[Author’s Note] This book is currently undergoing extensive revisions for the eBook and print versions to be released in Q1 2022. Details will be changed and phrases will be altered between this version and the final, so please keep this in mind while reading this beta version. Enjoy!
In the middle of a clearing in a dark pine forest sat a lonely tree stump. A sparse, scattered field of glowing flowers swayed in the breeze, coating the ground in a gentle blue light that imitated the night sky above. From a small path emerged a little, pudgy rat wearing a blue shirt and green waistcoat with a simple, white cravat. It hopped onto the stump, turning its head sharply when it heard something in the bushes at the clearing’s edge. When it determined that it was nothing, the rat reached inside of its waistcoat and pulled out a small scrap of parchment with the names of several rare herbs scrawled on it. Beneath that was a small note; ‘A short trip this time’.
The rat returned the parchment to the waistcoat’s inner pocket. It then reached over the edge of the stump and picked up a stick of chalk. The rat began drawing eight arcane runes inside of a circle on the surface of the stump. When it was finished, it stood on its hind legs in the middle and held the chalk close to its body. With a wave of its paw, the rat caused the runes to glow faintly with white light. They were soon after replaced with a gaping black void that took over the face of the stump, pulling the rat down into it.
The rat emerged from the pool of darkness in another forest clearing, but this one was quite different. The light of sunrise poured in through the leaves of beech and maple trees that lined the clearing. The void and the stump itself disappeared from underneath the rat. It placed the stick of chalk down where the stump had once been, tucking it under a few blades of grass. Giving a reassured nod, the rat scuttled off into the woods to begin its task.
It was the 20th of July, the final day of exams for the fifth year college students of Leyia Academy, one of the Eight Sister Academies of Phiana. It sat on the western edge of the coastal city known for its excellence in academics. The academy acted as a place of learning for primary, secondary, and college students of that particular district and those who lived in the city outskirts. Each classroom on the third floor, reserved exclusively for college courses, was packed with students concentrated on their exams.
At the eastern end of the hallway was a classroom dedicated to the literary arts, taught by one Professor Evan Emmett. He was a middle-aged man with short, brown hair with streaks of gray at the sides and a beard that he kept closely trimmed. Befitting a professor of literature, he was dressed in black trousers and a white shirt covered by a dark brown vest. Rested on his nose were round glasses that always seemed to slide their way to the tip.
Professor Emmett was leaned back in the seat of his desk at the head of the classroom. In front of him were twenty desks, each occupied by a student. The classroom was particularly stifling this time of year, but the breeze gave respite as it passed by the open windows. The wind would occasionally pick up, causing a student or two to let out a startled gasp as they made a sudden motion to keep their exam from escaping. It was an ounce of humor during an otherwise dull two hours.
Professor Emmett glanced to the ornate clock on the wall, reading one fifty eight.
“Two minutes remain,” his voice called out. “Please begin finalizing your exams.”
In the third row was a young woman, deeply focused on the final question. She brushed a loose bit of her long, auburn hair away from her eyes and tucked it near her ponytail as her parted bangs caressed her face. She held her quill to the parchment in one hand as the other gripped the skirt of her blue summer dress. The quill moved slowly as she strained to think of what to write, but the further along she went, the more she was certain of her answer.
“One minute remains,” he called out once more.
The young woman let out a silent, relieved sigh. A smile formed as she jubilantly lifted her exam up in front of her. When the ink had dried, she shuffled her exam papers back into the proper order and looked over the front page. She glanced to the upper corner and noticed a blank field for her name. Frantically, she set the exam down and grabbed her quill from the inkwell, filling in the space with the name ‘Eleanor Martel’. She shook her head in disbelief that she had almost forgotten to put her name on her final exam.
The hourly bell on the academy grounds chimed at two o’clock and Professor Emmett sat up in his chair.
