The wind began to swirl around them, plucking at hair and clothes. Cass tightened her grip on Daniel and Jonathan and squeezed her eyes shut. The wind picked up, howling in her ears. Her mouth opened as her feet suddenly couldn’t feel the ground, but, if she screamed, it was lost in the wind.
Almost as quickly as it started, the wind began to die down. She couldn’t feel her hands because she, Daniel, and Jonathan were clinging to each other for dear life. The abrupt feeling of solid ground under her feet made her knees buckle and she gasped. This time she also heard her friends and siblings gasp and grunt.
Slowly, she opened one eye and then the other, but still clung to Daniel and Jonathan. Her vision blurred for a moment and then the smiling faces of Arnold’s parents came into focus. She blinked a few times and slowly released Daniel’s hand. Jonathan still held tight to her other hand.
Meagan grinned and spread her arms wide. “Welcome to Sairon!”
“We’re on a tower!” Allison screeched.
Cass looked around. Her sister was right; they stood on top of a stone tower, mildly protected from the constantly whistling wind by a waist high wall. Beyond the tower wall were clouds, white and fluffy and too vaporous for Allison’s comfort. She didn’t blame her sister for her fear of heights; she sympathized. She could feel the ground was an awfully long way down and it made her sway uncertainly like the uppermost branches of a tall tree.
Suddenly, strong arms surrounded her and help her sink down to the stones. They held tight to her as her dizzy spell fought to let go of her. Inhaling Jonathan’s ocean breeze scent helped, but her vision still swam.
“The sisters aren’t doing well,” Arthur said. “Let’s get them inside. Arnold?”
“I’ve got her,” Arnold said.
Cass looked up in time to see Arnold sweep her sister into his arms. Allison’s knuckles turned white as she latched onto their friend for dear life. Her head was turned away and buried against Arnold’s shoulder.
“Cass?” Jonathan asked softly.
She held tight to him as she struggled to her feet. “I’m okay,” she said shakily. “Well, more okay than Allison. The ground feels very far away, but I can manage. Just…don’t let go.”
Jonathan nodded and held tight to her as they headed for an opening that was behind where they had landed. They started down the winding stairs, their footsteps echoing as they were surrounded by stone. As they descended, Cass kept one hand against the wall, drawing strength from the solid stones and the knowledge that she was getting closer to the earth.
“I had no idea Allison was afraid of heights,” Arthur said. He wasn’t speaking loudly, but his voice echoed down the stairwell. “I would have asked for the grounds landing spot if I’d known.”
“That would have been too risky,” Meagan said. “Traveling from so far, the winds might have, ah, had difficulty delivering the children. You know the tower would have for sure caught the winds and it’s the safest place for them to have landed.”
Cass shivered as she listened to their quiet conversation. She wished they weren’t talking about traveling on the winds, but, perhaps, it didn’t matter. Eventually, they would have learned, especially since traveling on the winds was common in Sairon, not that she had any intention of traveling on them again.
An interminable amount of time later, they finally emerged out of the stairwell and their feet found the cool marble floor of a wide hallway. Windows lined the opposite wall, offering a view of trees and an expansive garden. Fluted columns were equally spaced up and down the hall and were wrapped with garlands heavy with colorful, fragrant flowers.
“Are you okay now?” Arnold quietly asked Allison.
She nodded and mumbled something to him before he let her down to her feet. Frowning, she ran a shaking hand over her hair and looked around. Cass squeezed Jonathan’s hand before releasing it and going over to her sister, linking arms with her.
“It doesn’t look too different from Earth,” Cass remarked.
“No,” Allison agreed. “Where do you think we are? I mean, if Mom is supposed to be a queen and her uncle is married to the regent here, is this the castle?”
Cass shrugged. “Hopefully, we’ll find out soon.”
“This way,” Meagan said as she and Arthur emerged behind them.
Cass smiled at her sister and they swung themselves around to follow the couple. Their footsteps echoed down the hallway, the windows still only offering views of greenery and flashes of bright color. Soon, though, they were turning down another, slightly narrower hallway. This one was lined with a navy blue runner and the walls were decorated with large landscape paintings.
“If those are supposed to be paintings of places on Sairon, they look an awful lot like Earth,” Allison whispered to her sister.
