The forest was moving. Eleni could feel it.
She crouched down and surveyed the valley, raising her head to sniff the air. Snow was coming soon; the crisp air smelled clean and cold. It was early this year. She scanned the landscape, her eyes sweeping over the impenetrable thickness of the wood, the trees thinning gradually as they approached the dark, sleeping village. Eleni continued, over the iron wall that surrounded the town, along the tall grasses of the meadow. She froze as she saw the grasses twitch, far back, where the forest thickened.
Eleni watched as a black she-wolf emerged, dark as a shadow, and looked up at her perched on the side of the hill. The wolf's eyes glinted, gold in the darkness. They watched each other for a long moment, then the wolf suddenly broke into a run, heading straight for her. She watched as the animal bounded up the slope, its powerful muscles easily closing the distance, then stopped just short of Eleni. Her muzzle shone with wetness and she smelled of blood.
“What took you so long?” said Eleni, her voice hoarse. She was not used to speaking aloud. The wolf snorted, almost derisively, then turned and stood next to her, fur brushing her shoulder, joining her in looking out over the forest. The usual night sounds emerged from the deep wood: a howl in the distance, the chittering of a rodent, the rustling of leaves. Eleni heard a twig snap and the wolf's ears twitched. A low growl rumbled in the wolf's chest. Eleni looked toward the sound. It was out-of-place, as though a two-legs stepped on it and then froze. Eleni could see at night almost as well as the wolf, but it was the feeling that told her something was very wrong.
Eleni moved along the ridge, keeping her body close to the ground. She could feel eyes on her, following her. It was in the wood, close to the village. Not an animal, but something dark and hungry. Eleni nodded at the wolf and the animal instantly turned and slinked off in the opposite direction. Eleni watched her circle around the ridge and head down the slope. The wolf moved slowly and steadily, and could easily be mistaken for a shadow.
Knowing she had been seen, Eleni stood up, pushing her tangled hair away from her face. Small tendrils of steam rose off her body as she walked down the incline, towards the area where she felt the creature. She heard another twig crack, then a scurrying in the brush. Eleni walked quickly and just inside the first stand of trees, saw movement on the ground. She held out her arm and a bright illuminating flame rose from the palm of her hand. Eleni saw it and curled her lip in disgust.
“Drekavac,” Eleni said under her breath. The creature's skin was mottled pink and hung loose at the joints. It was completely void of hair and its face was round and soft-looking. The eyes glowed green and Eleni sighed as she saw it open its dripping mouth, knowing what was to come. The scream echoed against the mountainsides, a high-pitched shriek that made even Eleni flinch. It went on for what seemed like an eternity until Eleni raised her hand, forming the fire into a ball.
The drekavac's eyes bulged with fear. It scuttled along the forest floor on long, spider-like legs covered in fleshy skin, making hissing noises as it went. A growl issued from the other side of the creature and it shrank back from the wolf, moving toward Eleni again. In its panic it stumbled, falling over its own legs.
“There are no babies here,” said Eleni. “There's nothing for you to eat. Go back where you came from.”
The drekavac hissed at her again, and the wolf bared her teeth, her growl growing deeper and more menacing. The creature's eyes rolled around looking for a way past Eleni, into the village beyond. It opened its mouth and shrieked again and, righting itself, clambered toward Eleni, great pincers emerging from its jowls. Eleni pushed the flame forward and kept pushing, creating a bright orange jet that surrounded the monster, blackening its mottled pink skin. The drekavac thrashed on the ground, the fire that was consuming it scorching the fallen leaves. The screaming ceased abruptly as the beast collapsed, its bones dry sticks, its charred flesh shrinking into embers.
Eleni approached the smoking corpse. With her bare foot she kicked wet leaves and earth onto the creature, making the sparks hiss as they touched the moisture. She gagged on the stench. Dark creatures always smelled like defecation and rot when they died, but it was worse when they burned. Satisfied that the flames would not spread to the trees, Eleni turned to the wolf.
“Now we hunt,” she said. The wolf leaned against her affectionately, panting happily. Eleni ran her fingers through her thick, coarse fur. The two, as if sharing the same thought, at once began to walk deeper into the forest, Eleni's gait just as wild and fluid as the wolf at her side.
