“You wanted to see me, father?” I ask.
My eyes flit to Aaron, standing tall and proud at my father’s side. His once long, steel gray hair, now cut short to represent the status of his position as head warrior for the mountain-elves.
It’s never a good sign when Father summons me in the presence of Aaron.
My mind races to figure out if anyone could have witnessed the last crop raid I aided the lake-elves with. It’s the only thing I can think of to warrant the somber look on Aaron’s face.
“Take a seat, Autumn, while we wait for your mother,” Father says, without looking up from the papers in front of him.
Absentmindedly I take a seat on the long side of the table, next to him, but not too close. It doesn’t occur to me to question why we need to wait for Mother. I’m too busy brooding over Aaron.
Would it hurt him to smile? He used to smile. A lot. In fact, when we were kids, we used to have so much fun together. We’d climb trees to create forts with the help of the trees, who were always so accommodating to shift their limbs to create sturdier platforms and curtains of leaves to hide us from the real world.
It gave us a hide-away to carry out top secret missions of robbing the local squirrels of their winter stashes.
Greedy little buggers always manage to pack away three years worth of nuts just for one winter. But lord did they get angry when we got our hands on them.
It didn’t matter to them that I was the daughter of the king. They would chatter away at us, scolding us for being the thieves we were.
But the trees were loyal to me, and not once would they let a squirrel breach the safety of our hide-away.
It seems like such a useless act now. But as kids, we really felt like we were making a difference for the lake-elves. While half of a squirrel’s stash of nuts doesn’t exactly feed a kingdom of lake-elves, we believed we were making a difference.
We vowed, as kids, that we’d raid for the lake-elves, and protect them at all costs, until the day came that we could eliminate the narrow-minded views that the kingdoms had to be kept separate. We swore to always have each other’s back; no matter what.
But then Aaron had to grow up and get himself assigned as the mountain-elves’ head warrior; a league that my father had hired to protect our crop lands from the lake-elves’ thievery. I pleaded with him not to take the position. But he wouldn’t listen. He said that it’s what he had to do and begged me to understand.
“Understand what?” I’d asked. “That you’re turning your back on me out of greed for power?”
He’d tried to justify his choices and to make me see reason. But the day he accepted his new position was the day he severed our friendship forever.
I scowl. We were supposed to change the future of the kingdoms. I’ll never forgive him for betraying me.
Aaron raises an eyebrow at the scowl on my face.
I square my shoulders, sit a little taller, and wipe the emotion from my face.
Mother sweeps into the room as though there isn’t a care in the world.
“Nice of you to join us,” Father says.
She kisses him on the cheek. “You’re always in such a rush darling. Am I no longer worth waiting for?” She affectionately traces her hand down his cheek and rubs her thumb along his bottom lip.
His eyes twinkle with the smile he fails to hide. “Always my love. But this is a rather important matter.”
“Which is precisely why I’m late,” she says as she takes his hand to place something in it beyond my line of sight.
“Oh marvelous,” he says. “You truly are a gem.”
She takes a seat next to him, positioning herself across from me and smiles warmly at me.
The table between us is beautifully crafted out of an ancient oak that had lived out its life. My great-great-grandfather negotiated with the forest elders and convinced them of the honor it would bring them to allow the ancient oak eternal life in a place of prestige in the royal manor.
The great-great-grandfather of Aaron’s best friend Tamir had hand crafted the table himself to perfection. It’s been a place of honor for every meeting and family gathering of any importance for centuries. While some may see it as nothing more than a table, it’s been a piece of great pride and sentiment in our family for generations.
Father clears his throat and shifts in his seat as though he’s nervous about something.
Mother places her hand over his in a supportive gesture.
My stomach tightens as I realize that something is definitely up with my parents.
“So what’s going on? You two are acting weirder than normal,” I say, not wanting this to drag out.
I have a date with River later and I’m eager to get ready for it. Not that she’d mind if I was late. She knows how dangerous it is for me to sneak around to meet with her. But I would risk everything for her, and she knows that too.
