’re about to say,” the dog said in a rumbly but warm voice.
My name was not “Lark,” and I was not anyone’s liege. I didn’t even know what the word meant at the time, and even after looking it up, I’m not sure that I do.
The man in the red velvet suit pointed to himself. “Let’s do this quickly,” he said. “You’ll remember.” He introduced himself as Melfed, proclaimed he was half ogre, bowed, and told me he was at my service. Then he pointed to the large talking dog, who was Lykos. The girl was Nox. And the triplets were—from eldest to youngest—Wahid, Enas, and Trana. None of the rest declared that they were at my service, though they all behaved as if they were somewhat willing to go along with what I said.
“You always look stunned, every time you return after being gone too long,” said Nox.
Melfed gave her a sideways glance. “After being in the rough-and-tumble world beyond the wall, it’s to be expected. This must all seem disgustingly fancy to someone who’s been getting by on wheel-spun cloth and tavern bread.” He flourished his hand at a nearby table and I suddenly realized that I’d been smelling a delicious smell, and it must have been coming from the food on the table, glazed chicken and cornbread, still steaming.
The triplets had brought the platter up, in case I wanted to stay in my room and play games with them. There was a chair beside the table, and there was a cloak hung on the chair, a black velvet cloak with a skull for a cloak pin.
“Can I try that on?” I found myself asking.
Nox shook her head. “I don’t see why not. It’s your cloak.”
“Come now, my liege,” Wahid said, stepping forth to sweep the cloak off the chair. He wrapped it around my shoulders and pinned it in place. “Are we up or are we down tonight?”
“Let’s go downstairs,” I found myself saying.
The music swelled when Nox opened the door to the bedroom—my bedroom. The triplets lifted the platter of food and shuffled through the door. Melfed bowed to me and followed. I went next, and Nox and Lykos walked beside me as we went down the stairs.
I felt a swelling in my chest. But it wasn’t fear or anger. I recognized the feeling, of course. It’s just that, I’d never felt it right before walking into a party.
Hearing a large dog-like creature talk prepared me for what I saw and heard and smelled at the party as we moved through the central corridors toward the main hall.
Three woman stood around a bubbling cauldron, cackling merrily. A line of people stood along the wall behind them, holding tiny goblets. Nox leaned over to me and explained that they were making something called hue brew. She pointed to a woman nearby who drank a bit of brew from an earlier batch. She was doing color tricks for a group gathered around her. She puffed up her cheeks, then as she blew out the air, her face turned from deep brown to black, and when she breathed in, it turned from black to silver to lavender. She brushed her fingers through her hair and it turned vivid hues of green—lime, forest, leaf.
A chorus of tiny fairies with butterfly wings hovered in the air under a crystal chandelier, their arms over each other’s shoulders, singing with high but booming voices.
Creatures that looked like a giant raccoon, a large squirrel, and an unusually big rat appeared to be playing a game of billiards in a side room that they passed.
In another side room, a number of people were sleeping in stacked beds, sleeping rather peacefully too, as if they couldn’t hear the commotion outside.
They walked past windows that looked out upon an orchard outside where the apple trees appeared to be playing catch with a large ball that I could have sworn was painted to resemble an orange.
The sights were fantastic, but when we reached the main hall, it was the aromas that overwhelmed me. Food. Savory and sweet. Hearty and fresh.
Long tables covered in platters of food, more glazed chickens, mounds of mashed potatoes dripping with melted butter, tiers of cold cucumber sandwiches, bowls of blue-green apples and powder-pink grapes, and desserts. The desserts knocked the breath out of me. I gasped when I saw a chocolate cake as tall as I am sitting on a special table that was propped up by all these buttresses to support the cake’s weight. No one had taken a piece yet.
I walked toward it.
I looked around to ask someone permission to take a slice. But everyone was looking at me. And the strangest of things happened.
I didn’t mind them looking.
They all seemed to be waiting. And I knew what they were waiting for. They were waiting for my permission.
I sliced myself a piece, and placed it on one of the plates that was set in a stack beside the cake. A burst of chocolate aroma filled my nose. I felt an intense calm. Chocolate oozed out of the inside of the cake. I caught some of it, but some dripped over the rim of the plate.
I lifted the plate and licked the bottom. I turned back and looked at everyone, and I shrugged. They laughed, and some raised their glasses at me, and some shook their heads.
