All Nonfiction Bullying Books Academic Author Interviews Celebrity interviews College Articles College Essays Educator of the Year Heroes Interviews Memoir Personal Experience Sports Travel & CultureAll Opinions Bullying Current Events / Politics Discrimination Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking Entertainment / Celebrities Environment Love / Relationships Movies / Music / TV Pop Culture / Trends School / College Social Issues / Civics Spirituality / Religion Sports / Hobbies
- Summer Guide
- College Guide
- Author Interviews
- Celebrity interviews
- College Articles
- College Essays
- Educator of the Year
- Personal Experience
- Travel & Culture
- Current Events / Politics
- Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking
- Entertainment / Celebrities
- Love / Relationships
- Movies / Music / TV
- Pop Culture / Trends
- School / College
- Social Issues / Civics
- Spirituality / Religion
- Sports / Hobbies
- Community Service
- Letters to the Editor
- Pride & Prejudice
- What Matters
Author's note: This started with a character. With a great deal of encouragement from my father and sister, it slowly molded into a story.
In lonely valley of fertile green
Hidden in mist of silver sheen
Where magic nestles in quiet glen
Lies the gentle village of Bren.
In springtime birds cry and spiders sleep
Young seedlings are planted in soil to keep
Water runs from the mountain fresh and cold
To the village where stories are told.
Then comes summer, hot and golden
When fruits swell and their flavors embolden.
Urgency gone, the cowherd rests
In the village soft as forest birds’ nests.
Harvest now blooms in richly hued field
And sickle is taken to reap the rich yield
Axes swing, men call, the forest quivers
Near the village of scentful timbers.
Silently from the mountain blows chill
That covers the land in icy spill.
The budding heads turn down to slumber
Around the village so quiet, demure.
Lovely valley from which I depart
Know always that you shall remain in my heart,
For nowhere such magic gathers in glen
Than the sweet and gentle village of Bren.
My birth is something of a legend in the small forest village of Bren. Some say a fire demon spouted me out of the ground while others claim I was born of the sky. Perhaps they are merely superstitions, the imaginings of a religious people who know no world outside of their own, but there is yet to be enough known on the matter to either dispel or realize such claims.
What I do know of my birth was told to me by my parents and various other members of my village. While their accounts are varied, and a few details are impossible for even me to believe, there are points of this peculiar story upon which there is no disagreement.
The first was that something did in fact fall from the sky. On the night I had supposedly been born, there had been a strange fluctuation of color in the sky, as if a giant paintbrush had touched the great black and left a trail of glowing pinks, greens, and blues. This light floated above the entire forest, reaching up into the sky like a giant wall of glowing water.
The strange occurrence frightened the villagers, and many ran out of their homes to see what was causing such bright light. When they looked up at the source, some claimed it was the goddesses themselves streaking across the sky, while others thought it was a sign of the otherworldly that the end of the world had come.
And then the star appeared, they said. A great white, shining orb came streaking down from the wall of color like a comet. This bathed the entire village in vivid white light, and as it came closer, a great heat seethed through the air. A high pitched whistling, screeching animals, a final flash of light, and the orb struck the earth with a sound like thunder. There was the rumbling of earth, a great cloud of dust, the smell of lightning, and then it came.
A mile away, in the rustling trees of the forest, a great pillar of smoke appeared from where the light had hit. From this there came a deep orange flame, licking the green with its seething tongue. This great flame spread through the forest like a flood, eating up timber and sending animals running every which way. The villagers could only watch in horror as the fire came closer, leaping through the trees like a great beast.
Shouts went up, children were gathered, supplies were thrown quickly together, and people immediately fled from the village. With the winds forcing the smoke and flames towards their home, they had no choice but to run before the fire reached them. Their only hope for survival was Pristine Lake, a small body of water on the gentle slope of the mountains. Wiemlick Forest lay at the foot of these mountains and went over them, but Bren was a good distance from Pristine Lake, even though it was in the same forest. My father claimed he had never hiked such a distance so fast as he did then. He had left with his wife and what few earthly possessions they could carry in their arms. There was no time to bring along livestock, so they were simply let free and alone to deal with the calamity which was about to come upon them.
All of the villagers were able to make it to the lake in time, and its elevated view of the forest allowed them to watch their homes burn as the fire came upon it. The destructive force was climbing up the mountain with alarming speed, and soon the villagers had to walk into the water of the lake to avoid the flames spreading through the trees. Everywhere was smoke and flame, and people were struggling too hard for breath to be able to scream. If the people were not to be burned, it only would have been a matter of time before the smoke and heat killed them.
But something miraculous happened before such a fate met the people of Bren. The lights of the sky suddenly faded into nothingness, leaving the world in darkness in smoke. As the colors were removed from the sky, the flame suddenly died down, the smoke dissipating from the air like a nightmare does upon waking. The villagers found themselves in the midst of a silent and ruined forest.
The second part of this story is written in the faces of my people, whose smiles never quite reach their eyes. The black, charred trees that still remain in Weimlick Forest show only the surface of the scar that was left in their hearts. Even after their homes were decimated, the worst was yet to come.
After the fire had passed, the villagers returned to their homes, which were now only smoking piles of straw and ash. The animals had long fled, and many of the men immediately set off to find them. People dug through the remains of their homes in hopes of salvaging something unmarred by the fire, but this was to no avail. Women and children wept as they plowed through the ashes to find nothing but burnt pieces of wood and cloth. The men that scoured the forest brought back less than a fourth of what livestock had once been in the village, the charred skeletons scattered throughout the land expressing without words the fate of the animals that had not returned.
But there was still more damage that the fire had done. Many people were made sick by the smoke, and the few who could heal were able to do little but provide these victims with water and offer the comfort of another human being. They could do nothing but watch as people gasped for air, some becoming too weak to even breathe.
Many dear friends and family members passed away that night.
After the initial horror, more was yet to come. As the villagers buried their newly dead, another crisis presented itself. For miles and miles, there was nothing but scarred and burnt forest, leaving nothing but the livestock for food.
The villagers panicked. With the remaining animals, food would only last for two or so weeks at best. Food would have to be found elsewhere if they were to survive before they could plant again. To make matters worse, there was no seed to be found. Every living thing had been consumed by the fire, which meant their only hope now was for the annual traders to come. The traders, they knew, would come for the wood harvested from Bren, but this time, they would have nothing to offer them. They would be entirely at the mercy of the traders, should they survive long enough for their arrival. It would be a good few months before Autumn, the season in which the travelers came.
With no good wood for miles, the people of Bren built pitiful shacks out of whatever wood would hold. All of the livestock was killed within a matter of days, and soon there was no meat to go around. Men went out unsuccessfully to hunt and women went with their children to find any manner of edible plant.
That was when my mother found me. Two days after the fire, she went foraging with two other friends in the desperate hope of finding so much as a leaf. She said she must have walked miles from the village by how much her feet hurt, but she kept searching. To find nothing would mean death.
My mother made it to a particularly hot area, where some of the trees were still smoking. The whole forest was a mass of fallen and burnt trees, but for some reason or another, the heat had not yet abandoned this small area. Here, the black ground was so hard that it seemed like the flame had turned the soft soil into stone. My mother could see that in the middle of this strange plane of black, there was a small pit, as if a stone had once sat there.
And then my mother heard me cry. She said it had sounded like tingling bells, instead of the wail I should have been uttering. The softness and sadness of the infant voice touched her so strongly that she even started to cry. The women with her were both touched as well, and because of this, the bizarre presence of an infant in the midst of a smoldering forest did not frighten them at all.
My mother told me that she had never seen anything so beautiful as I was. She said I was wrapped in the strangest cloth she had ever seen, which was utterly silky and flowed with as many colors as the sky had on the night the star fell. Despite the destruction around me, I was untouched, my soft peachy skin unblemished. My green eyes were bright and filled with sadness, the tiny blond hairs on my head barely visible.
Despite my mother's weak condition, she picked me up. She said that I had reached out my small arms for her, and she could not resist. The women crowded around me and sighed and wondered at the strange being my mother held in her arms. It did not strike any of them in that moment that I might be a demon.
The other people of the village were a little more cautious. Upon my mother's return, there were some that even desired to kill me. It was quickly decided that I had been the light that fell, for how else could such a strange creature appear in their forest, entirely unmarred and alone? The creature that had destroyed their forest and left them with nothing was a small and helpless infant.
