He'd awoken with a start to the deafening crash of thunder. The window panes shook as rain pounded harshly against them and for a while he forgot where he was, the room dressed in pitch darkness. Daniel yelped as lightning struck again and he dived under the bed sheets, trying to bite back the whimper threatening to leave his mouth as the low rumble signaled another strike was soon to be delivered.
He remembered how his father's face had darkened when he had found his son, seven years old now, afraid of thunderstorm nights. Oh how he had yelled that he was setting a bad example for Hazel and when he had failed to stop crying immediately, he had been locked inside a wardrobe for the rest of the night as a punishment. His eyes watered at the memory and he couldn't repress the shudder that ran through him.
He took a few steadying breaths before peeking cautiously from under the duvet. Flashes of lightning cast their ghostly light into his bedroom, making the shadows dance on his walls and his bed sheets. Something claw-like dragged against the window from the outside and his eyes widened in horror, sure that it was some eldritch creature coming to collect bad children who failed to obey their fathers. He shrieked and hid under the duvet again when there was a knock on the door, his small shoulders shaking with sobs as he tried to cry as quietly as possible into his pillow. Perhaps the creature was deaf and wouldn't notice him if he tried to stay still, perhaps it would go away... And then a hand brushed against his back and he let out an involuntary cry.
"Daniel? Is everything alright?" asked a familiar booming voice.
He went completely rigid when he realized who it was and started shaking again, anticipating a scolding or worse for his behaviour. Alexander pushed back the quilt and turned him around with ease, taking in his frightened face. Daniel gulped, hastily rubbing his eyes to look more composed. "S-sir! I'm s-sorry, I hope I didn't wake you!" It was practically a whimper.
The elderly man stared at him with a perplexed expression, his tall figure looming over him. "How many times have I asked you to call me Alexander?" he asked somewhat wearily, though there was a hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth.
Daniel winced as though slapped, not sure if he was being scolded or not. "I-I'm sorry. I hope I didn't wake you, A-alexander."
"Don't worry, it was not you. It's hardly possible to sleep in this racket," Alexander replied, nodding towards the window and the storm still raging outside. "I merely came to check on you. I heard from your father that you are afraid of thunder."
The boy immediately looked guilty, his face growing rather red. "I'm sorry. I swear I've tried to learn to control it."
To his surprise Alexander only wrapped an arm around his shoulders and gave his upper arm a firm squeeze. "Fears are nothing to be ashamed of, Daniel. You have done nothing wrong."
"But my father..."
"...is a short-sighted, simple-minded man whose attempts at parenting are lacking at the best. Pay his words no mind."
Daniel bit his lip at those words, almost shying away from the smile his new mentor gave him. Alexander was oftentimes strict but never unnecessarily so, and though his voice and tall figure had intimidated him at first, Daniel could not help noticing that he was not a bad man. Under his aristocratic manners and discipline he was, very simply, the kindest adult Daniel had encountered in his short life, and he could not help quite respecting him in a way he had never been able to respect his own father. Grown-ups usually did nothing but scold him, if they paid his existence any attention at all. Alexander did, and more often than not remembered to praise him when he completed a task or did a good job on his homework. He could not remember anyone ever doing that before.
"Did you have another nightmare tonight?" the baron asked, seeing the hesitation in the child's eyes. Daniel shook his head.
"No, si... I mean, Alexander," he corrected himself hastily. "It was the storm that woke me up."
"Ah," he simply said. "And you have been unable to fall asleep ever since?"
"Yes." His fingers curled around the edge of the quilt, fidgeting somewhat nervously still. He found himself unable to hold the eye contact for longer than a few seconds, a light blush of embarrassment rising to his cheeks when he nodded. "It was so dark, I didn't even recognize the room when I came to."
Alexander watched him closely, his thumb rubbing soothingly at his arm. "Be patient. You need to give yourself time to grow accustomed to your surroundings."
"But I've already been here a full month! Surely that should be more than enough," Daniel protested, sounding frustrated.
The elder looked nothing short of amused at his little outburst. "One month is a short time, Daniel, and the castle is much larger than your old home back in London was."
