In all honesty, Matteo was not much of a morning fellow. If he had his way, he would sleep late into the morning, rousing once the sun had passed overhead.
That was not his fortune for this day, however.
There was a banging on the door to his personal chambers at the back of the Apothecary.
“Wake up, Matteo!” Abdi, the shop’s apprentice, yelled. “Time to rise.”
“Go piss up a hill!” Matteo yelled back. Even though Abdi was not at the door to the room where he slept, the knocking could be heard. It was still an irritant.
Abdi laughed but knocked on the door with three more sharp raps. “You were the one who told me to wake you. I am following orders!”
They were low of certain stores in the Apothecary, and there were some plants and herbs that were best picked at the break of dawn. Matteo could have sent Abdi, a fledgling mage, to do this job because he would have to learn. But despite his untoward feelings for waking up, it was a task Matteo did not mind once he was out and about doing it.
It was the getting out and about part that Matteo found difficult.
There were three more sharp raps. “Matteo!”
“I will ban you from this place!” Matteo yelled back but they both knew his threats were empty. He slowly lifted off the straw-filled bedroll and stood just as the tell-tale creak of the main entrance to his chambers opened. “I’m up!”
The door shut but he could hear Abdi’s laughter on the other side. “Then I won’t pour this bucket of cold water over your head!”
“I’ll curse you if you ever do,” Matteo said, but that was the emptiest threat of all and they both knew it.
Matteo stretched the tightness of sleep from his body, including extending his translucent green-tinged wings out to the side. They were not used often, usually folded against his back and hidden from prying eyes at the oddity under cloaks he tended to favour, but at times when he had privacy, he stretched them out for comfort’s sake.
Matteo splashed water onto his face from a fine meadow-green porcelain bowl with painted leaves and petals decorating it. It was one of the few family heirlooms rescued from his mother’s destroyed estate. He had no idea what else to use it for. He ran his fingers through his messy hair. It was shaggy, with flyaway locks falling across his forehead, and others hanging down over his rounded ears. He placed on his bycocket, a style of hat with a wide brim turned up in the back but pointed in the front, and would hold his hair in place.
Matteo pulled on his traveller’s cloak. He huffed to himself at the name—he was not allowed to be much of a traveller under his family’s curse—but that was what it was all the same.
He folded his translucent pale green wings against his back to pull the cloak over, buttoning it at the neck, and then pulled up the hood.
High elf wings and human rounded ears were not attributes that tended to be combined. And while he was rather proud—or at the very least, not ashamed—of either, he did hate being stared at when people realised he was half-human and half-elf. And half high elf to boot. Disguised, he could walk through the village and to the meadow and forest beyond and even if anyone was awake to see him, they would not be able to tell what he was.
Though all the villagers knew exactly who he was, and in that, what he was. There was not much point in hiding it any longer but one never knew who they may or may not come across. The region of Mitte did not attract many, especially not their little village of Moabit but those outsiders who did venture to it did not need to know of Matteo’s heritage, or his story; he hated answering the questions about it once they realized who he was.
It was a metaphorical curse of being literally cursed.
He slipped the strap of the satchel with empty vials clinking in the bottom over his head to sit across his shoulders. He made sure he had his pipe and his favourite leaf to smoke, and he was ready to be on his way.
He went into the front space of the building, which was the Apothecary. It had passed to Matteo through the paternal and human side of his family. He was all that was left, so now it was his.
“There you are, friend!” Abdi greeted. There were only two candles lit but he waved his hand and a third one lighted. In the dim light of the room, Abdi looked positively delighted. It was a new skill he had recently learned.
The wooden shelves of the shop were full of jars and vials and baskets containing animals parts and potions and plants. Some Matteo traded with the villagers for food or work he needed done. Others would be bought by those who came from the nearby city to purchase his product, which was rumoured to be better than any other in the region of Mitte. And some he kept in case of sudden illness and injury to villagers.
There was a light rap on the main door and Matteo peered out the dirty glass. He grinned to himself and opened it. “Hanna,” he greeted. “You are up too early.”
“I saw the light through the window,” said the Merchant’s daughter. She glanced around and noticed that he was only with Abdi. He could tell she tried not to let her face drop with sadness, instead keeping a bright if somewhat forced smile on her face.
“Is it only you two in here this early morning?” she asked.
“Jonas has not yet returned,” he said, grinning at her.
“Oh, I did not mean—”
“Yes you did,” Matteo said, hitching his satchel strap to rest more comfortably over his hidden wings.
“Oh, are you going into the forest?” She wrinkled her nose. “At this time of day?”
“It is a true miracle,” Abdi said. “Bless the Good Mother Above.”
“Bless the Good Mother Above,” Hanna said, the corner of her mouth tugging up in a grin.
“I am going to the meadow first,” Matteo said. It would not make a difference to their teasing, but he felt as though he should make that clear.
Her eyes brightened. “Would you care for some assistance?”
“I inquired first!” Abdi said immediately.
“You both stay here,” Matteo said, and they made noises of disappointment. “Abdi, if you would like to brew a Invigoration Draught, that would be much appreciated.”
“We are almost out of lovage,” Abdi said.
Matteo nodded. “I will find some today.” To Hanna he said, “I am certain he could use some assistance there. And there may be purchasers from the city today, it would be wonderful if you could assist.” Hanna did not have much to do when her father was away on his business other than maintain their home, for she was not permitted to travel with him, and she’d been making her way through the village trying to be of assistance to stave off her boredom, or hone skills of her own perhaps. Matteo enjoyed the days she helped at the Apothecary, for he hated dealing with people, and he always made sure to compensate her.
