Astari dreamed in vivid colour, she knew everyone dreamed in colour, or at least most people did. She knew it wasn’t something unique to her or some fascinating bit of gossip she could share when she met people for the first time. But somehow her dreams always managed to enrapture her in a way that not even the large cinema screen in her home town ever could.
She never knew that stars could exist in such splendour as they did when she dreamt about them caught against the piercing black sky. In this world, she was surrounded by lush grass and ancient trees that seemed to glow like emeralds, despite the moon being the only source of light. Around her were rolling mountains and hills spotted with glowing moonlit castles, their tall turrets spiralling against the cliffs like snakes wrapping around their prey. These weren’t half torn down buildings that tourists took photos of or grand stately homes that only claimed to be castles. These were warm and welcoming places for creatures far more mysterious than she could imagine. Sometimes on lucky nights like tonight she would see the silhouette of a winged creature pass in front of the moon, a blazing fire erupting from the creature’s mouth and momentarily illuminating its leathery skin…
But then there was her alarm clock, blaring at exactly 7:15 every morning and telling her that her life was exactly as it always was. Work every day. Watch your friends go to Uni and get their fancy degrees. Return home to have dinner, and then do the whole boring routine over again the next day.
“Goood Morning, Bore da Blaenau. You know what time it is, and you’ll be happy to know that it’s a balmy 20 degrees”
Astari reluctantly reached her arm out and slammed the button on the top of the radio. That was enough of that.
She yawned, rolled over and forced her feet to touch the harsh cold ground of her bedroom floor. She mentally prepared herself for the fact this was happening. The day was starting, and there was nothing she could do about that. It was a battle she often had with herself.
I wonder how much of a disaster my hair is going to be this morning? Astari thought to herself.
Turns out it was as disastrous as she expected. Her jet-black hair was sticking out all over the place thanks to her knack for tossing and turning throughout the night and her already sharp cheekbones stood out even more in the chill of the morning since her face was still pale with sleep. Pretty much the only thing she liked about her appearance just then was her bright green eyes which never seemed to fade, no matter how tired she was when she woke.
“Breakfast is ready when you are!” Astari’s grandmother called from the kitchen downstairs.
Astari could smell the rich warm smell of her grandma’s famous fry-up drifting upstairs, as well as the tantalizing aroma of coffee. Still wrapped up in her bright red dressing gown, Astari ventured down the stairs of her grandmother’s little cottage. When her grandmother saw her, she scoffed and clicked her tongue. Astari ignored her and went to pour her morning coffee. The mug billowed out ribbons of steam which, combined with the smell, was already making her feel more awake. She held it tentatively to her lips and winced just a bit at the heat. She took a sip anyway and instantly felt herself coming alive as the caffeine got to work.
“I don’t know how you aren’t late to work every single day,” her grandmother said as she washed the dishes from last night that had been deemed not important enough to go in the dishwasher.
“All young adults know how to budget their time Mam-gu. We’re quite resourceful.”
“Well get your resourceful self-ready for work because I am leaving in ten minutes with or without you.”
Astari gave a dramatic sigh and walked back to her room with her coffee in hand. She set the mug down on her bedside table and quickly went about getting ready for the day.
Blaenau was a small historic town surrounded by rugged mountains at the centre of Snowdonia in the North of Wales, the cobbled streets lined with an array of stone buildings. It always had a quiet buzz to it as people bustled into the shops to buy their bits and bobs for the day, often stopping to get a bite at one of the cafes dotted around.
Astari had started at The Rose Gardens when she was 14 when they had needed extra staff for the busy summer months. She had worked there during the holidays and weekends ever since.
In the summer, Blaenau became a haven for city-dwelling tourists looking to visit someplace quaint and charming without having to take an expensive trip abroad. Seeing them always put a tiny ache into Astari’s heart. She would have loved the chance to travel outside of her tiny little world, to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, see new horizons, and meet new people.
But Blaenau was where she was right now. This town was her world, and besides, there really was no point in arguing. Her Grandmother would never let her leave.
