I wrapped the last of the dried meat and placed it carefully in my pack then sat back on my heels to look over my handiwork, a smile curling my lips at what I saw. I had spent the rest of the day packing the remainder of my things. I wasn’t sure why, but I believed every word the man in white had said. He had seemed so trustworthy, so pure, as if he had never done anything wrong in his whole existence, and, though it seemed impossible, it seemed equally impossible for him to do something wrong. There was just something about him…
Ember bumped into my back, interrupting my thoughts and making me smile sadly as I turned to look at him. I would miss him dearly. The Elementals would need to be released before I left. Even though I had tamed them, they were still wild animals. They always would be. I wasn’t worried about them, because I knew they could take care of themselves, but just thinking about not having them around made my eyes burn with tears. I bit my lip as I held them back with sheer force of will. They were the only friends I had ever had, and to leave them…It wasn’t going to be a good day tomorrow.
Shaking my head to clear away the depressing thoughts, I yawned and stretched before standing. I just had to feed the animals one last time then go to bed. In the morning I would be leaving, probably for a long time. As I walked outside, I could hear the buzz of Raine as she hovered along the edge of the water pen. All the animals were crowded at the edges of their pens as close to the house as they could get without going past the ropes. They could sense that something was wrong. I had always known they understood more than the average animal. They were definitely not ‘dumb animals.’
Dusty nuzzled me when I went in to feed him. I giggled when he licked me and pet his head affectionately, making sure to scratch behind his ears. I pressed a kiss into his dust-filled fur before I went in to the next pen. I went through and kissed one after another, putting years of affection and love into them. I was going to miss the strange creatures. They made me feel not so lonely. They made me feel like I belonged. I looked around my home, from the crudely built shed to the animal pens, from the river to the forest, and from the fire pit to the house. I would miss this place terribly.
It was my whole life’s work, raising these creatures to work what I wanted them to, yet…it seemed so empty. What had I truly achieved? Honestly? Nothing. Everything was so fragile, including life. If I died, nobody would care, and my Elementals would run off into the forest to be killed by some Human wanting to prove how manly he was. I knew if they were free, they were unlikely to be hunted like that. When I was gone, they would feel no more need to behave for a Human. They would go back to their wild ways.
I looked around at everything again, and a thought popped into my head: was there more than this? I hoped so, but I doubted I would ever find it. I was just a simple girl. To top it off, I was strange. I was nothing worthwhile, nothing anybody wanted or needed. I just…was. Leaving might be the best option for me, I thought miserably. Then, at least, I would not bother the village. If they were lucky, I might be found and captured by those evil Elves and made a slave. I sighed. My relationship with the villagers was complicated. Most of the time I ignored them and their harsh words, but at low points in my life, it all came flooding back and affected me badly.
The weather itself seemed to beg me to stay. Unlike the previous night’s storms, the evening was clear; it was going to be one of those perfect, rare nights. I stood at the door of the house, watching the sunset. It was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen, with each color melting into the next: yellow into orange, orange into red, red into pink, pink into purple, and purple into the deep, dark blue that was the night sky. I watched until the only color left in the sky was dark blue, near black, and the stars were winking in the night before I sighed and lowered my head.
I called Ember inside and sat on the bed, looking around the place as I pulled off my shoes. The room wasn’t fancy. It had a table in one corner near the fireplace with a doorway leading off to my mother’s room. There was a chair off to the side where my mother would rock beside the fire while she sewed or knit. It was simple, attesting to my mother’s lifestyle. At this moment, I felt as if I had complicated even that. The man in white had even said it was my fault that she and Father had been captured, which made me even more confused and miserable. I did not understand.
I took a deep breath and lay back, staring blankly at the ceiling. Ember jumped up beside me and I pet him, smiling kindly at him. He whined and laid down right beside me, looking at me like he knew something was off. I finally forced my eyes closed and for the first time in a few days, fell into a deep, restful sleep.
There was peaceful blackness, nothing but rest. Suddenly the man in white appeared, his face showing worry.
“Get up, Filynora. You must awaken! Now!”
I gasped and sat bolt upright, my chest heaving. Ember was growling at the door. Hours had passed, judging by the moon hanging so far across the sky that I saw it out the window. But that wasn’t the only light. There was flickering orange light, too. Immediately, I smelled smoke, and one look told me it wasn’t coming from Ember. I slipped my shoes on, opening the door to see the shed in flames. I looked with horror at the many shadows in our yard, some of them carrying torches toward the house. One noticed me and began rushing toward me. I gasped in fear. How could the shadow creatures get so close to fire?
