There are only two reasons why the elves come to our world: war or wives. In either case, they come for death. They come today.
My hands shake as I reach for the next jar. My solace and calm are hidden somewhere among the herb-filled containers that line the shelves of my shop. If I dig deep enough within them, keep looking between them, and continue mixing their contents, I might find some semblance of peace. There are two more poultices to make, one more sleeping draught, a strengthening potion, several healing salves…about five hours of work and only two hours to do it all.
If the Human Queen isn’t found among the women of Capton, war will befall us. War would lead to all of humanity’s destruction under the might of the elves’ wild magic. Finding her would fulfill the treaty and secure the safety of humanity for another century. But if you are her, you might as well be dead.
It’s the lack of queen that has the whole town on edge, myself included.
The chime of the bell above the door to my shop steals my attention from the meditation of my work.
“I’m sorry; I’m only open for emergencies tod—” I still as I settle the heavy jar of dried valerian root on my counter. There’s a familiar reflection on its surface—a man with light brown hair and doe eyes, carrying a large bag. I look up quickly, affirming my suspicion. “Luke! What’re you doing here so early?”
Luke stands in more traditional garb than he usually wears as a Keeper of the Fade. His dark trousers are freshly pressed and his bright blue tunic doesn’t have a trace of dirt. The Keepers of the Fade look after the temple and forest at the edge of town, at the foot of the great mountain. They’re the ones who traditionally deal with the elves, and keep anyone in Capton from accidently crossing over the Fade—the barrier that splits our world from the land of the elves and wild magic.
My work is quickly forgotten. I pop up the counter and step over to the other side. Luke drops the bag with a heavy thud and sweeps me up in his arms. The embrace goes on a little longer than typical for merely friends greeting each other.
His grip loosens, but he doesn’t fully release me. His slack arms rest around my waist and I don’t know what to do with my hands. They finally settle on his shoulders. Though what I want to touch is his chest.
“I had to come to see you.” He runs his knuckles over my cheek. I tilt my head upward and swallow thickly.
I want to kiss him.
I’ve wanted to kiss him for at least six months now, likely more. I knew it when he came with me on my excursion to find winter root deep in the frigid marshes. I knew when he told me that the lack of Human Queen meant his duties as one of the Keepers of the Fade would triple, preventing him from spending as much time with me.
I likely wanted to kiss him before I really even understood what kissing was—back when we were small children playing games in the woods at the start of our lifelong friendship. But realizing you have a want to kiss someone makes everything agonizing. If I still thought we were just friends, I could’ve kissed him several times over on a dare, or a whim, or if he asked. I could’ve kept his company without my stomach doing flips.
But this wanting makes every movement between us unbearable. Especially because I can’t kiss him. Doing so would be cruel…to both of us.
“Well, you’ve seen me now.” I finally break away, smoothing out my apron. I’m at war with myself around him. Every second hurts. I want him to sweep me up in his arms again. But I can’t want that. I know I can’t deep in my marrow. I don’t have time for him; duty calls me. He’s already too distracting as a friend. “I’m sure you’re busy with the Keepers today, preparing for the arrival of the elf delegation this evening. We can go out to the forest tomorrow.” Assuming there is a tomorrow.
“I want to take you this morning,” he says in a tone I thought was reserved only for my dreams. “But I want to go farther than the forest.”
“What’re you talking about?” I ask, returning to the other side of the counter, where I continue adding various dried herbs into one of my most prized possessions—a silver kettle.
It’s one of two gifts from Luke. The kettle was a gift when I graduated from my herbology studies at the academy in Lanton across the narrow strait to the mainland. The other gift, a necklace, he gave me when I was just a girl and it’s never left my person since. Both are breathtaking.
But elvish goods usually are stunning. And extremely rare. I generally keep the necklace hidden to avoid drawing attention to the fact that I have two items of elvish make in my possession. I don’t want to get Luke in trouble for any favoritism.
“I want to take you away.” He motions to the bag at his feet. “I’ve prepared traveling supplies. There’s a boat at the harbor ready for us to go.”
I shake my head, as if I can jostle his words enough that they’ll fall into an order that makes sense. “Traveling? A boat?”
