As the forest became darker the more they delved into it, Nils became more anxious by the minute. He tried focusing on the clatter of Björk's hooves against the rugged dirt road.
"What do you think, Björk?" He asked the stout white pony. "Did we take a wrong turn somewhere?"
His only answer, naturally, was a nervous whinny from the animal. They slowed as they came up to a fork in the road and the teen held up his lantern, but the signpost in the middle of the fork was so old that it was unreadable even in broad daylight. The boy grimaced in annoyance and looked at his two options. One side was cheerfully bright, sunbeams filtering through the trees so that Nils could see the dust motes and small creatures floating and fluttering through the air. This track, however, was rugged and winding. He could see that the trail led downhill. The other branch of road, on the contrary, was dark, ominously dark, the trees overgrown, but the road itself was flat, unused—probably in favour of the sunnier road—and as far as Nils could tell, it remained flat for awhile. For this reason, the teen figured it would be a faster route. The darkness did not bother him and he had a lantern anyway. The snowy-haired boy steered his steed down this path.
All was well for what seemed like hours, but the low rumbling of thunder warned the boy that a storm was well on its way, and getting close.
"Steady, Björk. It's okay," he cooed to the frightened animal. They did not advance much farther before a growl of a different kind caught their attention. A large, beastly wolf crept toward them. Its bloodshot eyes were narrowed evilly at the horse and the froth that dribbled down its throat as it snapped its jaws at the horse's legs told Nils that the creature was rabid. He urged the pony forward and it took off at a gallop, the wagon behind it bumping and nearly toppling over. The rabid wolf was hot on their heels as it chased them through the forest. The boy's stomach churned as they burst through the forest only to be met with the edge of a very menacing cliff. Frantically, the pony backed up, enough to bring them out of the danger of falling only to be met with the demonic creature behind them. It stalked forward but before it had time to attack, Björk made an instinctual leap for the opening on one side of the wolf. The sudden jerk caused the wagon to unhitch, the momentum carrying it over the edge over the cliff, and as Nils flailed his arms to regain control of the pony, his lantern flung out of his grip and fell to the ground in a burst of fire. Björk ran back into the forest and the rabid wolf was caught behind the wall of flames.
The scared pony continued its sprint straight through the forest until its instincts told him he was out of danger. Finally, it slowed to a canter and the teen was able stop the animal. He slid from the animal's back and gripped the reigns in one hand while petting Björk comfortingly with the other. The trees thinned out into a clearing and Nils could see a black iron gate looming over him as he approached. Being under the cover of trees, he was unaffected by the weather up until this point. Approaching the gate slowly, he was quickly drenched by the rain that had picked up.
Björk the pony balked and whinnied, pulling at its reigns, trying to get away from the gate. A grand but menacing castle stood over Nils. He could understand that the animal was quite possibly sensing some danger that he couldn't, but the need for shelter from the storm trumped the desire to follow his pony's instincts.
"Come on, Björk! We need to go inside," he said to the animal, but the horse tugged itself free of its master's hold and ran off into the forest once more.
Nils frowned at the loss of his loyal animal companion but a wind had picked up, chilling him to the bone. He shivered violently as the gust seemed to blow right through him and he hurried toward the front doors of the castle. The door creaked open, ostensibly on its own, and he slipped inside, letting out a sigh of relief at the warmth that seemed to melt a layer of ice off his skin. The castle was dark, empty, and when he called out, his own voiced echoing upon the vast ceiling was his only answer. The teen wandered forth and found a small den that came off the foyer. There was already a roaring fire crackling in the furnace. Perhaps someone is already here? But no, the little room, too, was empty.
Nils peeled off his sopping overcoat, laying it by the fire to dry, and sank down into the large, wing-backed chair. At his side there was a small reading table with a steaming cup of tea, a small bowl of sugar cubes, and a matching saucer of milk. He helped himself to the drink, feeling his eyes begin to droop from exhaustion and cold. Just as he was about to fall into complete slumber, he shivered from a sudden gust of freezing wind. The door had blown open and he could hear the shuffling of something moving behind him. The wind had extinguished the fire, forcing both the boy and the newcomer into darkness.
"What are you doing here?" A deep voice growled. The teen did not answer. Instead, he leapt from his seat, grabbing his coat, and turned to face whoever was behind him. He stared into the darkness, eyes slowly adjusting until he could make out a looming figure, darker than the rest of the room.
"Are you the lord of this castle?" He asked carefully, steadying the tremble in his voice so as to not provoke the other.
