I didn't bother changing out of my nightgown that evening. I had too much on my mind. I kept covering my wrist with my sleeve, not wanting my father to see it. The bruise had turned an ugly purple and was starting to hurt even though the only thing touching it was the fabric of my sleeve.
My papa was ecstatic that I had 'accepted' Theodore's proposal. I couldn't bring myself to tell him of his true nature. Already he was trying to find a way to get enough to pay for a real wedding dress.
When I got to the tree where I had met Elwin last night, I stared up at the moon. I sighed. If only I could be an elf. I'd be able to escape this terrible situation and live among beings who would accept me. Beings, I hoped, that weren't forced into loveless marriages.
I heard footsteps and looked in front of me. I smiled at Elwin and he returned it, bowing deeply again.
"I'm glad you came," he said then his smile faltered. "Why do you look so sad?"
"It's nothing," I said quickly, unconsciously pulling on my sleeve. "I just did a lot of work today with the-"
He took my right hand gently and pushed my sleeve up. He ran his finger over the bruise.
"This was made from a man," he muttered and I looked away. "Does your father abuse you?"
"No!" I said quickly. "Goodness no. We are all we have left."
"Then who did this to you?"
I shook my head and sat down, tucking my nightgown around me.
"It matters not, Sir Elwin. Please, sit with me. I have so many questions for you!"
He laughed and did. "As do I. But you go first."
"Is it true that you live under the ground?"
He laughed again. "Not at all! We actually live high up in the trees."
"Wow," I breathed. "Where?"
His smile faded. "I'm afraid I can't tell you that."
"Oh," I said, disappointed.
"My turn: if you are not giants, how tall can you get?"
I thought about that. "You know, I'm not sure. We had a man come through our village who was seven feet tall." His eyes widened. "Normally we're just 5 feet to 6 1/2 feet tall. Okay, now me. Did your king really wage war on our kind?"
At this, he sighed sadly. "Yes, I'm afraid that is true. Princess Linata was perfectly within her rights to banish us like she did."
"So that's her name! No one could remember it."
He nodded. "Do humans really live from the earth?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"I read a book that says humans cut trees for their homes," he said with a disgusted tone in his voice.
"It's true," I said and he looked at me in horror. "We've had to learn to build sturdy homes. If we don't, they could be swept away by heavy winds or floods. Sometimes we even have ice fall from the sky that can cause damage and even death. Although, I heard a rumor that somewhere in the north they've created something called a brick. It's said to be ten times stronger than the thickest tree."
"It saddens me to know you cut trees," he admitted.
"Do you still have a king and queen?"
"Yes, we do. They are very just rulers." He thought for a second. "How do you make your clothing?"
"From cloth or wool mostly," I answered. "Sometimes people use silk but that's only for the rich." I hesitated. "Do you have parents?"
"Of course we do. It is how we are born. Do humans reproduce like elves?"
I giggled. "That depends on how you give birth."
He blushed. "Well... it's mostly... when the he-elf and she-elf are physically attracted to one another they-"
"Oh!" I gasped. "You have the same anatomy! That's fascinating!"
He laughed a little. "So? Do you?"
"Yes, we do." I picked at the dirt on my nightgown, thinking about today. "Do you have marriages in your culture?"
"I don't know what marriages are," he said and I thought of a way to word it.
"Like... coming together as one union," I said.
"Oh. Yes, in a way. The goddesses choose our mates for us when we were born. When we find our mate, we become one. It's said to be an instant attraction."
"Have you found your mate?"
He shook his head. "No, I'm afraid I have not. That counts as two questions," he added and I laughed.
"Are marriages your way of bonding?"
"Yes. When a man and woman fall in love, we make vows." I sighed. "Sometimes, though, it is hard to find that person. When that happens, things must be forced to happen."
"That sounds awful," he frowned. "To be bonded with someone you do not love.... Have you found your mate?"
I shook my head. "He has been chosen for me," I said bitterly.
"Is he the one who hurt you?"
"It's my turn," I said. "How old are you?"
He laughed. "I was waiting for that question. Personally, I am 89. We can live up to 300 years old, though. That is when our first king was killed by Princess Linata and so the goddesses cursed us with a limited life."
"I am only 20," I breathed. "I must seem like a child to you!"
We laughed. "Not quite. Now answer my question: Is he the one who hurt you?"
I sighed heavily and nodded. He leaned back, his face horrified.
"Elwin, I don't know how things are like where you are, but when something like this happens...." I tried to think of a way to word it. "I am presented with two options: speak up and put myself and my papa at risk, or stay silent so everyone can be happy."
"You have chosen the latter, haven't you?"
I picked a blade of grass and began tearing it. "I don't think he'll do it again. It was my fault. I made him angry."
"He hurt you yet you still intend to marry him?"
I sighed again and stood up. "I must go. If my papa wakes and I'm not there, he'll be angry."
Elwin stood, too. "Shall we meet here again tomorrow night?"
I smiled. "Yes."
We parted ways, neither of us realizing how much danger we were putting ourselves in.