Lilita seemed irritated at having been sent out on such an errand. Still, she kept her head held high and walked at a steady pace. They followed the path out of the castle, toward the field the feast was in, but they continued walking to the end of the path rather than veering off of it between the buildings. The path did not end so much as taper off into the grass. The entrance to the forest here was overgrown, but clearly used often. A narrow opening had been worn into the grass, interrupting the shrubbery from filling in the space entirely. They passed through, the leaves and branches bending back at their intrusion with enough flexibility to not snap off.
The forest floor was littered with gentle looking plants. To an untrained eye, this place looked untouched. The paths blended seamlessly with the spaces that were simply out of reach of the sun, allowing no plants to grow there without a significant struggle.
“What does it look like?” Wilhelm asked.
Lilita finally looked at him, as if this question brought her out of a trance. “What?”
“What does it look like?”
“What does what look like?”
“The fern,” Wilhelm could not believe she had forgotten why she had just lead him into the forest. “The flowering fern.”
“Oh,” she said, shaking her head like that would clear whatever was clouding it. “I do not know.”
“You do not know what the fern we are searching for looks like?”
“No. No one has ever found it.”
“And there are not drawings or descriptions passed down in stories?”
“Not that I have been made aware.”
Wilhelm could not believe this. Moreso, he could not believe how Lilita did not find this to be a major flaw in their tradition. Every year, the people went into the forest to search for a plant that no one had ever seen before, nor did anyone have a description to go by in the chance they believed they found it. They were being sent on an impossible task that, were it not for the voices that could be heard in the distance through the trees, he would have thought they were being sent out on their own while everyone else returned home for an evening of resting to erase the wine from their heads and give their stomachs a chance to catch up with what had been fed to them.
“Well what do you imagine it looks like?” Wilhelm tried to humor the idea, though he found no humor whatsoever in it. He was meant to be trying to get along with her, so try he would.
Lilita thought about the question for the first time, trying to imagine a flower she had long looked for, but never truly considered what it would be when she found it. “Well, that is a fern.” She pointed to a plant, its leaves split into a number of thinner, narrower leaves. “So I imagine it would look something like that. Only with flowers.”
Wilhelm thought what they were doing was a complete waste of time, but he respected that Lilita had a sense of respect for traditions, even if the tradition had absolutely no purpose or reasoning behind it. He followed her along the trails, nothing but trees and average ferns in sight.
Lilita looked around as they walked, but she did not seem particularly interested in finding the flowering fern either. She seemed to be thinking of something entirely separate. Wilhelm looked around as well, but he had no idea what to be looking for except for something low to the ground with a lot of leaves and at least one flower. He was more irritated to be sent to look for a legendary plant that probably did not exist instead of helping to figure out what had caused the food to spoil in such a bizarre way.
He spent more effort thinking of reasons the food would go bad without anyone preparing it having noticed. He could think of few that were reasonable. Mostly he believed it was close to spoiling already and did not survive the day. It still did not seem believable, but there was little other explanation for it unless the kitchen staff was lying outright and the food was always bad. They would have had to have sent out acceptable food first, then began sending out the spoiled food, likely hoping everyone had had too much to drink to notice immediately. The cooks’ and servants’ shocked expressions when they saw the moldy cheeses and berries merely an act to cover up their guilt.
It seemed such an obvious offense to be covered up with such a flimsy excuse. A surprised look and an explanation as insufficient as ‘it was not like that a moment ago’. Who in their right mind would believe such a claim? They were either careless in their planning, or they were telling the truth. The truth of that did not make sense to Wilhelm.
“What do you think really happened?” Wilhelm asked without thinking about it.
“With what?” Lilita asked, still distracted. She looked troubled, as if Wilhelm had guessed what she was worrying herself over. He had not a clue what was going on in her mind.
“The food,” he said. “At the feast.”
“Oh,” Lilita said, finally realizing the topic of conversation. “I suppose it was as the cook said.”
“That the food just turned in the midst of preparing and serving it?”
“Well, yes. I do not see why she would lie about such a thing.”
“Perhaps to keep from being caught.”
“Caught? Serving spoiled food on purpose?”
“Why would they do such a thing? Who would benefit from ruining everyone’s food?”
“I do not know. They are your people. You would have more insight as to their motivations than I might, though I could venture a guess.”
“Then make your guess.”
“Perhaps they were unhappy with their place serving the royal family, working all day in the castle kitchens while everyone else in the surrounding areas feasted and drank endlessly in the fields outside. So they decided to get everyone back by serving them awful food, thus ending the celebration and returning everyone to their regular lives and occupations.”
“That food is what we will live on once there is nothing left to harvest, once the animals have gone scarce for the winter. To ruin it would be a sentence to starve through the winter for everyone, including the kitchen staff and servants. They are fed by the castle’s food supply. Beside,” Lilita went on, “the food was hunted and harvest just this week. It was inspected by my family personally, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with it then. We have had no poor weather to speak of, no uncommon heat, no untimely rain. There is nothing to have caused food that was of perfect quality only a day ago to be completely spoiled with rot and mold today.”
