We strolled through the streets at a leisurely pace, enjoying each other’s company. I was mindful of the way Aneurin walked. He didn’t favor one leg over the other anymore. His gait was straight and sure, in spite of the somewhat boggy, slush-covered ground. Though we could see our breath in the air, water droplets dripped from bushes and the snow was soft. The smells from the baker and the competing clangs of Ynyr’s and the blacksmith’s anvils filled the air as we made our way to the cart stalls in the town square.
Aneurin froze as we neared the center of the square. It was like I could feel his sudden onset of anxiety. His emotions for the quickest fraction of a moment were tactile. You wouldn’t think rage and nervousness could coincide harmoniously, but for that brief blink in time they did. I turned my attention to him and tracked his gaze across the square. There, right in the middle of where the four streets intersected, was the mutilated corpse of an elven man.
From where I stood, I could make out the wounds that ended him. Someone beat his head in with their fists before sticking him on the spike. Nausea washed over me. The men I helped the night before probably did that. They were covered in far too much blood for the wounds they had. Why the fuck hasn’t anyone taken him down?
I glanced over the crowd. No one seemed to pay any attention to the dead man in the heart of our village. No one seemed to care.
A man clad in robes of white and cream laid a crate in front of the body and stepped up onto it. Please don’t say anything stupid.
“As it says in the Luminarium: ‘Those who harbor those festering shadows will, too, never feel the warmth of the rising sun.’” So much for that.
“The good Monk Ansel warned us! He said that ‘those who live amongst witches and elves shall find their lives void of the light the Dawn provides! Their crops shall wither, and their children shall waste and die!’ Repent and cast out those amongst Laeth who have damned us all to the darkness! We should run out that whore who lives within our walls and calls herself a healer, or surely we will earn the ire of the Dawn!” The man was pointing directly at me now, and a crowd was starting to gather. My nausea stopped abruptly as my stomach turned to stone and sank to my toes.
Strong hands were on me, urging me to turn around. I complied, but my gaze remained locked with the massing crowd of my neighbors and so-called friends. The butcher was there with little Miksa. Nodding and agreeing with the man on the crate in front of the dead body as he called for my death or exile.
“Let’s go see Ynyr,” Aneurin spoke softly as he led the way, his footsteps leading me through the sludge, down the streets to where the thatch roof homes started to fall into greater disrepair.
The nonhuman district of Laeth consisted of the ten worst homes in town. It wasn’t because elves couldn’t fix them up. It wasn’t that they didn’t fix them up. It was because a group of drunkards routinely did their best to deface their homes. Windows were boarded up behind shutters, where they remained intact. Smiling children with dirty faces and pointed ears played in the snow. They stopped as we passed, staring slack-jawed and wide-eyed at us.
The ringing of Ynyr’s anvil had stopped long before we were in sight of the workshop. He wasn’t outside at the forge, but Rhosyn was. Her light hair was almost as white as the snow on the ground, making her pale skin seem the softest hue of pink in comparison. She would grow up to be a great beauty one day. Hair color aside, she favored her father greatly. Ynyr’s wife had died years before I came to town so that fair-haired, golden-eyed girl was all he had.
Aneurin grinned at Rhosyn, and her cheeks blushed bright crimson. They had a short conversation in their tongue—a conversation I didn’t understand a single word of. In the end, Rhosyn bowed her head to him, hopped off the stool she was seated on, and opened the door. Yelling something in that melodious language, she walked inside.
“One of these days I will learn the elven tongue,” I whispered to Aneurin with a sigh. He flashed me a quick, small smirk. Then Ynyr came outside, and that smile fell. One of those golden eyes of his was swollen shut, and his bottom lip was split. I gasped and couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty for some reason. “You need to leave… Tonight if you can. Even if it’s just for a few days. Please.”
“Why? Don’t tell me you’re here to try to run me off as well? I already had a similar discussion with a client earlier.” Ynyr sighed, rubbing his jaw.
“No, but last night some men killed an elf. They’ve stuck his body in the middle of town, and no one seems to care. Ynyr, I also got word from my friend in Edaen. They took all of the elves away in a cart and killed the resisters two nights ago.” I closed the distance between us and grabbed his hands. “Please, I just want you and Rhosyn safe.”
“Every elf?” he asked as his brows knit, and he stared down at me as if he were looking into my very soul. His hands fell away from mine. He and Aneurin started speaking in elven speech again, and my eyelid twitched. After a little time passed Ynyr started nodding. “All right. We’ll leave tonight. Should we tell the others?”
“Yes. Where are you going to go?”
“The only place that I can be certain Rhosyn will be safe—the forest.”