Luckily for me, my mother and the other women were quick to protect me. They claimed that even if I was some sort of demon, it would surely vex my parents if they killed me. Perhaps they would even return and kill everyone. My mother thought I was a gift from the Goddesses, a treasure that might help to restore their beautiful forest.
So I remained untouched. My mother took it upon herself to take care of me, her husband quickly lending his support as well. Both of them saw a beautiful and mystical creature that had come to bless them, but oh, how wrong they were!
The months that followed were unforgiving. Occasionally, a villager was fortunate enough to catch a small, wandering animal, but their main diet became charred wood. If there were insects to be found, they were eaten like goodies. If there was even so much as a tiny green shoot protruding from the ground, it was consumed within seconds. When these could not be found, people turned to the ground and ate up the dirt. Water was the only resource that flowed easily into their hands.
People began to thin and waste away as famine consumed them, and many fell like withering flowers and did not get back up again. Everywhere was the desperate cry for food, and when the children ran out of energy to do even this, an eerie silence hung about the starving village. Soon, people spent more time sleeping feverishly, and the only time they spent awake was searching for food. Most stayed by the river that ran down from Lake Pristine, where there was occasional algae and insects to feast upon. The fish, however, had seemed to disappear like the animals had. Many had searched Lake Pristine for them, but they had long gone to live within the depths of the water where none could reach them.
Day after day passed by, and I suffered along with my parents. My mother did not have the vitality to feed me, and my cries became incessant. I rotted away like everyone else, but I did not die like all of the other infants. There was a vitality within me that refused to leave, and this gave my mother hope.
Hope came when Autumn did. The sound of hooves came one morning, echoing over the ground like thunder. The villagers rushed out of their filthy shacks, their joy no greater than if a hundred cows had suddenly entered the place, falling to the ground and offering their meat to all that would have it.
At first, the traders were hesitant to come near the starving people. Some had even eaten their clothes in a desperate attempt to fill their stomachs. Still, they came, and never a more happy greeting could they have expected. People knelt at their feet and praised them as if they were gods, their filthy faces smiling up away from their wasting bodies.
To say the traders were stingy is a gross understatement. Their guards hung about the caravan like wolves, throwing dirty glances at the clingy hands of the starving villagers. Some were even kicked away when they came too close. The head of the caravan eventually looked about him and declared that nothing would be traded if there was nothing to offer.
The villagers were shocked. It had never occurred to them that their only hope may be dashed. For months, they had waited for these saviors to come. They had been the source of strength for the mothers who watched their children die in their arms. This had been the murmur, the prayer of every creature within the village, and now they saw it was in vain. They had been waiting for nothing.
It was Bensai, a stout farmer that saved everyone that day. Even in his famished state, he could still think, still protect the family that lay in his hut, too weak to come out to greet their futile hope.
"You listen, you stinking, filthy snake, and you listen well. We have waited for you for three starving, painful months, and you have come. These trees have been burnt to the ground, but they will grow back. Give us time, and you will have a full harvest. Give us time, or we will take it from you."
I have seen many people imitate this speech, for it was soon to become the most famous words ever uttered by any man in all of Bren. It was because of this speech, the desperate anger of the people that caused the traders to impart of their goods. Food was given, seeds and clothing, all manner of goods came before the people! Even animals and medicine found its way into their hands, and the caravan was still overflowing with goods!
Of course, this came with a price. The villagers promised three years of full loads of special wood for the caravan, and in return, they were given their lives. Because of the temperate climate, they would be able to begin planting immediately, and they now had food enough to last until their crops grew.
Again, people were praising and smiling, jumping and dancing with the joy of a life saved. People ate that day like they had not eaten in three months, and there was not a dry eye to be found. When the grudging caravan left the village that day, they left a trail of hope behind them.
For the first time after those three months, the great fire that had ravaged the forest became a blessing. As families dug into the earth to plant, there was rich and plentiful soil that eagerly supported the crops. The fire had cleared up more room than had once been available, and the villagers turned the charred land into a paradise. Within mere days, there was green sticking up from the ground, and it was not immediately gobbled up. There was food to be had as the tendrils of leaves reached up toward the sun.
Another blessing was the speed at which the whole forest grew. As the village gained its life back, the forest flourished around it, entire trees growing up in an unheard of time of five months. It was as if the whole earth had been invigorated, as if magic itself was sown into the very ground. Rich fruits and vegetables were forming everywhere, and never before had they tasted so sweet.
Within three years, the forest was back to its old form, a miracle that none could have conceived. It was believed by many that the fire from the heavens had been magical, that its energy had been so strong that it remained in the ground long after the flames had died. This was easy to believe and quickly accepted as the forest grew into a lovely and fertile piece of land. The trees grew with amazing vigor, their greens never deeper and their fruits never richer. The crops turned bright hues of orange, yellow, red, and green, their roots greedily sucking nourishment from the ground. Even the animals became fatter and multiplied in greater numbers than before.
However, despite all of these blessings, there was great anxiety regarding the magic trees that had been ravaged in the fire. They were of a rare breed that grew only in Wiemlick Forest, and even then they could only be found in a particular grove deep in the forest. If they did not replenish, the people of Bren would have nothing to repay their debt to the traders.
Each year, as these traders passed through Bren, they inquired after these trees, only to be upset and impatient when they heard the saplings had not grown yet. After the third year of Bren's re-growth, they demanded the magic wood to be hewn and saved for their return, lest their wrath be turned against the villagers.
Magic wood was as worthless to the people of Bren as it was valuable to the traders. The wood taken from these trees was too soft for the building of houses and furniture, and fire made from it was not as warm as normal wood and tended to be more unpredictable. Sometimes such flames could even freeze a person rather than burn them. Because of these qualities, the villagers rarely used such wood at all. If anything, it could be said that magic wood was more of a currency in Bren. The traders would pay only for this wood, which they sold to faraway kingdoms and cities.
These faraway cites put such wood to much better use than we did. As implied by the name, magic wood is often used to make wands, charms, staffs, and various other tools of magecraft. This is because magic wood has a unique absorption ability that can effectively take in and release the mana, or life energy, that magicians and wizards use to create magic. It is also said that this stored mana in magic trees keeps them from rotting and causes them to grow much faster than normal plants. Because of this, magic wood is easy to harvest and store, and the many things it is formed into lasts for incredibly long amounts of time. In fact, the oldest known artifact carved from such wood is about 1,000 years old; an Elven pendant shaped into a heart. Some say it is the wood itself that kept such a thing from rotting into oblivion, but others claim it was enchanted, though there is no evidence of the latter.
Magic wood is also very beautiful. Its bark is unusually smooth, and getting a sliver from a piece of it is almost unheard of. This soft wood also has a wonderfully silky luster, and often glows or warms in the presence of magic. The color of the bark is much more pale than most broad leaf trees, coming closer to white than an actual shade of brown. Magic trees bloom all year round, which also separates it from normal trees. These blossoms are a pale pink with five round petals and red centers, smelling like a mixture of honey, plum, and cherry. Extracts of their pollen has been used both inside and outside of Bren for particularly sweet smelling perfumes.
The leaves of a magic tree are a very dark green in contrast to its pale branches; wide and heart shaped with shiny faces and velutinous undersides. They have a distinct taste of cumin when eaten plain, and when used outside of Bren, people have been known to use the ground leaves in teas to boost magic abilities. The village shaman was known to use these leaves for such purposes, but the affects are said to be mild.
Magic trees also grow very sweet, peach-like fruits, but they have no known magical qualities. In my experimentation with them, however, I have found that they soften skin well in creams and help the sick recover a little faster. In Bren, it is very common for people to eat the fruit of magic trees in illness, though whether it truly heals or not is supported only by speculation. At any rate, they are wonderfully sweet and rich, tasting like a combination of plums and peaches, which makes them a favorite treat of the villagers.
With so many beneficial qualities, it is fairly easy to see why magic trees are a highly sought after resource. As I have stated before, however, these trees are almost impossible to find outside of Bren. Not even the best of professors truly know why such plants cannot grow outside of Wiemlick Forest, but the most widely accepted explanation for this is that our particular area has special magic qualities. The lumberjacks who gather the wood, however, have never claimed to see anything extraordinary or magical in the grove. Aside from the magic trees being a good deal larger than the other trees of the forest, there is nothing particularly special about the land they grow on— save for a few exceptions.
