The magicfolk make no promises.
For all her life, the proverb had echoed through the kingdom, no matter which way she turned. It was a scolding used on children, a line tossed out by history teachers, but most of all, a constant whispering among the commoners. Every raindrop, every crack of thunder was because of those people. The magicfolk had been exiled from the kingdom centuries ago for breaking the natural laws, and they’d lived away from society in the wild ever since.
Now the words roared to life inside Natalya’s head for the thousandth time, too insistent to ignore. No promises. No promises.
This forest, dappled with sunlight in the day, became a different beast with the rise of the moon. Shadows reached for her, tearing at her lantern’s glow. The trees around her loomed larger every second. These woods were alive, and every rustle and movement she couldn’t quite see was an intimidating reminder.
Yet the stone cottage she stood in front of looked utterly mundane, a normal sight transposed into an unsettling world.
“Hello?” she called, her voice shaky. “My name is Natalya, and I’d like to make a deal.”
The door opened quickly, and a shadow wreathed in golden light fell across the ground. Silence hung in the air for a moment, storm-cloud threatening.
“Who are you?”
The voice was higher than legend had it, shaded with anxiety instead of poise. She lifted her head tentatively. Standing there was not the wizard of myth, but a slender, pretty girl who looked just as young as her.
“I was told the wizard lived here,” Natalya said, light-headed.
The girl lifted her chin defiantly. A woven grass crown, beginning to shrivel, rested on top of her short copper hair. “He died last year,” she said sharply. “I’m his daughter. Not that you’d know.” Her gaze flicked up and down Natalya’s orange dress, tucked under a modest traveling cloak. “You’re clearly royalty.”
“I need a hypnosis potion,” Natalya said, suddenly hyper-aware of her tangled hair and dust-streaked complexion. She shifted her stance, displaying a satchel. “I brought a hundred copper coins to pay. A lot of money in the city.”
“What makes you think I want to live in your city, princess?”
“Kitaeri is the greatest city in the land,” Natalya objected, thinking of the busy streets and the bustling markets, the constant chorus of voices. But those thoughts were quickly replaced with darker ones, of bloodshed and conflict and the king. Her father. On his head, the monarch’s crown looked less like a circlet of gemstone flowers than a ring of thorns.
“What’s that?” the girl asked, pointing to Natalya’s golden necklace dripping with crystals. She’d forgotten she had it on.
“I’ll exchange it for the potion, if you’d like.”
“Deal,” the girl responded. She reached for the necklace, then snapped the clasp and pocketed it. Natalya’s breath hitched at the sudden proximity.
The other girl spun on her heel and beckoned her inside.
The first thing Natalya noticed when she stepped inside was the yellow fire warming a bubbling cauldron in the center of the room, flickering cheerily within a ring of stones. The walls were lined with shelves upon shelves of every wild thing imaginable. One glance revealed an extensive collection of herbs, another a cluster of jarred animal parts, and a third flowers in full bloom in the furthest corner.
“Name’s Lark, by the way.”
Natalya turned to the witch, who had a small feathered shape bobbing on her arm. “Is your pet magical?" she asked.
“He’s not mine,” she said derisively. “He belongs to the forest.”
Natalya found herself holding her breath as Lark and the nightingale gazed at each other. Finally, the bird stretched his wings and glided toward the treeline. “You can… talk to animals?”
“I don’t talk to them,” Lark said. She dropped a handful of herbs in and watched the pearly solution in the cauldron bubble. “I listen. And they listen back.”
Natalya felt her worldview twist. “You know, my father told me that magicfolk only had destructive powers,” she observed. “That’s why you all were banished.”
Lark’s expression shuttered.
“Let’s go,” she said roughly, scooping the liquid into a small flask. “I have ingredients to gather, and I don’t trust you in my house alone.”
With Lark around, this forest was all muffled sounds and quiet birdsong, angles a little less severe, edges a little less sharp. As she walked quickly through the undergrowth, Natalya trailing her like a comet’s tail, the plants seemed to lean toward Lark. She found herself doing the same.
“So, princess, what do you even need this hypnosis potion for?” Lark cast Natalya a side glance. “The spell only works on one person for twelve hours, in case you wanted to know.”
“Please don’t call me ‘princess,’” Natalya said. “I don’t like to be reminded that I’m related to the king.”
“Is Evenfall struggling that much under his rule?”
Natalya almost laughed. “You don’t know?”
“I’ve lived in the forest all my life, with my father.” Her expression changed. “At least, until last year.”
“Oh,” Natalya said quietly. The magicfolk make no promises. She had no way to know if this witch was telling the truth, but there was a tinge of real emotion in Lark’s voice, like a pitch held too long, about to shatter.
She thought about her own father, lecturing her as a child when she’d strayed out of the sunlight and into the trees. There are animals in there, but they look just like us.
“Tell me about the king,” Lark demanded. Natalya looked over, noticing how she held herself at an angle so she couldn’t see her face. “I want to know more."
