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I ate my breakfast, chewing more on my thoughts than my porridge. My mother watched me nervously, and whenever I glanced at her, she looked away. I would need to cover up my arm if I left the house. Too many questions would be bad.

In my room, dressing myself, I thought about Lancithar. He had told me that during the night soothing, I would be enlightened. I didn’t feel enlightened. Maybe the other night angels skipped over me because they didn’t want to teach me any magic. There were others, right? They sounded lazy.

Or maybe this was a test. Maybe they didn’t heal me because I could heal myself. That was the point of giving me magic, right? I wasn’t sure; I hadn’t understood it all. But I could try.

Staring at my scar, I pointed at it with my other hand. “Heal!” I whispered in frustration. Nothing happened.

“Go away!”

“Kazaam!”

“Pretty please, just go away!”

It didn’t seem like talking to my scar was going to heal it. Feeling stupid, I tried meditating. Closing my eyes, taking a deep breath, I started focusing on the scar, and nothing else. It felt ridiculous, but I kept at it. After all, it couldn’t be more absurd than a man appearing out of the shadows and giving me magic powers, or being healed every night. I wondered why we never questioned how it happened; we just expected it to happen. It was natural.

I started to remember fragments of my dreams last night. I saw Lancithar’s face, and two others. Then I was looking through their eyes at my body, so frail and young. Ugly in comparison to theirs. They looked down at the scar, looked into it. I saw that there was a difference between the light bouncing off my body, and the colorless fibers that truly made up my body. The fibers had been severed, but it didn’t go down deep. My body was already working on healing them. That was surprising, as I didn’t know my body could heal itself, aside from closing up after bleeding. Was it because of the magic, or did every body heal itself?

Yes, my body was being repaired, but it went oh so slow. It would be days, weeks, before the scar became invisible. I couldn’t wait that long. Surely it could be sped up. What if the blood only brought back the what could help replenish the body, instead of a little of everything? What if I could control that? I hadn’t even realized that that was what blood was for. I thought it was a punishment when someone was hurt or fighting.

Somehow, my will started influencing my blood. I couldn’t actually see it, but the area around my scar started heating up, and I could feel the blood rushing. My heart pounded faster and harder. It pounded my chest, so hard it almost hurt. Was it supposed to happen this way? This couldn’t be right. My scar became tender, the edges burning. I started to become light headed, and it became a chore to focus on the scar. I sat down on my bed, holding my head up with my other arm.

Somewhere in my mind, the thought came that this had to wrong, since I doubted this happened every night to everyone. The soothings must go much smoother. Sweat formed on my forehead. But something seemed to happen. My scar started to flake off, without blood flowing out to replace it. I peeked and saw pink skin forming.

Suddenly I realized I had done magic. Magic!

I fainted.

A hesitant knock on the door woke me up. My first reaction was to cover up the scar, but I realized it wasn’t there. Nearly fainting again, I whispered in response, then cleared my throat.

“Come in,” I said, allowing my former scar to show. Or not show.

My mother came in, a worried look on her face. Her eyes went straight to where my scar had been. A look of relief blossomed on her face. Then one of confusion.

“Didn’t you have a scar…?”

I looked at my arm, pretending to be surprised. “Oh, look, it’s gone. It must have been slow in disappearing this morning.”

“Yes, that must be it,” she murmured. Forcing a smile, she continued, “I want you to help pick some weeds in the garden today. No more going off to the forest edge, at least not today.”

I couldn’t believe it. No one would see me in the garden. She didn’t want anyone to think I was different. She obviously had come up with this before seeing my healed arm. So why did she want to hide me now?

Barely containing myself, I nodded slowly. She frowned, seeing my recognition of what she was trying, and left fairly quickly. I unclenched my fists and wiped the sweat off my forehead. I would obey her. If I didn’t, she would find out faster than a frog’s tongue catching a fly. There are few secrets in the village.

Besides, it would give me time to practice my magic.

I wore my old dress for the garden work, kneeling down in the dirt. People passed me, some waving hello, many pretending to ignore me. Those felt bad for me. Most knew I wanted to be at the edge of the forest. I was too busy for most of them.

The thought that burned in my mind was how to make myself more attractive. For Michael. My mother said I had a pretty face and a good figure, but I had seen my reflection. I might not be ugly, but neither was I all that pretty. My nose a bit too big, my eyes too far apart, my lips too thin. I wished I were thinner, as well. My mother tried to allay my fears, my father thought I was foolish for even thinking this way, but they’re my parents; of course they thought I was pretty.

Trying to regain the sense of myself I had when healing, I held still, focusing. The more I tried, though, it seemed the harder to grasp. It was there, taunting me, hiding just outside of my field of vision. It was frustrating. How had I done it before?

After about a quarter hour, I gave up. My eyes felt strained, even though I hadn’t been looking at anything in particular. I started to actually pick the weeds. If I sat down the whole time and didn’t have weeds to show at the end, my mother would be just as furious as if I had gone to the forest. Reluctantly, I started grabbing the weeds.

After picking out a few, the thought came to me that if the Night Angels healed others, then they must have powers over other people. Or objects. Could I do anything with the weeds I held? Make them flowers?

It was probably easier to change a living weed to a flower than a dead one. Besides, it wouldn’t do me any good if my mother saw a bunch of dead flowers with the weeds. So I chose a weed that didn’t look too ugly, a dandelion with its yellow petals still out, not gone to seed yet. I focused on it, imagining it was a yellow white rose instead. I tried to imagine the steps it would have to change, the petals extending and growing wider and upwards. The leaves would be smoother, the stalk higher. I poured my will into changing it. The dandelion wavered a bit.

I think it was the wind.

Breathing out in frustration, I pulled out the weed in vengeance. What was I doing wrong? Why couldn’t I change anything? What good was my magic? I flopped down on my back, looking up at the sky.

The clouds floated by. One group looked almost like a face. It reminded me of one time when I was a little girl. I had been looking at my reflection in the water when some leaves floated through it. It passed over my reflection’s chin, making it look like I had a beard. I giggled, wishing there was some way to capture the moment and share it with my dad.

