I knew right away that I wanted Elizabeth's character to drive the plot. After all, the story takes place in a sleepy village. There is no quest, no coveted magic object, no conquest-bound overlord a few counties over. I wanted this to be a deeply personal story about the place-- this magical wood that connects different worlds in its shadowy waters-- and this confused, unhappy girl who inherited an ancient position just as the world was coming into its modernity. This is, above anything else, the story of Elizabeth. (Its original title was Elizabeth of the Wood, which I changed to Of the Wood for reasons still obscure. I'm thinking about changing it back. Thoughts? I also considered Wychwood and Under the Wood.) (Fun fact part deux: Elizabeth's original name was Evienne before she became so resolutely English, and Anaïs was originally Laetitia before I decided on a theme for the Faire names.)
So I rolled up my sleeves and dove into the character development.
And hit a wall. Almost immediately.
I have a theory as to why I struggle so much with characters. I am a reserved person. I infrequently answer direct questions about myself, and when I do, I generally give a cursory answer. (I blame my Myers-Briggs personality profile for this.)
Which makes creating believable characters difficult for me, because the only tried-and-true way I have found is to foist on them whatever nastiness is currently in my life. I like to keep this nastiness private, and the thought of sharing it makes me want to hide under my covers. Forever. (So, naturally, I'm posting it on my blog like a properly petulant teenager.)
However, I had another major character who could use some personality: Elizabeth's younger sister, Anthea.
People quite familiar with my family will observe something here. My name is Allison. I have an older sister, whose name is-- well, for the sake of her privacy, suffice it to say it is a classical English name that begins with an E. Those who know my sister and I personally may realize that both of our personalities play a prominent role in this story, passed between the characters of Elizabeth and Anthea. I am meticulously organized with a family background in accounting, whereas my sister is more assertive than I. My sister is an excellent musician, but I'm the one who sings. If we weren't sisters, people would probably call the cops on us during one of our fights. But at the end of the day, like Elizabeth and Anthea, we still love each other!
My sister probably isn't reading this. I don't think she ever reads my blog.
Love you too, sis.
Anyway. On with the story.
The music stopped.
The dance whirled to a halt.
The fragile, spun-glass thing that was her mind crashed off its pedestal and shattered on the floor.
“Who are you?” she managed to say, because she did not believe in miracles, and one was holding her cold hands in his warm ones and smiling at her like Lochinvar at his sweetheart’s wedding.
“Elizabeth,” he said quietly, and he was smiling until he thought he would break with the joy of it. “I’ve come—“
He didn’t finish, because she leaned up and kissed him.
It was a shockingly inappropriate thing to do at one’s wedding to another man. The townsmen would talk. She didn’t care. She did not care at all.
“Please don’t say anything,” she said quietly. “Because I’ve just been handed a miracle. And I d-don’t see how this can be r-r-real—“
“I don’t, either,” he said softly. He reached up and wiped away the tears on her cheek. “But Elle”—he grabbed her hand in his warm, living one—“it is.”
He glanced over her shoulder, and something tightened in his face. “For about five more minutes. Elle, the Faire are here.”
“I know,” she whispered. She was rattled by joy and shock, but she forced her brain through its paces. “How can they be here?”
“It’s a sort of long—“
“She’s not, really,” he said desperately. “She’s just—it’s complicated—she says the Faire are dying. There’s too much iron and disbelief here, and hardly any magic left. They need us, Elizabeth. They’re coming back tonight, using your curse as the pathway. So. What’s the plan?”
“You always came up with the plan! Why am I supposed to—“
Elizabeth dropped Abelard’s hand guiltily.
“Fulgence,” she wanted to say, “I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t possibly marry you because my true love is back from the grave, and he hasn’t drowned, and we’re going to marry and live happy ever after, yes?”
She almost said it. She wanted so badly to say it.
But she couldn’t, she realized. There were times when the truth was all you could give. And there were times when the truth was far too extraordinary and time-consuming, and too unbearably real for words. And there were some people, like Fulgence, who spent their whole lives looking for a prettier, simpler lie, because they wanted prettier, simpler, uncomplicated lives.
She opened her mouth to speak, but he beat her to it.