Since she’d taken this summer job, she’d been saving up most of her money, squirreling it away into a bank account for when she turned 18, which just so happened to have been a couple of months ago. On the day she had tried to suggest the idea of her moving out to her grandmother. Astari wanted her own space and her grandmother deserved peace without having to care for her now grown up granddaughter. But the woman was insistent.
“You’ll stay here,” she would always say. “Here is just fine.”
It took several conversations for Astari to recognize the quaking fear in her voice. Perhaps she was afraid of being alone or just didn’t believe that Astari was capable of taking care of herself. Either way, she had some kind of unrelenting vision of keeping Astari cooped up in her home for as long as possible.
So, like every day during the summer, Astari found herself dropped off at work with precisely five minutes to spare and her grandmothers promise to return at exactly 6pm. Astari gave her grandmother an uninspired wave and turned to walk in to the café, same as always. The routine was becoming painfully boring.
“You’re almost late,” Rory said with an intense seriousness in his voice.
Rory had a knack for catching people even a few seconds late and writing them up in the book. He tended to take his minimal power as manager of the little café a little too seriously. He was gunning for a general manager position in Llandudno, and as much as it would annoy Astari to see his stupid smug face, she’d take it if it meant he was heading far away from her.
“My timing is impeccable,” Astari said back with a wink as she passed him.
She went to grab a clean towel from the pile and threw a black apron over her head. When she’d first landed this job, it was as a kitchen assistant, but now nearly four years later, she had graduated to waiting tables. All her friends from school were heading off to university to study something that made a difference. Meanwhile, her one great accomplishment was getting paid a few pence over minimum wage and walking out with occasional cash tips.
“I think you should really think about applying still,” Bronwyn said as she grabbed an apron for herself.
“We’ve been over this,” Astari sighed.
“You’re eighteen now! You’re an adult. Your grandmother can’t keep you holed up in that house forever!” She replied. She was leaning against the worktop brushing her long, brown hair.
“She wants to keep me close. I’m all she has,” Astari said, absentmindedly sweeping Bronwyn’s stray hairs from off the work surface.
“She’s stopping you from having a future, that’s what she’s doing. Your Grandma can’t just keep you laying around like a safety blanket. It’s your life too Astari.”
Astari shrugged. “It’s not like I had much of a future anyway. My grades were rubbish.”
Bronwyn was still frowning and Astari walked away before she could say anything else. She busied herself with pretending to fix a setting on a table. She didn’t like talking about it, the fact her grandmother kept her cooped up like a caged dog. She’d driven her to and from school her entire life, and rarely let her stay over at friends’ houses. Neither did she let her get her driver’s licence. Every day she felt watched. She’d just assumed that everyone had it this way until she saw her friends out together for dinner or lunch or just wandering around the shops, but by then she had already gotten used to it. This was the way her life was and there was going to be no breaking it now. She had to simply put up with it until some sort of cosmic event struck the earth and freed her from the monotonous routine.
The café provided some relief for that. When it was busy, she had something to focus on. All she could think of was orders and numbers and making sure everyone’s drinks were filled. She didn’t think about the inevitability of going home to nothing but the flickering TV and her grandmother asking how her day was. When things were busy, it was easier not to crumble under the weight of knowing that this was all there was to her life, and that she’d inevitably have to wake up and do it all again.
“Alright people,” Rory said. “Let’s do this. We open in 3, 2, 1.”
Rory liked to pretend that this place was in high demand and a swarm of people was standing outside at 10 am desperate to get inside. He unlocked and propped the door open and, as usual, no one was waiting to rush in and grab a table. The pickup usually happened around an hour after they opened up. Until then, Astari had to find ways to keep herself looking busy so Rory didn’t assign her side work.
“Listen” Bronwyn said, coming up beside her. “I didn’t mean to upset you, it’s too early in the day for that. I just believe that everyone deserves to be free, that’s all.”
“My Grandmother’s just paranoid,” Astari said simply, wishing Bronwyn would just drop the subject.