“Should I be offended?” Abdi ask, without sounding any of the sort. He turned to Hanna, “It’s an elf magic situation. Why he does not wish us to join him.”
“It is not,” Matteo lied. Neither of them appeared to believe him. He pointed at Abdi. “Do your job before I rid of you.”
“Matteo,” Hanna said, “that is not kind of you.”
“He threatens this daily,” Abdi said cheerfully. “I have no concern. Matteo, light is approaching.”
“I must go,” Matteo said. “Do not destroy my Apothecary.”
“Will do,” Abdi said. Then he frowned. “Or won’t do? You know what I mean.”
Hanna waved at him as Matteo slipped through the front door and quietly closed it behind him.
The blanket of sky cloaking the village in darkness was indeed getting lighter, the midnight black turning into a velvet blue. Matteo hurried down the central road of the village, most of the buildings still dark, and made his way to the meadow beyond.
Matteo did not spend much time in the meadow, thankfully finding the lovage and foxglove petals at exactly the right time. From there, he walked through the sunflower patch, and to the forest beyond.
The forest was dark and wild. Trees grew thick and spindly, with moss and mushrooms and a rainbow splash of coloured flowers amongst the brown bark and dark green leaves. The branches canopied overhead, like a high ceiling, and rays of sunlight broke through, casting a dim glow.
Apparently it had not always been that way. There were whispers in the village that it was Matteo’s birth and his presence that had made it grow so. He could not claim this nor could he say it was false. And he really didn’t care, either way.
He did know that, although he did not always spend a lot of time here sometimes because it was a burden on his heart, it did have a certain feeling of home.
Matteo waved his hand over the sneezewart plant and the white petals he needed fell silently to the forest floor, the main stem intact. He waved his hand back over it and little buds replaced the missing flowers. He smiled.
He stepped barefoot over the moss covered ground, his light cloth boots now stowed away in the satchel that was increasingly full along his walk. He had found most of what he needed, though he was missing some of the typha plant.
It grew near water. Matteo tilted his head and closed his eyes. He had no power over water, his skills more in tune with earthly magic, but when he put in an effort he could at the very least locate it. He knew this forest well, though the deeper he went into it, the even more thick and wild it became. It was important to pay attention to make his way around.
Smiling to himself, he walked amongst the tall, thick trees, entering the part of the forest that few villagers ever wandered too, and soon came across the creek. He followed it until he found a small patch of typha growing out of the creek bed on the far side, peeking up through some rocks.
Matteo put down the satchel and unclasped the cloak. Though the daylight was creeping into the forest, it was still damp and cool. Nonetheless, it would be easier to make his way without the weight of it.
His wings stretched out now free of the material. He rolled up the cuffs of his pants and then stepped across the rocks, using his wings to steady him and even lift him slightly so that his feet barely touched the rock tops.
He landed where he needed, and bent to pluck some of the typha. He waved his hand again and murmured a low incantation he’d learned from the travelling mage Hans two summers before. He hoped it was enough to replenish this bit of earth he’d taken.
Making his way back over the rocks, light and flitting, almost like a dance, he made one last jump and landed near his cloak. He laughed and smiled, feeling alight with the burst of energy.
“You could have flown across.”
Matteo was so startled he dropped the typha from his hand and spun around, trying to locate the voice. He had no idea there was another in the forest with him.
“Who said that?” he called out, and spun around again.
“I did not expect to see another of our kind here.”
Matteo spun around again, staring at a tree he’d just looked at. No one had been there a moment before, and now it was as if this figure had appeared out of nowhere.
A young man—no, a young elf—leaned his shoulder against one of the thick trees, his head tilted curiously. He had dark hair, thick with flyaway curls on the top but shorn short on the sides, his pointed ears on display. His brown eyes appeared to take in everything, watching Matteo intensely. His pink lips were pursed, bemused.
Matteo stared at him, not only out of confusion for seeing another elf in these woods, but also because he would find it hard to look away. He had not seen someone quite as handsome as this. Not even Jonas could compare.
When Matteo did not answer the elf, he pushed away from the tree to walk closer. It was then that Matteo saw the wings, blue-tinged, folded at his back, the tips just visible behind his knees.
Good Mother Above, not only was this another elf, but he was a high elf, with wings like that.
If it wasn’t the wings that revealed his status, it would have been the clothes that gave it away. The elf wore a black jacket with a deep rectangular neckline that revealed a graceful water-blue shirt worn beneath that matched the shade of his blue-tinged wings. He wore black breeches with a leather belt decorated in silver and blue stones, and soft black leather shoes that make no sound as he walked. There was a decorative ear clasp right near the point of his left ear, and a glint of a silver ring through the middle of his nose. It was a simple outfit, but one of the most finely made that Matteo had ever seen. Even Amira’s family did not carry cloth as fine as that.
Matteo paled in comparison. He wore a rustic light brown tunic with thin green thread in the design of leaves along the collar. A simple belt of rope was tied around his waist with an intricate knot, and dark brown loose pants with frayed hems that brushed against his ankles. Good Mother Above, he was still barefoot and probably looked a ragamuffin next to this elf. Matteo had never cared what he looked like, and still did not, but it was going to be abundantly clear to this elf that Matteo was not of his class, even if he did have wings.
“You could have flown,” the high elf said. He gestured at the creek. “Instead you hop rocks.”
“Nothing wrong with hopping rocks,” Matteo said evasively. It was partly the truth, there was nothing wrong with it, but there was no need in revealing the whole truth. And that was Matteo could not lift himself much higher than a hand’s width into the air. The human side of him kept him tethered to the ground.
“No, I suppose there is not,” the high elf said, looking over the rocks.
“What are you doing here?” Matteo blurted out.