And I set my plate aside, and I took another plate, and cut another slice. I handed it to a child nearby who was actually drooling at the sight of the cake. She received the plate and started eating the cake with her hands.
I cut another slice for another guest. And another. And on and on, until the whole cake was almost gone. Nox, Lykos, and I took the last three slices.
And I’ll dare to say that cake was better than my mother’s chocolate cake, even better than my grandmother’s. It was rich but light. Warm but cool. Soft but not too soft. Just chocolately enough. Just sweet enough.
The rest of the night was just as marvelous.
I jumped on a huge trampoline with fifty other people. I rode on Lykos’s back in a race under a full moon. I bit into one of the blue-green apples that one of the trees threw to me as consolation when we lost the race, and it reminded me the juiciest sweetest apple I’d ever eaten, one time when I went apple-picking with just my mother.
I sat on the floor by a roaring fire later in the night, when it became cold, and I listened to Lykos tell all kinds of stories. Ancient myths, tales of terror, and even a history or two.
It was only after all the guests had left, after I made my way up to my room, after bidding my friends good night, and telling Melfed to rest because I would help him clean up in the morning, after I dreamed of what tomorrow might bring, and after I opened the door to my chamber and saw the door on the opposite wall, the door that led to nowhere, it was only then that I realized how long I had been.
In a panic, I lurched into the room so suddenly that I fell, picked myself up, and stumbled and raced to the door. I opened it, took a breath and braced myself, readied my apologies for frightening my parents, and I walked into the darkness beyond the door.
I found myself back in the basement. The lantern was where I had left it. I grabbed it and clambered up the stairs.
I found my grandmother sitting in the same chair where she’d been sitting when I left hours ago, perhaps even a day ago.
She glanced up at me from the puzzle book she was working on and said, “That was quick. Did you find it already?”
I glanced at the clock on the table beside my grandmother and realized that only a few moments had passed in the house, for the hours and hours that I’d spent at the party in the castle. I wanted to ask my grandmother to come down to the basement with me, to open the door that led to nowhere, and show her what I’d seen behind it, and show myself whether what I’d seen was real or not. But I didn’t want her to hurt her knees climbing back up the steps.
I wondered if I’d dozed off and dreamed for a bit. I didn’t remember feeling sleepy. But I thought maybe that’s what happened.
I told my grandmother I hadn’t found my toy and I moved past her to go and put the lantern away in the hall closet.
“Have you been eating cake?” she asked as I passed her.
“And didn’t share any with your old grandmother?”
I could still taste the last slice of cake I’d eaten (I’d consumed a total of five slices, each a different flavor. The last one was orange chocolate cake.)
I made a joke about how I always smell nice, and while my grandmother chuckled, I made plans to return to the basement.
And return I did.
The next day, after school, and after all my studies were done, I made my way down to the basement. I emerged from the door that led to nowhere into my room in the castle.
There was no party. I had been gone for two weeks, Melfed told me. And while I was on what he called a “jaunt,” Nox and Lykos were taking care of castle business, as I had assigned them to do whenever I was gone and on the first day of my return, so I could get settled in.
I decided to take a walk around the castle grounds. I had seen how beautiful the castle and the grounds were by night and during a party. But this time, I arrived in the late morning. The castle was bustling. I explored everywhere. In the kitchens, the cooks were cleaning up after breakfast, and deciding on what to make for lunch. They asked me what I would like, and I told them to make whatever they wanted to make. I was certain it would be delicious. They bowed and thanked me for being gracious, but then they teased me and threw flour at me. I laughed and failed to duck at the barrage of flour as I fled the kitchens.
In the stables, I fed blue-green apples to the horses who were recovering from being ill, while the healthy ones discussed their work duties with their riders.
In the chicken coop, the chickens all squawked and made such a racket, I passed by quickly. Their keeper explained to me that if they could manage speech, they would be spared from slaughter. And I thought about suggesting to the cooks that we take chicken off the menu, even though it was my favorite meat.
I went to the apple orchards, expecting the trees to be active, but they were swaying in sleep, so I crept by as quietly as I could, and found myself in the castle’s vegetable gardens, where all of the vegetables were tinier than I’d expected, but all vivid and bright in color. Past the vegetable gardens were the flower gardens, and there were fountains, ponds, and trickling streams everywhere.