Then it hit me. I hadn’t worn a beard then, but my reflection had. A bystander, not looking at me, might think I did have a beard. Well, if he had bad vision. Like my grandpapa. Maybe I couldn’t change my body, at least not yet. But I could make myself appear different to other people. Isn’t that what makeup was for?

Was there some way to change the way people saw me, without actually changing me? Perhaps not the ideal solution, but better than waiting for years while I try to figure out this magic thing and let Michael slip away. I had already alienated him. Lily would be able to pluck him like a rose if I did nothing.

Concentrating on the appearance of the dandelion, I willed it to bloom in the light. A few minutes passed without any success. I kept telling myself that I had healed myself, I could do this. Tired, I was ready to stop and turn away. As I moved my head, out of the corner of my eye, the dandelion seemed to transform. Quickly, I looked back, but it was still just a dandelion.

I moved to go again, and the same thing happened. I looked at it and it went back to being normal, but this time it took longer. There was definitely something going on.

Breathing out, I stopped concentrating on it so hard, but still held the image of how I wanted it to look like in the back of my mind. Slowly, oh so slowly, the dandelion was overlaid with the image of a marigold. At first it appeared like the reflection of clouds on water, and I could still see the dandelion beneath, but the more I focused without focusing, the more it solidified. Soon enough, there was no trace of the dandelion.

I propped my chin on my hands and stared at it, smiling. The illusion didn’t give. I even touched it. I could feel the marigold beneath, but the marigold didn’t ripple away, as I feared.

A few moments later, my mother came out and found me looking at it. “Really, Eva, you need to…When did we get a marigold?”

I suppressed my smile. It wasn’t just me imagining things. My mother saw it as well. “I just found it here, it must have sprung up recently.”

“That’s strange, I don’t remember seeing it. Anyway, Eva, you should get back to work.” Her voice trembled a bit. I felt a pang of guilt. In some way, I was shattering my mother’s reality. Like a glass breaking, but much slower. I don’t know if telling her what happened would fix things or would accelerate the cracking.

I went back to picking the weeds. Or at least my body did. My mind was busy crafting my new face and body. I couldn’t implement it yet, but would try before talking to Michael. It had to look like me, but be better. Picturing myself was difficult, but I managed to bring up my face in my mind. I glanced at the marigold. Still there.

About a quarter hour after changing the dandelion, I had come up with most of the details for how to change my face. I looked back at the marigold. But there was none. It was back to being a dandelion. I started to panic. I would need more time than that for things to work with Michael. We would just barely be saying hello. I willed the dandelion to turn back. Strangely enough, it did, although I felt some energy draining from me. Still, it was a relief. I would be able to renew this transformation. I just had to time it right.

Finally, I finished my punishment for waking up with a scar. The only weed left looked like a real flower. My mother reluctantly let me have some free time. Before letting me go, though, she gave me a hug. It felt kind of strange, after what had been going on. Almost like an apology. Until I felt her hand subtly feeling my arm, where the scar had been. She was looking to see if I had just put something on to color it the same as my skin. I grew cold and pulled away. She looked down and told me to be back in time for supper.

I went down to the river. It flowed so slowly it was practically still. Kneeling down on an overhang to see my reflection, like I did when I was a child, I saw my face. The face that, until now, I didn’t particularly like, but felt that it was permanent. Now that I knew I could change it, temporarily at first, perhaps permanently later on, I found myself hating every flaw. This ugly face would no longer torment me or prevent me from getting what I wanted.

I had to make sure my face was still recognizable. I wanted Michael to know it was me. So the changes had to be subtle. Clear away the freckles and pimples. That would be simple enough. The size of the nose and lips shouldn’t be too difficult. Changing the position of the eyes would be a bit tricky. Then I would want to change my hair. Make it more voluminous, silky, and luxurious. But part of that would be more mundane than this magic I had: I would wash it with some oils. It would cost some money, but I should be able to gain it back easily enough once I mastered this magic.

I had brought some parchment and a charcoal stick, so I set out drawing what I saw in the river. Although I wasn’t the perfect artist, I had received some praise before. Drawing was always a good way to process my thoughts, in a way that differed from pulling weeds.

While I drew how I looked and how I wanted to look, I idly thought about Miri and Jaz. Should I tell them my secret? Probably. But not yet. The most I had to show for it was a scar that wasn’t there. My new face might be evidence, but the changes were supposed to be so subtle that it wouldn’t look like magic. Besides, I was still trying to process Lancithar. It seemed there were more of these angels, watching over us. That was both breathtaking and creepy at the same time.

Eventually I came up with a sketch of how my new face would look. Staring into the water, I molded my face to look like the sketch. It took a lot more relaxed concentration than the marigold, and longer to get it right. On the first try, my face didn’t even look human. But after an hour or two of sweating concentration, I found something I was happy with, and memorized it so I could become that way quickly. Once I used magic in some way the first time, it was easier to duplicate it the second, but still required effort.

Looking at the sun in the sky, I saw that it wouldn’t be too long before Michael came home from the woods. I would need to look my best. I stopped by the market on the way home and bought the oils, as well as some clothes and a necklace. My mother wasn’t going to be happy when she found out what I’d done.

I got home, hid my illegal items, and ate supper with my mother and brothers. My father would be coming home later, so my mother kept the stew heating on the coals. The supper was quieter than usual, although my brothers jabbered like normal. My mother and I would look at each other until getting caught by the other and looked away quickly. An admission of guilt on both our parts, but no attempt to bridge it by talking. I tried to eat quickly without making myself sick. The nervousness from my mother’s looks and the anticipation of seeing Michael again was twisting my stomach. Good thing I wasn’t suffering from monthly pains.

Finishing my stew, I left with barely a word, shutting myself into my room. I then started the transformation, the mundane first, like the clothing and the hair, and when that was finished, the face. Halfway through, my mother knocked on the door, asking if I was fine. I looked at myself in my little handheld mirror and truthfully told her I was. She left me alone after that.

I had on a red dress with lacy frills. The dress showed more leg than I had expected, but I suppose Michael would not mind. It came with a shawl that looped under my arm and over my shoulder, covering the long neckline.