“Elizabeth,” he said. “I don’t mean to frighten you. But this room seems to be eliding with the Faire Court.”
“Anaïs!” Abelard hissed, ducking through the crowd. He glanced up into masked faces. All had the square angularness of the Faire, but he needed one in particular. “Anaïs!”
“Be quiet,” she whispered back, dragging him into the dance. Her green skirt billowed around them as they spun. “All right. Not going to according to plan.”
“We don’t know what to do.”
“She’ll know when the time is right,” Anaïs snapped.
“Well, it had better be right in the very near future!”
She tossed her head but didn’t pull away as they danced. Abelard watched the Faire over her shoulder. They hadn’t moved yet; they were still dancing. Things would be all right as long as the Faire kept dancing…
His eye landed on another couple in the throng: Elizabeth and Fulgence. They were dancing in the same, half-focused manner as Anaïs and Abelard; she gazed up into his face, and they both talked rapidly and almost silently.
Fulgence’s eyes flicked over her sleek head and watched the dancers. The same way Abelard did.
He stopped dancing. Anaïs stumbled, tripping on her skirts, and two other couples nearly collided with them.
“Sorry!” he said. “Ah—cramp. In my foot. Carry on.”
“What is it now?” Anaïs said snappishly. She was never this short-tempered, never this out of control. She was afraid, Abelard realized, and his breath almost stopped.
“After you pulled me from the bog, you said I had a gift,” he whispered, dancing. As long as the Faire still danced… “You told me I could see the Faire, and that I would need this to save Elizabeth.”
“Yes, but do we have time—“
“Fulgence can see the Faire, too.”
She didn’t answer. Her face was solemn behind her forest-green mask.
Abelard’s heart sank.
“You don’t know if I’ll save her.”
He had stopped dancing again, but they were on the edge of the crowd, so it bothered no one. He felt his thin, fragile eggshell of hope crumple into airy nothing.
“The future never reveals itself that fully,” Anaïs said at last. She wouldn’t look at him. “Not even to me. I only know that she can be saved, and I will provide every opportunity for someone to do so.” She gave him a hard look. “Even if he’s isn’t you.”
“Explain,” Elizabeth said. “Now.”
“I was awoken early this morning by a woman in my bedroom,” Fulgence said. “She said if I wanted to save you, I had to leave now.” He sniffed. “It was rather inconsiderate of her, seeing as I got here hours early and haven’t had any call to save you yet—“
“What did she say?” Elizabeth demanded.
“She said the Faire hated your family and would be at the wedding tonight. She touched my face and said I would be able to see them. And”—he sounded nauseous—“I can see them, Elizabeth. They’re horrible.”
He broke off as Abelard burst through the crowd, Anaïs scarcely a step behind.
“Hello, Anaïs,” Elizabeth said coolly. “It’s been a long time.”
“I gather,” Anaïs said. “What were you playing at, saying my name over and over? I could tell it was you. No one else knew to do it.”
Elizabeth blushed. “I wanted to hurt you,” she said, feeling a twinge of shame. “I wanted you to suffer. And I remembered what you said, how the Faire need belief because they’re only as real as we let them be. And I remembered how saying a word over and over again makes it meaningless. So I did it to you.” She swallowed. “I’m sorry.”
“It made my time in my mother’s prison much harder.” Anaïs grunted. “It was clever, at least. You’re forgiven.”
“And you,” Elizabeth said, eyes flashing.
She gazed up into Abelard’s face and thought, this is wrong. Everything was so wrong. They should have time together, time to celebrate their love. But they didn’t have time. They’d never been given much of it.
“How long do we have?” Elizabeth asked, instead of words of radiant love.
“The ball always ends at midnight,” Fulgence observed, looking deliberately at the clock above Abelard’s head. “And it is your wedding, after all.” Abelard tried to ignore the bitter irony in his tone.
“But what if I don’t get married?” she said.
Abelard glanced around the ballroom, at the swirling, dancing Faire.
“I don’t think they care,” he said. “I think it’s gone far enough already.”
“So I’m going to prick my finger on a spindle soon,” Elizabeth said, turning pale. “And sleep for a hundred years.”
“No,” Abelard said firmly. “I’m not going to let that happen to you.”