“Please place your exams into the accompanying booklets and hand them to me on your way out,” he instructed as the students rose from their desks. “After going over your exams and essays, your final grades will be sent off in the post. You can expect them one week from now. And assuming you passed, I’ll be seeing you at the graduation ceremony on August 4th.”
Eleanor followed behind the student ahead of her, cradling the exam booklet to her chest. As she waited for her turn, she peeked once more at the exam to be absolutely certain that she did indeed write her name.
“Eleanor Martel,” Professor Emmett said as she approached. “If you could, please wait in the hallway until I call for you.”
Her brow furrowed in confusion as she handed the booklet to her professor, whose gaze did not meet hers.
“Certainly,” she nodded, following behind her classmates.
Eleanor stood in the hallway, her hands clasped behind her as she leaned against the wall beside the door. She watched the remaining students step out of the room and toward the nearby stairwell. The happiness they displayed from finally finishing college was contagious, and Eleanor found herself smiling along with them. As the last student stepped out, Eleanor heard Professor Emmett call for her. Unsure what to expect, she stepped cautiously back into the classroom.
“Good, you’re still here,” Professor Emmett said as he tapped the exam booklets on the desk to align them neatly.
“Yes, um... Did I do something wrong, Professor?”
He gave her a surprised look. “Oh, no no. On the contrary, Eleanor.” A breathy laugh passed his lips as he looked back to the booklets. “Now that college is over, I wanted to know what you have planned for your apprenticeship.”
“My apprenticeship?” She stepped up to a desk and faced him, leaning back as she rested her palms on the edge. “Well, I didn’t really have anything planned. I was going to help my mother with her concocting.”
Professor Emmett stared at her over the edge of his glasses. “Surely you did not attend five years of college to be an apothecary?”
Eleanor bit her lip nervously as her professor placed the stack of booklets to one side of the desk and leaned forward, folding his hands.
“An apothecary is a noble profession, but is certainly an apprenticeship you could have pursued after secondary school.” He reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a file, flipping through several pages before stopping. “Overall, your grades range from average to excellent, but it’s apparent where your passions lie, and it most certainly is not grinding and boiling herbs.”
“I’m sorry, Professor.” Eleanor raised her hand to stop him. “I’m confused by the purpose of this conversation.”
“Eleanor, I’ve been your literary professor for ten years.” He folded his hands again as he continued browsing her grades. “I’ve seen how enthusiastic you are about literature through all five years of both secondary school and college.” He looked up to her again and smiled. “Assuming that your heart isn’t set on being an apothecary, would you consider an apprenticeship in the literary arts? Specifically, to be a literary professor.”
Eleanor laughed briefly, but loudly, bringing her hand to her mouth as she stopped. “I’m sorry, what? Is this some sort of joke? Surely there are students with perfect grades that are more worthy of such an offer than I am.”
“Perfect grades are all well and good,” Professor Emmett leaned back in his chair, tapping his fingers on the desk. “But that only shows me that a student is capable of doing their work. Do they have passion for the subject, or do they just want exceptional scores? No, a student who only does well is not what I seek in an apprentice. I’m looking for someone who does well and is passionate.” He stared at Eleanor, whose eyes were fixed on his desk. “From day one, I’ve seen how passionate you are about literature. There is no denying that you are my best student. Certainly, you could stand to give categories other than fiction more attention, but even those you treat with respect. Who better to take on as an apprentice than you?”
Eleanor didn’t say anything, her mind swarmed by a hundred thoughts. Professor Emmett looked back to his desk as she wrung her hands.
“You don’t have to answer right away. But if you could by graduation, I would appreciate it. However, if you need most of the summer holiday to decide, then by all means.”
“I will absolutely have an answer by graduation. I’m sorry, I’m not indifferent. I’m just stunned. Never in my life did I think I’d be given such an offer. I’m not exactly one of the wealthier students that these apprenticeships typically go to.” She laughed nervously.