I slammed the door and grabbed my quiver of arrows and my pack, slinging them one after the other over my back. I put on my belt, slipping my knife in the sheath. Grabbing my bow, I opened the door again to see Tynan’s face lighted by the torch in his hand. Relief flooded me when I realized the shadows were Humans. The relief quickly turned to fear when he gave me an angry look.
“Red-eyed devil freak!” he spat, waving the fire in my face.
I screamed and ducked under his arms, Ember dashing out behind me, howling and glowing himself. I made a beeline for the Elementals, slamming past men and boys of all ages and taking in the scene. The forest was untouched by the fire, being so far away from the house and the shed, but the Elemental’s pens were dangerously close to catching fire. My pets, I realized at that moment, were too well trained. They were running around their pens wildly, except for the fire Elementals, but they weren’t trying to get out. The heat from the flames licked at my feet as I slung the bow over my shoulder and pulled my knife, slicing the ropes one by one and freeing them. They ran toward the cool darkness of the forest, and I was about to follow when one thought stopped me—the horses!
I sprinted toward their pasture, the many voices creating confusion. I got to the fence and began to work the gate open. To my dismay, it was stuck. I was grabbed from behind, and I screamed again, kicking back at whoever had me. There was a cry of pain, and I looked back to see that Ember had slammed into him, catching his clothes on fire. The man made a mad dash to the stream as I put my dagger back into the sheath, kicking at the bottom of the wooden fence. Finally, just when I was feeling desperate, a particularly hard kick made the bottom beam break, and I pulled the gate open, whistling for the horses.
They ran toward me, squealing in fright from the noise and fire. I stepped out of the way and saw everybody coming for me with ropes. As Rainstorm ran by, I grabbed his mane and pulled myself up. He tossed his head as my weight settled on his back but kept running away from the flickering flames. I felt tears in my eyes as I watched my home burn, sending smoke up high into the air. I watched for as long as I could before my view was obscured by the trees.
There was a yip to the right of me, and I looked to see Ember keeping up with us. Amidst my sorrow there was a small seed of happiness that he was safe, but it was quickly swallowed by my misery. It was all too sudden, too much, and I buried my face into Rainstorm’s cool, blue mane, losing myself. I was aware of the pulsing beat of the horse’s running but could not focus on anything past that. I wasn’t aware of the passage of time, but the rhythm of running lulled me into a half conscious state. Each breath hurt slightly, and I was sure I had inhaled some smoke, but again, I could not bring myself to care.
After an unknown amount of time, I became aware that the running was slowing, and the horse’s movements had started becoming jerky. Suddenly Rainstorm reared up and I slid off his back, landing on the hard ground. There was angry growling and barking from Ember, followed by a yelping whimper. I lay on the ground in the quiet aftermath, my arm across my eyes, and vaguely realized I was hearing male voices. A hand gently moved my arm and felt my forehead.
“She has no fever,” one of the voices said.
“You are sure it is a she? Look at the way it is dressed,” a second voice said.
“Her face looks too soft for her to be a boy,” another one put in.
“We should bring her back to town,” the first one said. “She has obviously been through disaster.”
“Why should we? She is Human. Let her die,” the third voice said haughtily.
“She is a girl, not a man. She will not be able to harm us,” the second voice argued.
There was silence for a moment. “Let us bring her back,” a new voice said. “She does not deserve to die because of her kind’s attitude. She was riding an Aqua Horse, which proves she is different.”
There was muttered agreement, and strong arms picked me up and placed me back on my horse. I dimly wondered why the horse had not run away. When my head nestled against Rainstorm’s neck again, I felt a rope and realized that these men had captured him. Judging by the shuffling feet, they had caught a couple other creatures, too. My thoughts turned to the whining of Ember, and I became worried. I was about to sit up, or at least attempt to, when I felt a warm tongue lick my hand, which was hanging down to the side.
“See! Even the Hellhound is kind to her! There is something quite unique about this one,” the fourth voice said excitedly.
“Yes, yes,” the first one said again. “You’ve made your point Aloron! We must go if we plan to get home before dark, though.”
“Let us go then,” Aloron said, a strange happiness in his voice.
The horse began to walk, and I quickly got lost in the rhythm again. I was too tired and dazed to care that I didn’t know these men. The walking pace began to lull me to sleep. Finally, my mind was pulled into blessed unconsciousness. The last thing I knew was a soft hand pressing on my cheek and a gentle voice telling me not to fear.