The crater created by the falling star on the night of my "birth" is in the very center of that grove. Many believe it is merely coincidence, but others have said that it was the land that attracted the abnormal light, and that this strange attraction is what the trees feed off of. The ground there is still as hard as marble, but the trees' roots manage to dig deep into the soil. There is also a noticeable temperature difference between the grove and the rest of the forest, always being a few degrees warmer than the rest of the woods.
Despite these strange qualities, however, no one concerns themselves with them. As long as the trees keep growing and the gardens remain fertile, there is food to be had and good trade to be made, which is enough for any villager of Bren. There is also a sort of reverence for the magic trees, and after the great fire, it has only increased. The trees have provided them with the resources they need, and since it is likely that they were indeed what drew the fire to the forest, it is no wonder that the trees have become a symbol of life and death for Bren.
One would think with all of these strange claims and valuable trees of Wiemlick Forest that people would come flocking to Bren. This is not the case. The trails that connect Bren to the rest of the world are poor and overgrown, spanning many miles before reaching even the smallest of human settlements. Only the annual traders brave the long path, which they complain unceasingly about when they come. Without them, there simply would not be any contact between Bren and the world outside of Wiemlick Forest.
There are numerous reasons for this. The first is that Wiemlick Forest is more or less a valley between mountains that challenge even the sky. While the mountain range itself does not hold quite as violent a reputation, it is indeed wild and treacherous. To pass over it, one has to reach dizzying heights, and will often be forced to brave steep slopes and dangerous cliff faces. This makes wagon trains almost impossible, and even an avid traveler will find themselves breathless in the thin mountain air.
Another reason is the animals. Most wild creatures are easily scared off by humans, and make for good game, but they are a threat to the unwary. Wiemlick Forest is home to many dangerous predators, including bears, wolves, and mountain lions. I enjoy watching these creatures from a distance, but only Bren's hunters dare to approach these animals. Just to keep them out of the village, food has to be stored carefully, and the farmers are always chasing deer and rabbits away from their crop. Travelers who do not understand the importance of this will often find themselves invaded by a curious squirrel, and in more dangerous cases, a bear. This general presence and threat of wild creatures most certainly keeps those inexperienced with travel away.
However, I have not mentioned the most dangerous of creatures that is the main source of fear for all in Bren. Weimlick Forest is widely known for its giant spiders. This breed of spider is unique even to giant spiders in general, who are more often found in cavernous regions. They have adapted to the forest region, living off of small and large herbivores alike. Some have even been known to kill bears.
These giant spiders of the forest also have stubbier and more hairy bodies than a typical giant spider, for they prefer to move over the bushy ground of the forest rather than climb trees or rocks. While they are still perfectly capable of moving vertically up cliff faces, they do not have the grace of a typical giant spider. However, they make up for this lack in grace with brute power, and a bite from one is more likely to kill a person by crushing them to death, rather than poisoning them.
When one is unlucky enough to be bitten, their venom serves only to paralyze, and the victim will likely be taken off to the spider's burrow to be eaten. These giant spiders prefer to make their own burrows, and a particularly large group may have burrows that are intricately connected underground. They are also able to make very sticky webbing, which they generally use to suspend their or immobilize their prey.
While I have always viewed a giant spider to be no more malicious than any typical wild animal, they are viewed as a great source of evil in Bren. To make sure they do not come close to the village, there is always a large fire kept going at night in case one is foolish enough to approach the settlement. Their aversion to light is well known, and they fear fire like no other creature I have seen. They come out only at night, but their multiple red eyes are easy to distinguish from the rest of the forest. If one strays too far from the village at night, it is not unheard of to be taken off by one of the large creatures. While most are no larger than a mountain lion, they can grow to be as tall as ten feet.
Still, perhaps the largest reason Bren has few visitors is because it is a village of little consequence. There is no great wealth in Bren, nor any vast storage of knowledge. While its roots can be traced back as far as the oldest trees, there are no great stories or legends told of it. Epic creatures do not live here, nor beings of any mythological significance. There is no large productivity or fine goods here, the best clothes made of homespun wool and the greatest tools being well used and soiled equipment purchased from the traders. The village is as old as the trees and just as simple.
Despite this simplicity, however, Bren to me is one of the most beautiful places in the world. I have stood on the mountainside many times, watching the morning fog of the mountains dispel as the sun rose over the horizon. As the first rays of light hit the valley, rainbows sprung up from the mist, reflecting off of every drop of dew suspended by the branches of leaves and swaying grass. Through this mist one can see an ocean of green, the crowns of the trees rippling like ocean waves. Above this are the mountains, their brown and gray stone turning to pure white at they reach for the heavens. They stand like teeth against the deep blue sky, sapphire torrents of water rushing down their deep crevices. The air is cold and sharp, filled with the scents of trees and wildflowers that spring everywhere there is soil to spare.
Bren is also quite visible when viewed from atop the mountain. One can usually see a few tendrils of smoke rising from trees as well as the wide pastures that make the land look like a small patchwork quilt. There are also the round roofs of wooden huts and the grassy dugouts which house the people of Bren. Animals are kept within small fenced pastures, and if one looks close enough, they can see the cows and horses that graze within them. Through these pastures and farms, trees dot the area, though much sparsely than the rest of the forest. This grassy expanse is then enclosed by trees, surrounding Bren with both forest and mountains.
With all of this natural beauty, I am somewhat glad that there are few humans to interrupt it. If more settlers were to come and drive out the spiders, the magic wood would become sparse as well as the wild creatures. Perhaps Bren would even become a great city with many paved roads, and the villagers would forget the good earth that brought them life. I have heard of such things occurring in other places, but as long as the hand of industry stays far from Bren, the creatures of Wiemlick Forest have little to fear.
Though I was indeed a strange child, my parents raised me like any other. My mother and I would work on our small farm while father went away to work at the lumberyard. It was up to us to keep the animals fed and healthy, as well as the garden weeded and watered. We also had to take care of our small house, keeping our thatched roof from leaking and sweeping out the dirt when it accumulated. Then of course, there was food to be made. We often ate dried fruits and vegetables from our saved supplies until summer and fall came, when there was fresh produce to be found all throughout Bren. We also ate a few of our livestock, though even this was done sparingly. Food was precious in my village, a gift from the goddesses that kept us alive. A glutton would die in winter, or so my mother said. Though I was young, I can still remember helping her with such chores, and how she would sing while she worked.
"My, what a helpful little worker you are!" My mother would say with a smile as I helped her wash clothes in the river. "Now, just make sure you don't let go of them. There, yes, that's the way! Won't Papa be so pleased when he sees how clean his shirt is?"
I had nodded vigorously, my mother's kindness always pushing me to do my best.
Everything we had had to be made in our village, for there were no cites for miles. Whatever foreign goods we had came from the traders. For three years, the villagers gained nothing from these people, faithfully keeping their promise of supplying wood. When my mother took me out to see these strangers, I always earned a curious look, and the traders would murmur amongst themselves with furtive glances in my direction. Some were even bold enough to approach my mother and me, and I would hide behind her long skirt as the men asked her questions. One time, a man even bent down and offered me a lovely rose, calling me a forest blossom.
The other villagers were much more cautious in their dealings with me. The other children were forbidden to play with me, and I received curious and even angry glances from them when my mother took me around the village. The adults were more calm around me, but they looked at me as one looks at a demon; with both fear and reverence. To them I was a symbol of their grief and joy, a creature that had granted life and death from my very birth. There was hatred and respect towards me, but never acceptance. Only my parents would speak to me, only they would walk beside me, and only they would call me by name.
I once asked my mother why this was. Almost immediately, her eyebrows furrowed with consternation, but she managed to force a smile.
"No, they don't hate you, Sweetheart."
"But they never play with me. They run away. Sometimes they call me things."
"Call you things? What do they call you?" My mother's cloudy blue eyes lit up with anger, and the sudden harshness of her voice frightened me.
"T-they...they don't. They..." I couldn't finish the lie to cover up my previous remark, for I was too frightened. My mother had always warned me not to lie, that it was a terrible, terrible, thing, but when she was angry, there was nothing more frightening in the world. Except when father got angry.
