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I run as fast as I can. Each step I take is almost a leap. My clothes flap around, and my long, dusty curls stream out behind me. At last, I am free.
“Shanti, stop!” I don’t look back. My exhilaration turns to fear and I force my legs to go even more quickly, and I have to gasp for breath.
Help, I cry out with my mind, help me, somebody, help! I want to scream, but I can’t breathe. Behind me I hear a scuffling sound and his voice shouting obscenities. I keep running, hoping he fell. Hoping that his fall will keep him from catching me.
I keep on for a long time. I’m running blindly, paying no attention to my path. At last, I can’t go on any longer, and I collapse on the ground, gasping. I tense, ready for him to grab me at any moment.
Nothing happens. I look back, straining my ears for any sound, eyes wide with fear. I hear nothing and see only trees. I curl up, crying in my relief.
Suddenly, I feel a hand on my shoulder. I scream and scramble away.
“Shh. Do not fear, child. You are safe here,” I look up and find myself staring at the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Her wavy silver hair tumbles almost to the ground, and her features are flawless. Her aura is filled with the opposite of him; I do not know a name for such feelings. Kindness, maybe, but that’s not quite it.
She walks over to me and wraps me in her arms. I find myself weeping on her shoulder without reserve.
“There, there, child,” she sounds like the forest, and like her aura.
She picks me up and carries me off somewhere. My head tells me to run, to be afraid, but I cannot.
The next thing I know, I’m waking up in an unfamiliar room on a soft surface, unlike anything I’ve ever felt. I think I must be dreaming, but then I remember: I ran away. I ran away!
I start laughing hysterically, tears trickling from the corners of my eyes. Eventually I stop giggling and look around.
I’m in a round room with smooth wood walls and a dirt floor. There is a small table beside my bed—my bed! It is so soft, like a cloud. And covering it are silky sheets, which slip deliciously over my skin. Across the room is a bookshelf, filled with more writings than I’ve seen in my life.
There does not, however, appear to be a door. Just as I think this, though, one magically opens from the wall. I jump in surprise.
A woman steps in, not the same one I saw yesterday, but just as beautiful, with as pretty an aura. I immediately relax.
“I’m Aideen,” her voice is a tintinnabulation. “What is your name, child?”
“Sh-sh-shanti.” She smiles at me. “Um,” I say, “where am I?”
“You are in the city of Flydall. More specifically, in the tree called Doont.”
“But, Flydall—that’s the forest.” The words are out of my mouth before I can think. I wonder why I’m so at-ease here.
“Exactly,” her smile is fantastically beautiful.
“Who are you?” I ask
“Aideen, second daughter of Queen Aralia. I believe you met her last night.”
I gape at her. “Queen?”
“What…?” The queen of Gala died three years ago, and her name was Jolah.
“Not the queen of you country, Shanti. The queen of the forest. Of the elves.”
“Oh,” I gasp. I look at Aideen and can see that her ears are pointed. Elves, I think, wow. I never thought I’d meet one of the mysterious creatures. I really must be dreaming.
“This is no dream, Cousin.”
Can she read my mind? I wonder. “I, I…can I stay here?”
“Of course. At least for now.”
“You won’t send me back? Will you? Will you!”
“Hush, child. We’ll do no such thing. Not ever.” I feel that she can hear the fear in my voice and know exactly what it means, the whole story.
“Tell me your story,” Aideen says.
“But you already know it.”
“Tell me anyway.”
I take a deep breath. “I don’t know where to start.”
“I don’t really know the beginning. I guess was born, obviously. About 5 years later, I ended up on the streets of Maks. I don’t really remember the bit before being abandoned. I just have this one memory of my mom telling me to stop pulling the cat’s tail,” I brush tears away from my eyes. “I remember I’d follow a pack of kids around town. They seemed to know where to beg to get the most out of it, and from whom it was easy to steal. I learned street life from them, I guess. I don’t really know how I started following them…” All this seems fuzzy and vague and irrelevant now. “It was, oh, I don’t know, maybe two years later when he found me. I was just settling down for the night when he came out of nowhere and grabbed me!” I start to sob openly now, and Aideen hugs me tightly while I let it out. “I didn’t know what to do. I just gawked at him,” I haven’t though about his for a long time. I try not to see his face in my mind as I talk. “Then he tied my wrists behind me. That was when I though I ought to make a run for it,” my voice quavered. “I tried. I tried really hard. But he tackled me, and dragged me out of the alley. I put up a really good fight, let me tell you.” I break down in tears again.
