Chapter 1: Freedom or The End of the World
Every night at midnight, the purple clouds came out to dance with the blushing sky.
Avery tilted her head to get a better view of the swirling world above her. Her long violet hair reflected the colors that rippled overhead. She casually glanced at the sparkling stars which signified her impending and rapidly-approaching doom.
She laid back and rested against Maura, her Cwn Annwn protector. Maura may have appeared in the form of an oversized canine (complete with white, wooly fur and pointed red ears) but she was more intelligent than most of the supposedly ‘advanced’ beings Avery frequently found herself in the unfortunate company of. Almost all of her elocution trainers and music tutors and dance teachers pretended to care about her, but Avery knew the thinly-veiled, unspoken truth.
They only wanted her for her body.
She actually didn’t mind the dance lessons–in fact, her favorite dance teacher was one of her best (and only) friends. In a few short weeks though, none of it would matter. Soon, she wouldn’t feel anything for the people she cared about or the things she loved. She would forget almost everything about the nearly 18 years she’d spent on this earth in order to fulfill her dreaded destiny.
“But I’ll never forget you, my marvelous Maura,” Avery said out loud as she scratched behind her companion’s ear.
“Hello! What did you say?”
Avery jumped as her entire body tensed. She felt frozen as a face appeared above her and shadowed her view of the deadly stars. In the dim light, she had a vague sense of a halo of curly hair around a tanned face and the reflection of round, gold-rimmed glasses.
“I’m Henry. Who are you?”
“Avery. Are you…human?” Avery asked, noticing the exotic, rounded ears poking through Henry’s hair.
“Yeah! You’re an elf, right?”
“Yes,” Avery sat up and tucked an errant strand of hair behind a long, pointed ear.
Avery had always moved with an inherent grace, but suddenly her long, limber limbs seemed awkward and gawky. She stood and felt as though she towered over Henry, who struck an easy, relaxed stance. The human girl was curvy and soft in a way Avery could never achieve, and she wanted to draw constellations in the scattering of freckles that adorned Henry's sweet, round face. Avery’s chest constricted as she stared at the other girl.
“Is it okay that I’m here? I mean, I know this is an elf neighborhood, but I didn’t think…”
“It’s totally fine that you’re here!” Avery hastily blurted.
“Oh okay, cool,” Henry said, nodding.
“Can I ask…why are you here?” Avery asked, gesturing to the field they stood in. She always came to the field to get away from everyone, but suddenly she didn’t mind the company.
“I ran away from home. My mom’s boyfriend…I didn’t like the way he looked at me. As soon as he moved in, I didn’t feel like there was…room for me anymore. I had to get out.”
Avery nodded as though she understood (which maybe she did, though not in the way Henry might have guessed).
“I’m…sorry you went through that. My parents have a spare bedroom, I could ask if you can stay with us…”
“Oh no, please, I really don’t want to impose or anything. Besides, it’s a nice night. I want to sleep under the stars,” Henry looked up at the sky as she said this, and Avery couldn’t stop staring at her neck. She wanted to put her lips on the sensitive, exposed skin there, to know how she tasted...
“Stay as long as you like,” Avery said, and she could feel herself smiling.
“Thanks,” Henry kept looking up as she set her backpack down, “It really is beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Avery agreed, still gazing at Henry, “Can I get you anything?”
“I’m alright, thank you,” Henry said as she unbuckled a sleeping bag from her backpack and rolled it out.
“Okay. I…should get home, but it’s just over there if you need anything.”
“Thank you,” Henry finally tore her eyes from the sky and looked at Avery, “Wow, you’re gorgeous!”
“OH I, uh…thank you…” Avery felt her face grow hot, and glanced down, suddenly unable to meet Henry’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, I hope that’s okay to say. I mean…people probably tell you that all the time, I guess…”
“No, it’s okay! I mean, thank you, really,” Avery smiled at Henry. Henry smiled back with a casual cool that Avery both admired and envied.
“Goodnight then, Avery. I hope you have sweet dreams,” Henry beamed at Avery before settling into her sleeping bag. Avery resisted the urge to jump in with her.
“Goodnight, Henry. Sleep well,” Avery reluctantly turned and headed home, with Maura trailing close behind.
Avery found it impossible to pay attention to any of her lessons the following day. She fumbled her lute and stuttered through her vocal exercises. She experienced a secret thrill as she imagined Henry watching her during dance class.
“You move like a woman in love,” commented Shian, her favorite instructor. Avery stumbled, uncharacteristically.
“Have you met someone, my dove?” Shian asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” Avery replied.
“Oh, but it does! Everything matters, Avery!”
“What’s the point, Shian?” Avery said, tears pricking the edges of her eyes, “In a couple of weeks, everything I am will be replaced.”
“None of us knows when we will end, my flower. Everyone dies eventually. We are all just here on borrowed time.”
“Yeah, some more than others,” Avery replied, angrily wiping her eyes.
“I know. I wish I could change that for you. I know you’ve tried so hard not to form bonds, but you can’t help it. You care too much, you feel everything so deeply, and I love you very much. That won’t change, ever.”