The high elf turned to him with an eyebrow raised. “Are you always so forward?”
A flush rose to Matteo’s cheeks. He was not, to be honest, but he was so surprised by this meeting he couldn’t help it. “There are not many elves that visit these woods. None, as far as I know.”
“This is not true,” the elf said. “You are here.”
“Yes, but.” Matteo’s wings rustled at his back, as if confused why they were allowed to be stretched out for such a time. “Who’re you?”
“Forward indeed,” the elf said. He tilted his head to the side again, as if considering Matteo and his worth. “If you are so interested in this of me, know I am of you. Would you give me your name, Lord…” He trailed off with another raise of his eyebrow.
Matteo winced. “Not a lord.”
“But you are a high elf,” he said. He gestured to Matteo’s wings. “That is the correct title. Although,” he said, “I must admit, I do not believe I have ever seen you attend court. And I thought I knew all that did.”
Matteo schooled his face to go blank at this. He hated talking about it. It really was no one’s business, and it was his own curiosity to learn of this elf that he was willing to part with information regarding himself. “I wasn’t raised at court.”
“No,” Matteo said shortly.
The elf tilted his head, as if considering. “I apologize,” he eventually said, which made Matteo blink. “I did not mean to push. I should leave you—”
“It’s fine,” Matteo said quickly. He didn’t want the elf to leave. “No harm was done.” Matteo took a deep breath. “I’m Matteo. And you are? Lord, I assume?”
A small smile played on the elf’s lips, but he tilted his head in acknowledgement. “You may call me David.”
“All right, Lord—”
“No. No need for titles. David would be fine.”
Matteo smiled at him. “David.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Matteo,” David said.
“And you, David.”
David stepped closer, his feet light over the mossy ground. Matteo took him in completely—it was only now that Matteo noticed the sheathed sword hanging from the belt and he frowned.
He gestured at it. “Imagine yourself in battle in the middle of these woods?”
David blinked, as if surprised at the insinuation, and then his cheeks flushed a rosy pink. Matteo couldn’t help but stare in fascination.
“Habit, I suppose,” David said.
“Carry around swords often?”
“Always,” David said.
“Ah.” Matteo did not know what to do with that. “Are you part of the Royal Family’s high guard?” It was the only thing he could think of that would explain it.
David tensed for a moment, going into the eerie stillness that only elves could accomplished. Matteo was no master of it but his human friends had commented on it more than once.
And then the moment broke and one corner of David’s mouth tilted up and he gave a minute shake of his head. “No, not exactly.”
He did not elaborate and Matteo had enough sense to not push, not at this moment.
He stayed frozen in spot, even as David approached him, and then was surprised when David knelt to scoop up the typha that Matteo had dropped.
“Here you are,” David said softly, holding it out to Matteo. Matteo did not know what to do, other than take the plants from David. David also picked up the satchel that Matteo had put down before he hopped the rocks. He put it over Matteo’s head, so careful of his wings. “Are you a healer?” David asked.
“Of a sort, I suppose,” Matteo managed to stammer out. With David this close, he felt as if he couldn’t breathe. As if everything about him was stuck in time, in this place with David, and he was not sure he ever wanted that to change. “I own the Apothecary in the village of Moabit not far from here.”
“This makes sense.” David tilted his head again. “You have earth magic.” He closed his eyes and appeared to take a deep breath before he opened his eyes again. He smiled, and it was wide and beautiful. “You have the smell of grass and flowers about you.”
“I—” Matteo had no idea what to do with that statement. No one had ever said such a thing to him before. Well, that was not entirely true. The travelling mage Hans had once stated that Matteo had smelled like bark and stinkweed, but it did not seem the same as what David had said. “You can tell that from my smell?”
David laughed lightly, filling the air with the lovely sound. “I can.”
“Huh.” Matteo shrugged one shoulder. “I have some magic.”
David looked to where Matteo had pulled the typha. There were already little sprouts poking above the water’s surface. “I would say more than some.”
Matteo shook his head. “Nah.”
David smiled at Matteo and opened his mouth, as if to say something, but then suddenly frowned. His head turned to the water again, but his eyes were not focused on the plants. He walked to the creek’s edge and knelt down, fingertips brushing the surface of the water. It rippled beneath them in an odd pattern.
“David?” Matteo came to stand next to him cautiously. David said nothing, and perhaps did not even hear him. Matteo asked a little louder, “David?”
David stood suddenly, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. “I must go.”
“Wait, you don’t—”
“I must.” David smiled at Matteo ruefully. “Though I certainly wish I did not have to. Goodbye, Matteo.”
Before Matteo could protest further, David’s wings stretched out to the side, flapping and lifting David from the ground. He did not go high, but he quickly flew away, easily making his way around the trees. Matteo stood on the creek bed, typha in his hands and satchel over his shoulder, and his once lively wings drooping at his back.
“What,” he said to himself, “was that all about?”
Matteo visited the woods more in the span of half a fortnight than he had in an entire moon cycle but there were no more sightings of David.
He huffed to himself after emerging from the woods the fourth time. It was time to give up this chase, especially when he knew the chase was no good. He had no idea how to locate the random elf in the woods, one who had probably moved on to a new location, and it was probably best to pretend that moment they’d met was a figment of his imagination.
He dragged his feet along the dirt path toward the village, gnawing on his fingernail and deep in thought, when a voice drew his attention.
“Do you usually visit the woods this often?
Matteo startled and spun around. David was there, his shoulder leaned against a tree and his arms crossed in front of him, all casual. Sunlight fell upon him, casting a glow, making him more beautiful and ethereal than before.
Matteo stared, not answering, and David lifted an eyebrow. He smirked. “Searching for something in particular?” David asked. His voice was light and teasing. “Or perhaps someone?”