“Well, it’s my decision to make and I already explained my reasoning.” Professor Emmett adjusted his glasses as he closed the file and returned it to the drawer. “I hope to hear back positively, but will understand if you decide against it.”
Eleanor nodded, still in disbelief. Of course she was excited, but she couldn’t completely shake the feeling that this was all some sort of joke. Nervously, she dismissed herself and approached the door, but was stopped in her steps by Professor Emmett calling out to her.
“Now don’t be so hasty to leave, Eleanor. There is one more thing.”
Embarrassed, she turned back toward him.
“You know of the upcoming delegate banquet, yes?”
“The one for the representatives from the other Shards coming to Phiana for the Joining Anniversary? I know of it.”
“Well,” Professor Emmett leaned back yet again. “Due to Phiana being an academic city, professors from the Eight Sister Academies are invited and are allowed to bring an apprentice or prospective apprentice. Even should you decide afterward to not take the offer, it would be an honor to have you join me.”
“Gods,” Eleanor whispered, staring at the floor. “This day just has more and more surprises, doesn’t it?”
“Stay focused, Eleanor. Is that a yes or a no?”
“Sorry! Of course, yes, definitely. But I’ve never attended something like this before.”
“Ah, it’s simple enough,” Professor Emmett laughed. “Just dress your best, make nice with the other professors and apprentices, listen to the delegates talk, and mind your table manners.”
“Sounds easy, but knowing me I’ll probably make a mistake somewhere!” she smiled. “But, yes. I would love to attend.”
“Perfect. It’s the evening after the day of graduation. We can work out the details later.”
“I’m looking forward to it.” Eleanor glanced at the door. “Well, if there is nothing else, Professor?”
“No, nothing else, Eleanor. I will keep in touch.”
She nodded understandingly and bid her professor farewell. Stepping into the hall, she sighed as she thought about the conversation. As she descended the nearby stairs to the second and first floors, her mind was immediately occupied with daydreams of becoming a literary professor and teaching others about countless stories. So merry was she that she nearly skipped through the hallway that passed the primary school classrooms. In the foyer, Eleanor hardly even heard the secretary at the front desk bid her a good day. She turned awkwardly to exchange the well wishing as she passed through the main entrance.
The warm summer air and the cool sea breeze washed over Eleanor as she stepped onto the academy yard. A content grin appeared on her face as she looked at her fellow classmates who were relaxing before heading home. A few students were seated at stone benches scattered about while others rested in the shade beneath the trees.
Eleanor started down the stone path toward the road as her green eyes gazed at the sky and at the distant, floating continents. The barely visible Shards had been present in the sky for her entire life, but she was still amazed that it was only forty years prior that their worlds has joined as one. The distance between them was great, but Eleanor hoped that common travel to those far-off lands would one day be permitted. Until then, there was plenty for her to see on her own Shard. She had only ever spent her life in the country of Galviece, and even then, Eleanor hardly traveled beyond the area around Phiana.
The scenery around her changed from city’s edge to countryside as she followed the main road westward. She had walked the mile stretch of this particular route countless times since her first day of school fifteen years ago. Would she walk it many more if she became a professor at Leyia Academy, she wondered. Eleanor had only just been made the offer for apprenticeship, but here she was getting carried away thinking about things that were years from now. She never dreamed she would be so lucky as to be offered an apprenticeship, so the thought of becoming a literary professor hardly ever crossed her mind. But now that she had, it was filled with a hundred fantasies.
Eleanor followed a dirt road that branched off the main one and walked along it until she came upon her neighbors’ orchard. Tracing her fingers along the stone fence as she strolled on, she smiled as she stared at the rows of fruit trees and the glimpses of the woods beyond them. Shortly after, she found herself at the house just beyond the orchard; a two-storied cottage that was painted a faded yet pleasant shade of blue. Just on the other side of the wooden gate were numerous flowers and other plants that hugged a stone path leading to the front door.