Natalya hesitated. “He started a war with Aether eight years ago, when I was ten, and another with Amaranth last year. We’re running out of money, but he just keeps going. There’s not enough shelter or food to go around. More soldiers die every day, and…” Her voice cracked. “It’s horrible.”
They arrived in another forest glade, where Lark began picking herbs from the ground with delicate fingers. She dropped them into the flask, the liquid bubbling and turning a paler silver with each addition. “So that’s why you need this potion,” she said softly. “You can’t stand your father anymore.”
“Yes,” Natalya said, like it would be something to be proud of if she tried hard enough.
Next to a patch of glowing mushrooms, Lark knelt and closed her eyes. “What are you doing?” Natalya asked warily.
There was no response. Lark kept her palms pressed down on the grass as if feeling for something. A shaft of moonlight highlighted her body like an iridescent spotlight, and she looked like a statue, a relic of a forgotten time. She looked so different from the girls back home - free, unburdened, beautiful without trying.
Natalya hovered in the shadows, floating in limbo.
A tense minute later, Lark stood up, her expression stormy. For the first time, Natalya noticed how striking her eyes were - sage green, shot through with brown, so deliberate they looked like they'd been painted. “Feeling for damage,” she said. “Remember those wars you citydwellers started?”
“We're that bad?” Natalya questioned incredulously as Lark picked a clump of tiny mushrooms and added them to the potion. “And aren’t you hurting those right now?”
“That’s different,” Lark snapped. “I respect life. But the wars right now are being carried out without any thought for nature. Every day, armies burn the forests to ashes on their marches. They’re just obstacles on the king’s way to conquering more territory.”
“I didn’t know it was that extensive,” Natalya said, a little stunned.
Lark seemed to struggle internally for a moment, then yanked Natalya down to sit on the cool grass with her. The contact made her heart rate jump. “Listen,” she ordered.
The world stopped breathing as Lark leaned in closer. Their foreheads met in an intimate touch, and her skin felt like it was lighting up with electricity, lightning fizzing through her body. Natalya tasted Lark’s breath against her face, felt hands cupping her cheeks, the sound in her head building to a hum of feverish warmth, then-
Natalya gasped and pulled away, the weight of the world sloughing off her shoulders. “What was that?”
Lark's face twisted in anguish, and Natalya felt an irrational surge of anger that someone had hurt her, broken down this girl who cared so deeply.
“The forest,” Lark said quietly. “I can hear it, and I let you hear it for a moment too.”
The sound rang in Natalya’s ears as she stood up shakily. It reminded her of the cries that echoed through the streets every week when the names of the fallen soldiers came back. It was a public display of grief, a longing for a missing piece of this world, never to be part of the intricate puzzle of life again.
Suddenly Natalya could see the battlefields that stitched Evenfall to the rest of the land as if they stood right in front of her, soldiers falling, blood spilling, the clanging of swords drowning out the birdsong. And the forest, always the forest, cut down because it dared to stand in the way. These trees, their roots stretching into the earth and pulling life from the soil, set ablaze, only half a phoenix.
“Sometimes I have ideas,” she murmured. “Of how to make it all better.”
Lark smiled for the first time, surprisingly soft, achingly beautiful, impossible to ignore. “What good is a story left unspoken?”
The moonlight froze them together like insects in amber, time slowing to languid dripping honey. The sounds of the forest faded around them as the other girl’s eyes caught Natalya in their gravity, and for a moment, she forgot how to breathe.
Then Lark stepped back, and Natalya saw how the moon bathed her in its ethereal glow, how the flowers reached for her like she was the sun itself. “You know the stars don’t align for people like us,” she said.
Lark’s eyes were lost planets, unfathomably deep. “Then we’ll rearrange them ourselves,” she said, and held out her hand.
Natalya took it.
The flask shone violet in the light of the glowing trees above them, stardust gathered into delicate blown glass. “It’s almost done,” Lark declared. “We only need one more thing. Luckily, it’s-” She moved to part several bushes, revealing a river. “Right here.”
The two of them edged down the grassy bank. The currents swirled and danced like snowflakes, quick and graceful, flashing colors Natalya didn't have names for. She took a step closer, then another, lost in its blinding, binding depths.
Then Lark’s hand alighted on her shoulder, bringing her back. “Don’t look at the water,” she warned. “It traps you.”
Slowly, carefully, the witch drew closer and scooped some water into the potion flask. The river seemed to pause to think, then a hazy scene spun into view within the currents. A child in a forest clearing, mouth open in a silent laugh. Beside her, a slender man looked at her sternly, but her words morphed his frown into a smile. He rested a grass circlet on her head.
The present-day Lark backed up, but the river kept whirling. “It shows your past and future,” she said defeatedly. “It’s always been cursed.”
“That’s you?” Natalya said in wonder, watching the girl grow and stretch, the roundness melting from her face. She saw a younger Lark lifting her hands upward in a complicated pattern, a sapling bursting into full bloom. Racing through the woods on the back of a stag. Bowing her head by a patch of freshly turned dirt, her father nowhere to be found.