When done, I hardly recognized myself, not so much for the face as for the clothes and hair. My magic made my lips a sweet red, I had powder highlighting my eyes, and I had a small ribbon in my hair. This was a look only princesses in the stories would wear. And now I had joined their ranks. My mirror showed my looking as red as an apple.

I almost vomited with uneasiness.

Slipping out the window, so my mother wouldn’t see me, I looked at the sky. Red dusk. Michael would be stretching his muscles walking home after working all day. He’ll have just eaten. Now I just needed to find him.

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Checking the back of my head for bruises to make sure I didn’t have a concussion and hadn’t dreamt it all, I crunched through the leaves on the forest floor. I obviously didn’t travel like the night angels, silently, because once I got to the edge of the forest, I heard someone call out, “Eval, is that you?”

Who called me that? I heard someone coming closer; hoped it was Michael, but was disappointed. “Ethan?”

His silhouette turned into a recognizable form. It reminded me of the night angel. He looked tired from cutting, but smiled when he saw me. “Michael told me he saw you running towards the woods, but no one saw you here. What were you doing out there?”

I wanted to tell him, anyone, what had happened. But it seemed so strange, I had no idea where to begin. I needed to think about this first. Someone I could trust more, like my mother.

“I was dancing with the shadows,” I said, purposely being mysterious.

“Do they make good partners?” he asked.

I hadn’t expected him to respond like that. I smiled slightly. “I’m still trying to figure that out. Maybe you should try it. Then you can tell me.”

“I’ll have to do that someday.”

“By the way, my name’s Evaling, not Eval,” I told him. Ethan just smiled. “Is Michael nearby?”

Ethan pointed to his left, not saying anything. I followed the path of his finger, waving goodbye. He waved slightly, then went back to work, exhaling a lot of air. Poor thing, he must be tired.

I crossed the border of forest and village. Several men were working nearby. A few looked up to see me, but didn’t pay much attention. Then I saw Michael. His muscled bulged as he brought the axe down from above his head, falling faster than an apple from a tree. He was splitting wood, not actually cutting down trees at the moment. He looked up and saw me. I waved timidly.

We both walked toward each other. I wished I knew how to make myself look pretty. I felt so plain. Michael must be comparing me to Lily right now. Why hadn’t Lancithar taught me anything? I felt my face reddening against my will. Traitorous face.

“What happened this morning?” Michael asked.

Why had I come? I should have hidden myself from his beautiful face forever. “Sorry for my behavior. There was something in the woods I had to explore.”

He looked confused. I couldn’t blame him. “In the woods? What’s out there?”

A beautiful man, more so than you, but don’t worry, I still love you. This strange man who disappears in the shadows says he wants to give me magic and take away the night soothings. “An apple.”

“An…apple?”

Poor, poor man. “An apple tree. The apples taste best at dawn. I wanted to get there before they lost their taste.”

Michael must have figured out that he saw me after dawn, but decided not to say anything about that. “Is everything all right?”

No. “Yes, I’m fine.”

“Do you want to take a walk?”

I stopped. Did I understand what he was saying? “Yes?”

“Let’s go, then.” He took my hand and almost had to drag me, I was so shocked.

We walked into the woods, and I faintly heard some men whistling behind us. I had been spending a lot of time out here lately. Nor could I help but try to look for Lancithar some more, but I tried to be discreet about it. At first, we didn’t say anything. It felt nice to have his hand covering mine.

“Where’s this apple tree of yours?” Michael asked after a few moments.

“Oh, I couldn’t find it from here,” I lied. I didn’t want to go back right now.

He looked like he wanted to say something more, but didn’t know what to say. We were silent a few more minutes. Then I had to go and ruin it. I knew it was a bad thing to say before I did, but I couldn’t help myself. “What do you think of Lily?”

He let go of my hand and blushed red. “She’s…nice.”

“Just nice?” I asked. Why did I torture myself?

“What do you want me to say?”

“What you think.”

“I don’t think anything about her.”

Stop, Evaling. Stop it. “Surely you have some opinion of her?”

“Look, Eva, you’re not my girlfriend, so I don’t feel I have to answer to you whether I think a girl is pretty or not.” He stopped after that, looking uncomfortable but also fuming a bit.

What had I done? Now he would never want to be with me. What had I been thinking? I had basically chased him off to Lily. I felt really awkward, and felt my cheeks turning red. It was not supposed to turn out this way. I turned my head away from him in shame. But that wasn’t enough. So I ran.

“Eva…” Michael said, but didn’t chase after me. That cemented my belief that I had committed an irreparable mistake. I just kept running, wiping tears from my eyes, wanting to escape, but thinking about what he would be thinking about me. A branch reached out and snagged my arm, drawing blood, but I just kept running.

A few moments later I burst out of the forest. I tried to avoid the men, but some of them turned their heads in my direction. I could hear the gossip working in their minds. Lily was there as well, and when I glanced at her, she smiled slightly. She knew what happened, and she was enjoying my pain.

I ran home, to find my mother chasing my brothers, an exasperated smile on her face. When I came in, though, she sensed right away that something was wrong. She took me to my room and asked what was wrong. I told her everything. About Michael. I wasn’t sure what to say about the man in the forest. It felt more like a dream, and I was more concerned about Michael now than some promise of magical powers.

My mother took me into her arms and rocked me back and forth, whispering things into my ear that didn’t really make sense, but that didn’t matter. My tears wet her blouse. Eventually I calmed down.

It was nearing evening; I had been working, doing chores, when a knock sounded on the door. At first I thought it was my father, since he usually came home around this time, but as I opened the door, being the closest to it, I found someone else entirely.

At first I thought it was Michael. Our house faces the west and the sun was getting low, so the figure was backlit by the sun. I held my breath, but when I saw who it really was, I exhaled.

“Ethan?”

“Hi Eval…ing,” he stuttered. He was looking at his feet.

“What are you doing here?”

“Oh, I saw you run out the forest crying, and wanted to make sure everything was all right.”

“That was hours ago.”

He looked at me and gave an apologetic smile. “I know, but I couldn’t get off until now.”

I have to admit, I wasn’t feeling all that charitable at the moment. “Well, thanks for checking up on me. I’m fine.”

“Why were you crying? What happened in the forest?”