They spotted the boar shortly after the moon had arced over the trees above them. Eleni had several ermine and a rabbit laced together over her shoulder. Another rabbit had been given to the wolf. The boar was rutting with its long tusks at the roots of a tree by the creek. The tusks were as long as the squat creature's body. It looked ungainly, but Eleni knew it could be at her in moments with its tusks in her belly.
The wolf growled and the pig looked up, its small eyes searching. Eleni hunched down, watching through a stand of bushes. She didn't care for the taste of pig, but no matter. It wasn't for her. She would eat the ermine. She crept around the bushes, not wishing to startle the animal. If he startled, she would have to chase it. And it was too close to dawn for that.
The wolf was quiet now and simply trailed behind Eleni, mist exhaling from her snout like clouds of smoke. The breeze blew Eleni's hair behind her. The boar couldn't smell them, but she could smell it. Wild and earthy mingled with the pungent smell of scavenger shit. She wrinkled her nose. She couldn't understand why anyone could stand the meat of such a creature, but the villagers loved it. They celebrated whenever Eleni brought one home. She could hear their reveling from her little metal room.
She set her bundle down under the bushes and crawled along on her hands and knees. She could hit the animal from this distance, but she might set the close-growing trees afire, and she couldn't risk that. So little of the forest had remained after the fire.
She moved smoothly through the underbrush, the earth cool under her calloused hands and knees. The boar was digging at something, but Eleni couldn't tell what. She stopped behind a tree, looking back around to see the wolf was standing guard at her bundle. That was good. She would rather lose the boar than lose her own dinner. And the wolf's belly was closer to the ground, making her an easier target for a sharp tusk.
Eleni slowly moved to peer around the vast trunk. The boar was digging furiously now. Eleni frowned. A blue glow was illuminating the pig's dirt-encrusted snout. It made a grunting noise every time it lunged at the dirt. Eleni edged smoothly toward the animal, her body now exposed as she moved in for the kill. She made a fist, getting ready to strike. She could feel the fire inside her arm, moving toward her hand, ready to be released. She ached to let it go, but she had to be closer.
Suddenly, the boar stopped digging. It raised its snout and sniffed the air. Then it stuck its face back into the hole. There was a moment where its body seemed to tense, as if startled. Then it began to squeal, its cries muted by the dirt. Its legs scrabbled, kicking up dirt. It was stuck in its own hole. Eleni didn't miss a beat. She let her legs propel her forward, then she opened her hand and released the fire. It surged forward, both painful and freeing at the same time, a feeling Eleni knew all so well. It felt as if she were breathing again after holding her breath for a very long time. She let the flame flow, thinning its stream gradually, until the boar wasn't screaming or scrabbling any longer. Its body twitched, then fell away from its head, the neck already cauterized by the fire, the bones and singed meat at the wound smoking and crackling.
Eleni relaxed and went over to examine her prey. Moving past the carcass, she squatted to examine the head still lodged in the ground. The animal had carved out a huge hole , encompassing well past the sides of its head. Maybe its tusks had become stuck on a rock or root. She grabbed the big head by its ears and tugged hard. The head came out quite easily, knocking her off balance and making her fall back into a sitting position, the head in her lap. Then she saw the glow again, a faint blue that intensified as she looked at it, growing brighter and brighter, until she had to shield her eyes. The light rose up out of the hole, radiating as bright as a sun, its center a blinding point of white that flickered like lightning in the mountains. Eleni imagined a strange bird made of light from the way it was hovering in the air, the edges of light seeming to shift like the slow fluttering of wings. It made her eyes ache, but she couldn't look away.
It hovered above the hole for a moment, almost seeming to appraise her. Then it began to buzz and, so fast that all she saw was a bright blue blur, it shot through the air like an arrow and hit her square in the chest where she sat. Eleni couldn't move. There was a wiggling sensation right over her heart, as if it were burrowing into her. She could hear the wolf barking and snarling madly around her. She couldn't breathe. Then the burrowing stopped and slowly, steadily, a new and strange sensation spread out from her heart. She realized vaguely that this must be the feeling of cold. It was unlike anything she had felt before. She could feel the ice spread through her arms, belly, legs, and then to her fingers and toes. She could hear her teeth chattering.
