I’m numb from the top of my head to my toes. He grabs my arm, summoning me back to reality. I glare up at him. A thousand objections live on my tongue and yet I can’t muster the strength to say any of them.
Since I was a girl, I’ve been taught the fate of the Human Queen. If I tell him of my duties as a healer, my pleas will fall on deaf ears. If I beg him to let me stay a little longer, I know he will refuse because this is the way of things.
If I refuse to go, my world dies.
“There is no time. You and I must be wed.”
We are to be wed. Me. To the Elf King. I can’t think straight.
“When?” I manage to ask.
“Now. Time is of the essence,” the Head Keeper says.
My attention shifts off the Head Keeper, landing on a man beside her—my father. My ribs collapse on my lungs and I let out a soft gasp of air that chokes into an emotion rawer than tears.
“But—” I start.
“There is no time,” the king says gruffly. “The fact that I was able to come here and use so much wild magic on this plane is proof enough that the Fade is wavering. The lines between our worlds are blurring—which, let me assure you, is something you do not want.”
I seek a flicker of some kindness or resignation in the king’s eyes. But all I see is sheer determination. I wonder if he is enduring this on strength of will alone too. I wonder what he’s hiding underneath his carefully composed surface. Maybe he’s hiding nothing and he is just a man of stone and magic.
“We will do it now,” the Keeper says.
I search in the crowd for my mother, but I can’t find her. Between the brush and the trees, magically created, and the fact that almost all of Capton has assembled, she’s nowhere to be seen. I turn back to my father. His mouth is pressed in a hard line. He says nothing.
He knows this must be done, just as I do. There is no choice.
We march in a large group up to the Temple. I am silent, rigid, walking at the side of the Elf King. I try and keep my head high, but I am tired, so tired. One moment I was in the town square. The next, I’m in the main hall of the temple being anointed with oil, townsfolk surrounding me, the Head Keeper leafing through a giant tome on the altar.
Sunlight streams down through the stained glass behind the Head Keeper. It hits my shoulders, but fails to light up the dark hollow growing inside of me. I’m surrounded—people are packed into the neat rows of redwood pews, carved from the mighty trees surrounding the temple—yet I feel alone. I don’t even have it in me to admire the organic architecture of the temple like I usually would, with all its vaulted ceilings supported by gnarled branches, as if it was grown rather than made in the shade of the great redwood at the heart of the temple.
Deafening silence rings in my ears as I stand opposite the Elf King. I’m about to get married…to the Elf King. That thought nearly makes me throw up.
“Can I have a moment?” I whisper.
“There is no time,” the Head Keeper whispers back, not unkindly.
“For the washroom, please.” I’m going to be sick. Or pass out. Maybe both, one right after the other.
“This will be over soon.” She’s found her page and begins reading from it. “Before the old gods, in the remnants of the keep of the once-kingdom of Alvarayal, in the shadow of the original keystone, we honor the pact made…”
Don’t be sick. Don’t be sick. I no longer hear the Head Keeper. All I hear in my head is that singular phrase repeating over and over.
The Elf King raises his hands. The sensation of his eyes boring into my forehead brings my eyes up to his. I swallow dryly.
“Let their hands first be joined,” the Head Keeper repeats firmly and with some agitation. It must be the second time she’s said it. I barely resist snapping at her that I have no idea what’s going on.
Usually, the Human Queen is identified at sixteen or seventeen. She has a year or three to study in the temple under the Keepers. She is fed food from beyond the Fade, taught the elvish ways, and studies the secret knowledge the Keepers protect.
The Elf King holds out his hands expectantly. I lift my trembling fingers and place them in his. His cool grip closes around mine. His eyes flash a bright blue just like they did before he made a prison for Luke.
I suppose I am headed to a different type of prison.
A chill breeze sweeps through me. It’s brisk, bracing, but I’m not left shivering. I stand taller. The ice condenses in the back of my head, radiating cool composure down my spine and into my limbs. My eyes are locked on his as my mouth moves.
“I will honor the pact,” I say. I think I’m repeating the Head Keeper, but I can’t be sure. I can’t be sure of anything beyond the Elf King. Have I ever laid eyes on someone—on anything—more perfect before? How could I have been afraid of this?
This is right. This is how the world should have been all along. A deep sense of unnatural calm fills me.
