After we leave Susanik, we cross the cold desert between the two forks in the mountain range. We make the journey as quickly as we can to escape this desolate landscape. You’re happy when we reach the other side, though we have mountains barring our way now.
We stop for the night, so we can rest before traversing the final leg of our journey on Linea. While we sit around the fire, I tell you a story to help take your mind off your weariness.
* * * * *
Marseli hiked through the woods near her hometown of Aria. She had just begun an apprenticeship with one of the local poets, and her master had assigned her the task of writing a poem each day. While Marseli loved writing poetry, she wasn’t sure how she was going to write that many poems. Her master had encouraged her to take inspiration from nature.
Marseli wanted to find a quiet spot where she could observe more than just plants. She hoped a nearby pool of water would be the ideal location for spotting wildlife. The stream that fed the pool gurgled nearby.
The water was crystal clear, and there were smooth pebbles lining the bottom. Small fish darted around, catching bugs that landed on the surface. Marseli found a nice perch near the bank and observed her surroundings for a while.
When she was finally ready to start her poem, she reached into her pocket to get her paper and pen. While she found her paper easily enough, her pen had worked its way to the very bottom of her pocket. She couldn’t reach it in this position, so she stood up slightly and tried to fish it out. As she did so, she lost her balance and fell backward into the water.
Marseli’s skin burned and she hurriedly stroked to the surface. Her lungs hurt, and she had trouble getting enough air for a few seconds. She was so cold, she almost didn’t notice someone tugging on her cloak.
A man hauled her out of the water. She blinked moisture from her eyes, so she could see him better, and gasped. He had pale skin and dark hair and eyes. He had to be a mellowmira.
She tried to summon fire, but her hands were wet, and she couldn’t grab hold of the flames. They just turned to smoke.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” the man said. “Here.” He removed his cloak and handed it to her.
Marseli took it, exchanging it for her wet one. The man took hers and hung it from a tree branch. Then he set about gathering fallen branches and dried grasses, which he arranged into a pile and ringed with rocks. Marseli dried her hands on his cloak and was able to light the fire with a flick of her wrist. She sat near the warmth and wished she would dry faster. She didn’t like being around the man. She had heard too many stories of mellowmiran men abducting elvirian women and making them their wives.
He sat across the fire from her. “What are you doing out in the woods all by yourself?”
“I was supposed to be writing a poem,” Marseli said. “I lost my paper in the water.”
“You need to come out here to write poetry?”
“My master wants me to get inspiration from nature.”
“You’re an apprentice.”
“Yes.” Marseli wished he’d leave her alone.
“You’re lucky I happened to be walking nearby. That water’s freezing.”
“I can take care of myself.”
The man shook his head, a smile tugging at his lips. “You elvira women sure are different. Mellowmiran women don’t have one bit of independence in them.”
“They are independent, but they’re forced to hide it to conform to your misogynistic ways.”
“Hey, I’m just a carpenter. I never learned what those big words mean.”
Marseli raised an eyebrow. “Are you serious? You don’t know what misogynistic means?”
“No, I don’t.”
Now Marseli shook her head. “No wonder your society has problems.” Marseli wasn’t drying very quickly, so she reached out to the fire and increased its temperature. It now burned a dark blue.
“It suits you,” the man said. “Fire. It matches your personality.”
“You barely know me.”
“I know you enough to tell you’re fiery.”
Marseli didn’t respond to that comment. They sat in silence after that. Marseli felt herself slowly drying off.
It was getting dark by the time Marseli felt comfortable enough to go home. She stood and removed the cloak, holding it out to the man. He took it, and his fingers brushed hers. Marseli left without saying anything to him.
When she got home, her parents were eating their evening meal.
“How was it?” her father asked.
“It was nice,” Marseli said.
“Did you get a poem written?”
“Yes.” She didn’t tell him it was in her head and not on paper.
“Good. Jeralean had me do the same thing when I was her apprentice, and it helped me a lot. I’m glad it’s helping you already.”
“I can’t wait to go back,” Marseli said, forcing a smile.
* * * * *
Marseli dreamed of the man that night. He was standing by the pool of water waiting for her. They sat together, and he watched her write her poem. When she finished, they talked and wandered through the trees together. She dreamed several variations of these interactions. Some were in summer. Some were winter. When Marseli woke, it was clear to her that their meeting that day was the beginning of something more.
