Present Day, Ridenseld Hall, The Reach.
Darian sat quietly in the candelight of his quarters, the arrival of the Hall's Colovian guests bringing upon him a wave of unexpected homesickness. Still, his heart warmed to see faces from his home. As unfamiliar as they were to him personally, their shared origins and homeland brought some measure of peace. He removed his armor methodically, laying his unbuckled arm cops aside and pausing with a sharp intake of breath as his fingers brushed a worn, green silk ribbon that wrapped around his bicep. It was something he always wore in some way, whether over a bicep in travel or combat gear, or more discreetly on his wrist in more formal clothing. Usually, he did not spend much time with it, the recent reminders of home that the guests brought made tonight different. Tonight, the piece of silk was at the forefront of his mind.
19 years ago, Castle Kovacs, The Great Forest, Colovia.
"Dar! Give me back my ribbon!" The girl shouted as her slippers padded rapidly down the carpeted hall. Her voice traveled along the stone corridor, buffered by the timber buttresses that gave the passageway a sturdy and secluded feeling. The halls were lit with torched sconces that cast flickering light on the gold-yellow and red colors of House Kovacs. Both the Talon family and the Hilnius family, among other guests, gathered once or twice a year for goodhearted festivities, as they did now for New Life Festival. Darian huffed ahead as quickly as his 9-year old legs could carry him and rounded a corner, quickly tucking himself inside an alcove as he listened to the pace of the following footsteps. Darian struggled to control the loudness of his breath. He furrowed his brow when the footsteps stopped. He waited anxiously as he prepared to jump out and give her a fright once she came into view.
As he listened, he ran his fingers across the silk ribbons he held, admiring the forest green colors with a mischievous smirk at how easily he got away. He held it up to see how the light from the wall sconces bounced across its sheen and slid his thumb across the smooth surface.
Darian nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound, looking up from the ribbon to Lucretia with his hazel eyes wide in shock. She cackled mirthfully at his surprise, placing her hands on the hips of her sapphire blue dress, a black slipper in each hand. "Ha! I got you finally, Dar!"
She stuck out her tongue at him in triumph and Darian turned his surprise into a frustrated scowl, looking upwards at the girl. She was only a year older than him, but to Darian's chagrin, they were both within the window of time when young girls grow more rapidly than the young lad. Oh, how it frustrated him too that she was taller, and worse, seemed to gloat about it always. He resented how easily she drew the praise of nearly every adult. It was easy to admire how gracefully and thoughtfully she carried herself in their company, seeming to show maturity far beyond her years. But to Darian, it was merely an annoyance.
He stuck his tongue out back to her, quickly taking the ribbon behind his back. She shrugged, placing both slippers back onto her feet and combing a lock of honey-brown hair behind her ear with her hand, "I'll still look great for the feast, with or without the ribbon." Her nonchalance irked Darian even more and he grumbled out a sigh, but remained wary, having given in his bargaining chips in past displays of unbothered facade. He held onto the ribbon this time, tucking it into his belt and wrinkling his nose impishly toward her
"You distract the baker and we both get tarts, then you get your ribbon back," he said, appealing to their shared fondness for raiding the castle kitchens, a popular pastime for them anytime their families were gathered. He glanced up and down the hall quickly, then beckoned her over into the alcove and pointing at a sconce, "Watch."
"What? Oh..." She giggled, whispering, "Is it a secret passage?" She looked curiously at the sconce. Darian nodded with a grin, "I watched one of the kitchen attendants go through here, I think it leads straight there." He tugged at the sconce just like he had seen the cook's assistant earlier, grunting with frustration as it failed to budge. He tugged harder hanging the scant weight of his skinny frame from the iron piece, smiling as it began to grate against the stone and came forward from the wall like a lever. The alcove split open, even the heavy stone bench built into the foot of the wall. A cool draft of air issued forth and Darian tugged his sable fur-lined tunic close at his neck and Lucretia did the same with her shoulder cape of fur.
They both stood still, blinking into the darkness hesitantly, wordlessly. Eventually, they looked at each other and nodded, overcoming their nerves to step into the hidden hallway together. At a touch of a more obvious lever on the other side, the hidden door shut behind them.
"Wha.." Lucretia began to say in the pitch-black passageway.
"Shh," Darian cut her off, "Look."
The dark hall began to glow in a pale blue light of luminescent stones, giving the passage a grey-blue and ghostly look. Combined with the chills from the drafty winter air, the children felt their hearts rise in their throats and their movements were shaky in youthful fear. They stepped cautiously deeper into the hallway, following the passage as it twisted and turned. A faint, rhythmic thump could be heard from deeper within and the frightened adrenaline in their veins caused their heartbeats to pound in syncopated harmony with the deep cadence from the walls around them.
