CHAPTER THREE

Analeigh…

Analeigh stirred in bed as rays of bright sunlight penetrated through her eyelids. She groaned, turning so her back was to the light. Even then though, the light seemed to be too bright. She opened her eyes and blinked at the wall for a moment, wondering what time it was. It had to be quite late for the sun to be streaming in as it was. Her grandmother was probably worrying as to why she hadn't gone down as yet.

Stretching, she got up off the bed and made for the window, taking in a deep breath of the cool, fresh morning air. The view was absolutely gorgeous, the sun rising up from the mountains before her, warm and welcoming, brightening everything around it. She could make out the tall tower of the castle against the sun, and she heard laughter of children. Turning to her right, she saw a park in the outskirts of the town, Luane. She could make out small figures kicking around a football, laughing and chatting. She smiled, so there was civilization here after all.

Letting out a content sigh, she made her way to the bathroom across the hall from her bedroom (there was only one in the cottage) and brushed her teeth. She then went back to her room and grabbed some fresh clothes, and after a quick shower, she dressed. She was standing in front of the bathroom sink's mirror, combing out the tangles in her long black hair when her grandmother knocked on the door.

"Ana? Is that you?" she asked in her soft voice, lilting with a light accent and achingly sweet to listen to. Ana knew she got her own lovely voice from her grandmother.

"Yes, Mamma." Ana said, unconsciously using the nickname. She opened the door and turned back to the mirror, "I'm sorry I woke so late. I guess I was really tired." She said, not looking away from her reflection, so not seeing her grandmother's elated face at having been called 'mamma'.

"Ma cherie, it isn't late at all. I was wondering, in fact, why you were awake so early!"

Ana frowned, turning away from the mirror to look at her grandmother, "Early? What time is it?"

"Five thirty." Rosalie said, smiling, her light lavender eyes lighting up with amusement, "What time did you think it was?"

"Close to lunchtime." Ana said, stunned. Five thirty! Good god, never in her life had she woken up so early!

"Would you like some breakfast?" Rosalie asked, smiling gently, her eyes warm with love.

Ana met her gaze and flinched away from the love there, her own amethyst eyes carefully blank. Ana shook her head, "It's too early." She muttered, looking away from her grandmother, "I think I'm going to go out for a walk."

She edged past Rosalie, careful not to touch her and then entered her room. After leaving her towel to hang dry and leaving her dirty clothes in one corner of the room, she gave her grandmother a forced smile before going downstairs and letting herself out of the house.

Ana made her way down the path leading to the cottage and opened the small white gate at the picket fence of the cottage, letting it swing shut behind her. She took a left and followed the meandering road to the town. Her grandmother lived five minutes away from the town by foot, which, when all things considered, wasn't too much time at all. Between her grandmother's cottage and the grocer's store which marked the start of Luane, there were no buildings. As the grocer's store came into view though, a small cobblestone road forked out from the main road.

Ana paused, her eyes thoughtful as she looked at the entrance to Luane and then the cobblestoned road. Which way to go? Would this small road lead the way to the castle? Would she be allowed to enter at this time? Or would it be closed? Determined, Ana stepped off the main road and onto the cobblestoned path. She walked through it, marveling at how, almost immediately, the trees surrounded her, transporting her to another world. They were tall and unkempt, towering above her, blocking out the sun, leaving her to make her way to the castle, not in silence, but with the sounds of nature. She could here birds chirp. Different kinds of birds, different kinds of chirping. Frogs croaked, and the bubbling welcome of a stream, or spring could be heard.

Ana had no way of knowing that as she picked her way through the cobblestone path, her beautiful face was lit up with a smile. A smile that was both gentle and content. A smile that would make those around her want to smile as well. If there were anyone around her that is. For, there in the midst of the trees, she seemed to be quite alone. She thought of the boy at the top of the castle tower and comforted herself. She may be alone now, but he lived in the castle. He would be there.

Her first glance of the castle made her catch her breath. This was no well-kept castle that had been preserved in order to attract tourists. No. This was an abandoned castle. A castle which, by the looks of it, had not been lived in for several years! The gray stone walls could barely be seen under the thick network of creepers that scaled them. The large wooden doors stood open, letting anything in or out of the magnificent structure, making Ana nervous as to what could be inside. She thought of the boy she had seen now. The man. What had he been doing at a castle like this, dressed as he was?! Was he maybe a mad man? A mad man who had escaped an asylum and thought himself royalty?