I was not going to share my innermost feelings of love and turmoil with him. So I answered the second question. Even though it was the part that happened before everything with Michael. “I found a night angel who gave me magic powers.”

“Huh?”

“Thanks for coming by, I’ll see you around.”

“Wait, why would getting magic powers make you cry?”

Was he taking me seriously? I almost rolled my eyes. Until I remembered I was speaking the truth. “Because I don’t know how to use them.”

“That would be a problem,” Ethan said, nodding sagely.

This conversation was ridiculous. I laughed, and softened a bit. “Really, thanks for your concern. But I’m all right. I’m a big girl.”

“Yes, I’m sure you can take care of yourself. Are you coming to pass out soup tomorrow?”

Inwardly, I blanched. The wounds with Michael surfaced again. “Are you still cutting down trees? Haven’t you cut down enough?”

“The trees…they don’t like being cut down.” Either he was making fun of me, or he was the person most likely to believe what I witnessed. But I had no proof. I didn’t feel ready to share my experience with anyone yet, though.

“Yeah, they do seem kind of sad.” We stood there for a few moments.

“Well, you should go to bed, Eval. Maybe the soothing will heal your pain.”

“I didn’t say I was in pain,” I said, a bit harshly.

“I…I just meant your scar,” he said, pointing to my arm. I had forgotten about that. I doubt that had been what he was referring to, but I let it drop. I gave him a weak smile.

“Sleep well yourself,” I said. “May the night angels bless you.” I don’t know why I said that.

We waved goodbye, each a little sad. I walked into the house. My mother and brothers were staring at me. I walked past them to my room without acknowledging them or their need for gossip. As I lay down after changing, I rolled over to one side, but winced when I felt the pain of the scar from the branch. It had not healed well. The injury was early enough in the day that it had festered a bit. Oh well, tomorrow it would be gone. Rolling over to my other side, I tried to go to sleep, to forget about the events of this day. It would be better if it had not happened.

Unfortunately, too many thoughts rushed through my mind, all blurring together. Letting go was no easy task. I heard my father come in and speak with my mother before I drifted off to an uneasy sleep. Michael became the night angel, but he cursed me with magic instead of blessing me. Ethan and Michael fought, but then they turned on me. The trees sang wailing songs. The apple’s two bites became eyes that stared at me. Three beings looked down on me, judging me. They argued among themselves, shifting into my parents. The stars told stories, gossiping.

Finally, night became morn, but when I woke up, I felt I hadn’t slept at all. I was still worn out. Forcing myself out of bed, I felt pain in my arm, but was too groggy to think much of it. Unsuccessfully trying to comb my hair with my fingers, I stood up and walked out of my room.

My mother was cooking eggs for my brothers, who were bouncing in their chairs. She gave me a cursory glance and then looked again, nearly dropping the pan. “Eva…”

I saw where she was looking, and it wasn’t at my face. It was at my arm. The one that had been hurt yesterday. That was still scarred. I hadn’t been healed. Seeing the panic on my mother’s face, the fear, I started feeling it too. Why hadn’t I been healed? Was I not worthy anymore?

Then I remembered Lancithar telling me that the night soothings would stop. Was it only for me, or would it stop for everyone? Did it stop last night? I looked at my brothers. They were clean and unbruised. So they must have been healed, because they never go a day without minor injuries. Did this only apply to me?

“Did you hurt yourself this morning, Eva?” My brothers looked between my mother and me. She was looking at me like I didn’t have a shadow. I could see in her eyes that she wanted me to lie. She saw the scar yesterday; she knew it was highly improbable I could duplicate it in my room. But she didn’t want to think through the implications.

“Yeah, that must have been it,” I said numbly. My brothers went back to eating their porridge, uninterested now.

Even if my mom refused, I started thinking about what this would mean. As far as I knew, no one was ever denied the soothing. It was as natural as the sun itself. Would people think I had been cursed if they knew? How would they treat me?

If I had taken things slower, I might have avoided that fall, but I was too rushed. It was probably a ten-foot drop, but I landed badly, plus the tree branches tore into my legs. The apple rolled away from me, only two bites in it. I blacked out.

What happened from there was like a dream, or was in fact a dream. I wasn’t sure. I thought I saw Michael carrying me to the village, his smile reassuring. Other images stayed in my mind as well, including three people standing above me, speaking, but I couldn’t understand them. The shadows closed in over me.

I awoke the next morning in my bed, no scratches or bruises. Completely normal. Except I wasn’t sure how I’d gotten there.

“You stayed out late last night,” my mother said, her voice inviting me to tell more. Normally I would have, but I was unnerved from the experience. Had Michael found me?

“I lost track of time,” I said evasively. Mom frowned.

“Eva, what were you doing?” This time it was sterner.

“Mom, I’ll tell you later, but I have to find some answers,” I said, leaving the house.

“Answers?” my mom called out as I left.

I found him leaving his house to go to the woods. Such a fine figure he made. He smiled when he saw me. But it was a guilty smile. My throat went dry. “Hi…Evaling. I didn’t see you yesterday. I know I said we could go on a walk, but it will have to be after. I have to work right now.”

I kept walking, as if I hadn’t come to see him. As if I didn’t hear every heartbreaking word. Not that the words told me anything. But the way he said them, I knew. Lily had gotten to him.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw him frown, then shrug. I resisted the urge to run crying to my house. Besides, I needed to find my answers.

I made it to the woodcutter’s camp before the men did. The first ones were coming up the path. Ethan was one of them, looking fine. Not wanting to answer their questions, I plunged ahead into the woods. Again, I felt the aura of sadness. It was like the trees themselves were sad.

Somehow, I knew where I was now, unlike last night. After a little while, I even found the apple I’d bitten. Two bites in it, still. It was going rotten, brown on the inside.

Who had taken me home? I thought it might be Michael, but he said he hadn’t seen me. My parents didn’t seem too worried this morning, so I must have been taken home soon after falling. But my mother would have wondered why I didn’t eat dinner.

Maybe it had all been a dream. I didn’t have the scratches to prove anything. But the apple was there, its two bites looking at me like eyes. I felt a movement in the corner of my eyes, in the shadows.

