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Fantasy Coming of Age

When Lark was young, before she truly felt the weight of this world, she killed a tree.


She’d only been experimenting, of course, wanting to show her father what she could do. But when she intoned the words and let her voice flow out in a cadence, the tree withered instead of bloomed, and the life was bleached from its body like colorful cloth in water.


That day took up its own nook in her brain, a yawning space that nothing else could fit into. It had been windy, and her father had held her in his arms as she cried and her tears gathered on the grass. I’m sorry, she’d sobbed. I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry.


After Lark’s hiccups had subsided and she stared silently at the tree in miserable shock, her father knelt in front of her. His eyes gleamed bright in her memory, impossible to forget.


The forest will forgive you, in time, he said.


But why? I hurt it-


Because you are its princess, he told her. And when you grow up and I’m gone, it knows you will never stop protecting it from the citydwellers. The last word wasn’t spoken, but spat, like it was some kind of toxic chemical or raging wildfire.


How does it know that?


It’s alive, he said. He fixed the grass crown on her head, which had begun to slip in the breeze. It trusts you. It knows that you’ll never abandon it.


Lark dried her tears. Okay, she said, her voice shaky but certain. I promise.


🌿


When someone knocked on the door of her cottage, a day and a half after the last time, it felt a little like fate.


Lark adjusted the gilded grass crown she wore. Even if she felt like butterflies were flowing through her veins instead of blood, she didn’t have to look like it. Maybe it was a citydweller, wanting to strike a bargain with the oh-so-powerful witch of the woods. Or maybe it was another magical, whose existence she’d dreamed about for years. She hated to think she was in this exile alone.


She opened the door.


“Hello,” Natalya said. “It’s nice to see you again.”


She didn’t know it, of course, but there was something about Natalya that eased the fire inside Lark. She was furious with the citydwellers in general, still, for starting wars and burning down half the woods and banishing her people in the first place. But Natalya’s presence - her stupid, courageous, reckless, kind presence - made her feel like there might be at least a little bit about humanity worth saving. It was silly.


“I told you to get out of these woods,” Lark said flatly, ignoring the way her pulse thumped in her chest. “Go run to Kawaakari or whatever it is you wanted to do.”


Between her feelings and her forest, she would always choose the latter. It trusts you. It knows that you’ll never abandon it. As a magical who could communicate with the animals and plants, they were under her protection. It was more than a desire. It was a duty.


The night before last, she’d thought that they could have something beyond a distant acquaintanceship. Lark had been lonely for years, longing for a touch that wasn’t a snake’s scales or a birch’s bark, wishing, hoping, wanting someone to smile at softly in the morning and take on the world together. For a few vulnerable hours, she had let herself picture something more than living among birds and squirrels. Lost in a different kind of love.


Until the river spun their futures out in a fateful tapestry, exposing Natalya as the selfish citydweller she was, and the feelings springing up inside Lark went from hesitant to irrational. She could not love Natalya like this. Not until the world froze over.


Lark’s eyes alighted on the circlet in Natalya’s blond hair, sitting there so casually it might have been a headband. Its gemstone flowers gleamed in the afternoon light.


“Is that the crown?” she asked, stunned.


Natalya touched her head, uncharacteristically self-conscious. “I’m officially queen of Evenfall now,” she said. “I inherited the position from my father.” A sly smile grew on her face, and she edged in closer, like she had a secret to spill. “Just between you and me, though, it wasn’t exactly a peaceful transfer of power.”


Lark stood still. Part of her was a little in awe of the person before her, her evolution from self-preservation to stepping up for the nation. “I suppose congratulations are in order.”


“Thank you,” said Natalya. She took a deep breath. “And also… invitations.”


“What do you mean?” Lark asked, apprehension stirring inside her.


“My official coronation was yesterday,” Natalya explained. “Since then, I’ve been up day and night implementing new acts. It’s been tiring, but the people on the streets already look a little happier.” She beamed brighter than the rising moon. “I signed two acts to end the wars with Aether and Amaranth, three to provide other benefits for Evenfall’s citizens, and…”


For the first time, she hesitated.


“One more to nullify the exile on the magicfolk.”


Lark felt her breath stutter in her chest. “What?”


Natalya reached for Lark’s hand, then seemed to decide against it. “You can come to Kitaeri, with me. You’ll have a home.”


“This is my home.” She registered dimly that the world was spinning.


Lark had never left this forest, with its rustling leaves and all-encompassing roots. The owls had taught her the revolution of time, the deer had shown her how to run, and the wolves had pointed out to her every star in the sky. She got her news from listening to the soaring songbirds and studied her reflection in rippling ponds. The sky was a canvas and the sun was a paintbrush that she knew every bristle of. These woods were her anchor in the restless ocean of the world. Letting go would mean drowning.