“Elizabeth, go to the stables,” Fulgence said, as calmly as he could. He and Abelard stood side by side: one fair, the other dark. One big and towering, the other small and slender. “Take a horse, and ride to my home. My family will take care of you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Elizabeth said. “This is my own kettle of fish. I’ll boil in it if I have to.”
That hit a chord, somewhere in the deep, primordial part of her, the part that had been sitting patiently in the tower all evening, turning the problem over in her hands and spinning.
“Kettle of fish,” she said aloud. Not fish. Eels.
Her gaze landed on the banquet table, and sure enough, there was a platter of eels in wine sauce. It was, impossibly, steaming.
There are times when the story takes over, and I’m not writing it anymore—it’s writing me. Like the force of the story is so great it can tell itself. It only needs me to hold a pen.
Your story isn’t over yet.
All right, Elizabeth thought. If this were a ballad, how would it end? There would be hints along the way, clues dropped at every turn. And even if she had missed them, the deeper, older part of her had been patiently gathering them and now held them up for her inspection.
Ballads were predictable creatures, once you’d sung them long enough that they’d gotten into your blood. They might seem random and insensible, but they weren’t, really; they were perfectly logical, as long as you knew what rules they were following. And it was a rule in ballads that there were always second chances, but they only came once.
Elizabeth knew she could save the town. She knew she could save herself, if she tried to. And she knew the solution would be simple and poetic and that she was holding it her hands already, and she just couldn’t see it.
And then she remembered the last rule of ballads: they never wasted anything. Every detail was important. And there was one massive detail in Elizabeth’s life that hadn’t been resolved yet.
Slowly, she raised her eyes. They met Anaïs’s.
She knew exactly what to do.
The great clock in the hall, the clock that Maelӱs had made with Anaïs’s help and this night in mind, pointed only a few minutes ‘til midnight.
“We’re too late,” Fulgence whispered.
“No,” Elizabeth said, and she laughed. “We’re too early.”
Because the final rule of ballads was that they always came full circle. And they practically sang themselves, so that the singer only needed to hold the tune.
“Fulgence, Abelard,” she said. “Thank you so much for trying to save me. But I don’t need it now.”
She spun around, hiked her rosy skirts above the knee, and ran up the stairs to the tower.
She locked the door behind her, fingers shaking on the key. She’d had nightmares like this, where things were rushing up the stairs and she had to struggle to lock the door before they reached her. Never in her most fevered nightmare had they been Abelard and Fulgence.
“Hey—what—Elle, you’ve gone and locked the—“
“Elizabeth,” Fulgence said sharply, voice muted by the wood. “Unlock the door.”
“Can’t. Sorry, boys,” Elizabeth called desperately over her shoulder. She picked up her skirts and hurried to the spinning room. There, turning serenely with only a hiss of gears, were the Spinning Jeannies. Papa’s pride. The only things that kept the town from sinking into a gloom of magic and despair.
“All right, how do you turn these things off,” Elizabeth muttered, hunting through the controls. She was embarrassed that she had no idea how they worked. She still did all her spinning on a treadle wheel because it was wonderfully distracting. Her fingers couldn’t work the latches and gears.
“Elizabeth!” Fulgence yelled, pounding on the door. Abelard had gone silent. “Open the door!”
“I can’t!” Elizabeth said hysterically, and she was crying after she had promised herself that this wouldn’t be hard, it wouldn’t hurt. It did hurt. She saw now more clearly than ever that she had never really intended to leave the town with Fulgence. It would be like cutting off her hand to escape the manacle. Maybe in a hundred years she would be glad she’d done it, but she still wouldn’t have a hand.
She cried over the machinery, because she didn’t know how to stop it. She cried for herself and Abelard, but mostly she cried, ridiculously and inexplicably, for the tower room, because she knew she couldn’t stay there much longer.
“You won’t be able to turn them off in time,” someone said.
If Elizabeth had a fingers-width of space left in her heart, she would’ve been surprised. But she didn’t. So it felt perfectly natural when she looked up to Anaïs. She had left her mask downstairs, and her face was raw and bare like a boiled egg.
“Anaïs,” Elizabeth said, and her voice cracked.
“I’m sorry, Elle,” she said, and Elizabeth realized that she was uncomfortable. She, Anaïs, the Faire princess. “I’m really sorry.”