“I look for what I need to,” Matteo said immediately. Heat rushed to his cheeks. “Not that I need—I was gathering… ingredients.” He lifted his empty basket. Not that David could tell that. Probably.
“I see.” David pushed off the tree with ease and sauntered over to Matteo. “A lot of need for your Apothecary, if the number of times you have been in here is an indication.”
“Are you trailing me?” It was to be a tease, but then Matteo frowned. “Or avoiding me. I can take my leave if you don’t want me here—”
“No, no,” David said immediately, and put out his hands. “It is not that. I have been missing you, it appears. But I can tell. I can tell when you have walked through these woods.”
Matteo frowned. “How?”
David stopped in front of Matteo, just inches away. The air felt thick. Then David leaned in, ever so close to Matteo’s neck, and took an exaggerated sniff.
He pulled away, grinning happily. “Sunflowers.”
“I don’t smell like sunflowers,” Matteo protested, but he couldn’t help but tilt his head down, trying to hide his grin. “The sunflower patch is to the west, and I have not been there in quite some time.” Not since that first day he’d met David, when he’d walked through them on the way from the meadow.
“Nonetheless,” David said, with a careless wave of his hand. “I can tell when you have been through these woods. I am sorry I keep missing you.” The blush rose to his cheeks this time, making them rosy and unexpectedly adorable. Matteo would have never believed that a high elf, with his shining blue wings, was supposed to be called adorable. But this is what he was.
“It’s all right,” Matteo said. He lifted his basket. “I didn’t find what I needed, but perhaps another look. You can join me?”
“I do not have much earth magic,” David said. “But I would be happy to accompany you.”
Matteo turned on the spot, heading back to the forest. He would not miss this opportunity. “Let us go, then.”
He picked his way through this part of the woods he knew like the back of his hand, and he could not see anything out of place, could not tell that another elf had been here at all.
“Are you setting up camp in here?” Matteo asked. It would be hard to believe, save for David indicating he kept missing Matteo. Which would be a hint that he’d been through these woods more than once before, if he was not taking shelter there.
“Why do you ask?”
Matteo shrugged. “Curious. I know you are not staying at the Inn in the village—I would have heard the talk of another elf being in the area.”
David’s steps were light alongside Matteo’s heavier once. “Not a common occurrence, is it?”
“There is only me nowadays,” Matteo confessed. “And they’re used to me.” And the young commoners around here did not think twice about Matteo’s wings or his magic any longer, they’d become so accustomed to it. And those who were older remember the days when elves came around and even lived in this area. “And,” he added, “being an elf, a high elf in particular, surely you’ve heard about the curse?”
“I may have,” David said. “But it is hard to believe.”
“Hard to believe? How is that?”
David gestured with his hands, an imitation of a shrug, perhaps. “An entire territory cursed against elven folk? I have seen a great many things across the land—”
“Have you?” Matteo breathed out, trying to tamp down his jealousy. He had seen naught beyond the Mitte region.
David nodded gracefully. “I have. But a place cursed against our kind? Cannot be.”
“You do not believe in curses?”
“I am sceptic,” David said. “Surely it cannot be true. You are here, are you not?”
“What makes you think I’m not the curse?” Matteo asked.
David laughed. “Please. One elf cannot hold the curse of the entire land.”
“Huh.” Matteo paused and looked at David carefully. He imitated his head tilt, which made David smile. But Matteo was being quite serious when he put out the question. “Has the court not heard of the Florenzi curse? I would have thought so, since that is where it was cast from.”
David went unearthly still. His eyes flicked to Matteo’s ears, which were covered by his shaggy hair pushed down by his hat but it was indication enough.
“Ah,” Matteo said. “You have heard then. Let me introduce myself again. Hello, I am Matteo Florenzi.”
David was quiet for a moment before he spoke softly. “It is hard to believe you are not fully elven. I truly thought so when I first met you, and it was not until after I took my leave that it came to my mind that, perhaps…”
“Perhaps I’m the cursed elf,” Matteo said cheerfully.
“You are in rather good spirits about it,” David said, and a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth again.
Matteo shrugged. It was an incredibly human gesture but he’d lived among them for his entire life. “What else should I be? I’ve come to accept it. There will be no breaking it.”
“You do not know that,” David said softly.
“I do, and I’ve reached my peace with it a long time ago,” Matteo said. This might be a little cover up of the truth, but Matteo didn’t think David wanted to hear about the sadness that overcame him from time to time. He felt none of it right now, that was for certain. “The curse was set up very well. There’s no getting around it, no getting out of it. And it is impossible for me to find the one who could end up breaking it. This is the legacy my elven mother left me, and it is mine to bear.”
“Do you not want more?” David asked.
“More…” David gestured around. “Everything. Travelling beyond the borders. Seeing the kingdom.”
“Of course,” Matteo said easily. “But I accept what I have, and make the best of it. Ah, look.”
Matteo crouched down and picked a bundle of scurvygrass from where it was growing amongst the roots of a large tree. He placed it in his basket, then waved his hand over the spot, muttering a small incantation. Little bits of scurvygrass poked up in the soil.
“There we are,” he said quietly. He stood up and turned to David, who had a soft look about his face.
“You are rather remarkable,” David said, a smile playing about his mouth yet again. It was as if David was trying to hide it out of habit but could not keep it back entirely in Matteo’s presence.
Matteo felt the curve of his rounded ears heat up, and was very grateful David could not see them.
“No, not really. It’s not difficult magic.”
“It is not one that I posses, nor have I met anyone who could cast such strong earth magic,” David said. His head turned suddenly and he frowned as he looked to the east. “The creek is not far from here, is it?
