Witchwood Manor sits alone at the edge of acres and acres of deep, dark forest. The old stone mansion is all turrets and towers and stone griffins rearing up on two feet – like a castle in some fairy tale. The moon seems big and close, close enough to touch. Its light casts long shadows on the couple racing across the grass in the direction of the hedge maze.
“Wait up,” Matt yells as he follows Rivers through the new spring grass.
“Catch up,” she shouts back over her shoulder, laughing.
He could in a heartbeat. When Matt runs, really runs, he’s so much faster than Rivers. He’s holding back because it’s fun to chase her. Because chasing her means he’ll get to catch her, touch her. And touching Rivers is Matt’s reward for all the hassle of pretending to be a human man.
“You’re drunk,” he calls.
They both are. Drunk and laughing. Strangely carefree.
She disappears, a flash of pale blonde hair, into the hedge maze. He follows her inside. He’d follow anywhere. Go anywhere to be with her.
Even under the effect of too much wine and air that smells of Hyacinth and possibility, she’s quick about heading for their private spot at the center of the maze. So determined to beat him there. There is no sign of her inside the walls of neatly clipped boxwood.
Only then does it occur to him how stupid this is. How dangerous. To have her running through the maze alone, unprotected, at the mercy of whatever finds her first.
“Rivers?” he yells. “Wait for me.”
He starts to run, pounding through the labyrinth. The blood coursing through his veins is the only sound.
He calls her name again and again while he runs. She doesn’t answer.
When he bursts into the clearing at the center of the maze she is stretched out on the marble bench, bathed in moonlight, like a sacrificial virgin waiting to be ravished. Tiny and delicate, with the strong legs of a dancer. Her hair tumbling down, pooling on the ground in a puddle of wheat and gold. The sight of her, so still and beautiful, the relief he feels at finding her safe, makes him hard, makes him ache.
“Rivers?” he says in a voice so thin he is embarrassed to admit it belongs to him.
She opens one eye and looks at him. “I’m sleeping beauty,” she whispers. “Only my true love’s kiss will awaken me from this terrible slumber.”
Even though it’s wrong, even though he’ll get into trouble and maybe be sent home if anyone finds out, he can’t deny her. Can’t deny himself the pleasure of one stolen kiss, the taste of her mouth, her soft sigh of pleasure when he touches the bare skin of her back.
“You are beautiful,” he agrees, “But I don’t know about sleeping.”
“I am sleeping,” she giggles. “Listen.” Then she pretends to snore.
It’s not like her to be so silly. So open. Usually she keeps herself just a little distant from him. Her feelings for him make her jumpy, skittish.
As he wanders slowly towards her, Matt tells himself it isn’t his fault that fate has made such a mess of it, made the whole thing so damned difficult. It isn’t his fault that she knows him as her cousin – her damned first cousin – instead of the other half of her heart.
Bay Bennett, leader of the guard, insisted that the less they knew about the war between the Light and Dark Elvish – the better. So like the other guards, he used personal glamour, magic, to appear to grow up alongside the princess and the advisor. As far as they know, he is their orphaned cousin. He lives with them at Witchwood Manor. He pretends Bennett is his grandfather; calls him Pop.
Matt is tired of the games and rules, of the stupid pledge he made before signing on as a member of the guard tasked with protecting the Princess Aurora and her nascent advisor, Rivers of the Winged. He wants to tell her the truth. Tell her that it is okay for her to love him. Tell her that she is his Homecoming, his soul mate, that they were made for each other. But in his world a broken vow is a terrible thing with weighty consequences.
“So I’m supposed to kiss you?”
She nods without opening her eyes.
“I’m drunker than I thought,” he says as he nudges her hip and makes a place for himself beside her on the bench.
He watches her pulse thundering at the base of her neck. Then leans over to kiss her there. “Did that do it?” he asks.
She shakes her head. “More,” she says.
Eyes closed. Cheeks pink. She is the most perfect thing he has ever seen.
He brushes his lips against hers. She opens for him, letting him in to the sweetness of her mouth. Her tongue swirls with his. She catches his bottom lip between her teeth and bites him, so soft. She tangles her fingers in his hair.
Between kisses she says “This isn’t right.”
Rivers is right, of course she is, but he doesn’t care. He tries to keep his voice calm as he asks, “Why not?”
In one graceful move he shifts her body under his, settling himself between her parted thighs. He catches her hands and holds them on either side of her head. He looks down at her, not caring if she sees the storm of colors raging in his eyes, not caring if she feels his body straining to claim hers. He’s so tired of games. Of lies.
“What are you doing?” she asks, breathless.
“What you asked me to do,” he says, rolling his hips against her.
“This is more than kissing.”
“But still not enough,” he says as his mouth roams the graceful curve of her neck.
Her cheeks are flushed. Her breath quick.
“You should stop.” But she tangles her fingers in his hair and pulls him back to her mouth.
