The strangest thing about the headless man was, of course, that he was headless. But another strange thing was his clothes―a tawny, loose-fitting shirt with a red waistcoat, and white pants tucked in ankle-length leather boots―a medieval costume? She heard a faint sigh that seemed like frustration. Finley rubbed her eyes and looked again―the headless man was gone.
“Excuse me?” an irritated voice came from behind her. “Are you gonna buy any?”
A stout, middle-aged woman who looked like she was going to shove Finley away if she didn’t move. Grabbing a couple bags and wheeling the cart away, Finley looked back―the woman was piling bags into her cart as if an apocalypse was coming, another man was approaching, and he looked perfectly normal too. No waistcoat or boots.
Was she hallucinating? The wisp of hair she saw earlier could be some piece of fluff from the trees, as she was outdoors at that time, but how could she mistake seeing a full set of medieval clothes in the middle of the aisle?
Finley fled to the car. She drove home, her hands trembling on the wheel, and multiple cars sped by, an indication she was going too slow. Pulling herself together, Finley applied a bit more pressure to the pedal, accelerating to a tolerable speed, and tried to put the headless man out of her mind. Maybe after a while, after she calmed down, she’d come to realize that everything was but a figment of her imagination.
She unloaded her purchases in the kitchen (terminating another cockroach that had the audacity to appear in the sink), putting milk and eggs and chicken in the fridge, and stuffing apples and onions and potatoes into the oven. Finley never used the oven, it used too much energy and besides, who needed a giant oven when you were living alone?
After dinner, Finley again pulled out her laptop. Time to work on college applications. Her odd jobs paid well, but for a decent job she had to think long-term, and most decent jobs required a college degree. Her best bet was to get a full-ride scholarship―one that would cover tuition, living expenses, everything. She had a good shot at it, her grades were stellar, she qualified for financial aid, but nothing was a guarantee.
She was uploading her personal statement when the screen suddenly went black. Everything went black, actually. No, NOT AGAIN. Her laptop’s battery had died long ago, so there was no buffer when a power outage occurred. Finley felt around for her phone and turned on the flashlight function.
And then she screamed.
The headless man, hovering in the middle of the living room. Only he wasn’t headless, and he wasn’t a man.
He had pointy ears jutting from his head, light cinnamon hair tied back in a ponytail, and a face that seemed young enough for a ten-year-old, though he stood as tall as Finley herself, who was five feet three. His skin was as pale as moonlight, his features as fine as a statue, his figure as slender as a sapling.
He looked like an elf.
Finley rubbed her eyes, blinked, she pinched her arm, it hurt, so she rubbed her eyes again.
The elf was still there; he smiled tentatively. “Are you Finley?”
His voice was melodic and sweet, like a violin―he definitely sounded ten years old, but her skin tingled with discomfort.
Lights flickered back, but she barely registered it; there was a weird elf-creature in her house and he knew her name!
Finley sprang up and threw her bag at the elf, who held up a hand and poof! The bag vanished in a shower of golden sparks.
“Stop!” the elf shouted. “I mean no harm—truly—I only wanted to—stop!”
Finley had been sprinting to the kitchen to get a knife, when something firm and unyielding wrapped around her ankles, and she would have fallen had she not grabbed the kitchen counter. A hurried glance revealed a thick golden rope around her ankles, and she tugged, struggled, trying to pry it loose, but of no avail.
“Let me go!”
Surprisingly, he obeyed at once. The rope vanished, she stumbled, then righted herself. “Who are you?” She demanded, staring at the door. The lock was in place. “How did you get in?”
He looked relieved and muttered something like, language charm worked; he crossed to the sofa and perched on one arm, as easily as if he were a bird. “Call me Tavish. I work in the royal stables―I take care of His Highness Casimir’s horses. Sorry I gave you a scare in that big place with a lot of weird colorful stuff. I’ve been having trouble making myself invisible to all other humans except you.”
So it wasn’t her imagination when she saw him in the supermarket. Slowly, Finley moved to the living room, but she remained standing against the wall and crossed her arms.
Tavish cocked his head. “Anyway, I’ve come for you, human. It’s time.”
“You’ve turned eighteen―the age you’re old enough to be called an adult, so the king has sent me to bring you to Elyria.”
Finley dragged her feet home—a tiny cottage with paint peeling off the walls and windows that no longer opened, though there were two heavy metal locks installed on the door—a necessary precaution for a girl who lived alone. She stepped onto the thin, discolored carpet, when a rustle in a corner instantly put her on alert. Something oval, black, with antennae was scuttling along the cracked wall—a cockroach. Ridiculous—a roach in November?
Well, better a roach than a robber. Finley got an old slipper and whacked.
After disposing the body—a yucky business, no matter how many times she did it—she pulled out her laptop and got to work. This was the reason she had no interest in fun and flirting. The one time she had a relationship, she got scars—not real ones, thankfully, but enough to put her off dating.