It was a day for miracles.
There was a lot they would’ve liked to say. In a way, they did, only silently—or perhaps it all came out in Anaïs’s words: “There’s a shovel in the closet.”
“I’ll get it,” Elizabeth said, rising.
“No, I will,” Anaïs said. “You have something else to attend to.” Her eyes were unfocused, past Elizabeth.
Elizabeth steeled herself. “All right,” she said nervously. She ran to the door and called, “Abelard? Fulgence?”
“Elle, if you could possibly hurry with whatever you’re doing in there, because the Faire have—“
She unlocked the door, and Abelard tumbled out in a graceless heap. He was, she realized with a pang for lost time, slightly shorter than her; she could see the top of his dark head.
“Stopped dancing,” he finished.
“We three need to have a talk, and I’d like it to be very sensitive and kind and worthy of forgiveness, but I don’t have time,” Elizabeth said, pushing them into her sitting room. “First of all, Fulgence, I’m sorry, you’re a good man, but I can’t marry you, because I’m in love with Abelard.”
“Sorry,” Abelard said.
She had been dreading this part of the conversation. She did not know how he would take it. She could see in the shape of his eyes that he was both surprised and not, that he had both seen it coming and never believed it would come to pass.
He shrugged. It was not quite so graceful a gesture as he might’ve wished.
“Ah, well,” he said, after too long a pause. “It’s been fun, Elizabeth. But there are plenty of fish in the sea.”
“Yes,” Elizabeth said, “and I wish you the very best of luck with them, and would you mind exiting via the window?”
“There’s ivy on the wall. You should be able to climb safely; I know Anthea’s done it when we were littler.”
“Oh. Right. Didn’t know you wanted me to leave quite so—“
“That is not the reason, and you know it, Fulgence,” she snapped, feeling close to tears again. She had never felt so much as she had in the past day. “I’m about to make a terribly unfair decision for all the people in this keep, and I don’t want to make it for you, too. So—you’re a wonderful friend, and I’ll miss you, but the very best thing you can do now is return to Brittany and forget this ever happened.”
He lumbered to the window and was gone.
“Did I miss something?” Abelard said.
She had forgotten something. Elizabeth froze and thought hard. What had she forgotten?
Someone tapped on the door.
“Elizabeth,” Anthea said. “Could you open the door?”
“Anthea!” Elizabeth cried. “What are you doing?”
She realized that the events thus far had been a game. A warm-up match. The Faire had shown their hand: they had her parents. They had her lover. They had her curse.
She’d thought they had played their entire hand. But they had one ace left, the one that could’ve ended the game at any time but that they’d saved for last.
She didn’t move as Abelard darted to the door and carried her in. Her little figure in white. Her little ice maiden. The white was red and red all over, but it couldn’t be Anthea’s blood, because Anthea was made of ice and ice didn’t bleed…
Anthea’s dance partner had carved the roast.
She sat down in a billow of pink skirts and moved so that Anthea’s head rested on her lap. She looked down into that serene face, white as paper except for red, still as death but for a fluttering of butterfly wings at the throat.
It was like life had been a dream, and she had woken up. Like a veil had been lifted from her eyes and she saw light. This was real. This was truth. There had never been anything but her sitting on the floor with Anthea’s head in her lap, their dresses running with blood.
Her little sister, whom she’d believed she’d hated. Whom she’d believed had hated her.
“Anthea,” she whispered.
Abelard was saying something to her. She didn’t pay him any mind until he reached up and slapped her. “Stop, you’ll hurt her!” she cried, and she realized she hadn’t said anything at all.
But he caught her attention. “Elizabeth,” he said, “if you have any plan at all, we need it now. Please. Let me carry Anthea, and do whatever you have to do.”
She had to stand. That was what she had to do. Abelard lifted Anthea out of her lap like she was the skin of a paper doll or a bird resting from flight, and Elizabeth gathered her legs under her and stood. The world did not end. It would not end for—she checked the clocks, but they were dead and gone—until midnight. However far away that was.
The ball always ended at midnight.
Carefully, Elizabeth slipped the dreamlike veil over her eyes again so that she could bear the moment. Anthea was hurt, yes. But she could handle that. Wasn’t that what she had always done?
