Contest entry. Overcoming race to pursue forbidden love between a human and a dwarf.
Prompt: Fantastical love - Love between two mythical creatures (non humanoid – Dragon Unicorn, etc) or love between a human and a mythical being (humanoid – Elf, dwarf, fairy etc)
Word count: 2988 (max 3500)
* * * * *
“You alright hun?” Mum rubs my arm. I shrug, staring at my untouched fish pie.
“Leave her be, Maggie,” Papa says.
I gaze past Mum to her prized strawberry plant, sitting by the open balcony door—the only part of our home that sees any sun. Sheets flutter on the line strung between our balcony and the Tors house across the road. The breeze brings a whiff of sewage. I crinkle my nose.
“Shut the door, would you?” Papa says, mirroring my expression.
“It’s far too hot,” Mum protests.
“I’ll do it.” I jump to my feet, seeing Adrek Tor watering his mother’s coriander on their balcony. My friends at school say he’s an outsider. They laugh at his black hair, sticking out like wires and the shadow of a beard that never stays gone. He shaves every morning and will sneak off at lunch to do it again. He can’t help it. He’s a dwarf.
“Genny’s in love,” my brother sings from the dinner table.
“Shut up, Billy,” I slam the door. It shakes the whole house.
“Genevieve,” Papa growls. His eyes hold back a tempest.
“Sorry, Papa.” I duck my head and sit down without another word. Sweat beads on my forehead. I wipe it away, wishing I could murder the fly buzzing around the kitchen. This fish pie looks less and less appetizing.
“Are you finished?” Mum asks.
“I’m not hungry.”
“I’ll eat it.” Billy reaches forward.
“You’ve already had two portions.” Mum takes my plate over to the bench. She scrapes the food into a wooden bowl and covers it with a fresh cloth. “There are families downstairs who could use a little extra.”
“How come those greedy dwarves get to eat our leftovers when I’m still hungry?”
“Billy!” Mum stares at him, her mouth partially agape.
“It’s a valid question,” Papa mutters. “I might have felt sorry for them fifteen years ago, a dragon took their mountain hall. But they’ve overstayed their welcome. I’m not the only one who wishes they’d move on.”
“Surely not all dwarves—” I blurt.
“Got no time for their kind.” Papa scowls. “Turning our city into a disease-ridden slum.”
“What can you expect after the way we’ve treated them?” Mum shoots back.
“The way we’ve treated them?” Papa stands up. “They barely speak a word of our language. They don’t even try to learn our ways. They’re miserly with their gold, but expect us to be generous—”
“Have a heart, Angus,” Mum says. “They’ve lost everything. How would you feel if our positions were reversed?”
“I’d be a hell of a lot more grateful.” Papa walks out of the room.
“Yeah!” Billy wriggles out of his seat and stomps down the hall. I’d be laughing if I wasn’t on the verge of tears.
Mum sighs. “I’ll do the dishes, love. Why don’t you get started on your homework.”
My bedroom is opposite Billy’s on the street side. In winter I tie my shutters closed and stuff the gaps with rags, but right now I’d give anything to escape the heat. I throw them open and hold my breath against the stench.
We’re on the mid tier of Lochnell City’s north-eastern quarter. People surge along the street below, pushing past each other while vendors shout to be heard. A top-tier walkway bridges the street above my window. If I stand on the sill and stretch, I can touch the wrought iron underwork.
I grab the notebook from my bag and try to look like I’m working.
Mum pokes her head in. “You okay?”
She sets a plate with one strawberry on my dresser. “Didn’t want you to miss out.”
I keep my eyes down.
“I’m sorry about your father.” She walks over and sits beside me. “That new town hall contract meant everything to him. We could have moved up a tier.”
“But a dwarf construction team won it.”
Mum rubs my shoulder. “There was no way your father could outbid them. Dwarves are better and cheaper. If things keep going the way they are, he’ll have to find a new job.”