He cups her small, perfect breast in his hand. His finger teases her nipple until it is hard and tight. She watches, fascinated, while he unbuttons her sweater, pushing passed the pale blue camisole she wears underneath, to touch her bare skin.
“Matt,” she whimpers. “Stop.”
He stops. Jumps up and moves as far away as the walls of the maze will let him.
“Sorry,” he says, willing his body to calm down, his breath to slow. “Sorry.”
He knew she was coming. He heard her door open, heard her footsteps in the hall, heard her soft even breathing. He lay on his bed in the dark, waiting for her. His blue eyes wide. His whole body tingling with anticipation.
“Matt?” Rivers whispers. Standing in the doorway, backlit by the soft light from the hall, she takes his breath away. “Mattie, are you awake?”
“Yeah,” he says.
She hesitates a minute. “I feel bad about what happened. Before.”
Matt sighs. “I’ve already apologized.” Multiple times, in fact. Even though he wasn’t sorry for kissing her. Not at all. He’d apologized because as her Homecoming, he could feel her confusion and anxiety and he was sorry for that.
After he walked her back to the Manor, he’d taken a long, long run. He’d gone racing through the deep forest, just hoping to find someone – or thing – to fight. One of the Dark Elvish, a troll, he didn’t care. Anything he could hit and hurt. Anything that could hit and hurt him back.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “It was me. I started it. I shouldn’t have but I …. I couldn’t help myself. I just … wanted you to kiss me.”
Her admission thrills him, undoing the hours of running. His body is tense again. His heart is pounding.
“I’m disgusting,” she says. “I’m a cousin kissing pervert.”
“No you’re not.”
Over the course of his long life, Matt has been with lots of women – human and Elvish both. None of them have affected him the way she does. This silly girl who doesn’t even know what she is.
“Come here, Rivers.”
“I should go.” She laughs, nervous.
“Maybe,” he says. “But I don’t want you to.” He knows it’s madness, what he’s doing. Knows that teasing her and being teased by her is going to drive them both insane But she belongs to him and he to her and he’s tired of waiting. “Please come here. Come lay down with me.”
She is wearing a long, soft t-shirt, one of his, and a pair of panties. Nothing else. He watches her pad cautiously across the dark room, the whole time fighting the urge to grab her and hold her and love her.
“Roll over,” she says. Her voice is a whisper, less than that, shaky and soft. He follows her simple command, turning to face the wall as she slips into his twin sized bed. Her bare legs and her hips mold to his. He feels the softness of her breasts press into his back.
He is glad she can’t see his eyes. He doesn’t know how he could explain the way his feelings for her make the colors swirl and clash there, the way his iris whirls blue and gold and green. .
“That can’t happen again.”
“And yet here you are, in my bed.” He waits, unmoving, for her response. Knowing that what she says will probably shape the next years of his life into misery or euphoria.
“Jesus, Matt. You’re my cousin. It’s not right for me to . . .” Her uncertain voice trails off. “For me to want you this way.”
“But you do want me, don’t you?”
She stammers for a second before she manages a strangled sounding, “No.”
Before she can deny it, before she can do anything but roll over onto her back, he jumps off the bed in a leap and goes to stand by the window.
He decides in that instant to tell her the truth. He can’t stand it anymore. Neither of them can. There will be consequences, he knows that for sure, but he can bear them. Whatever he has to suffer afterwards will be worth it. To have her look at him with love and lust in her eyes, undiluted by shame and confusion, he’d be willing to suffer a hell of a lot.
“Look, there’s something you have to know.”
She sits up. Looks at him until he has to look away. Even then he can feel her sapphire eyes on him. “What is it, Mattie?”
He has no idea how to start. The secret he needs to reveal is a big one, not to mention unbelievable. He imagines himself saying it, ‘Rivers, you are an Elf. Tab, the girl you think is your sister, is an Elvish princess. I am an Elvish warrior and a member of the Royal Guard. You think I’m twenty-two but I’m really two hundred and thirty years old.’
Even to him it sounds ridiculous. If he wants her to believe him, he has to show her proof.
Matt looks out across the lawn to the stone wall that surrounds Witchwood Manor and holds the deep forest and all its terrors at bay. On the other side of it, outside the ring of wards and enchantments and protections that have been laid to shelter Rivers and the princess from the Dark things that threaten them, is the only place he can call his magic.
“Do you trust me?” he asks.
He nods. “Get dressed and meet me in the foyer in five minutes.”
“Are you taking me to the woods to kill me?” she asks as Matt leads her across the lawn. “Because there’s really no need. I promise not to kiss you anymore.”
“I have to show you something.”
The Manor is Magic Bound; power does not come when it’s called inside the great stone building. To prove to Rivers who he is, who she is, he has to take her passed the wall, out to the edge of the deep forest. It’s a risk, but one he has to take.
“Is it in that jar?” she asks, pointing to the red ceramic cookie jar he is carrying.
He shakes his head. Doesn’t reply.
“In case you were wondering,” she says, “this isn’t weird at all.”
