“She is here, of that I’m certain. Merely hidden.” He sweeps an arm over the crowd. “Hand her to me or I will tear through every household in search of her. Hand her to me or I will take every young woman of age and bring them back across the Fade one by one until I have my queen.”
To be brought across the Fade as a normal human would spell death. He would kill every woman to find one. I clench my jaw, hard.
“Luella.” Luke’s fingers close around mine. I look at him in surprise. Where had he been hiding in the crowd? “Come on, we can still sneak out.”
“Are you insane?” I hiss.
“There’s still time,” he insists. “Let’s go. The elves will let me pass as a Keeper, the boat is still waiting and—”
A scream interrupts him.
“Emma, Emma!” Ruth shouts. “The Weakness, it’s claimed her!”
I move to leave but Luke holds fast. “Let me go.”
“Now is our chance, while there’s a distraction.”
“I said let me go!” I rip my hand from his and rush over, pushing past the people that don’t part for me. Ruth—Emma’s mother—kneels by her daughter, howling. Tears are already streaming down her face.
“They have brought the Fade upon us! They are here for war. We are doomed!” she shrieks.
“Ruth, Ruth, please.” I quickly kneel down, dropping my satchel and basket on the ground next to me. “Let me see her.”
“You said you don’t know what the Weakness is. What can you do? You didn’t even get her draught to her this morning.” Ruth wounds me with the truth.
“You’re right. I don’t know what the Weakness is,” I admit, keeping my voice low and even, hoping she’ll match my tone and calm down. “But this isn’t it. The Weakness has only claimed the oldest among us—” so far “—making the residents of Capton pass on when a normal human would. Emma is only nineteen.” My age.
“The Weakness has her heart, her draught, she—this is because of him!” Ruth points toward the Elf King, clutching Emma to her breast. Their golden curls toss in all directions with Ruth’s jerky motions. “He did this. He killed her first. She wasn’t your queen so you killed her!”
“Ruth, stop,” I say sternly, lunging to grab her arm. It’s too late, the Elf King’s attention is on us. As though it hasn’t been from the moment the commotion started. “Emma is breathing, see?” I yank Ruth’s hand toward Emma’s mouth. She feels the slow and shallow breaths that I already saw and her face crumples with relief.
“Oh, blessed be the old gods.” Ruth rocks back and forth. “What’s wrong with her?”
“It’s likely just the excitement. Without her draught it was too much,” I say thoughtfully. I hope that’s all it is. This is why I couldn’t run away with Luke. Just one morning of breakfast with him and my parents and I have a patient on the ground, unconscious. “Lay her down, please.”
Emma’s heart is weak. It has been since we were schoolgirls. She was actually my first patient and treating her is a wash of nostalgia to this day. We would sneak off into the woods, sometimes with Luke, and sometimes not. I would make her mixtures of berries, leaves, river water, flowers, sometimes even mud, and she would take my concoctions dutifully.
Even though we were playing pretend, I always wanted to help. She always swore my potions worked, even back then.
Luckily, I never leave home without my satchel. My basket has custom-made creations—tailored to people’s individual needs. But my satchel is a staple pantry of the herbalist’s essentials and my personal notebook. I can never be certain what someone might ask me for on a whim, or what I might need at a moment’s notice.
I pull out a series of herbs and crush them into a small wooden cup. I’m so engrossed that I don’t even notice I’ve attracted an audience. A shadow eclipses the sunlight, casting me in darkness.
Ruth blubbers incoherently, staring up at the towering man. I turn my gaze skyward, meeting the eyes of the Elf King, who looms over me.
“Continue.” His voice is the whisper of silk.
“Don’t touch her!” Luke shouts, pushing past the thick line of people who backed away from Ruth, Emma, and me. “Don’t lay one finger on her.”
“Luke, stop.” Any affection I felt for him is quickly withering. It’s as though he’s turned into a stranger in the past twenty-four hours. There’s someone else occupying the outline of a man I once knew.
The king turns slowly to face Luke. He tilts his head, as though he were regarding a cat, or a rat, or even a fly. That’s likely all we are to him.
The temperature suddenly plummets. A wintry chill has my teeth chattering and hands shaking. I’m torn between continuing to help Emma and watching what happens to Luke.
Luke touches his Keeper’s bracelet, clutching it to him.