“I love you, too, Shian. You and Maura have been the best friends I could have asked for. It’s just hard to find the good in all this.”
“I know. Is this your last class of the day?”
“Why don’t we end early? You clearly need a rest,” Shian said and winked at her.
“Oh, thank you, Shian!” Avery hugged the taller man, and he returned her embrace.
“Go live your life, Avery,” Shian said, his dark eyes twinkling as he smiled.
“I will! Thank you again,” Avery said as she ran out the door.
Avery practically sprinted all the way to the field, hoping against hope that Henry was still there. Not only was Henry there, but she’d actually set up camp in the field–she had a small tent and was using a portable stove to cook a can of something.
“Hi!” Avery said, stopping to catch her breath.
“Hey! Do you want to share some beans with me?” Henry asked, “I think they’re just about cooked through.”
“Oh! Are you sure?” Avery responded, torn. She didn’t want to take the other girl’s food, but she also didn’t want to insult her by turning her down. Either way, she just wanted to spend some time with Henry.
“Of course! It’s not much, but they’re good! I stole some herbs from the kitchen before I left home. You can make anything taste gourmet with the right spices!”
“Okay!” Avery sat across from Henry, stealing glances at the human girl as much as she could without being completely obvious.
“So, you live in that big house right over there?” Henry said, gesturing to Avery’s sprawling family home.
“Yep, that’s my house,” Avery replied.
“Your place is really nice. It almost looks like a castle,” Henry said as she added a few more spices to the beans (the smell was becoming more fragrant, making Avery’s mouth water).
“Yeah, it’s pretty ridiculous. It’s way more room than we need,” Avery responded.
“What are you, a princess or something?” Henry’s mouth quirked in a playful half-smile.
“Actually, I sort of am, unfortunately,” Avery replied, her voice laced with regret.
“Wait, what? Are you serious?” Henry said, the smile dropping from her face.
“I’m the Princess of this realm, chosen by the current Queen to carry on her heritage. I’m supposed to take over my role when I turn 18 in a few weeks.”
“Holy crap! I mean…sorry, your highness…” Henry trailed off, embarrassed.
“No no, it’s not…you don’t have to treat me differently or anything.”
“That’s…that’s a lot of responsibility for an 18-year-old. Do you think you’re ready? I mean, I know I just met you, but that doesn’t seem fair. Do you get to live your own life at all?”
“Well, it won’t be me taking over. The spirit of the current Queen will inhabit my body and will continue to rule for another hundred years. Along with her memories, I'll gain the memories of all the other queens that have come before. They'll pass all of their knowledge, wisdom, and experience on to me,” Avery said.
“Oh, my gods. That’s horrible! That’s like…” Henry seemed at a loss for words.
“Like I’m dying? Yeah, that’s how I’ve felt my entire life–or at least, ever since I was old enough to understand. It’s supposed to be some great honor, but I’ve lived in dread of my 18th birthday for…I don’t know how long.”
“Well, can’t you…stop it? Opt out or something?”
“Not really,” Avery laughed, bitterly, “The Queen is ready to retire–she’s ruled for so long, she deserves a break.”
“It’s not fair to you, though. You deserve to live! It’s…it’s inhumane!”
“Well, we’re not human, so I guess the council isn’t really worried about being ‘humane.’ It’s also what my people have been doing for thousands of years. It’s ‘tradition,’” Avery rolled her eyes, “I can’t turn it down. It would be a disaster for my people.”
“Screw your people,” Henry’s eyes became intense, and she grabbed Avery’s hands, “Come with me. Run away with me.”
“Where would we go?” Avery scoffed, “There’s nowhere in the world they wouldn’t find me.”
“We could…we could go to the mountains! Live with the dwarves, they don’t give a damn about elf politics! In fact, they’d probably happily hide you from your people!”
“That…could work, actually…” Avery said, feeling excited for the first time in forever.
“We’ll change our names, become different people, start new lives together,” Henry gripped Avery’s hands, and Avery’s heart pounded in her chest.
“When can we leave?” Avery said, barely able to catch her breath.
“Tonight, at midnight, when the purple clouds come out. Grab anything you think you’ll need that’s easy to carry and meet me back here. I’ll be ready to go.”
“Why are you doing this for me? Do you have any idea how much trouble you could get into?”
“I don’t care,” Henry said, “You need help, and I am here to help you. Maybe it’s fate that brought me to this field, to you.”
“Maybe it is,” Avery replied, “You know, it’s funny, I've always hated my fate.”
“Then change it.”
“What about the beans?” Avery asked.
“Oh, the beans!” Henry let go of Avery’s hands and used a rag to take the beans off the burner. They enjoyed a quick meal together (that was also surprisingly delicious) before Avery headed home.
The light of the full moon filtered through the seething purple clouds and painted Avery’s street in a lovely lavender cast. She shouldered her backpack in one smooth motion and slipped out of her backyard. Maura padded silently behind, surprisingly stealthy for such a large canine. Maura clearly had concerns about Avery’s plans, but she wasn’t about to let her charge go out into the world alone.