“Good morning, my liege,” a group of high-pitched voices said, and I had to glance around a bit, before I realized the greeting had come from a dozen fairies with feathered wings, who sat at the topmost tier of a tall fountain. They were bathing, the way pigeons and sparrows do.
They thanked me for the water they were using, as if I’d had anything to do with it. It was probably Melfed or Nox or Lykos who made sure the water flowed in the castle. I bowed my head to them and returned the greeting.
If I’d met as many people on my side of the nowhere door as I’d met on the castle side, I would have surely had to lock myself in my room for days to recover.
But in Castle Farouche, it all felt so easy. And I knew why. I was important in the castle. Only Nox and Lykos called me by my name, or what they thought was my name, which I actually liked, so I never corrected them.
By lunch time, Nox and Lykos had finished their work for the day, so we had our lunch—which was indeed delicious—and we played games outside and then we just lay on blankets and read books. When I started feeling drowsy, I stood up and told them that I had to go.
They seemed to understand, and they just waved at me. I went up to my room and I passed through the door that led to nowhere and returned to my house, the house where my mother and father and grandmother lived.
And so I began to visit the castle often. Almost every day, and especially when mother and father said we would be having guests over.
I would have adventures with my friends, exploring parts of the castle we didn’t know where there, or even building new rooms. Sometimes the triplets would help me, as the ablest and smartest people in the castle, and always Melfed would offer to help. But most of the time, it was Nox and Lykos with me.
The castle grounds were so vast that I’d never thought about where they actually ended, until one day when we’d were playing catch-the-light with a firefly fairy who refused to let any of us win by tagging her with our game feathers. I was riding Lykos, and she galloped all the way to the edge of a wall. She stopped, and I dismounted. The firefly fairy zoomed away, but I didn’t chase her. I was mesmerized by what I saw beyond the wall. Dark gray storm clouds that cracked with a menacing thunder. They broiled just beyond the wall, but came no closer.
Before Lykos even explained it, I knew that the wall, the shield wall as she called it, was keeping the storm outside.
“We are lucky,” Lykos said, “that the world within the wall contains all that we need. It will not always be so.”
I turned to her and frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Someday, we may need to go with you, out there, beyond the wall.”
I frowned again, confused. “With me? I’ve never been out there.” I turned again to the look at the storm, and I swore that I heard a snarling from the other side of the wall, just ahead of us. Fear clutched my heart for the first time since I’d come to Castle Farouche.
“Then where do you go when you leave us?” Lykos asked.
I glanced at her again, into her glossy black eyes. I didn’t know how to answer.
And I did not have to, because the Triplets came running up to us. They placed themselves between the wall and us.
“Are you all right, Lark?” Wahid asked me. And I knew he was truly worried because he called me by my name.
“And you?” Enas asked Lykos.
“Come away from the shield wall, my lieges. We have a fairy to catch,” Trana said, curling her fingers in a gesture of beckoning.
And we did come away.
And when we were safe in the castle proper, I wanted to ask Lykos what that roaring was that we had heard. But I didn’t ask. I was afraid to know.
We were all shaken after returning from the shield wall, but by the time I returned to the castle, the others had recovered. For me it had been one restless night. For them, a few weeks had passed. Melfed was surprised when I asked to see Nox and Lykos, and help them with the work of governing the castle.
So were Nox and Lykos. But they briefed me on the running of the castle. And I listened to them tell me about the kitchens, the stables, the orchards, and the gardens, and when they were done, I asked them to continue.
“Continue?” Nox asked, frowning in confusion.
“You didn’t say anything about the shield wall.”
Nox quirked an eyebrow and crossed her arms. “There’s nothing to say. The wall works. It was built and fortified during times of war. We are in times of peace now, inside the wall, but it still serves to protect us from all that is outside.”
“And what is outside the wall?” I turned to Lykos. “What was that snarling that we heard, the last time I was here?”
“You heard snarling?” Nox glanced at Lykos, who sighed.
“I’m sure it was just the storm.”
I looked between my two friends. “I feel you are both dancing around something. Tell me.”
They hesitated as they gathered themselves. And then they told me.