“It isn’t fair.” I flop back and stare at the ceiling. “We won’t let them work in anything except construction and mining. They get just as frustrated as Papa.”
“I know, sweetheart. It’s a difficult situation for everyone.”
“I wish people would talk to each other, instead of getting angry.”
“I agree, but life isn’t so simple.” Mum gives me a strained smile. “Don’t stay up too late. You’ve got school in the morning.”
Once she’s gone, I change into a black shift with brown woolen leggings and arrange a few blankets under my covers. The light outside has turned orange. I shove my notebook and pencils in my satchel and strap it over my shoulder, then perch on my window sill and wait.
Night brings a new surge of life to the street below. Men and women hawk their wares, or themselves. The lights go off in the Tor’s house. Time stretches on. A cat leaps onto the kebab seller’s awning, then onto Mrs. Potts’ window box. She paws at the shutters until the old woman lets her in.
My gaze snaps up to the window opposite mine. Adrek waves me over. I take a deep breath, then climb out onto the wrought iron underwork. When I was younger, I used to love the thrill of sneaking out. Now I’m a lot heavier and the thought of falling turns my stomach.
“Nearly there,” Adrek whispers.
I dared him to visit me once, but he’s more scared of heights than I am. He also pointed out that Papa would kill him. Adrek assures me his parents wouldn’t go as ballistic. I still don’t want to find out.
I’m hanging from the underwork. My toes barely touch Adrek’s window sill. I push back, then let go as I swing forward. I fly through his window, feet first, and land in an unladylike sprawl.
Adrek’s seen this enough times to keep a straight face, but I know he’s laughing inside. I roll off my satchel and groan. “We’re insane.”
“Without a doubt.” He offers me his hand. I take it and spring to my feet.
Normally, he’d let go. We’d take our usual spots across from each other and get to work on our homework. I’d gaze dreamily at his chocolate brown eyes and chiseled cheekbones. He’d brush my fingers when offering me one of his mother’s homemade rock cakes. . .
This time, he keeps holding my hand. My heart thuds too loudly.
“Your parents were arguing again,” he murmurs.
My cheeks flush. “It’s not like them. Papa’s been stressed.”
“Because of the contract?”
“I’m sorry,” he murmurs.
“It isn’t your fault.”
Adrek sighs and drops my hand. “We have to stop doing this.”
He shoves his hands in his pockets and walks over to the desk. I follow, swallowing the sudden ache in my throat. “Don’t you like me anymore?”
“It’s not that.” He still won’t look at me.
He’s quiet for a long time. I reach out to touch his shoulder. He let’s out another heavy sigh. “My parents know you’ve been coming here at night.”
He turns. “Blonde hair on the carpet. You molt like a cat.” His lip twitches—almost a smile—but then his shoulders slump again. “Your father will probably take us to court if he finds out. We’ll be thrown out of Lochnell. This city hates dwarves enough, without the scandal we’ll cause.”
“But we never. . . we’re only studying.”
“Don’t you ever wish it was more?” His expression changes. My stomach flip-flops. A familiar hunger gnaws at the edges of my self control. “You know I do.”
“I love you, Genevieve.” He takes my hands. “I want to be with you, but I don’t want to lie to my parents. I don’t want to lead this double life, pretending not to know you at school; cowering every time I see your father.”
My brow shoots up. “You want to walk out with me? In public?”
“Are you brave enough?” He searches my face, his eyes begging me to say yes.
Images of my father’s face fill my mind, expressions of anger, betrayal, hurt. I sit heavily on the edge of Adrek’s bed. “I’m scared.”
I stare at my hands. Could I really do it? Could I bear to see everyone I love turn their backs? Is what we have worth that sacrifice?
The bed sinks further as Adrek sits down beside me. “You don’t have to answer right now. I’ll wait, forever, if I have to. I won’t stop loving you, not until you beg me to. Maybe not even then.”