“Shh. I think we should get some breakfast.”
She leads me out of the tree into a small clearing. In the middle of the clearing is a table piled high with every sort of fruit imaginable. The woman from last night—the queen—and three younger elves sit at the table, chatting as they munch the sweet-looking fruits.
“This is my older sister, Aislinn, her daughter Ash, and my younger sister Illie.”
“Greetings,” I say.
“Greetings, Shanti. Have some breakfast.”
“Thank you.” I sit down and pick up a peach. I bite into it, and juice dribbles down my hands. It is the sweetest, juiciest, most delicious peach I’ve ever tasted.
I polish off the peach, then immediately bite into an apple. After I eat my fill, Aideen asks me to continue my story.
“After he captured me, he took me to the house, and locked me in a tiny room. My hands were still bound, so I curled up on my side, trying to get comfortable, but I couldn’t. My shoulders were strained. That was all I could think about. Eventually I fell asleep, I guess, because I remember waking up,” I speak slowly with long pauses between each sentence. “He came into the room and untied me, then dragged me to the dining room, where there was a single plate on the table. I think it had scrambled eggs and toast. With an orange jam,” thinking about the details like that helps me to disconnect from the story. “I guess it was apricot jam.
“‘Eat,’ he told me. This baffled me. Offering food seemed like a kind thing to do, you know? I felt a little suspicious, even. I couldn’t pass up food, though.
“After I finished—that was the best meal I’d ever had, even though the eggs were cold. My stomach felt full afterward. It was wonderful. I thought maybe he wasn’t a bad guy, after all, then. But his aura said otherwise. Aft—“
“You can read auras?” Ash interrupts me.
“Yeah,” I say, “can’t you?”
Queen Aralia looks at me curiously.
“Of course,” Ash replies, “But I didn’t think humans could.” She screws up her perfect face in confusion.
Aralia’s intense gaze is making me uncomfortable. “Most of them can’t,” the queen tells her. “Shanti, apparently, is a very special girl.”
“Esher can read them, too. I thought everybody could.”
“Esher?” The elves shift in their seats.
“Yeah. The stable boy.”
Aideen stands abruptly, but Aralia grabs her arm and she sits back down. “Perhaps,” she says to her. “Let her finish her story first.”
I look between the elves, mystified.
“Continue you story, child.”
“Just talk. You will know all in time.”
“Oh, uh, okay. Um, after that was when he said, ‘Scrub the floors and dust the whole house thoroughly.’ I had no intention of following his directions, but I found myself doing so. I couldn’t stop myself.
“‘After you’re finished, come back here and wait,’ he said.” I remember cleaning the whole house, and at the end being exhausted. “I went back to the dining room when I’d finished, and he beat me for taking too long.” I remember each blow, and I try not to cry, just as I had done then. “Then he gave me more food and told me to go to the little room and stay there until I woke up the next morning. As soon as I woke up I was to muck out the stables, then report to the dining room. Again, I tried not to do what he said, but even as I thought I’d walk off, my body was following his instruction.
“Anyway,” I brush tears from my cheeks, “I went to muck out the stalls as soon as I woke up. That’s when I met Esher.” The elves lean in, attentive. “Esher was giving a carrot to a bay, and petting her neck.” I picture his dark floppy hair, the scar running all down his face. I remember that I didn’t notice the scar right away, which was odd since it was very prominent. “I grabbed a blue manure rake and started cleaning out a stall. I remember noticing one of the teeth was broken off, and another was bent. Esher stood staring at me for a while, as I worked.” I remember clearly how piercing his eyes were, staring at me—so blue! “Finally he said, ‘Stop, that’s my job.’
“‘Oh, okay,’ I said, but kept on going, even though my brain was telling my body to stop.
“‘Damn it,’ he said, ‘another one!’
“I looked at him in confusion. ‘What?’
“‘He keeps bringing in street kids, and none of them are able to not do his bidding.’
“He gestured toward the house, ‘him.’
“I still can’t figure out how he does it,’ he said.”