“There are towns within the trees, and they won’t have to worry about being run out…or beaten for no reason,” Aneurin offered, with that small smile returning, though there was a certain grim quality to it.
“Are you sure about that?” Ynyr glared at Aneurin. “I’ve lived with humans for the last seventy years. The last time I went into the wood they called me a nynol’carwyr
and refused to do business with me.”
“Yes, you have my word. I’ll meet you and everyone else who wants to leave at sunset by the cottage outside the walls.” My heart actually hurt as Aneurin spoke. He was going to leave me. My gaze wandered to the side. Maybe I should go too?
I watched the melting snow drip from tips of the bare branches of a nearby bush.
By the time we were back at my home, the sound of the crowd was almost deafening and I felt sick. Without thinking, I started packing my things. I wasn’t sure where I’d go, but I knew I wouldn’t be safe within the walls for a while—if ever.
“I—” Aneurin spoke after a few minutes of silence. He had been quietly watching me pack my herbs away off the shelves. I tucked each bundle and jar carefully into the bottom of a massive wooden chest. “If I come back in a few days…would I be able to stay with you? Not as a patient but as maybe something more than a friend?”
“If I’m not kindling, of course.” I paused my packing long enough to grin in his direction.
“You won’t be kindling. The cottage I told you about, you should take it. You’ll be safer there than in the village.”
“It’s the least I could do. You saved my life, Valentina.” I shivered when my name left his lips, and dropped a pot of healing ointment.
“We both know there’s not a single draft in here.”
“What do you want from me?” I asked in earnest, closing the chest of herbs. It was odd to see the shelves empty.
“I told you already,” he stated plainly, stepping past me and into the bedroom.
He made no move to close the door before he stripped off the coarse woolen shirt Ynyr had lent him. I had an unobstructed view of his slender, toned torso and the slight scar from the wound that had brought him to my doorstep. The pale pink scar had already started fading. Soon there would be nothing that would tie him to me. Nevertheless, I devoured his nakedness with my stare, my gaze traveling over every ridge of hard muscle, and a wistful sigh escaped my lips that made me cover my face.
When I dropped my hands, I was in time to see him pulling his dark leather pants back up his bare thighs. There was nothing to suggest he had broken anything. No, he was certainly all healed. Next, he slipped a homespun shirt over his head; the laundress had been able to get out most of the blood and sew up where the dagger had pierced it. Watching him dress, I became more and more aware with each article of clothing that there had to be something wrong with me. It was clear from the end result that he could be nothing but a bandit from the forest. He dressed like they did. The olive over-tunic buckled tight to his lithe form with various belts and straps, and over that went a heavy, muddy brown–colored vest with a high collar. All he was missing was a sword, a bow, quiver, and red bandanna. He looked like a killer. His attire stripped all the boyishness from his features, making him look arrogant and dangerous.
“I’ll get you a wagon.” I barely registered what he had said by the time the door was closing behind him. I really didn’t have a lot of things to pack. Most of my belongings were already tucked away in chests. With people in and out of my home at all hours, it never seemed wise to leave things out in the open. Maybe I had been waiting for a fresh start all along.
I wet my lips at the implication of that errant thought and started bringing my trunks from the bedroom to the common room.
It took a handful of hours to pack up and load the last four years of my life onto a cart. It didn’t feel real at all.
Riding in the cart next to Aneurin felt like some odd dream. I leaned against him during the short ride out of town with my head resting on his shoulder. Simply touching him was calming, but still my thoughts took a rather morose turn. It’s all my fault.
There was no reasoning it away; they thought it was the elves who killed the hunters in that camp. The priest who had stood on that crate was probably paid handsomely to incite a pogrom. I curled inside myself, staring at my hands as I leaned against the powerful body beside me. My nails were still dirty, bits of dried blood from last night still stuck to the nail beds.
“Hey,” that soft voice purred in my ear, coaxing my gaze up from my hands. “Come on, we need to unload the wagon.” I nodded slowly and slipped away from him.
As I climbed down from the wagon, I took in the cottage that was to be my home. It was roughly twice the size of the small hovel I had occupied within the walls. There was also a fence for a large garden. It was clear that Aneurin had plans, possibly far-reaching plans for us—ruined plans. As we took one of my chests into the cottage, it confirmed what I knew all along. There was no denying it. The walls were covered with shelves, and there were four cots against the wall opposite the stone hearth. He had intended us to live together…but there was something else. The smell of the room seemed familiar. Glancing up I noticed that along the rafters were marks where herbs had been tied for drying.
“The last healer lived here,” I mused, tilting my head to the side.
“Mhm, she was a witch and an herbalist. Islwyn said some of her things are still in the cellar. He seemed to be of the mind that you could make some use of them…” He was slightly nervous, his gestures and speech fairly awkward. “And yes…I wanted a life with you,” he added flippantly, before leaving to grab more of my things.