“This was never supposed to be your home,” Natalya countered. “The banishment was unfair and unnecessary. And a lot of Evenfall citizens agree. They think we could have used your… talents during the wars.”


Lark let out a derisive laugh. Natalya’s words didn’t sink in; they punched her in the chest like falling stones, capturing her breath and refusing to release it.


She looked Natalya in the eyes sharply. “What were your citizens doing when I felt like I might fall apart because of how much I was using my talents? When I was sustaining entire forests every day by myself?”


“That’s not fair,” Natalya said. “They were homeless, and starving, and-”


“You don’t get it, do you? I could barely breathe on some days because it felt like the world was caving in. Whatever happens to the forest, it happens to me. And the forest, as you might recall, was being set on fire because of the war.” She paused, pulse racing, and her voice came out soft and wobbly. “Imagine feeling that. As a ten year old.”


Natalya looked shocked. “I’m so sorry.”


“So yes, I know your citizens couldn’t have done anything about the war. But they could have done something about me, you know.” Lark felt the fire blaze brighter. “If they love magicals so much, why didn’t they come to find me? Why were you the first visitor I had in three years?”


When Father died, it hurt even more than the war did.


“I was just lonely,” she said. She lifted her chin. “So, so lonely.”


“You don’t have to be lonely anymore,” Natalya said passionately, tears in her eyes. Lark’s heart twisted unreasonably at the sight. “Come to the city. The Kitaerians are better than they were two hundred years ago.”


But instead of thinking of the city, she thought of this forest, the place that she knew every inch of. Where she could sing each note of the wind’s melody that whistled through the branches, sketch every picture she’d seen in the velvet night sky. Without this magic, this untameable land, who was she, really? How could she abandon one home for the faint promise of another?


You are the princess of the forest. You will never stop protecting it from the citydwellers.


“I can’t come with you,” Lark blurted out. She moved to retreat back inside her cottage, toward the cauldron’s crackle and the familiar glint of the moon on the mason jars.


A sudden warmth enclosed her hand, and she spun to see Natalya holding on to it like it was a lifeline. “What?” Lark said, hating the way her voice rose and fell like a lovestruck butterfly.


“Please,” Natalya said, and it pained Lark to see her coming undone. “Just think about it, okay? You don’t have to, but give it a chance, please.”


Visions of what could be spilled into Lark’s mind, as clear as the river and impossibly tempting. Wandering in and out of the busy shops her father had described to her. Racing through the city under the rising sun. Running into someone on the street, and exchanging a sort-of greeting and laughing awkwardly at their self-consciousness, the kind of briefly exquisite connection she’d only ever entertained in her dreams.


Stupid, she chastised herself. She would never have a home in Kitaeri like this one.


“I have to stay,” she said, “like I promised my father I would.”


Natalya’s shoulders slumped like a bird in the rain. “Okay,” she said, releasing Lark’s hand. “I’ll be back tomorrow at the same time if you change your mind.”


“Thank you,” Lark said, unsure what the gratefulness was for, but aware it was there. Blooming and buzzing and boiling inside her, a strange sensation that was fueled by conversation and simple pleasantries. She almost dreaded its inevitable disappearance.


She watched Natalya stride into the dark once again, noticing her erect posture, the steady way she held her head. She looked distant, regal. Out of reach.


🌿


After an hour of listening to her thundering mind, Lark slipped out the door and stepped barefoot into the night. The cool evening breeze was a welcome balm on her skin.


Good evening, she said to a nearby bird perched atop a branch. This language was one of her favorites, lilting and melodic, as if the notes themselves were singing.


Witch of the beyond, the wren replied, and made a gesture as if to bow. Forest princess.


Oh, no need for the fancy titles. But Lark was smiling as she made her way deeper into the woods, searching for one particular spot.


She tipped her face upwards to peer through the lattice of the glowing trees. The leaves shone green and blue, the kind of colors that only came out in the dark. Far above, the stars glinted against the black sky like beads of sunlight strung across river waves.


Pleasure to see you, a raccoon croaked from beside her. The tongue of the small mammals was deeper and guttural, the scratch of claws on stone.


She wound her way through the bushes, never letting her footsteps fall too loudly. At the center of the forest, silence was sacred. Lark almost liked the eerie quiet and the way it blanketed her, a shield from the war and the world.


The war is over, she reminded herself, but she could still hear the woods’ screams.


The stars are beautiful tonight, a voice sighed. A stag was situated in the middle of the path, watching the sky intently.


