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When Love is Found
We stopped at an inn for the night, a quiet reprieve from the harsh road. The main building had wooden walls, and a soft thatched roof that would keep the rain out. The windows were made of real glass that had been washed and dried until the red evening sunlight glared off of them. The horses’ stables were tidy and filled with the sweet scent of fresh hay. Each horse had its own trough to drink out of, and the water in each was crystal clear. Hewitt had explained to me that one can always tell how decent an inn is by the condition of the stables. If the stables are well-cared for, then the inn will be fit for travelers.
“You can have a room in the top east corner,” said Eriste, not taking her eyes off of the counter she was wiping down. Her hands were graceful and did their job well, although they were smooth and had the appearance of never having worked a day in their lives. She had sleek black hair that fell neatly down to her shoulders. She brushed back a few strands revealing her ears. They were almost human yet they had a slight point at the top. Her teeth sparkled whenever she smiled and she had green, vibrant eyes. They penetrated deep into your soul making you uneasy. This was how she kept her customers from trying to cheat her.
I have not mentioned her body. That is not so say that I did not notice it, for it was the first thing about her that struck me as odd. She was tall. Not just tall, but unnaturally tall. She was very slender, almost too slender to be healthy, yet everything she did seemed not to care what her body looked like. She was also bony and pale. Her wrists had knobs where the bones were and her knuckles were very pronounced. Her skin seemed to be drawn too tightly around her face. It was like tight leather around her entire body, making every curve very pronounced.
I seem to be rambling about one innkeeper, but she was the first Liri I had ever seen. I had heard about them in children’s fairy tales, but had never seen one. My initial thought was that they were the most peculiar, and yet the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen.
Hewitt told her that the room would be fine and went upstairs to unpack. I stayed down to watch her as curious as a little boy. I hid in the shadows, too afraid to talk to her. I was content to watch how she handled other customers and was surprised when she threw one of them out. The man was drunk and had been causing trouble since we had entered, but that was not what surprised me. I was not surprised that she threw him out for insulting her either. I was surprised that she threw him out. Maybe I am not making it clear, but she grabbed him unnaturally by the collar and threw him out the door like he was a bag of flour that had maggots in it. The man crumpled when he hit the ground and passed out. She went back behind her counter and started wiping the surface again.
“That man should have known better,” she said. It took me a moment to realize that she was talking to me. I stepped out of the shadows and took a seat at the bar.
“What should he have known better?” I asked, afraid to set her off.
“He shouldn’t have accused me of cheating him of his money. You best take notes on this, boy. A woman’s wrath is something that should not be teased.”
I nodded quickly. I was still nervous.
“Oh, come now. I won’t throw you out. You’re too cute.”
I blushed at the compliment.
“Thank you ma’am,” I replied.
“Now, how about some supper? I have stew in the pot, not more than two days old. Maybe you can take some to your handsome partner. Speak up, I have other customers. I can’t have you standing there taking up space.”
She said this as if she had been practicing lines for a play. It was methodical and well paced. I nodded again and she dished out the stew into two bowls for Hewitt and me then she placed them on a platter with a warm loaf of wheat bread. I took them and went to find a vacant table. There was one in the corner so I sat down. I was about to eat when I realized that I had forgotten drinks. I went back to the counter and waited for her attention. Realizing that she was busy, I let my eyes wander around the room. Behind the counter were thousands of glasses filled with all manner of liquids I assumed were for drinking. The counter was smooth walnut and the floor matched. The tables were oak by contrast and looked as if they had been hand-made the day before. There was not any trash on the floor or tables and I wondered how she kept everything clean. My question was answered soon after I continued my survey of the room. She was sweeping the floor by the hearth.
How to approach this next moment? If I had only known that she had been watching me longer than I her, then… But I didn’t know and there was no way for me to stop. But how to start? Do I start with the most startling, yet most beautiful part, or with the part that I liked most? I guess the best way to describe her is to start with what I noticed first.
She had light brown hair that curled naturally. She kept trying to straighten it and I could tell that it annoyed her. Her slender nose was framed by two sapphires. They had a childish wonder in them, yet they never sparkled. I found the flaw to be more of a gift as it added character to her features. Her eyes also had the look that very few people have. They had seen tragedy. Her mouth was thin and red. It fit perfectly on her almond head. Her ears were proportionate to her face and her smile was white and sparkled. Her laughter filled my ears and I had a sharp intake of breath. It was like a flute trilling through the summer air. She wore a blue dress that fit her as snugly as a glove fits a hand. Her hands were also perfect. They were long and graceful. The hands of a musician. I was already in love.
My reverie was broken when Hewitt came downstairs and shoved me as only a friend or teacher can.