“Autumn, as you know, the lake-elves have been increasing the frequency of their raids on our crops. What you don’t know is that Aaron has learned that they’re planning to organize an invasion to take over our southern border.”
I narrow my eyes at my father.
“So let them have the land,” I say.
He sighs. “Autumn, we’ve been over this. I’m not giving away our land because the lake-elves are too promiscuous and irresponsible to control their own population and manage their own crop lands.”
“Then you leave them no choice but to take it by force and you know damn well that you can’t win that fight now, their numbers are too great.”
“Right, well that’s why we’re here now. Your mother and I have made a decision. We’ll be forming an alliance with the mountain-elves. This alliance will give us the strength we need to defeat the lake-elves.”
My chest tightens. Aaron is the son of the mountain-elf king, so that explains why he’s here. But why am I here?
“What sort of alliance?”
“Their warriors in exchange for our lumber.”
“So you’ll share our lumber with the mountain-elves, but you won’t share our crops with the lake-elves for the sake of their survival?”
“Yes, that’s correct. Because the lake-elves are selfish and irresponsible. They flood their own crop lands to accommodate their unchecked population growth, and resort to stealing our crops. Would you have me give them our entire kingdom and leave our forest-elves homeless and starving for the sake of their survival?”
“You could easily combine all the kingdoms and share the lands,” I say.
“Enough,” Father says. “We are not going around in circles on this matter again. My job is to protect our lands for our people. As my daughter, and heir to the throne, you will aid us in doing that by taking Aaron in marriage on the eve of the summer solstice.”
My jaw slackens. My eyes jump from Father, to Aaron, to Mother, and back to Father.
“Is this a joke? You can’t possibly be serious? Why does your warped trade deal require my hand in marriage?”
“I am very serious. The marriage will solidify the honor of the trade agreement, uniting the two kingdoms. The decision is final, so take whatever time you need to wrap your head around it. You’re excused from your duties until after the wedding.”
“No. I won’t do this. I’m not marrying some narrow minded, arrogant warrior for the sake of a useless trade agreement.”
“Autumn, mind your tongue,” Mother says.
“The hell I will. You can’t make me do this,” but even as I rant I take in the closed expression of my father and know that he will stop at nothing to see this done.
I look at Aaron. “You can’t possibly be in agreement with this?”
“It’s a logical alliance, Autumn. Your kingdom will need our warriors, and our kingdom needs your lumber.”
“We don’t need your damned warriors. There shouldn’t be a war at all. What is wrong with you people?”
Father sighs. “While I had hoped you would have matured more than this by now, Autumn, I’m not actually surprised by your reaction.”
He stands and places a delicate box in front of me. If I wasn’t so disturbed by the situation I’d have admired the beauty of the box created out of tiny branches intricately weaved together. But I already know that this little box contains my grandmother’s engagement ring, having often played with it as a child.
“You will come to understand the importance of this decision one day.”
He turns to leave. “Aaron, we’ll leave the women to further discuss the matter and I apologize for my daughter’s lack of diplomacy.”
Aaron stares at me for a moment, again with those pleading eyes, before taking leave with my father.
What can he be thinking? How does he expect this to play out? I despise everything he has come to represent. I hate him for breaking the vow we made as kids. Is he really delusional enough to think that forcing me into a marriage I don’t want will change that?
“Autumn, I know this isn’t what you expected…”
“Be serious Mother, that’s the understatement of the century. I don’t know how you can even think that I’ll accept this.”
“Darling, you’ll accept it because you know that it’s your duty to do so. And you knew this day would come. It was never hidden from you that your marriage would be one of an alliance, eventually.”
I stare at my hands as I pick at my nails. There’s no point in saying anything, because she’s right. I was never under the illusion that I would one day marry the woman I love, I just didn’t expect it to happen so soon. I also expected the alliance to remain within the kingdom of the forest-elves. Some useless family lineage thing. It never occurred to me that I could end up being forced to marry the one man I hate.