“I will honor the pact,” he repeats.
“I will fulfill my obligation to this world and those on the other side of the Fade.” We begin to repeat back and forth. “I will uphold the keystones. I will use the powers passed down through my blood by destiny for the betterment of us all—for peace. I will uphold the order that is both natural and crafted.
“I will honor my husband.”
“I will honor my wife.”
Yeah, right, my mind blurts treacherously. But the thought is frosted over by my resolve. I am marrying a king of ice. I will have to be a frigid queen to match.
The Head Elder says a few more words, and the deed is done.
We unclasp our hands and for the second time in one day I stare at mine. What magic was wrought here? What have I done?
I’m married, that’s what I’ve done. Whenever I imagined myself as married—if I imagined myself as married—Luke was standing across from me. I return my gaze to the Elf King’s, seeing his shining blue eyes still on me.
“We should make for the Fade,” he says.
The king holds out his hand for me and I take it. His skin is smooth, and cool to the touch, his grip unexpectedly gentle. He leads me by our joined palms in an awkward, rigid way. We walk out of the sanctum, around its side, and start down a side path. I know without needing to be told that this will take us toward the Fade.
The townsfolk collect behind us, moving silently to hover at the foot of the path. The forest is damp; the trees tangle their boughs in the fog like fingers in the hair of a lover. I see flowers bud up, blooming alongside me as I walk. They open to face me, as if bidding me farewell from this world.
Farewell… I shiver but the thought sticks to my mind. Farewell, I’m leaving. I shiver again, more violently this time, and can almost imagine invisible ice shaking from my shoulders. That cold core in the back of my mind fractures.
“Luella!” I hear my mother’s voice, breaking the silence and decorum.
My fragile composure shatters.
I look over my shoulder. We’ve gone farther than I thought. My mother and father stand at the entrance to the path, down by the sanctum. My father holds tightly onto her, smoothing her ruby hair from her tear-streaked cheeks. He murmurs something I cannot hear. But I can see the words are physically painful for him to say.
“Luella!” she shrieks again.
“Mother!” My heart is racing once more. Heat floods my body and my cheeks. I drop my hand from the king’s and begin to run.
He grabs my elbow. I spin in place. “We must go beyond the Fade. There is precious little time.”
The Elf King’s eyes are back to their normal color. The bright magic that shimmered in them is gone. It’s then I realize what he did.
“You used magic on me,” I whisper in realization. That frosty chill, his glowing eyes, both traits I’m beginning to associate with elf magic. Hatred mixes with horror in my gut and twists my face. “The ceremony—”
“You needed to comply.”
“You bastard.” I rip myself from his person once more. Damn his Fade. Damn the wedding. Damn men who think they can manipulate me down an aisle.
An oath taken under magic influence shouldn’t be upheld. But I know no one will take my side.
I am the Human Queen. Even if I wasn’t trained for my role, I know enough from the stories that are rooted deeper in the social fabric of Capton than the trees around me that the Human Queen has no choice. By magic or circumstance…the oath I took was forced.
“How dare you,” he seethes at my language.
“Let me say goodbye.”
“It is not done.”
“It is now,” I snap at him with a glare.
He takes another step forward, closing the distance once more with his long stride. I’m reminded that I’m dealing with a dangerous creature. He may look like a man, but I know the truth.
He’s nothing more than a tempest of raging magic.
“Very well.” His voice drops so only I can hear. “I will indulge you in this, as my future queen. And, also, because I know you have not had the benefit of being properly educated. You have not been trained to be my bride. But I do hope you are a fast learner because I will not tolerate my queen speaking to me in such a way.”
He wants me to cower. My knees are knocking in response to the silent demand. But I jut out my chin defiantly. I’m too tired to think sensibly—bravery and stupidity are two sides of the same coin. If he thinks he can “train” me I’m going to have to show him he has another thing coming from this queen.
“I will say goodbye.”
The king glowers at me, but stays put as I step away. His eyes dim once more and his magic releases its frigid hold. He knows I’m his, now and forevermore. He can handle not being in control for five more minutes so I can embrace my parents one last time.
I rush into my mother’s waiting arms. She leaps from my father to scoop me up. I hold out an arm and he joins too.
“Luella, Luella,” Mother weeps, as if my name is the only thing she knows how to say. “I’m so sorry.”