“Yes, Keeper of the Fade,” the Elf King says silkily. “Reach for your labradorite. It will protect you from the Knowing, but it does nothing to protect the world around you.”
The Knowing? I’ve never heard of it before. But I can’t linger on the thought as the stones beneath Luke’s feet suddenly come to life. They rise upward, curving unnaturally and weaving into a prison cell around where Luke stands. I stare in awe and horror at wild magic.
The Elf King looks back to me. “Well? Heal her,” he commands, impatient.
I watch helplessly as Luke fights against his prison, but the stone bars don’t move. He’s as helpless as the rest of us in the face of power that defies all laws of nature. I wish I could do something for him, but I know I can’t. There’s nothing in my bag of herbs that can reverse wild magic.
Emma’s soft whimper brings my attention back to her. She’s the one who needs me most right now—and the one I can help. Regardless of the Elf King’s orders, she is my duty.
With the last of the herbs in my cup, I place it carefully on the ground before me. In my bag is a small tinderbox. I light a shaving of dried redwood and drop it in the cup. It flares as it burns quickly, incinerating the crushed herbs and singeing the rim.
I say a silent prayer to the old gods that this will work. And dip my finger into the soot and ash. I smear a line underneath Emma’s nose. It looks like a ridiculous mustache that we’d draw on each other as children as a joke when someone fell asleep during break between lessons.
Emma’s shallow breaths catch the scent of the ash and she jolts awake.
“Emma.” I hover over her so I’m the first one she sees—not the Elf King. She doesn’t need any more shocks. “Emma, how do you feel?”
“Luella? I… What happened?” she murmurs.
I look to Ruth. “Take her back to your home; she needs to rest. I’ll come by later with a strengthening potion.”
“I see.” Two words from the Elf King freeze us all in place.
Emma’s breaths are quick and shallow. She’s going to make herself faint again with this much excitement. I push off the ground and stand between Emma and the Elf King.
“Go,” I say to them. “Go home. No one will stop you.”
They slowly rise and begin to step away when the king says, “You do not speak for me.”
“Emma is not your queen.” I turn to face him. My insides have liquefied. But I swore to do right by my patients. I swore to help this town. And if helping Emma means standing up to the Elf King then this is just another day at work. “She needs to rest. You must let her go.”
“She is free to go.” The king gives a nod to his knights and they allow Emma and Ruth to pass. “Because you are right, she is not my queen. I have found the woman I seek.”
“Good, leave,” I mutter under my breath. But when my gaze sweeps back I find his attention solely on me. The weight of his stare reminds me of just how bold I’ve been and my insides liquefy.
“You hid yourself,” he says, dangerously quiet.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He takes a wide step forward, encroaching on my space. This close, I can smell him. The air around him is perfumed with a cologne of sandalwood, moss, and a bright fresh note like the air before a storm. It’s a lovely, earthy, intoxicating aroma that is in stark contrast to the scowl of disgust he wears.
I try and step away but I am snared. He reaches forward, sliding his fingertips down my throat. I shiver, frozen in place.
The king’s finger hooks on the necklace Luke gave me all those years ago. They slide down to the pendant and he makes a fist. His expression darkens to something almost sinister and I wonder if I should be begging him for my life.
His other hand has worked around the back of my throat, cradling my head. His fingers move. Is he about to snap my neck? Is this how I die?
“You will know, soon enough,” he says before he yanks the necklace away.
The world goes white, then fills with screams.
I’m dizzy and breathless. Energy sizzles and cracks across my body. Inexplicable power I shouldn’t possess threatens to tear me apart.
Like fireworks, magic explodes out from me in bursts. It strikes the lampposts surrounding the square. The glass shatters and falls to the ground as cherry blossom petals. Where iron once stood are now trees.
A lush carpet of moss and grass unfurls across the cobblestones of the square. Brush and vine spring from it and creep up the buildings like writhing, sentient tentacles trying to reclaim the buildings. The world around me is transformed, exchanged from constructed to natural. It is as if nature has erupted from my feet to oppose the audacity of mankind’s hubris to stand against it.
I can see it now. It? Everything. I can see everything.
My eyes have never been more open. I see every pulse of magic—of life—in those around me. I see the raw essence of existence and it steals my breath and composure.