Night had fallen inside my ancient tower some time ago, the candles around me wilting into waxy stumps by the time I shut my book. A slight breeze presses past my curtains, making everything flicker with its phantom touch.
I rise from my desk with the book in hand, blowing out the candles one by one, saving the very last to light a lantern. I think perhaps a cup of rosehip tea will do me some good before I go to bed, and I’m heading down towards the kitchen anyway to put away my book.
The ends of my robes trail down the stairs behind me like silent wraiths snatching at my feet. I sometimes wonder if the night air might breathe a little life into everything, making even my robes float a bit more once the stars come out.
The stone steps wrap around the outer wall, with a door on each level opening to a large round room. I pass the spare bedroom that I’ve used to stash my collection of pretty rocks and crystals, the moonlight catching on a few of them to make them glow and sparkle in a way the sun never could.
I pass the drying room, with its strings of onions and peppers fastened to the walls, and bundles of herbs and flowers hanging from iron hooks. A large table that has been here longer than me takes up the center of the room.
I pass another bedroom that I’ve turned into a sewing room, and I think about the fabric I’ve almost finished weaving. I should work on it tomorrow, perhaps even finish it.
I’m just reaching the library when someone loudly pulls the doorbell, down at the base of the tower. I frown as I slip my book back into its proper place. I don’t often get visitors, especially at this time of the night.
A burnt-orange head with pointed ears lifts off the floor at the noise. Ollie, a red fox with three feet, rises from his nap on the library floor. I found him in the woods a couple years ago, and he’s been here ever since, pretending he doesn’t care as obsessively about me as he really does.
He comes with me as I hurry down to the still ringing bell.
I really don’t have many neighbors. There’s a small cottage in a clearing I can barely see from the top of my tower, but the old man who lives there doesn’t get out much. I met him once when I was gathering acorns near his place, and he was a gentle old soul. He told me where to find a grove of walnut trees and gave Ollie a piece of wood he’d carved into a bird. Ollie still sleeps with it sometimes.
He wasn’t the type of man to ceaselessly pull on my bell in the middle of the night.
Ollie must be thinking the same thing, because I can hear him faintly whining as we go down the last flight of stairs. “Cut that out.” I tell him softly. “No matter what time it is, that’s no way to welcome a guest.”
I’m only watching him out of the corner of my eye, but I can clearly see the look he gives. I swear he raises an eyebrow at me.
I’m a bit out of breath and feeling a little scattered by the time I open the door. Still, even if that hadn’t been the case, I’m not sure I’d ever be properly prepared for what stood on the tower’s front steps.
To his credit, Ollie doesn’t scream at them.
A king’s guard stands before me, the hand that gripped the bell rope now pressing against the wall for balance. He is bleeding, his eyes frantic. His other hand is holding that of a little girl’s. She is wearing a silk nightgown and robe, her dark curls falling loosely over her shoulders. Her eyes are red and wide and frightened, and she half hides behind the guard.
“I didn’t know where to go.” the guard says. “I just want to keep her safe.”
“Come in.” I say, and I open the door as wide as it will go. I know who this girl is, though I am far from keeping in touch with the news of the kingdom. If I remember correctly, the young princesses’ name is Viola, and she should be around eight or nine by now.
I lead them into the kitchen and point out the medicine cabinet as I start making hot cocoa. Ollie leaves for a minute, but returns with his bird carving and places it gently at the shaking Viola’s feet. She slips out of her chair and reaches out to pet his fur.
Despite everything, I find myself smiling at the resignation on Ollie’s face as he reluctantly but undeniably adopts her as his own kit.
I sit next to the king’s guard while he works on his wounds. “I will not raise her for revenge.”
He meets my gaze, letting my words sink in before nodding. “I just want her safe.”
“Then stay. Both of you, unless she is able to return peacefully.” I glance over at the princess, now sitting with an arm wrapped around an exasperatedly fond Ollie. “She will be safe here.”
A breeze steals its way in from the kitchens’ cracked window. A sense of peace settles over us; perhaps coming from the night air that gives extra life to everything it touches, perhaps from the smell of hot cocoa filling the room, or perhaps from something caught between the walls’ ancient stones from another time.
Perhaps it comes from all three, combining to make its own magic.
I think it’s whispering to us. It’s whispering about the future. About what has been. About what can be.