She reached across and unlocked the gate, stepping in and closing it behind her. Eleanor approached the front door, but her attention was drawn toward the garden to the left of the house, which was wedged between it and a fairly sizable wooden shack. Working in the garden was a man of average height and about twice Eleanor’s age. His hair was auburn like hers, but was kept short and had slight sideburns on the side of his face. Eleanor smiled as she saw him tilling the soil.
“Dad!” she called out as she trotted to him.
There was a loud clanking sound from inside the shack, so she worried if he had even heard her. But her father looked up from his work as she approached and grinned widely.
“Ellie, welcome home, dear!” He stood up straight and wiped his hands off on his soil-stained tunic. Her father rested his weight on the handle of the cultivator and leaned his head toward the shack behind him. “Vena!”
“What is it, Bram?” a woman’s voice called back.
“Ellie’s home from her exams!”
“Oh, good! Send her in when she’s able!”
Ellie smiled to her father, but was startled when he teetered a little. Bram caught himself on the cultivator and let out an anxious laugh.
“I’m just a little tired.” He turned toward his daughter. “How were your exams?”
“Well, I like to think I passed exceptionally.” Ellie had her hands on her hips and looked quite proud of herself, then set aside her pride and relaxed her arms. “But the grades will arrive in the post next week.”
“Ah, well I’m certain that you did, as you say, pass exceptionally.” Bram laughed as he adjusted himself. He sighed through heavy breaths as he struggled to keep his composure, unable to hide his inner battle from his daughter.
Ellie stood beside her father and placed her hands on his shoulders.
“Dad, you overdid it again, didn’t you?” She started leading him toward the house, but he stopped her.
“Oh, don’t you worry about me, Ellie. I can get into the house well enough on my own. But you’re right, I did overdo it.” Bram handed the cultivator to Ellie and hobbled toward the house. “Come talk with me after you see your mother, alright?”
Ellie watched her father enter the house through the front door. She stepped into the shack, her mother’s workshop, and looked around amid all the plants, alembics, and other concocting instruments. Tilting her head from one side to the other, she spotted the tall woman and her unmistakable dark blonde braid woven on the back of her head. Ellie set the cultivator down with several other gardening tools beside the entrance and called out to her mother as she strolled to the other end of the workshop.
Vena turned her attention to her daughter and smiled, holding a small pair of shears in one hand.
“Welcome home, Ellie. Your final exams go well?” Vena reached her free hand up to push her curly bangs out of the way of her face, but decided otherwise when she noticed plant sap on her fingers.
“I like to think so! Literature is my specialty, after all.” Her mother took note of Ellie’s excitement as she bounced on her toes. “Mum, you’re not going to believe what happened.”
“Oh? Well, don’t leave me in suspense!”
Ellie hesitated, wondering how her mother would feel about her news. But she couldn’t help but be excited and told her about the offer for a literary professor apprenticeship and her professor’s reasoning behind picking her. Vena seemed happy as her daughter went over the story.
“Ellie, that’s incredible!” Vena’s smile gradually changed from genuine to forced before completely changing to a look of confusion. “But... I thought for sure you wanted to be an apothecary. Didn’t you? Are you seriously considering this offer?”
“—After all, you told me you wanted to attend college for the additional education, but when you graduated you were going to get serious about helping me.” Vena’s stress was becoming more apparent. “I’ve been getting more and more requests from adventurers lately and I can hardly find the time to research ways to improve your father’s condition.”
“I know, I just thought—”
“—No, it’s alright. You said you have time to think it over? That’s good. I’m sure that with time to think, you’ll work it out in your mind to settle on being an apothecary.”
“I’m... sure I will.” Ellie’s expression twisted to a scowl as her mother turned away to continue working with her plants. “Anyway, I’m gonna go see how Dad’s faring.”