Ana frowned, no. Something told her she was very wrong in her assumption, but no other alternative explanation presented itself to her. She took a step back from the overgrown castle and started to turn. She had no wish to enter a castle that might be home to a mad man! She stopped herself though, a thought crossing her mind. If she went back, what was she going to do? Spend the rest of the day hurting her grandmother with her indifference?! Her decision now firmly made, Ana turned back to the castle and studied it.

She had already observed the walls covered with green creepers and the doors which were ajar, so now she turned her attention to the windows which were in various stages of destruction. Some had come off their hinges and now lay on the forest floor, probably having flown off during some kind of storm, or so Ana hoped. Some were still firmly a part of the castle but the glass had been shattered, probably by some animal, or so Ana hoped. Still others, were in perfect condition, just merely shut with the curtains drawn. Ana could think of no simple way to rationalize as to why an abandoned castle had windows in perfect condition while the rest of the castle was so obviously falling apart. Keeping herself from thinking about it too much, she looked up at the turrets of the castle. All of them seemed to be in pretty good shape. After a quick count, Ana came to note that the castle had, not one, but six towers. Three which faced in the direction of her house and three which faced the opposite direction, which, according to Ana's sense of direction, was the direction of the town of Luane. Out of the three which were facing her grandmother's cottage, only one of them was tall enough to afford a good view over the tall trees that surrounded the castle. That same tower was the one with the windows which were in mint condition. Sighing, Ana knew where to begin her search for the man she had seen the previous night.

Hesitating only one minute at the doorstep, Ana entered the castle. An odd smell tingled her nostrils, making the hair on her skin stand up. Fire. There had been a fire in the castle. She could see the truth of her discovery on the walls now as she made her way through the large entrance hall. They were black with ash, the wall hangings and the carpets below her feet were black and burnt, ruined. Ana felt her heart race and her breath quicken but she tried to calm herself. There was no reason to be afraid. After all, the fire had not occurred anytime recently. It had happened several years ago. She was in no danger at all.

Keeping the positive thought in her mind, repeating it every once in a while, she walked to the thrones at the end of the entrance hall. There were two large ones. One for the king and the other for the queen, she guessed. She gazed at them for a moment before turning to inspect the large open room. Doors lined the walls on either side of her. This was the heart of the castle, where the commoners were greeted by the royalty, Ana supposed, and from this room, you could make your way to every other part of the castle. She avoided the door to the right which was closest to the thrones, knowing this would be the one that led to the mad man and the tall tower. Instead, she entered every other door and explored every other room in the castle. She found the kitchen, which to her surprise, was not the starting point of the fire which had destroyed the castle. Its white walls were singed black, but not as black as they would be if the fire had burnt here the longest. She found a dining room of sorts, with burnt chairs and a large black table. Ana suspected that they had not been touched since the fire, for if they had been, they would have collapsed. Ana found the king and queen's bedroom. It was large, and tastefully decorated. It was relatively untouched by the fire, having been too far away from the origin. The large stately painting of the king and queen stood above the mantle of their fireplace. They were a very good-looking couple. The king was tall, and handsome, with red hair and piercing grey eyes which the artist had brilliantly captured, while the queen was gentle and beautiful. Her hair was a brownish gold, like caramel or honey, and her eyes were a deep, kind brown. Beside them, in the painting was a young boy, who could have been only around seven. He had his mother's hair and his father's eyes, and seemed to have been anxious and restless while the painting was being made if the way he clasped his arms together and his feet were not straight were any indication. The painter, in his own way had shown the boy's feelings in the painting, but on the boy's face, he had painted a smile, as Ana suspected, the boy's parents had instructed him to. Ana couldn't help smiling. She gazed at the family portrait one last time, wondering why on earth it was still hanging in the abandoned castle and not in a museum somewhere, before finally making her way to the tall tower.

She opened the door and found herself in a long corridor. She walked through the corridor, glancing back at regular intervals, making sure she was as alone as she felt. At the end of the corridor she came upon two doors. One was plain while the other had something engraved on it in gold. Both doors were burnt black. She pushed open the engraved door and it fell back, with a thud, making her jump. Ana found herself facing a flight of steps. She walked up the steps, looking around as she climbed off the top step onto the floor of a stunningly large room. It was circular, which gave it the impression of being even larger than it already was. To one side, there was a large canopy bed which stood charred black. In fact, every item in the room was charred black, making it quickly evident to Ana that this room was the origin of the fire that had destroyed the castle. Every item, from the bed, to the door leading to the bathroom, to the door through which she had entered, was burnt to a crisp. Every item that is, except for the painting that hung from the mantle over the fireplace.

