Author's Note: This story is the result of much research on the subjects it explores. It has been written and rewritten, until I was satisfied it was decent enough to be posted. I've done my best to keep true to both Tolkien's world and the facts I have collected, but it's an Alternative Universe story and some things had to be changed. I have to thank Marisa for being my constant support while writing this story and the Garden of Ithilien for their precious help, advice and comments, especially gwynnyd. Oh, and of course my father for the German translations and ClaMiAl for the corrections.
Disclaimer: I only own whatever you don't recognise. The rest belong to the genius mind of J.R.R. Tolkien.
The boy heard the breathless whisper behind him, but didn't turn around. He kept pushing his way into the forest, following the barely visible path; they had to reach the secret place, before the moon made its appearance behind the heavy clouds. At times running and at times just walking in a fast pace, he led the group of children through the wild vegetation, their flashlights revealing scarily gnarled trees wherever they could pierce through the steadily growing mist.
"Johan!" came the harsh whisper again and this time it was accompanied by a tug at his T-shirt.
"What?" He turned around annoyed to face his cousin.
"I'm scared, please let's go back!" the little girl said glancing around at the eerie atmosphere of the place. "Please!"
"Come on Freckles, you're such a coward!" The boy laughed and grabbed playfully a strand of red hair that had escaped from her ponytail. His cousin, Alice, acted like such a baby sometimes. Here he was ready to show her a true miracle and she was biting her nails over some shadows! This might be his last chance to see it. Girls were so stupid; he shouldn't have brought her along.
"Stop calling me that!" Alice hissed and scrunched her nose, as the other excited children passed them by. "I think we should go back. What if we get lost? What if mom and dad find out we are gone?"
Johan could tell his cousin was afraid of being punished by her parents. Well, he was too cool to play by the rules and punishment was the last thing on his mind.
"We're going, you can stay here if you want," he said with a devilish smile and shrugged.
Alice watched him sprint after the rest of the children and looked hesitantly around her. There was no way she was staying in the middle of this haunted forest alone! At least in their group she felt a little safer. She stormed off after the faint lights in the distance, careful not to trip over anything in the process. She reached the rest of the kids and a blond girl turned around as she felt her presence. She asked Alice something in German, but without the help of her cousin she did not understand. She just shrugged and gave her a hesitant smile.
They kept running for what seemed like ages. Suddenly, just when Alice thought there was no way they could pass through the dense network of trees and wild vegetation around them, they all stopped. She almost bumped into the person in front of her, but the blond girl from before just smiled. They talked for a while in their native language among themselves; she understood nothing but the excitement in their voices. Johan broke away from the party and approached her with a wide grin.
"We are here," he said in a conspiratorial tone. "Now we wait…" his voice trailed off and his eyes traveled over the area ahead of them.
"Wait for what Johan, you are scaring me!" Alice replied in a whisper. She hunkered into herself, afraid that if she talked any louder, some monster or ghost would jump out of nowhere and eat them.
"The haunted castle!" he whispered back.
"Haunted?" She drew in a long shaky breath.
He nodded, but she saw a strange twinkle in his eyes. He didn't seem to be worried.
"Haunted how?" she screeched at him and to her chagrin her voice sounded like a deafening bell in the eerie silence of the forest. Everyone turned to look at her and they all looked like they were laughing.
"Ha ha!" Johan laughed out loud, clutching his stomach. "You are such a baby, Freckles! I shouldn't have brought you along!"
"I'm not a baby!" she stomped her foot. "You never told me we were going to a haunted castle!"
"Don't you wanna see it?" he said with that conspiratorial tone again. "It only appears under the full moon of August!"
Her curiosity was piqued, in spite of the cold grip of fear on her heart.
"Why only in August? And how do you know? Have you been here before?"
Johan's grin widened at the flood of questions and he motioned for her to come closer to him.
"There is a myth here in Hessen… It's so old, that the people don't even remember who started it. They say there is an enchanted palace here in the forest that only children can see when the moon is full in August. And in there…" His voice trailed off at that and he looked around him, as though to see if anybody was eavesdropping. "…In there, a man lies in eternal sleep. And he is so beautiful, that all the children who step into the palace and see him, are driven to madness when they grow up and can't find the castle anymore! Some say he is an angel!"
