“What happened here?” Pinnathir asked, hesitantly walking forward with Valtrak, Jaiden, and Gabrithon.
“They must have attacked it,” I said in a quiet voice.
Elthinor dropped to his knees and I followed him.
“Give me your knife,” he said hollowly.
I refused to give in that easily. “No, Elthinor.” I turned to my friends. “Search for any signs that they got away,” I said to my friends.
They scattered around, searching intently. Elthinor reached for my knife, hopelessness in his silver and green eyes. I grabbed his hand and used my Strangeling strength to keep it away. Eyes blazing in sudden anger, my Elven friend lunged forward and we hit the dirt. I fought to keep his hands away from my knife, not wanting him to do something I knew he would regret later. Elthinor suddenly went for my sword and my hand was sliced open as I automatically went for where the hilt had been before. I jerked my hand away and stumbled back a few steps, trying to staunch the flow of blood. Elthinor stared at the blood on my sword for a minute and suddenly his grief was forgotten.
“Fily! I-I’m sorry,” he exclaimed, tossing his bag onto the ground and digging through it. He pulled out bandages and a pouch. “Come here,” he said gently.
I set my hand in his and watched as he dipped two fingers in the pouch. They came out green; it was that Raysiam cream. He washed my hand with some of the water in his water skin and rubbed the cream on it. He wrapped the bandages around my palm gently, almost tenderly. He finished and curled my fingers over to rest lightly on the white surface. I looked from my hand to his face. That mysterious look was in his eyes again and it made my stomach feel funny, light and heavy at the same time. He smiled, which was just as enigmatic as the look in his eyes, and reached up a hand to stroke my cheek.
“Fily, I…” he trailed off, gazing at me.
“I found something!” Jaiden suddenly shouted.
Elthinor and I jerked out of our reverie and he stood swiftly after cleaning my sword with a rag. Handing it to me, we quickly hurried over to see what Jaiden had found. He had cleared some leaves away to find tracks set in the dirt. It had been mud when the tracks were made.
“They could be alive,” Elthinor gasped happily.
“Where would they go?” Pinnathir asked.
“The capitol,” Elthinor said, standing up and brushing the dirt from his hands. “Starrydale, our original destination.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” the Satyr asked, leaping to his hooves.
“I think we should start out tomorrow morning. We’ve been traveling too quickly. We’re all tired, though I know we aren’t showing it on purpose,” I said, crossing my arms.
Everybody’s face showed that I told the truth. Exhaustion swept over their expressions along with a fair amount of relief. Even Elthinor smiled and conceded. We set up camp in the middle of the town where the marketplace had been, building the fire high. Gabrithon and I hurried into the forest to hunt for dinner. We walked along for a while before he stopped. I followed suit and turned to look at him.
“Filynora,” he began, playing with his bow nervously. “I have a question. Why do you believe in Jesiah and God?”
“Who wouldn’t want to believe the truth?” I asked.
Gabrithon frowned. “Well, how do you know that it is the truth?”
“How do you know it’s not? Besides, God created everything, so He is, in essence, the epitome of truth.”
“But what if He’s not even real? What if you’ve been hallucinating?”
“I don’t like saying this because it sounds like I’m giving up, but let me put it this way. If I’m wrong, we’ll all go to the afterlife, whatever it may be, without trouble, but if you’re wrong, you’ll spend eternity wishing you had made a decision.” He looked confused so I explained Heaven and Hell to him. “There is no neutrality, Gabrithon. And with the war going on around us, can you really afford to be wrong?”
He looked disturbed. “That sounds like you’re forcing me into a decision.”
“You can make any decision you want, but know when you die, there is no going back. Hell is our default destination. Heaven is a gift. A gift we, as sinners, don’t deserve. Think about it. Now, let us hunt.”
We found rabbit tracks, Gabrithon surprising me by spotting them first despite his height, and followed them to a den. With a little struggle, we caught three rabbits, and they were rather fat, too. We carried them back to camp where the others had built a fire. Jaiden and Elthinor each took a rabbit, with me taking the third, and we began preparing them. I could feel a pair of eyes on me and I looked up to see Jaiden looking at me thoughtfully.
“What?” I asked as I began pulling out the organs.
