Willow knows nothing about the “Being” that Eldas mentioned. After lunch, I spend the afternoon scouring the journals for any notes on it. I can’t find anything.
But what I do find is enough instruction on how to use my magic that I have renewed hope and a plan for later tonight.
The day drags on until the chime of a clock startles me from my work. Willow is finishing cleaning up his workbench. “Just leave all your things where they are. We can resume again tomorrow, if you’d like.”
“Sure.” I force a smile and refrain from saying that I won’t be here tomorrow if everything goes right tonight.
I was eight the first time I sneaked out of my house.
The tiny window at the back of the attic was just large enough for my child body to wriggle through. The ledges that framed the windows were just wide enough for my nimble feet. And I was just stupid enough to think that climbing tall trees meant I was perfectly capable of scaling down from the third story of a brownstone so I could go and collect rare flowers that only bloomed at night.
I was young and reckless.
Now I’m older…and apparently still reckless.
Moonlight streams in through the windows of the lunch nook. Somehow, the room I destroyed has already been put back together. A shiver wriggles up my spine and I wonder if it’s the phantom sensation of the elf magic that I know had to have been used to repair the damage, or if there’s truly a chill left behind by the power.
My satchel is slung across my body and I’m in the clothes I arrived here in. Sturdy garments that can hold up to climbing the tallest redwoods in the forest or skidding down a hillside. The sort of clothes I’d wear in the shop I long for now.
I take a deep breath, debating with myself over this course of action. What will happen if I actually leave? The Elf King needed a Human Queen. Well, he got one. Even if I’m far away, we’re still married, technically. Midscape needed a recharge through that queen from the Natural World. They got that too.
And, based off the conversation I overheard with Rinni, I’ve caused more harm than good in Eldas’s life. Great, that feeling is mutual. If I leave we can both go back to living how we want now that we’ve fulfilled our duties.
“I have to go,” I say to steel my resolve.
Maybe the other queens had nothing better to do than exist, but I have work. I’ve made the trees bloom and Midscape flourish. My job here is done as far as I can tell. Now, it’s time to see if there’s another option that no queen has dared attempt to explore—going home.
I open the window. Even though the trees in the city below are now in spring’s embrace, their boughs heavy with fresh growths, my breath frosts the air. I wonder if this city is perpetually chilled by the magic of all the elves living in it.
Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to the much warmer weather of the coast. I imagine the sun on my skin as I collect flowers and herbs growing wild on the hills. I imagine the crash of the waves being muted by the trees as I gather clippings to fill the jars of my shop.
The memories embolden me. The thought of staying another moment here with Eldas and Harrow is too much. I will slowly wither if I’m forced to live out the rest of my days here.
I hold a rose in my right hand; I’ve cut off the thorns this time to prevent the magic in my blood from getting involved in my magical equation. Several more thorn-less flowers are in my left hand. My bag has damp spots from all the other flowers I’ve stolen from the now-empty vases around the lunch nook.
Based on what the journals said, and what I saw during my practice with Willow today, I need fodder to use my magic. Wild magic is powerful because it defies the laws of nature. But I am the embodiment of the natural and nature thrives on balance. So everything I do must be kept in equilibrium.
“Let’s try this again,” I negotiate with the flower. “This time, you have to listen to me, okay?”
It seems to wiggle under my fingers. Surely my imagination. But, if not, I hope that bodes well.
I steel my nerves and remind myself that I can do this before placing the flower on the windowsill. I press my right fingers into it to keep it from blowing away. I inhale, as if I’m sucking in the life and energy from the flowers in my left hand.
Balance and equilibrium, I think. I take the life from the flowers in my left hand and transfer it to the rose underneath my palm. I am not destroying, nor creating, just shifting and rearranging raw essence. Power surges through me, tingling, rushing underneath my skin. It emboldens me in a way nothing ever has before.
Peering out the window, I look down the sheer seven stories to the city street far below. The rose shudders to life. Tendrils grip the rock. The stem lengthens. I watch as it becomes a trellis all the way down the mountainside.
Maybe Eldas was right and controlling magic isn’t so hard after all, once you have the basics.
“You better hold.” I sit on the sill and place my heels into the weave of vines. I’m putting a lot of trust into some old journals and a few preliminary tests. But I don’t have a lot of options at present. Eldas doesn’t think I have any control over my powers, so now is the time for me to run if I’m going to. Once I start showing mastery, he might lock me up tighter.
