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Out of the Desert
A beautiful star-crossed lovers short story by Elizabeth Broadbent
“Remember, don’t talk,” Lya said. She pursed her lips and seemed to examine me: the fine-spun tunic that replaced my smock, the long-tailed hat that hid both my tell-tale pale hair and my ears. Lya had dressed similarly, chucking her usual silks and satins for townswoman clothes. “You look the part,” she told me, “but if you talk, you’ll ruin everything.”
“I’m not planning on talking,” I replied.
“You think you can fake a human accent, but you can’t.” Lya laughed. “It’s cute.”
I glared. “Shut up.”
“Shut up,” she imitated, her voice lilting too high, then drawing too broad for a human’s. I kept glaring. She drew her horse close and kissed my scrunched-up nose. “I’m teasing, Aula. I love your voice.”
“You love me in spite of my voice.” I watched the mountain’s bare rock pass. Rock and sand: my home, my safety, all I’d known but scrub and cacti. We’d nearly reached the trail’s end. I’d never traveled so far from our desert.
Hell, I’d never traveled.
My stomach flipped. I’d see them soon. I’d never imagined I’d see them.
“I love you because of your voice.” Lya tried to take my rough hand in her soft one. I
“Then you love me because I’m exotic, and you’ll ditch me when the novelty wears off.”
Probably true. But I could pretend this dark-haired, pouty-lipped human princess belonged to me. She’d come to see how elves lived in the deep desert. Then she’d been stupid enough to go stargazing on a rock gryffin’s cliff. I’d talked mama gryffin out of eating her, and we’d spent the night playing with fluffy-furry gryffin kits.
It took Lya two moon-turns to make me believe it: she liked me, a skinny, clanless elf-girl. Liking her back was monumentally stupid, even if she was a second child, even if she could get away with almost anything, including bringing home an elf.
“Aula.” Lya sighed. “We’ve fought about this over and over. I won’t stop loving you.” Her words echoed, as if the mountain rock doubled her promises. Its stripes were darkening; we were getting closer. My chest tightened.
I sneaked a glimpse. Lya’s dark eyes had gone sad.
“I get scared.” I wanted to scrunch up in my saddle, but I could only stare at the ground. “If you get bored . . .”
She kissed my nose again. “I swear I won’t. And when we get to the capital you’ll have a ring.”
“I don’t need a ring,” I’d said it over and over. We’d made our hand-fast alone, reciting our promises as the twin moons hung low and full.
“You’ll need a ring.” That same old line.
I wanted to hug myself in my strange new clothes. It had been so much easier in my
desert, away from angry eyes and stupid prejudice. Lya could wander with me as much as she wanted—she was a princess. And who would miss a clanless girl? We kept a mile ahead of her retinue while we rode, and their faces stayed flat when they spoke to me.
I pressed my lips together. Fed by anyone particularly kind, kicked by anyone
particularly annoyed, I’d long-learned silence. We were almost there. I dug my nails into my palm. Whatever came after, I’d know I’d seen them. But I couldn’t stare. I had to pretend they were normal, part of everyday life, like my sand dunes or my deep caves or my striped mountaintops.
Lya smiled. “We’re close.”
My ugly hat itched. I guided my horse with legs and weight alone, but humans didn’t do that. The poor animal jumped as his bit caught for the first time in half a moon-turn. I couldn’t even tell him I was sorry—domestics had their magic squeezed out millennia ago. But humans didn’t speak to animals, either. Humans didn’t do so many things. I’d have to be careful. I’d have to remember.
I couldn’t stare.
Lya touched my thigh. “Here they come, Aula.”
We rounded the bend.
I’d imagined green would puff at their tops, like cactus flowers. But the trees’ trunks
were thinner than I’d pictured, and their green began low—branches, Lya had called
them—building towers, tall green hills that rolled like sand dunes. Wind ruffled those branches, and they rustled like shaken pebbles. I clapped my hands over my ears.
“Aula?” Lya sounded far away.
“They’re alive!” I cried.
She laughed and gently moved my hands. “Of course they are! Your plants are alive!”
But the trees sang with earthy old-man voices, deep songs of cool water and warm sun, of rain—rain—rain—
Tears rose as I threw myself from my horse. My hat fell off and my hair flew free,
streaming behind me as I sprinted on light, bouncy ground. The tree scratched roughly on my cheek. It loved me. It had missed me. Where had I gone, it wanted to know, where had we gone?
Sinking to the ground, miraculously damp and cool, I pressed against the tree and closed my eyes.
“Aula.” Lya touched my shoulder. “Aula, you have to get up.”
“It wants to know where we went.” My voice broke. “It wants to know why we’ve gone. What am I supposed to tell it?”
Lya swallowed. “Tell the truth.” She turned her face away. “Tell it that a long time ago, we killed the elves and drove survivors into the desert. Tell it we still hate you and our hatred keeps you prisoner.”
I curled against the tree and sobbed as Lya fit herself around me. Green—leaves—drifted down around us. After a life in the desert, I had come home. The trees
still loved me.
Lya rested her lips on my pale hair while I cried.
She still loved me, too.
With publishing credits in The Washington Post, Insider, and Time, Elizabeth Broadbent was a six-year staff writer for Scary Mommy, where she wrote about topics as diverse as breastfeeding and the Murdaugh murders (she liked the Murdaugh murder essays best of all). Her speculative prose poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Bewildering Stories, The Copperfield Review, and AntipodeanSF; her short stories have been published or are forthcoming by Flash Fiction Magazine, Wyldblood Press, Ghostlight, and Sirens Call, among others. Broadbent lives in Virginia with her three sons, three dogs, and very patient husband. Find her on the web at https://www.writerelizabethbroadbent.com, on Twitter @EABroadbent, and on Instagram @writerelizabethbroadbent
Copyright © 2022 by Elizabeth Broadbent
Published by Orion's Beau
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