"Oh, Sweetheart, don't be scared." Mother knelt down and hugged me to her, the best way she knew how to apologize. "I'm not angry. What do they call you?"
Even as a child, I could tell her words were empty. Her hug and contrite voice could not hide the anger in her eyes. Still, I could not bring myself to lie to her. "They called me demon eyes. They said I ruined the forest." My eyes watered at that point. The very idea that I would destroy the beautiful forest made my heart ache. "Is it true, Mama?"
"No, no, of course not!" Mother hugged me again, this time too urgently to hold any truth. There was something she was trying to hide, an unspoken doubt that showed in the smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. "Don't you believe anything they say. I'm sure they're just...playing with you."
I gasped in delight. My young mind was immediately convinced. Of course they were just playing with me. They were just teasing me, like they did with each other. “Mama, Mama, they played with me!” I jumped up and down with glee, incredibly happy at the realization. All this time I had thought...well, it simply did not matter now.
“Yes, Sweetheart, don't take what they say to heart.” My mother's voice was resigned, strangely hollow, but I did not mind. The joy of the moment was overwhelming. I ran outside to find the other children again, but I paused just outside of the door.
“What are demon eyes?”
Luxury was not something we worried much about. As long as we had wool for our clothes and a dry place to sleep, we were content. Of course, that did not mean that we had nothing to enjoy. Occasionally, father would make a good profit from the wood he sold to the traders, and he would buy me and my mother beautiful silk ribbons. Sometimes he even made enough to buy honeydew, my favorite fruit. He knew better than everyone else how I loved sweet things, especially fruit. That was one of the reasons he called me Honeysuckle, for he said I was sweet just like one, that I even smelled like them. Mother laughed every time he said it, saying that he was spoiling me.
Whenever the traders reached Bren, it was a large event. All year long, the villagers prepared for this, working tirelessly to gather every valuable thing from the magic trees. There was always a large pile of the wood kept near the meeting building, which continued to pile up as the year progressed. Juice from their fruit was bottled and sealed with great care, as well as the nectar from the flowers. This was added on top of all of our daily chores, keeping both adults and children busy.
Then, when all was safely stored and prepared, the traders would make their way through the mountains, bringing their carts and wagons full of wonderful things. From them we acquired foreign produce and supplies, such as metal tools and soft cotton fabric. There was also sugar and cinnamon, salt and flour; even rice and yeast. There were also beautiful combs and bracelets made of ivory and silken fabrics that flowed like water. Countless other goods were carried by these traders, some even magical. Such things, however, were never bought by the villagers, as there was a strong stigma regarding magic. It was considered to be a powerful and dangerous thing, and the only member of Bren trusted to use it was the great shaman, Hemanias. He lived a good ways outside of the village, living much like a hermit, but his wisdom and healing powers were well known. Those with serious illnesses came to him for health and enlightenment, which he always gave willingly. The only payment required for his services was the gift of a meal, for he lived only on the land around his hut.
Of all the goods the traders brought, my most favorite things to look at were their charms. They had a number of pendants, brooches, and bracelets carved and shaped from metals and woods; most of them taking the form of an Elven or ancient symbol. Occasionally, there were animal carvings, too, which were startlingly lifelike. Mother did not approve of this fascination, so she was always quick to pull me away, though I continued to pester her with questions.
“Mama, they say the rabbit charm brings luck. Why is that?”
“I do not know, but it is foolish to believe in such things.”
“But that one charm, the one with the squiggly letter, you remember? It was the darkest red. They said it protects people from curses.”
“You needn't worry about curses. There are no evil magics to bother us here.”
“No more of this, Leonna. The garden needs weeding, and we must go to it.”
“But the traders—”
And so I had to be wrenched away from the traders and their stories, which were as rich as their goods. I was always sad to see the carts laden with their sparkling treasures disappear back into the trees, but they had to continue their route into the lands beyond. After all, they would always return next year.
When I was seven, the true sign of my power revealed itself. I had been in an argument with another child, angry at him for his constant teasing. We kept exchanging insults, with me getting angrier and angrier, when suddenly, the boy screamed with sheer terror. I saw that he was staring at my hands clenched by my side, and when I looked down, my hands were engulfed with fire. I screamed then, throwing myself on the ground to put out the flames spreading up my arms. It took a few moments and a lot of screaming to realize that the flame wasn't burning me, nor was it getting even close to being put out. As soon as I calmed down, merely staring at my hands, the flame finally disappeared. I became aware of a strange sensation on my back, as if I had grown new limbs. To my horror, I felt the limbs moving on my back. It was like I had grown new fingers I did not know how to use, and when I touched them, they twitched, sending a shiver down my spine. They felt like long, thin scales, smooth and slippery. They even went far back enough that I could see them; a pair of orange tinged dragonfly wings sticking out of my back.
I screamed. What else could I do? Those things on my back, the fire on my hands— they were all signs of a monster! Normal people did not have such things, and now I could never be one.
After that incident, it was firmly decided that I was some sort of fire demon. People feared me, believing that I could raze their entire home with a wave of my hand. Everywhere I went, I was haunted by the fearful cry of young children and the repulsive silence of adults. Even my parents became afraid, though they were much more subtle about it than the others. The people of the village started to turn against us, reprimanding my parents for taking in such a creature. My parents would not speak openly about this, but I could hear my mother crying at night.
"Leonna...I just... feel like I don't know her anymore! What is she?" My mother cried in the arms of my father, her voice trembling.
"She's our honeysuckle, Minerva. Nothing's changed."
"Nothing's changed? Have you seen her wings? That empty look in her eyes? Erevan, she's not the same girl we raised!"
"She got in a fight. It happens to everyone, especially at such a young age." My father's voice became stern, defensive.
"Erevan, she could burn the entire forest down, just like that night seven years ago...the night she—"
"Enough. Leonna is not a creature of destruction. We raised her..."
"Children grow up, Erevan. They start making their own choices. Who's to say Leonna won't choose destruction? She nearly burned that poor boy..."
That was the night I left. After my parents fell asleep, I ran out into the forest, wishing to be anything that was not me. My mother was afraid of me. Afraid! Even my father's defense was wavering, knowing that I did indeed hold the power to ruin all he had...all the village had. I did not want to hear any more screaming, see any more fearful glances. I did not want my parents to argue, to be upset, so I chose the only thing that would stop it all. I left.
I ran deep into the forest, where the magic wood grew. The trees were amazingly tall there, their branches reaching up into the heavens. I knew by the color of their bark what they were, but they had such a strange presence about them. It made my skin tingle, as if there was some sort of new energy slipping into my body. Such a sensation made me feel part of the forest, as if we were sharing the same power. Even the grass seemed to glow slightly in the moonlight, tinged by the strange energy that flowed through the grove.
But none of these things held my attention more than the huge rock that jutted out from the ground. The rock was actually made up of a group of pillars, most of which had fallen into ruins. The dark objects had been placed in a circle, encompassing a round stone dais with strange characters inscribed into it. The forest had long since grown over a large portion of it, but the black rock was easy to pick out from the foliage. I bent down to touch the stone, which was strangely smooth. Somehow, the same energy as the rest of the forest was pulsing through this as well.
That was where stayed that night; close to this strange energy. I began clearing of the black stone dais, uncovering the characters that were carved in it. They looked like curvy lines, and even glowed orange when the moonlight touched them. As I carefully uncovered each one, I found that many had been damaged, halfway eroded off of the smooth surface of the stone. Time had obviously done its damage here, but why was it here in the first place? What significance did it have?
Unfortunately, I did not have much time to ponder over this. In the morning, the lumberjacks of Bren came to collect their wood. I had wandered into the center of the grove they cut from, and sure enough, I realized it was time to move before someone found me. I ran even deeper into the woods to escape them, where I was sure I would never be found. It would be difficult to live alone, to try to survive on what the forest had to offer, but I was determined. Never again would I return to the village where I caused nothing but fear.
Such was the ignorance of my youth. I was a domestic child, a young child, a child with no understanding of the world outside of Bren. I had been taught that the forest was dangerous, that one never wandered off alone, but I thought I was smart enough to survive. I believed that my sheer will alone would save me, but even that wavered. My anger and frustration was directed at myself, this being that had once destroyed a beautiful forest. I was a monster whom all feared, even the parents who had raised me. My life had brought them pain, and now...now that I was a monster, how could they love me? What was the point in living if there was no place for me?
