“Don’t I make you happy?”
He kisses the tip of my nose, silencing me. “Then I’m all you need. Your father can perform the wedding himself…”
Luke rambles about silk and flowers and toasts the entire walk down the street, up the narrow stairs that lead into a stone path lazily wandering the cliff-tops overlooking the ocean. A river cuts across in the distance before crashing down as a waterfall to the sea foam beyond. Its stunning blue waters are under the protection of the Keepers, as is the forest we head toward.
Our island is small, just off the coast of the mainland and across from Lanton. Nestled in the only sheltered bay of the island is the lonely town of Capton. I grew up wedged on this narrow strip between mountain and sea. The thick and gnarled redwood forest runs down from the foot of the great mountain that looms over us to the town. The temple winds as a sort of bridge between the two.
Capton historians say the temple was built long ago, before the great war that resulted in the treaty. But it’s hard for me to think of anything that old still standing. More likely, one of the original Keepers built it to house their order.
Slithering out from the side of the temple is an unassuming pathway of arches. I’ve never walked that path. I’m forbidden to, even with a Keeper escort. That is for the Human Queen and the elves. Luke tells me it stretches all the way into the darkest part of the forest at the foot of the mountain.
It is the path that leads to the Fade—the split between the human world and the magic wilds.
Capton is somewhat of a between, at least that’s how I’ve come to think of it. It’s on the “human side,” the “not magic side,” of the Fade. But our proximity to the Fade, and the river that flows through it, gives our island diverse wildlife and the people here extremely long lifespans. The cost of these benefits is the Human Queen. We give up one of our own every hundred years to honor the treaty. That is Capton’s burden for humanity’s sake.
I wonder, not for the first time, what the Fade looks like. If I were to stand before it, would I know I’m at the border of mankind and wild magic? Is the air electric, like right before a summer storm? Would it shake me like the howling wind high on the mountain ledges? Or could I stumble across the line without even knowing, like the folktales say, and get lost forever?
Those thoughts are dangerous and I shake them from my head. There’s no shortage of mystery surrounding the Fade. But we know one thing for certain: the queen is the only human who can go beyond the Fade and make it back alive.
“What is it?” Luke asks.
“Were you even listening to me?”
“Of course I was.”
“What did I say?”
He chuckles and leans forward. The pad of his finger brushes against my temple as he gently tucks a strand of wayward hair behind my ear. I’ve kissed him, I’ve said I loved him, I’m somehow engaged to him, and yet I still blush.
“You should grow it long again.” His eyes focus on where he hooks my hair by my ear. I fight a shiver at his fingers pausing there. “I liked it better long.”
“It gets caught in brambles when I’m collecting herbs,” I explain apologetically. Though I don’t know what I’m apologizing for. He knows why I cut it during my years at the academy.
“Maybe for our wedding.”
“What were you thinking of, really?” he asks as we arrive at the forest’s edge. I begin collecting small flowers that grow at the foot of the redwoods—morning stars, I call them, because they bloom at dawn. They’re good for strengthening body and mind and I use them for Emma and Mister Abbot.
When I was a child, I imagined that they grew only for me. But the whole forest seemed more alive back then. It’s still alive now, but in a dulled and quiet way. With age and time, I lost an imaginary friend.
“Luella? What were you thinking of?” he repeats with a note of agitation seeping into his tone.
I wish I could tell him outright that the idea of engagement makes me want to throw up on his shoes. That I care about him—I love him—but I made a vow to the people of Capton to always be there to serve and that will always come first. Maybe I just want him to explain what’s really gotten into him.
“I was thinking of that time when we were children and we wandered too far into the woods and saw the wolf.”
It had been a hulking beast of darkness and shadow, bright yellow eyes cutting through the unnatural thickness that lingered in the air of the deep forest.
I stare off between the trees, imagining those eyes now. Oddly, I hadn’t felt afraid that day—though I later told Luke I was more terrified than he had been. He wouldn’t have handled it well to know he was more afraid than I.
There was knowledge in that beast’s eyes. Knowledge and secrets. Secrets that I’ve always felt like I’m on the cusp of knowing and yet are just out of my grasp.
