“And where I am now is Midscape,” I reason. Willow nods. “What is the Beyond?”
“No one knows. Well…King Eldas may know. They say that the Veil that separates us from the Beyond was made by the first Elf King to give order to the living and the dead. In doing so, he severed the elves from the immortality they were given by the first gods. For this, other races bent the knee to the elves. They honored the sacrifice of all the elves to give the final rest to everyone and proclaimed the Elf King the king of kings—ruler of all mortals.”
“Did people die before the Veil was made?” I ask.
“Not according to legend.” He pauses. “And before you ask, I’ve no idea about the logistics of people living past when they should have died. The stories vary and each is more horrible than the last.”
“I know what it’s like to be told unbelievable tales,” I murmur, thinking of all the tales of the elves—a mixed bag of truth and embellished lore. “So, in a way, the elves are guardians of the dead?”
“You can think of it like that. It’s part of why we were granted the ability to find the true names of people, beasts, and things.”
“Finding the names…that’s the Knowing?”
“Yes, and it is the strongest power in Midscape.”
“How was the Fade made? When the world split into Midscape and the Natural World?”
Willow looks out the window. “After the Veil was made, peace reigned, for a time. Eventually bickering and infighting took hold. Elves, vampir, fae, dryads, mer, and all the folk with wild magic, we draw our power from the Beyond.”
Mer, vampir, fae, dryads, and more. All the magical and deadly creatures from the stories I was told as a child are real. They’ve always been real, lingering just on the other side of the Fade. I shudder at the notion.
“What about humans, then?” I ask. “Did we have wild magic and lose it?”
“No, humans were different… Long after the fae descended from the dryads, the ancient nature spirits made the humans from the earth itself. So, early humans drew their magic from nature.”
I try and imagine telling my friends at the academy that the first humans were made by dryads and that we once had magic. Just imagining their expressions nearly makes me laugh. “So humans and fae are more alike?” I ask.
“No…think of fae as an evolution that happened by time and chance. Humans were designed—of the dryads’ making,” Willow explains. “Not long after, the dryads died off, and the early humans were quickly ostracized. Some blamed them for the death of the dryads. But I think that anything different is all too easily used as an excuse for hatred.”
“So the great wars started and once more the elves stepped up to make a barrier, this time called the Fade, to separate the Natural World and the humans who came from it from the various peoples and creatures of Midscape,” I logic out. My brain is only operating at half capacity. Everything is exhausted, including the mush between my ears. If I don’t speak it all aloud I might not grasp the world I now find myself in.
“Exactly, Midscape is a between. But there’s just one problem. Can you figure out what it is?” He glances at me. Now my eyes follow his to the window.
“If you create a world between the Natural World and the Beyond…then it’s not natural,” I realize.
“Someone had to bridge the gap,” he encourages.
The truth is dawning on me brighter than the sun on the fields beyond. “The Human Queen.”
“You got it!” He leans over and flicks my nose. Then pulls back, startled. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty, I shouldn’t have—”
I burst out laughing and rub my nose lightly. “It’s fine.”
“You’re my queen, I really shouldn’t—”
“Willow, it’s fine,” I repeat, firmer. “It’s nice to have someone treat me kindly, like a friend.”
He looks suddenly uncomfortable and stands. When he continues speaking, his head is down and his hands are busy cleaning his tools and sorting his supplies. “In any case, yes, the Human Queen is Midscape’s connection to the Natural World.”
“Does everywhere in Midscape look like this? Springtime?” I ask.
He nods. “Because of the Human Queen—you—sitting on the redwood throne, nature could flow into this world.”
“Through me,” I whisper and shudder, thinking of the magic that raged through my body. The phantom pain of roots digging into me alights under my skin. The sensation of my soul, my life, being torn from my bones is searing hot. I feel a thousand needs screaming at me at once and I am just one woman; I couldn’t possibly help them all.
All I want is my shop. I want my patients. I want a world I can understand and a small corner to look after.
I asked to take care of people, yes… But nothing prepared me for this. Not my parents, not the academy, and not the Keepers. My ineptitude may be more of a detriment than an aid.