Perhaps it was a good thing that I separated myself from my people, though I suffered greatly from hunger. My anger and frustration manifested itself in the flames I could not control, and I was constantly surrounded by the ashes of my fire. Trees, bushes, grass— it all burned near me. I could not wander any distance without something catching flame, which made it difficult to find food. It was only when I became too weak to walk that the flames finally stopped, and I could only lie in misery by the roots of the trees.
It was while I was in this state of misery that something extraordinary happened. While I was lying in the grass, a small rabbit approached me, sniffing the ground with its delicate pink nose. When it caught sight of me, its ears pricked up and its body went rigid, but it did not flee. It stayed tense only for a moment, then hopped towards me. The white creature stopped just out of arm's reach, its small black eyes regarding me curiously. I stared back at it with equal intensity, for my stomach was crying out loudly. Once it took one more small step towards it, I seized the small creature, grabbing it by its neck. It twitched uncomfortably in my grasp, but made no effort to fight back. It merely sat there, its innocent face as placid as a lamb's.
It...it trusts me, I realized with horror. The creature had not fled from me as it should have. It did not avoid me as even humans did. All I had to do was snap its tiny neck and it would be dead. This stupid, foolish rabbit still trusted me, as if it really believed a starving monster would not eat it. I stared at it for a long time, my hunger urging me to kill it and my heart screaming to let it go. I could not betray even the trust of an insignificant animal.
Against all reason, I let the creature go. My hold on it softened and it slipped away, though it did not run. As if to mock me in my weakness, the rabbit licked my fingers with its tiny pink tongue and hopped away.
I must have been somewhat tougher than I realized, for I did not stay curled up on the ground for long. My hunger pushed me to eat everything in sight, whether it be plant, dirt, or insect. I stuffed these things in my mouth without thought, chewing them quickly and letting them fill my stomach. This food left me weak, but I was still able to walk, and I continued my aimless wandering through the forest. To this day, I still do not know what it was I was looking for, for I had no home to go to nor any purpose to be anywhere at all. It was only the need to survive, to keep the pain of hunger away that forced me to continue.
As I was walking one day, I came across a strange burrow. The hole was massive, forming a cave that was at least ten feet across. Overcome with curiosity, I snuck into the cave, wondering if there were any creatures that lived there. A rotten scent of dead and dying things seeped out of the hole as I approached it, and for a moment, I considered running back. The strange burrow was in no way a good place to play, and I was fully aware of the stories of giant spiders. This frightened me, but my curiosity was still stronger. With shaking limbs, I crept inside, covering my mouth to keep out the foul smell.
I did not make it far into the cave before I noticed a white, sticky substance clinging to the wall. When I touched it, the strange stuff clung to my skin, and I had to pull hard to separate myself from it. As I followed the sticky stuff, I noticed that it was traced around in elegant patterns, strange objects clinging to it. I looked closer to make them out, and to my horror, I found bloodless limbs of large and small animals, some with the skin still decaying on the bones. Mingled among these gruesome body parts were those of humans, too, a skull among them.
And then something moved. I had to cover my mouth to stifle the scream that threatened to come out, watching as a black lump on the floor began to stand. Large, spindly legs reached out, and I realized that the lump was in fact the body of a massive spider. The thing turned around to see what had disturbed it, the creature's red eyes glaring at me in the darkness. Silently, it crept towards me, flexing the gleaming pincers on its head.
That was when I screamed. I had been frozen in terror, but the sound of my own voice woke my body. I immediately turned an ran, the scuttling of the spider's legs close behind me. As I ran, I felt the creature's sharp pincers click just behind my back, narrowly avoiding my flesh. As the spider was about to close in on me, a shaft of sunlight appeared, the entrance to the deep cave suddenly visible. This caused the spider to screech the most blood curdling sound, so high pitched that I had to cover my ears. The sound so frightened me that I fell to the ground, expecting that the spider would now eat me. However, after a few moments had passed, I looked up to see that the spider had gone.
I tore out of the cave as fast as my legs could carry me, running through the forest like a deer taking from a hunter. To this day I do not know how long I ran or how far I went, but I was exhausted. The spider's scream still echoed in my head, its red eyes peering at me every time I closed my eyes. I could not sleep for days, blindly trying to survive on whatever the forest had to offer. My body was weakening with each passing day, but I was not afraid. I just wanted the pain to stop. I wanted to forget my parents, the village, and most of all, that horrible giant spider.
How much longer I could have survived on my own I do not know. How Hemanias found me is still a mystery, though I am forever in his debt. He walked by me one day as I sat in the dirt, scratching out the characters I had seen in the ruins. I did not look up as he approached, expecting him to flee when he saw my famed "demon eyes." I started to get nervous as he came closer and closer, his feet scratching noisily across the dirt.
"How curious. Are you familiar with the characters you're drawing?" He was standing over me now, casting a shadow over my characters in the ground.
I paused my writing, but still refused to look up. "Get away, old man. I'll destroy you."
He laughed, a dry, crackling sound. Laughter was something I hadn't heard in a long time; it reminded me of the sound wood makes when it catches the first sparks of a fire. "You have not even looked up, child. How do you know what age I am?"
"Your voice, your dragging feet, that smell..." I took a deep breath, taking in the pleasant smell of another living being. It wasn't a very substantial scent, like when you smell cooking food or a blooming flower. To me, every person seemed to smell differently, like how a wine connoisseur can tell the difference between the age and flavor of each bottle he drinks. Some people had warm scents, like a freshly baked gingersnap, while others were sharper, like a crisp clove of mint. I just supposed my sense of smell was another defect from being a demon, perhaps a way to sense a human being's soul.
I heard the man's bones creak as he knelt down next to me. "Tell me, child, what do I smell like to you?"
I did not know how to answer. It had been so long since someone had conversed with me, treated me like I was a human being. "You smell like..." I struggled to find the words to use. He smelled like a mixture of so many different things, so much of which I had never taken in before. I could tell there was a great force behind his cracking limbs and dry voice, something that went far beyond any mortal power. "Who are you?"
Another dry laugh. "I am Hemanias, the village shaman. I held you when you were just a baby."
"Then you saw," I said, hanging my head.
"Saw what, my dear child?" The man's voice was softer, sensing my deep wound.
"M...my demon eyes. Everyone says they are cursed."
Without warning, Hemanias parted my filthy, knotted hair, peering into my eyes without the slightest sign of fear. He really was old, with the crinkles in his face being the most dominant of his features. His hand was bony and feeble, but his warm green eyes held a kind of strength I had never seen before. "You have pretty eyes."
"P...pretty?" That was I word that I had never heard associated with me before.
"They look like bright green stars, so full of light, but so far away, just like you."
"But I'm right here."
Hemanias smiled again. "You will understand what that means someday, but until then, would you like to come with me?"
I merely stared in shock. "You mean back to the village? I can't, I'll—"
"There is no need to panic, child. I do not go around the village much."
Hemanias stood, sighing as he did so. "I am in need of one young enough to do the work these old bones cannot. Surely a kind soul like yourself would not deny such an old man his simple request."
It was Hemanias' kindness that taught me that my life did not have to be empty. He took me on as his apprentice, sharing with me his knowledge of magic in exchange for me helping him with his day to day work. Hemanias taught me that my abilities could be controlled, that I did not need to waste them by hiding away from the world. The old man even taught me how to fight, giving me my most precious possession, the crystal quarterstaff, which he had found on the night of my birth. Every word he spoke was encouragement, every lesson he taught was for my own good. Hemanias even showed me the meaning of the characters written on the ruins I had been curious about, which he called ancient hieroglyphs. He even went far enough to teach me the whole written language, saying that I would be able to read any such ancient ruins as the one I had found.
I also learned of the wonders of nature under the old man's care. He was an experienced medicine man, and he often sent me through the forest to find the herbs he used. The shaman also taught me how to make many of his medicines, teaching me by hand and book. As he came to trust me with my own knowledge of herbology, I used my own medicines to ease the pain of his aching bones and dry coughs. I nurtured this knowledge past herbs, and extended my curiosity to other plants and animals. Under Hemanias's stern direction, I learned the scientific names of the plants and animals in order to identify them more specifically, as well as their many qualities. I have no idea how long I spent observing such things in the woods, tracking the movements of birds and deer to more fully understand them.
