The Sun & the Rose

by soulpillar

Chapter 1: Chapter 1: Lavender & beeswax

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"Cecilia, please... just a while longer," the knight said.

A leather boot, hastily strapped with a metal shin-guard, hit solid stone as the armoured man stepped through the mirror.

Pitch darkness surrounded him. Only the gentle, shimmering, blue light of the oval mirror behind him illuminated the cracked floors. The boar spear in his hands and dagger tucked into his belt were his only defense.

A dull blue glow reflected off the hurriedly arranged pieces of battered plate on his body. His left arm and shoulder encased in a full steel pauldron and gauntlet whilst his right arm bore only an iron spaulder and a leather glove. Either leg had a metal shin guard strapped over well-worn leather boots. While a hauberk, a white tabard and an over-stuffed leather traveling pack stacked down on his shoulders. His gear rattled with each shift of his body, unbalanced, ill-kept.

An embarrassing assortment, but he had no time to plan for this.

One part simply wasn't negotiable; his helmet. An angular, hawkish armet of finest make. The front portion of the face plate had been stuffed full of lavender petals, while the breathing holes were sealed with beeswax. A leather strip wrapped over his mouth keeping the concoction from suffocating him. He didn't care for the smell at first but by now his burnt nostrils simply didn't notice it. Far worse a scent came from the pair of pale green glass shards pasted over his helmet's eye slits that reeked of animal hide glue.

Ultimately, it was a small price to pay to avoid disease-causing miasmic air. Uncle was quite specific; bring back Cecilia and nothing more.

He looked around, shadows and shapes tested his mettle. Between the pitch blackness of the halls and the green-coloured glass over his helmet's slits, he couldn't tell if there were wind-swept curtains or serpents in the corner. A jagged hole in the ceiling displaying a view of the starry night sky.

His muffled, huffing breath was the only sign of life in the dead hall.

"Cecilia?" He cried into the darkness: as best as one could through a layer of leather, steel and flower petals. "Cecilia, are you there? It's me, Gareth! Your husband! I've come to take you home!"

No answer.

Gareth grit his teeth. He took a knee, pulling his lantern free from the pack. His gloved right hand fiddled with the latch, striking the candle inside with flint.

"Christi crux est mea lux." He stood, raising the flickering light source to head height. "But in this case, a lantern will do."

Gareth's eyes quickly adjusted to the candle light, even if it only spread out by a few feet in every direction. Enough to stop him from falling into a pit at least, he reasoned. Between the tiny glass slits in his helmet and candle light, it would be a miracle if that held true.

He glanced back. The mirror's blue glow taunted him. A day had already passed, he was running out of time.

He stepped forward, armour clinking in the pitch darkness.

Only God knew where that portal had taken him, Gareth was beginning to doubt this was Earth at all. Yet, some sights remained familiar. He was in a castle, old and abandoned. Abandoned by whom and for what, he couldn't fathom.

The stone was old, but sturdy. Signs of battle lay everywhere. That was his first clue that he wasn't in England. King Edward the fourth's back-and-forth war with the God-damned Lancasters were fought on fields and forests, not castles. Then again, with the gold from the crown drying up, Rockingham castle was only in marginally better condition than this one.

Wait... what if this was Cecilia's castle? Gareth froze mid-step. He knew that his beloved suffered a grievous head wound when he met her. She spoke of being a princess of a far-off land called 'Equestria'. The local map-makers and cartographers' guilds expressed ignorance of it. Cecilia's injury was severe, he couldn't tell the fact from the delirium, and of late, neither could she.

The stories she told... of unicorns and pegasi, dragons and beasts. Those stories enthralled him. True, she claimed that she WAS of those beasts in human form, but young Father Clemens steadfastly believed that she was touched in the head, not possessed. How could such a gentle soul be possessed?

His boot hit carpet.

Gareth stopped, holding the lantern close as he kneeled. Wait... this wasn't a carpet, it was a fallen tapestry.

He gripped the bottom, pulling it straight.

The cloth itself was in beautiful condition, it rolled out like new.

He stood upon it, holding the flickering candlelight close.

It looked like heraldry; a scene of pure gold with a white border. Within the golden weave it depicted a horse. No, a uni- wait, this one had wings. What was it that Cecilia called it-? An 'alicorn'? Yes. The tapestry had a white alicorn standing atop the waves with clouds behind and a rising sun above.

"Standing upon water? Oh dear, how sacrilegious." Gareth smiled.

Perhaps that's where Cecilia got the idea from. She called herself an alicorn but it was merely her family's symbol.

The breath froze in his lungs. Perhaps...perhaps it was her family who stole her away..