They told me about the beasts. They had no other name. They were afraid that giving the beasts a name would bring them upon us. No one still living in the castle remembered what the beasts looked like, for no one in the castle had ever encountered one. But people passed from beyond the wall onto the castle grounds, either to stay, or take refuge before moving on. And those people described beasts who moved so quickly that even the fastest of fairies could not outfly them. Beasts who had rows upon rows of sharp teeth, breath so putrid that it could make a warrior swoon, spittle so vile that it was poison even to an ogre.
But worst of all was their cry. When they were already upon their prey, they roared as bears and dragons roared. But they had a different cry when they were still hunting. For quick as they were, they preferred to draw their prey in. And they did this by using a cry that sounding like the bawling of a baby.
I was the ruler of the castle. But I had done nothing to actually rule. I changed that on that day. I made the rule that would protect all the people already in the castle, and all who might take refuge by passing through the one well-guarded gate in the shield wall.
Once on the castle grounds, no one was ever to go beyond the wall again. Lykos had told me that we had all we would need within the castle grounds to live well. We had no need to wander beyond.
And so I forbade it.
Nox and Lykos advised me to reconsider passing such a strict rule, but I did not listen. I had to protect the two of them too. They warned me that there would be some trouble among the residents of the castle, and especially among those who were just passing through.
I wanted to talk to some of those people, and ask them what they saw beyond the wall, and how they had survived the storm and the beasts.
But it was getting late, and I knew I had to be getting back home. I had stayed overnight in Castle Farouche. I’d never done that before. And I had nightmares that night about beasts attacking my parents.
So the next morning, I decided to go and check on my family, for just a few moments, before returning to the castle to speak to the people about my decree.
When I returned to my house, my father was looking for me. He came down the stairs just after I shut the door.
“Your mom told me you might be hiding out down here,” he said. “We need you to come with us.”
I nodded. “I’ll be right there.”
My father stepped toward me and put his hand on my shoulder. “We have to go now. Gran isn’t feeling too well.” He squeezed my shoulder a little, and I felt a little squeeze in my gut too.
My grandmother didn’t look sick. We were at the hospital for hours and hours, and all I could think of was that I must go home and help my people. But finally, just when it was getting dark, a doctor came out to speak to my parents. She told us that Gran needed to stay in the hospital. She told us that Gran was very sick and would need surgery right away.
The more the doctor spoke, the more scared I started feeling even though I didn’t understand everything she was saying. I looked at my parents, and I felt sorry for them, because they looked just as scared as I did. After the doctor spoke to them, they got me a soda and asked me to sit outside of Gran’s room while they talked.
Dad told me that he and I would drive home while Mom would stay with Gran overnight. But I didn’t want to leave until Gran was okay. He explained that it would take a long time for her to be okay. But I told him I wanted to stay too. I told him I would go home with Mom in the morning, after Dad returned.
They agreed to let me stay. And I sat with Gran while Mom made phone calls to my aunts and uncles.
Gran looked okay, just a little tired. And she was talking slower.
“Do you remember,” she asked, “when you were very little and I used to tell you stories?”
“I remember, Gran,” I said. And I reached out and held her hand. She looked surprised. I usually didn’t like holding hands and hugging and all of that.
She smiled and moved her other hand over to pat the back of mine.
“Your turn,” she said.
I didn’t forget about Castle Farouche. It was at the front of my mind, because when my gran asked me to tell her stories, I told her about my adventures in the castle. I told her about the party I attended on my first visit, about riding on Lykos, and trying to explain to Nox what “calculus” meant when she showed me my mother’s notebook that I’d tossed through the doorway, and about fairies bathing in fountains.
Gran had her surgery. And she survived it. And she had her recovery. And she survived that too. She slept a lot. She would fall asleep when I told her stories. And when she did, I would sometime keep going, because if I stopped, she sometimes jerked awake. It was as if she needed to keep hearing my voice in her ear, even though her mind was not listening to my words.
One day, we visited, and she was sitting up and watching a show. But she turned it off when I walked in with Dad.
She looked weak still, but her eyes looked clear. And she told us she couldn’t wait to come home and cook some real food. And she asked me how school was going, and if I had any exciting news about projects or friends.
And for the first time in a long time, I felt as if I wanted to avoid my grandmother. So I changed the subject and asked about her nurses and doctors. And she told us some jokes, and we stayed with her until visiting hours were over.
She would have to stay at the hospital for another week. But she was doing well, and I could see that Mom and Dad were feeling hopeful again.