“Your shovel, my lady,” Anaïs said.
“Thank you.” She accepted the shovel. It was heavy and glinted silver in the dull light, like a sword. It was her sword. “Anaïs, you understand that I want to destroy your people’s claim on mine, raze their holdings, and salt their fields?”
“Yes, my lady,” Anaïs whispered. “I would do it, too, if I had the strength.”
Elizabeth knew she had to hurry, but she asked, “Why?”
“Because we were not meant for this,” she said simply. “No creature was. We were not meant to live this long or this emptily. We were not meant to have the power to move stars.”
“Some would say that everything is already in perfect order.”
“And I do believe that, my lady,” she said. “But we are not meant to be anymore. We must step back from this place. You must grow without us now.”
She took a deep, shaking breath. “If it means anything to you, we only did it because we wanted to be loved.”
“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth whispered. “And I do love you.”
Anaïs glanced up. Elizabeth caught one last glimpse of her green eyes through her veil of pale hair, gleaming with something she could never say but now thought was, perhaps, humility. “Thank you,” she said, then she was gone, and the tower was empty save for Abelard, Anthea, and Elizabeth.
Elizabeth took a deep breath to keep her heart from breaking.
“Abelard,” she whispered, “do you know what I mean to do?”
“Yes, my lady,” he said, and she could not tell what was in his gaze. “Do what you must.”
“Flavie is in my household.”
“Abelard, I’m afraid. I’d just decided that I wanted to stay, and now I have to leave again. I hate to leave everything. And I’m scared.”
“I’d like to tell you there’s no reason to be,” Abelard said finally. “But there will always be something for us to fear, Elle. It’s better that way. Else we’d have no reason for courage.”
“Life has been unkind to us,” Elizabeth whispered.
Abelard leaned forward and kissed her. “Don’t say that,” he whispered back. “We haven’t seen the ending yet.” His breath was warm against her cheek. “Do what you must. I love you.” She felt more than saw his smile. “See you in a hundred years.”
And he turned away from her, to the splintering remains of the door. He set Anthea down gently on the loveseat and plucked down Papa’s sword from above the mantle, the one he had never wanted to use. It glittered red in the firelight as though already stained by blood. He gave a wordless cry and rushed from the room as, on the landing, the door splintered and gave.
Elizabeth wrung the remaining strength from her muscles, holding nothing back. With a cry, she brought the shovel heavily down on the first Spinning Jeannie. It cracked and snarled as it kept spinning, splinters hurled through the room. Elizabeth stood so her body shielded Anthea. Then she raised the shovel again and, howling with bloodlust, pummeled her Papa’s pride and joy until it was useless splinters on the carpet, the room was silent, and mankind was undefended.
A sliver of wood lay on the floor. Elizabeth snatched it up and, with only the smallest hesitation, drove it into her hand. It cut deeply, drawing blood.
She tasted the snap and curl of magic as the curse came upon her.
Her vision dimmed until the twilight looked golden like a summer’s evening. Almost overcome with weariness, she staggered over to the loveseat and curled up beside her sister, her arms around her neck, as she had when they were both little girls. Through her haze, she could hear Abelard’s cries, the ring of steel on steel, the humming of magic—but it dimmed and slowed into a lullaby. Elizabeth lay her head on the pillow beside Anthea’s.
A hundred years may pass, but they would only be a moment to her. She had only to close her eyes. Then Abelard would wake her, and they would have all the time in the world. A lot could happen in a hundred years. There was so much to look forward to. There would be iron, of course; more iron than she could dream of now, heaped and strung like jewels in a dragon’s horde. And iron meant there would be no Faire, no wolves and no bog, no babies lost on winter evenings.
And iron and no Faire meant progress, and progress meant wonderful medicines. It meant that people with terrible wounds would not die but would live on, healed by something far greater than magic, for when had magic ever brought life? There was a whole new world just beyond her fingertips, and in her last moment in the time wherein she had been born, Elizabeth wondered if they would have sheep there.
I’m ready, she thought. I’m ready to see it. I want to see the time in which I’m meant to live.
The voice of Maelӱs’s clock sang out midnight. In her tower room above the moorland, the last Lady of the Wood fell asleep.