However, the old shaman had more in store for me than simple lessons of nature. He taught me how to hold a quill and write with it, though I loathed the language of humans. I desired of him that I might learn the fine language of Elves instead, whose language was far more elegant. Hemanias would only consent to my desire if I promised to learn the basics of common English, and so I did. With eager hands and a willing mind, I soon became fluent in the ways of writing and speaking the Elven language.
As my studies progressed, Hemanias eventually gave me a book of my own to record the many things that I saw. I began to draw detailed diagrams of my own, including the vital information I learned of the creatures and plants within the forest. Even the movement of the stars were recorded as I observed them, not allowing one singular specimen anywhere to avoid my attention. In this book, I also wrote of the ruins that I studied, copying the hieroglyphs onto its fresh pages as well as committing them to memory. I also included their translations, as well as what other meanings I thought they might have. One could say that every valuable scrap of knowledge I knew I put inside of this book.
Still not quite content with my studies, the shaman decided that I must learn to train my body as well as my mind. In order to learn control of my abilities, Hemanias said that I must exercise my very body. He made me perform tests of strength to maintain balance and control the mind. Such tests consisted of standing in precarious positions for a long period of time, or sitting in freezing cold water while maintaining complete calm. Before I even learned how to properly use my staff to fight, Hemanias taught me these things, emphasizing control above all else.
"Leonna, control is everything," The old shaman reminded me one day as I complained about his exercises. "Loose it for one moment, and your magic will only serve to work against you. You must shape your raw flame, and yet let it define itself. Let the power flow through you, but do not set it loose. You must learn to shape it as a potter shapes his vase, with a firm and gentle touch."
And then the real training began. I was hesitant to fight an old man, but he proved to be harder than rock. His swift martial style was one that had been perfected over the years, though he never shared how he had learned it. Our training bouts always ended with me covered in bruises and great humility, but I soon learned that there was a lesson even in this.
"You think I am harsh, Leonna?" Hemanias lectured me after a particularly harsh training bout, as I was crying over the pain he had inflicted. "Wait until you venture out into the world. There, people will not hesitate to kill you. You must build up your body to withstand your foes." Enduring pain was part of fighting itself, and Hemanias would not relent. Some days he would not even train with me, having me run great distances and perform other tests of endurance. When I finally came to him, breathless and panting, he would merely say that the pain would build me.
There was, however, still more difficulties than endurance and strength. The old shaman was insistent on good form, and before I could ever even think of fighting, he had me practice the proper shapes and positions a body must take to wield my staff effectively. He spoke much of balance and form, that a powerful strike meant nothing if it was not executed correctly. When I finally did get to use my staff, he constantly criticized the way I used it, always complaining that I did not have enough control. Once I began to use my fire abilities as well, Hemanias taught me how to control it so well that I could force it into distinct shapes. I found that I could cause this to happen with light as well, using both as effectively as possible in combat.
Still, of all the great things I was learning from the old man, nothing was better than hearing of his legends and tales. In the late hours of the night, when I could not sleep, Hemanias would come to me, and tell me great tales of the gods and adventures in lands far away. He spoke of great kings and queens, lowly peasants and sailors, and even the fabled creatures said to roam the land. My desire to see such things swelled within me as he spun his tales, but it was quickly forgotten in the morning. Why would I ever stray from the wonderful place where I was learning so much?
Perhaps it was the hunger of my infancy, or the starvation from wandering alone in the forest as a child, but food was always something that worried me. Unlike Hemanias, I was not content to wait for offerings from the village or live off of roots and insects. I was determined to provide real food, which meant I had to learn how to hunt. I had to grow plants other than herbs, things that could satisfy hunger.
To accomplish this, I first saved all of the seeds from the fruits and vegetables the villagers brought. These I planted in the rich soil near the shaman's home, and I tended carefully to them. To my great surprise and joy, these plants grew wonderfully, springing up from the ground faster than anything else I had seen. Tomatoes, squash, potatoes, grapes, carrots— everything flourished. Though Hemanias was not pleased with my impatience, he had to agree that the fresh produce did both of us good.
Meat was the other thing we needed. The villagers rarely brought such offerings to Hemanias, only when they were truly desperate for his help. To rectify this, I went out into the forest with a stick sharpened on one end to use as a hunting spear. I stalked animals, crouching in the bushes to hide, for I wished to kill them as a real hunter. If I were simply to walk into their presence, the animals would not flee as they should. They would gather around me like sheep to a shepherd, moving close enough for me to pet them. To kill them when they did that...I could not bring myself to do it. It was too cruel. If I was going to kill them, they would fear me.
My first few attempts were unsuccessful. When I landed a hit, the animal did not simply lay down and die. They would run through the forest, far too fast for me to catch them. I had to hit them in the right place, which I realized when I managed to kill my first deer. I managed to strike its neck, which bled profusely as it tore off into the forest. I followed the trail of red it left, and eventually, it slowed down enough for me to catch up. Hoping to end its pain as quickly as possible, I pounced on the creature once it fell, slitting its throat with the knife Hemanias had lent me.
More blood flooded out from the creature, and a wave of guilt hit me. I would have stared at it in horror had it not been for my hunger, which urged me to tear the creature apart. Knowing that the carcass was too big to carry back on my own, I took all the meat I could carry, then returned silently back to Hemanias's hut. There was no triumph upon my return, though the meat was savory that night. I understood that I had taken a life, but it had been out of necessity. I had always been told that that was why the goddesses made animals. They provided both beauty and substance for the earth, and had to be used with care.
Though I continued to hunt, I found the experience to be undesirable. There was always that thrill, that adrenaline rush upon hunting, and the animalistic triumph upon overcoming another creature. This made me feel less in control, more afraid of myself as I felt my instincts take over. To avoid this as much as possible, I took to fishing instead. Hemanias often complained about the amount of fish that we ate, but I did not mind. Fish meat was wonderfully tender and rich, though it was no less easier to attain than hunting. I gained them by spearfishing, which took a great deal of concentration and patience. Unlike hunting, I felt more peaceable when I did this.
Hemanias always smiled when I returned with my meat. He knew it meant a savory meal, for I took great pains to prepare them well, but it was not that that pleased him. He knew the hunting was strengthening me in ways training could not, though he always made sure to lecture me about control.
“You must be careful when you attempt to relieve your hunger, Leonna. I speak of all hungers that plague us, that make us do things we would not normally do. Meat will only satisfy for a time, and you must always be aware of the consequences. If you give in to such things, you will become the slave of your own desires. You, my huntress, must always remember that.”
My life went on for quite some time without incident. I constructed my own home by Hemanias, a small shelter which I called my own. We were rarely bothered by anyone, and when someone did come, it was only to ask for aid from the shaman. The villagers were unaware of my presence by Hemanias, for I always took great care to disappear whenever they arrived. It seemed as if nothing could go wrong, as if everything was finally as it should be.
It was late one afternoon when I found this was not true. I was tending to the herbs hanging from the rafters of my home, whose dry scents filled the air with spice and flavor. They were best preserved this way to last out the seasons until more grew. I was just hanging up a nice string of garlic when Hemanias came in, unannounced as usual.
“Leonna, there is something we must discuss.” His voice was strained and serious, which was most unlike him. He generally had an air of calm and ease about him, full of years of knowledge.
“Of course. What is it?” I turned from my herbs to face him, my surprise unhidden. What could have possibly gone wrong?
“Now, Leonna, you mustn't panic. This is a delicate matter.”
“I have debated a long time with myself on whether or not I should tell you. I have decided that it would be far too cruel to keep this from you any longer.”
“Tell me what?” A strange fear began to knot in my stomach, and I felt my smile fade. “What is it, Hemanias?”
“I think it best if you sit down.” Hemanias hobbled over to one corner of the dugout, beckoning me to sit beside him. I did so quickly, anxiousness beginning to fill me.
The shaman stared at the floor for a long time, completely and utterly silent. There was something bothering him greatly, something that brought him pain.
“Please, Hemanias, what is it?”
Hemanias heaved a sigh, then looked directly at me. “Your father is already in great pain.”
“M-my father? He came to you?”