“Uh, no. It’s not. Come,” Matteo said. He led the way through the woods but he had a suspicion that David could have found the way quite easily himself. That suspicion was confirmed when they approached the creek and David walked right up to it, crouching beside it and running his hand over the surface. It rippled ever so slightly, as if by his ministrations, like before.
“You have water magic,” Matteo said. “I should have realized that last time.”
David turned his head slightly to Matteo, though his smile was distracted. “That I do.” He stayed with his fingers on the water just a moment longer, and then stood. “And wind.” He waved his hand, and a breeze made its way through the woods, ruffling the fringe of hair across Matteo’s neck.
“Amazing,” Matteo said, with a smile. Like he did not meet elves very often, he did not meet those with magic very often either. The traveling mage Hans, not an elf but a human with remarkable magic, did not have elemental magic like he or David, but rather a very keen sense of how to manipulate objects. Abdi’s magic was much more like Hans’ as well.
David softly smiled at him but there was regret on his face. “I must go.”
“How peculiar,” Matteo said.
David frowned. “What is?”
“That you’re always running off. One wonders what it is you are running off too. Especially since you’re not of this place.” Matteo frowned. “Or is it who you are running to I should be concerned about?”
“You do not need to concern yourself over me,” David said. “Nor do you have to come searching for me either.”
“I never said I was searching for you.”
“If you insist,” David said with an air he didn’t believe that in the least. “I would like to meet with you again. In two day’s time? If you are able.”
“Yes,” Matteo said before the words were even out of his mouth.
David laughed. “I would like to see your sunflowers.”
Matteo groaned. “Fine, fine,” he grumbled, though he didn’t mind. “And how will I find you? What time of the day?”
“When the sun is at its highest? But call my name on the wind. I will know you are there.”
“All right, if you’re sure—“
“I am sure. Until then, Matteo.” And with that, David’s wings fluttered and he took off in flight through the trees.
“Keep your dirty fingers off of that,” Amira scolded. She snapped her fingers in front of Matteo’s face. “All Father Around, if you get that dirty, Matteo, you will pay.”
Matteo, who had been in a bit of a daze, snatched his hand back. He’d been in his garden earlier that day and had, apparently, not cleaned his hands thoroughly enough. At least, not to Amira’s standards.
He was at the market in Moabit to buy some bread from the baker’s stall, and some meat from the butcher. But he found himself at Amria’s family’s table. They sold a large variety of supplies, but they always had the most beautiful cloth. And Amira’s mother had always been willing to sew something especially for him to fit around his wings.
“Do you need new clothes?” Amira asked. She frowned. “Did you not get some a few moons ago, for the change of season?”
“Yes,” he said. He had. He had his usual dull and sturdy clothes. But he thought about David and thought that perhaps he could— “Never mind,” he said. He didn’t need anything new. It was a silly thought.
“It is rather fine, isn’t it,” Amira said, indicating the cloth Matteo had been looking at. She probably realized her mother would not be happy with her scolding a potential customer that way. Although, Amira and Matteo had known each other for a very long time and he could not imagine them being any different.
“It is,” he agreed. “But I am not in need of it.”
“Alright,” she said. “If you could excuse me.”
He nodded his head as she went to the other end of the stall to speak to a potential customer, though she glanced back at him with a small smile. He returned it, and walked down the way.
“Have you heard?” Kiki said in greeting as he approached her stall. Matteo was there to buy a loaf of bread—though he’d avoid the obvious experimental loaves at the far end—but he could not avoid her gossip, it would seem.
“Probably not,” he said. It was true—he wasn’t much to listen to village gossip, though he knew it was Kiki’s favourite past time.
“There have been two unknown women through town. Oooooh,” she added dramatically, but smiled widely. “Mysterious.”
Normally, Matteo could care less about mysterious people through town, other than perhaps wanting to avoid them but even that was a lot of work. But, given the elf in the forest who wasn’t usual there, it piqued his curiosity.
“Didn’t think you’d be interested,” Hanna said as she stepped up beside Matteo, giving him a little wink. Kiki gave her a happy smile and leaned over, and the two kissed each other’s cheeks.
“Ha ha,” Matteo said dryly, rolling his eyes. “That’s not what I meant. Whatever. I don’t care.”
He didn’t care. But now he was curious.
His off-hand attitude did not deter Kiki, which he had been hoping for.
“They came through the market yesterday. Purchased bread and meat.” Kiki lowered her voice. “People think they might be rogues.”
“If they were thieves,” Hanna pointed out, “then they wouldn’t have purchased anything.”
“Maybe it was a ploy,” Kiki said defensively. “They paid for a loaf but stole three.” She looked over her stall in alarm. “What if they stole from me!”
“You are meticulous,” Hanna said. “You would have noticed.”
“Oh. Yes,” Kiki agreed. “They would not have got away with that with me. But what if they stole from another?”
Matteo tried not to huff in annoyance. This was not giving him any information. “What makes you think they were rogues?”
“It was what they wore. Women do not typically dress like that,” Kiki said loftily.
Matteo wasn’t getting anywhere here. He turned to Hanna.
“They were not in dresses,” Hanna said. Her hint of a smile showed she knew Matteo was getting annoyed with Kiki. “They wore breeches and long shifts and swords on their belt. One had…” She put her hand up to her inner forearm arm and frowned. “I don’t know what it was called. For archery maybe? She didn’t have a bow though.”
“Were they elves?” Matteo blurted out.
They both blinked at him. Then Kiki got a supposedly knowing look on her face. “Did you want them to be? Do you want lady elves to be here?”
“Maybe he wants any elves to be here,” Hanna said softly.