“I’m sorry,” Natalya said faintly, but her attention was still captivated by the river. It had drifted out of focus, the figures becoming blurry, and she realized that this was Lark’s future.
She watched, entranced, as Lark grew older with the grace of the trees she lived among. She walked the woods every daybreak and spoke with her nightingale friend when dusk fell. Her hair grayed, her magic faded. Her grass crown was now painted in the gold of Natalya’s necklace.
One day, she knelt in the soil. The breeze melted her into a blaze of scarlet leaves that scattered, leaving nothing behind.
“Well, that’s it,” Lark said, turning to leave. But Natalya moved closer, curiosity flaming inside of her. Once again, the river paused and burbled, then a young girl with golden hair and a keen gaze floated to the surface.
“Me,” Natalya breathed. Lark folded her arms, looking annoyed, but her eyes remained on the scene playing out.
The girl grew up in a palace under the watchful eyes of her father, the king. He watched her mature, and she watched him drive the kingdom into ruin. But she was restless, aching for more. One night, she slipped a hood over her dress and snuck into the woods.
The waters went blurry.
Natalya left the woods, holding the potion. She poured the liquid into her sleeping father’s mouth. When he opened his eyes, he didn’t recognize his daughter.
She fled the kingdom, crossing into another realm unplagued by war. But the fighting reached her, like it reached everyone in the end, and she died in a fire set by attacking soldiers. Taking the world for themselves, no matter the cost.
When the pictures finally faded, she felt hollow. “That really is it,” she echoed.
“Wait,” Lark said. When Natalya turned to her, the witch’s expression was a new one, eyes narrowed, gaze as sharp as a knife. “You want this potion so you can… erase yourself from your father’s memory?”
“Yes, and run away,” Natalya said, suddenly on edge. “You said it yourself: I can’t stand him. And I don’t want Evenfall to be my home anymore.”
Lark began to pace. The plants swayed uncertainly. “I thought you wanted to change the kingdom,” she said disbelievingly. “You could make him crown you queen using this potion. You could change things with that kind of power. Save everyone.”
Natalya’s lungs weren’t working properly. “I’ve never wanted to be queen,” she said, feeling like she was standing at the edge of a canyon, an inch away from falling.
Lark spun back to her, her fists clenched. “You want to make things better, though,” she pointed out. “You told me yourself. And now I remember why I’ve never helped citydwellers.” Her glare could carve stone. “You’re not worth it.”
Her eyes traced Natalya again, just like when they’d first met, hours ago, years ago.
“Go,” she said quietly, pressing the potion into Natalya’s hands. She sounded uneven, broken by the betrayal of an almost-friend. “Get out of my forest.”
Natalya turned and ran homeward through the shadow-steeped landscape, her voice stolen from her throat, leaving Lark behind. The moonlight stung her skin like a thousand broken promises.
She stepped into her father’s room as the night came to its close. The elaborately curled columns and the tacky golden furniture felt alien to her eyes. Already, Natalya longed for the soft forest grass, the gentle noises of small creatures in the dark.
Lark’s words had taken up residence in her mind, and now every time she closed her eyes, she remembered her panicked flight. Running away, just like she’d planned.
If she were queen, she’d end the wars. No more bloodshed, no more families torn apart. She let herself imagine it as she moved to her father’s bedside. The flowers would bloom again.
Maybe end the ban on magicfolk too, Natalya wondered idly. She let her fingers run across the marble pillar by the bed, the crown perched on top of it in a locked glass case.
She pulled back the covers, seeing her father curled up, deeply asleep. The person who ruptured their kingdom, tore their city in two, in ten. Natalya tipped the potion down his throat before she could hesitate any further. When his eyes opened, they were as wide and blank as the full moon, trapped under her gravity.
Forget about me, she almost said, tasting the bitter words. Erase me from your memories. I’m going to run away, and I don’t need you to come searching.
His crown seemed to wink at her in the dawn light. She saw it again, a world without her father as king. It was right there on the tips of her fingers. She could end the wars and watch peace spread across the land, save the starving people on Kitaeri’s streets.
The river had shown her a future outside this realm. Except it wasn’t a future, not really. It was a life spent on the run, surviving instead of flourishing, until she went up in flames thirty years from now. If that was the ending, what was the point of it all?
Maybe it was fate.
Maybe it didn’t have to be.
She could run, guarantee an existence for herself. Or she could stay in this palace and reshape this kingdom, show Kitaeri just how beautiful this city could be.
We’ll rearrange the stars ourselves, Lark had sworn, her voice raw and aching and so, so human. And it wasn't love yet, not really, but it was something small and alive that they could coax to life together. Something worth fighting for.
This story will not be left unspoken.
"Give me the crown," she commanded.
The king sat up stiffly and turned the key, letting the door swing open. He removed the circlet and rested it on her head. Its weight felt like the future, the past, but mostly the electrifying present.
The sunrise was breaking over the horizon now, pinks and golds staining the sky. Somewhere in the distance, a nightingale began its song.
Natalya held her head higher.
"Bow," she said to her father, and he did. "I am your queen now."