“Autumn, you don’t need to give her up.”
That gets my attention as my head snaps up to meet her eyes. Does she know about River? That’s not possible. She would never condone even a friendship with a lake-elf.
“I’m not blind and I’m not naïve. Though I may not know who she is, I am more than aware of the signs that your heart belongs to another woman.”
I let out a sigh of relief. At least she doesn’t know who. “How can you possibly know that,” I ask.
“Because I was in your shoes many, many years ago and I was terrified of losing her.”
The thought of my mother being terrified of anything is absurd. But she does have my attention.
While we have a good enough relationship, I wouldn’t say that we’re close. The bond of an elven marriage is tied by a magic that prevents either partner from confiding in anyone but each other. So this is news to me. She must have gotten Father’s blessing to share this with me. We’ve never had any heartfelt mother/daughter bonding moments, and I realize how very little I know about my mother because of it.
“So what did you do?”
“I talked to your father about it.”
My eyes widen. “He knew? And he still made you marry him?”
Mother smiles softly. “He didn’t make me do anything, ever. Like yours will be, our marriage was one of alliance. Your father is a kind and compassionate man. He did everything to ensure that I felt accepted, respected and treasured. He never made me give her up or try to come between us. And I see the same traits in Aaron. It’s the only reason I agreed to the alliance. As much as our kingdom needs this alliance, if Aaron was a cruel man, I never would have allowed it.”
“What do you know about Aaron? He betrayed our friendship, and he supports the hatred against the lake-elves. You know how much I’m against that. How can I possibly respect a man who represents something I despise?”
“Is that what you think this is? A rivalry based on hatred?”
“What else can it be? If a lake-elf is caught stealing our crops, their life force is cut in half and they’re rendered infertile. It’s barbaric.”
“In your grandfather’s day, those elves were killed. Aaron took a firm stance when he was appointed his position that no elf of any kingdom would die by his hand. But there still needed to be a grave enough consequence. He convinced your father that this option would be enough to deter the lake-elves. And for nearly half a century it did. But the lake-elves have over populated too much again and they’re running out of space, never mind food. Perhaps you should take some time to get reacquainted with Aaron before you judge him so harshly?”
I didn’t know that the elimination of the death penalty was because Aaron had drawn a moral line in his responsibilities. Though to hear Father speak of it, the new form of punishment is worse than death for the lake-elves. But on reflection, River’s never shared an opinion about it.
If I was the one being punished, I would gladly take a reduced life and infertility over no life at all.
“But why does there have to be a punishment at all? It’s never made sense to me and never will.”
Mother stands. “Walk with me.”
She leads the way out the side door to the garden. Next to River’s lake, it’s my favorite place to spend time.
A winding path weaves through an explosion of colorful wildflowers on a backdrop of ferns and fir trees. Wind chimes are scattered throughout, creating a soft melodic accompaniment as we stroll along the path. The gentle fragrances mingle to entice the senses. Overall, the combination engulfs us in a serene and tranquil ambience.
The tension within my muscles immediately melts away as I inhale deeply.
Mother’s choice to bring me out here was calculated. But she won’t change my opinion.
“How has your time with the elflings been going?”
The question takes me off guard.
“Fine, I guess. They’re noisy and have no discipline, but I suppose that’s to be expected.”
Mother nods reflectively. “Perhaps. And what of the martial arts classes that you’re teaching?”
I smile, this is where I really excel. “Those are going great. The kids are older and enjoy learning.”
“Do you find it hard to imagine that those kids were once unruly elflings?”
I ponder the question. “Yes, actually I do. It’s amazing the change they’ve gone through. They’re patient and respectful. A pleasure to work with, really.”
“I can imagine. Nothing like the demanding and impetuous elflings. All they seem to care about is themselves. Can you imagine if they never outgrew that?”
It finally registers with me what Mother is doing. “That’s not fair, Mother.”