She knew suddenly that this was dying. She was being killed by the creature inside her. These were her last moments. She forced her head slowly to the side to look at the wolf. The skin of her neck crackled as she turned, like a crust of ice on a snowbank. There was no sense to this. Dark creatures weren't made of light. She looked her wolf in the eyes. She wasn't barking or snarling any longer, but simply staring into Eleni, her golden eyes providing a spark. The wolf's unblinking eyes bored into her, and she knew then that she had to fight. Fight or die. And she knew how.
Eleni forced her fingers closed one at a time with creaking, crackling noises. She gasped at the pain and stiffness. And as she gasped, she could suddenly feel air filling her lungs again. This gave her strength, and she felt her hand clench into a fist. She narrowed her eyes, staring at the hand, the knuckles turning blue. She could see veins of ice spreading over her skin like a blue armor. She forced another breath into her lungs and when she blew out this time it was not steam or vapor, but an acrid, bitter smoke.
Eleni watched the ice recede from her wrist and up her arm. Slowly, her knuckles turned back to their normal color. Gradually, excruciatingly, she brought the fist toward her body. She felt the agonizing pain of the cold tickling every nerve in her body. She breathed deeply again and felt the cold dissipating from her toes up to her knees. She was fighting it, , and knew in that instant that she would win.
With a groan she finally brought her fist to her chest. She exhaled again, the flames warming her lips. She felt the pressure in her fist building, growing more uncomfortable, needing to release. She opened her hand and put her palm to her bare chest, just over her heart.
She let go.
She felt the fire release itself through her hand and back into her body. She felt a twitch in her chest as the familiar warmth wrapped around her heart. Eleni pushed the fire deeper and groaned as something clenched inside her, grasping and clawing at her insides. The sensation seemed to tremble, and then she felt the cold inside her lessen. The warmth spread to her chest, then her belly, then her arms and legs. The frost melted from her skin, no longer veined with blue. Her teeth still chattered, but she was alive. She removed her hand from her chest, her arm feeling as if the bones had turned to water. She felt a bubbling where her hand had been and looked down to see a blue watery mist coming out of her chest. It hovered without form in front of her for a moment. Then it disappeared with the wind.
Eleni sank back onto her elbows, breathing hard. She didn't understand what had just happened The blue light had been unlike any dark creature she had ever seen. And no creature in the forest had ever gotten the better of her, not even as a child. The wolf approached her and began lapping up the melted frost on her arm. She smelled burnt meat and hair, and saw the boar's head still in her lap, now charred to a crisp. She shoved it away and it rolled along the ground.
“You could have warned me,” said Eleni to the wolf. She was answered by a doleful look. She stood up. She was feeling shaky, but not as weak as she had felt a moment ago. Her teeth still chattered, but it wasn't the violent, desperate chattering of being slowly frozen from the inside out. Eleni shuddered, but not from the cold. She never wanted to feel that way again.
She walked over to the pig carcass and hefted it up. She nearly fell, but steadied herself. Without its head it wasn't very heavy. And she had always been strong, especially after starting her nightly activities. Walking slowly over to the bushes, she began to lower herself down to pick up the bundle of smaller prey, but the wolf slid under her and grasped the bundle lightly in her jaw. Eleni sighed with relief. She didn't know if she'd be able to stand back up with the weight of the pig on her shoulder. The wolf started moving back toward the village. It would be dawn soon.
As they approached the village she felt the prickle of eyes upon her. The wolf growled as they spotted an oddly-shaped silhouette in the clearing. At first Eleni thought it was another creature from the forest, but then it moved and she realized it was a person leading a horse. Krasna's last horse had died ten winters ago, so it was not one from the village. He had seen her, though, whoever he was; she felt it. She gauged the distance to the gate. She could make it past the figure quickly if she dropped the boar. She still felt too weak to attempt to run with the weight on her shoulder. She thought about going back into the forest, but one look at the sky told her that was not a choice. It wasn't about her. If she wasn't back by dawn... She didn't want to think about what could happen.
Eleni made a fist and felt the familiar pressure. She could still defend herself. Her power was weaker than usual, but it was still there. The wolf was standing, still as a statue, at her side, staring at the figure coming across the clearing.