* * * * *
Marseli returned to the woods, and the man was waiting for her. This continued almost every day. Marseli found herself spending less time in the forest when he wasn’t there. She would hurry home and hope that he’d be there the next day. When winter neared, Marseli’s trips became less frequent, and she saw him less and less.
Today she happened to see him. It was cold, and she was bundled up in her cloak and warm boots. They weren’t enough to fight the chill, so the man built a fire for Marseli to light.
“I have to stop seeing you during the winter season,” the man said. “I have to work more, so I can make more money. Food prices always go up this time of year.”
Marseli had heard about how difficult it was for mellowmira to obtain food in the winter. Starvation was a fairly common occurrence. Marseli wasn’t sure how she felt about this. She had grown rather fond of his visits. “I could bring you food, if you want.”
He tilted his head to the side. “You would do that for me?”
“If it means you’ll come see me.”
“Do you really mean that?”
He moved closer to Marseli, and her heartbeat quickened. He placed a hand on the side of her face. His touch was warm, but she also wasn’t sure she was ready for it. She turned her face away and looked at the ground.
“I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced,” she said. “My name is Marseli.”
“Fedrik. I look forward to seeing you again tomorrow, Marseli.”
* * * * *
Fedrik and Marseli met in the woods a couple times a week during the cold months and every day during the warmer ones. Marseli would hurriedly write her poems, so she could spend most of her time talking with Fedrik.
Her continued visits with him significantly altered her poetry, and her mentor noticed. She and Marseli met once a week to go over Marseli’s poems. This time Jeralean got straight to the point.
“The change in your poems’ subjects is obvious. Are you seeing someone? Is that why you’re writing love poems now?”
Marseli blushed and looked at her lap. “I’m not seeing anyone.”
“If you want to write these kinds of things, maybe you should.”
“I’m too young to be doing any such thing. I won’t be an adult for another ten years.”
Jeralean shrugged. “That doesn’t mean you can’t see someone.”
Marseli stood up. “I’ll go back to writing about nature. Don’t bring this up again.”
* * * * *
Marseli wrote exclusively about nature after that, and Jeralean didn’t bring up the subject again. Marseli still continued to see Fedrik nearly every day.
Jeralean was right about one thing: Marseli’s poems were reflecting her feelings toward Fedrik. While they weren’t officially courting—she was far too young for that—she couldn’t deny that she was falling in love with him.
She wanted to talk to her mother about it, but she knew she couldn’t. Romantic affairs between mellowmiras and elviras were unheard of. They may as well be forbidden. She didn’t want to give off any indication that something happened every time she left home to write her poetry. She couldn’t let anyone find out. They would kill Fedrik on sight.
* * * * *
Two years after their initial visit, Marseli and Fedrik continued to maintain their daily meetings. They sat together on the bank of a small stream, their bare feet in the cold water. Marseli rested her head on Fedrik’s shoulder.
“Are these meetings going to continue forever?” Marseli asked. “Are we going to be able to maintain this for the rest of our lives?”
Fedrik shifted so he could see Marseli’s face. “Do you want to continue meeting?”
Fedrik pulled away, a look of confusion on his face.
“I want something more than this,” Marseli said.
“What do you mean?”
“I want more than stolen moments in the woods. I want a true relationship.”
“We can’t have that, can we? Our families and neighbors would never allow such a thing.”
Marseli stood up. “Why do we have to be on opposite sides of the war? Why can’t we love whomever we want and be with them?”
“Is that truly what you want?” Fedrik asked. “To be with me?”
Fedrik was silent a moment. “There’s a way to make that happen, but you’d have to sacrifice everything: your apprenticeship, your friends, your family, your life as an elvira. You’d have to leave that all behind. You need to be certain that’s what you want.”
Marseli knew what he was thinking. It was the only way. “I need time to think about it. Meet me here in three days, and I’ll tell you what I’ve decided.”
Marseli went home and ate with her family. She was unusually quiet during the meal. Her parents exchanged glances several times.
After they finished, Marseli’s mother pulled her aside. “Is everything alright? Did something happen?”
Marseli smiled. “I’m fine. I’m just tired.”
“Then maybe you should get some sleep.”
Marseli lay in her hammock, but she couldn’t sleep. She had too much to think about. Was she really willing to sacrifice everything to be with Fedrik? Could she really do this? She would never see her family again if she did.