A shiver ran through Alice at that and she felt the hairs on her body rise to attention.
"I don't believe you Johan! You just made that up to scare me!" she said with a nervous laugh, but realised she was not as sure as she sounded.
"I saw it last year! And the year before! We come every year to see it and you will see for yourself!"
He threw her an irritated glare and turned to join the rest of his friends when Alice grabbed his sleeve once more.
"And why are children the only one who can see it?"
"I dunno," he answered and looked away rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "No wait!" he said excitedly. "There is something more!"
"What? Tell me!" she tugged his sleeve frantically, afraid she would hear about some terrible beast who protected the castle and ate everyone who came near.
"I think… I'm not sure if I remember correctly though…" he ignored the pleas of his younger cousin, as he desperately tried to remember, and turned once more towards to where the castle was supposed to appear.
"Wait, I will ask Andrea, she knows the myth better than I do!"
Alice released his sleeve and watched with rising curiosity (and fear, but she would never admit it to her cousin) as Johan spoke with Andrea in hushed tones. She listened intently, but abandoned the effort, since the string of German speech sounded like total nonsense to her. Her cousin motioned for her once more and Alice approached them.
"Andrea says that, except for the children, there is only one other person who can see the palace: the myth says that a young woman will kiss the Prince and wake him up from his sleep!" Johan looked at Andrea for confirmation, and she nodded vigorously, indicating to her lips with her finger, implying the kiss.
Alice narrowed her eyes in disbelief and snorted.
"You are so stupid Johan, that's Sleeping Beauty! And she's a girl!"
Just when Johan opened his mouth as if to protest, a silver light fell upon them and they all looked up at the moon appearing slowly behind the parting clouds. Alice was finally able to see her surroundings and inched closer to Johan as soon as she did. The place seemed truly haunted! The trees looked old, as if no living person had entered the forest for centuries. Their naked branches hang like arms with ragged clothes and their roots protruded from the ground as if they would start walking any minute now. She could swear she heard weird sounds around her and the air felt… enchanted. Clouds of mists swirled around them and she hugged her arms in an effort to warm her chilled body. Was it getting cold, or did she just imagine it? A gasp escaped from the group and she turned around to where the others were looking.
Her blood froze in her veins. There in the distance, a shape slowly appeared as if through the mist, the moonlight outlining the imposing walls of the castle. Alice's hand flew to her mouth, her eyes refusing to leave the sight of the beautiful building, although her heart was hammering from fear in her chest. Her gaze broke away from the palace as a deep rumble erupted from all around them and the trees…-
She rose to her feet and looked around her amazed.
The trees were blooming! Right before her eyes! Flowers sprang out from the ground and fell from the trees, and she opened her palms to capture the multicolored rain in her hands. She turned to smile at Johan, but he was too entranced by the sight to notice her. She looked up once more at the palace and time seemed to stop. The sounds of the forest started to fade away and she could no longer feel the presence of the other children.
Johan stared at the blooming forest, trying to fix the sight in his memory. Lost in the miracle in front of him he barely acknowledged anything around him, but finally the boy turned to see Alice's reaction; that was the reason he had brought her here in the first place. She moved with slow and steady steps on the grass farther into the forest. His eyes narrowed as he looked at her face and realised that his cousin looked hypnotized. She kept walking towards the castle, her hand reaching up as if to touch something.
"Johan! Stopp sie bevor sie reingeht!" Andrea told him in an alarmed voice, but he stood there unable to move. His breath was coming out in short gasps and his hands felt clammy with cold sweat. /Stop her before she goes inside!/
"Johan!" This time he turned to look at Andrea who had started crying. "Ich werde deine Eltern holen!" she told him, as she ran off to the direction they had come from. /I'm getting your parents!/
His best friend gave him a nudge to wake him up from his shaken state and dragged him along to his cousin. She had stopped walking, tilting her head to the side, as if looking at something. They approached her cautiously, his friend extending his hand to touch her shoulder.
Alice felt as if she was floating, slowly surrendering herself in the white light of a vision. A figure appeared in the distance, features slowly coming to life. And then she saw him clearly: his blue eyes; his golden hair; his angelic face.
"Le tollen, meleth nín," the man whispered and he smiled. /You have come, my love./
Alice fainted in the arms of her cousin and remembered no more.