My Kindle Wolf padded beside me quietly, his ears up and alert. They twitched when I lazily scratched behind them, but they did not relax. I smiled at the action. He always alerted me to anyone or anything that was nearby. Usually, on the way back from town at least, he would chase squirrels or chipmunks that dared to set paw on the ground near me. It always made me laugh. Sometimes I thought he was too protective, but I knew he loved me. But not the way most pets loved their masters. It was something deeper. It was like he was more aware than normal creatures. Sometimes he acted more…intelligent.
Despite the fact that the village was a good couple miles away, it was far too soon for me when we reached it. A group of boys was playing a game near the edge of the tightly knit houses, and as soon as one spotted me, they all stopped what they were doing. I ignored their sharp looks and walked by them. It was as if the boys’ sudden silence alerted everyone to my presence. I ignored the silence and went along as if everyone wasn’t staring at me. Slowly the people came back to life, moving along to tend to their business, albeit still watching me with a coldness I could not understand.
The village was set up around a central business hub filled with merchants selling their wares. There was nothing too fancy. Most of it was just some fish caught from the river, and venison and rabbit caught out in the forest by the brave hunters. We never had many fruits; we never had wine. We never had such luxuries. But then again, Paxtonvale was a simple village, cut off from most of the activity of the Human race by many, many miles. The houses were all wood. Unlike my house, there was no fancy cut stone or anything of that nature. Just simplicity at its…well, I can’t say finest, but it was simple, that much was true.
I moved toward the center of the village without comment, Ember huddling near me and growling when anybody got too close. Nobody ever wanted to get too near, as I was pretty sure they were afraid my strangeness would rub off. The shopkeepers watched me to see who I would be going for. I went to Byrne, the farmer, well aware of the daggers the others were throwing at me with their eyes. He looked at me, but it was as if he was looking through me. I ignored the empty pit growing where my heart was supposed to be. It was hard not to care when this happened every time I came around normal people. It hurt, though I did not show it.
“May I help you?” he asked quietly, not meeting my eyes.
“Three sacks of grain,” I replied, hoisting my basket up onto the counter.
He provided the sacks without comment or question. “What do you have this time?”
“I have deer, wolf, and rabbit.”
Byrne hummed as he thought. “One wolf, one rabbit, and two deer.”
Though I did not think it was worth that much, I pulled the requested skins out and set them on the counter before taking up the bags of grain, knotting the tops, and tossing them over my shoulder. Men and boys used to offer to help me before they found out how different I was from other girls. I never got along with any of them anyway. I walked back through the houses, which were set far enough apart to pass through, but close enough to make you feel closed in. I intended to hurry out of town, but the serenity was too good to be true. I had just passed the group of boys when a yelping whine made me spin.
One of the older boys, probably around fifteen, had tossed a rather large stone at Ember and hit him on the nose. My wolf was trained so well that he never attacked anybody unless I was threatened or I ordered it, even when they hurt him. I, on the other hand, wasn’t so well trained. I saw red and dropped the bags, storming over to them. The younger ones cowered away from me, but the older ones puffed out their chests defiantly.
“What’s the matter, girlie? Your mutt get hurt?” Tynan, the eldest of the group and their unofficial leader, sneered as I stopped in front of them, Ember by my side.
“He is a Kindle Wolf,” I growled.
Moving swiftly, Tynan grabbed a handful of my hair and pulled. I fought against him, clawing at his arm, but he just laughed and pulled harder. His eyes glinted with hatred for what I was and how I acted. He had been raised to believe I was worthless, so that is how he treated me. His voice, when it came out again, was rough and mean.
“You might act like a boy, Fily, but you’re just a girl. Just a weak, pathetic girl,” Tynan hissed in my ear. “What do you have to say to that?”
My neck was strained at an odd angle, but I managed to hiss out one word. “Ember!”
Ember lit up like a bonfire and lunged forward. Tynan yelped and released me. I fell to the ground with a grunt as all the boys scattered at my Kindle Wolf’s long, low growl. Ember stood over me protectively, flames still crackling on his back. I sat up and grabbed Ember’s scruff to pull myself up. As soon as I touched him, the fire died down and he helped me to stand. I could feel the disdainful gazes of the other villagers on my back as I picked up my grain and my basket and began walking down the path to my house, Ember beside me. The pain and humiliation I had just suffered made my cheeks hot and my eyes burn, but I did not cry. I would not cry while they were watching me.
