For Kitty, here’s your quasi-instantaneously written story 🙂
She was slowly going around the corner, guided only by a sliver of moonlight, when she felt something around her ankle.
Her heart leaped to her throat, but it was only a creeping vine. Mina shook the offending plant away and continued creeping through the gardens. In the year since her father, Lord Uric, had passed, the entire estate had gone into a rapid decline. The fountains stopped working, the water fouled, the gardens and grounds grew wild, the older parts of the castle creaked and crumbled, and luxuries afforded the Lords family like magic fireplaces, secret doors, and ice on summer days were gone.
Mina berated herself for taking so long to put the facts together to realize that her father must have taken whatever it was that kept the heart of his estate beating and hidden it. It took even more time for her to deduce it was most likely in the garden. That was the first reason she was here, creeping about in the tangled and uncared-for plants. The reason she was doing it in the dead of night was more concisely stated: her half-brother, whom she would not mention by name, and his Red Guard.
Silver light illuminated the path enough for her to continue without tripping. She kept her eyes peeled for the magical undertones that would reveal things that couldn’t be seen under the light of the sun. Unfortunately, Mina didn’t have the first clue what it was she was looking for, and even after four hours of searching, she still hadn’t seen the slightest trace of it. To make matters worse, she was now being followed.
She bend down, felt around until she found a thick branch, then stood and slipped behind a tree and paused, listening but hearing nothing. She waited, holding her breath, and was rewarded with the sight of a shadow walking with stealthy steps along the path she had taken. She went after it, the follower now the followed, the branch clutched in her hand.
She came up behind the shadow and brought the branch crashing down. A solid thunk and a low moan reached her ears as whoever it was crumpled to the ground, turning around in the process. The light of the moon fell on the face of her most trusted advisor, Malco – who had served her father before her – his eyes crossed as he fought to stay conscious to gasp out a message.
“I have come to warn you…” He blacked out as a cloth was thrown over Mina’s head.
She struggled and a swung her arms around. She felt the branch connect with something, and her attacker fell away. Mina whipped the covering from her head, clubbed the figure on the ground once more for good measure, and rushed back to Malco. He was beginning to come around, groaning as his fingers explored what must be a giant bump on his head. His eyes widened when he saw Mina.
“My lady!” he exclaimed. “They are coming for you!”
She didn’t need to ask who he meant. It could only be the Red Guard, the sell swords her half-brother had been moving into the castle at an alarming rate.
“They think you’ve found it,” Malco continued, getting slowly to his feet. He glanced at her with concern. “Are you alright?”
Mina shook her head. “I’m fine. There was someone, but I didn’t see who it was.”
She pointed at the attacker she had dispatched. They both looked back at the form still crumpled on the ground, and then walked over. Malco bent down and turned the person over so they could make out his face. Mina gasped.
“Is that an elf?”
Malco nodded, wearing a similar expression of shock. “What is he doing here?”
“I have no idea,” Mina answered. “I thought they were extinct, at least this far south.”
“He’s not wearing the uniform of the Red Guard,” Malco said.
Sounds came from behind them – sounds of people moving through the trees – drawing their attention.
“We should get out of here,” Malco said. “And find someplace to hide.”
“The pump house,” Mina replied at once.
Malco nodded and started to walk off. Mina couldn’t stop staring at the unconscious elf, silky blond hair like moonlight on the ground, foreign features delicate and striking. He had a mark on his neck, perhaps a tattoo.
“We can’t leave him here,” she said, her mouth moving before she thought it through.
Malco looked confused and pained. “He attacked you. Even if he is not working for your brother, we have no obligation to him.”
Mina couldn’t explain it, and didn’t try to. “We have to bring him.”
At her firm tone, Malco obeyed at once. With one of them on either side, they carried the slight elf with little difficulty further into the gardens. The pump house loomed up in front of them. It kept the waters in the fountains pristine and flowing, but since Mina’s father had died, the wheels and pipes had mysteriously stopped working, just like all the other contraptions on the estate.
They let themselves into the stone rooms, the faint dripping echoing in the darkness. Mina and Malco propped the elf against the wall.
“What do we do now?” Mina asked her advisor.
“We wait, and in the morning, when the sun comes out, we can go back,” Malco told her. “The Red Guard won’t do anything in the light.” He looked at her, a reproving frown on his face. “Which, I might remind you, is why you’re supposed to stay within the walls of your keep after the sun goes down.”
“I know, but I had an idea,” Mina said. “What will we do with him?” she asked, changing the subject from her midnight wanderings.
“I don’t know,” Malco replied, eyebrow raised. “You’re the one who wanted to bring him.”
Mina went over to stand by the elf, looking down at him, arms and legs at odd angles, chin on his chest. His head snapped up, and Mina stumbled backwards with a gasp. The elf looked up at her with bleary, green eyes. When he focused on her, his eyes widened and he tried to get away. He looked like a cornered wild animal. Mina held her hands out.
“It’s okay,” she said in a soothing voice, hoping he could understand her.
His head cocked, and after a moment, he spoke. “You’re Lady Mina.”
Mina nodded, somehow not surprised he knew her name. “Who are you?”
“My name is Neir.”
“What are you doing here?” Mina asked.
Neir smiled. “I am…was here on your father’s words.”
“Prisoner?” Mina asked tentatively.
“Guest.” The elf played with the hem of his shirt. Mina noticed he was thin and dirty.
“How long have you been here?” she asked.
The elf stared up at the ceiling as he counted to himself. “A long time. In your home? About thirty of your years. Hiding here? A year.”
“What…” Mina stopped, and worked it out for herself. The truth dawned on Mina with the warm glow of a particularly beautiful sunrise. Her father hadn’t hidden an object, he had hidden a person: the elf.
“Why did my father keep you here?”
The elf gave her a look which clearly said don’t be thick. Mina changed her question.
“Are you responsible for the state of this place since my father died?”
“Not the way I would put it,” the elf said, sounding affronted. “I would say I was responsible for the wonders of this place while your father was alive.”
“You kept it all going?”
“Everything,” Neir said. “At least, I used to.”
“Why did you stop?”
“I think you know that,” Neir answered, with another of his don’t-be-daft looks, though his voice sad. He took a deep breath. “Your father didn’t want anyone to know because he thought it would endanger his alliances if the other Lords knew he was harboring a creature such as myself…”
“Why would that matter?” Mina asked with a frown.
“You don’t know much about why there are no elves in your part of these lands anymore, but suffice to say, knowing your father tolerated my presence would have soured the favor of the other lords. We made a deal, Lord Uric and I. He would provide me with shelter, I would help him with magic. It worked quite well for a time, but then his son became greedy and had him killed in order to take over what Lord Uric had built.”
“So you stopped to spite him?” Malco asked, sounding none too pleased. He knew none of this either, Mina realized.
“I stopped because continuing would call attention to my being here,” the elf said. “And now I have to spend all my time hiding from the Red Guard. They are slow, but they’re catching on. I thought you were one of them,” he confessed. “I didn’t mean to attack you, Lady Mina.”
Mina accepted his apology with an absent shake of her head, the memory of the heart-pounding terror at being assaulted in the dark the furthest thing from her mind right now. She thought for a long time, another idea forming in her mind, not the same blinding light of the idea to search the garden, but the slow unfurling of a rose’s petals with the light of the sun. “If I promised to harbor you, as my father did, would you be willing to help me?”
Neir smiled and shrugged, but his green eyes gleamed. Mira looked at Malco and smiled; at last, now they had something to use against her brother.