“I see you have a fancy,” he laughed. I glared at him and wished that he would leave so that I could go back to my daydream.
“Best stay away from any girl in a tavern. They are whores, the whole lot of them and a wasted of your time.”
“This one is different,” I said defiantly, “She…”
“She what? She’s the world to my eyes,” Hewitt mocked, “She is the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever laid eyes on. We will go away together and live happily ever after.”
“Stop it. You don’t know her,” I spat. I was upset with him for insulting this precious gem in a sea of sand.
“Grow up, Adrin. You’ll see. She is nothing more than a whore.”
At that, he left to eat his supper. I was fuming and had lost my appetite. I walked out of the inn in a huff and into the woods behind them. I didn’t care what kind of noise or path I left behind. I was livid. I stopped when I came to a rather large creek and could go no further. I sat down on the bank and threw rocks, not caring to skip them, as most children do. I was grown and did not indulge in childish games. Instead, I threw them heavily, breaking the glassy surface as the sun sank lower in the sky.
I had been sitting by the creek long enough that the night stars had come out and the moon had risen over the treetops. If I hadn’t been so upset, I might have been on my guard. If I hadn’t been upset though, I would never have been out in the woods. If I hadn’t… but I had and that is what might have been my only triumph, for before I realized, she was sitting next to me. She spoke only one word to me. She told me her name and that was all. Akari.
She left but I stayed in the woods staring at the glassy surface of the water. I wondered if I should have said something. I wondered if I did, I would scare her off and she would never return. I contemplated the excruciating mystery of women until the moon had vanished as the sun before it. I stood to go back to the tavern, happy that I had learned her name. As I stood, my muscles released a sigh of relief and I had a sudden fear that someone was watching me. I turned on my heel ready to attack but there was no one. Just the simple swaying of branches in the breeze. I made my way down my rough path and snuck into the inn through the back door. I made my way up the walnut stairs and found my room. Hewitt was asleep which was fine by me. I wanted to be left to my thoughts for a little while longer and after his rude comment, I was not ready to forgive him. I lie down in my bed and fell into a light sleep filled with curly hair and sapphire eyes.
There was my first encounter with love. Sure, I had had my romances before, but they were childish fantasies as fickle and changing as the wind. Akari was something different; a new species even of human that I was scared of. She was not intimidating physically, but mentally, I was hard-pressed to even talk to her naturally. This was what I felt after that first night at the inn.
When I woke from my pleasant dreams, I have expected Akari to be standing next to me. This was folly of course, but love knows no reality. I dressed in my extra clothes, combed my hair, and scrubbed my face. After a long look in the cracked mirror, I barrowed Hewitt’s razor to shave the stubble from my chin. After I felt that I was presentable, I made my way downstairs. I did not go boldly as if I were a knight rescuing a princess. No, I went meekly and cautiously like a swan investigating something curious and lovely. No, I was not a swan. I was too awkward to be. I went downstairs unnoticed by all. I tried to spot her somewhere, but she was not to be found. I went to the counter where Eriste was washing glasses and waited for her to come to me.
“What has you smiling so, boy?” Eriste asked. Startled, I tried to stammer a reply but she cut me off with a laugh.
“There are eggs cooking in the back. Collected just this morning. Would you like one or two? Bacon or sausage? Hot cider or water?”
She said all this without looking at me, and I had to check to make sure she was really talking to me. I collected myself enough to ask for two eggs, bacon and hot cider before I fell into my silent watch again. Within moments, she had everything placed in front of me and I took it to a corner table and began to eat.
You can call me obsessed, but I chose the table because I could see everyone in the inn. I was not about to let her slip by me unnoticed. Yet as I was looking down to pick up a piece of egg off the floor, she slid into the seat across from me. I looked back up and let out a start. She laughed and I was immediately captivated.
“How are you feeling this morning?” she asked. I was enthralled to hear her voice but also cautious. I did not let myself believe that she was here. I could not let myself be fooled by her presence. I returned my gaze to my cider and chose my next words carefully.
“I’m fine.” Short, simple, and to the point. I did not trust myself with any more. She said nothing so I tried again.
“I’m fine, Akari.”
“That’s better. Now, Eriste says that you and Hewitt need your wagon fixed. It will take at least two days judging by the condition so I was wondering if I could show you around the woods.”
I returned my gaze to her and realized that she wasn’t looking at me either. She was twiddling her thumbs and tilting her head to one side. I wondered if she was as cautious as I was. I had the sudden thought that she liked me. This was scary in itself because I was used to being the one liking and not the one who was liked. If she did like me, then she was far different than any other girl I had ever met.
