“Can the fire be any bigger?”
Domani had not minded the cold on the trip - out in the wild, snow and trees on all sides. It had actually been exciting, something to keep her mind sharp. But here in her room she’d expected to have a chance to warm, instead the cold seemed to be penetrating her more, gripping at her bones, making it a labor to do more than sit and shiver.
“I’ve already had words with the maids who didn’t think to warm your room for you before your arrival,” Aleanna, Domani’s keeper, carefully took garments out of the travel chest and hung them in a wardrobe, “It will take time to heat a space this big, but it won’t be this cold always. By tomorrow you’ll be toasty in here.”
“It seems there are a lot of unexpected things to get used to.”
Domani was on her bed, the bedding cold to the touch. She still wore her fur lined coat, but had taken off her gloves.
“Can I help you?” she asked as she ran her hands over themselves for warmth.
“No,” Aleanna looked at her with a sarcastic grin, “I’d rather these get put away in order.”
Aleanna’s light brown hair was done up in a tight bun, and her long, narrow face was flush in the chilled air.
“I know how to do that.” Domani protested, though she grinned back at Aleanna.
The girls were only six years apart in age, and had formed a fast friendship in the two years Aleanna had served in her role.
“You should go, explore a little, get to know your new home. Give this room a chance to heat up.”
Domani stood and walked to another trunk, this one full of texts and writing supplies.
“I wonder if all my ink is frozen,” she said as she pulled out a vial.
“Please, let me set things up for you first,” Aleanna put down the jacket she’d been about to hang, and took the vial from Domani, “Give me a chance to put things in order.”
“Aleanna, is everything alright?” Domani put her hand over the other girl’s.
Aleanna laughed softly, “Yes, of course, I just feel... out of sorts. I -” her brown eyes met Domani’s green ones, and she seemed to rethink whatever she’d been about to say, “this is much farther than I ever expected to travel. I think it will help me feel more at home to find a place for everything.”
“It will make me feel at home when I can walk around in here without a coat on,” Domani wrapped her arms around herself.
“I know they are your things, but I’m the one -”
“Please, you don’t have to explain it to me, You’re the one who knows what in this mess even fits me. Of course you’re in charge of it. But I’ll stay and help if you want it.”
“To be honest, I feel since we set out, I’ve not had any time to myself. Time alone to set things straight sounds perfect.”
“Alright, then maybe I will explore a bit. Maybe I should see what Wilham has gotten up to.”
Still in her jacket, Domani left her room and walked slowly down the hallway. Here it was even colder, and she shivered.
“They have to be able to do something about this,” she said to herself, “how could anyone really live here?”
She traveled further on, out of the wing where she and her brother had rooms, to were the staff rooms were being set up. She hadn’t bothered even to poke her head in her brother’s room, Wilham wouldn’t be sitting still with a whole castle to explore.
Servants carried furniture and boxes through the halls. People ducked in and out of rooms, voices echoed off the stones. It was warmer here, people and movement generating heat. Shrill, musical laughter rang out down one hallway, and she followed after it. She turned a corner to find three children weaving in and out of a maze of crates. One popped out the end next to Domani, and she shot a hand out to snatch an arm.
“Tila, wait. Have you seen my brother?”
The girl’s eyes shot up to her, surprise quickly replaced by recognition, “Oh, yeah, he’s around,” she shook her arm, trying to wiggle loose.
Domani took a few steps forward to keep her grip on Tila’s arm, “Come on, where is he? I figured he’d be with you.”
“Off exploring.” The other kids tagged Tila as they darted by. Tila gave Domani a plaintive look. “I really don’t know, he just headed out on his own.”
“He told you where he was going, he tells you everything,” she let go of Tila’s arm.
“Fine, look,” she leaned in close, her scraggly red-brown hair tickling against Domani’s face, “he’s gone up to the third floor to have a look around.”
“Father said -”
“Yeah, I know what the the Lord said, that’s why Wilham didn’t want anyone to know. Can I go now?”
“Fine yes,” Domani started to leave, but turned back quickly, her curly red hair bouncing, “how did he get up there?”
Tila pointed down the other end of the hall from where Domani had come, “There’s a stair that’s only sort of blocked off, he slipped through there.”
Domani navigated the boxes, ignoring the children who tagged her as she made her way to the far end of the hall. Clear of the boxes, and around a corner, she saw the stair. Like all the stairs leading to the third floor of the keep, this had crates and boards blocking the entryway. The masons had declared the third floor unfit for the time being, too many unstable walls and holes in the exterior. Lord Devray had ordered it blocked until it was safe.
“Father should have known,” Domani said to herself as she squeezed between two boards, considering just how small her little brother really was, “Wilham would take that as a challenge.”
The stairs were in worse shape than the ones that lead from the ground floor to the living quarters on the second floor, and as she ascended the cold grew worse. She pulled her hood back over her hair, thankful she’d not taken off her coat yet.
At the top of the stair she peeked both directions down the hall. No candles had been lit, and the hallway was in deep shadows. The only light was far down the hall, a white glow, and also from that direction, the howl of wind.