“We’ll start in Lanton, obviously. You still have connections from your academy days, right? Maybe we could stay with some of your old friends as we make our way,” Luke suggests casually, as though we’re talking about strolling up to the bluffs to the south of town. He doesn’t break eye contact with me though—that’s how I know he’s serious. Dread tastes as metallic as fear. “And then who knows where from there? Do you want to explore the vast southern deserts? Or perhaps the Slate Mountains to the west?”
I force laughter. I wish I could pretend like he’s joking. “What has gotten into you? We can’t just leave. I have obligations here—and so do you, for that matter. Who will mend bones, stop fevers, and ensure the Weakness is kept at bay if I leave?” Though there’s little even I can do on that last one. The Weakness has been a withering sickness plaguing Capton’s people. It beats my attempts to combat it at every turn.
“Our work is what we do, not who we are. Nothing traps us here. We’re not like the old ones in town who are only kept alive by the Fade River. We can leave. We’ll make it out.”
“Even if that were true, the elves are coming today. I have to get my work done before the town hall; I can’t let everyone down. Mister Abbot needs his tea and Emma needs her strengthening potion or her heart—”
“Luella, we have to leave.” Luke walks over and leans against the counter with both elbows. His voice drops to a hush as he glances upstairs.
“They’re not awake yet,” I say of my parents. Their room is above my shop and it’s been quiet for the two hours I’ve been up working.
“The Keepers still haven’t found the Human Queen. The magic in the line has been fading for some time.” They say that the power of the Human Queen is passed from one queen to the next when the former queen dies. No one knows what would happen if there wasn’t a Human Queen to be taken. It’d be unprecedented. “Some of my fellow Keepers think that maybe she just isn’t here at all. Maybe the magic ran out. Which is all the more reason to get out while we can.”
Since the treaty between the elves and humans was signed three millennia ago, there has been a Human Queen selected from Capton every hundred years like clockwork. Finding her was never hard; she’s the only human with magic, after all. But this time, not one young woman of Capton has mended something with a thought, or made plants grow from barren earth, or had animals swear their allegiance to her.
Now, it’s been one hundred and one years since the last Human Queen was chosen, and the town is suffering because of it.
“If she’s not here then I especially can’t leave. The Weakness is spreading through the town. People are dying as young as one hundred and ten. I have to do what I can to stop it.” And if there is a war to come, healers will be needed more than ever. But I can’t bring myself to say that. I can hardly think it.
“If there is no queen, you can do nothing to stop it. The town’s connection with the Fade is dying and people will die with it. Their lifespans reduced to nothing more than those beyond our island.” Luke grabs my hands. “The elves are coming, and I had a terrible dream about it. Please, let’s leave now.”
“Luke,” I say gently, reaching forward to caress the shadow of gold across his chin. The constant stubble is new. I can’t tell if he’s growing a beard, or just keeping it closely cropped. Either way, I think I like it. “You look like you haven’t slept. And you’ve been under a tremendous amount of stress with a long day ahead. Let me make a strengthening brew for you and then something for you to take tonight to help you sleep.”
“I haven’t slept because I have been preparing for us to leave before war breaks out.” Luke pushes away from the counter and ducks underneath the thoroughfare. I’m cornered—counter on one side, shelves of herbs on the other, Luke before me, no exit behind. “I want to take you away. I want to keep you safe.”
“Luke,” I say gingerly, pleading. I want to pretend like he’s joking but I can tell he’s deathly serious. “I can’t just leave.”
“Yes you can, of course you can.” The tone of his voice gives me pause. The way he’s looking at me now leaves me breathless. I have to remind myself to breathe. “I want to take you away and spend time with you, and only you, Luella. Surely, you know…I’ve loved you for a long time.”
I open and close my mouth, several times. Yes, I knew. And I love him too. I love him enough that I dreamed of this moment. But in my dreams I was wearing something nicer than my work smock and I didn’t stink of lavender oil.
His expression falls in the wake of my silence. “Oh, I see… And here I thought that you might—”
“I love you too.” As soon as I get the words out, sensation returns. Tingling vanishes from my toes. My whole body bursts with laughter. “I’ve loved you since I was a child.”
“Then run away with me, Luella.” Luke grabs my hands. His thumbs run over my knuckles.