“Yes, Leonna, he came to me this morning. You see, your mother has been sick for quite some time. She came to me a few weeks ago with a cold, and I gave her a good herbal remedy for it. Only a few days after her visit, however, your father visited me and told me that her condition had worsened. Again, I gave out a remedy, but again, her illness became worse. I visited them when you went off to hunt, for I did not desire to burden you with this. I thought you might have...well...what was there that any of us could do?” Hemanias stirred uneasily, resting his back against the wall of the dugout. “It became clear that your mother had something more severe than I had previously thought, but it was too late. Nothing I tried worked. In all of my life, Leonna, I have never been so perplexed by such a disease.”
My stomach became a solid rock as the old man spoke, a terrible nausea growing within me. My mother, untreatably sick? No! It was impossible! “Surely, there is something that can be done! She has not...you do not mean to say she is already...”
Hemanias shook his head, his gaze falling back to the floor. “No, she has not yet passed to the other side. That is why I have come to you. She is past all healing now, and there is little hope for her to last much longer. Her fevers are severe, and every day she grows weaker. I have already pronounced her delirious, for she can no longer recall even her own name. She is in pain and is fearful of it, and I am afraid her only relief is...do you understand?”
I nodded slowly, still refusing his words within myself. My mother, dying? Not her, not the soft and kind woman who had never done any harm to anyone! Why should she be the one to die?
“Your mother has little time left, Leonna. Before she goes, I thought...I thought it would be wrong to deny her daughter before she passes...”
“You want me to go to her?” I burst out incredulously.
“Leonna, this may be the last opportunity you have.” Hemanias regarded me gravely now, his deep green eyes urgent.
“What would you have me do? Waltz in and profess myself to be their demonic daughter? What makes you believe they even want to see me?”
Hemanias sighed again, this time more firm. “I do not believe I have said that anyone aside from myself desires it. What I am asking is if you would desire to go to her.”
“No,” I moaned, closing my eyes, “I turned from Bren a long time ago. I cannot...” The pain building in my chest was too much. Tears sprang up against my will, and I hid my face in my hands. “I would only frighten her. Let her pass in peace.”
“You mean you would not wish to see her even one last time?”
“Come.” Hemanias took my arm, leading me out of my home with his feeble strength. I followed only because I could not find it in myself to defy him. There was a large part of me that missed my mother, a part that fell into despair at the news of her illness, and I could not turn away from it. What harm could come from seeing my mother one last time?
I soon found out.
Hemanias did in fact lead me to the village, which had changed very little after the years that had passed between us. We had to scamper around the edge of Bren so we would not be seen, and we soon made it to my house. Hemanias explained to me that my father had gone to cut wood, so Mrs. Cock had taken it upon herself to care for my mother in his absence. To avoid a bad confrontation, Hemanias told me he would distract Mrs. Cock just long enough for me to have a moment alone with my mother. I agreed to this and he disappeared into what had once been my home. As soon as he led Mrs. Cock out into the garden, I rushed inside, my heart pounding. Could I really do this?
Inside, it was darker than I remembered. The floor was littered with dirt and cobwebs, the dishes on the table all dirty. There was no flame in the fireplace, and the light from the window had been blocked out by cloths hanging over them. My home from my childhood was cold and empty, the bright cleanliness long gone. The only sign of life was the bed in one corner of the room, where a dark figure lay.
I saw the figure in the bed twitch, and the covers rustled slightly. I approached it cautiously, my feet making no sound on the dusty floor. “Mama, it's me, Leonna.”
This time the figure groaned, sounding more like an animal than a woman. In a raspy voice, it began to answer me. “No, no, no, no...my darling is gone, gone. Gone to the forest, gone forever. They took her, the demon took her.”
“No, I am still here, Mama. See?” I knelt down by the bed and grasped my mother's bony hand, horrified by how cold it was.
Again, the covers rustled, and my mother's head turned towards me. Her face was a ghastly sight, thin and pale and ashen from disease. Her deep blue eyes were dull, her lips thin. She was almost beyond all recognition, and my eyes filled with tears at the sight. She was indeed nothing more than a corpse waiting for death to take her.
“Demon!” My mother shrieked with surprising volume, her hand curling into a fist beneath my hand. “Demon, give me my daughter back! You stole her! You stole her away!”
“No, I am still me, Mama, can you not see?” I leaned closer to her, my voice weak and contrite.
“GIVE HER BACK! GIVE HER BACK!” My mother started thrashing, a new fever starting within her. The blue of her eyes was opaque and wild, swerving this way and that as if there was an unseen enemy trying to grasp at her.
“Mama, please, you do not understand!” I cried out as loud as I dared, grasping my mother's hands and staring her straight in the face. “Leonna is still here. She will always be here for you.”
My mother started to sob uncontrollably, her hands clenching onto mine. “Leonna, Leonna, my sweet Leonna. Where is she?”
“Here, Mama, right here.” I stroked her hand softly, and she shuddered.
“Tell her...tell her I'm sorry...for letting them take her. Tell her I love her.”
I was so choked with my own tears that I could hardly speak. “She already knows, Mama.”
“Good, good...” My mother seemed soothed by my words, and she fell back onto her pillow, closing her eyes.
“She loves you, too.”
I do not believe I have ever cried so hard as I did that night. I felt horribly wretched for leaving her, for being able to do nothing to save her. None of Hemanias's words would soothe me, and for days I felt too weak to even leave my room. My mother's mad words echoed in my head, always speaking the word “demon.” In the end, that was what my mother had taken me for, what she believed I was. I had died in her mind from the very moment I sprouted wings.
“Leonna, you mustn't take her words so hard,” Hemanias would say. “She was not in a sane state of mind. She has always loved you.”
But his words fell unheeded. My mother had loved the girl without fire, the girl whom she deemed as lovely. Once my true nature was realized, I became a true demon, the demon that had stolen the away the girl she had loved. My only relief came in doing busy work, so I kept myself devoted to Hemanias's training. I tended after my garden and went hunting, admiring the sun as it rose and set over the valley. Sometimes I would even come across the villagers wandering about the forest, and I would hide myself and watch them engage in their activities. Some of them were men speaking business, others lovers who came to seek an undisturbed sanctuary. I listened to their words with an empty heart, wishing only that I had been born like them. I would have even settled for a cockroach, who scuttles about the earth knowing no pain and sorrow. They adapt well to the world around them, unaware of its sorrows and strife. It can crawl into a hole unseen and undisturbed, its insignificant life ending at the careless heel of a boot.
My life was never meant to be that simple.
Life with Hemanias did indeed have some drawbacks. Most everything I learned I learned from him, but this knowledge came at a cost. As a shaman, Hemanias used strange magics to communicate with spirits. He would draw strange circles in the dust or chant ancient spells, all of which brought a strange presence around him. I do not know the finer points of spirit summoning, but watching Hemanias was frightening. Sometimes his eyes would roll back into his head, or he would go into a strange sort of trance, where he was no longer in tune with the world around him. I could feel a fluctuation of energy in the air when he did this, as if he were opening some sort of portal from which magic flowed. Even if I was not in the same room, I could feel it raising the hair at the back of my neck.
Hemanias claimed that spirits were everywhere; we just could not see them. We could feel them and their energy, which could cause strange sensations of hot and cold, and even affect the environment around us. I asked him if this was the power that fed the magic trees, but he said it was not so. There was a greater magic at work in the land itself, one that even he did not understand.
The advantages to being able to summon spirits are many. One can speak to them as they would a living person, but they can extend their abilities even beyond that. Hemanias could bring them into his body, combining his power with theirs. It could grant him impossible strength, even healing abilities. He said that there were also elemental spirits, which were part of the earth itself. This could grant control over the elements of the earth without the spirit summoner having any experience in magic at all. They could also serve to sharpen the senses and spy on enemies, all with just one command.
But there are also drawbacks. Serious drawbacks. Spirits do not always appreciate being forced to be used as one's power source. They can gain power over the spirit summoner's mind, driving them to insanity or possessing their bodies. The powers of a spirit can also drive a human body to exhaustion, sometimes killing them if they exert too much strength.
I cannot describe how strange it is to see a person with a spirit inside of them. They look exactly the same as before, their body no different in any way. Their voice is the same, their expressions are no different; almost nothing has changed. And yet everything has. One can see it in their eyes, the presence of something other than themselves. One can see it in the way they walk, which is not the same gait as before. Their presence has entirely changed, become something more than human. Sometimes I feared that Hemanias may never be the same person again.