“Wilham,” her hushed call seemed to be swallowed up in the shadows.
She straightened and stepped further into the hall, this time raising her voice, “Wilham, are you up here?”
No answer. With one look back to the stairs, she started in the direction of the light. Some of the wooden doors were broken and hanging at odd angles on their frame. The rooms beyond were impossible to see in the darkness. The light came from around a sharp corner, and when she turned she found a long corridor, and at the end of it a hole, half the height of a man through which she could see blowing snow.
“If you’re here Wilham, please say.”
As far as she knew, the third floor extended the whole length of the keep, and Wilham could have gone off in any direction.
Domani took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Just as Mildon, her tutor, had instructed her, she loosed her mind of the surroundings, and tried to bring her awareness into the still quiet of the Soundless. Of course, Mildon had also instructed her that attempting magical craft - trying to access the Soundless, was dangerous on her own. She was under strict command to only attempt it in the presence of other, more advanced crafters.
This thought was a bump, and small hindrance quickly overcome, as her mind welcomed the Soundless around her. Expansive whiteness surrounded her. The emptiness stretched out into a dizzying distance. The awareness of herself in all of it was only small, a thump, thump, thump of a heartbeat. It beat faster, frightened and excited, and practiced ritual kicked in. There was an exit, a way to leave, to be again a girl standing in a hall, not some formless thing lost in whiteness.
Learning to leave safely had been the first thing Meldon had taught her after showing her how to access this place. It was comforting to think of the exit, and the thump, thump slowed. But before she could slip fully out, she returned her thoughts to the expanse.
With careful, deliberate thought, she made herself aware of the other things that shared this space. “All things intersect the Soundless.” Here, where thoughts existed in literal ways, the memory of Mildon’s words were a dark black form in the air, a shape that spun around her and carried off into the distance. If she followed it, pushed her will at it, they might lead her to the man. Though it was not that simple. They might just as easily lead her to something else entirely or only float randomly away. She did not yet have the skills to give the thoughts here true form, or to push them to obey her as she wanted them to.
She tried to focus on the meaning of Mildon’s words, not getting distracted by their source. In this place there was a thread that could lead to anything in the physical world. Bringing those threads into her awareness enough to interact with them, without being overwhelmed by them, was the greatest challenge in her schooling. Despite the label crafters gave it, Domani had found this place to be overrun with sounds. The harsh, jarring sounds of rocks, like those in the walls around her, the quiet flutter of rain or snow, as was just outside. Too much noise drowned out the thump of self that defined her here, and she would slide out the exit for the safety of the physical world.
She focused on one sound, searching in both memory and awareness - the quick, familiar thump that signified her brother. All around there were other thumps, men, women, by the dozens in the keep below. She was able to dismiss them, and search for something closer to her own beat.
This exercise she’d done many times under Mildon’s instruction. She’d used the Soundless as a guide to find people and objects, and had relative success, especially with those things she had a close attachment too. But, without Mildon there to guide her, she found her thoughts skittering more than she wanted them too, jutting out in random directions.
Rocks, which sounded always to be clashing into each other, spanned a great distance between her thump and her brother’s. She slowly dismissed them, trying to take note of their property, the distance they might represent, without getting caught in them.
The thump was there, strong and familiar, and her own jittered around in excitement. She pressed the two worlds together, the Soundless and the physical objects around her, creating a guide in her mind for how far away he was, what direction. A strange, slow thump distracted her, causing her to lose track momentarily of Wilham’s place in the world. She willed her mind not to engage with it, and focused only on Wilham.
Her path finally became clear, and she slipped out of the Soundless, and back into the world. With a start, she jumped back, seeing an unexpected sight before her. In her meditations she’d walked almost the whole length of the hallway stopping only a few paces from the hole in the wall. The howling wind pulled at any loose fabric, and made the thick lining of her coat seem insubstantial.
Had she spent the whole time walking, stopping short only out of luck? Or, had she stopped long ago, her body protecting itself instinctually? She knew she’d have to tell Meldon, ask him what had happened. In her practice she’d never walked even a pace before. Pushing thoughts of that unpleasant conversation out of her mind, she turned and walked through the dark halls toward where she was sure she’d find her brother.
After a few minutes of walking, she began to doubt herself. Had it really been this far? Was she sure it was Wilham she’d located? Was she even following the thump of someone on the third floor? Surely in all this emptiness if there was anyone up her with her she would hear them.
In the dark she tripped over a fallen bit of stone. She went down hard on her hands, and her leg landed on another stone that slammed painfully against her bone.
She cried out, and cursed as she turned over, clutching her leg to her chest.
“Who’s there?” a call rang out along the hallway.
“Wilham, is that you? It’s Domi.”
“Domi? What are you doing here?” the voice came closer.
“Looking for you, and apparently falling down.”
Wilham’s small, birdlike body rounded a corner, and he bobbed quickly over to her. Like her, he still wore his coat.
“Did you hurt yourself?”
“No!” she answered, though she was still rubbing at the sharp pain in her shin.
“Good,” he crouched down beside her and offered her a hand, “Come with me, I’ve found something.”