Hazel shivered, the bitter night air creeping through her clothes, sinking into the pit of her stomach. The deserted streets echoed with the chorus of creaking doors and rustling leaves. She couldn’t help but think someone was watching her as she approached the graveyard. The foul stench of death wafted through the air, lingering around the headstones, on which names were etched in lettering too pristine, too harsh, like white bone in a rotting corpse. Hazel shoved the thoughts out of her mind. She spent too much time here, and she knew it. If her father had only let her see her mum, visit once or twice a week, or even a month… but it was no use. He had wanted to keep her away, make her forget, hoping to forget his own grief, but she couldn’t resist coming here, leaving a few flowers. Tears streaked down her cheeks, and she let out a stifled sob. She wasn’t one for crying, but ever since her mum had died, she had felt broken, empty. Now she was alone, and there wasn’t any point in holding back her feelings. Although, this time, it hadn’t been just sadness that had driven her here. She sniffed, and wiped her eyes, remembering the stranger. It was a distinct, creeping curiosity, trailed by a hint of fear. There had been a man here yesterday. Searching the graves, but his eyes barely flitted over the names. She had begun to creep behind him, following him through the rows, trainers crumpling the mottled weeds peeking through the patches of grass. Then he had disappeared. There was no door, no secret underground bunker that he had crawled off to. There was nothing. Today, she wanted to find that nothing, step into it, and see what happened.
It might have been a trick of the light, she thought as she trudged towards the spot where the man had been just the night before. He had been dressed in black and could have been a criminal. Maybe he just didn’t want to be followed. But the criminals that lived around here weren’t like that. They stole groceries and clothes from the high street or smoked in dark alleyways. Not so secretive, so searching, eyes penetrating the surroundings as if trying to make the ground tremble with his stare. She shivered again. It was getting colder, but less than half an hour had passed since she had arrived. It couldn’t be that late, but the temperature seemed to have dropped ten degrees. There weren’t any lampposts, and the only light was from the moon, wisps of moonlight silver phantoms dancing through the sky. Suddenly, she thought she saw a figure shift in the darkness. Fear shot through her veins, and she spun. The darkness wrapped around her, suffocating her, twisting to obscure them from view. She thought she noticed more people, creeping through the darkness towards her. She had to get out of here. Someone was right behind her. Before she could react, a bag was flung over her head and her screams were muffled, stifled by thick fabric, suffocating her, and she was forced onto the ground. She struggled, fighting her captors with a vicious fury, but they held her down, more than one of them, she could tell. Was the man there, the one she had seen yesterday? How many more people knew about this? Blood pulsed through her head, and she let out gasps of terror. With her last shreds of energy, she tore herself free from their vice-like grip, pulled the fabric over her head, and spun to face them. Figures dressed in dark shirts and trousers, faces hidden under fabric masks. Dark eyes, other than the man in the center, who had eyes of startling blue. She knew this was the same man she had seen yesterday. One lunged for her, and she hurriedly dodged their grasp, lunging for the empty space where she thought she had seen the man go the night before. Her eyes widened as a strange sensation washed over her, a cool breeze drifting over her, before she collapsed through the doorway.
Messengers bustled through the doors carrying baskets brimming with scrolls. Alex ran a hand through their unkempt blonde hair, exhaustion evident in their expression. Hands sore and aching, they put down their father’s ostentatious feather quill, scanning the newest batch of letters and documents wearily. Sunlight blazed through the grand windows surrounding the dome of the palace, and leaves brushed against the glass from the magnificent trees outside.
“How many more?” they grumbled as the palace scholars swept inside the hall, led by Lillian, a rather intimidating older girl with long black hair which she brushed over her shoulders. “You mean how many more heavy scrolls do we have to tirelessly carry over to your table all the way from Dramethia? Plenty, your highness, plenty.”
“I have to sign them all, and write letters back, and handle all the political stuff.”
She gave them a dry smile.
“Just preparation for when you’re the ruler of an entire kingdom, darling.”
“Shut it.” Alex grinned. “Or I’ll have you executed.” She scoffs.
“I could burn you alive or drown you before you could get me in chains.” Lillian flicks her wrists carelessly, letting a plume of water cascade from her hands and drench Alex and the royal tunic they despised. She peered over at his work, papers sprawled over the table, numerous inkwells eagerly awaiting use at the edge of the table. She picked up a scroll.
“I don’t know,” they replied. “I haven’t looked at all of them.”
“It says urgent!” she says impatiently. “Look at this one before you do any others. Wait no, I will.”