Matteo took a vial out of his pocket and gave it to Kiki. He knew her mother needed it. “This will pay for a couple loaves?”
She took it greedily, clasping it in her hand. “And then some. You can come back twice more to get it when it’s fresh.”
“Thank you,” he said. He turned to walk away.
“I don’t know if they were elves,” Hanna said. He turned back to them.
“Of course they weren’t,” Kiki said immediately. “They did not have wings.”
“Not all elves have wings,” Hanna said, her gaze flitting to Matteo’s shoulders. His wings were under his cloak. “Only high born.”
Matteo and Kiki both snorted. They both knew Matteo was nothing of the sort, even if he did have the sign of it.
“But I didn’t see their ears,” Hanna said slowly. “They each had long blond hair, and they were wearing a bycocket like yours,” she said, pointing to Matteo’s hat. “It pushed down their hair over their ears.”
“As if hiding them!” Kiki said with a little excitement. “Like you do!”
“Let’s not start that rumour,” Matteo said instantly. “I’m sure I would know if there were other elves here.”
“Why?” Kiki looked very interested. “Do you have a secret sense that can spot them out? Even without seeing them?”
“No,” Matteo said. “They’d end up in my Apothecary.”
They both blinked at him again. He sighed.
“The curse? Elves aren’t safe in Mitte. They’ll end up to me sick or injured eventually.”
“Oh, right.” Kiki wrinkled her nose. “You are the reason we don’t have any elves here anymore.”
“Other than you,” Hanna said quickly. She smiled friendly. “You’re elf enough for us.”
Kiki waved her hand dismissively. “He’s barely elf.”
“Kiki!” Hanna scolded.
It was Kiki, and it wasn’t entirely meant as an insult, and the thing was—Matteo didn’t take it as such. He only grinned and shrugged. “She has a point.” He nodded to each of them. “Have a good day, ladies.” He took leave of them to go purchase from the butcher.
Matteo stood on the edge of the village, facing to the west toward the sunflower fields. He wiped his hand over his brow. It was a warm day, so he did not have his cloak or his hat on. But he wished he knew if calling on the wind would really work. There did not seem to be much of a breeze today.
“Okay,” he said to himself. He tried to find confidence. Was it really that easy?
He opened his mouth to call out, but snapped it shut again when he heard his own name being called. Not on the wind, not exactly, but from the road beyond.
Matteo looked over and saw Carlos, the town’s stonemason and carpenter, walking along the road, carrying a bucket. Carlos was also Kiki’s sweetheart, and of all Matteo’s friends, likely the first to be wed. Kiki certainly hinted at it enough.
“Carlos,” Matteo said, nodding in greeting. He liked Carlos, he did, but now was not the time he wanted to see his friend.
“Off to the woods? Again?” Carlos said, coming to stand next to Matteo.
“Again? How do you know I was there more than once?”
“Abdi,” Carlos said predictably. The two of them were thick as thieves—as close as Jonas and Matteo were. When they were younger, the four of them were known to give the village fits with the trouble they’d created.
“He’s too loose with words,” Matteo said.
“Nah,” Carlos said. “But you know who is?” Carlos looked at Matteo pointedly.
Matteo sighed. He knew exactly where this was going.
“Kiki said there might be elves here!” Carlos said, excitedly. “Are you happy about that?”
Matteo shook his head. “I didn’t see the rogues—”
“Not rogues. They didn’t steal bread,” Carlos said.
“Well, whatever they may be, I don’t think they’re elves.”
“If they are not elves, we think they might be rangers,” Carlos said. Then his face brightened. “What if they’re elf rangers?”
“There aren’t elves here,” Matteo said.
Matteo wasn’t one to lie to his friends, under most circumstances. But there was something about knowing that David, a high born elf, was wandering the woods, that Matteo wanted to keep to himself. For now, anyway. And given that David hadn’t ventured into the village as of yet, when he’d had plenty of chances, it was likely David didn’t want his presence known at this time either.
“Okay, okay. It is possible they were just travellers and have made their way through,” Carlos said. Matteo nodded. This was likely the case. “But, you’re not ill, are you?”
“I—what?” Matteo asked, confounded. “Why would you ask that?”
“Abdi said,” Carlos said, and Matteo rolled his eyes. “He said you keep wandering to the woods to gather supplies. More than you usually do! Are you hiding something?”
“I’m not ill,” Matteo said.
“You’re not acting like you, either,” Carlos said, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.
“I am acting myself just fine,” Matteo protested. Even though that wasn’t entirely the truth either. He didn’t normally go into the woods that often. He knew it, and his friends knew it, and now they were getting suspicious.
“Where are you going now?” Carlos asked. He pointed to the woods. “The woods, perhaps?”
“No,” Matteo said. That was the truth, at least. He was going to the meadows.
“Sure, sure,” Carlos said disbelievingly.
“It’s an elf situation!” Matteo said. That was the truth too. It was an elf thing… a David the elf situation but no need to reveal that.
“That…” Carlos said, pausing dramatically. He must have picked up that from Kiki. “Is sheep’s swallop.”
Matteo punched Carlos’ arm and Carlos laughed, ducking away before a second blow could hit.
“Alright, alright then,” Carlos said. “Go into the woods. Be an elf. I must go help Kiki repair one of her brick stoves.” He held up the bucket of mortar. “I will not hear the end of it if I don’t.”
“You go do that,” Matteo said.
“And you’re sure you’re not ill?” Carlos said.
“I am not, promise.”
“Alright then, my friend. Have a good day.” They shook hands and parted, Carlos walking down the road further into the village.
Finally by himself, Matteo took the moment to build up his confidence again. He was not going to be deterred by a momentary hold-up by running into one of his friends. He wanted to see David, and he had an arranged meeting to make.