After several minutes of careful walking, they came across a short branch of hallway perpendicular to the corridor they were traveling. A sturdy door stood at the end, and from beyond, the slow, haunting beat emanated. Darian looked to the door and then to Lucretia with concern. She looked to him with the same amount of fear in her eyes. Wordlessly, they came close to the door while the deep, drumlike rhythm continued to grow louder. Darian put his ear to the door and as soon as his head came to touch the dark, polished oak of the iron bound door, the thumping stopped. He waited with his ear pressed to the door.
A wave of cold condensed vapor, like that of the children's breath in the cold passageway, spread from under the door, just past his face. His heart leaped inside him, his body feeling cold with fright as a raspy breathing sound followed close behind the vapor. Something was breathing on the other side, but not like any human he had heard before. He listened as best he could past the pounding in his ears, trying to identify what it was he heard.
"Agh!" the children both exclaimed as the door rattled loudly. They jumped back, sprawled on the floor away from the door. They watched the door with fearful eyes as it shook, the sound of chains scraping across the iron bindings from the other side and the raspy breathing at full volume now, a gravelly whisper riding the waves of breathy vapor from beneath the door.
"Is it time for my meal...?" The voice said in it's soft, overpowering chill, the sound like icy spikes in the children's ears. They scrambled to their feet, Lucretia grabbing Darian's hand to drag him behind her as they hurried to the other end of the passageway and to the warmth of the kitchen. As they burst into the kitchen in distress, the staff looked over at them with a surprised and curious glance.
"Well, looks like some thieving runts in here, little lord and lady," said the baker, a portly fellow with a doughy double chin placed his hands on his hips. His hat flopped as he flipped the end of it back, stepping ponderously toward the children. As he drew close, he could tell they were clearly bothered by something. He looked behind them at the passageway they had emerged from, clicking his tongue knowingly. With a deft wave of the hand, he sent an assistant to close the passageway and looked concernedly at the two would-be thieves. They looked up at him in terror, both from what they heard and in fear of what the man would do to them now that they were caught.
"P-please don't send us back in there..." Darian said instinctively. Lucretia nodded furtively. There were tears welling at the edge of both children's eyes.
"Oh, no?" The baker looked at him with a raised eyebrow, turning his head to peer directly at the boy. He softened, "No, best you forget the passageway is even there." There was a firmness in his tone that implied he was protecting the children from something.
"There you are, Lucretia, Darian!" A young woman stepped into the kitchen, carrying her 14-years with practiced elegance. Upon her brow rested a small gold circlet over ringlets of dark hair, the same shade as Darian's. She directed her gaze at the two younger youths, her chin held high in an imperious visual tone of kind reprimand.
The baker turned, offering a polite smile and addressing her formally, "Young Lady Marilia." He turned his eye back to Darian and Lucretia, waving them over, "Yes, it seemed I gave your brother and Young Lady Lucretia a fright as they tried to sneak into kitchens once more. I had been wondering where my scones and tarts would run off to..." Making no mention of the hidden passage, and the true cause of their fright, he steps over to a cooling tray, taking a raspberry tart in each hand.
Marilia laid a disapproving look into Darian, "Thank you, Baker Valius. Perhaps they've learned their lesson." The hint of a smirk at the corner of her mouth hinted that she knew full well they hadn't. Darian suddenly felt self-conscious in the presence of his older sister, on the verge of tears and suddenly embarrassingly aware that his hand was still in Lucretia's. He shuffled his feet bashfully and pulled his hand away.
Marilia giggled at her brother's embarrassment, then took a look at Lucretia's unkempt hair, "Dar... Give her back her ribbon." The boy sullenly complied and held out the ribbon the Lucretia, who, through her tears, giggled at his behavior and began tying up her locks, sniffling as she worked to calm her nerves. Darian took the offered tart from Valius with a nod of thanks, Lucretia following likewise once her hair was secured. The two still hung their heads in the aftermath of their harrowing adventure.
"I believe your parents were in the main hall asking of your whereabouts," Marilia said softly to Lucretia, "Don't let crumbs fall on your lovely dress." She nudged the younger girl along with a light touch. When Lucretia had left, Marilia looked back to Darian, her tongue playfully in cheek, saying with a sigh as she straightened his tunic, " Dar, little brother... You and Lucretia can't get caught again this year, you've already used up your grace with this one." She continued to tease, "How can you expect her to like you if you keep pestering her and getting her into trouble? Mother says you must get along if you are to be married as agreed upon."
Darian wiped a raspberry smudge from his cheek with the back of his hand, grumbling, "Girl's are the worst..." He thinks back to the ribbon, adding insistently, "And I hate green..."