“I would like that, thank you.”
“Great,” she said with a smile. “I can show you around as soon as you finish eating. I will get a bag from Eriste to fill with food and we can start.”
I was glad that she was taking charge right now and simply nodded my head in agreement. She stood and I was reminded of a dove perched on a thin branch. She glided away and I tried without success to eat the remainder of my breakfast slowly. In a few minutes she was back with a sack of food stuffs and we were ready to set off. We exited through the back door again and she led the way into the woods. We made our way to the creek again and she sat down lithely. I tried to imitate her gracefulness without success and ended up plopping down beside her. We sat and talked about nothing and everything. I learned that she was an only child and that she had left when she was eight because her mother was mentally unstable and her father, although he loved her, was not able to provide for her. She had met Eriste and she became a daughter to the Liri. She helped in the inn doing everything from milking the cow to sweeping the floor to washing the linens in the river where we were sitting. She also had a fancy for animals and had kept a few cats as pets, but they never stayed around for too long. She had long since given up on naming them for they always seemed to run away or drown in the stream or even be trampled by the cow after she had named them. She had a grey one at the moment which she only called “baby” because it was a baby to another cat she had. It had faired well and seemed to be willing to stay but she was not ready to take a chance yet.
As she talked, I was lost in her face. It was still as perfect as before in the inn, but it had a new quality in the afternoon sun. Her eyes refused to sparkle still, but her mouth was curved in a smile that never fully faded.
I was startled out of my love-struck gaze by a growl from my stomach. Embarrassed, I turned my face away and tried to hide the grumble with a cough. Akari let out an amused giggle and offered me some strawberries from the sack. I took them graciously and began eating. I tried to make everything I did as graceful as her, painstakingly so, but it never did any good. She simply laughed at my attempts and flaunted her own fluidity with a bite of strawberry.
I was jealous. I admit that she was beautiful when she ate and I found myself again preoccupied with her features. The way her mouth closed around the fruit, the way she chewed, the way she savored each bite and how it showed in her eyes. She did not eat but more than a few strawberries and when I offered some of mine, she kindly refused even after I persisted. I was annoyed by this, but I could not place why.
After we had finished our light meal, we shared water from a skein. This was as close as we ever got to kissing and I savored each sip with more lust than I should have. I was ashamed, but one look at my partner and I realized that there was no shame in sharing water with someone so precious. I passed the skein back to Akari and watched as she took a sip. She did everything simply yet I was enthralled as a child is when they are given their first piece of candy.
After sitting by the creek for most of the day, we made our way through the woods to a grove of pine trees. Akari was fascinated by the sight of them and was excited to find a pine cone in perfect condition. She placed it in the sack for safe keeping. I was worried that it would be crushed, as that always happened to me, but later when we made our way back to the inn it was still as perfect as when it was first found.
I had no way of telling where we were but she seemed to know. I followed behind like a pup follows its master. I wasn’t slobbering, mind you, but I was happy, and if I had a tail, it would have been wagging. She was never lost and I came to the conclusion that she was a human compass and that the woods were her domain. She seemed so calm and peaceful when surrounded by trees. She led us back to the inn and I must confess that I was not sure where we had gone. The whole day was a blur of Akari, strawberries, water, and trees. As we crept through the back door, she said that she had to finish her chores for Eriste and that she would not be able to see me for the remainder of the evening. After she said this, she gave me a hug and I was content. I was slightly disappointed when she left, but after the day with her, my mind was still preoccupied. I went up into my room and lay down on the bed, a giant smile on my face.
I seem to be rambling about one girl, but she was the first girl who was willing to let me be chivalrous and yet was able to fend for her own. She was “the world to my eyes” as Hewitt had said earlier, and I was laughing on the inside thinking about how he had said that to mock me. Laughing at Hewitt brought on an odd feeling that I couldn’t shake. I had not seen him in the inn, but then, I hadn’t been in the main room. Still, I was slightly puzzled by his lack of presence. I sat up in bed and saw that his belongings were gone. Panic filled me and I was on my feet ready to open the door when Akari burst through with a frantic look in her eyes.
“Get out,” she whispered urgently. “It’s not safe here any more. There’s no time to explain, just help me escape.”
I was stunned by this sudden turn of events but before I could ask questions, Akari was already breaking the window and telling me to climb out and run with her. Not about to leave her, I quickly gathered my belongings and slid through the window after her. We ran through the woods until we were back in the pine tree grove.