I take a deep breath, trying to figure out how to sum up what he said next. “Then he started telling me about the other kids: how each had mysteriously disappeared. It was intriguing and scary at the same time.
“When I went back in the house he beat and fed me, and then put me to more work. Every day it happened like that, except usually I didn’t work in the stables. When he did assign me to the stables, I relished it, happy to see Esher. I loved listening to his stories, which evolved from being about the disappearing street kids. He started telling fairytales about kings and princesses, then eventually moved on to tell stories about his own adventures. Those were my favorite. I loved listening to him, so I’d always slow down my work in the stables, even though that meant a few more strikes from him.
“I quickly lost all sense of time, too exhausted to think. I know I was there for a long time, though. Years, probably.”
“Yes, your aura tells me you’re about thirteen.”
I stare at the queen in shock. Thirteen. That’s longer than I realized, even. “Right. Wow. Well once after I’d been at the house for a while longer, I went to the stables, and Esher frowned at me in a thoughtful sort of way. ‘Most of them disappeared after much less time than you’ve been here. I wonder why you’re still here.’
“After that he looked surprised—in a relieved sort of way—to see me every time. More time passed, and my life continued as it had been. I have no sense of the number of days; they all blurred together. Except for my time in with Esher, of course.
“It was three days ago that I went to the stables for the last time. When Esher saw me then, his face lit up. I’d never seen anyone grin that widely.” I thought he looked striking like that. I didn’t really think about that at the time so much, but now the beauty of his smile burned in my mind. “He grabbed my shoulders and exclaimed, ‘It’s the food!’ I tipped my head at him. ‘There’s a spell in the food that makes you obey him. I’m betting if you don’t eat for a day, you can escape!’ I was incredulous. ‘Just run down the road as fast as you can, and don’t stop,’ he told me. So I did what he said. I guess you know the rest.” I look at the elves.
“Did Esher ever mention where he came from?” Aideen asks.
“Not exactly. He said he left home when he was eight. He never said where ‘home’ was. Why do you ask?”
Aralia nods at Aideen who says, “I think Esher is my son.”
“Oh.” It makes sense that he’s an elf, really. I never saw his ears with his hair the way it was, but he had the unearthly beauty of the race.
“I’m going to go find him! Thank you!” Aideen kisses me on the forehead and disappears in a wave of shimmering air.
“And you, Shanti,” Aralia says, “have a missing identity. Something tells me that’s important to find.”
Illie coughs. “I…I could be wrong, but I…no it has to be…I know who she is.”
Aralia’s gaze falls on her youngest daughter. “Can you tell us?”
“I…I swore I’d never tell, but I think now it is necessary,” she breathes out slowly. “One day, almost fourteen years ago, I was walking through the forest, and I stumbled upon an interesting sight. Izaa was in a clearing with a girl. A human girl. ‘I’m sorry, Izaa,’ she was saying, ‘I have another life to go back to. This was a mistake.’ And she walked away, leaving him in the clearing.” She turns her blue eyes to look into my green ones, “I think you are their daughter. You have just the same eyes as Izaa. And your hair—hers looked just like it.”
I try to digest this information, but can’t. So I ask her what happened to my parents since then.
“I don’t know what happened to your mom. Izaa never saw her again. But he is living here in the forest. He never married; I think he’s still in love with your mom.”
“Who is he?”
“My best friend’s brother. He’s not a prince or anything, but he’s a good man.”
“He’s an elf, though?”
“Right. Of course,” replies Illie.
I try to wrap my head around the fact that I’m a half-elf, but it doesn’t seem possible.
As I’m thinking about this, Aideen and Esher appear at the edge of the clearing. The elves all run to him and wrap him in hugs, bombarding him with questions. Eventually, they give him some space, and he smiles at me, “Shanti!” He pulls me into his arms. It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had, being in his arms like that. “You’re okay. I was so worried. I’m glad my plan worked. I wasn’t sure if my mom would find you. I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that he will never be bothering anyone again. The tree spirits took care of that.”
I don’t bother to question what the tree spirits did, I just smile and laugh and cry all at once.
Esher looks at his mom, who looks at the queen, who says, “She’ll be staying here. With her father, Izaa.” Aideen and her son exchange surprised glances. “Unless, of course, she doesn’t want to stay?” Aralia’s gaze falls upon me.
I meet her eyes. “No. No, I’d like to stay.”