His statement hung in the air like that scent of stale herbs. It was almost painful to admit that I wanted it too. I loved to posture, even to myself, but the truth was I did want him to stay and become a part of my life. Now, however, it was impossible, and we both knew it. Pushing away my emotions, I went back to helping him unload the cart feeling comfortably numb.
By the time we finished, it was nearly sunset. On the horizon, toward the tall wooden gate, you could see the stream of elves carrying parcels filing out of the city. We stood outside in the cold in silence, watching the line of elves draw nearer and a trail of smoke rise from the within the city. The noise of the mob was barely broken by the wall now. Cries of “burn them all” could be heard distinctly on the howl of the winter wind as black smoke rose in great plumes.
Suddenly there was a loud bang, and a fireball shot up from within the walls. Something had exploded. What a pity there’ll be no one in town to treat the resulting wounds.
A smile slipped over my lips for a brief moment, a triumphant, smug expression of happiness that coaxed a chuckle from Aneurin. Wordlessly, he gathered me into his arms in a fierce embrace. He clung to me, holding me hostage against his body as he buried his nose in my dark hair.
“I’m going to miss you,” he whispered, his voice half lost to the chaos of whatever was happening within the city walls. For a moment, I almost thought he was going to cry, but he quickly released me and ran his fingers back through his hair. Still I leaned against him and placed a nervous kiss at his throat.
“I’m going to miss you too.”
“I’ll… When the thaw sets in, I’ll visit.”
“No, you won’t.” I swallowed, and my face warmed against the bitter chill. I was going to cry.
“I’ll try to.”
“But you won’t… I hate being right.” I laughed bitterly as hot tears trailed down my cheeks.
“Will you?” I skeptically quirked a brow and wiped my eyes.
“Mhm.” He kissed my forehead. It was odd how natural the closeness between us felt. It was like we had always known each other. I genuinely felt I was losing a dear friend, if not a part of myself.
“I almost want to go with yo—”
“No,” he barked cutting me off. “I mean…it wouldn’t be fair to you.”
With a sigh, I stepped from him. He was lying. I didn’t call him on it because it was moot. The other elves started arriving. They placed their chests and crates on the wagon and spoke among themselves, their voices drowned out by the shouts from within the city walls.
The sun had almost set completely when the line was reaching its end. Ynyr brought up the rear with Rhosyn, their possessions piled high on a cart he pushed before him. The waiflike Rhosyn stayed with their cart as Ynyr walked over to us. He pulled me into a tight hug and kissed my cheek.
“Thank you. Thank you, for everything.” He cupped my face in his calloused hands before pulling me into a quick hug once more.
“You’re welcome.” I beamed at him as he released me.
“They burned everything—your home, mine. They came just so fast. There were others but…they didn’t make it. I still can’t believe this is real. I’ve lived in Laeth since Olwyn and I handfasted. I’ve mended pots, plows, and jewelry for all of those people. I didn’t understand it before. I always thought that they only went after those who provoked them. I did nothing to these people and yet they hate me.” Welcome to my world.
“The important thing is you got out. You have your life and freedom.” I tried to be reassuring but failed. My tone read apathetic.
“Here I am complaining, and you have to stay here unprotected.” He swallowed. “Don’t trust them, Valentina. No matter what they say after this. Don’t trust a single one of them. Promise me?” He placed his hands on my shoulders, and I raised my gaze to Aneurin, who was practically glaring at Ynyr.
“I promise. I won’t trust them.”
“All right.” He gave me a sad little smile and looked back at Rhosyn for a few moments. “I’ve never been good at saying good-bye.”
“I don’t think anyone is.”
“Be safe.” He kissed my forehead quickly and walked back to the others waiting around the wagon.
Aneurin and I stared at each other for a few moments. The sun had long set, and snow started to fall from the dark sky in fat, fluffy flakes. In an instant he was in front of me, slamming me against the door so hard that it rattled. He claimed me with that kiss. Stealing my breath as he pressed his body against mine. I was practically aching with need by the time he broke from my lips. My breathing came in soft, gaspy breaths. My whole body practically throbbed with wanting to be touched by him. But there would be no touching. He stepped away from me and toward the gathered group of elves. With a single word they all started their sad procession to the forest’s edge.
The tree line loomed like a dark specter, not at all far from the door of the cottage. The forest was actually closer than the gates of Laeth, and it took less than ten minutes for Aneurin to be swallowed up by the long shadows cast by that snow-dusted canopy. I stared into the darkness as the noise within the city walls died to nothing, and the black smoke of burning thatch homes turned to white.