I had not noticed it before, as smitten as I was with Akari, but there was a crude ladder and house built into the branches. She climbed up and I followed. As we made our way into the trees, I realized that there was more than just the simple ladder and rough building. Each tree was connected to another by the limbs. It was as if someone had purposely grown the trees together. Inside one of the trees was a hollow where two people could sleep. There was a whole new world up here contained and hidden in the branches of the forest and I had no doubt that Akari had been working on it forever. My adrenaline level declining, curiosity stole its place.
“What happened back there? Why did we have to leave? Where are we?”
A thousand questions rushed out all at once but Akari simply shook her head.
“I will explain later, help me prepare for the night.”
That was all. She began to pull up the rope ladder and I took over so she could move onto something more important. We continued hustling about, her doing most of the work, me trying to find something useful to do until she went to the hollow where the beds were and I followed, not out of lust, but out of compassion and worry. She sat down and tucked her knees under her chin. I sat next to her and watched helplessly as silent tears fell down her face. I wanted to wrap my arms around her and tell her that it was going to be fine, but I did not want to upset her even further. I sat there contemplating it until she finally laid her head on my side and I took the initiative to settle the battle going on in my head by wrapping my arms around her and holding her hands in mine.
I must admit that I was content to sit there for the rest of the evening but she would not have it. She slid out after the tears had long since retreated back into her now murky eyes and lay down on one of the beds. I laid down on the other and watched her, waiting to see if she would cry again. She did not and after her breathing had returned to normal began to explain the events back at the inn.
“A man came in asking for you. He said he had some business to attend to with you and that it was urgent.”
“What did he look like?” I asked. There were multiple people who could want me, some dangerous, others friendly as is the way with life.
“He was short, long greasy hair, dark eyes… I’m sorry, let me start over. He was short with long greasy hair that went to his shoulders, his eyes smoldered with anger. I felt that I knew him. Yes, I did know him. He hangs around the inn sometimes helping with the horses. He was wearing a ragged cloak. He seemed to know you and I was scared, Adrin.”
She broke off and a single tear slid down her cheek. I rubbed the trail off of her face with my thumb. She did not shy away but held my hand after I had finished.
“Did you know him?” she asked.
“Not exceptionally, but I have seen him. It all makes sense now. He was probably spying on me my first night here. I stayed in the woods after you left and I couldn’t help but think that someone was watching me. What do you suppose he wanted?”
“I don’t know. I knew he was dangerous and anything he could want would be awful. Please don’t return to the inn. Promise me, Adrin.”
She looked at me with eyes that would not accept no for an answer and I was forced to say yes. I am not sure that even if I had said no that I would still risk going back. I knew that I was safe here and that Akari would help protect me and I would do the same for her.
She released my hand and let out a sigh. Standing, Akari made her way to her bed. I watched the graceful flow of her movements, the way she took each step, the subtle swaying of her hips, the hair she continuously straightened with no success. I must admit that I was slightly upset when she finally reached her destination and lay down on one of the rough hewn beds. She began to slide under the woolen blankets and turned her face away from me. I proceeded to pull my own blankets over myself and blew out the candle. I turned my body towards the wall opposite of the other bed trying not to make a sound. It never would work and I heard Akari shift ever so slightly in her own bed. Upset with my clumsiness a grimace crossed my face distorting my features. I was glad that it was dark and Akari could not see me. I was finally comfortable when her soft, soothing voice floated across the air.
“I love you.”
A smile crossed my lips and I responded, “I love you too.”
The next morning woke me with bright sunlight creeping through the cracks in the branches and the sight of an empty bed next to mine. I began to panic and thought that someone had taken her, but I realized that this was foolish because I was still here. I climbed out of bed and screamed.
I should not mention this to save some dignity, but I feel that, small and unimportant as it may be, I should not hide anything about me. If anyone should learn, then I must be completely transparent. Pride is quite a tricky thing. I may refuse to tell you that I screamed because I stepped on a splinter, but that would be because I would want to keep my pride. However, by telling you, I could feel like I am a better person and therefore become proud of myself. It is quite a messy ordeal with pride sneaking around and taking you at any turn. The best thing to do is be honest with one self and others so as to avoid the unavoidable as often as possible.
So without over explaining, I screamed because I stepped on a splinter and fell onto the bed to examine my foot. I must admit that I immediately felt like an idiot because at that moment, Akari poked her head up from the ladder to see what the matter was. I was embarrassed and angry with myself for overreacting, but it could not be helped. Once something is in the past, it cannot be fixed; but it can be forgotten. One of life’s many curses and blessings is this simple fact. As Akari made her way over to where I was, I quickly pulled the splinter out and began walking to try to hide my shame. I was not happy that she should see me as a weak person and wanted to show that I could be strong. I began hauling up the ladder, but in my haste, it fell down and I had to start over...