I spun around. No one was around me. I was pretty sure I could make it back this time, but it had been awfully foolish to come back. “Who took me home last night?” I cried out in frustration. A few birds flew out of their nests upon hearing me.

“Hello Evaling,” Michael’s voice startled me from behind.

How had he gotten here? And he was coming from deeper in the woods. “Michael?”

His smile was charming and confident. I wanted to run into his arms. He looked like he would hug me, protect me, and never go to Lily. “We should go back, Eva.”

He stepped closer, still with that smile. It was different from two days ago. Not shy. He had never called me Eva, either. Only my mom did. I looked into his eyes. His green eyes. “You’re not Michael!” I yelled, not understanding what was going on, but knowing it was true.

He, whoever he was, put his head in his hand and shook it, still smiling, but this time, more of a smile that a father has when one of his children figure out the lies he was telling them to protect them.

“Very observant. I might have benefitted in choosing one you did not love and know so well. Ethan’s image could have served, but I felt you would trust Michael more.” Now his voice was different. More light, in a singsong manner, picking up on the subtle harmonies of the woods. It made Michael’s real voice seem mundane.

The false Michael stepped into the shadow of a tree and disappeared. I kept looking at the spot where I knew he was supposed to be, but I couldn’t see anything. What was going on here? A few feet away from where he disappeared, the false Michael came out, almost gliding. Except he didn’t look like Michael anymore. Instead, a man with long curly bronze hair and slightly golden skin took his place. His body was perfectly proportioned, and although he looked strong, he moved with a grace that resembled water flowing more than people walking. Michael looked clunky in comparison. A fairly simple dark violet robe covered him.

He flowed towards me. Every time he went through shadow, he disappeared. Or rather, the shadows seemed to hug him. I had the feeling he could control it, and was trying to show me something.

“What are you?” I asked, afraid, but not as much as I should have been. This being, humanlike but not human, exuded trust.

“My name is Lancithar. I am not a human, as you see. Many would call me an angel. Or more appropriately, a night angel.”

Why night angel? My mind worked furiously. I should have been in shock, but my mind worked harder in his aura. “You’re invisible in the darkness. At night. You come to the village and heal everyone. The night soothing.”

“Yes, my kind has chosen to serve yours, healing in the night so that none die, except in old age. It was not always so, but now your kin expect it like the rising of the sun.”

He was right. I never questioned the night soothings. I guess I thought the night itself held mystical properties. To know these night angels came into our houses and healed us was a startling revelation.

“Why do you tell me this? Why me?”

“What would you call the night soothings?”

Before, they were natural. Now that I knew he was the cause of them, they were “Magic.”

“There has been some debate among my kind if our service is truly benefitting you, or if we are making you dependent on us.”

“You would stop them?” The idea seemed horrible.

“Not without replacing them with something else. We would give you magic to heal yourselves, whether night or day. We would open your eyes to the greater world around you, so you could see how the trees suffer when you cut them down, how you can work together with nature and each other to build up great civilizations.”

“What do you want from me, then?” I asked, still wondering why he hadn’t appeared to the village.

“With your permission, I would like to give you this magic, to see how a human would react to it. Then we would decide whether to give the gift to others and let humans take control of their fate or not.”

“So I don’t have to decide whether the soothings will stop? This is just a test?” I did not want the responsibility on my shoulders. Surely the people of the village would want to keep the night soothings. But this night angel spoke of such interesting things that we were ignorant of. Did they have to be mutually exclusive?

“If you have the power to heal yourselves, you would no longer need the night soothings, nor need to wait until night to heal yourselves.” He seemed to be able to read my mind, or at least my expression. The wind blew some leaves past his path.

“And what else would I be able to do with this power?”

“Once you understand magic and how it works, you will have power to do as you wish. Heal, travel, gain knowledge, or make yourself more attractive. It would be in your hands.”

Oh, this man knew how to tempt me. I could just imagine how jealous Lily would be of me with magic. “I’m not sure. Maybe I should think this over.”

“If you wish. Although, I may find others who want to learn what I have to offer them.”

What if Lily took the offer? “I will learn magic.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” I said, closing my eyes.

“Just so you know, you will no longer be human. You will be something more, the first of a new race. You will be known as Evaling, the girl who brought magic back from the forest. Mother of magic.”

It sounded so scary and exciting at the same time. What did he mean, I would no longer be human? I wouldn’t be ugly, would I? But this Lancithar said I could make myself more attractive. Would I be like him?

“Do it, please.” I clenched my fists and tensed. Lancithar smiled, pleasant but with a tinge of sadness.

Flowing closer, he put his hands on my head. I felt a tingle through my body. He lifted his hands and looked me over. I looked at my hands, expecting something to happen. Nothing did. I looked expectantly at Lancithar.

“All I can give you is the capacity for magic. You must learn for yourself. Absorb nature as you journey home. Tonight there will still be a night soothing. I expect you will be enlightened. In a few days’ time, meet me here.” He pointed to the apple on the ground I had bitten yesterday. “This apple will stay here to mark the spot.”

I had so many questions. Feeling the same, it didn’t seem like he had done anything to me. Was this all a lie? How could I use magic? I wanted to learn now!

“Please stay…” my voice trailed off as he disappeared. I looked between the shadows, but he didn’t reappear. I even waved my hands under the shadows of the trees, but to no avail. He was gone.

I found myself walking back out of the forest. It was more mysterious than it had ever been. I kept looking around, to see if I could find Lancithar or some other night angel. Were they watching me? Would I be able to see them if I learned magic? How was I supposed to even begin?

Checking the back of my head for bruises to make sure I didn’t have a concussion and hadn’t dreamt it all, I crunched through the leaves on the forest floor. I obviously didn’t travel like the night angels, silently, because once I got to the edge of the forest, I heard someone call out, “Eval, is that you?”

Here is the first part of a short story I’m working on. It keeps getting longer, might end up being a novella. Hope you like it

Something lives in the shadows.

I’m just not sure if they’re friends or enemies.

Or both.

I first began to wonder while in the middle of trying to get Michael to like me. I was fifteen; he was a year older. I scoured the village for any information I could get about him; he didn’t know I existed. I saw him in town at times, sometimes alone, other times joking with friends. His friends were nice looking, but Michael stood out like a king among them. I never let him get near me; I stayed with my friends the whole time I would spy on him.