His grip tightened on the lantern's squeaking handle. He knew that Cecilia would not have gone of her own accord. She wouldn't, he refused to believe it. He stepped off the tapestry, continuing down whichever way the hall might lead.

The stone paths were becoming familar. There wasn't a soul alive in this castle, he was certain of it. That meant that his highest priority was finding a way out of it.

There was padding of paws in the hall ahead.

Gareth's pulse raced. His mind fled and his body took over.

Just from the sounds he knew that the beast was large. The claws of a lion and the size of a war horse. The thing stayed just on the edge of the candlelight, a large shadow looming near.

Gareth calmly clipped the lantern to his hip as his free hand reached up to brace the boar spear. His knees buckled down as he readied himself. Between the pathetic glow of the candlelight and the slits of his helmet he was more reliant on sound and feeling than sight. There would be only one chance. He would not flee in the face of it.

There was a rattling in the darkness. Scraping claws, a deep, heavy breathing accompanied by the sound of leather rustling like a storm cloak... or great wings. A feline face hovered in the dark.

Gareth's sweating hands gripped the trembling spear.

The creature's throat rumbled like thunder.

The human stood his ground. To flee in the face of a predator would be death. Back off, remain calm, and it will do likewise.

Feeling returned in Gareth's feet as he shuffled back, a muffled chink of metal accompanying each step.

Before long, the face vanished in the dark. He could hear the creature retreating.

Gareth half-collapsed, pressing a hand against his pounding chest. His hearted slammed through his chain-mail. Perhaps life as Uncle's gamekeeper hadn't been nearly a foolish a choice after all.

It must have been hours since he'd arrived, and his encounter with that... creature had fortunately not been repeated, but now he was practically creeping around every corner. At the very least, he'd found what he hoped was the throne-room of the castle.

He lifted the lantern high, trying to shed light upon the twin footsteps leading up to the pair of thrones before him.

One throne was gold, the other was black... or a dark blue. Each had a tapestry of matching colour hanging above, along with a mirrored alicorn facing the other. A king and queen?

He turned, shaking his head. He could search this place for weeks but he still would not find Cecilia in it. If she was here, he'd have found her by now. He needed to find a lay of the land, and quickly, if he wanted to find his way out.

There, in front of him, was a balcony with a sweeping view of the landscape.

He hurried forward. One hand reached out to grip the stone rail as he peered over the edge. His accursed helmet did little to help him, but at least the full moon's light made it possible to see further than his out-stretched hand.

A courtyard loomed below, as ill-kept and abandoned as the rest of the castle. Shapes in the gloom only teased at their existence. Once or twice he thought there may have been something moving but--

Gareth noticed something large swaying in the wind beyond the castle grounds. A rope bridge extended over a chasm at the front of the castle. Beyond that, a tangled forest stretched out as far as the eye could see.

His leather glove creaked as he gripped the rail harder. To the forest, then.

The moment Gareth turned, a shadow passed over the corner of his helmet. The shadow turned to the shape of a spire, reaching up from the castle, only just out of sight, with the exception of magnificent sigil. A sigil in the shape of, a glowing sun; Cecilia's sigil.

Gareth's body moved before his mind could complete the idea.

Gareth's armour clinked as he charged through the castle. Retraced his steps, moved towards where the spire ought to have been, giving only the occasional glance for whatever might attack.

His heart slammed in his chest as he mounted the staircase, rushing up two steps at a time. "Cecilia."

The lantern in his grip swung and creaked. The stone windows and brickwork rushed past, offering glimpses of the dark world outside. "Cecilia!"

The stairs ended. A pair of decrepit wooden doors stood in his way.

"CECILIA!" He shouted, kicking them open.

Splinters sprayed forward in a cloud of dust.

Gareth stood in the doorway, huffing and glancing about as the haze settled.

Decaying white curtains over a single window, a set of three cracked black armoires, a cracked ivory vanity and a massive four-poster bed of white sheets and gold frame; a bedroom.

Surely, this was once Cecilia's. He stepped forward, looking at the bedding and pulling aside the sheets.

Empty. Of course.

Gareth sighed, nervously chuckling to himself. His wife had not fled because she wanted a bigger bed.

Still, there was something about the bedding that was odd. In fact, all of the furniture he'd seen was odd. The chairs were both too small and too wide, as though they either expected a child or two adults to sit upon them. Even this bed was far wider than it was long. If Gareth lay in it he suspected that his feet would dangle out over the bottom.

He shook his head. This was not important.

There was a skittering in the wind.

He raised his spear, head jerking about.

He looked to the ivory vanity. A sheet of paper on the table danced with the wind from the window.

Gareth walked over, laying the spear against the wall beside it.

The sheets had been affixed by a few golden paper weights.

