I looked around at the forest surrounding us as we walked. The sunlight was streaming peacefully through the trees, creating light patterns on the decaying leaves on the ground. I inhaled deeply, enjoying the smell of the forest and the warm, fresh spring air. The light flooding through the trees was green-tinted from the living leaves that created the canopy. Squirrels leaped from branch to branch above us, chattering at each other. Here and there, splashes of color in the form of flowers bloomed out of the various greens and browns of the area. I could not help but smile at the magnificence of nature that so many people usually ignored.
Looking at the forest reminded me of the forest in my dream and just like that my thoughts were drawn to the man in white again. Who was he? Why had I dreamed of him? I was almost sure he was not a figment of my imagination. He just seemed too real. But if he was real, why did I dream of him? And, again, why did I think I should know who he was? There was a familiarity, or lack thereof, that bothered me. It was like a shadow of a memory, long lost to time. As I walked through the wet leaves of the forest towards home, I tried to recover that shadow, but every time I came close, it slipped away again, as if something was blocking the memory. As I tried to remember, a laugh suddenly rang in my ears, a masculine laugh. It was definitely not the man in white’s voice. It was too deep. Was it my father’s laugh I was remembering?
A shiver raced down my spine at that thought. I could remember nothing of my father. At all. All of my knowledge of him came from my mother and her stories about him. But there always was a nagging feeling that the stories she constructed were not the entire truth. But as I could not remember anything, I never pointed it out and she never volunteered any more information. I wished I could remember him desperately, and if that laugh I remembered was his…It would be a dream come true. But it probably would not help knowing it. He was probably dead.
Again there was the feeling of wrongness when I thought of death. Death caused such sorrow, such pain, and such anger. Why is there death, I wondered. In fact, I thought suddenly as I frowned, why is there life? I turned to really observe at the deer draped over Ember’s body and stopped walking, leaning down to look closely at it. Why had it been alive? Was it true that it had been alive only to feed me and my Elementals? If so, what then gave it that purpose? If not, what was its purpose and who gave it that purpose? The questions were beginning to make my head hurt. Why was I even thinking like this, I asked myself as I began walking back home again. Was there a purpose for all these questions?
I sighed and rubbed my temples with my thumbs, wincing as the sun suddenly blinded me as we stepped out of the forest back into the yard. The Elementals greeted me with their various calls and I smiled at them, forcing all the strange questions out of my mind. There was no use thinking about them if there were no answers to be found. But that was not right. If there is a question, shouldn’t there be an answer….?
“Oh this is ridiculous,” I snapped to myself. “Stop thinking of all these strange questions and get to work! You have a deer to gut and section!”
The shed was constructed of plain wood and was large enough for Ember and I to stand comfortably in together with a table on one side. It had plenty of room for me to clean a deer and there were hooks in the other side for me to hang the feed bags. I led Ember into the building and heaved the deer onto the table, tying a rope around its neck in the right back corner of the small room. I hoisted the creature up until it was about a foot above the floor. With that done, I grabbed my tools and set them out on the table. With practiced ease, I slid the knife in just below the skin and slit the deer from its throat to just below its tail then right around the tops of the hooves. I then carefully began skinning the animal, sliding a bone knife with a rounded end along the membrane to cut it. Once the skin was off, I went out and placed the skin in the stream running by our house to loosen the hair to make leather later on.
That done, I went to take care of the rest of the deer. I grabbed one of my sharper knives and knelt down, slicing through the stomach membrane and working upward. I was careful not to tear anything open as I worked my way to the breastbone. When I finished that, I reached in and pulled out the organs, dropping them into a wooden pail with a thick sounding thud. Grabbing a smaller knife, I carefully took out the bladder before adding it to the pile.
With a solid crack, I split the center of the ribcage in two with the big knife and spread it open. I pulled out the lungs, heart, windpipe, and throat, dropping them into the pail and smiling happily as I did so. This work was familiar, yet I still had to be careful, so my thoughts were occupied with things other than the confusing questions that had been plaguing me. I started humming a tune as I grabbed the pail and headed out to the edge of the woods, throwing out the organs for the wild animals, and slapping Ember on the nose when he tried to go after them. Being careful to stand downstream from the hide, I rinsed the pail out then filled it with water to clean the inside and outside of the carcass.