“You are quiet,” Eleni said to the wolf. The wolf looked at her, the bundle still in her mouth, the golden eyes calm. The figure approached them. Eleni could smell wind and rain and horse sweat, could hear the quiet padding of hooves on the soft grass. The man was big. Bigger than Cosmin, the biggest man in the village. She put her hand out in front of her when he approached.
He had a bushy beard and wore a strange, thick cloth around his waist, his leather boots coming up to his knees. He was thick and strong by the way he walked, and under the brim of a woolen hat Eleni could see his eyes sparkling. He smiled.
“That's something you don't see every day,” he said. He had an accent Eleni didn't recognize. It wasn't from the south, where Eleni's mother was from. And it was very different from the villagers' drawl, more clipped and guttural. Eleni glared at him suspiciously. The man looked down at the wolf, who was being eerily quiet. He looked back to Eleni. “Are you all right?”
“I'm fine,” said Eleni. Her teeth chattered and she cursed herself inwardly. “Are you a Reiver?”
“Do I look like a Reiver?” said the man.
“I don't know,” said Eleni. “I've never seen one.”
“Then how do you know they exist?” said the man. His horse snorted and he let go of the rope. The horse took a few steps nearby and began to graze on the grass.
“Because Reivers stole our sheep,” said Eleni. It felt odd to be talking to another person. The only other person that said more than a few words to her was Alin.
“Your sheep?” said the man. “Your family's?”
“They belong to my village,” she said.
The man took off his hat. His hair was dark and mussed. “I'm not a Reiver,” he said. “I was looking for something, but I lost it.” He frowned. “Where are your clothes?”
Eleni looked down at herself. The weight of the boar's carcass on her shoulder was making her ache. She could feel the morning coming. Any second now the light would be coming over the mountain. “I have to go,” she said. She started edging around him.
“Wait,” he said. “I won't hurt you. Here,” he said. He took off his thick, woven outer coat. He took a step toward her. She made a fist and a ball of flame appeared in her hand when she opened it. The man stopped. His eyes shone in the morning light. He looked from Eleni's hand to her face.
“You can't hurt me,” said Eleni. “Men have tried before.”
The man's voice was quiet when he spoke. “I don't want to hurt you. I just want to give you my coat. You're shivering.”
“I'm not cold,” she said defensively. “There was something in the forest. It got inside me.”
The man raised his eyebrows. “Was it blue?”
“Yes,” said Eleni.
He stared at her. He rubbed his beard with his knuckles. “No one has ever survived a strago,” he said. “It took me out of my way. I've been tracking it for several days now. How did you get it out?”
“I didn't,” said Eleni, still edging away. “I burned it. It died.”
“While it was inside of you?” said the man. “You can do that?”
“I can do many things,” said Eleni. “Right now I'm leaving.”
“I could come with you,” said the man.
“No, ” said Eleni, stopping and staring at him. “You cannot come. Don't follow me. They will hurt her if I bring you back. They might hurt you, too. Please stay away. I'll burn you if I have to.”
The man raised his hands and took a step back. “All right. I don't want to get you into trouble. But please. Take the coat.” He held it out to her.
“Why?” said Eleni.
“Because it will give you comfort,” said the man, as if baffled by the question. “When you're cold, you bundle up.”
“I've never been cold before,” said Eleni. “I don't like it.” She closed her fist and willed the fire back inside her body. She took the garment he held out to her. It was scratchy and still warm from his body.
“Where are your clothes?” he said. “Do they burn off?”
“No,” said Eleni. “They take them.”
“In your village?” said the man. “That seems unkind.”
Eleni didn't say anything. She felt a movement at her side and the wolf was nudging her hand with the prey from the night. Eleni took it and the wolf bounded away, towards the woods.
“You trained it well,” said the man.
“She is not trained,” said Eleni. “She usually tries to rip the throats out of anything that moves. I don't know why she likes you.” A bell clanged behind the high wall of the village. “I have to go. Please, don't let them see you.”
“They call me Fin,” he called after her as she hurried toward the village. She didn't look back as she rushed home, her back and legs aching, and her chest sore and tender where the strago had been. She made it to the iron wall just as the bell stopped clanging. She dropped the boar thankfully on the ground outside the gate. An old man's head peeked over.
“You're late,” he said.
“I brought a boar,” Eleni said.
