There was noise and commotion behind her, but she took no notice, she needed to get back to the forest, she needed to find Liam.
Finally, an open door to the outside, she fled down the stairs and across the courtyard, dodging startled horses and coach drivers. Out of the huge front gates and down the side road leading off into the forest.
The moon was full enough to provide some light, but also created deep shadows. Anaria, blinded by tears and misery, ran heedless.
She heard faint echoes of her name being called, but Liam wasn’t at the castle.
She’d done the wrong thing, again, and she needed to explain to him, apologise, she didn’t know what, she just needed to find him.
She was well into the forest now and the way was getting darker by the minute, there seemed to be a light in the distance, off to one side.
She veered towards it and kept running, then the ground beneath her disappeared, she screamed, tumbling down into the gully Liam had warned her about. She hit the bottom and rolled into the water.
Gasping for air, she reached for anything to anchor her, to help her get out of the freezing current trying to carry her away. She smashed into something, a tree branch? A root? She grabbed hold but her hands were too cold to grip properly and the stream started to pull her away again.
She lost hold and spun in the water’s grasp, desperate to keep her head above the surface, she kicked down, but couldn’t find the bottom.
Behind her, she heard an agonised shout, “ANA!”
She tried to respond, but only managed a breathless, wordless cry.
“Hold on Ana, please, just hold on, I’m coming.”
She reached out trying to find something to hold on to, then the water slammed her into a heavy branch. Everything went black and she knew no more.
She came to with a groan, finding herself half out of the water, with someone’s arms wrapped around her and urgent shouts going over her head.
The voice above her switched, still urgent, but quieter now, “Ana? Ana are you with me, please tell me you’re alright.”
She sighed, “Liam. I’m sorry. I did the wrong thing, again. I’m never going to be able to marry you.”
The darkness dragged her back under.
As she sank, she heard the shouts above her become more frantic, and other voices seemed to be responding, then, no more.
The next while passed in a confused jumble of darkness, pain, fever and blurred voices.
In the moments she felt awake, she decided she must still be asleep, surrounded by a strange sea of moving blue, the colour of the late evening sky. Faces came and went, voices faded in and out.
She thought she heard Sarah, and then the cultured tones of the lady from the library, then John’s hearty drawl, subdued and concerned. Mostly though, the voice she seemed to hear most, want most, was Liam’s. It was his, but it sounded different too. As if he’d taken on the speaking mode of her masked dance partner.
Once, she thought she might have heard her parents, but they were in Gandry, and the voices disappeared almost immediately, she was most certainly dreaming them.
Then, one day, she woke and knew she was awake. Her mind was clear, if heavy, and she started to make sense of the world around her.
The dreamlike blue she’d floated through was a large, richly appointed room, with her at the centre of one wall in a four-poster bed, with deep blue curtains. They must have been drawn around her at some stage, as they were the exact shade of her dream memories.
Across the room was a neat fireplace with a merry blaze dancing in its hearth, and, bending over a pot suspended above the flames, was Sarah.
She must have made a sound, as Sarah looked up, and their eyes met.
Sarah pulled the pot from the flames and laid it on the stone surround before hurrying to the bed.
She put her hand on Anaria’s forehead, “No fever, thank the forest ladies. Ana, are you awake now?”
“I think so.”, Her voice came out rough and croaky.
Sarah poured a cup of water from a jug at the bedside and carefully helped Anaria sit upright enough to drink it.
Once she’d finished the cup, and been helped back down to her pillows, she looked up at the suspiciously bright-eyed woman beside her.
“How much do you remember.”
Anaria thought back, and winced, “I danced with the Duke’s son, he said Liam wouldn’t mind. Then the treats from Cook went everywhere and people were watching. They laughed, and sneered, and were mean about Liam and said I was throwing him over for a rich man and I needed to find him and tell him the truth.”
She started to cry, “But I fell in the forest and now I don’t know where he is.”
Sarah soothed her, “He’s here love. You’ve been sick with fever from the cold and the water and a dreadful fall for near on two weeks now and he’s been by your side the whole while. He’d just outside the door right now, facing down your parents.”
“Aye, they’ve been to try and see you twice and he won’t let them anywhere near.”
“I need to see him, please Sarah. I’ve made such a horrible mess and I need to explain and tell him how sorry I am for being so difficult.”
“I’ll fetch him. Shall I bring your parents too?”
Anaria’s tears started again, “No, I can’t cope with them. I just need to talk to Liam.”
Sarah pressed a quick kiss to Anaria’s forehead, “I’ll fetch him.”
Sarah crossed to the door facing the foot of Anaria’s bed and eased it open just a little. Voices came through the gap.
“You have no right to keep us from our daughter.”
That was her father, trying to browbeat someone into compliance.
“You gave up all rights as a parent the minute you threw her out into the night with none but a stranger for company.”
That voice was Liam’s but sterner and harder than she’d ever heard him.
Sarah spoke into the pause, “Excuse me for interrupting, but I need your help for a minute.”
Liam’s response was urgent, “Of course, I’ll come directly. Guards, please ensure my visitors find their way to the main gate.”
The door opened wider and Liam slid in next to Sarah, looking at her worriedly. Sarah nodded at the bed, and Anaria up on one elbow, watching him.