He’s never mentioned love before. He’s never talked this much in one go. Usually I’m the one who won’t shut up. Now I nod, trying to find the words in the whirling mess he’s made of my heart.
I slip my hand into his and squeeze it. “Later, then?”
The world is a blur. I barely remember climbing back, or changing into my nightgown, or hauling the spare blankets over to the cupboard. Soon, it’s morning and mum’s shaking me awake.
“You’ll be late for school!” She rummages around in my cupboard. My uniform flies through the air and lands on my face, followed closely by my shoes.
“Ooph,” I grunt.
“Why are all these blankets in your wardrobe?” she asks.
“I was nesting.” I roll out of bed with a groan.
Mum laughs. “Strange child. Now don’t dawdle. Breakfast is getting cold. Don’t forget to pack your homework.”
I meant to finish it with Adrek last night. Obviously that didn’t happen.
I gulp down a glass of milk and a cold fried egg. Billy’s already finished and waiting by the door.
“Hurry up,” he whines. “I hate being late.”
We race along the dim, winding corridor that runs the length of our building. There’s a bridge over to the library roof garden and from there, another to Westbridge, our second-tier school. We arrive just as the first bell chimes.
Adrek sits on his own during lunch. It’s always like that, but today I feel like crying. This school has hundreds of kids, but not one of them is brave enough to be his friend—not in public, anyway.
“I don’t get why he bothers.” Lily’s rebraiding her copper curls. “He’ll go work in mining or construction when he graduates, so what’s the point in all this study?”
“He wants to be a lawyer.” My eyes don’t leave him for a moment. He sits straight-backed, pretending he doesn’t hear what everyone’s saying about him.
“A lawyer?” She laughs. “That’s the stupidest thing—”
“Shut up, Lily.”
She’s thrown for a moment, then her shock turns to a sneer. “Anyone would think you were in love with him, the way you jump to his defense all the time.”
I don’t even think. Grabbing my tray, I stalk over to Adrek’s table, leaving her gaping in my wake.
“You decided then?” Adrek gives me a warm smile.
We’re surrounded by whispers. I know they’re all staring. I still have one chance to back out. I can say something cruel, pretend it was all a joke. I can walk away. I’ll break Adrek’s heart and hate myself for the rest of eternity, but I’ll be safe.
“We’re crazy,” I whisper, then kiss him.
There’s a moment of utter silence, as if time itself has stopped. All I can feel is the warmth of his lips; the scratch of his beard against my skin; the touch of his hand on my cheek. Then the room explodes into yells and whistles and excited chatter.
I feel dizzy.
No one will shut up. Our teachers try every trick in the book to control their classes. Adrek and I sit side by side, ignoring everyone. Fortunately, my history teacher is too distracted to check our homework.
After school, I drop Billy at home.
“Where are you going?” Mum calls.
“She kissed a dwarf at school,” Billy says.
“I’m going over to the Tor’s,” I say. “I want to ask permission to date their son.”
“What? But. . . what about your father.”
“I’ll be home in an hour or two.”
It’s strange, knocking on Adrek’s front door. His mother opens it and invites me inside. She’s short, barely taller than my shoulder. I bow to her as dwarven custom dictates and she returns the gesture. I take my shoes off before following her into their living room.
Adrek’s already here, sitting cross-legged at the low table. I join him on the reed mat. He pours me tea while his mother fusses in the kitchen. Soon she returns with a few bread rolls and a bowl of berries. I gape at her, knowing how much these must have cost.
“This is too much, Mrs Tor. I don’t deserve. . .”
“You are a brave girl.” She pushes the bowl toward me. “Both brave, but you need more than courage. Won’t be easy. Here. Eat.”
I glance at Adrek. He nods.
I pick a blueberry and pop it with my tongue. The flavour rushes through my senses, every moment divine.
When Adrek’s father arrives home, I formally ask their blessing to begin this courtship. It’s a dwarven custom that dates back thousands of years. His parents are surprised that I know even this much of their language. I’m glad I don’t have to say more, because I’ve used up all my tricks.