This painting was quite different from the last. Ana almost instantly recognized the boy in it to be the same one from the painting in the master bedroom of the castle, only in this painting, he was several years older. He looked around eighteen in this painting, his wavy caramel gold hair falling over his laughing, friendly grey eyes. It was cut short, so that when a person looked at him they wouldn't notice his lovely hair but his handsome face instead. He had a strong jaw, and a captivating smile, straight nose and a dimple in his left cheek which showed when he smiled. Ana found herself staring at him in a way she hadn't stared at any boy in more than two years. She reached out and touched the painting, marveling at how in a room where everything had been destroyed, it had remained untouched. She ran her hands over his face and traced his lips with her forefinger, a smile on her face. Suddenly she heard a door open and close and she froze. The mad man! She had completely forgotten about the mad man! She turned just as a man stepped from the top step into the room. He stood there, looking stunned for a moment. She stared at him, wondering why he looked so familiar. She spotted his midnight blue and gold robes then and cried, "You!"

He seemed to relax then, folding his arms across his chest and studying her with his calm grey eyes. A few minutes passed before he opened his mouth and spoke, "How did you get in here?" he asked, not looking away from her.

She was a little scared. She was stuck in an abandoned castle with a mad man! What was she going to do?! She stared at him as she answered, her voice shaking only a little, "Through the front door."

He looked surprised by her answer, and then his features grew friendly as he laughed, his grey eyes laughing with him, giving her the second shock of the day. He looked like the prince in the painting! How could that be?! She glanced back at the painting on the wall and found her hand still on it, but it was everything around the painting that made her drop her hand and step away from the painting. The black, burnt room was now a creamy yellow, warm and welcoming. There was a large throw-rug on the floor beneath her feet and the fireplace crackled with a lively fire. The canopy bed which had been charred black was a wooden bed with posts made of teak and the filmy canopy of the bed was made up of gold tissue and the mattress was covered by a midnight blue bedcover with some sort of emblem in the middle. A coat-of-arms! Ana started to get a bad feeling as to what was happening around her.

The young man in the room with her had stopped laughing, and was now eyeing her with amusement, "Is something the matter?"

Ana didn't say anything, only stared at him with wide, worried violet eyes. His face grew concerned then as he took a step toward her, "I am not going to hurt you." He said gently, his voice soothing, "What's your name?" he asked; his grey eyes seeming to take in every detail on her face as he looked at her.

"Analeigh Stone." She said softly, unsure of whether to let the strange man come any closer to her. Why on earth did he look so much like the prince?

"Analeigh." He said, smiling, stopping a few feet away from her, "That's a lovely name. My name is actually Prince William Terrance Leigh of Luane, but I prefer Will." He said, trying, Ana knew, to make her smile. But no smile came.

Ana felt her heart sink as a sickening feeling came over her. She stared up at the handsome man before her. Prince William of Luane?! But she knew, from what her mother and grandmother had told her years before, that Luane had not had a royal family in a hundred years! She felt her head spin and started to lose her balance. She threw her hand out to the wall, in an effort to steady herself and saw Will move forward, worry in his eyes, to help her regain her balance. Before he touched her though, her hand touched the painting and Will disappeared from in front of her. She blinked as she found herself, once again, alone in a room which had been charred black by an all-consuming fire. Terrified, Ana ripped her hand off the painting of Will and backed away from it, stumbling on the edge of the burnt carpet which a few minutes ago had been a soft throw-rug. Tears stinging her eyes, she rushed down the stairs of the room and down the long corridor, not daring to look back in case something leaped out at her. She ran through the entrance hall and out the front door, not stopping until she was at the main road again. She leaned against a tree there, trying to catch her breath, tears streaming down her cheeks. She let her knees give way and allowed herself to sink onto the mossy forest floor. She covered her face with her hands and cried; glad she had found her way back, glad to be alive. Some part of her was disappointed though. Disappointed that she had left Will behind.

"Are you okay?" a deep voice asked, startling her into looking up.

Ana stared at the person kneeling before her, but all she saw were a pair of concerned grey eyes. The same grey eyes she had run away from. She let out a small yelp of surprise as she scrambled to her feet, pressing back against the tree behind her.

The boy looked a little older than her and not at all like Will; his eyes were a pale blue-grey. Her mind was playing tricks on her eyes, she thought, staring at him as he took a step back from her, his arms held out in front of him, palms facing out, "Hey, don't worry. I'm not going to hurt you."

Ana edged away from him before turning and running as fast as her legs could carry her back to her grandmother's cottage and safety.

COPYRIGHT SANJANA BALARAMAN.

If you liked what you've read so far, check out 'Timeless' by Sanjana Balaraman on Amazon or Flipkart. It has even been published as a kindle ebook! I hope you enjoy it.