I did so thoroughly, then grabbed my knife and sawed through the pelvic bone. I removed the undesirable bits carefully and cut off the legs right below the hams. I rinsed the meat again to cool it and began to cut the meat into sections. Ember, who had been lying in the doorway of our shed, suddenly began to growl and I stopped what I was doing. I frowned and walked to the door, Ember immediately moved out of my way. I growled myself when I saw Tynan and his group of boys coming down the path. I grew angrier when I saw that some of the village girls trailed after them, whispering excitedly among themselves. They were no doubt gossiping about me, the freak of Paxtonvale; even the traders knew about me, and they only came out every few years.
“Just another day, eh boy?” I asked Ember under my breath. He growled again as if to agree with me.
One of the girls suddenly caught sight of me covered in fresh blood and screamed at the top of her lungs. That set all of the girls off, gasping and dramatically shielding their eyes from the sight. I was not amused. I was amused, however, at how the younger boys slowed their walking and stopped looking brave. Tynan and Ackley, the two oldest at sixteen, just looked disgusted and kept walking. When they were close enough, I spoke.
“What do you want, Tynan?”
He ignored my question. “What are you doing in there? Find another monster? Or are you cleaning up one of their messes?”
“I am dressing a deer,” I growled, not happy that he called my Elemental pets monsters. I glared at him for another moment then turned and went back into the shed. “Get off my farm.”
I picked up the largest knife again and began cutting the meat again. Ember’s growls began again, rising in volume, and letting me know that they were not leaving. I could feel Tynan’s sharp gaze on me, but I ignored it. He would not go past Ember; as brave as he acted, he was terrified of my sweet wolf. As well he should be.
I sectioned deer meat so often that I was finished quickly. By the time I was done, I was sure Tynan and the others had left because Ember had stopped growling. I began cleaning the tools and was feeling happy to be alone again when a screech reached my ears. The knife I was cleaning clattered to the table and I rushed out of the shed, my eyes immediately going to the pens.
Tynan had our Phoenix in his grasp and was tugging out feathers, one by one. The way he was holding the bird was hurting it and the other animals were cowering away from the boys. The girls stood outside and laughed. I wailed in rage and sprinted across the yard towards them, stunned and sickened that they would sink so low. Everybody in town knew our Elementals were tame and would not attack unless ordered. That they finally had the guts to take advantage of that made me burn in anger.
Ackley caught me before I could reach Tynan and I struggled in his grip as he laughed mockingly at my efforts. Anger filling me to the point my face burned fiercely, I let out a scream of anger and everybody, including Tynan, looked at me. Their faces paled and they shrank back, seemingly terrified of me, but I did not care. I was not going to let Tynan pull one more feather from my Phoenix. I put all of my strength into getting away and I slipped from Ackley’s hands as if he were barely holding me. I slammed into Tynan, who let out a shout of surprise and dropped Inferno, who squawked angrily and flapped around his attacker’s head.
Tynan shoved me off him and scrambled to his feet. “What is wrong with you? It’s just a dumb animal!”
“They are not dumb animals!” I said, my voice angry and frantic. “They are much smarter than you are, anyways!”
The ‘dumb animals’ had come forward to hover behind me. I was now facing all of the trespassers and my face was still burning with anger. They seemed to sense that they had crossed a line because they all started backing away. I was not content to just let them leave at this point. They had hurt my Elementals and they would pay for it.
“Flaren!” I shouted angrily, pointing at the boys.
Every one of the Elementals, water, earth, fire, and air, let out their own cries and began to chase the intruders, each animal’s elemental powers sparking around them. The boys all screamed and ran towards the path back to the village as fast as they could. The girls let out painfully high shrieks and were tripping over each other to get away. The Elementals stopped right where the path to the village started, growls, barks, yips, and bursts of elements radiating from the group.
I whistled and they began ambling back, nipping affectionately at each other. Ember bounded back, running circles around me. I smiled and stroked his head on a pass. He yipped happily and licked my hand. I herded the Elementals back into the correct pens and made sure to pet my Phoenix kindly. Several of his red and gold feathers littered the ground and I frowned deeply. I gathered them together and took them into the house. I had always saved his feathers. They were just so soft and colorful.
As soon as I stepped over the threshold, the dream popped back into my head. The man’s kind face lingered in my mind and I could not seem to move. His warning rang in my ears like the laughter I had heard earlier. “Those who do not understand you will come to try to destroy you.” I shivered and shook my head, trying to get those words out. I did not like the ominous sound of it, or the fact that I felt like I just set something big in motion.