“No, perhaps it’s not. But neither are the demands the lake-elves make on the surrounding kingdoms, offering nothing in return. At least the forest-elflings will mature and grow into responsible and respectful elves that give back to the kingdom. It’s a growth trait that the lake-elves have never cared to learn.”
“That doesn’t make punishing the lake-elves just or fair; simply because they embrace a different lifestyle to ours, regardless of whether you agree with it or not.”
“Life isn’t always fair, Autumn. We each make our own choices. No one is telling the lake-elves how to live their lives. But we are drawing the line on them being allowed to overrun and change our kingdom simply because they have no discipline to take care of, and make the best of, their own lands. If they won’t stay where they belong, and they insist on trying to take what isn’t theirs to take, then they leave us no choice but to defend what is ours.”
Mother has always had a way of turning an emotional situation into a rational one. It’s a bit infuriating, but she was a good teacher and I was a good student.
“You do recall that there was a time when kingdom borders didn’t exist, right? Are they really trying to take something that isn’t theirs?”
I catch the smile she tries to hide.
“Your great-great-grandfather negotiated with the tree elders for the honor of creating our ancient oak table. Before that, the ancient oak was part of the forest. Would it be their right to take that table back now?”
“That’s not the same,” I mumble. She knows how fond I am of that table.
“I fail to see the difference, darling. I know you have a soft spot for the lake-elves, but they have proven repeatedly that they lack responsibility and discipline. Until such time as they can prove otherwise, I will stand by your father on his decision.”
“I still feel that it’s ridiculous and I hate the idea that I’m expected to marry to form an alliance for something that I don’t agree with. The new generation of lake-elves are different, and they deserve a chance to prove that.”
Mother walks in silence for a few moments.
“Do you feel confident that this is a topic you could persuade your father on?”
I scoff. “That too is ridiculous. He will never believe that there’s another option.”
“So while he is the king, do you see any hope for change?”
I sigh. “Sadly, no I don’t.”
“And who will be the ruler of our people when your father is no longer king?”
I stop walking and look at her.
She turns to face me.
“My dear, change does not happen overnight and often requires a great deal of patience. But unless you are in a position of power to implement change, what hope do you have of seeing that change take place?”
“But if Aaron is to be my husband, what good will that do me? He’s as stubborn and narrow minded as Father is.”
She looks towards the lowering sun.
“It’s getting late, I think I’d like to make some tea.”
She looks back at me.
“Try to keep your emotions in check while you consider your options.” She cups my cheek with her hand. “And be careful what you wish for on a whim, it just might come true.”
She leaves me staring after her.
I turn to catch the edge of the sun dipping behind the trees and sigh.
If I head to River’s lake now, I’ll be early. If I go to get ready the way I wanted to, I’ll be late.
Looking down at the flowing gauze of my white dress, I decide to be early. River has always liked this dress, anyway.
Placing one delicate foot softly in front of the other, I make my way along the fallen log that dips into the lake to the spot just before it disappears under the surface.
Settling down to wait for River, I let the skirt of my dress float next to me. There’s no point in keeping it dry. The moment River sees what I’m wearing she’ll be hauling me fully into the lake to take advantage of the transparent affect the water will have on the thin white material.
My lips curve softly as a familiar heat seeps through my body at the thought.
A rustle in the trees at the shoreline to my right breaks the spell of my thoughts, and I catch a glimpse of a large hummingbird before it darts away. A deer emerges and gracefully lowers her head to take a drink.
“Why are you free to roam between the borders while others aren’t?” I say to the deer.
I twirl one of my long red braids around my finger as I contemplate the unfairness of life.
Aaron betrayed me and severed our friendship, yet I’m now expected to stand with him in marriage?
But was Mother really trying to suggest that once I’m queen I’ll have the power to implement the changes my father refuses to consider?
“Not only are you early, but you’re dressed to impress. Is this a special occasion?”
A grin spreads across my face as I look at the water to see River smiling up at me.
She really is stunning. Her wet black hair glistens across her olive skin and her dark oval eyes are full of mischief.
