“I simply cannot live like this anymore!” Stepmother cried dramatically, laying the back of her hand across her forehead in distress.
I fought not to roll my eyes and instead focused on polishing the boot in my lap. Thomas the Baker was wooing Widow Taylor, the most beautiful widow in town, and the boots were a gift to persuade her to marry him. My father, the town cobbler, and I had put extra care into the boots: painstakingly smoothing the soft leather to perfection, securing the sturdy soles with more pins than were strictly necessary. The boots were still practical but far more beautiful than any we had ever made, and I was polishing until I could see my reflection in them.
“I just cannot!” Stepmother was practically in tears, once again. It was her usual act, and—also as usual—Father fell at her feet. Not literally, thank goodness. Not yet. But he did come up behind her to rub her shoulders and murmur appeasing sentiments.
“I despise this small town!” She waved her feathered fan, gazing out the window in the general direction of the palace miles away. “I want to move to court, to see the comings and goings of people who matter, not listen to town gossip of these dreadful people. Why do you force me to stay here against my will?”
“Soon, my love,” he soothed. “Soon we will move to court. But not yet. We can’t leave until Pip is wed. He will not make a good choice on his own.”
I wasn’t offended by his remark on my choices; I’d be the first to admit that as a helpless romantic, I fell hard for every man I met and was rewarded either by chasing him away or being used by him. So my father had decided they would stay in Millersville until I was wed. He’d already compromised with Stepmother that he would not bring me to court with them.
I rubbed the boots furiously. With just a little more elbow grease, maybe a genie would pop out of them. Anything to get me out of that house and away from my stepmother.
“Oh!” she wailed, and then collapsed to the floor, far too delicately for someone in a true condition. Father knelt beside her, brushing the hair of her perfectly styled chestnut wig out of her eyes and taking over her feather fan.
“Pip, get some tea.”
Stepmother revived at that, struggling to sit and give me the glare of the death, the glare that said that if Father wasn’t there she would not hesitate to squash me beneath her foot like a cockroach. If Stepmother ever dirtied her shoes to kill a bug. “Keep him away from me!” she cried, falling against Father’s shoulder.
I set down the boots beneath my chair; they were good enough. The house wasn’t safe anymore. “I’ll just go,” I said, though I suspected no one was really paying me any mind by that point. I fled the house and hurried through the small village. No one stopped me, though a few women tending their gardens or sweeping their stoops smiled in greeting as I passed. I dodged a few children playing games in the streets, maneuvered around a heavy wagon being pulled by two mules that had seen better days. Where the town houses ended, the farms began, but I ran past those as well. I didn’t stop until I’d reached the edge of the forest, where I could be truly alone.
I sat down on a boulder. The quartz had been warmed by the sun, and it felt good after the chill of Stepmother. I took a deep breath and let it go. The only sound I could hear was the breeze rustling the grass and the leaves of the nearby trees. It was so refreshing, so nice, to not hear the wailing and moaning of Stepmother, to not even hear the crunch of wagon wheels over the pebbled roads or children laughing and chasing each other through the village. No cries of shopkeepers hawking their goods, nor teases of past lovers.
The edge of the woods was the only place in town where I could be alone. No one ever went there, because of the Aelflin.
The woods were filled with Aelflin, and their wicked king. Generations of townspeople had passed on rumors and legends, and I had heard them all. They said that once upon a time, the Aelflin had haunted outside of the woods. They kidnapped babies to eat. They stole children and sucked out their life force to stay young and immortal forever. To appease them, the townspeople sacrificed them their best animals, offered them their best crops and goods. They hired witches and white knights, but the Aelflin would not be appeased. Finally, the king and his army intervened. After much bloodshed, peace was made. The Aelflin were bound to their woods, forbidden to ever step foot beyond the trees. But if any of the townspeople so much as set toe in the woodland realm, they were never seen again.
I liked the edge of the forest. My mother had taken me there to play as a child. She’d liked the forest too, even though the townspeople whispered things behind her back. Some accused her of being half-Aelflin herself, because of her fair features and her child-like beauty. They said she would steal me away one day and suck out my soul. But my mother was no monster. She was sweet and gentle and beautiful.
I peered into the woods, not for the first time wondering what was in there. Wondering if he’d come.
I hadn’t played alone as a child. I’d had a friend. A young boy with dark hair and eyes like summer grass, about my age. An Aelflin, who came to the edge of the woods with his mother. Our mothers were friends, I thought. If my memory was right. It had been so long, and maybe I’d overly fantasized the memories, elaborating a boyhood crush into something more.
I did have a tendency to overly fantasize everything. It was why none of my many relationships had succeeded.