He lifted one, pulling the lantern closer. No, that couldn't be right. He squinted, pulling it closer until it was inches away from his face.

Yet... the massive twin, rounded battlements and tiny gate nestled between were unmistakable.

It was home: Rockingham castle.

He dropped the sheet, picking up another.

The kindly face of young Father Clemens stared back, dressed in full habit and nervously fiddling with his rope belt. Another; it was one of the Destriers, Potestas.

Oh, Potestas... he broke his neck in a crevice a year ago, one of the visiting hunting lords tried to ride him after a deer.

Yet another, and another. Sketch after sketch of his home.

Who had been creating these, and why? Cecilia... when she spoke about the mirror. "Only open for three days, closed for thirty moons. Open for three, closed for thirty," Gareth muttered her words under his breath. She said that no one knew where she was. She-- were these hers? Did she send them back to her kin? Was she a spy?

One last sketch caught his eye. Gareth recognised the man in the sketch; it was himself. He was playing in the dirt with one of the boar hounds, grabbing it by the neck and rolling about. That was when he first met Cecilia, gently sketching what she saw.

She was beautiful. From her untouched white dress and tanned skin, to her exotic pink eyes and unnaturally coloured brown, blue and green hair. He was mesmerised at the very sight.

Gareth nervously brushed himself off and willed himself to speak to her. To his shock, she didn't turn him away. She spoke with him. She... she spoke about anything, about him, about the dogs, about houses, about her home, anything. God, he would do anything to hear her speak.

She said that she was a princess from a foreign land, and he immediately clammed up. Yet the way she smiled at him made his heart soar. He thought that, even if he was just a minor noble, maybe... just maybe.

But she was to leave within two days, and he could not go with her. The thought crushed him. Then again, Gareth was used to disappointment.

Then the most horrible... most wonderful thing happened. He hated himself for that feeling. She was injured, knocked unconscious by a swinging bucket.

She awoke within three days and she...clawed at the base of the horse statue in the courtyard. She said that the way home was closed and that she could not return.

It was then that he knew that she was insane. Yet... it was also when he knew that she would remain.

A gust of wind tugged the sketch from his lose fingertips, scraping across the tiled floor.

But she wasn't insane, was she? Her kingdom was real. Now it was his turn to face facts.

There was a glint of light in the vanity's mirror.

Gareth turned, snatching his spear from the way and thrusting it high.

An orange glow reflected from the window. The sun rose, shining through moldy curtains. The second day had just begun.

He walked over to the window, looking down at the now-illuminated landscape. The forest stretched on further than he thought.

A mountain rose up in the far distance, surrounded by verdant fields and flowing rivers. Upon it, a purple spire rose out of a city, ringed by fortifications.

A castle. An Occupied castle by the state of it. Yet, the distance from here was immense. The journey would take days, perhaps more, at the very least.

Gareth's throat dried up in an instant, his breath became shallow. This was it. Either he looked about this decaying castle one final time, and find her right right now, or he went home... to try again in another three years. Assuming she still wanted to be found after so long... or wasn't dead.

Gareth found himself walking back. Down the stairs, towards the mirror.

The castle, once frightening, didn't seem all that scary anymore. He was a proud huntsman, a man of stature and a war veteran. He was someone in England. Here... what would he be here? What of his duty to his uncle? Would he find another huntsman? What would happen to the animals that he tended for? Could Gareth live with the guilt?

What of Cecilia? What of his duty to her? Did... was she worth this? Did he really love her enough to abandon everything he was?

These questions needed months to answer. He had less than 48 hours. Life or death decisions were easy. He made them for a solid ten years as an archer. But this...

Gareth stood before the mirror, the blue glow illuminating him. The hole in the ceiling now let down a shaft of golden sunlight.

Even the all-encompassing smell of lavender and beeswax couldn't cover up the stench of his failure.

Search that castle, or search this one. Gareth's duty to his wife or his duty to his lord. Cecilia or Rockingham.

Gareth squeezed his eyes shut. Uncle... what he wouldn't have done for your advice right now.

A distant, echoing whinny rolled down the halls.

The sound dragged Gareth back to the present. He spun around, clipping the lantern back to his hip and pulling up the boar spear.

There was something in the dark of this castle. That sound... almost horse-like, yet not quite.

He'd spent his entire life around them. He'd heard them afraid, angry, happy; an entire spectrum of emotions. That timbre, the pitch... it wasn't right. Gareth glanced back at the portal. It would close in another two days. There was an entire squad of men-at-arms on the other side ready to stop whatever beast might step through. Even still... he could help fend off intruders.

He surged forward, armour clinking with each pace. For the first time in years, he was relieved at the threat of battle.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2: Mud & tears Estimated time remaining: 6 Hours, 36 Minutes
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