I’m sorry, excuse me, I’m in a bit of a rush, she answered in the gentle grumbles of the large animals. She pushed past the stag and raced into the clearing.


There had always been something distinctly mystical about this place, bookmarked by the slow swaying of the leaves in the wind, the ethereal glowing vines strung among the tops of the trees. They wove themselves into a canopy that even Lark couldn’t untangle.


In the center of the space stood a towering tree, reaching for the sky like a hand erupting from the ground. Its branches were gnarled and twisted, covered in bark that seemed to take on the colors of its surroundings. Right now, it was a deep green, while its leaves were black and speckled with silver. Even canting her head up, she couldn’t see the top. She could barely recognize it as the flimsy sapling she’d killed and resurrected so long ago.


Lark bowed. O wise one, she greeted.


The tree stood unmoving, but it sent reverberating words back that pulsed through the ground. Witch of the forest, what is it you desire?


Advice, she responded immediately. How to forget the possibility of something.


Despite having only lived for a few decades, the tree sounded ancient. Lark felt a pang of regret for not protecting it from the war better. She knew there were burn scars crisscrossing its far-reaching roots as surely as the stars hung in the sky.


And why would you ever want to leave something that seems so important to you behind?


I don’t know, Lark said, thinking of the promise Natalya had made her, the promise that she had sworn to keep for her father.


She inhaled sharply. But I have to forget it. It’s clogging up my mind and I can’t stand it. I am nothing without the forest. I can’t abandon it, no matter how much I want to.


If the tree had been a person, it would have laughed. Instead, it shivered and swished in an invisible breeze. It is not a crime to desire this. There is nothing holding you back.


But there was. The words she’d spoken so long ago, before this very trunk. They tied her to the ground, heavy, unbearable. She could never break this rope.


This is your choice, the tree said. I cannot help you any further.


Fine. I’ll do it myself. 


🌿


The ideas chasing themselves around and around in her mind were going to make her explode. She moved noisily through the forest, desperate to release some of the ever-mounting pressure, a cork in a bottle, holding everything inside. The trees around her didn’t feel comforting, but stifling.


Lark had never felt quite this loud before.


She shouted into the empty night, a wordless howl of frustration. The sound stumbled into the tangled plants and faded away far too quickly. Lark felt confused, anguished, utterly lost in the home she knew so well. Except she was suffocating in it.


The fire in her chest built to a fever pitch, and she closed her eyes and inhaled shallowly. Again. And again. Calming down was ten times harder than getting angry. It was so hard to keep these flames in check by herself.


“I’m supposed to know, Father,” she said to the stars. “I’m not supposed to want to leave, then want to not want to leave, and it’s all so confusing and I don’t know what to do.”


The pinpricks of light didn’t respond. She scoffed and turned away. What had she been expecting? Someone to lean on, someone to offer her advice and hold her hand and help her through the hard times?


“It’s just me,” she whispered to herself. Her voice wavered, shattered on the last word. It was always just her. Alone.


The forest whispered back, or maybe it didn’t. She wasn’t sure. Even the flowers held silent as they watched her pace and break down and put herself back together.


Why was it that every time she closed her eyes, she saw Kitaeri? Imagined other people like her, their voices rippling through her brain like a lazy river current? Why couldn’t she get rid of these dreams, tempting her, pulling her away from her identity?


Lark stopped.


This forest was a home to her, and it always would be. But did that mean she had to cling on to it like it was one of her puzzle pieces? Could she paint her own picture, put herself together with the world she’d never seen before?


Her thoughts were thunder and so was her heartbeat. They raged inside her like storms.


“I have to stay here,” Lark tried weakly. “I promised my father I would.” Even after the words left her mouth, they felt vaguely off, as if a dusty wind had tinted everything the palest shade of brown.


It is not a crime to desire this. She thought of her father, how she’d vowed to him that she’d never stop defending her home. The war was over now, so were there any threats left against her forest? Was it strong enough to stay behind?


Was she strong enough to leave?


She wanted more than to be kissed by trees, something more tangible than the smile of the sun. Kitaeri was a dazed dream, no more than a reflection in a river, but it was something bold and bright. A new frontier.


There was a phrase among her people. Returning to the beyond. When a magical grew too old to carry on, their body disintegrated and their essence was transferred back to the earth. Maybe in the form of a vibrant seedling, downy feathers, a silver-lined cloud. It had happened to her father. It awaited her too.


Forest princess, the woods murmured, and it sounded like a song. Witch of the beyond.


Lark was magic, of course, but she was everything that lay beyond these trees too, everything she’d heard her father speak about. She was soaring trees and shining stars and reaching flames, searching for connection, for something more.


