Her eyes were wide as I knelt down before her, my bare knees on the soft grass. I bent down to the point where my eyes were bellow hers and peered up at her. She did not blink or look away, though her eyes were filled with wonder, her small mouth agape. She stared back into my own eyes for a long time before glancing down at the box in my hands. I smiled
‘I brought you a gift.’ I explained, setting the box down on the grass beside us, and opening the lid. It was no bigger than a shoebox, though a little more sumptuous than one. It was made of polished wood. Neumairic letters were engraved in its surface, intertwined with vines and small flowers. The letters spelt out my own name: Aliana Evera Neumair.
I pulled out a doll. She was not ruffled in the slightest, which was a great achievement to say she had been lying in a small wooden box for over fifteen years. She was just as perfect as when she had been made, which was long, long, long before just fifteen years ago.
She was a clay doll, hard and cool to the touch, yet so very delicate. That’s why she reminded me of Annice so. Her eyes were large and beautiful, framed with long lashes. Her skin was milky white, yet her cheeks glowed pink. She looked almost real, though her extraordinary perfection gave away her secret. She wore a white silk dress, decorated with lacy frills and ribbons, and matching shoes and even socks. She had a jewel hanging from her wrist. A single, black jewel. To look into it was like looking into the night sky. Completely encompassing, wonderfully enchanting. Her golden ringlets sparkled in the light from the only sun among the many moons of this world. The sun they named Sunstar.
I looked back up at Annice, who was now staring down at the doll, her eyes as large as saucers. She looked stunned. Her mouth had fallen open a little more. Slowly, she knelt down onto the grass, like me, to look closer at her. I did not notice her blink once as she peered at the doll, wonder in her eyes. She licked her lips and scratched her nose, before sitting down on her legs and leaning completely forwards to look into the eyes of my old doll, lying frozen in my hands.
‘Her name is Nina.’ I said quietly, passing her the doll, but she would not take it.
‘She is too beautiful.’ Annice suddenly spoke, shaking her head, without looking away. ‘You cannot give her to me … she is too delicate. I fear I will do her damage … I cannot …’
‘You are forgetting that I know what you are to say.’ I smiled. ‘You are forgetting I have Seen. You will do her no damage. She is a gift, you cannot decline a gift.’
‘I would never wish to decline a gift from you, Aliana.’ Little Annice whispered in a small voice, her voice so young, yet so mature. She stretched out her hands and let me place Nina carefully into them. She brought her up yet closer to her face to examine her still. ‘I am just not worthy of such a gift.’
‘Do not use your imagination in such a way, Annice.’ I said softly. ‘I deem you worthy, so worthy you are.’
Annice looked up from her new doll and smiled, her eyes glittered with unshed tears. ‘Thank you.’
‘You may keep the box. That shall be her bed.’ I said, sitting back onto my legs and folding my hands over my knee. ‘That doll was once mine, you know.’
‘Really?’ she asked, in awe, taking it in turns to gaze at Nina and me.
‘Yes. I used to love her as a child, but I grew and soon she was forgotten.’ I explained regrettably. ‘And I knew this would not be the case with you.’
‘No.’ Annice replied, putting Nina carefully back in the box and crossing her legs, looking up at me with genuine gratitude.
‘Do you wish to know how old she is?’ I asked her.
She looked up at me with an inquisitive expression, so I told her.
‘One hundred and fifty four years, today.’ I said, taking her small hand in mine. ‘I wish you all the very best for all the years to come, my dear.’
‘One hundred and fifty four years …’ she whispered, closing her eyes. ‘It has been that long already.’
‘Yes.’ I replied.
‘And how much longer?’ she asked quietly, without reopening her eyes.
‘You know the answer to that, little Annice.’
‘I do.’ She replied, and a tear escaped one of her closed lids and she pressed them tighter together. Her lips darkened and her cheeks grew pink. She began to sob, barely audibly.
‘It is not sadness you feel, but confusion and fear.’ I reminded her, stroking her brown hair back behind her ear. ‘I bid you take them from your mind.’
Her tears did not persist for long, and when her eyes were dry of them and her throat cleared, she got to her feet and I steadily followed. The top of her head reached my stomach. Suddenly, and briefly, she wrapped her arms around it and pressed her cheek against it.
I stroked her hair until she let go and bent down to close the box. Then she hurried towards the large Willow under which she slept, between sheets of falling branches of silver leaves, and placed the box carefully between large roots protruding from the earth. She returned a moment later.
I wonder... you wished to see the Lake.
‘I know you well, Annice.’ I laughed. ‘To “wonder” is a polite way of asking me my business, am I right?’
‘Yes, but you could play along.’ she replied in a sulky tone, so childlike and innocent, though I knew she was acting. Of course I knew.
I walked slowly to the bank of the beautiful Lake. Bottomless. As black as a night sky, and yet it reflects its surroundings perfectly - clearer than any mirror. The Lake lay perfectly still, as no creature would dare touch its surface, though there were fish. Oh, yes. Many fish, among many other creatures besides. Many indeed – deep, deep under its surface.
I sat down at its bank in my silken shorts and my chiffon shirt, heedless of the soil or staining greenery. I pulled my feet up beside me and started to unwind the jeweled anklets from each. I dropped them onto the grass beside me before dropping my legs over the Lakes edge, hovering my feet just millimeters away from its black surface.
‘You must not do it, Aliana!’ Annice gasped from behind me. ‘Nobody touches the bottomless Lake.’
I turned around to look at her for a moment before returning my attention to the water. I could see nothing in its midst. I could see through it quite as successfully as I could see through my Grandfathers mind – by which to say, wholly unsuccessfully. For a few moments I thought about Nina and about Annice. Both so similar, yet one real, and one made out of clay. Both so young, so pure, so unimpeachable … children to the eye, yet both so old … they had both seen so many things … so many things their eyes were not destined to see … so why could we not outweigh destiny on this instant?
I lowered my toes just a few millimeters until they were almost skimming the waters surface …
Of course I knew I was not to do it. I lifted my feet back again and put them beside me. Not yet.
‘Do you know what happens when you jump into the Lake, Annice?’ I said quietly without looking back at her. I kept my gaze set on the trees that lined the far bank of the Lake. In fact, they encircled us completely, for the Forrest of Danil inhabited miles around.
I got to my feet and, leaving my sparkling jewels in the grass, I began to walk away. It was not many minutes later that I felt the grass beneath my feet turn cold and smooth – into marble. The Palace was the same as ever - and I had a visit to make.
‘Granddaughter, I have been expecting you.’ said a very slow, deep voice. Ancient, filled with so much sage and wisdom.
Of course, I’d expected that.