Carefully I shift my weight, turning while I can still grip the sill. I close the window behind me, and begin to slowly descend.
There’re a few other windows I pass, but they’re dark or have heavy curtains pulled in front of them. By the time my feet are on the ground, my hands and shoulders ache, but the climb wasn’t nearly as hard as I expected. The vines seemed to cradle my feet and make convenient holds for my grip.
The plants were looking out for me, I realize. They’ve always been. Tree branches straining to support me, or bending so I could reach them… it wasn’t solely my imagination even when I was told it was as a girl. All this time there were little signs and hints about who I really was and I ignored them.
My thoughts wander to Luke. I hope they haven’t had a trial for him yet, because the first thing I want to do when I’m back is really let him know how I feel. Then, I want to explain just what he was risking for all of Midscape, too, by hiding me. No one in Capton seems to really understand what’s happening behind the Fade.
The city is quiet. Lampposts shimmer with blue fire, giving everything a sapphire-crusted sheen. The houses are just as tall as my brownstone in Capton, if not taller. I can see the dark shops of milliners, cabinetmakers, smiths, and cobblers—all the trades one would expect to find in a city, but the wares in their windows have me slowing my steps despite myself.
Elf goods are rare in Capton, and extremely precious. Here, my elf-made kettle is just a kettle. I see another one just like it in a silversmith’s shop window as I pass.
Everything I once saw as exotic, precious, and magical is common in Midscape. From blue flames to cool magic and all-too-perfect architecture that spires into wicked points on many of the buildings, it’s a land that somehow feels like both home and anything but.
A few nighttime revelers are milling about, but they keep their distance. I mostly avoid the taverns where they seem to be congregating. I rake my hair over my ears, trying to hide the fact they aren’t pointed like everyone else’s here.
I see the occasional city guard patrolling in pairs of two—their outfits just like those who arrived in Capton with Eldas. But it’s a peaceful night. Everyone keeps mostly to themselves and no one casts suspicion my way.
Laughter and shouting echoes across the lake, catching my attention. I look to see Harrow and his friends emerging from a dimly lit alleyway. Harrow is suspended between the two men. Aria twirls around them, laughing and prodding at his limp form.
I walk faster.
When I arrive at the end of the stairway that leads into the mountain tunnel Eldas and I emerged from, I pause. There’s no stealthy way to ascend. It’s a strip of pale moonlight leading all the way up.
Looking back, I can barely make out the vines on the side of the castle, like a green ribbon unfurled from the window. They’ll know by dawn that I’ve sneaked out. But shrinking the vines back down to a rose was a risk I didn’t want to take. I need my strength for whatever is about to come next.
Yes, they’ll know I ran. So the best thing I can do is get a far enough head start. If I can make it to Capton tonight, then I can explain that I’ve held up my part of the bargain here and the council will hopefully shelter me. Maybe Luke—for all I loathe the idea of working with him—still knows a way to conceal me. Or maybe there can be an exception made for the fact that a sleepy little coastal town needs a healer desperately.
I take a deep breath and begin running.
Elves don’t cross the Fade for anything other than the rare trade of goods, wives, or war. There’s no reason a lone elf would be leaving the city at this time of night. I have no doubt Eldas personally picks who can cross the Fade and when. I run as fast as I can and pray no one sees.
I don’t stop running as I plunge into the earthy darkness of the tunnel. I sprint into the obsidian mist that blots out the light. I nearly run headlong into a tree, stopping at the last second as it emerges from seemingly out of nowhere.
With two hands I prevent myself from smashing my nose on the trunk. I lean back and look around. The light from the city of the elves has vanished. Sentient darkness surrounds me.
I don’t remember taking any turns when Eldas escorted me through the Fade. But perhaps we did. I step around the tree and move forward more slowly and deliberately this time.
It’s only possible to see a few feet in front of me at a time. All visibility has vanished and now it is as if I am the light. I am the only entity that is real here. Everything beyond me is shadow and nightmares.
The damp moss sags beneath my feet. I look for stones and signs of the temple pathways. I’ve been walking for a while now, haven’t I? Though perhaps it seems longer because I’m alone. I am very, very alone.
“Meet me in the copse of trees,
Where the grape vines don’t grow.”
I sing to myself. It’s one of the songs I remember singing as a child but can’t place where, or who, I learned it from. It’s a macabre song about a human who falls for a creature of the deep wood, and my singing is terrible, but it’s better than silence.