Lena never knew her parents. She had a vague memory of her mother - a soft, pale face, framed by soft, blonde hair - but that was the only token of her parents she had. She had lived all of her so far seven years with her grandmother Branwyn in the retired lady's centuries old manor about a mile from the village she was born in, Ramble Stone. She didn't resent her lonely upbringing, as the crumbling large house and grounds presented many an afternoon of explorations and promised adventures; she was, however, always curious as to why there were no photographs of her parents anywhere in the overlarge residence. After all, there was a large sepia photograph of Grandpa in the sitting room, and another smaller one in a frame on Grandma's bedside table. She was too intimidated to ask her grandmother - the old woman was caring enough but was strict with feminist principles.
She was distracted from her ponderings one day when she was sitting in the garden, on a blanket under the giant withering apple tree, on a dusky-skied afternoon towards the end of summer. She was reading a book taken without permission from her Grandma's library, when a boy dropped out of the tree. She screamed, of course, as small startled girls are wont to do; once she had recovered, she jumped to her feet and demanded with an authority learnt from her mother figure the name of the intruder and his reason for being there.
"I'm Eirian, Miss," the boy answered with a cheeky grin, a little breathless after his fall, as he swept off his too-big flat cap and performed a comedic attempt at a bow. It broke Lena's frosty grand demeanour and she giggled, introducing herself to the ragamuffin boy who must have come from the village.
"Hope you don't mind, but I was out for a walk and I got a bit hungry," he explained more seriously in his little-boy voice. To Lena he looked much older mainly because he had the advantage of a few extra inches in height, though in truth he was only at the time around nine years of age. "I saw this tall tree over the garden wall, and I thought p'raps I might maybe have an apple or two. So I climbed over and climbed the tree, then you arrived, Miss, and I was a bit afraid of being caught."
"No need to be scared," Lena laughed, a little-girl trill. "I think you scared me more. Almost gave me a heart attack, you did... Eirian."
She pronounced his name carefully, like she was savouring it like a sweet. He was the first thing she had ever had that was close to a friend, and though they had only met a few minutes ago she felt excited for what their friendship might become.
"You can have as many apples as you like, if you promise to visit me every day," she said solemnly, twirling one of her plaits with a small finger.
"If you want," Eirian said, looking thrilled to have been accepted so easily. "Would you like an apple?"
He scurried up the tree like a monkey, swinging up through the sturdy branches to pluck the ripest ones and throw them down onto the blanket, careful to avoid hitting Lena. She had watched him clamber up in awe, and now, determined, she pulled up her white frilled socks and adjusted her gingham skirt before reaching up for the lowest branch, a little way above her head. Suddenly Eirian and his mane of golden-brown hair were right in front of her face, his twinking blue eyes gazing into her own hazel ones and taking her a little off balance. Even as a seven-year-old, she felt something.
"Here," he grinned, grabbing her hands as he perched on the branch precariously and helping her to struggle up until they both straddled the branch. He handed her one of two apples and then crunched into his own heartily. Lena couldn't help but watch him for a minute, struck by the beauty of his tanned skin and calloused palms and muddy shirt, his stubby nose and splattered freckles. She had never seen a boy before. The shopping was always brought by the housekeeper Mrs Cole, so Lena had never had reason to leave the manor's grounds. The only girl she had ever met was Mrs Cole's redheaded five-year-old daughter Rosie, the one time she had brought her along to help clean the house.
He stopped chewing to exchange a smile with her, and then she held up her own red apple and took a bite. It was the first time she had ever eaten anything like this, freshly picked and wild, and she would remember the sharp sweet taste for years to come.
They sat together on the branch, legs swinging and tales of families and experiences falling back and forth (of course Eirian had much more to tell) until the sky faded to black and it became much colder. Eirian noticed Lena was shivering in her dress and shuffled closer to put his arm aaround her tiny shoulders and lend her some of his heat.
"Hey!" he exclaimed, pointing out of their leafy shroud to the brightly speckled sky. "Look at that, a shooting star! D'you know you're supposed to wish on stars?"
Lena nodded; she had read about a person who did that in one of her books.
"Go on, then, make your wish."
Eirian nudged her with his elbow, winking cheerily. Lena smiled widely, closed her eyes and wished. I wish you'd be my friend forever.
Just then, the back door of the house opened. Yellow light spilled out in a long stern line, staining the grass where it fell. The light was blocked by a figure leaning on a stick. Then Grabdma's voice called crossly into the dark garden.
"Where are you, child? Making me come to look for you, with my bad leg. I s'pose you've fallen asleep under that tree again. Lena! Come in now."
Lena let a little sigh of disappointment flutter from her lips and join the gentle wind in rustling the leaves. She returned Eirian's farewell smile and let him lower her by the hands until her patent shoes touched the blanket. She collected it up, with her book, aimed one last smile up into the tree's foliage and then scuttled across the lawn to the door.
"There you are. Don't ever stay out so late again," the old woman scolded, chivvying the girl inside with her black lacquered cane. Before the door closed, plunging the gardens into blackness, Lena thought she saw a small rugged figure darting for the wall and hauling themselves over it. Goodnight, Eirian.