"That is none of your concern. Why did you come here?" The figure snarled again, louder than before.
"W-well, I was lost and needed shelter—"
"You shouldn't be here. You're not welcome here!"
Nils shrunk back, trying to not show fear. The figure circled him around the room, and from the light that shone in from the hallway, he could see that other's frightening visage. "I'm sorry, I—
"What are you staring at?" The monster's cruel roar caused the teen to make a run for the door. He, however, was caught by the hood of his coat and the lord dragged him to the highest tower of the palace. "If you want shelter, then I'll shelter you. In the dungeons!" He roared again, throwing the boy into a cold cell. The boy merely secluded himself as far away from the brute as possible, even though the other couldn't have touched him from the other side of the bars.
Nils stared listlessly through the bars for days. Each day, the monster would come up and look at him, but every time he did, the boy would cast his gaze out the tiny, barred window and onto the horizon of trees and mountains. He often wondered about Björk and about his brother Aksel.
One day, from the shadows across the chamber that held his cell, the lord asked him gruffly, "What do you have that's worth living for?" For once, Nils made eye contact with his captor.
"My brother. He is my only family," was all he said.
The creature scoffed. "Yet he is not loyal enough to come and find you. I have kept you here for days, now."
"I have no doubts that he will come."
"Do you now? How about we make a deal?" The lord sneered. "If your brother is as noble as you seem to think he is and indeed shows up for your rescue, then I will… I will simply let you go. But… if he does not, then I shall keep you here as my prisoner forever and you must never attempt to run away."
"What is stopping you from keeping me here otherwise?"
"Well, I could merely kill you and your brother, if he ever does show up, easily. Luckily for you, I am feeling generous, boy. So, do we have a deal?"
Nils was hesitant. He was sure that his brother would soon show up. He was sure… "Agreed."
The monster sneered again, showing his gleaming canines, and left the chamber, slamming the door in his wake.
It had been days since Nils had left and Aksel went through business as usual, except in that he spent more time at home cleaning, reading, and in general avoiding the red-eyed thorn in his side. One morning, he awoke with a feeling of dread in his gut. At late morning, a whinny outside confirmed his suspicion. Setting aside his book, he swiftly made his way to the back of the farmhouse. There stood Gilbert, smirking and holding the reigns of their pony, Björk.
"Gilbert…" The blond youth began, with a dangerous tone in his voice. "What are you doing with Björk and where is my brother?" The albino man stalked up to the other, near-dragging the pony behind him, as it bucked to be free of the stranger's hold.
Gilbert grinned down at Aksel. "Your horse was acting crazy, making a mad run through the town. You're lucky I was able to catch it before someone shot it. I decided to bring it to you, seeing as I'm such a good guy and all," he said with false sincerity.
"And your dear little brother…" He tutted. "Poor thing must have been lost in the woods. It's been days since he's been gone, am I wrong? I imagine he's been devoured by wolves by now."
"No," Aksel said firmly, narrowing his eyes. "I don't believe that. Nils is too smart to allow it to happen."
"I know this must be hard for you, but I can make it better." Gilbert let out a hissing laugh. He grabbed the shorter man's wrist with a firm grip. "Come on, Aksel, there's nothing left here for you. Everyone knows that your brother, crazy as he was, was the one keeping you two in any kind of money with his inane little inventions. Now that he's gone, you've got nothing. What—you don't believe me?" Aksel stared stoically at him; his eyes were darkened with distrust and he raised his chin in stubbornness towards the other's words.
The pale man's red eyes lit up, as though he found great pleasure in describing the dismal possibilities of his future to Aksel. "Just watch—slowly you'll have to sell or trade your furniture just to be able to eat, then you'll sell your horse to keep your little cottage; then eventually you'll have to get rid of your house and if you're lucky, you'll live in the attic of someone else's home! But… I know of a way, we can prevent any of this from happening." He grip tightened and he tugged the youth close. "Come live with me, Aksel. Be mine. Your brother is not coming back. You'll be better off this way."
Aksel became more annoyed by the troublesome man by the moment. With a heave as violent as he could make it, he pushed Gilbert away from him and grabbed Björk's reigns. He stormed into the house and locked every door and window, waiting for the annoying man to leave. It wasn't until sundown that Gilbert did so and in the meantime, Aksel dressed appropriately and prepared for the journey he was about to take. Once the albino was clearly out of sight, he grabbed his things and mounted Björk.
"I don't care what he says, what any of them say. Nils is out there, somewhere, and I will find him. No matter what."