How was I going to make him notice me? I wasn’t the most beautiful girl in the village. Surely he would want someone better than me. But I couldn’t imagine settling for less than him.

It took days of careful planning with my friends, Miri and Jaz, before I was able to find an excuse to talk to him while he cut down trees at the edge of the forest. The village was growing, and while the elders grumbled, they knew that trees had to be cleared to make room for people to live.

We couldn’t live in trees. That much seemed obvious.

So Michael followed his father and others who were big and strong and they started cutting down the trees. Not easy work. The tree could be cut down fairly easy, but getting the stump out, that took a lot of work. We’d heard that some villages had animals that worked for them. They called them horses.

We’d also heard that there were no soothing nights in the cities. But we didn’t put much stock in the rumors.

So the men worked on getting the trees cleared. After a few days, I was picked to bring them some soup at midday, although the other women in the village were suspicious of my motives. Smiling to calm them down, I went to the edge with one of the older women, Anna, and found the men there, working. Miri told me to serve Michael last. That way I would have an excuse to talk to him once it was his turn. And he would become jealous until then.

It didn’t work out quite as planned. I had on a nice blue dress, light blue, not too flashy, with a white apron on. I let my brown hair hang down. Once I got there, Anna started setting up. I stopped a moment to admire Michael. His muscles seemed to grow with each strike. I could feel myself blushing, but resisted the urge to fan my face. Mostly because I had soup in my hands.

“I brought soup,” I announced.

Almost as one, each man dropped his tools and came lumbering over, forming a line, looking hungry. Several were joking among themselves. I was afraid they were making fun of me, or my face.

Taking out the bowls, I started serving them. To my distress, Michael was in the middle of the line. As each man came up, I felt like a mouse under his shadow, and wanted to go scurrying off. As Michael came closer, I tried to think of what I would say. Everything practiced with Miri and Jaz was lost in the sea that was my mind. My breathing grew quicker and my heart faster. What would he say to me? Would he even notice me?

Finally it was my turn. I picked up his bowl and bowed slightly, afraid to meet his eyes. But if I didn’t, he would never remember me. I forced myself to look up and smiled, probably awkwardly. “Here’s your soup, Michael.”

His hands cupped mine as he took the bowl from my hands. I could see the sweat on his face, perhaps even smell it, but it didn’t disgust me like it did on the other men. The smell mixed with the leather he was wearing. Michael was such a hard worker. His hair was matted on his forehead. He smiled slightly, eyes sparkling, and left.

I stood there until the next fellow coughed. Hurrying, I started serving again. My chance had been lost. I felt listless as I served the men. Anna looked at me shrewdly, and I knew what she was thinking. She had guessed what happened, but it didn’t appear she cared, as she told me to hurry up the pace.

I was picking up the dishes once everyone ate when I turned around to see Michael behind him, holding out his dish. “Thanks for the soup. It was delicious.”

Stupidly, I muttered that I hadn’t made it, just brought it. I still couldn’t meet his eyes. “Hey, how’d you know my name?” he asked, interrupting me.

“What?”

“When you gave me the soup, you called me Michael. I didn’t know you knew my name.”

It was only engraven onto the insides of my eyes. “Yeah, well, some girls I know pointed you out.”

“Really? What girls?” He looked interested. Wrong thing to say. I was such an idiot.

“Oh, I forget.” I was talking to him like I dreamed about, but nothing was going right.

“Oh, well, I guess I’ll see you around.”

He was leaving! I had to do something. Flirt. What did Miri always tell me? Thrust out my chest? Not that there was much to see. Sway my hips? Wink? No no no, I couldn’t wink at him. “Evaling.”

“What?” He sounded confused.

“That’s my name. Evaling.”

“Evaling.” He said it slowly, but it sounded glorious in his voice. “That’s a nice name.”

“Thank you.”

“You know…” He stopped, scratching his hair and looking away. “We could, maybe, I don’t know, take a walk together some day. If you want.”

My smile was genuine, however goofy it might have looked. “I would love to.”

Michael smiled, too, looking sweetly shy. His brown eyes shimmered. “Well, see you around. I have to get back to work. Evaling.”

Waving goodbye, I forced my face to have a light, serious smile on it. Once I was sure he couldn’t hear me, I squealed and ran to Anna. The woman tried to scold me, but my giddiness was too contagious for her to stay serious. I ended up telling her everything.

Once I was free, I ran back home, tripping once and bruising my knee, but that didn’t matter. I limped the rest of the way home. I found, as expected, Miri and Jaz at the front door. They lit up as the saw my face. My mother couldn’t get a word in over the fire as we rushed to my room and slammed the door shut. We talked for hours, analyzing every move Michael made, and what it meant. Serious doubts appeared in my mind, but in the end, at least I knew he wanted to take a walk with me.

“But he didn’t say when,” Jaz pointed out.

“Maybe he saw that you had a crush and didn’t want to hurt your feelings,” Miri said.

Some friends they were. Later, when they had left, my mother came in, my father having arrived home from his carpentry and was taking care of my little brothers, who were making plenty of noise outside. My mother was a big more optimistic than my friends. Her hair was matted down much like Michael’s had been. She saw my knee but didn’t think much of it, even though it was purple.

“Michael sounds like a good young man, and a little shy. Be nice to him.”

“Shy? Mom, he talks with the other men, even the older ones, like he’s one of them. He didn’t seem shy when talking to me. I was the one looking down.”

“Eva, even the best of men are often a little shy around women. If they’re too comfortable around us, that’s probably a warning sign. Your dad was terrified of me.”

I couldn’t imagine my dad being terrified of anything. Mom’s wisdom seemed dubious, but I felt she must have known something. I decided to go to bed and hope Michael would come talk to me.

At night, I dreamed of him before sleeping. So many ideas of what our lives could be like together, so real, yet so impossible. Crazy, I know, since he had only spoken ten sentences to me. My heart beat faster when I thought of his smile.

I eventually dozed off. In the morning, after the soothing night, I jumped out of bed. I was too excited to stay down. I finished my chores as the rest of the family was eating breakfast. My mom knew what this was about, but dad was perplexed and my brothers didn’t care, picking up sticks and fighting each other as soon as breakfast was over.

