Elthinor was being entirely too motherly for my tastes. He was worse than my mother had been when I happened to fall ill. He had asked me every five minutes if I was tired or felt weak, and we had been walking for less than an hour at a slow pace. As we headed southwest, I suddenly realized, with a sinking feeling that we were reversing our progress. I stopped and Elthinor became my mother again. He closed in on me, feeling my forehead with the back of his hand.
“Are you all right, Fily? Do you need to rest?”
“It isn’t that,” I said, my voice laced with sadness. “I feel as if we are going backwards. Like we are losing what little ground we have gained. It does not feel right.”
“Do you want to go after the scroll instead?”
“I can’t leave my mother to those monsters!” I growled immediately.
“Well, then it seems that we have reached an impasse. We could set up camp and let you think about it some more,” he said.
I started walking again, ignoring the wrong feeling. Elthinor’s shoulders slumped in defeat and continued to question me every so often about how I was feeling. Gabrithon and Ember followed, the former not bothering to hide his amusement at Elthinor’s actions. Ember was as he always seemed to be nowadays: tongue lolling out of his mouth while he complacently stayed beside me.
We traveled for a week, resting too little for Elthinor’s tastes, but around midday on the fourth day, we broke free of the forest and onto grassy, rolling hills under a beautiful blue sky peppered with fluffy white clouds. Though the warm sunshine beamed down on us, the breeze was cooler than it had been the last time Elthinor and I had traveled out in the open, which made it much more bearable; I could feel autumn approaching. It was still some time away, but it was there. On the eighth day of travel, I looked down into the next valley when we stopped for lunch and gasped. There was a Human town! My reaction had Elthinor and Gabrithon staring. There was a well traveled path extending from the west side with a few groups of people traveling to and from the town.
“What are we going to do?” Elthinor asked as we ate the last of the salt preserved meat.
“We are lucky it is there,” Gabrithon said. “We need salt, we need food, and we need medicine. The Raysiam you collected is depleted substantially because of Fily’s shoulder wound. What shall we do if we are attacked again by those Vampires? Or what if we find the Aswangs and one or more of us are wounded?”
“But how are an Elf and a Centaur going to get into a Human village?” I asked.
They glanced at each other then Elthinor looked at me, a smile slowly blooming across his face.
“We are not going to. You are. We shall go around it tonight. You shall be a good little girl, who puts on her dress, which I kept, and go into the town to buy supplies.”
I smiled sadly. “Even if I approved of the plan, which I don’t, I have no money to buy anything.”
“Not true. You have Elven coin in your bag. Money is money, yes?” Elthinor challenged.
I felt my eyes narrow as I realized fully what he was saying. “You were spying on Aloron and me that day, weren’t you?” I asked irritably.
“I happened to pass by when Grandfather gave you the bag,” Elthinor said, raising his hands defensively, his smile guilty.
“Never mind that,” I said, rubbing my head as I thought about the plan. “Fine,” I muttered. “I shall go. Give me that stupid dress.”
They politely turned away from me while I changed and Gabrithon laughed when I told them I was finished. I scowled at him so he toned his amusement down to snickering.
“You look like a, well, a female,” he said in answer to my questioning glare. “Tell me, is the garb you normally wear that of a male?”
“Yes. They are Elthinor’s to be precise. I tailored them to fit, as he is taller than I am,” I answered. “And in answer to your next question, I don’t like dresses. I don’t know why, but I don’t.”
Gabrithon smiled. “You don’t really look like yourself dressed like that. I prefer your male attire.”
I arched my eyebrow at him. “Smart answer. Now I had better go. I shall meet you on the other side of the town tonight.”
I shouldered my pack and started down the hill, conscious of the fact both of them were watching me. I ignored it as I made my way to the road to seem as inconspicuous as possible. I could hear Ember whimpering as I left; we had put a rope around his neck and Elthinor was stroking his head while holding the other end. To make myself even less noticeable, I slipped behind a group, pretending to be with them until I got inside.
The town was much different than Paxtonvale and Ellavendir. The streets were packed dirt, like Ellavendir, but that is where the similarities ended. The houses weren’t wood, but stone! I had never seen such a thing! It fascinated me, and I stared for a while as I wandered around. I must have spent an hour or more looking around the town before I realized how much time I was wasting. After I realized that, I headed toward the center, where I knew the market would be.
Two hooded figures stood in the shadows at one corner of the marketplace. They looked like the beings that came into Paxtonvale to make sure everything was right, and there was nothing forbidden by our leaders happening. I covered my face with my hair as I hurried by them. I got to the far side of the marketplace, looking around carefully before going to a booth and waiting for the vendor to notice me. He looked up, and for a single moment, I was sure he was going to look at me with disgust and coldly reject me, like I was used to, but then he smiled.