“David,” he whispered to the wind. Would that be enough? Once he believed he was out of earshot of anyone, he said a little louder, “David. I’m on my way.”
It was not much longer before he ended up at the crossroads outside the town, and he turned to the west. Moments later, he spotted David. David was leaning against the one tree at the edge of the sunflower field. Arms crossed, casual as can be, but Matteo could feel David’s intense gaze follow him. But as he approached, he saw a soft look to David’s face and a smirk playing on his lips.
“You are late,” David said. He looked up at the sky and pointed. “The sun is not quite overhead any longer.”
Matteo looked up and then made a face at David. “It is directly overhead.”
“Not directly. It has passed,” David said, pursing his lips in what seemed to be an attempt to hold back laughter. Matteo huffed.
“Direct enough,” Matteo said. “Were you waiting for me, or…”
“I was on my way when I heard you call,” David said.
“Ah. That is convenient. Do you hear everything over the wind?”
“No,” David said. He pushed off the tree and came to stand by Matteo. “Only when I know to listen.”
“Still convenient,” Matteo said.
“It can be,” David agreed. “Shall we?”
“Shall we what?” Matteo gestured in front of him at all the sunflowers. “You wanted me to show you the sunflower field. There it is. That’s about it. Shall we go back to the village for a drink?”
David laughed but shook his head. “I think we should inspect it further.”
“If you say so,” Matteo grumbled but to be honest, he was pleased to have David to himself for a time longer. “And, while I’m not admitting to being late, I should apologize for being held up in the village.”
“Is that not contradictory?” David asked, amused.
“No, shush.” Matteo stepped carefully around some sunflowers, and listened to them. He found a path that would make walking amongst them without any damage easy. “I was held up by a friend of mine, who thinks I may have some random elf disease and I’m afraid to tell anyone about it.”
He glanced over his shoulder and saw David close behind, his wings folded at his back, and a frown on his face. “Are you ill? I do not sense that.”
Matteo laughed and shook his head, looking forward again. “Of course not,” he said. “But they want an explanation as to why I keep disappearing into the forest. I don’t leave the village nearly this often.”
“What did you tell them?”
“That I am communing with nature, like a real elf should,” Matteo said easily.
“You are a real elf,” David said immediately.
Matteo flapped his hand dismissively behind himself. “Yes, yes, but you know what I mean.”
Matteo startled when David grabbed his wrist and stilled his hand. Matteo looked back at David. David had his head tilted in consideration.
“To be truthful,” David said. He rubbed his thumb over Matteo’s wrist, seemed to realize what he was doing, and let Matteo go. Matteo wished he hadn’t. David cleared his throat. “To be truthful,” he said again, “I do not know what you mean.”
Matteo turned to him fully. “I thought I had made it clear. I… don’t spend much time with any of my kind. Virtually none, in my entire life. And those I have met…” He trailed off.
“What?” David asked. “What about the ones you have met?”
“They were curious, like you,” Matteo said. “But they were not… kind, like you.”
David’s entire body tensed, and he frowned. “They were not… unkind, were they?
“No, no.” Matteo shook his head. “But they were… dismissive, and possibly very… haughty. In the politest way possible. If that makes any sort of sense.”
“Completely,” David said wryly. “You just described a day at court.”
Matteo’s face scrunched up. “Then perhaps I should be grateful to not be of that place.”
“Perhaps you should,” David said quietly.
Matteo winced at his own blunder. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend”
David blinked in surprise. “You did not. Why would you think that?”
“You’re from there,” Matteo said. “I may have insulted it.”
David shook his head. “You did not. To be honest, there are times I wish I was not from there.”
“Is that why you’re here?”
It was the first time David’s face closed up and Matteo could not read it. He did not like seeing this much.
“Now I’m truly sorry,” Matteo said. “I really have offended.”
David shook his head. “You have not. But I really do not wish to speak of it at this time.”
“Alright,” Matteo said awkwardly. As usual, he had blundered. His fingers toyed with the hem of his loose tunic, one that still paled in comparison to David’s, the material much more course. He should have ordered a shirt from Amira’s mother.
The sunflowers around him danced a little, swaying back and forth from the roots.
David watched them and smiled. “You are doing that.”
“I—what?” Matteo noticed David watching the sunflowers and stilled his hands. The sunflowers stopped moving. “Sorry. Nervous habit.”
David tilted his head to the side. “Do I make you nervous?” he asked. “I do not mean to.”
“Only after I spoke out of turn. Now I don’t know what to say that won’t upset you further.”
“You have not upset me,” David said, and his face was soft again. “But tell me of better things.”
“Like you,” David said. “Tell me about you.”
Matteo’s cheeks flushed and he had to bite back a grin. “There is not much to tell.”
“That,” David said, “I do not believe.”
Matteo led David down the path through the sunflowers, and he spoke about his Apothecary. How it came into his hands—he’d been raised by his paternal grandmother who was a gifted mage and he took over the business after she’d passed—and about Abdi his apprentice and his friend Hanna who helped out on occasion. He spoke of his best friend Jonas, the wandering minstrel who occasionally brought news back to Mitte of the outside regions and the kingdom as a whole. And of his friends who were to be married someday, the town stonemason and carpenter Carlos and the baker Kiki.
By this time they had reached the edge of the sunflowers, and in front of them was a meadow of soft green grass and spotted with patches of wild flowers.
“It sounds like you have a nice life here,” David said.
“I suppose,” Matteo said. He plopped down onto the grass, done with all this walking. He’d walked more in the last fortnight then he had in a number of moon cycles, and lay back with his wings folded beneath him, cradling him. David sat down on the grass next to him, cross legged, his wings stretched out behind him.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” Matteo asked.