“But surely you want to get out and explore things?”
Astari shrugged and pretended to fold a napkin, neatly studying the creases of the paper. She could feel herself becoming angrier and more frustrated the longer Bronwyn talked. She put the napkin down and walked toward another table. Bronwyn, obviously not taking the hint, followed her. Astari sighed, trying hard to control her temper and tried to carry on with her work while ignoring everyone else.
Did she want to go out and explore things? Sure, who wouldn’t? But she wasn’t going to start complaining about having a free place to live with a loving member of her family that cooked her meals every day. That was a lot more than most people had in the world and she wasn’t going to throw it away because some people thought she should be a wanderlust struck teenager. She was doing just fine where she was. She was comfortable.
She would just continue to let those dreams she had at night take her to strange places. It was a free way to travel, to fly without consequences or danger. She had a land to escape to. Just because it wasn’t quite what Bronwyn imagined it didn’t mean it was wrong. It was fine. She was fine. She was safe.
“It’s okay,” Astari sighed. “I’m fine with how things are, and I like where I am at the moment and I promise that if one day I’m not, I’ll be sure to do something about it, ok?”
Bronwyn gave her a sad smile like she didn’t believe her, but she nodded and said something about getting out to grab the first table before Rory snapped on someone only minutes into the day.
Astari watched her leave. Bronwyn was older than her, out of school with some sort of degree in art. She was amazing at what she did, and beneath her uniform her body was covered in her own original art. She had offered to design a tattoo for Astari one afternoon when she’d caught her staring for a couple beats too long. Maybe that was all the adventure Astari needed; a small tattoo of a bird that could dance across the surface of her skin and fly away whenever it wanted.
Bronwyn had dreams about getting free of the tiny welsh town and Astari couldn’t blame her. She had one of those artist’s souls, the kind that was just never satisfied. She craved freedom. But that didn’t mean Astari needed it too. She was happy, she was…Right?
Astari was happy to hear Rory’s voice yelling for her outside the kitchen door, breaking her out of her vicious thought cycle. A family of five had just come in and he was already about to pop a blood vessel in his head. Astari rushed to the rescue.
Everything was normal. The tips were average, and faces were familiar. Astari was running around the cafe with platters of food as she always did, pausing every couple of minutes to stare out the window at the beautiful summer day she was missing out on. Nothing out of the ordinary at all. At least it was that way, until a stranger walked in.
Astari was way too busy to notice the man who had sat down at an empty table at first, but then, all of a sudden, she felt inexplicably drawn to him. It was almost like something was calling her, like he was calling her. She snapped her head round quickly, her heart racing in her chest for reasons unbeknownst to her. The man seemed achingly familiar, but in a way she could not place. She took a moment to collect herself and then turned around to take another peek.
The man had dark scruffy hair that made him appear like he had recently been in a fight and although he didn’t seem much older than Astari, his dark eyes held a sense of history to them. He had a serious face that was pinched with concern, but he also seemed younger than the lines on his forehead wanted to suggest. He looked like men in old movies did when they were first returning from war and trying to settle back into their old lives only to realize that their old lives were coats that just didn’t fit anymore.
The man looked up at her and she was sucked back into her own headspace. She felt dizzy and off-kilter, her mind confused. Astari had to remind herself of what she was doing and then shaking her head, she quickly got back to work. She was dimly aware of how strange she must have looked to the customers, who were now eyeing her up and down.
Astari grabbed the empty tray from the table in front of her and rushed it as quickly as she could into the kitchen. The tray went down with a loud crash onto the work surface and she had to hold on to the side a chair to keep herself from falling over.
What was wrong with her?
Confusion ran through her veins and she could feel herself shaking, but she still had no idea why. She had no idea how a random stranger could induce such a strong reaction.
After a couple of minutes, Astari decided to peer around the corner and look back out into the seating area. The stranger seemed preoccupied with his own thoughts now. His hands were clasped tightly in front of him, fingers lacing and unlacing periodically.
“Astari, what are you doing?” Bronwyn shouted directly in her ear.