And, as Finley told herself, she already had a boyfriend. Money. She didn’t need anything but money. The earth revolved around money. Nothing mattered in the world but dollar signs. She knew it the hard way, after her mother died, leaving her with an estranged father didn’t have a job and then got cancer, racking up a pile of medical bills that threatened to bury her alive.
Luckily, she had a brain. A pretty good one. Finley survived on scholarships, babysitting, tutoring, selling essays, and more recently, blackmailing a pedophile she found online.
She opened up her bank account, pleased to see three more zeroes appear behind the original paltry amount that she checked daily. Then she captured screenshots of the vomit-inducing chats and sent them to the local authorities anyway.
Her wallet considerably fattened, Finley decided to replenish her near-empty fridge. She had been living on rice and beans and apples for weeks. Grabbing her bag, Finley headed out, to her rickety old car from last century.
She felt The Gaze soon after she parked her car and got out. Finley looked around immediately, but there was no one around. Not even a stray cat. She looked around again and thought she saw a wisp of hair, but when she blinked, there was nothing but air.
Nothing but air, she told herself, but as she walked into the supermarket, she made a note to get the purchases as soon as possible. She pushed the cart down the aisles briskly, and while she was passing an aisle of lined with coffee and tea, a voice in the next aisle made her freeze.
“Just grab the pack and go, I ain’t got time hanging around. Coach wants us back by six.”
Greg, her ex. A football player who had seemed real sweet and wasn’t empty-headed, until she discovered he was only interested in her body and the only reason he pursued her was because of a bet.
No one’d look at you twice if you weren’t hot, he had sneered.
Finley would have thrown a mega-sized can of ground coffee at him if she could get away with it. That wasn’t possible, so she kept still until the voices and footfalls faded away. Not that she was afraid of Greg, but well, she’d just rather not.
Anyway, it was a good thing that it was her ex, not Parker. Finley would have thrown a can at Parker, regardless of consequences.
An announcement blasted over the store―something about buy-one-get-one-free for toilet paper. Finley was able to cut corners on many things, but toilet paper was not one of them.
Finley raced to the aisle as if her life depended on it and stopped short, her heart beating wildly, but not because of the exercise.
There, right in front of those giant white rolls, was a headless man.
Someone was watching her. Not in the I’m-interested-in-you-gal or You-took-my-seat kind of manner, but a shadowy, prickly sensation that made Finley feel as if she were sitting naked in the crowded classroom, or had drugs piled up on her desk. Neither was true, of course. She couldn’t be more normal in her sweater and jeans, doodling away on her test paper (she had finished it in half the time allocated), dreaming of the bell and hoping the cafeteria wouldn’t be crowded. Finley disliked crowds.
The bell rang, and as students gathered their books and pens, someone poked Finley’s back. She swiveled around at lightning speed and met the startled gaze of her best friend, Jordan.
“Why’re you being so jittery? You look like I’m going to attack you.”
“Nothing.” If it were the first time, Finley would have kept it to herself, but that prickly feeling had been going on for a few days, she might as well tell. “Actually, I think someone’s watching me.”
Jordan let out an exasperated sigh. “Didn’t you notice? Troy’s got a crush on you.”
“Yeah, Troy.” Jordan poked her back again. “He’s liked you since he transferred in the beginning of the semester.”
Finley hefted her bag over her shoulder and walked out of the classroom.
“Aren’t you even going to give him a chance?” Jordan said, catching up to her in the hallway.
“Oh pul-lease. Troy’s decent, not everyone’s like Greg…”
“Don’t mention his name!”
“Fine.” Jordan held up her hands. “But hello, girl, you haven’t gone on a date for years! You need to go out more.”
“I have plenty of dates. With my laptop. I don’t have time for…oh no.” They had arrived in the cafeteria and the queue resembled a serpent. A large, coiling serpent. All the good seats were taken.
Jordan sighed. Finley was burned badly by a jerk when she was a sophomore, but that was two years ago, an eternity for a teenager.
It wasn’t because Finley was homely. Quite the opposite, in fact. Creamy complexion, luminous eyes, long fringed lashes, and perfectly shaped face. She had the dark-eyed, dark-haired look of a southern European belle, looking like she should be promenading in the streets of Madrid or Rome, with large earrings and large sunglasses, clutching a tall cup of coffee. But here she was, in small town America. Perhaps that was why most boys stayed away, finding her unapproachable. Nor did it help that Finley deliberately acted unapproachable. She was anti-social, unfriendly, rarely cracked a smile, and frankly, as fun as her clothes―plain o’ T-shirts or sweaters, perennial jeans and sneakers. Also, she hated makeup. Jordan had begged season in and season out to give her a makeover. You’ll make heads turn, she had said. Kimberly won’t hold a candle to you. To which Finley rolled her eyes; Kimberly, the one voted most likely to be homecoming queen, was drop-dead gorgeous and could be in Hollywood if she wanted. But it didn’t matter if all girls were Kimberlys; Finley would still be as impervious to makeup as an umbrella to rain. The most she consented was wearing a pair of magnetic earrings Jordan had forcefully thrusted into her hands on her birthday. (Finley hated earrings, she didn’t even have her ears pierced)
More than once she heard people whisper that Finley McCarthy wasted her looks on her personality. She didn’t care. She had far more things to worry about. Like trying to survive alone in the world.