I didn’t really have any excuse, but I asked Anna to let me help again. She had another girl with her today, Lily, who was a little older than I was. I didn’t spend much time with her, but I knew that she eyed Michael as well. Taking Anna aside, I begged her to let me come. She finally agreed. I guess her inner romantic wasn’t dead yet. Lily didn’t seem too pleased.

Arriving, the men were still working. A few trees were missing. There was a strange feeling once I got there. A vague sadness, although not from the men themselves. They seemed to be a little less cheerful, but they didn’t seem to be the source. It’s hard to explain. Nor was it very strong.

I didn’t let that thwart me from looking for Michael. While scanning them, I saw one man lift his axe and strike down at a root, but it glanced off and hit his shin. I gasped, seeing blood fly out as he fell, clutching the leg. The men around him stopped what they were doing and went to his aid, but didn’t seem too worried about him.

“Ethan,” one man said over the man’s whimpering. “It looks like you broke your bone. We’re going to bandage you and get you home. You’ll be fine by tomorrow.”

The man, Ethan, clenching his teeth to keep from crying, nodded. Tearing his sleeve into bandages, they wrapped Ethan’s leg to keep him from spilling blood on everything. A few men made a sling to carry him home.

“Eva,” Anna said.

“Yes?”

“I need you to go with them as they take Ethan to the village. He needs soup to sooth him. Only the broth, mind you. These fellows will need to come back as soon as possible and I want you to get Ethan as comfortable as possible so he can sleep. Knock him out with sinkroot if you need to.”

“What?” I knew why it was needed, but not why I was needed. “Doesn’t he have a wife?”

“No. He lives alone. He had a falling out with his mother, and lives far from her as well.”

“What about Lily?” Lily looked at me with venom in her eyes.

“No, she stays with me. I didn’t really need you, but now I do. For this.”

It wasn’t fair. I hadn’t even seen Michael yet. And Lily looked at me with triumph. She was so pretty, with long black hair and a small nose. And thinner and taller than I was. How would Michael ever look at me once Lily got ahold of him?

Fighting to stay strong, to keep from shedding tears, I straightened my back and started marching with the men. Anna gave me a sympathetic look, but I refused to look her in the eye.

We arrived at Ethan’s house a little while later. It was nothing special, fairly small. Inside, my mother would have gone crazy, it was so disorganized. Blankets on the floor, dirty dishes, and rotten food. There was a chair my father had made; I recognized his handiwork.

The men left me with moaning Ethan, who wasn’t really that old. Not much older than I was, really. I kind of felt sorry for him, all alone here. He barely seemed coherent. I think his wound was getting infected. Blood kept soaking through the bandages, which I tried to clean up. It wasn’t the most pleasant job in the world.

“Eval…” he began my name. I was surprised he could even tell who I was, let alone know my name.

I kept hoping he would doze off, but he stayed awake. I couldn’t find any sinkroot, so I had to leave and ask one of the neighbors. It was taking much too long. I wanted to rush over to Michael. The sun in the sky was slowly starting to sink.

Finally I was able to make the tea and get Ethan to drink it. It took a few moments but he fell asleep. He wouldn’t be waking up until morning. The wound looked pretty bad, the leg still dangling, but he would be fine.

Freedom! I ran as fast as I had yesterday, but was more careful to not fall down. It would not do to have unsightly bruises before nightfall. Nor would it do to have a dirty dress, so I picked that up around my waist. I saw a few women staring at me, scandalized. I managed to wave cheerfully. Not that I was cheerful inside. It had taken much too long. Lily might already be kissing Michael by now.

When I arrived, the men were cleaning up. My heart fell deep into my chest. I couldn’t see Michael. Nor could I see Anna and Lily.

Gathering my courage, I asked one of the men if he knew where Michael was. He shook his head and said that he might be a bit deeper into the woods. There were some crews that were thinning that part out.

Thanking him, I sped off into the woods, losing sight of the village. The trees grew thicker here. It was late afternoon; my mother would be wondering where I was. But I wanted to make sure Lily hadn’t taken my Michael.

My feet crunched the leaves as I walked. It smelled fresh here, but also sad, like I had felt before. The man had told me to go deeper in the woods, but the deeper I went, the more I felt I was going the wrong way. I couldn’t even see where they were cutting down the trees. I decided to turn back and start over, or wait for Michael outside the woods. It was kind of frightening to be here.

I turned around and went back. Or at least I thought I did. But after walking a few minutes, I was still in the woods. I couldn’t see the son to know what direction I was going in. A squirrel ran by and I nearly screamed. Then, ashamed of myself, I did scream, hoping someone would hear. My voice soon became hoarse, though, and I didn’t hear anyone coming. Was I really so far in?

I was getting hungry. I should have eaten at Ethan’s house, but I was too anxious. Now I was lost and had no idea where my village was, let alone any food.

It was frightening, really. There was almost nothing to fear in the village. Fear was the occasional nightmare. Pain wasn’t even feared much, just by little children who didn’t understand it would go away soon enough. But this was different. What if I never made it back home? That wasn’t something that could be healed.

I wandered about for another half hour. The sun was setting, I could tell from the level of light. Looking up at the light leaving the leaves, I saw something seem to shine in the fading light. An apple. It was higher than I could reach on my own, but if I climbed up the tree, it should be within my grasp.

Feeling undignified but driven by the emptiness of my stomach, I jumped and caught onto a branch. It caught on to me as well, or on my dress. I did not want to ruin it, so, untangling myself and getting back to the ground, I took it off, hanging it on a branch. I had my shift on, but if anyone came now, especially Michael, I would die of embarrassment.

It was kind of cold as I pulled myself up. How did my little brothers make it seem so easy? After grunting and other unladylike sounds, I pulled myself up and lay stomach down on the branch with the apple. There were probably others as well, but higher and I had my eyes set on this one. I just had to crawl forward and reach out.

I kept looking to see if I was alone. There seemed to be some presence in the shadows. Was someone watching me?