He laughs. Thinks, Not yet.
When they reach the five-foot high stone wall, he lifts her and sets her easily on the edge. “Hold this,” he says, handing her the jar. He takes a step back, crouches, and then jumps straight over the wall.
She looks down at him when he lands on the other side, shocked and smiling. “Nope. Not weird at all.”
Matt takes a deep breath. “There are things about yourself, about me, that you don’t know,” he says.
“Are you about to reveal a terrifying secret?” she asks, a smile pulling at the corner of her mouth.
“Why would you ask that?”
She looks around at the dark woods, the distant Manor. “Ambience, I guess.”
Matt knows there’s no threat in the woods; they are loud with night time sounds. The movement of animals, the music of wind. Still, he knows it’s best to hurry.
“Plus,” she says, “you’re acting crazy.”
He takes the jar from where she’s set it on the wall. “You recognize this jar?”
“I’ve been eating cookies from it my whole life,” she replies.
“What’s it made of?”
She looks at him, eyebrows raised. “Glass?”
He nods. “It’s just an ordinary glass jar. Right? We both agree.” Matt can feel that she is unsettled. Partly it’s the proximity of the deep forest. Partly it’s the way he’s acting. He feels bad about it but it’s unavoidable. “Watch me,” he says. “I want to show you something I can do.”
Rivers draws her knees up to her chest. “Involving a cookie jar.”
“Involving a cookie jar.” He closes his eyes, lifts the jar above his head, and hurls it – hard – against the rock wall. It shatters.
Rivers gives a startled cry
“Did you see that?” he asks.
“What the hell—”
“It’s broken, right? Now watch,” he says. “Don’t blink.”
He opens himself, his mind, his heart, and calls his power. It rushes in from all around him. He watches her reacting to his magic, hot and bright, as it brushes against her. He feels proud and giddy when it finally reaches him smelling of her strawberry shampoo. The power touches him, soft as feathers, and pushes into him not nearly as gently. It settles with a definite weight across his shoulders.
He holds out his hands, shows her that they are empty. Nothing in his palms but a faint glow.
“Cuir ar ais,” he says, go back in the Elvish tongue.
At his words, nature rewinds, the night does. The stars and clouds and moon move back ever so slightly. The cookie jar – red and unbroken – appears again in his hands.
“What the hell?” Rivers says. Her eyes are wild, bigger than usual. “How did you do that?”
“Don’t be frightened, okay? It’s okay,” he says. He leaps back over the wall to land again on the protected side. She jumps down beside him, not waiting to be caught. “My name is Matthew Evergreen Waverly. I am Elvish warrior, part of the Princess’s royal guard. You are Rivers of the Winged, the head of the Queen’s high council—”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m not your cousin.” he says, reaching for her hand. Somehow, this is the most important thing he can think to say. “Let’s go inside. I’ll explain everything inside.”
“Not until you tell me what just happened.” She looks around. “What just happened?”
“Magic. I called my magic to show you what you are.”
He watches her face. “That was magic?” she asks.
“Yes.” Matt tells her the story of the magic that exists on the underneath and inbetween of things, of the Light Elvish and the Dark, of the war between them, of the queen who went to her death, and the princess who was hidden away.
The whole time he is talking he waits for her to interrupt, to question. He loves that she never denies it. Never shrinks from the possibility. She is surprised by it, but not resistant.
You’re Elvish. We all are. We’re not related.”
“I am magic?” He’s never seen her look more beautiful. More alive. He can’t believe he waited so long to tell her the truth.
He smiles, watching her face as the knowledge settles in.
“How did you do it?”
“At some point in their life, each of the Elvish are given their power. Some receive many Gifts and some only get one. I have two. That was the Gift of Space and Time. It’s uncommon and honestly, also pretty useless.”
“What does it do?”
“Under the right circumstances I can turn back time in short bursts – sometimes ten or fifteen seconds but normally more like three.”
“So you’re like a rewind button?”
She looks impressed. “That’s awesome.”
He shrugs trying to be modest.
Her eyes grow wide and bright. “What can I do?”
Matt has been wondering the same thing for years but Elvish Gifts are random, not hereditary, so there is no real way to know. “Your Gifts won’t come until the first time the princess calls her power. It may yet be a while since she doesn’t know she has them.”
“Princess Tab.” She laughs. “That explains so much.”
“Yeah,” he says, running his fingers over his hair.
“Awesome,” she says again.
Rivers takes the cookie jar from him, looks it over very carefully, and smashes it into the wall. “Do it again,” she says, clapping her hands in delight.
“I can’t. Not on this side of the wall. Bennett has Witchwood Manor and the grounds enchanted. The wall is the line. That’s why I brought you out here.”
She looks at the wall, at the broken cookie jar, and laughs. She laughs for a long time.
“Are you okay?” Matt asks. “It’s a lot to take in. I know.”
“We’re not related?”
She smiles up at the moon. “That’s good to know.”
They walk back to the Manor. Half way there she slips her hand into his.