Cass nodded as they passed an elaborate oil painting of a city in ruins, the woods surrounding it taking over. “There is a striking resemblance.”
They turned down another hallway, this one bearing a golden runner and pedestals proudly displaying elaborate floral displays. Despite the gross number of flowers, though, there was no cloying scent and Cass wondered if plants on Sairon bore no scent at all. A feeling at the back of her mind, though, had be thinking the scents must be masked so it wouldn’t be overwhelming.
“Do you suppose we’ll ever get to where they’re taking us to?” Daniel muttered from behind them. “Or do you think this place is just a maze of hallways?”
Cass giggled. “It does seem that way, doesn’t it? I wonder if every hallway here is different.”
“It would make it easier to figure out where you are,” Allison pointed out.
They turned down yet another hallway. This one was suddenly wider and was lined with portraits and draped with golden cloth. The runner was wide and crimson trimmed with gold. Down the center of the runner was a repeating pattern of three snow white calla lilies. At the far end of the hall were two mahogany doors, each side bearing the same group of flowers.
“I think that must be where we’re going,” Arnold said.
“Well, there’s no where else to go,” Allison said, looking from side to side. “I don’t see any other openings.”
Their footsteps whispered over the plush carpet as they passed portraits of men and women, almost all of them bearing sky blue eyes. As they neared the doors, Cass and Allison were startled to see a portrait of their parents staring solemnly at them. They were young in the painting, but their eyes held a wealth of wisdom.
Arthur Witherwork stepped up to the doors and gave four sharp raps, the long runner dampening the sound. He stepped back and they waited patiently and expectantly for the doors to open.
A few moments later, the door silently swung open a few inches. The young face of a girl poked out, her hair covered by a white cap. Her green eyes swept over them and widened as they fell on the twins.
“We have brought Cassidy and Allison, as requested,” Arthur said, speaking softly to the girl.
She blinked and turned her gaze to him, tearing her eyes from the sisters with apparent difficulty. “Yes, of course.” She cleared her throat, her eyes briefly straying back to Cass and Allison. “His Highness requested you meet him in the gardens instead. They can be found in the oak grove.”
Arthur frowned. “Why weren’t we notified when we arrived?”
The girl flushed and shrugged. “I apologize, your lordship, but I don’t know. I was only instructed to wait here and give you the message.”
Arthur made an annoyed sound, but nodded to the girl and turned. Behind him, the door silently closed.
“The gardens aren’t that far away,” Meagan pointed out, seeing her husband was still unhappy.
Arthur sighed and nodded. “This way.”
“More hallways?” Daniel groaned.
“Only one,” Meagan said, casting a smile at him over her shoulder. “And the oak grove isn’t far.”
They followed the Witherworks back down the hallway and then turned a corner to find a short hall that ended at a simple wooden door, a window placed at the top to offer a view of trees. Arthur opened the door and ushered the group out onto a dirt walkway that wound deep into the gardens. Trees towered on either side, the spaces between filled in with flowering bushes and small flowering gardens. In the distance, they could hear the cheerful bubbling of a fountain.
“The oak grove isn’t far,” Arthur said as he took the lead.
As they walked, their feet seemingly gliding over the dirt, Cass finally allowed her body to relax. Out among the flora, she felt at home and at peace. The trees seemed to hum in her mind and the flowers sang soft melodies. A choir filled her head, but didn’t overwhelm her. It was almost as though they were greeting her.
Next to her, Allison sniffed as she looked around. “This would be a great place to start a fire. Look at all the vegetation. It’s just right for burning.”
Cass cast a glare at her sister, who grinned at her. “Don’t even think about it, Allison.”
Allison waved a hand. “Don’t worry, Cass. I know how much you like your trees and flowers.”
“And I know how much you love fire.”
Allison grinned, a glint in her eyes. “There’s something powerful about a flame, they way it can eat up fuel and spread and they way it can light your way or warm you up.”
“Destructive and useful,” Cass muttered. “Kind of like you.”
Allison elbowed her sister, but Cass only smiled back. They both knew Allison could be explosive, but she always tried her hardest to be useful.
As they walked deeper into the gardens, the fountain became louder and then receded. Birds began to call to each other and the tree cover thickened. Beneath the shade, the air was cool and a soft breeze wound around them, though Cass failed to hear any voices.
“This way,” Arthur said as he led them off the path and between two towering oak trees.