Her hand slides up my leg as she emerges from the lake. I remain still, not wanting to lose contact with her touch.
As predicted, she slides her hand around my waist and pulls me into the water with her.
“Much better,” she murmurs. My breasts strain against the material of my wet dress in reaction to both the cool water and the contact of River’s touch.
“Mmmm, indeed,” I whisper.
“So tell me, my love, what had you looking so solemn before I arrived.”
I sigh. How can Mother truly believe that the lake-elves are irresponsible and only think about themselves?
River never misses a beat when something is bothering me, and she puts her own wants to the side to offer me the support she knows I need.
With my legs draped across her lap, she cradles me as I tuck my face into her neck while she floats on her back.
“Father has announced that I must marry Aaron on the eve of the summer solstice,” I say.
“What?” she exclaims, nearly dumping me into the lake in her surprise.
“I know,” I groan. “It’s just awful. What are we going to do?”
“What do you mean it’s awful? This is fantastic news.”
I raise my head to look at her with a frown.
“How on earth is this fantastic? He’s a narrow minded, arrogant prick who’s responsible for punishing lake-elves.”
She frowns back at me. “He was your childhood best friend.”
“Yeah, until he turned into a traitor. He used to love the lake-elves as much as I do, before he became greedy for power.”
“Autumn, how many times have I encouraged you to let go of that grudge?”
“And how many times have I told you, that will never happen! He broke our vow. It was his choice to betray me.”
River floats to the lake bank. She tucks a loose strand of my hair behind my ear as she sets me down.
“Have you ever asked him why he accepted the position?”
“Why does it sound like you’re defending him? You’re acting like he’s the good guy. Doesn’t the punishment he serves on the lake-elves bother you?”
She gives a slight shrug and lays down on the shore bank.
“Beats the knuckleheads getting killed.”
River doesn’t agree with her people stealing our crops any more than I agree with my father refusing to share them. That’s another reason I know my mother is wrong. She assumes that all lake-elves are irresponsible and selfish, but I know better.
And River isn’t the only one trying to change her people. Her entire generation is onboard with her views. It’s kind of weird and interesting at the same time to watch the younger generation display more responsibility than the older generations. Yet that’s exactly the way it is with the lake-elves.
“Maybe it does, but that doesn’t make Aaron a suitable husband prospect.”
“You’d rather marry a son from the mines?” she asks.
I scrunch up my nose. “Ewww, that’s a wretched thought. They don’t have a clue what personal hygiene is.”
“Well then, Aaron doesn’t seem so bad to me. Plus, he’s hot, so that’s a bonus.”
“Oh, I see how it is. You just want me to marry him so that I’ll share him with you.”
I throw a fist full of grass at her.
She rolls on her side and props her head up with her hand.
“Well, they say that in marriage what’s yours is mine, and mine is yours. Since I’m yours, logic dictates that if you marry him, then I’ll be his too. I’m okay with that.” She grins.
“You’re terrible,” I say and chuckle.
“Which is why you love me.” She lowers her mouth to mine, instantly causing my tummy to stir.
I push myself off the ground to roll her on to her back as I straddle her waist.
“Mmmm, feeling feisty today?”
“Preventing you from causing anymore distractions.”
She twists her mouth to the side. “You sure about that?”
I swat her hand as I feel it creep up the back of my thigh.
“Yes, I’m sure. This is important, River. The thought of having to marry Aaron turns my blood cold.”
“But why? It’s not like we didn’t know that you’d have to marry for some kind of alliance, eventually.”
“I know. Though I didn’t expect it to happen so soon. But besides that, I guess I had hoped for a better match.”
“Like who? You got your eye on one the lake sons that I don’t know about?”
I roll my eyes. “No, I don’t mean like that. I just mean that Aaron has come to represent everything I hate about our old ways. Not to mention that I despise him for betraying me. The thought of having to align with him doesn’t feel right.”
“I think you should try spending some more time with him. You might be surprised.”
“You sound like my mother.”
“Maybe she’s right.”
