By the end of my first day of teaching the following week, the ball seemed years ago, a distant memory buried under an avalanche of paperwork, schedules, lesson plans, grading, and assignments. Had it not been for Devorah Erren’s insufferable boasting to the other girls about the ball (she being the only one of the class whose parents had allowed her to attend) I might not have thought of it at all.
By the middle of the week, however, my thoughts had turned to the upcoming festival that I was to attend with Mira and her family.
To be honest, I was a bit nervous about it. I didn’t even know what kind of a festival it was, only that Mira had called it “the last hurrah” before winter set in. Ordinarily such ignorance would not have bothered me—I had attended enough harvest celebrations and gatherings of the like in Castlebrook to have an idea what to expect—but added to the rest of my ignorance about her life, it was beginning to make me uncomfortable.
What could I do, though? I had given my word that I would go. Mira was my friend, and I wanted to go, and yet the mysteriousness of it all bothered me. I could go to Uncle Oruc or Aunt Monria…but with what? Did I really have any reason not to trust Mira?
I would go. I would go and put all of my silly, over-imaginative fears to rest. That was that.
Mira had advised me that a gown such as I had worn to the Havenwing ball would be out of place at the festival, but such advice was unnecessary. I at least knew enough about country festivals in general to know that. I packed the dress I had worn to the harvest festival at home the previous year, hoping to goodness that it wouldn’t be wrinkled beyond repair after being stuffed into a pack for the duration of the long trek out of Havenwing to Mira’s home.
She had also told me to come on foot rather than riding, as her family had no place to keep or care for a horse. So, after another mad rush to get home from school, change, and grab the bag I had packed the night before, I set out at a brisk walk out of Havenwing into the countryside. Since there would be no return journey to make this time, there was plenty of time to get there before dark if I kept up my pace.
I felt like I was back in Castlebrook again, marching along in a familiar rugged dress and sturdy boots, past crop fields, pastures enclosed by stone walls, and charming little farm cottages. That and the crisp autumn chill put a smile on my face and a tingling glow in my cheeks.
Mira met me at our usual place, but to my great surprise the overflowing excitement I had expected from her was nowhere to be seen. She stood waiting for me with her shoulders bunched and her arms close to her body as though she were cold, clasping her hands together and appearing to force a smile through a face that looked more likely to cry than laugh.
“Mira?” I asked after a pause. “Whatever is the matter? Are you unwell?”
“No, I am…I am quite well, Lythia, I just…I just…” She shifted on her feet and kept on fidgeting with her hands.
“Tell me,” I prodded as gently as I could, hoping that something was not terribly wrong.
She took a deep breath, lowered her hands, and smiled at me. “I am just so afraid,” she said.
“Mira!” I closed the distance between us and gave her a hug. “What are you afraid of? Tell me. You must.” I released her from the hug and looked her in the eyes, waiting for her answer.
“I am just so afraid that you won’t like my home or my family,” she confessed.
“Why would you think such a thing?”
“We are so different from you, Lythia,” she said, shaking her head, all of her usual buoyant cheerfulness replaced by a heavy seriousness. “Nothing like you at all, really.”
“But you are!” I insisted. “How do you think you and I got to be such good friends? Why should you be so worried?”
“Because you and I are alike, yes, but…” She shook her head again. “…but we come from different worlds, Lythia. No one can deny that or change it. You don’t understand that yet—of course you don’t, you couldn’t possibly—and I am just afraid that once you do understand it all will be lost. That you’ll never want to have anything to do with me again.”
Something in her manner finally made me realize that whatever the source of her concern, it went far beyond the self-consciousness of a farm girl in the presence of a well-to-do city girl.
“Mira,” I said, “what is going on? What are you not telling me?”
She took another deep breath. “It’s easier if I just show you. Come on.”
She turned and started away, heading east, and I kept pace beside her. The brisk walking used our breath and prevented much talking, leaving me to my confused thoughts. This must all be connected to her reluctance to talk about her family, but what could she possibly be so afraid or ashamed of? And what was I thinking, going along with her knowing fully that she was hiding something about her life from me? Was I making a mistake, doing something terribly foolish that I would pay for dearly later?
We continued walking, until I glanced about and realized where we were. We had passed the last of the farms east of Havenwing, hadn’t we? It was only open fields from here to…
To the edge of the Clearing.
No sooner had that realization come to me than Mira and I crested a ridge—the same ridge I had inadvertently crossed on my first ride out from Havenwing—and stood staring at the edge of the forest.
I slowly turned to stare at Mira. Her eyes were fixed straight ahead, staring into the woods, as if to confirm for me that that was indeed our destination.
Slowly, she turned her head to stare at me with her green eyes…eyes as green as the leaves of the trees in summertime. “Yes, Lythia,” she said. She nodded towards the forest. “This is where I live.”
I found myself involuntarily stepping backwards, away from the crest of the ridge. “You live in the woods?!” I cried. “But you can’t! You can’t, it’s—it’s impossible!”
“Your people believe that it is,” she conceded, “but my people know no other way of life and no other homeland.”
“Your people? What do you mean, ‘your people’? Are you not the same as us?”
Mira shrugged. “To ourselves we are simply the Elven, call us what you will. It matters little, really, because as you say, we are the same as you in any respect that matters.”
The Elven—she could not be serious. The Elven were a myth! At best, an ancient people who had long since vanished and died away into the shadows and mists of history.
“But the monsters!” I insisted. “The goblins and orcs! They’re the entire reason we don’t go near the woods! That’s why we live in the Clearings in the first place!”
Mira searched for words for a moment before responding to that. “Lythia, do you have no dangers here in the Clearings?” she asked finally. “Do wolves not come out of the woods and hills and endanger the farms? Do you have no thieves, no highwaymen?”
“But we can defend ourselves,” I said firmly, quoting the answer that I myself had been given any time such a question had arisen. “Here in the open where we can see, we are defensible.”
Mira cocked her head to peer at me from under a mischievously quirked eyebrow. The Mira I had come to know over the past few weeks was back, glittering at me from her eyes.
“And you believe that my people have survived all these years without being able to defend ourselves?”
I had no answer to that. The matter had never come up—all I had ever been taught said that people died when they went into the woods. Never once had I imagined that anyone actually lived there. A few history books went so far as to mention the Elven—or Fey, or Faerie, or Elfael, according to the translator’s fancy—as a people who, assuming they actually existed, had probably lived primarily in forests. But everyone believed that even if they were real, they had been killed off in the invasion of monsters. That was what the history books all told us.
What if…what if they had been wrong about the monsters, too? What if, in letting the forests grow up and surround us, isolate us from each other and the rest of the world, they were intentionally hiding something from us?
I stared at Mira, all my years of education warring against my sudden inclination to trust her.
A smile slowly returned to her face as we stood there.
“Lythia,” she said, “will you come with me and see my home?”
I glanced back towards Havenwing. Glanced at the forest. Turned again to look at Mira.
I'm a bit concerned that this point in the story is too late to be introducing an overtly fantasy element like elves, when all of the story leading up to this has been very Victorian/gothic in nature and not really fantasy at all other than a few vague references to orcs and goblins. Should I add in heavier foreshadowing of a fantasy element? Suggestions welcome!