Vena’s tone irritated Ellie as it crushed her enthusiasm. She quickly dismissed herself from her mother’s workshop and headed into the house, opening the front door with a force propelled by her annoyance. Stepping inside, she swung the door behind her a bit harder than she intended. Ellie turned and tried to and stop it from slamming shut, but was just a little too slow. She made a pained face at the sound it made.
“You know what I say about slamming doors in this house, young lady.” Bram was seated at the table near the front door in the kitchen, raising an eyebrow at his daughter.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
Ellie hadn’t even noticed her father and sulked up to the table, slumping into the chair across from him. The breeze blowing through the open windows caused the many plants scattered about the family room beside them to sway gently in their pots. A pleasant aroma from the assortment was soothing to her nerves, but couldn’t calm her completely.
“Now, why the long face? You were so chipper when I saw you just a few minutes ago.”
“Dad,” Ellie sighed. “I got offered an apprenticeship by my literary professor.”
Bram’s jaw dropped. “Ellie, that’s amazing news! Are you gonna accept? Wait, are you upset about this?”
“I’m not upset over the offer.” Ellie nodded her head in the direction of the workshop. “I’m upset over how Mum reacted.”
“Ah, so that’s what happened.” Bram tapped his finger on the table as he thought. “Don’t let your mother’s reaction get to you. She’s probably just conflicted. You know that she’s happy for you deep down, but she probably needs time to process this.”
“I guess so.”
Feeling the heavy air around them, Bram reached across the table and patted his daughter’s hand.
“I’m happy for you, Ellie, truly. You should absolutely take the offer if that is what your heart desires.”
“Thank you, Dad.” She smiled, gazing at his hand as she took it in her own.
“Well, it’s nothing compared to your news, but we had a tiny bit of excitement of our own this morning.” Bram pointed to the dark room beside the kitchen. “The neighbors brought over fresh blueberries from their morning harvest. We put them in the pump room to chill for tonight. Doesn’t that sound like it’ll be a nice celebratory treat?”
“It does.” Ellie glanced toward the water pump room. From the corner of her eye, she noticed a kettle heating on the stove. “Are you making tea?”
“I am. Did you want me to pour a cup for you?”
“No no,” Ellie shook her head. “I was just wondering if you wanted help.”
Bram waved his hand. “I can handle it, I’m feeling better now that I’m inside. You should go relax in your room for now. You’ve certainly earned it after a whole week of exams.”
“I think I’ll do that.” Ellie stood from her seat and pushed it back in. Stepping to the other side of the table, she placed her hands on her father’s shoulders and leaned down to kiss him on the cheek. Bram responded by placing his hand on one of Ellie’s.
“I want you to do what makes you happiest, dear.”
“Thank you, Dad. I will, I promise.”
Ellie walked into the family room behind them and climbed the staircase in the corner. She glanced back down to her father as she reached the landing, who was leaning back in his chair as he was consumed by his thoughts. Anxious to go lie down, Ellie continued up the second set of stairs to the upper floor of the house.
At the far end of the second floor hallway were a few steps leading into the attic and two bedroom doors that preceded them. She opened the first door, entering into the room that she shared with her younger sister, Lillian. Ellie couldn’t help but chuckle at the difference in how she and her sister had made their beds that morning. Ellie’s was tidy enough, but Lillian’s was about as lazy an attempt as could be made, having just lifted the blanket so that it wasn’t clumped up and not even bothering to straighten out the corners.
Ellie let out a long sigh as she flopped down onto the nicely made bed by the far wall, pulling her bag off of her shoulder and setting it beside her. She reached into it and pulled out an ornate book of which she had marked her place in with a small bit of parchment. Ellie turned over to her stomach and opened the book, reading and clearing her mind of the stressful conversation with her mother.
Hardly an hour had passed before Ellie’s attention was drawn away from her book by a commotion outside. She sat up and peeked out the nearby open window to see her two younger siblings in the yard. Lillian had something under her arm and was clambering into one of the trees that divided their yard from the neighbors’. Ellie chuckled as her younger brother, Irwin, shook his finger in a lecturing manner at Lillian and told her to come down from there that instant.
