Author: Alexis Pryce
Rating: R – Just because I'm not sure how far I'll go in the future.
Summary: 17 year-old Alta lives in a time when women were objects. Upon her sister's ungraceful rebellion, can she manage to save her own honor and yet marry how her heart desires?
Disclaimer: I own all of these characters. Meaning, you can't have them.
The winding line of fire moved slowly through the forest, illuminating only a small stretch at a time. The overcast night sky blocked out any shred of moonlight, making it nearly impossible to see. The howl of a wolf sent shivers down the spine of the girl who sat in the window of the tallest tower in her father's estate, watching the slow progression of torches throughout the blackened wood. Looking down at her lap, she swallowed hard and brushed imaginary wrinkles from the soft satin of her dress. Her face took on a glow in the candlelight, which wasn't even enough to cast a shadow. Standing, she slid her finger in the loop of the candelabra and stepped quietly down the stairs. It was winter, and the castle was cold. She'd known better than to sit at the window in the high tower for too long, but worry had engulfed her conscience. Now, with her cheeks flushed with the frigid air, she stepped out of the stairwell and closed the door behind her. Moving slowly towards the large, roaring fireplace, her eyes settled on a lone figure.
Once magnificent in stature with eyes that would strike fear into the heart of any villain, her father had been a great man. Being of noble birth had been to his advantage, but if life had dealt him a different hand, he would have been just as glorious. This eve, however, the stony eyes took on a glazed appearance, red and puffy from tears. His strong brow and defined jaw now drooped sadly, his rosy cheeks pale. Looking up from his stare into the fire, an inkling of a smile appeared on his lips.
"You needn't make a sound, and I know you are here, Alta," he sat up and patted the velvet seat next to him, beckoning his daughter closer. "Even in a time as black as this, you shine like the brightest light."
Smiling softly, Alta took a seat next to her father, placing her candle on the table nearby before leaning into his soft warmth. "Is there any word, father?"
Sighing softly, the old man wrapped his arm about her form, pulling her closer to him. He pressed his lips softly against the amber curls on top of her head before letting his head rest upon hers. "No, my dear…I am afraid not. I fear the worst for her," he looked down at his younger daughter with a curious eye, "but you…you seem not afraid at all. Have you no fear that your sister is gone from us forever?"
"I…I worry so for her safety, father, yet I know Lily is strong and graceful. She will be able to tackle any obstacle that comes her way. Have faith as I do, and the fear will disappear." Lifting her head and speaking with words well beyond her seventeen years, Alta's soft blue eyes gazed into her father's, dancing with the light of the fire.
"You never cease to amaze me," the nobleman spoke, allowing the slight smile to spread further along his aged features, "every day you are more like your mother than Lily ever was. But tell me…is there anything Liliana told you before she disappeared?"
The question stung in Alta's breast. The knot tied days earlier began to tighten. "I know nothing of Lily's whereabouts." The words burned her lips. Speaking false words to a father who, for seventeen years had been her sole provider and pillar of strength, was devastating to her. She hated to lie, but had also sworn secrecy to a loyal, yet free-spirited sister.
Watching his daughter with weathered eyes, Lord Marcus nodded, "Thank you. But if you should hear from anyone of her dealings, please…alert me as soon as you can."
"I will, father." Alta watched as her father stood, stretching slightly, the bones within his flesh popping like the joints of her favorite wooden chair in the library. Speaking no more, his soul too tired and sad for words, Alta's father bent to place another kiss on her head before walking slowly towards his bedchamber. Alta turned her head, watching the roaring flames of the fireplace in silence. The orange fingers reached upwards, ever grasping for an invisible goal. She felt Lily had been much like the flame.
Most of her life, ever since she came of marrying age, Lily had been paraded around like a precious jewel, placed on a pedestal for all to see. When the price was suitable, she was sold to the highest bidder. In spite of her engagement, Lily's rebellious spirit showed through as she sat in Alta's chamber one night, telling explicitly of her escapades with the stable hand. He'd been hired from Lord Archer's estate six leagues north, and on his first day, Lily had been drawn to him. She expressed more of an interest to spend time with her horses, claiming one had saved her life from a wolf in the woods. Of course, this lie, once told to her father, had prevented Alta from being able to take her daily walk to her favorite stream, but she didn't mind. Instead, she took trips to the stables, walking quietly all the way, hopping over rocks and tiptoeing around twigs. There was a particular corner where Lily could be seen, her straight red hair falling down her back, glinting in the sun. Lily had always been jealous of her sister's hair. Her own was curly, often unruly when it rained or when the air became thick with mists.
The last day she saw them was the day she was caught. Alta had leaned closer, watching intently as her sister stepped nearer to the handsome man. She thought she could hear Lily's heart, before realizing it was her own. Her breath caught in her chest, stopping fully as the stable hand pulled her sister into his arms and pressed his lips tightly against hers. Instead of pulling away and striking the man, as Alta had envisioned, Lily grinned into the kiss and wrapped her arms around him. Moments later, Alta forced herself to dash quickly from the stables, her heartbeat pounding in her ears, the cold air of the season stinging her insides with every breath. Stopping in the high tower, Alta pressed her back against the cold, hard wooden door and closed her eyes, waiting for the excitement in her blood to disappear. Instead, as her eyelids blackened her vision, Alta saw again what she had seen. As he kissed her, the man wrapped a large, strong hand around Lily's thigh, pushing her hard up against the nearby table.
