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She's ordinary for all of half a second the first time they meet. Harris is thirteen, just starting to grow tall and weedy, his hair only half-grown out of a pageboy cut from a few years before, but she looks barely his age in that sunlit split second. (Oh, how wrong he was.) She is fable made flesh, the girl in the woods, but her uncertain smile is warm and human. She offers to play in the forest together, and taking the dare to go looking becomes, in that instant, the most worthwhile thing he's ever done.

Without much direction, they wander the meadows, her hand in his pulling him along as he stumbles over the roots on a well-worn narrow path. He climbs a tree to place eggs back in their nest when she stumbles upon them, her wide eyes brimming with compassion, but she still laughs at his awkward shimmying when he has to find a way back down. 

Her hands are soft and gentle, smoother than his, too delicate for a life in the forest. A building sense of unease murmurs inside him, spurred on by her bushels of silken hair and her gauzy white dress as they sit together on the river bank and talk. She speaks blithely of spirits the way someone might speak of neighbors and friends, and in the dimming twilight, she feels as ethereal as a story, and he begins to believe she is one of them after all. He is suddenly very grateful she has not asked him his name, for he does not know if the old rules apply like in the tales he's heard, but he doesn't care to test them.

He keeps his distance when the spirits come to collect her, waving a hasty goodbye as he scurries into the bushes and back the way he came, and follows the half-forgotten deer path until morning. The boys back home laugh at him and call him a liar. He clutches tight to the dying flower crown in his pocket and decides to go exploring again.

He didn't care for their company that much, anyway.


***


He is fourteen, freshly-turned and pristine like the year and the snow in his footprints, when he learns she is not a spirit. He watches her hang up the winter lanterns; her dress is the same as ever, and she is just as small as she was in the summer. Even the trees have grown more than she has. Her arms are still bare, and the snow doesn't pile on her dress or her hair as she walks, instead parting like a river around a waxed-paper boat.

Shivering in his overcoat and olive-green scarf, he doesn't yet believe her when she tells him she's human after all. She hugs his arm tightly and heat rises to his cheeks with the warmth he can feel through the cloth, warmth that speaks of something alive and breathing with a beating heart, but the dissonance of the cold air is dizzying. Cold hands would nearly feel more natural, a mark of something mortal and vulnerable to the elements, but no spirit of the forest, he thinks, should seem so warm and real, either.

She decides it must just be another of the world's mysteries. He agrees, and goes home, and turns to his schoolbooks for answers.


***


By spring, he has learned. By spring, he has found her name -- so many names, and he knows.


***


The willow tree spills shadow and sunlight across them both like watercolor the day he says he's starting school. He can see the lack of comprehension in her eyes when she looks up from her childlike reverie, watching little birds peck at the shaded grass. He's finally begun to outgrow her now, at fifteen, taller and broader even if his face hasn't quite lost its roundness.

He's moving away, he tells her, and wonders if the sorrow in her eyes is simple disappointment at the loss of a playmate, or something more complex.

He has a plan. He can make her see. Those books taught him more than he had ever thought he'd want to know. Fairy tales and history and academic theory, old orphic queens and kings deposed and princesses lost to the trees. She's a living relic relegated to rumor and legend, and she deserves so much more than this.

When she declines his invitation, she wipes an unnoticed tear from her eyes. Her smile feels falser than the rest of her, something deeply wrong. When she speaks, his suspicions are confirmed.

She spoke of the spirits as her friends, her neighbors, her patrons, but he always had to keep his distance. All those tasks. The rituals. Her duties.

The dappled light mingles with the intricate circles of the tattoo on her forearm.

He swears to save her, swears it right then and there with all the certainty of the child he still is. She startles, confused when he clutches her hands before his like he's helping her to her feet and promises that he will make this right. In the juvenile heat of the moment, he kisses her cheek, chaste as a knight to his princess, but on pulling away, fear flashes in her eyes.

He has never seen her afraid, before. 

Harris stalks out of the shade of the tree as the clouds roll in, turning the idyllic patches of sunlight into something more like the proper depths of a vast and untouched forest. The grove here is less familiar already, colder without the sun.

The spirits do not speak, roiling forth like thick roots reaching up from the ground, twining into the air like sacrificial smoke. He turns to face them, sees their twisting hands curling around the lost princess Tamaura's freckled shoulders and tangling in her hair. Their gilded masks leer at him, expressions unchanging as they silently claim their own.

She tries to defuse it, but he can't leave her, not like this. He pulls the cards from his pocket, even as she begs him to give up, and he calls out the incantation he'd practiced. The spirits warp and twist together like spun twine in an eruption of glorious blue light, dusk vanquished by the pale dawn, but the fruits of his labors taste sweet on his tongue for only a moment before he learns what Tamaura looks like angry.

He runs home with a hollow pit of guilt in his stomach he can't explain. It's night by the time he finds the road.


***


He stays indoors the rest of the summer, studying. His apprenticeship in Kirkhall begins in the fall.


***


The months pass by in a blur. Candles burn down to nubs again and again, calendar months tear away layer by layer only to be replaced, and there is always more busywork -- more seals, more patterns, more facts to learn and forms to memorize. The old orphic families are a footnote in his learning. History is for those who study it. He studies them anyway.

Harris draws lanterns in the margins of his notes, with dense patterns like lace, and is told off for not paying attention.


***


He writes his thesis about her. What else could he have chosen? He's been researching for years. An expert, practically. (He has more firsthand knowledge than all of those professors combined, but he keeps his mouth shut like he's learned to, and cites his secondhand sources.)

He can't tell anyone his plans yet. His mind drifts back to laughing boys and mothers and a string of dried daisies in his pocket. The flowers were pressed in a notebook somewhere, crushed and crooked from inexpert hands, but he can't remember where it is anymore. In his first year of studies, he must have misplaced it.

The spells he needs are costly, though. He'll have to learn how to make some of them himself. His student job only pays for so much.


***


It takes longer and longer every year. He tries, he struggles, overthinks, revises his schedules and rewrites his lists. The dates are adjusted again and again. That's the nature of projects: they never go to plan.

(He doesn't plan on a boyfriend, either, but that's life. The guilty pit turns in his stomach again at first, too reminded of that day, but he never promised her that, and the spirits have left her an eternal child. The flutter in his heart at the sight of those sharp silver eyes is a world away from those childish moments in the forest, and he can discard the thought with ease, hopeless romantic or not.)

Ewan trusts him, grows used to his rambling, humors him when he talks about the girl in the woods he met as a child, even if deep down Harris suspects he doesn't really believe him. It doesn't sting much anymore. He's gotten used to it.

The plans grow fuller-formed, more real with each passing month. The days stretch longer and longer; he opens the windows to let the summer sunlight illuminate his notes instead of candles in the evenings. The first autumn breeze nips at his thin sleeves walking home after he gets his hands on the last spell he needs, and the whole world seems to slide back into focus when he hadn't even realized it had changed.

He plans the expedition to the woods for the coming week. He's ready.


***


Harris is twenty-three, standing alone in the dark, half-soaked by the first rain of September, when he realizes he has made a grave mistake.