Between school, homework, visits to the hospital, and sleep, I had not returned to Castle Farouche in a while. I needed my haven. And now that Gran was better, I allowed myself to go there. So the next morning, I went down to the basement, and I walked through the door, already dreaming about strolling through the garden, and stealing a slice of cake from the kitchens.
I felt something strange as soon as I stepped into my room. It was quiet. I didn’t even hear any birds chirping, but it was obviously morning in the castle, from the light that came through the window.
I went downstairs, meeting no one along the way, and when I reached the main hall, I found a castle much changed from the one I left.
I was gone for two weeks on my side of the nowhere door. But on the castle side, I was gone for two decades.
And during all that time, the people of the castle had followed my decree. They had never failed to. There was no trade with the world outside the wall, even when it became clear that there would need to be trade if the castle and its people were to survive. They remained within the castle walls.
And because of it, they had suffered. Lykos had warned me that day at the wall that the castle would not be able to provide for itself forever.
I found them, those who ruled in my place when I was gone, my friends, Nox and Lykos. Their hair was going gray, and they were far too thin. But they were still standing. As were the triplets. But Melfed was bedridden, like so many in the castle and in the homes on the grounds.
They had practically run out of food, and would soon run out of water.
The rooms and halls of the castle proper were full of the sick, starving, and dying. Healers were tending to them as best they could.
They took me to Melfed, lying in his own bed, a sickbed now. I knelt beside him and took his hand the same way I’d taken my gran’s hand.
Lykos and Nox stood behind me. The triplets stood behind them.
“What about the shield wall?” I asked, dazed, not knowing myself what my question meant.
“The shield wall holds, my liege, and will hold, even after all of us are dead,” Melfed said, and he gave me a small smile.
“Liege?” I gently released his hand and stood up.
I turned to Nox and Lykos. “I’m nobody’s liege! What have I done? I never wanted to tell people where to go and what to do and how to do it.”
“This self-siege has almost killed us, Lark,” Nox said. “Why did you not return to us sooner? What kept you?”
“Was it fear of the beasts?” Wahid asked.
“Or were you trying to find a way to defeat them, so that we may go beyond the shield wall?” said Enas
Trana rubbed her chin. “I wonder…are those beasts any good to eat?”
I sighed out a breath, ashamed, panicked. But I calmed myself. I had an idea. “I’ll go back to my world,” I said. “I’ll bring back food.”
“Wherever you’re going. You won’t be back soon enough to save us,” Lykos said. “We are already dead.”
Nox stepped forward. The step seemed to pain her. “There is only one choice. Lift your decree and let me go outside of the wall. I will bring back food. It’s out there, within reach.”
I shook my head.
“Lark, you must listen to reason.”
“I am,” I said. “I will lift the decree. And I will go beyond the wall. I did this. I have to fix it.”
“This burden is not yours alone, my liege. We will help you carry it.” Two voices spoke the words in unison. They sounded familiar to me. I turned toward them.
Two tall knights entered the chamber then. Their armor was light, and they both wore masks that covered their entire faces. They explained that they had taken an oath to wear those masks until either the siege was finished or they were dead. I wanted to respect their oath. But I found I did not respect their oath as much as I respected the knights, and the lives they were willing to set down to help me fix my mistake.
“I have to see your faces, look you in the eyes, before I let you go out there with me.”
“Very well,” said the knight in black armor.
“As you wish,” said the knight silver armor.
They showed me their faces, and I was startled and comforted at the same time. I recognized those faces. They were faces that I sometimes fled, faces that I knew I could rely on, faces that I loved.
For the two tall knights bore the faces of my parents.
I gave the knights my portion of the last meal we were to eat before setting forth. I’d eaten breakfast before I stepped into the castle.
I went forth with the knights. We went on foot, for all the horses were too weak. And Lykos volunteered, but I insisted she rest.
When we reached the only gate that opened to the world beyond the wall, I saw the broiling storm. And I could hear the sound of babies weeping just outside. The sound gripped my heart.
I will surely die, I thought. But if I die, then at least I will die trying to help my people. I glanced to either side of me. And at least I will not die alone.
Beyond the broiling storm and the eerie sound of babies bawling in the mist, I saw a distant shard of sunlight pierce through the clouds. I kept my gaze fixed on the sunlight as I strode forward through the gate and past the wall.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel