The dark wood was shiny and slick, freshly polished and slippery beneath their feet. They scurried down the hall anyways, Louis trying to contain his laughter every time Niall would abruptly stop, or slip, and he’d run into the back of him. His fingers gripped to the fabric of Niall’s shirt as they ducked down to see if there was anyone in the adjacent hallway.
When no one appeared they each had another running start, falling onto their rears near the end and trying to hold back their snorts of amusement. So as not to draw attention to themselves. They would most certainly have been yelled at if they were found, as they were supposed to be currently in the study, doing their readings.
Niall had instigated their departure, but Louis had been the first to notice the floors and remove his shoes, so he could slip around in his socks. He may have been sixteen, but boredom was the wickedest thing Louis knew, and he did not wish to aggravate it with reading.
Not when he had more interesting things to be doing.
They were on the floor of the hallway, near the drawing room and their father’s office. The door to his father’s office open, which meant that he was not there.
It may have been the way Niall seemed to throw him a challenge with his eyes, or perhaps it was that Louis wanted to show that he did not care about the consequences. Even if they plagued him with fear and worry every day. He stood, stepping on his tiptoes towards the door, peering into the grand room. The window’s brightened the old wood bookshelves and furnishing with the snow from outside, white and sparkling against the suns ever present reflection.
Niall put a hand on his shoulder, leaning in close to peek as well. Louis almost jumped at the action, but contained how startled he was, chest beating rapidly at the implications of what they were doing.
Boredom would not get them yet. Louis took a small step inside the office. Nothing happened to him, and no one appeared to yell at him either. He straightened up, saying. Whisper quiet, still. “Come on, Niall. Father’s not here.” They had been in his office before, hid there a few times when they were younger, finding their own enjoyment in adventures and sneaking around. But they only ever did it when their Father was out of the house. Not when he could’ve been a few steps away from finding them. Once when the madam of the house had found them she had yelled at Louis so fiercely he had thought he would have been left out in the cold, alone.
If it were not for Niall sticking up for him, he well may have been. Niall was the youngest boy after all, and her favorite.
Louis turned back to watch Niall make a face of indecision before glancing down the hallways once more and stepping in.
Again, nothing happened. They were just stood in their Father’s room. They shared grins, expressions impish because they were doing something they shouldn’t. And getting away with it.
Louis walked further into the darkened office, over the rug that laid asleep against the wooden floor. He creeped over to his father’s desk, feet light and quiet, picking up the quill that sat atop its imposing surface.
He turned back to Niall to show off his riches.
Niall grinned again, moving closer to him as well, so he could pick up his own item. Louis glanced down following Niall’s movements as he went around to the box on top of the desk, opening it up to reveal a clutter of items, a few coins, a couple more quills, and a necklace, silver and sparking sharply where the sunlight hit its pendant’s face. Niall decided upon a bottle of ink, shutting the box after he’d picked it up, and cutting off Louis’ attention from its contents.
Niall grinned at him and Louis smiled back, wanting to reach out to ruffle Niall’s blond hair.
But before he could do so, a distinct few voices could be heard coming from the hall. He shot Niall a look of panic before they were tossing the quill and bottle of ink onto the table and scurrying towards the wall to the side of the door.
The paneling in the wall was broken, that they had played with many times when they were younger, that only they knew about, giving way beneath their touch to a space just large enough for the both of them to fit.
They had found the space when they hadn’t wanted to do their chores, hiding in their father’s office since no one would suspect they’d be in there. And when Niall had tripped over his own two fledgling feet and had fallen, forcing the paneling aside they’d thought they would’ve been punished momentously. It had closed though, as easily as it had opened and it didn’t look like anything had happened to it at all.
Escaping from their siblings had become much easier after that.
They quickly shuffled in, Louis hitting his ankle on the frame and squeaking a noise as they swung the secret door shut.
The voices grew louder, easy enough to hear in the room. He rubbed at his ankle, slats in the wood allowing him just enough light to see Niall’s face.
He could immediately hear the madam of the house’s voice. She sounded shrill and anxious about something. If Louis had not already been listening in, the words out of her mouth would’ve immediately stolen his attention. “Give him Louis.” Her voice was in a hushed whisper, though not nearly silent enough for Louis not to here. Niall met his eyes where their ears were pressed to the wood.
There was a long silence. Until he could make out his father’s low baritone. His calculated words. “Perhaps this… ritual has gone on for far too long.” Louis felt only hesitantly warmed by his sentiment, by the sound of his father not immediately agreeing to the request. Whatever it was. He had always known the master of the house had a soft spot for him. But he was still unsure what they were talking about. Felt anxious from the way the madam was speaking.
“Maybe it has, but I will not be the one to risk it. Not while I and our children are alive.” It only stung a little at the casual way she dismissed him. But he was used to it then, more so than when he had first arrived. There was silence for a long moment. Louis could imagine the madam staring her husband down. “We have to send him someone or suffer the consequences.”
Louis’ brows pinched, wondering who the ‘him’ was that she was referring to. It certainly wasn’t himself.
His father let out a long breath. The sound of his old chair creaking when he sat. “You know what he does to them.” He didn’t give Louis enough time to wonder what that was before his father was continuing, “And those were always maidens…” Louis couldn’t look over at Niall, could feel his eyes burning holes into his cheek nonetheless, “It won’t work if we send him a boy.”
“Do you want it to be one of your own children, then?” She asked next, tone shrill and still hushed. As if she were afraid she could be overheard. It was too late for that. “Those are our only options. You want to send him Liesel, Klara, or Alva? He doesn’t need to know Louis’ just an orphan we took in.”
His father scoffed, “I think he’ll realize he’s a male, Signe.” She had no response to that, his father continued, “Regardless, Louis is like one of my sons. What you are asking me to do is harder than you think it is.”
Louis bristled at the invitation those words brought. “He’s a stray. You never should’ve gotten attached. You have your own sons, Liam and Niall to think about.” A beat, Louis pressed his ear harder to the wood, “It’s our family’s turn to give –”
“I know whose turn it is! I know what the agreement is. It’s because of that damn agreement that Louis was orphaned to begin with.” Louis’ stomach twisted immediately at the statement, feeling that familiar chill that accompanied any thought of that night.
She was silent for a very long moment and Louis wondered if she would respond at all. It was only another pause before Louis’ heart was sinking even further than it had already gone. “Good, then you understand it’s the only way. Tomorrow we will have Louis prepare his things, and the following day he will hold up our end of the bargain.” The clip of her boots could be heard against the floorboards as she made her way out, shutting the door with much more composure than her statement had held. His father didn’t say a word.
Louis was packing the chest they had given him, removing his clothes from the one he had shared with Niall. He was sitting on the floor by the side of his bed, trying to keep his garments folded and orderly. So he wouldn’t make any bad impressions. He still wasn’t sure how he felt since he and Niall had heard about the agreement. They had stayed hidden in the secret cupboard for much longer after Niall’s parents had left the room. Niall hadn’t said anything, just held his hand and frowned, brow furrowed where Louis’ expression was blank.
His father had told him that evening, about the arrangement, a marriage… Had made an announcement at breakfast the next day. And that might have been worse, his siblings all delving into conversation, talking about him as if he weren’t even there. It wasn’t as if he weren’t used to it, but it still made his skin prickle and his nerves flare as hot as the porridge sat in front of him.
He’d barely managed to take a bite. Had considered skipping dinner as well, but his stomach would not have it. And he knew he would regret not being with his family for one of their final meals together.
When he had returned to his room, he knew what was instructed of him. He had put it off until then anyways. One final act of defiance, even if he never really dared to defy his parents before, lest they decided to rid themselves of him once and for all. It seemed that time had finally arrived.
Liesel and Klara were there with him, in his and Niall’s shared bedroom, whispering to one another and lying on their stomachs on top of his bed. Watching him work.
He would’ve found it annoying if he did not enjoy their company as much as he did. And he did not have to wait very long for them to share their secrets, as he placed another one of his shirts in the chest. “You know what happens on a wedding night?”