“Ahh!” Astari screamed, taken by surprise. She quickly slammed the kitchen door to block the view from the customers.
“Why would you do that?” Astari hissed, as she went to grab number 2’s order from the service table.
“You were spying on that devilishly handsome stranger,” Bronwyn teased, stealing a chip from one of the plates. This was a big mistake, as Rory came thundering into the room just as the chip entered her mouth.
“What on earth do you think you’re doing Miss Jones? And Astari, for god’s sake, go and take that man’s order!” He yanked the plates away from the girls. “Now!”
Astari sighed and walked over to the stranger’s table, forcing a smile onto her face.
“Hello sir, what can I get you?” She said as loudly and confidently as she could. He turned to her with an inquisitive look, measuring her, judging her. Astari felt instantly uncomfortable, but she had dealt with difficult customers before and she was determined not to let this panic-inducing man ruin her day.
She kept her smile plastered on and waited for him to reply. His eyes narrowed and focused in on her. There was an intenseness to them that hadn’t been there before, like he couldn’t quite figure her out.
“Would you like a bit longer to decide? Our menu is up on the board there,” Astari eventually said, pointing up to the big blackboard at the front of the café.
“Who are you?” he suddenly said, in the most casual way possible, like it was a normal question.
“Umm, my name is Astari,” she stammered awkwardly, confused as to why he needed this information.
“Who are your parents?”
“I’ll come back for your order,” she said coldly, as she walked briskly away.
He must be disturbed, she decided. It was probably best to just leave him be. Astari could feel his eyes following her as she disappeared into the kitchen. She figured she could hide here amongst the people trying to push out orders for a bit.
“You alright?” Bronwyn asked, walking over with a tray of chips on her arm.
“Fine,” Astari lied. “Just tired.”
Bronwyn was a spark plug. She once told her about a customer who tried to ask for her number and Bronwyn had all but publicly castrated him with her words, and in front of the entire café no less. But Astari wasn’t like that. She just wanted to wait out the rest of her shift and let him become someone else’s problem. She took a breath and steeled herself, before pushing back out into dining area, prepared to do whatever she had to do to maintain the minimum amount of politeness with this creep.
But the man was gone.
Thoughts started swirling in her mind once again. Had she offended him? Did Rory see? Did she scare off a customer? The place where he had been sitting looked untouched. As if he’d never been there in the first place.
Her grandmother picked her up shortly after that.
“How was work?”
“Fine,” Astari replied sharply.
She was considering talking about the man. After all, she usually complained to her grandmother about weird things that happened at work. But something about this stranger seemed off. She couldn’t seem to shake him. His face was there every time she tried to close her eyes, and that worried her even more.
“How was your day?” Astari asked back, so as not to seem rude.
“Oh, the usual. Mr Henderson is impatient as always.” She said.
Her grandmother was a jeweller and had worked for years to become the most reputable one in town. She was so good that eventually the others were forced to quit, and it was just her. Mr Henderson was now on his third wife and demanding an engagement ring as if he was scared the poor woman would up and leave before he even got the chance to propose. Astari almost felt bad for him, he seemed so lonely, but he always managed to send women packing left and right. He wasn’t old or mean. There was just something off about the man. It was a recurring pattern in her life it seemed.
“So, what does he want this time?” Astari asked.
“Princess cut diamond flanked with emeralds,” she said. “Quite the order.”
“He must really like this one. Or be very desperate.”
“I think it’s the latter.” Her grandmother chuckled, driving around the familiar corner near Fran’s Diner where they always went on Sundays after the church crowd departed.
“I hope he manages to make this one work.” Her grandmother said. “None of those other women were ever very talkative, and then after the divorce goes through they always skip town and head off to somewhere else.”
Astari rolled her eyes. “That seems to be going around.”
“What do you mean?”
“Everyone has been wanting to get out of here recently,” Astari replied, cautiously. She flushed. “Mainly Bronwyn I mean,” she added quickly.