“What do you guys know about him that I don’t? You’re both so convinced that I’m judging him unfairly.”
“Look, I’m just saying that there are worse matches. Aaron shows compassion, and that gives me peace of mind that he’ll treat you right. I think you should give him a chance. Will you do that? For me?”
“When you put it that way, how am I supposed to refuse?”
In one swift move, she wraps her hand around my waist and reverses our positions. Only she’s better at this and has the forethought to pin my wrists to the ground to prevent me from interfering.
As she lowers her head towards me, my back arches in anticipation.
The bells sound and the pit of my stomach drops. Why do they have to announce court sessions so obnoxiously? No one should look forward to the delivery of punishment on the lake-elves caught stealing.
The lake-elves had celebrated the announcement of my marriage to Aaron as though it was the dawning of a new day.
In their inebriated state, more than normal raided our crops, taking more than they could manage, and most of them got caught.
Do they not understand the reason for this marriage alliance?
The wedding hasn’t even taken place and they’re acting like I’ve already managed to lobby Aaron for the removal of the borders.
Not to mention that it’s not even his direct decision. Father is the one who insists on keeping the borders locked down.
“I want to come with you,” I say to Aaron from the doorway of his room.
He turns to look at me, his eyes clouded with an emotion I don’t understand.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” he asks.
“If I’m expected to marry you to form an alliance, that I don’t agree with, I want to know exactly what I’m getting into.”
“I think it would be better to wait until after the wedding. There are things I need to explain to you.”
“So explain,” I say. “No one’s stopping you.”
He sits on the end of his bed.
“Autumn, I’ve told you before that it’s complicated. I need you to trust me.”
I scoff. “Right. Trust. As if you even understand the meaning of the word.”
He shakes his head. “You’re so damned stubborn. Why won’t you believe in me? We promised to always have each other’s back; no matter what.”
My eyes widen. “Are you freaking kidding me? Not only did you break our vow to protect the lake-elves, but you betrayed our friendship. Yet you want me to ‘have your back’? To believe in you when you represent everything that I despise? You really are delusional.”
He stands up abruptly. “You’re not coming with me. Not until after the wedding and I can properly explain everything.”
He brushes past me.
“Have you really become that monstrous that you’re afraid I’ll jeopardize the trade agreement by not marrying you if I know the truth?”
He stops without turning to face me. “If you still despise me after the wedding, I’ll have the marriage annulled.”
He walks away without another word, leaving me thoroughly confused. Why would he offer that? If he did that, they’d strip him of his position completely and likely exile him.
“Even for a marriage of alliance, a bride should be smiling on her wedding day, Autumn.” Mother’s voice cuts through my thoughts.
“Drop the pretenses, Mother. I’m not happy about this marriage and we both know it.”
Mother sighs. “You could have at least made an effort to learn more about him.”
“I know all I need to know about Aaron the warrior. Now can we please just get this over with?”
I haven’t told Mother about Aaron’s offer for an annulment and honestly, it’s the only thing that convinced me to go through with this.
Despite the efforts of both Mother and River to convince me to give him a chance, they can’t possibly know how deep the wound is of his betrayal.
Granted, I can’t know for sure that he’ll honor the offer, but my intuition tells me he meant it. If I’m honest with myself, I want to know why.
Marriage in our kingdom is a contract. It’s not about love or even friendship. It’s about which alliance provides the most benefit to all parties involved. To break such an alliance could cause a full-blown war.
In Aaron’s case, if he breaks this alliance it will likely result in him being exiled for no other reason than the fact that the mountain-elves could wipe out the forest-elves with very little effort. It’s the whole reason my father feels the need for this alliance.
Since he’d be the one breaking the alliance, the mountain-elves would feel dishonorable about going to war against the forest-elves, leaving them no choice but to exile Aaron in order to salvage their honor.
More stupidity, in my opinion. But hey, getting Aaron exiled feels like just retribution in my books. It’s more than he deserves.
The fact that he even offered an annulment speaks volumes for the level of arrogance that he has risen to.