Wilhelm pondered this for a moment, then had an idea that may explain it. “Unless they swapped out the good quality food with something older they had hidden away. Then they would eat well all winter on their stash of fine foods while everyone else starved or suffered down spoiled food,” he said.
“Impossible,” Lilita countered. “Everything was carefully inventoried, dried, and added to our food stores. We left only enough food unpreserved for the meals we enjoyed this week and the feasting for the festival. We are careful not to let any of our harvest or hunting go to waste.”
Wilhelm was not sure how to argue against this, but he was trying to think of a way. Lilita glared at him from beside him on the path. When he said nothing else, she returned her gaze forward.
Still, they were not really looking for the flowering fern. Wilhelm had nearly forgotten about it. The mystery of the food seemed more important, especially now that he knew there was no extra food that may have been left to spoil to replace the good food that was inspected and approved for the festival.
Lost in his thoughts, trying to piece it all together, Wilhelm bumped into Lilita. She had stopped right in front of him.
“What are you-” he began to ask, not understanding why they were no longer moving.
Then he saw it. Laid out before them, in what must have been a nicer clearing at some point in time, were a number of crumbling headstones, marking the long forgotten graves that were placed here. Further still, through the young trees and sparse undergrowth trying to reclaim the land as part of the forest, the ruins of a small building were crumbling, but still identifiable.
They could not determine what the building was meant for without closer inspection, but it was clear that it used to be a stone building, sat beside the small cemetery.
Unsure whether it was acceptable to step into the graveyard, they both hesitated. Wilhelm took the first step forward, standing beside Lilita for a moment before proceeding forward.
Lilita watched him with eyes wide, shocked that he would enter the place. When she realized he was not going to stop, worried that he would disturb the place, she followed behind him.
They moved slowly, cautiously, around the stones standing erect from the earth. Most were too faded, coated with soil and overgrown with moss, to be legible still. A couple were cracked, one broken in half, the top half leaning against the bottom half on the ground, another was knocked over flat, barely visible beneath the soil that had come to cover it.
The air felt colder here. The sounds of the forest more hushed. No longer could they hear the distant sounds of others exploring the forest in search of a flowering fern. Even the forest itself seemed quieter. This place seemed as if it had been completely shut off from the rest of the forest. They had stepped into a seal room, right in the middle of an open forest.
“What is this place?” Wilhelm asked, examining a gravestone, trying to make out the writing.
“I do not know,” Lilita answered, looking around. She was even more on edge than before. The place clearly unsettled her. She looked around as if she expected something to jump out and attack them at any moment.
“There is a burial ground so near to your home and you do not know its purpose?” Wilhelm found it odd not to know what went on within the bounds of her own land.
“There is much forest surrounding my home. It is not so easy to patrol as the open fields that surround your own,” Lilita said defensively.
“I did not mean to offend you,” Wilhelm said, not interested in getting into a fight here.
“Then do not insult the way my people live.”
“I only meant-“
“You only meant that we do not rule with an iron fist as you would like us to. We are not interested in taking over all the land that surrounds us. At oppressing our own people. We do not concern ourselves with who among us is looking to harm us, to injure us, to ruin our food stores so that they may steal our thrones. We take care of our people as if they are our equals because, without them, what lands do we have to rule over? What purpose is our rank?”
Wilhelm did not know how to respond reasonably, but the implication that he and his family were cruel to their people, that they did not care about them at all, hurt his pride in a way he could not express. They were not constantly questioning everyone around them, save perhaps for Ehren, but they knew that there were many who would jump at the chance to steal the throne, no matter the cost should they fail.
“Then why do you wish to unite your people with such a cruel nation as my own?” Wilhelm asked.
Lilita was already staring straight at him, but she rose a bit taller at the question. She did not wish to answer, but she would not let her silence be a show of submission. She prepared herself to dismiss his question when something could be heard from the crumbling building behind her.
The sound of a stone sliding out of place and colliding with the soft moss that covered the ground below it interrupted Wilhelm and Lilita. Something had disturbed the building left in ruin. There was a chance it was just further decay occurring naturally, but Wilhelm and Lilita were both put on edge at the sudden noise. They turned simultaneously in response to it, facing the ruins. From where they were standing, across the small cemetery, slightly downslope of the building, they could not be sure what, if anything, was hiding inside the remains of the building.
Wilhelm and Lilita looked at one another, then Wilhelm held a hand up to tell Lilita to stay where she was. He began moving closer to the building, passing by the remaining gravestones. He moved carefully, slowly, trying not to make any more noise than necessary. hoping the ground would be soft enough to cushion his steps and muffle any sound his boots made.
Lilita squinted at his silent command to stay put. She followed behind, her steps even softer than Wilhelm’s. They gradually worked their way up to the building together, unsure what they would find within.