“Out there isn’t all that impressive, believe me. I’ve lived it. Nothing romantic or beautiful about cities. They’re all as impersonal and lonely as the last.”
Astari nodded. She didn’t need much convincing. They’d been to Cardiff once or twice and she had no desire to stay longer than a few hours at a time. Although she loved Cardiff Bay, she didn’t enjoy the busyness of the city centre and all the car fumes which seemed to overwhelm her senses. Here she could breathe the open fresh air and enjoy the sweet smell of the mountain dew. Her dreams, even if they took her far away, never took her to the city, they never took her anywhere with buildings or busy streets with people yelling at each other. In fact, those places hiding in the recesses of her mind never even had cars.
“I know,” she told her grandmother with a note of wistfulness in her voice as she thought about her dream from the night before, the one with the dragon crossing the moon.
“Bronwyn always talks about wanting some tiny apartment in the city sleeping on a mattress on the floor because she can’t afford a real bed and eating microwave popcorn for all her meals,” Astari continued, trying to reassure her grandma that she wasn’t going to take the same path.
“Artists like to romanticize their lives. Living modestly for the sake of art,” her grandmother said.
Astari nodded her agreement and quickly changed the subject.
The rest of their drive was lighter in tone. They talked about the shows on the BBC that night and what they should cook for dinner since her grandmother had just gone to the market and brought some vegetables from Mrs Maddox’s stall. They didn’t have things like that in the city, no place to know your grocer and feel safe at home.
Astari and her grandmother spent the rest of the evening laughing until they could barely breathe. They were sure the neighbours were going to come around any second complaining of the noise. It had started when Astari poured way too much salt in the stew and very nearly ruined the dish. Her grandmother had just laughed at her and said she could probably save it with some more pepper, and on it went. Despite their attempts, the stew still ended up tasting like burnt salty onions, but it hardly mattered. It gave the pair something to laugh about. Why would Astari need anything more than this?
She dreamt she was riding a majestic, black horse. She’d never done this before in her life, but it felt so natural and familiar. This dream version of herself knew this horse, and she knew the feeling of his muscles pumping at a full gallop beneath her legs as she stood in her stirrups to get a better view. The wind was caressing her face and whipping her hair back into a curtain that commanded respect even from the sapphire sky above.
She could feel magic in the air. There was no other way to describe it, this aura surrounding her that she couldn’t see, only taste on the back of her tongue. It seemed to be leading her somewhere. But where was she going? And why? It had been for a reason, something urgent. She dug deep within her other self’s thoughts to find the answer.
It was something about the girls. She wasn’t sure which girls, but they were in danger. She was racing to tell someone. Who was she telling?
There was someone waiting for her at the edge of the mountains and a storm following closely behind. The dark grey clouds were chasing after her with speed that could only happen inside of a dream, but she only nudged her horse and kicked off faster. She was fairly certain this darkness had been following her all her life and it was only catching up with her now. Not just dream her, but actual real-life her. Why now though? What was different about her now than three years ago, or as a baby?
This was also the part of the dream where she saw the man at the edge of the mountain’s face and knew, in her heart, that he was her father. He was kind looking and called her by her name. He had a smile like her own except so much brighter, much more vibrant. There was something eternal about that man, but perhaps all daughters longing for a father thought the same way she did. His presence was the kind of thing that seemed crisp and clear as day here in this dream world, but she felt with a sad certainty that his visage would fade from her memory as soon as she woke up.
But she couldn’t focus on that right now. It was coming; the blackness was chasing her. She had to get to the castle. It was so close, so very close to her now. She just needed to peel back the thin misty veil of her memories and look around the corner. It would be there; she knew it would be, and yet…
Astari woke with a sudden start, panic raised in her chest. Her breathing was heavy, but then miraculously, the symptoms died down after mere seconds. She could barely recall the terrifyingly vivid dream or why it had upset her so much. It was almost as if someone had pressed the reset button on her day or cast some sort of amnesia charm over her.