“I’m still disappointed that you wouldn’t agree to a proper celebration,” Mother says, cutting into my thoughts. “Whether you’re pleased about this marriage or not, our people deserve to celebrate it.”
“This is not something to celebrated. It’s simply another day of court business.”
Mother sighs and holds the door open for me.
Aaron has the audacity to smile at me as I approach the makeshift alter.
I glare at him and am satisfied to see the light fade from eyes.
The priest glances between us uncomfortably. “Shall we proceed?”
I look at him. “With the bare minimum that is necessary.”
He turns to my father for approval, who gives a single nod.
The matter is over in less than ten minutes.
I turn to Aaron. “Shall we?”
He raises an eyebrow. “Right now?”
“No time like the present.” I turn and leave the room without having said a word to my parents. I’m as angry at them for this charade as I am with Aaron.
I made Aaron agree to leave the latest punishment of the lake-elves until after our wedding. He promised that once we were wed he would explain everything, and that’s exactly what he’s going to do; I made sure of it.
“Autumn,” Aaron says, having already fallen in step beside me, “after the punishment is delivered, go to River.”
I spin to face him. I’ve never spoken of River to him. My relationship with her bloomed after his betrayal.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Don’t ask questions. Just promise. Immediately go to River.” He searches my eyes. The level of earnestness coming from him is unsettling.
“Autumn? Promise me.”
I stalk away from him. “Fine.”
I’ve never witnessed the delivery of punishment before. At first it was because I couldn’t bring myself to attend. Later, it was because I was forbidden to attend. It’s not something I was eager to witness, so I never really pressed the matter, despite how much being forbidden anything irked me.
But it is every bit as heart wrenching as I imagined it would be.
The magic used to extract an elf’s life force is old and powerful. I’m still stumped on how Aaron learned it. It’s clearly painful, based on the screams; and the withered old men left in place of the young vibrant men they started out as is devastating.
I take back my earlier opinion that I would take this over death. Father was right. This is a fate worse than death, for any elf.
I’m relieved that there are only three lake-elves to punish today. I barely hold it together for that long.
I turn to face Aaron, my words sound more like a hiss. “My worst nightmares don’t shed a light to the monster you’ve become.”
He clenches his jaw. “You made a promise. Go.”
I spit at his feet and storm out of the court chamber.
Whether I’d promised him or not, River is the only elf I want to be around right now, and I can’t get to her fast enough.
“River! River! Where are you?” I yell across the lake as I run, tripping into the lake. Tears streaming down my face.
She emerges in front of me. “Shhhh, I’m here. It’s okay now.”
“Oh River, it was awful! I am so sorry that my father, and now my husband, are the cause of such torture to your people. Aaron will request an annulment if it’s the last thing I do. He will get exiled; if I don’t kill him first.”
River holds me while I sob.
“Shhh, my love. Come with me. Everything will be better now.”
“What do you mean? Where are we going?”
She doesn’t answer my questions as she leads me through her lands.
“Sit here, my love,” she says and strokes my hair. “All will be well, I promise.”
“What are you talking…” The words catch in my throat as I watch the three withered old elves enter the meadow. They can barely walk and another sob escapes me as I cover my mouth.
River approaches them and removes a corded pouch from around her neck.
The old elves kneel before her as she sprinkles some kind of powder over their heads while chanting.
My eyes widen as the skin of the old elves becomes smooth once again. Their hair returns to the color of their youth.
“But how?” I whisper.
“Death cannot be reversed, Autumn,” Aaron says from behind me.
I jump to my feet and spin to face him. Without pausing to think I slap him across the face.
“I deserved that,” is all he says.
My hands fly to my mouth when I realize what I’d done.
“How could you let me believe all those horrible things I said to you?” My voice is barely audible.
“I told you, I had no choice. Unless you were bonded to me by marriage, you could not be aware of this.”
“Shit Aaron, you could have warned us how much that would frigging hurt!” One of the recovered elves calls over to him.