She kissed her palm and pressed it to the earth. She had far more love to give. More life to live.


She would never need to give this forest up. Wherever she went, she carried it with her.


Already, Lark could see the way the voices in Kitaeri would rise and tangle in the sky, a web of tree roots, just as alive as anything else.


April 07, 2021 00:30

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13 comments

Michael Boquet
18:16 Apr 07, 2021

A great follow up to 'The Author'. I love how much you humanized Lark. She came off as more on the tough side in the last installment. So it's cool to see her from another perspective. Great final paragraph. Excited to see where the story goes from here. P.S. saw your comment below and I think the internal monologue is well done and reflects the inner conflict that runs through the entire piece.

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Ellie Yu
22:23 Apr 07, 2021

I'm so happy to hear your thoughts! Especially the note about the monologue - I must have rewrote that four times. Thanks for reading!

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Ellie Yu
00:32 Apr 07, 2021

Part 2 of my series, "The Rise and the Rhyme". This is preceded by "The Author." Unedited again! Look at me, I'm on a roll. I was hesitant to post this because I felt that it might be too rushed, but oh well. What's done is done. The biggest challenge I faced while writing this was her internal monologue at the end. Ugh, that part almost killed me. I wanted to delve further into Lark's character for this one, so no romance yet. That should happen in the next/last part, which will explore their relationship and the city of Kitaeri. I'm not...

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Emma Louise
20:14 Apr 09, 2021

I just realized that this was a part 2... I was going to say I almost wished we had more information, but we do! It actually works by itself, too, in a mysterious sort of way. I love the concept of the girl being part of the forest but not being limited to it.

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Ellie Yu
13:54 Apr 10, 2021

Whoops, sorry about the confusion! I was considering putting a note at the top saying that this was a Part 2 but I decided against it. Thanks so much for your meaningful comment!

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Yolanda Wu
10:06 Apr 09, 2021

I really liked this deeper delve into Lark's character! I agree with Michael, she seemed really tough in The Author, but all tough characters gotta have their soft sides. I loved how you described her connection to the forest, and her internal conflict in being freed from the forest that she was exiled to, but not wanting to leave because it's her home - you really hit the prompt there. I love how she admits to Natalya her loneliness, and Natalya replies with 'you don't have to be lonely anymore', hit me in the feels. Once again, your writin...

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Ellie Yu
16:00 Apr 09, 2021

Again, thank you for such an amazing comment! You're too kind. And wow, reading your stories, I'd never have guessed you were in high school! I'm a big fan of your style too. The fact that you've written six novels is inspiring, honestly - I can't get myself to type more than 10k words. PS: Natalya/Lark is absolutely a thing. :) I'm a sucker for slow burns so I've been trying to rein it in on the romance, but the next part is gonna be very fun.

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Yolanda Wu
23:36 Apr 09, 2021

Oooh, yess slow burn queer romance - totally my thing! Also I know the six novel thing sounds so braggy and like I've accomplished a lot, but none of them have been properly edited, so they're all first drafts. I have some hope for the novel I'm writing at the moment, but we'll see. I'm so excited to read more about Lark and Natalya! Let me know when you've written a new part. :)

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Lani Lane
23:22 Apr 07, 2021

Hi Ellie! This was a great take on the prompt. I LOVE fantastical pieces, especially ones to do with nature - I so relate to wanting to choose the forest... This line (and the whole paragraph, seriously) was wonderful: "The owls had taught her the revolution of time, the deer had shown her how to run, and the wolves had pointed out to her every star in the sky." Same with this: "Where she could sing each note of the wind’s melody that whistled through the branches, sketch every picture she’d seen in the velvet night sky." Just a lot of b...

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Ellie Yu
03:44 Apr 08, 2021

This comment made me smile so hard, thank you for reading! Your attention means a lot.

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Lani Lane
03:51 Apr 08, 2021

Of course! And I really appreciate your bio as well!

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Claire Lindsey
01:30 Apr 07, 2021

I loved getting to see Lark’s perspective a bit more in this one. The backstory and conflict between desire and duty made her feel very complex. And the language you use to describe the forest and its language is stunning! A couple edits to consider: When Lark had been young, when she hadn’t yet felt the weight of this world, she had killed a tree. Consider rewording so it’s more active: When Lark was young, before she truly felt the weight of this world, she killed a tree. Or maybe it was another magical, the existence of which she’d a...

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Ellie Yu
02:43 Apr 07, 2021

Those are really good notes, thanks so much! I was really desperate to continue their story, so I jumped at the chance. I'm planning to spoil them with one more part... we'll see how long I procrastinate.

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