Alta couldn't tell if the heat in her cheeks was from the sprint she'd just taken or the vision that ran over and over in her head. Although she was absolutely disgusted with her sister's behavior in the stables, she couldn't help but allow the sight to replay through her mind several times over. At dinner, she kept her eyes lowered to her plate, scarcely touching her food. After she had herself excused from the table, she went straight to bed, curling up underneath the warmed sheets, staring at the canopied ceiling. Completely engrossed in thought and memory, she nearly didn't hear the knocking on her door. She sat up and pulled the covers around her breast before clearing her throat. "Come in," she spoke calmly.
Lily entered the room, turning around to close the door softly before turning again to face her sister. "I saw you today."
The scarlet entered her cheeks again, giving away any chance at denying the claim. "And I saw you."
A smile spread across Lily's lips as she moved to the bed, taking a seat near her younger sister's feet. "You surely will not tell…"
"I cannot be absolutely sure of that," Alta said in a defiant tone, acting disgusted.
Lily glanced at her hands, stroking her porcelain-like skin before looking back up into her sister's cool, blue eyes. "I love him, Alta. Please tell me you would not deny me a chance of happiness with him."
Fire raged in Alta's soul. Lily knew better than to go gallivanting around with the stable boy when she was engaged to one of the most prominent dukes of the shire. "You know that what you do is scandalous. What if you were to be caught in such an embrace with him? What of your honor, Lily?"
With a laugh and a swoop of her nightgown, Lily stood and turned about the room. "Oh, I care not of what would happen, Alta! Do you not see how beautiful he is? How passionate our love is for one another?" She spread her arms and twirled in a circle, her white skirts swirling about bared ankles.
"Your honor reflects on my honor. It reflects on the honor of our father, Liliana." It seemed wrong for a younger sister to stand up to her older sibling, to be the complete voice of reason in the situation. Yet Alta poured on, "If you are caught with him, you could ruin my chances of a plentiful marriage."
"Well, then. I will just have to be careful not to be caught, will I not?" She gave a giggle and sat again on the edge of the bed, leaning in. "How much did you see?"
"I saw enough, Lily. You were entirely improper and scandalous in your actions."
Even in the slight, flickering light of the lone candle next to Alta's bed, she could see her sister rolling her eyes. "Oh, but you should have stayed for more of it." Her grin became mischevious. "And I'll have you know…you did not catch the first time."
"Are you telling me…" Alta licked her lips and looked towards the door as she lowered her voice to a whisper, "Are you saying that you have…shared a warm bed with him?"
Lily's answer came in the form of a slight pause, then the click of her tongue. She stood and grasped one of the pillars that held up Alta's canopy. "A warm bed of hay, yes." Alta's expression must have been an amusing one, as Lily's giggles became uncontrollable. She hopped around to the other side of the bed and laid next to her sister, wrapping her arms around her. "And please, with all of your soul, Alta…promise to me that you will not reveal any of this information to anyone…especially what I am to tell you next."
Alta listened to the seriousness of her sister's tone as her expression became grave. Sitting up higher, she looked to Lily, "You have my word."
Lily took Alta's hands in hers, rubbing her soft fingertips over her sister's warm knuckles as she spoke. "In a fortnight, I will leave you."
"What? Why, Lily? What of your engagement to the duke?"
"Alta…I am with child."
The breath left Alta's chest just as swiftly as it had stopped earlier in the day. Her eyes searched her sister's face for any trace of a jest, but she found none. A small lump of fear became nestled in her stomach as she took in a deep breath after what seemed like years without one. "Oh Lily. And it is not the duke's child?"
Lily shook her head. "No, I am sure that it is not. I did spend one night with him, and during that night did I lose my status as a maid, but there is enough evidence to suggest that the child is not his," looking up at her sister, Lily fought back tears, "Please, Alta. When I am gone, deny any knowledge of my whereabouts to our father. I may return in less than a year, leaving the child in more capable hands. If I do not return, however, I do not want you to fear for me. I will be safe. James has promised to make me an honorable lady once again."
A lump now settled in Alta's throat. "How shall I do without you?" She whispered.
Flinging her arms around her younger sister, Lily squeezed her tightly and hummed a soft song into her ear. It was one their mother had sang to Lily years ago, before she died giving birth to Alta. The younger girl forced herself to memorize the melody at that moment, not wanting it to ever leave her side. The tune meant safety and love, and without Lily, she would have little of either. Only her father, whose recent politics kept him away from the estate, would be there for her. "Be strong, little one. Mother and I are always in your heart. And we love you dearly." Pulling away, Lily kissed her sister's forehead softly. "Do not allow them to sell you like a lamb for the slaughter. Let your heart decide your path, and there you will find true happiness."
It seemed only hours later that Lily was gone.