He smirks at them. “Now where would the fun be in that Rhys?”
Rhys scoffs. “Sadistic bastard.”
Aaron’s face grows more serious. “I’m sorry that you three ended up getting caught, you were some of our best raiders. But for the love of the Universe, this has to be the end of your raiding days. It’s time to pass the torch now.”
The men grumble.
“I mean it. That magic can only be reversed once and if you’re caught again I will have no choice but to make the process permanent.”
“Yeah, yeah. We know. But hey, now that you two are married, we can start to see some real changes around here!”
The other men cheer.
I watch the interaction in stunned silence.
“Don’t get ahead of things. We still have a long road ahead of us, and the real changes won’t likely happen until after our father’s either step down or pass away. While we want to see the kingdom changes through, neither of us are in a hurry to lose our father’s either. You must have patience.”
“Aaron, you’ve never once failed us, we can hang in there for another century if need be.”
I sink to the ground with a sob at the realization of what I’ve just witnessed.
River sits next to me, gently pulling me into an embrace.
“I’m so sorry my love. The number of times I wanted to tell you the truth. It tore me apart knowing how hurt you were by Aaron’s perceived betrayal.”
I’m numb from the shock. My heart races and my stomach rolls as I shift between anger and shame.
How could the two people I was closest to lie to me on the scale that these two had?
But worse, how could I betray Aaron beyond any level that I had ever accused him of?
Our vow to each other was to protect the lake-elves at all costs and to have each other’s backs no matter what.
No. Matter. What.
We never once vowed never to keep secrets from each other. Or that our efforts would always be done together.
Aaron sprawls out on the grass in front of us and watches me.
The shame coursing through me prevents me from meeting his intense gaze.
“How can you ever forgive me?” I whisper.
“Does that mean you don’t want the annulment?” He asks with a tease in his voice.
That causes me to look at him.
“How can you joke about this?”
“My humor, and Tamir’s company, are the only things that’ve kept me sane for half a century.”
Tears spill down my cheeks again as I recall the awful way I treated him, the horrible things I’ve said to him.
“Autumn, words can’t begin to express how truly sorry I am for the torture you’ve had to go through. I had no choice but to let you believe that I had betrayed you.”
I shake my head.
“I’m the one who will never deserve your forgiveness. I am so sorry, Aaron.”
River strokes my hair and kisses my temple.
“Frankly Autumn, I wouldn’t love you as much as I do if you had reacted any differently to what you believed was the betrayal of a sacred vow. It’s your fierce loyalty and sense or morality that makes you shine and why our kingdoms are all destined for greatness under your leadership.”
Aaron tips his head towards River. “What she said.”
I hold Aaron’s gaze and my heart swells knowing that we really will be okay.
“No. Matter. What.” We both say in unison.
“I will never again forget or doubt,” I whisper.
Mother takes my necklace off the dresser to place it around my neck.
“What in the Universe changed your mind, child?”
I smile at her reflection in the mirror.
“Suffice it to say that you were right, Mother. Again.”
She squeezes my shoulders and kisses my cheek. She well knows that my secrets now are for my husband alone, and she doesn’t press the matter.
The ceremony stage is breathtaking. As I walk down the aisle created between two rows of trees, their boughs arched to create a canopy above, my breath catches in my throat.
There’s no seating, as every elf in the kingdom is present, crowded on either side of the aisle or sitting high in the surrounding trees.
It overjoyed them when they learned that I’d had a change of heart about sharing my wedding celebration with them.
Cherry blossom petals sprinkle down on me and I look up to see elflings smiling and giggling as they release the petals from above.
The sun shines brightly, peeking through the tree branches, causing everything to sparkle.
As much as I wish River could be here to celebrate with us, I find peace in knowing that the days of change are coming.
I hesitate in my step to drink in Aaron’s smile and how truly magnificent he is.
Waiting for me at the end of the aisle is the boy I cherished from my childhood, the warrior I had grown to despise, and the man who fills my heart with respect that no words can describe.
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