“Not many girls can do that so well. Some in Greensage are squeamish and cannot do that at all. It took my mother years to be able to skin a rabbit like that, let alone a deer.”
I was uncomfortable. “So?” I snapped, pulling the heart out with more force than was necessary.
Now everybody was staring at me.
“You blush, Filynora,” Valtrak said. “Why?”
I felt trapped. How is a girl to tell her friends that she hates herself? Or, more specifically, how is a girl expected to tell her friends that she is embarrassed to be a girl sometimes? That sometimes she loathes that she is different, that she wishes to be either a male or like other females. I lowered my burning face and viciously tore another vital organ from the carcass, my bandaged hand making it a little harder than usual.
“Filynora,” Elthinor admonished. “We are your friends! Please answer the question.”
“I thought that you and Gabrithon, and all other males, find that a female’s blushing is hilarious,” I spat.
“It is, when it is in good fun. But you are clearly upset and I don’t think any of us know why,” Gabrithon said firmly. “Now why are you upset?”
A lie popped into my head and I used it. “Because he insulted my abilities, that’s why. Just because I am a young girl, I cannot be expected to properly skin animals?”
I finished the meat in silence then went and washed it off in a small stream. I returned and speared the meat, setting it over the fire then walked away and sat down. A touch to my shoulder had me look up to see Laetitia’s face. She had been silent throughout the trip. She told me, when I had asked her why, that she did not really belong with us. We knew each other, she did not, and nobody had made any effort with her. I don’t think they knew how. They were used to me, not an actual girl.
“You lied,” she said, seating herself beside me.
“I did not,” I lied again.
“Liar. You hold in your real reason because you fear they won’t understand.”
“Oh? And what do you know of my real reasons?”
“You hate how you’re different.”
That silenced me. I couldn’t look at her. She took my hands in hers.
“Filynora, I know females, and males for that matter, that hate or hated what they are. Something big always happens that reveals their secret, and it’s not always pleasant. In most cases, in fact, it’s not pleasant at all. Please tell them. Don’t wait until it builds up to where you cannot stop it.”
“Thank you for the advice.”
“But you aren’t going to take it.”
She looked into my eyes. “I shall keep your secret. But you will be the one to tell them. Even if it takes a few years.”
After the meat smelled done, we walked over to the fire, and I took my share. The meat had been flavored with herbs, courtesy of Elthinor. As we ate, I suddenly noticed something. Pinnathir was eating meat. Laetitia ate bread, but Pinnathir ate meat. I stopped eating and stared at him. He paused and arched an eyebrow.
“When did you start eating meat?” I asked, confused.
“A while ago. It actually tastes pretty good. I ran out of bread one day and just quietly began to take portions of the meat. Nobody’s really said anything about it until now,” Pinnathir explained with a shrug. “I didn’t want to make a fuss. Other Satyrs would be confused and probably a little upset, but it cannot be helped. I am saving the bread I brought for Laetitia.”
I stared for a few moments longer then returned to my meal. After we all finished, we lounged around as sunset sent streaks of pink fire through the sky. During a lull in the conversation, I turned and scanned the remains of the village.
“I wondered how Nolan had gotten my pets,” I said quietly.
“What?” Jaiden asked. “What do your Elementals have to do with this village being destroyed, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“The Elves here captured some, if not all, of my Elementals when the people of Paxtonvale burned my farm down. The horses must have escaped, but the rest of my Elementals were probably hypnotized by the Mngwa.”
“So it’s your fault Elthinor’s village was destroyed?” Laetitia asked.
Elthinor stiffened, and his eyes dashed up to meet mine. I lowered my head, breaking the gaze as I gave my reply.
“Being in this whole mess is my fault,” I said bitterly. “All of it, the Dark Ones’ minions chasing us, the traveling in fear, the death of my mother. Why not add a destroyed Elven village to the list?”
“Filynora. Look at me,” Elthinor said softly. I did so slowly. “I do not blame you for this.”
“Why not?” I asked, my voice cracking.
“Because I choose not to. I’d rather be your friend than hold a grudge for something you cannot really help.”
I smiled. “Thank you.”
“Now, let’s get some sleep. We shall be traveling for Starrydale swiftly.”