“You'd better get inside before he notices,” said Sabin. “You know how mad he gets when you're late.”
Eleni glowered at him, but walked briskly around the wall, her long legs feeling light without the weight of the pig, until she came to an opening. She walked into her iron box, the smell of metal heavy in the tiny, square space, and dropped heavily onto her straw cot. The metal squealed as someone began to lower the outer hatch. Eleni had one final glimpse out towards the forest and saw the outline of a man leading a horse away, towards the rising sun. She thought she saw him stop and turn to look towards her just as the hatch clanged shut and she was left in darkness.
Fin dismounted his horse, Epona, and handed the reins to a boy who ran up when he arrived. Fin forgot what his name was, but the boy beamed up at him, eager for any chore he could get. Fin ruffled his hair and left him to the task, making a beeline for the dwelling at the center of the camp.
“Fin!” said a high voice, just as a small girl latched herself onto his leg. “You came back!”
Fin lifted her up and smiled at her. She was so thin she barely weighed anything. He frowned for a moment as he saw the malnourishment in the bruises under her eyes and the way the skin stretched on a face far too young to have any right to know of such things. He remembered himself and smiled again.
“I could never leave you, Rika,” he said, making her beam. He set her gently on the ground. They must have gone through their stores of dried mutton. “Here, have the rest of this,” he said, handing her a pouch from his hip. He crouched down. “Don't tell your father, now,” he said, putting a finger to his lips. “He'll try to give that to your brother. That's for you, you hear?”
The tiny wisp of a girl nodded excitedly and ran off with the pouch of stale bread and hard cheese. He saw her duck behind a large tree at the edge of the encampment. She needed it far more than he did. He saw Elek sitting on a log stoking a fire. Elek locked eyes with him and smiled, his eyes cold and almost daring Fin to act.
It was their way. The men were the kings of their castles, or at least their tents, and the women took care of the men. The children were an afterthought. Fin thought of his own mother, her memory still raw. If anyone ever denied her food, they would have had to answer to him. If he had a small crumb of food, he would gladly give it to her, or to any of his sisters; even his brother. He didn't understand the ways of these people. But it was not his place to interfere. Magda depended on them, for whatever reason.
“Tell me,” she said, rising with difficulty when he entered her tent. She had aged more in the last twenty years than the entire time he had known her. She had always looked old, but lately she had started to look hunched and frail. Her hair still hung in a braid down her back, though the plait grew thinner every time he saw her. Parts of her scalp showed through her hair. Fin wondered how long she could last without her sisters.
“All dead,” said Fin. He found it hard to say the words without a tremor in his voice. He took Magda's elbow and helped her to sit back down on the cot. The women had raised it up with flat rocks so Magda wouldn't struggle to get up and down. Fin sat next to her and Magda laid a cool hand on his arm.
“I'm sorry,” she said.
He made himself smile, though it was almost painful. “It's not important right now,” he said. He took her cold, thin hand in his.
“I may be old, but I'm not blind, Alaunus,” she said, blinking at him with her good eye. “Not completely anyway. Not yet. There is pain in you. They were your kin. You need time to mourn.”
“I need time to find out what is happening,” said Fin, the smile gone from his lips. He felt a hollow in his chest, a numbness that he had only felt with grief. “Can you see anything?”
Magda let go of his hand and clasped her own together. “My Sight is fading,” she said. “I need to find my sisters. I fear I am dying. Without them, I am nothing. You heard nothing of Danai in the islands? Of Anja?”
“Nothing,” said Fin. “But there is something else.”
“Good news, I hope,” said Magda. “I cannot bear more bad news. I feel my heart is breaking.”
“I cannot be sure,” said Fin, “but I think I found Zaric.”
Magda's good eye grew wide, the cloudy green clearing and blazing at him like a brilliant emerald. “In the islands?” she said, grasping his arm again. “Where?”
Fin smiled, and this time it didn't hurt him to do so. It felt good to deliver good news, however unsure it was. He felt the hollow in his chest pain him a little less, the burden not quite so heavy. “Nowhere near as far,” he said.
Magda frowned. “Speak, boy. Tell me your news.”
“Just on the other side of these woods,” said Fin. “Not more than a day's walk from here.”
Magda stared at him in disbelief. “Are you sure?”
Fin shook his head. “No. But it's something.”