Louis shook his head, looking wearily up at Klara. Knowing already that he no longer wanted to hear what she had to say. She glanced over at Liesel with a grin. Before leaning closer to lower her voice, “You have to consummate the marriage or it doesn’t count.”
He pulled a face, cheeks warming slightly. The thought hadn’t crossed his mind…
He knew it was something that happened, but he hadn’t thought he would be doing it so soon. Or ever.
He had never had many friends in class, had never had a liking for any of the girls’ there. The boys had never thought too much of him either, had always believed he was odd for having lived so far off in the woods so early in his life. Thought he was strange, and they ostracized him for it.
But he had Niall and his sisters sometimes, and Liam even less often. Who was too strict, and too old to pay much attention to Louis anymore, even if he had used to play with him and Niall when they were younger; had taken care of Louis like he had all of his other younger siblings.
The girls’ giggling caught his attention again, even if they pretended they were being discreet and doing it into the tips of their fingers, hiding their smiles. “Are you scared, Lou?” Liesel asked quietly, around another laugh, “Of the man who lives up in that castle?”
He knew nothing about the person living there. Nothing about the castle except the stories his classmates had often made up about it. The boasts about having gone up there and having returned without so much as a scratch. How it really wasn’t as frightening as everyone said it was. They would claim this while paranoid eyes continuously looked back over their shoulder.
Louis didn’t have time to respond, before the Madam’s voice cut into the still air of the room. “Louis.”
He stood up then, turning towards the door, where the Madam stood, looking him over with her preferred shrewd gaze. An anxious crease still in between her brows. That hadn’t left since he had seen her leave his father’s office that day before.
She waited for him to give her a “Yes,” to indicate he was listening. He tried not to fidget under her stare, knowing it irritated her when he did.
“Sleep early tonight, and sleep well. This union must be maintained.” It was a moment longer that she continued assessing him. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
He glanced down at the wooden slats on the ground, feeling his cheeks warm again. It was so much more embarrassing hearing it from the Madam. His sisters were silent behind him, must not thinking it was very funny either. “Yes.”
She looked at him for another moment. “Good.”
She left and Louis glanced back at his sisters who were frowning up at him, like they may have just started to rid themselves of their amusement to feel bad for him. He grabbed the edge of his blankets, tugging them up a little to indicate they should get off.
They did so after another yank, leaving with murmured, “Goodnights,” and shuffling feet. Louis got into his bed, blowing out the candle beside him and trying to relax into the mattress. The darkness was crawling in slowly around him, tucking itself up against his spine, overwhelming in its presence. He could feel his cheeks flame once again, his chest tight. He breathed it in, that black air, curling his legs closer to his body, quilts pulled up to his chin.
He was scared. He was so, so scared. He didn’t want to leave, he didn’t want to be away from Niall or his sisters, even if they aggravated him at times. He didn’t want to live in a castle. That childish delusion buried deep, long ago. He just wanted to stay home.
He didn’t relax, couldn’t fall asleep until he felt Niall sneak into his bed instead of his own and twist around him as best he could. That loosened the tension in his lungs the slightest bit and he scooted closer, breathing him in. Familiarity. It was Niall’s snuffling snores that eventually put Louis into a fitful sleep. Certainly not what the Madam had wanted.
Louis stared up at the castle, that seemed so magical and grand, especially to one as young as he was, with eyes as wide as his. It was tall… surrounded by trees several times Louis’ height.
A small part of him was anxious, looking up at it. Letting his eyes glide over the wind darkened stone and the way it towered above the rest of the village, high atop its mountain peak. Louis had always heard frightening things about the castle, had been told to never step foot near it.
When he was even younger he’d remembered the school children talking about a monster that lived up there. Louis hadn’t been sure about a monster, but he rather liked to imagine a Prince living in the castle. Or a Queen and her family. He’d wished his momma and he could’ve lived in a castle together. And then she wouldn’t have had to work as hard and they could’ve just played together all day.
He didn’t think it was bad to want that. Maybe she would marry a king and they could live happily ever after like all the fairytales had said. He hadn’t thought it would be bad of him to imagine such a thing.