She lay on the forest floor letting the sun's light dance through the foliage and onto her face. She held one hand up, palm outstretched, half blocking the sun from her eyes, half staring at the gold band around her ring finger. She sighed and dropped her hand to her side, running her hand through her long, brunet hair sprawled around her.
Her parents would be wondering where she'd disappeared to. And so, would he.
She turned her head to look at the ring again. Such a little thing, this coil of gold. And so much more than a girl like her should have ever hoped for.
She was a peasant girl, daughter of farmers. He was the lord's son. It had been chance that the two had met as children. His desire to see more of the world than the lord's manor the only reason they continued to meet. At the time, their friendship had been a kind of magic.
Half her friends had told her not to get too attached to him, she was just a curiosity to the noble born boy. She'd never be more than maid or mistress. The other half urged her to hold on at all cost, make him take her as lady of the manor. Give him the heirs he'd need.
She'd never paid any of them much mind, though, if she was honest. She'd always been happier just talking with him, happier running though the fields with him. Happier exploring the forests. Happier dreaming of distant lands together.
But all things came to an end eventually. His father had sent him to the capital to become a knight. She'd gone to the manor's gate to see him off. To wish him luck.
He'd been waiting.
“Wait for me,” he had said to her. “I'll be back before you know it.”
“What?” she'd called after him, as he was dragged into the carriage and shipped away.
“I love you!” he'd called back to her as they drove him away.
Half her friends had congratulated her, saying she'd done it, she'd changed her fate. She'd be a peasant no more. Half her friends told her to be realistic, that'd he would forget all about her in the face of the noble ladies of the capital. That she shouldn't keep her hopes up for his return.
But she didn't know what to do about any of that. None of these futures were hers. Nothing she did could alter the course. And this luck her friends seemed to think she'd found? She wasn't sure she wanted it.
They'd exchanged letters while he was gone. He told her of his studies and swordplay, she'd write him of the weather and the land. Both wrote of missing the other, he of her touch and her face, she of his voice and the trouble they had so often found together. In each, he professed to loving her. And in each, she found herself questioning her own heart.
Did it beat for him? She looked forward to the day he came back, but not for the things her friends whispered about in the dark of night. Her lips against his? His hand on her waist? Her head on his shoulder? She couldn't find the appeal.
So, the years had passed. Every year, another of her friends married another of the village men. Every year her family teased her for waiting for the young lord. Every year, she explored deeper sections of the forest.
It was these adventures she most often wrote him about. The animals she saw, the ones she hunted and the ones which escaped. The herbs she discovered, the berries she picked. The promise that she'd show him the secret places she's found and that the two of them would go even further together when he returned.
This place she lay was one such place she'd found. It was a quiet spot, unusually bright and peaceful for being so deep in the forest and so far from the village. Here the sunlight trickled down to the soft forest floor, bathing the earth in dappled sunlight. Here, even in the depths of winter, a circle of warm earth untouched by snow could be found. In the spring and summer, she found a ring of flowers pink and then yellow. In fall, the ring of flowers was replaced with a perfect circle of mushrooms. It was her very own Fairy Ring.
Here she dreamed of distant places and foreign forests. Of endless sands and endless waters. Of lakes reflecting stars and mountains holding up the very skies. Here she dreamed of fairies and magic.
“You wish to leave this place?” the fairy in her dream often asked her.
She always nodded.
The fairy, her hair dark like the night, her eyes silver like starlight, always frowned. “Then why don't you?”
“And where would I go?” she always asked.
The fairy always waved her hand, letting the many strange landscapes spin around them. “Anywhere? Everywhere?”
She always laughed. A peasant girl couldn't travel on her own. How far could she really go? The world was dangerous, her mother never missed a chance to stress this. Her friends were always quick to remind her. But what would a fairy know of the dangers for a simple human girl alone in the greater world.
She took the ring off, holding it in her palm. It was heavy. For such a little thing, how could it be so heavy?
She hadn't expected him to really come back, she realized. His return was always something for tomorrow. Always something to worry about another day. Her answer was always something she could puzzle out tomorrow. And when the day came, she hadn't been ready.
He'd returned that morning, riding into town atop a white stallion. The moment he saw her he hopped down, and from his pocket pulled this very ring.
“Marry me,” he'd said.
And what could she say to her friend, her lord, standing there in the town square? Uncertain, but unable to answer any other way, she had agreed. He slid the ring onto her finger, smiling.
“Thank you for waiting,” he'd whispered in her ear.
How could she explain she hadn't so much been waiting for him as using him as an excuse to turn down any others that tried to approach her? How could she explain she would rather the two of them run right out into the woods than hurry back to the mansion to inform his parents? How did she explain she didn't want to be a noble lady? Didn't want to be tied to this land? Explain, that although she liked him, she didn't love him? How did she explain “No” to him?
It'd be so easy, if only she loved him. To become his lady? To raise his heirs? To live in that life of luxury? She understood if she told anyone she didn't want that they'd call her insane.
And it would be so easy, if only she hated him. To call him a tyrant forcing himself on one of his servants. It would be an uphill battle to fight for her freedom, but she would do it. If only she hated him.
But she didn't. She wanted him to be happy. Even after all this time, he was still her most dear friend.
She could see the two of them together. She wouldn't be the first bride not in love with her groom. She wouldn't be the first to marry for status or for the lifestyle that would follow. And he would be happy.
And maybe she would be too.
Certainly, she wouldn't be unhappy. He'd dress her in silks. He'd serve her fine foods for every meal. He'd give her servants to ensure she wanted for nothing. She'd never starve, never be cold in the winter. And she'd never see another horizon. Never see the world beyond this forest.
She'd even agreed already. She wouldn't have to lift a finger and it would all happen.
The ring sat motionless in her hand. She could stand and toss it. In the dark of the forest, she'd never find it in a million years. She could run, just keep running through the forest, until she found herself in another town, then another. She could disappear and never see him again. She could see the world, just by running from one town to the next. And it would break his heart.
She didn't want to run, but she didn't want to stay either.
“Then don't.” The fairy sat beside her again, her face tilted up toward the sun. “Don't run, but don't stay.”
She snorted. “It's not quite that simple.”
“Why?” the fairy asked.
Why? Well, because…
She stood on the dock, a many masted ship towering behind her. The sea breeze pulled her greying hair from its thinning braid. She looked up to the sky, placing a hand over her face to shield her eyes. An old tarnished ring glinted in the sun as she moved. How many years had it been since she'd been back? She wasn't sure now.
His last letter said he had grandkids now. He'd told her of the land, and the weather. He talked happily of the unchanging people and the quiet village.
She patted her breast pocket, where she still kept that letter, and thought of her own response. How she'd described the strange lands she'd seen, the ever-shifting horizon.
Both had spoken of missing the other, she of the sound of his voice, he of the trouble he always seemed to find himself in when they were together.
Already she was drafting her next letter to him, her dearest friend.