Hemanias was by no means immune to the effects of spirit summoning. Whenever he used a spirit's power to heal an injured person, or drew from their strength in order to train me, he would become terribly weak. I begged him not to use such magic, but he refused. When he went into convulsions, I held him still as his limbs flailed in the air. When he came down with terrible fevers, I used herbs to calm him and put him to bed. He would often do a lot of murmuring when this happened, sometimes shouting strange things as his eyes glazed over. Sometimes he would argue with himself, and others he would try to attack me. He often moaned about how he could not tell what was real and what was not, or if he was doing things with his own will. He relied on me to calm and assure him, to bring him back into a sane state of mind. Such fits were always disturbing, but I stayed with him nonetheless. As an old man, he needed great care, though he always denied it.
“Leonna, I lived long before you came here, and I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself,” He would mutter as I brought him a calming cup of herbal tea. When he saw my anxious glances, he sighed and rolled his eyes, knowing he could do nothing to calm my worries. Still, he accepted and appreciated my aid, and he eventually stopped grumbling when I insisted on giving him medicine or helping him walk to the village. It was clear he was used to being alone and independent, but he was slowly coming to realize that he could not do all he had in his youth.
There are many people that complain about their names. Many wish they had something more original or exciting, a name of great beauty or charm. They sometimes do not share the same nostalgia of their parents who picked out such a thing, but they live with it nonetheless. I am one of these people.
My problem with my name, however, has nothing to do with originality or beauty. One will find few people named Leonna, the feminine version of Leo, the lion in the sky. It is a good name, too, for what is more powerful and respectable than the lion?
Leo, the formation of royal stars in the sky has a story of his own. In ancient legends, he was the Nemean lion killed by the Grecian hero, Hercules. According to the story, the great beast descended from the moon in the form of a flaming meteor. He was a powerful creature of destruction, who killed all of the villagers he came across. His skin, impenetrable to all kinds of rock and metal, protected him from the wrath of man, until of course, Hercules came. Unable to pierce the beast with his sword, the great hero strangled Leo to death, and the lion ascended into the heavens to commemorate the great battle.
Leo’s position in the sky closely relates him to the flaming sun. The shining orb passes through it on its journey through the sky, and at night, the bright stars dominate the darkness. It is also said that Leo chases Taurus across the vast plain of the sky, attempting to hunt down the very symbol of fertility. Even with this desire for carnage, Leo is known to herald the spring and warm seasons, bringing with him the glory and destruction of the sun.
Is it any wonder I was named after him?
And that is why I do not like my name, Leonna Fallenstar. It almost sounds graceful, enchanting. It is a symbol of my past, of my powers as a demon. I was named this because that was how the villagers, even my parents, saw me: I was a powerful beast that had fallen from the sky, a star that had burned their forest to the ground. My name was uttered with respect, with fear. Those who heard it were reminded of their lost ones, of their burning homes, and the rich land that had granted them their lives back. This was not the name of a person; it was the name of an icon.
I asked him many times, but Hemanias would never tell me why he had chosen to take me in, why he had decided to share so much of his hard earned wisdom with me. Every time I inquired, Hemanias would merely laugh and shake his head. He was the only person in my world that accepted me for what I was, and in return, I gave him my complete trust. I spent many good years learning from Hemanias, taking in everything he had to say. Through him I began to bloom, to finally see a purpose in life. I began to care about what I looked like, the kinds of things I said, if I was doing all of the right things. I was finally starting to become a whole person, but unfortunately, it wasn't meant to last.
One day while I was training alone in the forest, I began to sense an ominous presence. A strange silence clung to the forest, wrapping itself around the dark trees and green ferns. Despite the disturbing quiet, I continued to work, until Hemanias came running to me. He was in a panic, his thin, white hair sprawled in all directions on his head.
Hemanias stopped in front of me, breathing hard. "Leonna, what are you doing here? The village needs you!"
Immediately, memories from my life in the village came back. I remembered how my parents had shunned me like everyone else, how I had been treated like an outcast. I did not want to return, I did not even know if I would be accepted in to the village, but something in Hemanias' voice moved me into action. I had never seen him so afraid, and I knew that cruel or not, he loved the people of the village. Despite the pain in my heart, I knew I had to protect them. Without a word, I ran from Hemanias to enter the village I had fled from fourteen years ago.
I was met with a hideous sight. The wooden houses of the villagers had been carelessly torn apart, as if some giant creature had trampled through them. There were exsanguinated corpses of men, women and children, the horror of their deaths still twisted on their faces. In the distance, I could hear people screaming and the blood curdling screeches of a monster. With no hesitation, knowing that lives were at stake, I ran to the source of the noise.
As the screams became louder, I grew more impatient. I forced my wings to come out, using all of the control I had learned from Hemanias. It took no time at all to fly to the screams, and I found myself hovering above a small grove. Beneath me was a large group of the villagers, many of them holding those that had been wounded. Whoever could still stand on two feet was pointing makeshift weapons at the monsters that encircled them—giant spiders.
There were at least thirteen spiders surrounding the villagers, each standing more than ten feet tall. Their fangs glistened with their poison saliva, and their eyes, dozens of blood red orbs, were fixated on their victims. As I watched the villager's distraught faces, the deepest rage I had ever known coursed into my blood. These were innocent people, people who despite their fear of me had tolerated me, and now these creatures were going to kill them, giving no thought to the lives lost.
With a cry of rage, I threw out all of my fury at once, sending out a stream of white hot liquid flame into the nearest spider. It did not just leap into flames, it began to melt. The villagers screamed at the sight, and the other spiders scattered back into the forest. Some nearby trees even caught on fire, their flames reaching like pointed claws up into the sky. To my horror, I saw that my attack had severely burned many of the people I had tried to save, and immediately, I extinguished the flame, willing it to stop.
What followed was an eerie silence. I fell to the ground, exhausted by the huge amount of energy I had consumed. There was no doubt as to who had caused such a flame, but no one came to attack me. Instead, I heard many cry out in pain and agony, torn by the loss of their loved ones or injured by a serious wound. I could only stare at them, wracked with guilt that I had been a cause for that pain. I had allowed my emotion to hurt each and every one of them, even when I was trying to save them! I truly was a monster...
It was not long before Hemanias came running to the scene. Immediately, he began using his magic to heal wounds and calm everyone else. I wished so badly that I could help my village the way he could, but I knew that was impossible. The pain of the past hit me like a wave, echoing in my head, demon eyes, demon eyes, demon eyes! You have the eyes of a demon!
Hemanias soon found me curled up in a ball on the ground. He softly touched my shoulder, already understanding the guilt filling every space inside of me. "Leonna, you saved them. Do not do th—"
I turned away from him, staring at the blackened skin of the survivors. "Saved? Saving others...is...is what good people do! Look at them...just look...those wounds...only a...a monster could do that."
"Leonna, listen to me, do not go back—"
A shout rose out of the large crowd of people, full of blatant hatred. "Hemanias! Why are you coddling that demon!"
Hemanias half turned, still holding my arm. "Fool! Are you so blind that you cannot see your rescuer?"
Another voice rang out, a shrill woman's. "We're lucky we weren't burned to the ground! She probably missed!"
"Now listen, all of you! It was me that asked her to save you! You should have seen how she ran to you, even after all that has happened!"
"She's blinded you, Hemanias!"
"Get her out! Get her out or you'll both go!"
"If you are so closed minded then perhaps it is time I—"
"Do not." I grasped Hemanias' bony hand, getting his full attention. "They need you, Hemanias...I...I was not meant to...to be here..." So many emotions were pulsing through me, only adding to my fatigue.
Hemanias gazed back at me sadly, unwilling to let me say the words he knew I would. "Leonna, everyone loses control at times. Do not blame this on-"
"I do not," I whispered, smiling as best as I could. It was a lie, but I was ready to do anything to protect the old man that had been so kind to me. "They need you...but I...I can take care...of myself...I need to find...find on my own what this life...what this life means...I will go..."
"Leonna..." Hemanias looked at me for a moment, then took his hand from my shoulder. "I cannot stop you, can I?"
I smiled. "No, you cannot."
And so it was that I left Bren in search of my own kind, to see if I could truly find where I belonged.