Slowly I moved closer to my objective, breaking off smaller branches on the way. Some of them scratched me, but my stomach refused to give up. I nearly fell a few times, but managed to hold on. Finally, I was able to grab that apple, sending the branch waving dangerously in the process. I held it in my hand for just a moment before bringing it to my mouth and taking a bite out of it. It was delicious, although my hunger might have had something to do with that. Relaxing a bit, I took another bite. Then I heard the branch crack. Panicking, I tried scooting in reverse.

The whole branch fell down, me screaming with it.

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A good romance within fantasy makes characters worth caring about, gives them more to lose if they fail in their journey, and provokes powerful emotions from the readers. But it can be hard. There are many that are over the top, and become unbelievable. Or too low key. There are characters where you wonder why they fall in love, and don’t really have any chemistry, so it feels forced. Personally, I didn’t care for the romances in Harry Potter. They felt a bit forced, so that everyone would be together and related in the end. Ginny didn’t feel like she had much personality; she was just there so Ron and Harry could be brothers-in-law. Same thing with Hermione and Ron; I had no idea what she saw in him, although maybe from a female perspective it would be different, that she loved his humor or whatever. In the end, Harry, Ron, and Hermione stay together, but the romance elements didn’t feel real to me. Also Edward and Bella in Twilight…from the perspective of a man, there’s no reason why Edward should be so obsessed with her. She might be beautiful (although I don’t find the emotionless Kristen Stewart all that attractive), but you’d think a hundred year old vampire would be able to judge beyond something so skin deep. She’s a weak character and isn’t very appealing to me, which is probably why many men don’t like it, aside from being mushy. Another thing that happens in a lot of stories, including fantasy, is that the man (or boy) falls in love with a woman out of his reach, someone strong and independent maybe, and is pining for her, but eventually, they get together, and suddenly she becomes submissive and loses her personality, letting her new man do everything for her. People shouldn’t lose what made them lovable in the first place once they hook up or get married.
Some authors seem to think that sex is the same as romance, that if they include descriptions of sex, it will make the readers fall in love with the characters. Some male authors use fantasy books to write porn (females as well, but often they write their own porn in romance novels). I feel that if the characters have sex, the reader doesn’t really need to see it. Give them some privacy, even if they are fictional, unless it really has to do with the plot. We usually don’t see the characters in the restroom; we don’t need to see them in the bedroom. Graphic sex will probably turn off as many readers as it will attract, and the author’s reputation will be damaged. So it should probably be left out. Both men and women are guilty of this.
Something else that often doesn’t get shown is married love and romance. Often the characters are coming of age and at the end of the quest, they get married and the end, they lived happily ever after. Disney is partially responsible for this mentality. So many times, love is shown as good before marriage, but after being together, married people hate each other. A lot of sitcoms are based on this idea. But there are many things about romance that can be explored within marriage. It is different than young love, but not necessarily weaker, just not so full of drama. More stable. More enjoyable, really. If dating is a roller coaster, marriage is a road trip. Maybe not as exciting or scary, but at least you can hear each other talk, and there is still the anticipation of going somewhere together, that you’re still on a journey.
In fantasy, love can be influenced by things that don’t exist in real life. Love potions, spells that compel, magic that binds two souls together. Usually magic doesn’t influence love itself, but can provide a counterfeit. True love can be what breaks curses and saves the day, like in Shrek. But despite what can be done in fantasy, love usually needs to be realistic for it to believable. Fortunately, love is the closest thing to magic in this life, so there is no real need to embellish it with magic to make it exciting. It already is.
There are several lists of good fantasy romances, mostly including female authors, as if men can’t write romance. There is some bias in this, as woman are the ones judging. Like I said earlier, men write romance within a larger context of an adventure or other type of novel. If they were only to write romance fiction, they would probably be ridiculed and not have many sales. So beware, not all good romance comes from women, but can be hidden within other stories. Hopefully this post will get people thinking more critically about the romances presented. People want connection, want relationships, and reading about it can be rewarding, if done right. Here’s to my wife, who’s my fantasy and who taught me what real romance is. Thanks honey.

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Many times, when people see those words connected, they’re not thinking of fantasy as swords and spells, but I’m not going to address that kind of fantasy today. Instead, I’m talking about love stories in a fantasy setting, with the swords and spells. And since Valentine’s day has just passed, I thought it would be a good time to write on this. (I didn’t write this before because I was spending time with my Valentine. By the way, I’m also coming out with a new short story soon.) So this subject is a big one, and i’ll probably have more posts on it, but I wanted to get started.
Falling in love is often the closest we get to fantasy and magic in our real world lives, and having characters fall in love in stories either brings back good memories or gives us hope for a better future. Most people enjoy a good romantic tale, so it makes sense to include it in most stories (The Lord of the Rings is an exception, as it didn’t really have any romance, although the movies inserted some in to draw more women.)
So one form of fantasy romance is the romance novel set in a fantasy setting, either modern or made up. Twilight is probably the most famous example of this, as vampires and werewolves are not real. This can also be called supernatural romance. These stories are aimed at female audiences and plays on their emotions, almost all from the female perspective. Men in these books are often sensitive chivalrous heroes that can read women much better than real men and are devoted to the female protagonist, sweeping them off their feet.
Another form of romance in fantasy is more from the male perspective. This is often more within an adventure, where the man has a woman he’s fighting for, or someone he’s fighting alongside with. Usually the protagonist is so heroic that the woman in his life has no choice but to throw herself at the hero’s feet in worship, whether she’s a damsel in distress or a heroine in her own right (which, sometimes when men are writing, the ‘heroine’ is no more than a man with breasts: in other words, acts like a man, is strong like a man, fights like a man, but has the body of a woman).
One of the biggest complaints, in both examples, is that the writer doesn’t portray the opposite sex in a convincing and realistic way. Women write their idealized version of men, men write their idealized version of women; both end up writing someone of their own gender in the attractive body of the opposite gender.
But I don’t want to go too much into gender right now. I just want to show that both genders have different viewpoints when it comes to romance, although both really want one thing: to love and be loved. Yes, women, most men are romantic and want to have love, not just sex. It hits us hard, but it’s more taboo to talk about, especially to get emotional about it. Men don’t usually read romance books because they are directed to female audiences and men can’t relate. The same with chick flicks.

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