She loved her family, but she also loved Fedrik. She hated that she had to choose between them. She didn’t want her future to be full of sneaking off into the woods to see Fedrik and hiding her feelings from her family. While she loved her family, she didn’t spend much time with them. Her father was too occupied with his poetry, and her mother was often working, too, as healers were always in high demand.
She needed advice from someone, but who would understand?
* * * * *
Marseli went to her grandparents’ home the next day and asked her grandmother if they could go on a walk. As they strolled along the riverbank, Marseli thought about how to approach her.
“What’s on your mind?” her grandmother asked. “You’re too quiet.”
“I’ve met someone.”
“What’s the hitch?”
Marseli took a deep breath. “He’s a mellowmira.”
Her grandmother was silent for a moment. Then she nodded. “I see. That does complicate things.”
“We’ve been seeing each other for two years. I know I’m not an adult, but I know what I feel, and I love him.”
Her grandmother nodded again. “What do you want to do about it?”
“I want to be with him.”
“I see. And you don’t know if you’re willing to give up everything else.”
“Yes.” Marseli looked at her grandmother. “What advice do you have?”
“It is your choice that you must make for yourself, not others. Do what you want, and others will have to be at peace with your decision.”
Marseli nodded and then hugged her grandmother. “Thank you.”
Her grandmother hugged her back. “I have something for you. I was going to give it to you when you were older, but given the circumstances, perhaps I should do it now.” She lifted off her necklace and handed it to Marseli.
Marseli took it. Her grandmother had worn this necklace for as long as she could remember. The pendant was in the shape of a fish, and in the center was a dark blue gemstone. Marseli put it on and embraced her grandmother again. “I will never forget you.”
* * * * *
When the three days were over, Marseli put on her favorite outfit, her cloak, and her grandmother’s necklace; and she went into the forest.
Fedrik was sitting on a log waiting for her. He stood up when she arrived. Marseli walked up to him and embraced him. He hugged her back, and she pressed her face into his chest.
“I can’t tell if you just missed me or if this is goodbye.”
“It’s not goodbye. I can’t say goodbye.”
Fedrik inhaled sharply. “You’re sure?”
Marseli nodded and blinked back the tears. She was sure, but that didn’t make this easy.
Fedrik let out the breath he was holding. “Are you coming now? Are you ready for this?”
“I can’t go back now.”
“Okay. We can walk together until we get close to town.”
Marseli nodded. They were both quiet while they walked through the trees. Fedrik led the way to his hometown.
Marseli was surprised by how far away it was. She thought Cosimia was closer than this, but she didn’t say anything to Fedrik. If this was an elaborately planned trap, it was too late for her now. And at this point, she didn’t care.
Fedrik stopped. “We’re almost there.”
Marseli took a deep breath. This was the ultimate point of no return. “What now?”
“Cover yourself up with your cloak. I’m going to put you over my shoulder, and you need to pretend to be unconscious.”
Marseli’s heart hammered in her chest. Was she really doing this? She raised her hood and covered her face. Fedrik lifted her up and draped her across his shoulder. Marseli focused on being limp, keeping her eyes closed, and keeping her breathing slow and steady. Fedrik walked for several minutes. Marseli wanted to open her eyes and see what was happening, but she didn’t.
Then she heard voices, animal noises, and other sounds. They must be in Cosimia now. Fedrik stopped, and she heard a clinking sound. He took a few steps, made the clinking sound again, and then continued walking. She could tell when he reached the staircase because she was tilted at an angle. He gently laid her down on something soft.
“You can open your eyes now,” Fedrik said.
Marseli did so and saw she was lying on a large bed in a stone room. Fedrik was sitting beside her.
“I hope you haven’t changed your mind,” he said.
She shook her head. “It will take me a while to adjust, but no, I haven’t changed my mind.”
“I’m glad because it’s too late to go back now.”
Marseli sat up, and Fedrik wrapped his arms around her. She nestled her head on his shoulder. “I can’t believe I’m doing this. When I first met you two years ago, I was terrified you were going to abduct me and make me your wife.”
“It would seem your fears were valid.”
“But I’m not afraid anymore. I chose this because I want it.”
Fedrik pulled her closer. “And now we can be wed.”
* * * * *
Fedrik and Marseli were married a week later. Marseli did have a difficult time adjusting to life on the other side of the border, but she embraced it. She was happy being with Fedrik. As far as anyone knows, she is the only elvirian woman to willingly choose a life with the mellowmira.