Ellie placed her book face down on the bed and made her way downstairs, her interest fully piqued by what was happening between her siblings. She noticed her father was no longer in the kitchen, but had moved to the bedroom at the base of the stairs and was resting. Ellie stepped outside through the side door in the living room, which conveniently faced where Irwin and Lillian were. She strode across the yard and stopped beside the tall, scrawny boy and crossed her arms as she looked up the tree.
“What are you doing up there, tree frog?”
Irwin groaned as he pointed at her. “Lillian went into the neighbors’ orchard and took blueberries right off the bushes!” He ran his fingers through his short, wavy, dark blonde hair in stress. “I tried to stop her, but she wouldn’t listen. Then I tried to get them back and she scuttled up the tree.”
“You know, for being thirteen, you certainly act like you’re eight sometimes.” Ellie tapped her foot on the ground. “Why don’t you come down now, Lillian?”
The tiny girl with short and wild auburn hair continued to ignore her siblings, reaching into the wood container with one hand and adjusting one of her barrettes with the other.
“We have blueberries in the house already, you know? We’re having them tonight.”
“Nope.” Lillian took a handful of blueberries out of the container. “They’re better when they’re right off the bush, anyway.”
Ellie and Irwin looked to one another, neither one surprised how their little sister was behaving.
“We should have expected no less, honestly,” Ellie shrugged.
“It’s hard to think that we’re only a couple of years apart with how much more mature I am than her.” Irwin scoffed.
He tried calling up to Lillian again, but noticed that her arm was stopped in place between her face and the container. She stared intently at something in the direction of the front of the house. Ellie had also taken note of Lillian’s shift in mood.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“There’s a really weird looking man talking to Mum by the workshop.”
Lillian’s tone was serious. Ellie and Irwin tried to see the workshop from where they were standing, but it was impossible with all of the tall plants in the way. They gave in and climbed the tree to see what Lillian was seeing.
As they reached the higher branches, the siblings looked in the direction of the workshop to see Vena speaking to a man that nearly towered over her. Long, golden locks spilled out from underneath his elegant feathered hat, the only contrast against his pitch black coat. His presence was suffocating, almost as though it drained the very life out of the greenery around him. He ran his fingers along the curved rim on one side of the black hat and traced them to the sharp point at the front, tilting it downward as he spoke to Vena. This made it difficult for the siblings to make out any additional features.
“I think he’s an elf. His ears look pointed from here,” Lillian said.
“Well, he’s certainly tall enough to be one,” Irwin added.
“I don’t like how uncomfortable Mum looks.” Ellie stared at her mother, noticing her arms crossed tightly across her chest as she averted her gaze from the man’s.
“You’re right.” Irwin said. “I’ve never seen Mum look that tense when talking to adventurers before. Should we—should we go get someone?”
Just as the words passed his lips, Vena gestured strongly with one arm as though she were emphasizing a point. When she folded her arm to her chest again, the man took a deep breath before slowly bowing his head to her. He departed through the front gate and started down the road toward Phiana. Vena sighed and relaxed her shoulders as she watched him leave.
The siblings observed quietly from the tree as the darkly clad man passed by. A sense of dread swept over them as the man quite clearly leaned his head to the side to look at them. Ellie felt as though the frigid gaze from his pale blue eyes could pierce her very soul.
After he was gone, the three of them dropped out of the tree and rushed to their mother, who was still standing outside of her workshop with her arms crossed in deep thought. Lillian was the first to call out to her, clinging to her mother’s arm.
“Mum, are you alright?” Irwin asked.
“Who was that man?” Lillian added.
Vena was shocked that her children had seen all of that, but waved her hand dismissively as they barraged her with questions.
“No one, you three.” She reached for her braid and tugged at it nervously. “He was nothing more than an adventurer looking for directions.”