Wilhelm reached the rotting door. The wood had long given in to the elements and crumbled into splinters on the ground around it. Most of those pieces had rotted back into the earth. Only a strip of door still remained, hanging from the stone arch that framed it, the hinges rusted in place.
Wilhelm stepped over the remaining piece of door into the building. The inside was illuminated only by the light shining through the hole in the roof. The bit of roof that had collapsed lay in the corner beside the door, just beneath where it belonged. Lilita looked in after Wilhelm before lifting her skirts and stepping over the door after him.
Wilhelm, fortunately, was still looking at the crumbling stonework he had entered through as Lilita made her way through the rubble in the doorway. He looked to the partially collapsed roof and noticed the slight shift of a stone, the sprinkling of stone dust falling from a crack. He grabbed Lilita by the wrist and pulled her abruptly forward towards him. She collided into him, losing her footing, causing Wilhelm to lose his. He fell backwards onto the ground, Lilita fell forward on top of him. They hit the ground together at the same moment as the piece of roof collapsed onto the floor in the spot where Lilita was standing mere seconds ago when Wilhelm grabbed her.
Wilhelm sighed in relief that he had gotten her out of the way in time. Lilita stared at the stone that nearly crushed her, then at Wilhelm, not quite believing he had just saved her. Then she realized she was on top of him and got to her feet. She brushed herself off, still speechless, as Wilhelm got off the ground. He looked over the roof.
“It doesn’t look like any more of it is going to fall,” he said.
Lilita stared at him, still in shock, then said, “thank you.”
Wilhelm finally looked at her. He was as surprised to hear her thanks as she was that he had pulled her out of the way in time. “You’re welcome.” It was then that he noticed the stairway beside him, leading down into the dark underground. “Care to see where these lead?” he asked.
“I do not think we should stay here,” Lilita said. “It is not safe.”
The room they were stood inside of was small, a stone altar against one wall. Built into another wall, a stairway descended somewhere beneath, too dark to see down to the bottom. Looking around the room, there was nothing out of place that time had not done itself. No one was hiding in this room, no animals scurrying about, unless they had already escaped. They were not even sure which stone had made the sound they had heard.
“What is this?” Wilhelm asked, disregarding what Lilita had told him before about not having knowledge of such a place existing in the forest.
“I do not know,” she answered. “Many cemeteries have a caretaker. Someone to prepare and lay the dead to rest. Perhaps this in the building such a person lived in.”
They looked around a bit longer, not sure what to make of the place, not sure if they should continue exploring to find out. Wilhelm knew they would be better off leaving the place untouched. The building did not give him a comfortable feeling. Still, something drew him to explore the level beneath. To go down the dark stairs and see what may be contained down there.
Wilhelm began moving closer to the stairs when Lilita guessed his intentions. “We should leave this place.”
Wilhelm looked back at her. “Maybe we will find your flower here,” he suggested, not believing it himself, but hoping to entice her.
“Maybe we will find something much worse.”
“There is only one way to find out.”
“I do not think this is a good idea.”
“If you would prefer it, I can go by myself.”
“I do not think that wise.”
“Do you not want to know what this building is, hidden in the forest just outside of your home?”
“Sometimes not knowing is the safer option.”
“Suit yourself.” Wilhelm descended the stairs, despite her protests.
Lilita hesitated to call out to him, to try to stop him. Then she hesitated once more before following behind him. She did not believe it safe to explore a building like this alone. There was no telling what was hidden in the dark. She reluctantly went after him, knowing that it was a poor decision to have come in here at all.
Lilita caught up to Wilhelm at the bottom of the stairs. It was so dark, she nearly knocked him over when she bumped into him.
“Be careful,” Wilhelm said, as if that really needed saying in a place like this.
“You be careful. We should not be here. It is not safe.”
“I thought you had no idea what this place was?”
“I do not.”
“And that it is most likely just the former home of whomever looked after the cemetery.”
“It probably is.”
“Then what are you so worried about?”
“Nothing,” she said too quickly. “Who knows who could be hiding here. Bandits, wild animals. The building is not safe on its own, the roof is fallen and the walls are at risk of collapsing.”
“Don’t worry, princess, I will not let anything happen to you.” Wilhelm’s hand instinctively moved to his belt. He was so accustomed to having his sword at his hip at all times, he had forgotten it had been hidden away somewhere within the castle. He realized in that moment that he did not have the heavy comfort of his chainmail protecting his torso either. His confidence waned, but he held his chin up and puffed his chest to hide the discomfort these missing items left him with.
Lilita noticed the moment he realized he had no weapon or armor to protect himself with. She knew that he had arrived with his own equipment, and she knew just as well that his things had been removed from his room and kept somewhere else within the castle where he could not find them. She felt sorry that in this moment he was not better prepared, that neither of them were, but she also felt that any armor or weapons they might have brought with them would be of no use to them here.