She did not feel The Gaze as she waited in line; though Troy was sitting only a few tables away, she discerned that his surreptitious glance was different from The Gaze. His gaze she barely noticed, but the latter…she’d get her nose pierced if she could find out who it was
The playground was normal-looking except for the invisible presence of a tall, slender figure dressed in flowing, silver-white robes. A sparkling diamond crown perched on his head. His hair, platinum blonde with shades of ash and pearl, cascaded down his back, so long that it went past his waist. His eyes were gleaming slits, framed with lashes so long and curved and prominent that one could scarcely believe they appeared that way without a curler or mascara. His skin was translucent, not a single blemish or spot could be found, not even if one held up a flashlight to his face.
All in all, a man so exquisite that his existence seemed a miracle. But this was no man.
Aelfdene gazed at the children in the playground with laser focus. The girls, to be specific. One tumbled off a swing, landed on the ground with a thud, and started crying as if it were the end of the world.
His eyes narrowed a fraction. No, definitely not her.
Another girl snatched a candy bar from a boy smaller and younger than she, and ran away before he even registered what happened.
No, not this one either. Must keep looking.
As an elf, Aelfdene wasn’t easily tired. As an elf possessing the highest-level magic in his kingdom, his strength and stamina exceeded most of his peers, who could easily win an Olympic gold without trying. But he couldn’t help but feel a little weary―at heart. He had been in the human world for weeks, portal-traveled through dozens of towns, looking for a girl who would be ideal for Elyria, but while he had found a few who might do, none had yet fit all the criteria he was looking for.
A girl around ten or eleven, who had been playing on a seesaw, suddenly hopped off, causing another child on the opposite side to land with a bump.
“Finley! Where’re you going?”
The girl ignored the call. She streaked away like an arrow, and mildly curious what she was up to, Aelfdene followed her. She had inky black hair in curly waves, tanned skin and a chubby figure. All features considered unattractive for the elves, who favored pencil-straight, silvery-blond hair, pearly skin, and stick-thin figures, but somehow he was drawn to her. There was a determined look in her eyes, and her mouth was set in a firm line, like there was a task she didn’t want to do, but was going to do it anyway.
Now that was an attractive characteristic for the elves, who valued grit and fortitude―traits of a warrior.
The girl arrived at the rear of the school building. She vaulted over a fence and came to a narrow alley surrounded by gray walls. In the end was a tall, slick-haired teen, around fifteen or sixteen, towering over a small, mousy-haired boy who was curled on the ground like a shrimp, clutching a bag to his chest.
“Didn’t I tell you not to show up at my school, you dimwit?” he yelled, kicking at the boy. “You need a ride home, you call your dad! Do you know how you’ve embarrassed me in front of Taylor?”
Finley stalked forward. The ribbon holding her hair in place had loosened during her run, and as she charged, the entire ribbon fell off and her raven curls sprang free, framing her small face like a lion’s mane. “Leave him alone!” she shouted, dark eyes burning with righteous fury.
Slick-hair looked at her, then burst into laughter. “Ooh, see who’s your knight in shining armor,” he jeered, prodding the boy on the ground with his brand-name sneaker. “A girl who’s even smaller than you! Does she have a crush on you?” He stuck out his tongue and made kissing noises.
Finley’s cheeks turned crimson but she didn’t back down. In fact, she took a step closer, which surprised Aelfdene.
“Get away from him!”
Finley put her fingers in front of her mouth and gave a shrill whistle. A few seconds later, a huge, red-and-black German shepherd bounded into the alley and leaped at the bully, who let out a squawk of terror and fell back.
The dog obediently sat down and wagged his tail, looking pleased at himself.
“You leave him alone from now on, or next time Poochie won’t be so friendly.”
Slick-hair raised a foot and took one tentative glance at Poochie, who looked perfectly harmless, but, as if recollecting that the dog could be ferocious and snarling in a flip of a coin, he put his foot down.
“You’ll pay for this,” he spat and stalked off.
Finley squatted and offered the boy a hand. “Can you get up?”
He avoided her gaze. “Go away,” he mumbled.
“Hey! That’s not very nice to someone who saved you!”
“I said go away!”
Finley blinked. “Fine. You want to get beat up, that’s your choice. Come on, Poochie.”
She trotted away with her dog. Aelfdene followed, trailing behind her like a ghost. Were she able to see him, she would have screamed.
The elf king followed her to a modest two-story house, painted white and green, a comfortable cushioned chair placed on the porch. So this was where the girl lived. He’d have to mark the place―she made a good first impression, but he’d need to visit a few more times, and consult Alwyn as well, and decide if she could truly be the one.
Aelfdene placed a hand on the doorstep. It glowed for a second, turning from stone to a blinding box-shaped light of white and gold, then returned to normal.
Satisfied, the elf king vanished.