“Lillian, it’s fine.” Vena gently pried her daughter’s hand off of her arm. “Honestly, it’s nothing, okay? Don’t worry and just forget about it. Now, if you would all please go inside and help your father start preparing dinner. I’ll join you once I finish with work.”
Reluctantly, Lillian and Irwin headed back into the house. Ellie followed them, but stopped to look back over her shoulder at her mother. Vena’s arms fell limp to her sides and she paced back into her workshop, unaware that her daughter was watching her.
Ellie turned her head toward the road where the man had disappeared. Her thoughts returned to his haunting gaze and her mother’s sheer dismay of him. The thought of him clouded Ellie’s mind so much that she hardly heard Irwin calling out to her from inside the house.
“Sorry, I’m coming!” She stepped inside and tried to clear her mind of this encounter.
The Martel family prepared dinner together and soon forgot about the experience with the unsettling, darkly clad man. Ellie had even set aside her feelings regarding her conversation with her mother, convinced that she would soon come around and look positively at the offer for apprenticeship. Ellie did, however, feel a twinge of guilt as she thought about how stressful her mother’s work was.
They all retired to the family room after eating dinner, each one of them with their own small bowl of freshly rinsed blueberries. Lillian flopped onto her stomach on the rug in front of the fireplace and nearly buried her face in the bowl. Ellie sat on one sofa with her father as she continued reading her book. Irwin sat with his mother on the other sofa but glared down at Lillian, who might as well have been eating like some sort of animal.
“You’ve had plenty anyway,” he said, poking at her with his toe and causing her to whine. “After all, you stole a whole container worth from the bushes this afternoon.”
“Lillian.” Vena’s voice was stern.
“Snitch.” She glared at her brother.
“You know better than that, Lily.”
Being called this name by her mother caused Lillian to whine even more. She was most insistent that her name was Lillian, not Lily. Being addressed as such meant that someone either didn’t know any better, or that one of her family members was giving her a serious lecture. Lillian’s fierce reaction to being called ‘Lily’ was the reason that Professor Emmett now only referred to students by their names on file.
Bram chuckled as Vena continued to lecture their younger daughter. He then turned to Ellie, noticing the book that she was reading. Bram reached over gently to try to see the cover, which caught her attention.
“Sorry, I was just trying to see the title. Is it a good one?”
“It is,” she smiled. “It’s a little darker than what I usually read, but it’s a nice change of pace.”
“What’s it about?”
“There’s this village that’s terrorized by a werewolf, so a woman and her fiance have to fight back against it. There’s a few gruesome descriptions of maulings in some scenes, though.”
“That sounds dreadful,” Bram laughed, his delight contradicting his words. His response caused Ellie to chuckle.
“It’s definitely not the type of book I would expect Grandma to give me.”
“Your Grandma gave that to you?“′
“You wouldn’t think so, right? She gave it to me as a gift this passed Year’s Dawn.”
Bram and Ellie shared a laugh at the thought of dainty and proper Grandma Martel giving such a book as a gift, probably purchasing it based on the cover alone. Vena broke off from her conversation with her other two children to speak to Ellie.
“Could I ask you and your sister to run to the markets for me tomorrow? I’m almost out of a few key herbs for concocting, and we could use a few more vegetables that we don’t grow.”
“Of course,” Ellie nodded.
“Why do I have to go?” Lillian whined.
“Because you’re being punished.” Vena copied her son and pushed at Lillian with her toe. By this point, Lillian didn’t even complain anymore and instead scooted herself out of their reach.
The family continued to socialize as the evening wore on, though Ellie kept herself relatively engaged in her book. She made a face due to a particularly over-descriptive part and closed it, turning her attention to the fireplace. At the same time, Vena leaned her head back to look at the clock near the side door.
“Hm, it’s already a bit late. Irwin, Lillian, you two should scoot off to bed.”