“I can handle that myself,” Alex groaned.
“Obviously,” Lillian answered sarcastically, and opened the scroll. Her eyes widened.
“Someone – a human – a stranger – came through the portal.”
The horses’ hooves thundered across the field, heading towards the forest at a frantic gallop. The grass waved jovially in the morning breeze, a stream gently nudging aside the reeds that caressed its surface. A path wove through the fields from the palace, lined with small hedges, but today Alex rode beside it. Time was of the essence; if the stranger entered the city, they could discover magic and everything else and bring it back to the human world. Terrible things could happen. They shuddered. They had seen the weapons humans could make without it, but if they could make them thousands of times stronger…
As they approached the forest, the soldiers behind them slowed, swinging spears and quivers over their shoulders, ready to aim. Lillian rode ahead, seeming especially graceful cantering along the dappled path. She too, had a bow, an arrow already nocked. Anything could happen past the palace grounds. Torches hovered above the ground; flames perched delicately on thin air. The portal was nearby somewhere, far from the nearest city walking, but a mere minute’s distance with the magic one could find in the forest surrounding it. Some of the scholars launched themselves off their horses, gathering herbs and plants with studious expressions. Alex could smell the magic in the air, a bittersweet scent like that of cinnamon and fresh apples. Light glinted off an object nestled between the trees. A scholar grasped their arm, trying to stop them, but they wandered closer to the thing, soon realising it was a doorway. This was it. The portal.
Hazel stared up at the figure who had just come to her aid, well, she assumed so. The kidnappers were gone, and these people were here… maybe she had blacked out at one point. And then it came flooding back to her. These were the kidnappers. One of them had ice blue eyes, like the man she had seen in the graveyard. Hurriedly, she took a step back, and felt the cool breeze again. Eyes wide, she glanced behind her, thoughts in chaos. What was happening? Light glinted off a doorway that looked like it was made of pure moonlight. She must be hallucinating. Sleepless nights and grief could do that to someone, she knew that. But this seemed perfectly real. She wasn’t in the graveyard anymore. She wasn’t in England anymore, either. The air smelled clear and fresh, like honey, or apple pie, and everything looked so light compared to the grey skies and rain that were there. How had they taken her here this quickly? She looked up at the figure again. They had blonde hair, blue eyes and a grin that was sprawled across their face, bright and warm like sunlight.
Before they could speak, an older girl strode in front of them, holding the reins of a sleek black mare. The horse sniffed in complaint, and the girl sighed. Then she turned back to Hazel, dark eyes stern.
“We need you to turn around,” she said coldly, “and go back the way you came.” She stepped closer and hissed. “None of this is real.”
“What?” the girl asked. Lillian frowned, already tired. “Go back through the portal, and don’t tell anyone what you know.”
“Lillian,” Alex begun to protest behind her.
“Shut it,” she answered. “Let me deal with this.”
“What do you mean,” the young girl asked shakily. “Portal?”
“Portal,” Lillian repeated exasperatedly. “Yep. Thing behind you. Guess what? Its glowing. That should help you. Now walk through that and go home.”
“I can’t,” she said. “People were trying to hurt me. I just wanted to get away. Let me stay here, wherever we are, just for a few minutes.”
“Lillian, let her stay. She doesn’t even know what a portal is,” Alex interrupted behind her. She scowled.
“Be quiet, will you? We just need to get her out of here, then we can discuss who talks and who doesn’t.”
“I’m the future ruler here,” Alex said, rolling their eyes.
“Future… ruler?” the girl said. “Where are we?”
Lillian sighed, and gave a low growl. “We are in a city, very far from your home. Now go back there, through that portal! Not that hard, kid!”
At that moment, there was a noise from the portal. Lillian stiffened.
The girl looked very tense, Hazel thought. Maybe they weren’t the kidnappers. Another noise.
Lillian bristled, and stepped past the girl towards the light. “Who’s there?” she called.
Hazel didn’t know what was happening. The noises got louder.
Louder and louder. Lillian stumbled into the doorway. “This is Lillian, scholar of the palace. Who are you?”
The footsteps stopped, and someone called back. Hazel could barely make out the words. “Your-leader…”
Lillian softened, and let Alex step in front of her.
Hazel caught the reins of the horse as they slipped through the older girl’s grasp.
Alex heard the voice call again, louder this time.
A figure stepped out from the portal, wearing royal garments instead of her kidnappers’ black attire. But he, too, had startlingly ice blue eyes.
Alex stepped up to meet the figure. “Dad?”