As soon as the village was out of sight, I let the tears pour. Ember whimpered and circled me, nuzzling me with his large head. My chest was tight, my heart was heavy, and I hated it. I hated it because it just made it more apparent that they were right about me. I was weak. I could outshoot and outride them all my life, but I knew I could never physically beat them. Not unless a miracle happened. I also knew I was strange. I had done a man’s chores for as long as I could remember. I had cut wood, harvested the garden, hunted, and fixed the pens. My mother would sometimes help, but even she was nothing like me. She did the cooking, the cleaning, and the more womanly things around the house. Recently it had been weighing heavily on my mind. She had done my chores when I was younger, but once I had learned to do them, she had simply stopped. My doing those chores was an unspoken agreement between us and always had been. Why was it though?
My thoughts were interrupted by a deep growl from Ember. I looked around and realized that thick clouds had covered the sun, leaving the forest around us dark. A chill was lingering in the air, and a musty smell filled my nostrils. I wiped my eyes as Ember growled again, his eyes beginning to smolder and his pelt to steam. I followed his gaze to the darkest part of the wood, and a shiver went up my spine. It looked as if the shadows were moving toward me. Fear nearly paralyzed me, but after a moment I turned and sprinted for the house, Ember following at my heels with smoke streaming behind him.
I reached the house, tossing the grain and my basket beside the shed as I ran past. My mind was racing at a speed I did not know it was capable of. The darkness had come before, of course, but always when my mother was home. Whenever they came near us, I was told to start a bonfire. We had that fire pit in the middle of our land just for that. It was always filled with wood ready to be lit at a moment’s notice. I pointed Ember to the pile and he leaped in, the fire exploding across the dry kindling.
After a couple of minutes, flames flickered higher than I was tall. I pressed as close as I dared to the fire, scanning the tree line. Shadows still shifted around and I narrowed my eyes. The darkness would not come near the fire. I would need to keep the fire up until the sun came back out. I looked up to see how long it would be and was dismayed when I noticed that the clouds were thicker and darker than before. It looked like rain. I thought about what I would have to do, and with fear coursing through my veins, I spoke.
“Ember, come,” I said tightly.
We had some firewood, but it wasn’t nearly enough to burn through a rainstorm or even through the night. We would need more, and all of it near the fire pit, so I began by carrying all the firewood we did have closer to bonfire. When it was piled up neatly, I grabbed the ax and walked toward the forest, my heart in my throat. The shadows shifted eagerly, moving toward where I was going. I stopped walking and looked down at Ember, swallowing hard.
“Flaren,” I said shakily and he burst into flame. “Good boy. Follow.”
As we approached, the shadows backed off from the warm glow that Ember gave off. I ignored them as well as I could and began to chop. I fell into the familiar rhythm of work, time becoming hazy and losing track of the shadows. It took all my concentration because I knew I had to work fast. When I was finally done, the wood pile had more than tripled, but I had very little time before true nightfall and the rainstorm, which I could feel coming from the shift in the air.
I hurried to the shed, grabbing the oiled skins that repelled water, which we kept for emergencies such as this, then to the house to get the needle, horsehair and pegs. I sat by the bonfire after throwing a few more logs in and sewed the skins together. It was awkward and not as good as my mother could do, but it would keep the wood relatively dry. I fastened the bottom with hooked pegs pounded into the ground that held the leather loops sewn into the edges of the cloth. With a bit of tricky maneuvering, I managed to cover the back half of the wood pile and the top, pushing the leather that hung down in the front up with long branches that I partially buried in the dirt to keep them steady.
When I was done, the sky was almost black, not a single star gleaming through the dense clouds. I ran to the house again, and grabbed my bedroll, some food, and a canteen of water. A scream caught in my throat when the shadows slithered close enough for me to touch as I ran back. Ember lunged forward with his back blazing, letting out a bark. I stumbled back to the fire and huddled close, chilled and frightened.
The shadows had been coming for years. I remembered each time they have come vividly. Fear has a way of burning images into your mind. The first time they had come, I was five. I had been playing with our sweet little Inferno, who had been just a chick at the time, when the little puff of red feathers suddenly made a strange peeping noise. I turned around and I saw the unnatural shadows for the first time. They were thick and darker than the night sky, and I swear I saw eyes. They were sickly yellow-green eyes with black pupils like slits. As soon as I met their gaze, I screamed and Mother came running. That was the first time we ever lit the bonfire.
I haven’t seen the eyes since then. Well, until the night Mother was taken—even then it was only in my dreams—but the shadows visit every year in late spring. This year it seemed that they were early. Ember growled and curled around me protectively as the shadows came as close to me as they could without stepping into the firelight. I shivered as I felt their eyes on me, a foreboding hopelessness filling me. This was going to be a long night.