The boy nipped at his bottom lip, thoughtful. He gave a noncommittal shrug, not meeting his guardian's eyes. "I like it better here, though. The library is nice. And I like the garden." How glad he was to be here, even if the castle was old and gloomy at times.
"I am delighted to hear that, Daniel. It just so happens that I am quite proud of the garden as it is right now."
"Alexander, sir, I heard from professor Herbert that botany is one of your special fields of interests."
The baron smiled at his now barely contained curiousity. "That's a big word for someone your age to know. Yes, I admit I am certainly fond of plants. They are often a much more pleasant company than people, and much better listeners." The boy giggled at that and Alexander gently ruffled his hair, leaving it even messier than before. "If it interests you so I shall rearrange our schedule to squeeze in a lesson or two each week. How would you like that, Daniel?"
The boy's eyes widened with wild happiness and he exclaimed, "I'd love that, sir!"
"Alexander, please," the baron corrected softly and Daniel's felt his ears burn with shame again.
"Please excuse my manners," he muttered a rushed apology.
"Think nothing of it. Now, I think the more pressing matter is your return to bed. The storm seems to have calmed down a bit and I require you to be well-rested for our work tomorrow."
The mention of sleeping alone in that large, dark room again was enough to make him uncomfortable and he shot a nervous glance at the window, rain still generously pounding against the glass. His shoulders slumped and he pursed his lips into a tight line, not knowing how to voice his disapproval without offending his host - his guardian, now - and wagered it best to say nothing at all.
Alexander, however, had not missed his crestfallen expression. "I take it you are not quite so eager to comply," he suggested. Daniel eyed him uncertainly, torn between his wanting of company and fear of punishment.
The boy took a steadying breath. "I don't want in any way to inconvenience you more than I already have but... I mean, I hope I'm not asking too much but would you mind staying just a little bit longer?" The words came out in a rush and he was quite out of breath when he finished. He felt the baron's eyes boring into him and kept his own firmly fixed on the duvet resting on his lap.
"A bit longer?" the baron asked, sounding just slightly taken aback.
Daniel nodded slowly. "Only... only until I fall asleep again. Please?"
Alexander fell silent and the boy started to fear he had crossed some invisible line when he did not reply, immediately regretting opening his mouth. After some consideration, however, the baron reached out to light the candle on the bedside table and answered kindly, “just until you have fallen asleep, then,” and Daniel positively beamed. He hastily rearranged his pillows and scooted aside, making room beside him while Alexander got up and inspected the contents of the only bookshelf in the room. He took a moment to scan through the small selection the shelf held before choosing one, and turning around, he found the boy looking over at him expectantly, and had to fight back the urge to smile.
The baron sat back down beside Daniel, leaning against the headboard and setting the book on his lap. “Did your mother read you stories back in London?”
Daniel considered this for a moment and nodded. “Yes, when I was smaller. Now that Hazel has been sick in bed so much lately she only ever reads to her. Not that I mind,” he added hastily. “Father says I’m too old for fairy stories, anyway.”
“And do you know what I think?” Alexander asked softly. “I think you will miss out on many a good tale with that kind of thinking.” He opened the book and flipped through the pages until he found what he wanted. “Yes, I think this will do. Are you familiar with the story of Rumpelstiltskin?”
“Only by name, I think,” Daniel responded, the title sounding vaguely familiar and he guessed he may have heard his mother read it when he was very small, too small indeed for any details to have stuck with him.
“Good. Now, lie back down, close your eyes and listen.”
And Daniel did, letting the baron pull the duvet up to his chin when his eyes closed.
Eventually his slow, soothing voice drowned out the crashes and booms of thunder, or perhaps they simply became fewer and more distant as the storm died out on its own; he did not know which it was, and he did not care either. He was safe and warm and other things mattered very little, and indeed the last thing he was aware of before sleep claimed him was the gentle drumming of the rain and the familiar voice he would from now on learn to associate with the most magnificent and enthralling of stories, and in the morning he would wake up to find the book beside him right where Alexander had been sitting the night before, as if as a promise of continuation.