“That’s fine,” Irwin said, standing up and stretching. “I want to wake up early and study for my exams.” He reached for his mother’s empty bowl to take it to the kitchen for her, but she shook her head and took his instead.
“Right, secondary graduates have their exams next week, don’t they?” Ellie asked, to which Irwin nodded. “Do you want me to help you study tomorrow night?”
“I’d love that,” he smiled.
Irwin and Lillian made their way upstairs after bidding their parents and sister goodnight. She attempted to playfully kick her brother in the backside as payback for snitching, but Irwin saw it coming and dashed up the steps. Ellie and her parents chuckled as Irwin sprinted to his room to flee from his sister’s attack.
“I think I’ll head that way, too,” Ellie said, setting her book on her lap. “It’s been a long day and I’m exhausted.”
She stood up from the sofa and leaned down beside both of her parents, giving them each a kiss on the cheek and bidding them goodnight. Ellie started up the stairs as Vena moved to the other sofa to sit beside Bram, cuddling up by her husband as they were left alone.
Ellie entered her bedroom and looked at Lillian as she wedged herself between her blanket and the bed.
“Can you toss this onto my bed while I change?” She handed her book to her.
Lillian nodded and gave the book a gentle toss while Ellie stepped behind a small partition by the dresser. She crawled into bed after changing into her nightgown and opened the book, picking up where she left off but immediately remembering why she stopped where she did. Ellie made a face as Lillian turned to her.
“I heard about the apprenticeship.”
Ellie looked up at Lillian, gently setting the book back down. “From Dad?”
“What do you think I should do?”
Lillian shrugged. “Whatever you feel like.” She turned to her back and looked at the ceiling. “Like for me, college doesn’t matter. When I’m fifteen and I graduate from secondary school, I’m done with school forever.”
Ellie laughed softly. “That’s right, I’ve been so absorbed in my exams this week that I forgot that you’re already on summer holiday.”
Lillian raised her arms skyward. “Thank the gods for the man who decided that seasonal school holidays should be during the flow-over months. I get an extra six days of freedom thanks to him, and even more because it’s the end of the school year.” Lillian glanced back to her sister, who had resumed reading her book. “Did you ever have to read that stupid story about the knight when you were in my grade?”
“The knight that everyone reveres even though he’s painfully boring and not even doing anything that any other knight couldn’t do. And basically every woman in the book treats him like he’s a god and swoons over him!”
Ellie was amused by how passionately her sister disliked this story. “I think I remember that one. It was horribly written, but some students were so insistent that it was excellent.”
“Every passage was an insult to my intelligence. But we had to read it because it was a so-called ‘classic of literature’. Thanks for nothing, Evan Emmett.”
After sharing a laugh with her sister, Lillian turned over to her other side.
“I’m going to sleep now.”
“May I leave the lamp lit until I’m done reading? I’ll finish soon.”
As Lillian drifted off to sleep, Ellie continued reading through the difficult part of her book. She found it a little easier to proceed with the rest of the chapter when the scene was finally over, but was frustrated when it ended on a cliffhanger. Though tempted to continue, Ellie decided that she would just resume reading tomorrow night. She closed the book and set it down by her bag at her bedside, then reached for the lamp to put it out, realizing that the curtain over the window behind it was still open.
Throwing off her blanket and standing up, Ellie grabbed the curtains on either side of the window and started pulling them closed. But as she glanced outside, a horrible feeling came over her as she could swear that she saw a dark silhouette at the edge of the woods. Ellie thrust the curtains closed and whispered ‘no’ to herself as she put out the lamp, immediately crawling back under her blanket and keeping her gaze fixed on her sister’s back in the dark.
“It’s nothing,” she whispered. “You’re imagining things. Your book just has you unsettled. Everything is fine. Everything is fine.” She repeatedly whispered those last words in an attempt to soothe herself as she closed her eyes to sleep.