David blinked down at him in surprise. “Smoke?”
From the deep pocket of his baggy pants, his pulled out a pipe packed with the special leaf he liked, and a small rock and flint. He gestured it in David’s direction.
“Whatever you wish,” David said.
Matteo sat up and struck the flint and rock with practiced ease, able to light the pipe. He took a puff and held it in before releasing it. With a wave of his hand, David moved the wind to make the puff take shape like a boat.
Matteo let out a laugh and then coughed, pounding his fist against his chest when he did.
“Better let me take this,” David said with a smirk, reaching for the pipe. Matteo relinquished it easily. “Before you choke yourself on it.”
David took a puff, but then started coughing just as Matteo did. It was Matteo’s turn to laugh.
“Strong,” David coughed out. “Unlike anything in the capital.”
Matteo took it back, a smirk mirroring David’s previous one on his face. “I grow my own special plant. You won’t find anything else like it in all the regions.” He paused for a moment. “So I am told.”
“I would agree with this,” David said.
“Hmm.” Matteo took another puff, and then gently toppled to the side, getting comfortable on the grass again, right at David’s knee. They each had a couple more puffs and then Matteo extinguished it. When it cooled, it went back into his pocket.
“What do you want more than anything?” David asked after a few moments of comfortable silence had passed.
“To leave Mitte,” Matteo said immediately. “To see anywhere else.”
“Is it so horrible here?” David asked softly.
“Of course not,” Matteo said. “This is my home. I’d always end up back here, I think. But given the choice to leave, even for a little while, I would.”
“You really can not?” David asked.
Matteo shook his head. “No. I will take you to the place some time, if you’d like. The very edge I can go. But the curse prevents me from going one step further.” He and his friends used to test it when they were younger, but he hadn’t been there in a long time. There was no point. “We call it the curse wall.”
“I am sorry,” David said softly.
“Why? You didn’t put the curse in place. The royal family did,” Matteo said. “And it wasn’t even really because of me but my mother. My father was dead before I was even born, and the curse was placed when I was but a babe. My mother was exiled and I’m left here as a reminder to all other elves who might wish to betray the royal family.”
“Do you know where she is?” David asked quietly.
Matteo shrugged. “No, but I wish I did. Not that I can use that information at all. Maybe she’s gone too. And maybe she’s not. Maybe I’d try to find her,” he mused allowed. “If I was allowed to leave.”
“You might be able to someday.”
Matteo rolled over. His wings unfolded into the air above him, fluttering slightly in the light breeze there was now. He pushed his hair from his eyebrows. “I won’t,” Matteo said.
David reached out, his hand pausing in the air, but then he seemed to find the confidence to finish. His fingers brushed through Matteo’s hair. Matteo froze in spot, did not move, and allowed David to do it.
Matteo’s ears, his rounded, human ears, were exposed.
“You might,” David said again.
Matteo shook his head. “Only true love can break the curse.”
David’s hand hovered beside Matteo’s head, waiting, and he raised his eyebrows as if in question. Matteo nodded.
“You might find true love,” David said quietly. The pads of his fingers very lightly touched the rounded tip of Matteo’s ear.
“A very specific true love,” Matteo said, just as quietly. He closed his eyes and rested his chin on David’s knee. “One of royalty.” Matteo snorted. “The royal family does not come to Mitte. They avoid it, and with good reason. The lands are cursed.”
David’s fingers rubbed Matteo’s ear a moment longer, then withdrew. “I am sorry,” he said again.
Matteo opened his eyes but left his chin resting on David’s knee. “Again… not your fault.” He pushed himself up suddenly, his wings flapping. David’s body jerked a little, as if startled. “My turn!”
David said, “Your—what—” When Matteo touched his ear, he went completely still.
Matteo ran his thumb up one side of David’s ear and his finger up the other, edging over the decorative clasp there, and they met at the very tip of David’s pointed ear.
“I used to think I would give anything for pointed ears,” Matteo said. But then he flicked the tip of David’s ear. David yelped in surprise and Matteo laughed brightly. “But they really aren’t any better than any other ears, are they?”
He flicked David’s ear again.
David batted Matteo’s hand away, and covered his ears with his hands. “You are incorrigible,” he said, though it looked as though he was trying to suppress a smile.
“I think you like that,” Matteo said.
David sighed but did not protest. He opened his mouth, though, as if to give back a playful, scathing remark, but then he stopped. He tilted his head, as if he was trying to listen to the wind with the pointed ear Matteo just caressed.
“Let me guess,” Matteo said. “You have to go.”
“I am sorry,” David said, and stood gracefully, even with the strong leaf he’d taken a puff of. His wings extended out to the side and began to flap, easily lifting him from the ground. “Come, I will fly with you back to the crossroads.”
Matteo shook his head. “It’s okay. I think I’ll walk. I might come across something I need for the shop.”
David frowned down at him. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” Matteo stood, much less gracefully, and brushed the grass from his pants. “Can I see you again?”
“Yes,” David said, and began to fly away.
“When?” Matteo called out.
But with that, David was gone as easily as he appeared.
“That is so annoying,” Matteo muttered to himself.
Glancing around and making sure there was no one in eyesight, Matteo stretched his wings to the side. He let them flap, and maybe they weren’t as fast as David’s but he thought they did okay.
He could only get about a foot above the ground before he felt too heavy and let himself fall back down. His landing was not smooth.
He hadn’t put much effort into it, not in a long time, but he still wasn’t able to fly. Matteo wandered back to the village, taking the path through the sunflowers, and thinking of David’s sudden disappearances, tried not to let his heart feel heavy too.