They made their way to the field, where Henry was already packed and ready to go.
“I have a plan,” Henry said as Avery and Maura approached, “We’re going to take the train to the dwarves' mountains.”
“But…won’t we be seen?” Avery asked, concern edging her voice.
“Not a passenger train, a freight train. If we sneak on tonight, in the dark, after they’ve checked the cars, we can hide amongst the cargo.”
“Of course it is! All of this is dangerous, but it’s better than the alternative. Avery, you're reclaiming your life! It’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it, though. Do you want freedom? Or the end of the world?” Henry asked, matter-of-factly.
“Freedom,” Avery breathed the word like an option she never even knew she had.
“Alright, then. Do you trust me?” Henry asked.
“Yes,” said Avery.
“Then let’s go,” Henry offered her hand, and Avery took it. Together, they walked to the train yard, keeping in between the shadows and avoiding lighted windows.
“There, that’s the one headed West,” Henry said, pointing to a long line of train cars several yards away, “We should wait until the train starts moving, the inventory check should be done by then.”
“How do you know so much about trains?” Avery asked.
“My father worked on a train like this. He was gone for months at a time. He just…stopped coming home one day, stopped calling to check in with us. I don’t know what happened to him. That was five years ago.”
“I’m so sorry, Henry,” Avery said, putting her hand on Henry’s shoulder.
“It’s okay. To be honest, I barely knew him,” Henry replied.
“That’s even worse, though,” Avery said.
“I guess,” Henry said with a shrug, “What about you? What are your parents like?”
“Oh, you know, strict, over-protective, controlling. They were more worried about appearances than what was actually going on with me. I think they held me at arms’ length because they knew I wouldn’t always be myself, you know? They knew I wouldn’t need them anymore once I became Queen. They were always afraid of what might happen to me if I ever went out into the world.”
“That must have been hard for you.”
“Yeah, it sucked,” Avery looked up at the night sky as the clouds parted and she pointed, “See that star there? The bright, yellowish one? That’s the Elf Star. Once it aligns with the North Star, I’m supposed to become Queen.”
“They’re so close already,” Henry observed.
“Yep, they’ll align in three weeks. Which also happens to be my eighteenth birthday. That’s how I was chosen,” Avery said.
“Well, that’s not happening anymore. We’re getting you away from all of that,” Henry said, decisively.
“Oh! The train is moving!” Avery cried.
“Let’s go,” Henry said and started for the train. Avery followed, with Maura close at her heels.
Henry climbed into the open train car easily, and turned to hold out her hand to pull Avery on board. Maura leaped inside, and the three found a corner and settled in as the train picked up speed.
Avery awoke with a start, jostled by the movement of the train. She didn’t know what time it was or how many miles they’d traveled while they slept, entwined together in the corner of the car. In her sleep, Avery had wrapped her arms around Henry and buried her face in the other girl’s gold-brown curls (which smelled faintly of cinnamon and ginger). Avery sat up, her heart hammering in her chest, her lungs straining to get enough air.
“Oh, no. Oh, gods. What have I done?” Avery said between belabored breaths.
“Wha…Avery? Are you okay?” Henry said, squinting up at the elf.
“No, I… Henry, we have to go back,” Avery said as tears began to stream down her face.
“Why? What do you mean?” Henry sat up next to Avery, fully awake.
“I appreciate all you’ve done, all you’re doing for me, but I can’t. I can’t just walk out on my people, on the Queen. They need me,” Avery said between deep, gulping breaths.
“Okay, it’s okay, we can go back. We’ll just get off the next time the train stops and go back in the other direction. But Avery…what about you? What do you need?”
“I think this is what I needed. Someone like you, to show me the way out of my cage. You have been incredible, Henry, and I don’t know how I could ever thank you. But I can’t walk out on my responsibility.”
“Can I come with you?” Henry asked, tentatively.
“What do you mean?” Avery said, a sliver of hope in her chest.
“I know you have all this responsibility, and you’ll probably be too busy for a silly human girl, but…I really like you, Avery. I want to get to know you better, at least before…” Henry trailed off, unsure.
“Before I become someone else?” Avery offered.
“Yeah,” Henry replied.
“You know, there's a chance I might not be completely gone. I’ll be…different. I always assumed I would be lost amidst all those more important memories, so I never wanted to make any real connections–I didn’t see the point. But you make me feel alive for the first time. Like I matter. Maybe if you come with me, I'll be able to remember who I am.”
“I’d like that. I’d like to try, at least,” Henry replied.
“Okay. Next stop, we’ll go back the other way. And I will demand that my parents let you stay with us. They won’t have a choice, they need me!” Avery said, and her face broke into a mischievous grin.
“Sounds like a plan to me!” Henry said, matching Avery’s bright smile.
Unbeknownst to the teenagers, a pair of keen, twisted ears listened to their every word from the shadows…
About the Creator
She/They. Writer. Gardener. Cat-Lover. Nerd. Always looking up at the sky or down at the ground.
Profile photo by Román Anaya (https://www.roman-anaya.com/).
This was a beautiful story. Such a torn heart described wonderfully. Great job!