Astari stared at her ceiling and watched the shadows dance in the shifting morning light, before remembering that it was her day off. She had no place else to be but here, but for some reason, she did not find the thought as comforting as she should have. She didn’t feel like her usual self. And she couldn’t, for the life of her, figure out why.
Downstairs she could hear her grandmother working on breakfast and the smell of coffee was quickly lifting up through the air and hitting her nose from where she lay. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried hard to force herself to remember what had happened in her dream, but nothing came to her. Usually she had no problem recalling them; they always seemed so realistic, but for some reason this time it was different.
She didn’t know what that meant, but she did know one thing. She was worried.
It didn’t take very long for her feelings of unease to be validated.
First, Mr. Henderson seemed to be increasingly interested in pacing around outside their house for some odd reason. Every time Astari glanced out the window he was always there, lurking. What’s more, he always seemed to anticipate exactly when she was going to pull the curtain back. It was like she always caught the tail end of him spinning around inhumanly fast and pretending to act nonchalant.
He had always been the nosey type. When Astari was young, Mr. Henderson would often knock on their door only to be quickly shooed away by her grandmother. When Astari asked what the old man wanted, her grandmother would always grimace and tell her he was just complaining about the garden. Once or twice, Astari could recall opening the door only to find him staring at her so intensely that she had to slam the door right in his face. Even now, he was watching her from across the garden and making her feel vulnerable and exposed. She had this sudden childlike desire to be very small and easily hidden.
But, the day must go on.
Astari walked into the kitchen to the smell of bacon in the oven. She could hear it sizzling in its own fat and felt her mouth water at the prospect of it. She could smell the eggs cooking on the hob, slowly becoming spinach and cheese omelettes. She liked these lazy days filled with food and lounging around the house. She’d like it even more if she didn’t feel so watched by Mr Henderson.
“How did you sleep?” Her grandmother asked, looking at her out the corner of her eye.
“Fine,” she replied.
“Any interesting dreams?”
The skin on the back of Astari’s neck prickled for a moment and then she settled into a chair with a sigh.
“Yes. No. I don’t know. It feels like I’m forgetting something important.”
“You’re probably forgetting that you didn’t wash the dishes last night,” her grandmother quipped.
“Oh, ha ha. Very funny.”
Astari pretended to scowl and her grandmother smiled good naturedly. Astari gratefully took the mug of coffee her grandmother offered her.
“Was there ever a castle on the hill against the mountains?” Astari asked suddenly, as an image suddenly resurfaced to her brain.
Her Grandmother fell silent and Astari looked up at her with a furrowed brow.
There was no answer at first and she feared something medical was happening, a stroke or perhaps a fit. She stood up and walked over to her grandmother who seemed to be deep in thought, but upon realizing how close Astari was to her, shook it off and turned to look at her. Her lips were pressed into a tight line.
“Not that I know of,” she said with a smile that didn’t even come close to reaching her eyes.
Astari felt that the air had shifted in the room. Something felt wrong. She had not felt this way since she’d asked about her parents so many years ago. Her grandmother had given some vague unsatisfying answer, and Astari had not tried asking again for fear of upsetting her, but right now, she really wanted to. She could feel a decades-old sense of entitlement festering in her belly. She had the right to know where she came from, and what her grandmother was keeping from her.
When she was younger she dreamed of being some lost princess, finally found again as an orphan. She dreamed that her father was a prince or a lord or something important and that there was a very important reason he had kept her in the dark for so many years. So far, nothing miraculous had sprung up. She was just a regular teenage girl working a minimum wage job in a café.
“In my dreams there’s usually a castle up on the mountain.” Astari explained, not ready to let it go. “Doesn’t mean there was one, of course. But wouldn’t it be a pretty place to put one?”
Her grandmother hummed noncommittally. She was quiet the rest of the way through breakfast. She only broke the silence to ask how many pieces of bacon she wanted and if she wanted salt for her eggs. The tension in the room was so thick you could cut it with a knife, but Astari made no further attempts to rectify it.
All the while, Astari was sure she could still feel the cool eyes of Mr Henderson somehow watching her from outside.