The shadows plagued her and she was sure she heard voices in the forest. Her heartbeat quickened at the prospect of discovery. If Mother found out, she’d beat her harder than a muddy rug and lock her indoors for several years. Keedrina pressed on through the thickets, resisting the urge to run. Running would draw more attention if she was right about being watched and not merely being paranoid.
Six months of clever artifice, though rewarding, came with a price. The strain of constant deception wore on Keedrina’s nerves; she’d never meant it to go on this long. She’d only wanted to meet the Elva farmhands that worked the field by her house, to talk to them a little. The reading lessons weren’t even her idea. Botlop had offered when she admitted she couldn’t read the note he brought her.
She should tell him. Keedrina bit her lip, considering just how to bring it up. She wasn’t who he thought. She wasn’t even what he thought.
She crouched at the edge of the wood to allow the pounding in her chest to subside. Warily, she glanced over her shoulder. No one had followed; nothing seemed awry. She inhaled deeply, stood, gazed one last time at the forest, then turned and stepped into the clearing. Keedrina sat on a weathered bench in an abandoned gazebo and lit three votive candles, sheltering them from the wind in clay cups. This meeting spot was far enough from home that Mother had never caught her and Botlop likely assumed the nearby farm was her family’s. Keedrina never disabused him of that notion.
She looked up and scanned the darkening horizon. Botlop always came as soon as he finished work. Throughout the summer and harvest it had been light at this hour, but the days grew shorter as winter impended.
Botlop waved as he approached. He was lean and vigorous; wisps of curly black hair dangled over his brow, his buckskins an inch too short for his legs. Keedrina waved back, then checked her dark brown braid as she lowered her hand. It was still pinned over her ear. He arrived and flashed a winning smile. His gray eyes sparkled in the candlelight. Keedrina smiled, craning her neck to catch a glimpse of what he carried.
“Well, Keedrina, you’ve read just about everything I can lay hands on. This is the last book I can find.”
Though she longed to read more, Keedrina found herself strangely relieved. She still hungered as much as ever to learn about the intriguing yet forbidden Elva. Maybe if they limited their clandestine meetings to once a week, she wouldn’t feel so guilty. She’d have to find a way to dampen her mother’s growing hopes that she aspired toward the magehood. Using communing with the Wood Nymphs as an excuse to leave the house every evening had created an unexpected backlash in that respect. But could she continue to deceive the young man who’d been so patient with her?
“Thank you, Botlop. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for all your time and trouble to help me.”
Botlop sat and scooted close to her on the bench. “Maybe now you’d let me meet your parents?” He took her hand. “I’d like to ask them if I could court you, Keedrina.”
He sighed. “What is it? I’ll have land one day. I’d take good care of you. I thought you liked me.”
Of course she liked him—as a teacher and a friend. But that wasn’t what he meant. She weighed using her age as excuse, but that would have led to her secret. If she were Elva, sixteen would be old enough to marry. Somehow, the secret she had minutes earlier hoped to disclose now seemed cruel to consider divulging. She took a quick breath. “I like you, Botlop, but I’m really not worthy of you. You don’t know anything about my family. I’m sorry. I never dreamed you felt this way. I didn’t mean to mislead you.”
Botlop fumbled with the tattered book. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but no words came. Suddenly, he stood and turned, scanning the farmlands. Keedrina looked up, startled by his abrupt rise. He set a staying hand to her arm as she began to stand. Keedrina frowned. She heard nothing but the wind sighing through bare branches. She searched the shadows but found nothing amiss in the encroaching night.
Botlop suddenly bolted, issuing a warning as he ran. “Stay here.”
Keedrina was bewildered. Why would he run off like that? Surely it wasn’t because of her awkward rebuff? She kept her seat until she heard something—far off screams and unintelligible commotion. Keedrina stood and ran after Botlop.
She could hardly see the ground in front of her, but the further she ran down the dirt path, the more her dread increased. As she passed a line of trees, she saw her farmhouse in the distance—on fire. Fear for her family flooded her mind. Horror quickened her footsteps to a frenzied pace.
© Caprice Hokstad