Fortunately they both agree to support us in the trials ahead. All that’s left is for me to return home and face my father.
“You sure you don’t want me to come?” Adrek asks for a third time as I pull my shoes on at the door.
“This is one dragon I have to face on my own.”
“Sorry,” I murmur. “Bad choice of words.”
He gives me a kiss goodbye. My heart soars, for about a minute, before plummeting in a death spiral the closer I get to home. Papa’s going to kill me.”
He and Mum are sitting at the table when I walk in. Billy’s nowhere to be seen. I guess they sent him to his room.
“Genevieve?” Papa says. “Sit down.”
I swallow and take the seat closest to Mum. Papa looks tired, and old. His skin is a sickly grey colour.
“Well?” he asks.
“I love him, Papa,” I whisper.
“You’re sixteen years old! How could you possibly know that?”
“You and Mum were eighteen when you married.” I keep my eyes down. He doesn’t say anything at all. He’s just shaking his head.
Mum puts her hand on mine. “We’re just a little puzzled, sweetheart. This is all so sudden.”
“Not for me. Adrek and I have been friends for years. We just. . . we hid it from everyone. We were scared.”
“How. . .” Papa begins.
Mum’s eyes widen. “The blankets in the cupboard. Your shutters. . . I always wondered how you could sleep with the racket they made.”
“What are you talking about?” Papa scowls
“Adrek’s room is opposite mine,” I say. “I climbed the bottom of the first tier bridge.”
“What?” Papa slams his hands on the table and shoots to his feet. “You didn’t. . .?”
“Nothing ever happened,” I say quickly. “We studied, and talked. Adrek’s a gentleman.”
“He’s a dwarf!”
“He’s my friend.” I stand up too. “He was a baby when his parents came to Lochnell. He’s grown up here his whole life. It’s his home too.”
Papa gapes at me, unaccustomed to me talking back. I hold his gaze, needing him to say it’s okay. I don’t know how I’ll survive if he turns away.
“Angus, honey,” Mum says. “Sit down.”
He slumps into his seat. “I need a drink.”
“I’m doing this, Papa,” I say quietly, “I’ll move out if I have to, but I hope you’ll give us a chance.”
He says nothing.
“Give him time, sweetheart,’ Mum says. “This is a lot to take in.”
Back in my room, I toss and turn. Papa’s blank expression plays on my mind. I’ve never done anything like this before. What if he hates me? Maybe he’ll throw me out. What if I’ve ruined my life?
There’s a soft knock. I sit up with a start. “Come in?”
“Can I sit?”
“Okay.” I pull my feet back.
She takes the spot at the end of my bed. “I’m worried about you, Gen. Do you know anything about their culture? What loving this boy will mean?”
“I know enough,” I say. “Adrek’s taught me some of their ways. We still have a lot to learn from each other. Dwarves aren’t going anywhere, Mum. Someone has to take the first step.”
“It’s not me you have to convince.”
I sigh. “Papa’s still mad?”
“It affects all of us, honey. He’s going to take a while to adjust.”
“Do you think he’ll ever forgive me?”
“In time.” She rubs my shoulder. “You’re his angel. I don’t think he could stay mad forever.”
My throat closes over.
“Just promise me something?” Mum says.
“No more surprises.”
“I’m sorry,” I whisper.
I lean into mum’s embrace. “We still love you, sweetheart. We’ll get through this, somehow.”
“Adrek’s worth it, Mum. He’s amazing. You’ll like him when you get to know him.”
Mum laughs. “I’m sure we will, but one thing at a time, okay?”
“Thank you for understanding.”
“Sweet dreams, my love.” Mum kisses my hair, easing the door shut on her way out. I bury my head in my pillow. Tears come in torrents, a strange release after months of angst and uncertainty. In the end, I feel calm. I know the road will be long and I’ll get bruised along the way, but there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon and a family at my back. Together, we can survive anything.