“Does that answer your questions?” Willow interrupts my pity party.
“Why does the Human Queen have magic?” I ask. “No other human does.”
“Right, magic was lost to humans when the Fade was erected.”
I resist pointing out how unfair it is that the thing that keeps humans safe from wild magic—the Fade—is also what removed humans’ natural magic.
“Does the queen keep her magic because she marries the Elf King?” I pause. “No, that can’t be…because the magic comes to the Human Queen before she marries the King.”
“The queen’s magic is a bit of a mystery.” It sounds as though he’s wondered this many times before as well. “The prevailing lore is that the first Human Queen was actually, in part, an assistant builder of the Fade. Since she was, her magic can penetrate the Fade and that magic is passed down from woman to woman in the city where she came from.”
“I see.” I sigh.
“It’s not really a satisfying answer, is it?” He misreads my disappointment.
“It’s magic. I’m finding that magic only loosely makes sense.” I shake my head and murmur, “I just wish it were different is all…” Then, I continue stronger, “You were alive when the last queen was, right?”
“Yes, but I was a child.”
I’m reminded of what Eldas said. The stories of the elves living for hundreds of years is greatly exaggerated. I doubt Willow is much older than I am. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked if he was a year or two younger.
“What did she do after she sat on the throne?” What will the rest of my existence be like here?
“Your Highness, I really must insist!” A burst of commotion and a shrill woman’s voice interrupts Willow. “She’s still far too weak.”
“She what?” I press. Willow glances helplessly at me as I try and get the information from him.
The door opens and I don’t get my answer. Standing in the frame are two new faces. In the background is a woman with the same dark shade of skin as Willow, her wiry, gray hair pulled in a messy bun.
In front of her is a young man with a shade of raven hair—glistening of purples and blues in its shade, like an oil slick—that’s too unique to be chance. Even though I’ve only seen it a handful of times, that hair is seared onto my memory. Yet this man’s nose is slightly more flat, eyes slightly more rounded.
Even with the differences, there’s no denying my initial assumption—Eldas has a brother.
“If it isn’t the new Human Queen, here at last.” He smiles widely at me and claps his hands. “What an honor to finally meet you. I do hope I’m not interrupting anything?”
“No, Prince Harrow.” Willow stares at his toes, looking instantly uncomfortable. Willow’s unease prickles the sensation up my arms. Something is wrong just because of Harrow’s mere presence.
“Good. Both of you may leave.” Harrow waves Willow and the woman behind him off.
“I told you, Your Highness, that she needs to be resting.” The elderly elf woman places her hands on her hips as she tuts at the prince like he’s a child. “You can have your fun at a later time.”
Fun? I really don’t like the sound of that. Prickling unease has turned into claws raking under my skin.
“I can have my fun whenever it pleases me. That’s one benefit of being a prince,” he says with a slow grin working its way onto his lips. “Now, shoo. Both of you away. I decree this interaction royal business.”
“Eldas will hear about this.” The woman still has yet to move.
“Run and tell my brother.” Harrow rolls his eyes. “You always do, Poppy.”
“Someone has to keep you in check. Not as if your mother does,” she mutters. But instead of leaving, she crosses over to me and places her hand on my forehead. “I’m Poppy, dearie. I come from a long line of royal healers. So if you need anything you just call for me or Willow.”
I nod. Something about her mannerisms reminds me of sweet old Mr. Abbot, and my heart aches. I never got to say goodbye to him or any of my other patients. The thought of all the people I’ve left behind—people who needed me—has my eyes burning. I nearly weep and beg for Poppy to stay as she pulls away and leaves. Willow follows behind, giving me one last wary glance.
“So, you’re the Human Queen. We’ve been waiting all this time for…you?” Harrow assesses me the second we’re alone. Even though Willow’s potion is beginning to kick in, I don’t even bother trying to shift straighter. It’s impossible to be intimidating while lying in a bed.
“Apparently,” I say dryly.
“Given your show on the redwood throne, I think the fact obvious.” He walks over slowly.
“Glad we could clear that up. Is there anything else I might help you with?” I narrow my eyes up at him.