“What can I do for you, little lady?” he asked.
“I need several measures of salt. My family will be traveling for quite a while, and my father is a great hunter,” I lied easily.
“And what shall I get in exchange?”
I slowly pulled out the Elven bag. His eyes widened and he stared at the strange, ornate vines that went up from the bottom. I pulled out several coins and he grinned.
“Deal,” he said immediately. He measured out five large cupfuls of salt, placing it in a sturdy bag, which he handed to me.
He stared at the coins with fascination, but I hurried away before he could question me. I moved to the next booth and began to gather food for travel. Luckily this town seemed to be used to travelers and carried provisions that would last a while on the road. Time passed by quickly, the sky soon turning colors toward the western horizon with each vendor I went to. All were amazed by the Elvish money, but I ignored them and their questions. Evening was setting in when I had finally gathered the whole list. My pack was bulging with supplies. I knew Elthinor would take some when I got back. I was shocked to find the gate closed when I got there, the sunset sending pink and purple streaks through the sky. I walked up to one of the men who stood there in front of the gate.
“Excuse me, but I need to get out.”
“The gate is closed for the night. You can get out tomorrow after sunrise,” the man said.
“But my family is out there camping. We are supposed to leave at sunrise!” I lied.
“I am sorry, young lady, but it is the law of our leaders. Find a place to stay tonight.”
His tone left no room for argument, so I quickly moved away. As I wandered through the now dark town, I grew frightened. The two hooded figures were creatures of the night, I knew without a doubt, and I did not want them to find me here, not if they were allied with the Vampires and Aswangs. I tried the one inn, but there were no rooms. I tried several houses, but they were all shut tight and nobody would answer the door. As I moved through one alley to get to the next street, what I feared would happen happened. I froze as I sensed movement behind me. I strained my ears for a noise, any noise to alert me to the presence of somebody, or something. I turned, looking around desperately.
“Well, look what we have here. It is the Strangeling our masters are looking for,” a hissing voice said from behind me.
I spun around, my hand going to my knife. “Who are you?” I asked immediately.
“We are our Masters’ servants. We are called Naga.”
“What are you hiding beneath your hoods?”
“Come with us and you shall find out.”
“Never,” I growled.
They moved with great speed toward me, but I dodged and began to run. I sprinted around corners, leaping over debris. I channeled my running, my passion for it, into each footstep. The creatures swiftly fell behind me, and I was glad I could run. The thought that God had granted me this gift had me sending up a quick thanks before I concentrated on getting away, away from those horrid dark creatures.
I came to a wall and turned in a different direction, wishing I had Ember with me. I knew, despite my incredible endurance, I would eventually run out of energy. I ran for close to an hour before I cornered myself. I was looking around for an exit when a door opened beside me, and a boy looked out with a lantern. In the pale light I could see he had short golden brown hair and chocolate brown eyes. His eyes darted around before settling on me, frightened.
“They are after you?” he asked, his voice a hoarse whisper.
“Yes,” I gasped.
I followed him inside and up a ladder to an attic. We crouched there for a long time, silence ruling the air, before he finally relaxed. I sighed and let my head fall back as relief swept over me. The boy looked at me suddenly, his gaze curious yet piercing.
“They are gone; the air is no longer dark. Why are they after you?” he whispered.
“I don’t know,” I whispered back. “And I fear I never will.”
“I am Nolan. And you are?” he asked softly.
“Filynora,” I replied.
“Well, Filynora, you can sleep here tonight. In the morning you can leave the city. They are less powerful during the day.”
He stared at me a moment. “What have you been doing? How did you gain this knowledge without living here? Do they live in your city as well?”
After a moment’s hesitation, my story spilled from my lips. He listened attentively, surprised and impressed. When I finished, silence ensued.
“And you did this?” he asked. “But you are a girl!”
“Yes. I know I am a girl,” I replied, irritated.
He looked nervous. “I’m just amazed. Please don’t be angry.”
“I am not angry. Just—” I paused. “I am tired,” I finally said.
“Before we sleep may I ask you something?” When I nodded, he continued, “May I join you and the Elf and the Centaur? I…I am an orphan with no future here. This is not even my house. We are not supposed to be here.”
I stared at him, considering what he was asking. “Can you fight?”
“N-no,” he said sadly then brightened. “But I can learn!” he said.
I looked at him in the light of the lantern, his brown eyes begging. I let out a breath.
“I can take you to Elthinor and Gabrithon, and we shall talk about it,” I said finally.
He looked so happy at that that I smiled back before settling down to sleep. He blew out the lantern and lay down. I lay there, listening to his deep breathing, pondering the decision I had made. When my mind finally relaxed, I closed my eyes and the last thought I had was what Elthinor and Gabrithon would think about Nolan.