He watched Kena close the wooden gate before continuing down the path. The woods lay behind her and ahead of her was nothing but farmland. The sandy road that lay between the castle and the farm was all but invisible because of the woods, but it was well travelled and maintained. He had walked on it so often, even though he knew the secret route through the forest as well. All those times he had sneaked back home after staying out with Kena for too long…
He put his rake aside and walked towards the gate. His chores could wait. Her hair was as unruly as ever, but her smile was radiant. Well. At least it hadn’t been horrible at the meeting. If it had been, Kena would have found a way to sneak out and visit him last night.
“Flin!” Her singing voice drifted towards him.
“Hey there, girl. How was the meeting yesterday? I’m surprised to see you this cheerful.”
Kena shrugged. “It was okay. I mean, it was stupid and boring and useless and I tried to sneak off but my mom caught me so I had to stay. But in the end nothing really bad happened. It was just boring. But I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Okay, okay. Anything you want to do?” Flin glanced at the farm and summed up all the chores he still had to do. Check the apple trees for bugs, inspect the strawberries, tend to that chicken that had injured her leg, feed the goats. It would take him all afternoon. His dad would be furious, he was sure.
“Let’s just have lunch in the forest. Do you have any bread and jam left? I’m starving for some real food after all that fancy stuff like sea weed cakes yesterday. Yuck.”
Flin smiled. “Of course I do. Wait here, I’ll be back in a moment.”
It didn’t take him long to collect some bread and jam. His mother had fresh bread in the kitchen that was still cooling down. She’d rebuke him for taking some without asking, but he’d deal with that later. He took a jar of strawberry jam and some fresh cherries from the pantry and quickly trotted away from the farm before his parents would catch him, or worse, his younger sister.
They walked through the fields quietly. The path led them through the strawberry field and the apple orchard. The trees were blossoming and he was sure that they would carry plenty of fruit at the end of summer. He was looking forward to the harvest festivities. His sister would enter the pie contest again, he was sure. She’d made such progress the past months, she was sure to have a shot at winning this time.
Kena chose a spot close to the edge of the forest. Through the trees he could still see his farm in the distance. The castle lay behind them at the top of the hill, but it was not visible from their spot. He wondered if the queen would send out guards to look for Kena again, or if his friend had gotten permission to take the afternoon off. He knew better than to ask.
“The keepers are leaving,” Kena announced as she was spreading some jam on a slice of bread.
Kena nodded. “Mother announced it today. They’re going to visit the coast, but I don’t know what for. Apparently main keeper Chanta is with them. Mother found it odd, as Chanta hardly ever leaves the shrine in the mountains. But she had no idea what they were leaving for. She was slightly annoyed, as they’re usually pretty open about their errands and trips.”
Flin smiled. He knew the keepers were important, of course, being the ones who communicate with the Guardians and all. But other than that, he didn’t really know much about them, nor did he care.
“The shrine is almost deserted now, I think. We should go visit it and see what it’s like!” Kena grinned, her face covered in jam. Flin suppressed a chuckle before taking out a napkin from the basket and giving it to her.
“Isn’t it located in the mountains in the south? That’s pretty far away, Kena.”
“So? Don’t you want to see it? I heard it looks amazing, with the main temple and the gate and the glass roof.”
“Of course I want to see it! But it’ll take days to get there and days to get back. We can’t do that, Kena. Your mother already throws a fit if you stay out one evening. What do you think she’ll do if you stay away for days?”
He hated the disappointed look on her face, and he hated the fact that he was the one who had caused it. He knew she wanted to go see the mountains, and whatever lay beyond them, and so did he. Oh, how fun would it be to explore the world with Kena, not bound by rules set by his father or her family? But Kena would get in trouble. He could handle his father, but Kena was a princess. There’d be a different kind of hell to pay if he took her away for so long, and he couldn’t do that to her, or risk his father losing his good deal with the castle.
“How about the mountains closer by then?” Kena said as she pointed at the mountains that lay far beyond his farm. They could see them on a clear day, but even so it’d take them two days to get there at least.
“What about them?”
“We could visit them! No, no, hear me out,” Kena continued as he raised his hoof to object. “It’ll be summer soon. My mother takes a few days off in summer as business is slow anyway and besides, even she needs to relax and wind down. She often took us out to one of the smaller palaces in the countryside, but my sisters and I have grown older. Myst is going away for almost an entire moon to study the history of the Crown, and my oldest sisters are going on a tour through the country. I think my mother would be pleased to have me out of the house too, you know.”
“Even if that’s true Kena, there’s no way she’d just let you go camping in the mountains with me!”
She looked at him with that face that told him he shouldn’t see himself as less than her. They’d been friends forever, ever since that day he’d come along with his father to the castle for the first time and he’d gotten lost in its many corridors. It had been Kena who had found him and helped him get back to his father.
“She doesn’t have to know,” Kena stated matter of factly. “I’ll just tell her I’ll go to one of our countryside homes, or visit an aunt somewhere. Even if she finds out, we’ll be long back by then. Come on, let’s do it! Let’s just get out of this crazy place for a while and finally just go and see the mountains! We’ve talked about this for so long!”
Flin smiled faintly. He knew Kena was right. They’d been talking about exploring the Crown, and later the world ever since they had been foals and nobody had frowned upon their friendship yet. They’d go see the great forests in the west they’d heard so many fairy tales about, and the eastern beaches with their white sand and large villages. But apart from some nightly trips into territory they already knew anyway, none of that had happened yet.
“Is that really what you want? I mean, your mother… You know how she is. You’ll get into loads of trouble, Kena.”
She sighed. “I get into loads of trouble anyway. And I want to go, Flin! I’m sixteen, and I’ve never even left the Crown yet! At the very least I want to see the mountains, I want to climb them and look out and pretend I can see the ocean while we sit at the top and wonder how big the world actually is! Come on, are you in or not?”
He looked at his friend, the princess with the unruly hair and the jam on her face. Her eyes were so big, and for a moment she looked like the little girl he once ran through the orchard with. He could already picture the discussions he’d have with his parents. He would have to come up with a valid excuse as well. They’d tell on them to the High Queen right away if they thought he would be getting the princess into trouble. But none of that seemed to matter that much.
“Of course I am. Let’s go see how big the world is.”