“Nothing, no beast or man, will ever harm you as long as I’m around.” Luke crouches next to me, resting his hand on the back of my neck. He rolls the dark, glassy beads of the necklace he gave me over my flesh. “And as long as you wear this.”
“I’ve never taken it off.” I touch the pendant suspended by the beads. It is a stone that looks like a rainbow was caught in a fisher’s net. Luke wears a similar stone on his wrist. It’s a special stone usually reserved for the Keepers.
Yet another reason why I’ve always kept his gift to me hidden beneath my clothes.
“Good. Wear this and never go into the forest without me.”
“I never do.” I chuckle and shake my head. “You’re always so afraid of me going into the forest.”
“I don’t like you alone in the woods,” he murmurs. Luke stands, turning eastward. The horizon is hidden behind the mountain. But we can see its first rays outlining the summit in orange. “We can still leave, you know,” he whispers.
“I can’t,” I repeat myself from earlier.
“We’ll be husband and wife. It’s normal to leave home.”
“Not for people from Capton, and not for me.” I stand, having collected the flowers I need. “You should go. The Keepers need you today.”
“I’ll walk you back.”
I almost ask him not to. There’s a strange air about him today. One that almost makes my best friend unrecognizable.
But he’s tired. I believe him when he says he had a bad dream about the day’s events. Given the recent requests to my shop, I think half of Capton can hardly sleep from anxiety.
He’s acting rashly because he truly believes our lives are about to end.
Back at the shop, he kisses me once more in the doorway. Once more, the kiss is empty. But I try and hold on to the feelings I think I should have, to him, and the dream of us, with all my might.
“If you change your mind,” he whispers. “The boat is ready. Leave with me, please.”
Before I can say anything else, he’s gone. I watch him walk briskly down the street. He doesn’t even look back at me. I put my back to him with a sigh and start inside.
When the sun is properly risen, I begin my rounds for the day. The elves aren’t expected until nightfall. Half the brews are still warm as they clank in my basket. I have a long list in my head of all my patients, but I’m only hitting half the list this morning—the people who are too weak, wounded, or ill to make it to the town hall later.
I’ll make the rest of my deliveries when the recipients are conveniently all in one place. Hopefully, by then, I’ll have had enough time to finish their various medications.
First up is Douglas, a fisherman who has been laid up for two weeks following a spearfishing incident. Usually, a wound like this would’ve healed with just a wash in the waters of the Fade River. But it’s still angry and red, dripping with pus. Today he runs a fever as well.
After that is Cal. His daughter caught a chill this winter that just won’t abate. Then Amelia—her monthly bleed is agonizing, this month particularly so. Then Dan, who can’t seem to find the strength to get out of bed and attend to his duties as the town carpenter.
On and on I go from door to door, checking in and making sure they have what they need or, at the very least, the best I can give them. It doesn’t feel like enough. Each one seems worse than the last, as if their illnesses are clinging to them for the express purpose of making a mockery of everything I’m trying to do.
I became an herbalist to help people. But in the year I’ve been in Capton since finishing my studies at the academy, things have only become worse. They tell me that I’m doing a good job, that the problems lie with the lack of a Human Queen. But I can’t help wondering if I couldn’t be doing something more.
Kindly Mr. Abbot is the last on my list for the morning. Thankfully, he’s doing all right still. I doubt I could keep my composure if he wasn’t.
“Come in, come in.” He waves me inside with small, trembling motions of his weathered hand.
“Mr. Abbot, I’m afraid I can’t stay today. But I brought your tea so you can brew—”
“I’ve already put the kettle on.” He shuffles about the kitchen. “The tea never tastes the same when I brew it.”
“I’m sure it does.” Yet I’m putting my mostly empty basket down on his counter anyway.
“It doesn’t work as well,” he insists, per usual.
“I think you just like having company.” I smile and set to work as he eases himself into a chair at his table.
“Can you blame an old man?”
Mr. Abbot isn’t the first person to claim they can’t replicate my brews, salves, and poultices at home—even when I sell them the exact herbs and give them detailed instructions. I suspect it’s because of my elvish kettle. The Keepers say a bit of the elves’ wild magic lives in the things they make using it. If that’s true, then maybe part of my skills are because of the necklace Luke gave me.