“Who is he?”
“Not a he,” said Fin. “A she. A girl. Or, rather, a young woman. I met her as she was returning to her village. It was the first village I have seen in these woods since the fire. Completely surrounded with an iron fence.”
Magda snorted. “As if that will do them good.”
“I do not think they even realize why they are safe. If I am right, it isn't the iron that the dark creatures fear. It's the girl.”
“What was she like?” said Magda. “Did she look like him?”
Fin shook his head. “No. Not a bit. She's a small thing, with long hair as red as the fire she wields.”
“You sound smitten,” said Magda with a knowing eye. “Be careful, my dear.”
“Not smitten,” said Fin. “She intrigues me. She was like a wild thing. She traveled with a wolf, a big black one. It must have stood nearly to her shoulder. It seemed to obey her, or at least be comfortable with her. And she killed a strago.”
“Oh?” said Magda, surprised.
“After it was inside her chest,” said Fin, still impressed.
“It must be him,” said Magda. “It must be. We have found him after all this time. You must tell her to come. Does she know what she is?”
“I think she knows very little of anything,” said Fin. “She was afraid I would come to her village. And I don't think she would have hesitated in stopping me.”
“A woman that knows her own power,” said Magda. “That bodes well. It means she's not afraid of herself. It's so very common, you know. With the new ones.”
“Aye, I know,” said Fin. He rubbed his beard.
“Oh, I forgot,” Magda laughed. “I forget you're not one of the old ones, Alaunus.”
“Magda, the village. There's something else. Something wrong about the village.”
“What is it?”
“She didn't want me helping her,” he said. “She was carrying a pig on her shoulder, and she looked about to fall over. After a strago she's lucky she was still breathing, and the damn girl was carrying a boar. It was as if she was afraid someone from the village would see me. She said I'd get someone killed if I followed her. And then they locked her up in a great iron box. I don't understand what is happening. I feel I should return. To try to help her. To bring her back.”
“That would no doubt be the wisest thing to do,” said Magda. “If she is who you think she is, and things are as bad as you say, she will be a target. If word spreads of her existence, alone in the forest, it's like she is just baiting them.”
“I'll leave Epona here. A horse would just draw attention. I'll sleep and rest for a day before I go. It's been a long journey. And I've had many hard truths since I saw you last.”
“I know, dear boy,” said Magda. “You rest now. We have lost loved ones, but it seems we may gain an ally.”
“I hope you're right,” said Fin. He stood up, stretching. He was sore and weary from his travels. He walked toward the tent Magda always insisted they keep for him. He lay down on the thin, scratchy cot. As he drifted off to sleep he thought of the sky of fire from that day. They couldn't afford to be wrong. Without the girl, they were already dead.
Eleni woke when the hatch squealed open and flooded the box with light. Someone stepped in and shut the door behind them. Eleni blinked and rubbed her eyes. A lantern hovered in midair. It took a moment before her eyes adjusted to see the man holding it.
“I brought you some food,” said Alin, “but I see you've already eaten.” He nudged the pile of rodent fur with his boot and took a few limping steps toward her. He lowered himself stiffly to the ground next to Eleni and sat, placing the lantern next to him.
“The snows are coming,” she said, sitting up. “You always get sore when the weather changes.”
“That would explain it,” said Alin. “Are you well?”
“How is my mother?” she said, ignoring his question.
Alin looked at his hands. “She is well,” he said.
“Does she ask about me?”
“Every day,” said Alin sadly. “She asks after you every day.”
“I want to see her,” said Eleni. “Please, Alin. I need to see my mother.”
Alin looked at her. “You know I cannot help you do that, child. I would if I could. But Cosmin would kill my family.”
“I could kill him,” said Eleni. “If I wanted to, I could kill him and you wouldn't have to be afraid.”
“You know it is not just Cosmin,” said Alin. “Who is to say his friends would not kill your mother, my daughter, my son before you ever got to them? Best to just comply.”
“I grow tired of complying,” said Eleni. “I grow tired of this life. I sleep in an iron box. I am a prisoner, a slave. They say I am dangerous and it's true. I am more dangerous than they know. How long will it be before I stop hunting for them? How long will it be before I walk into that village and burn it to the ground?”
“Eleni, you must not say such things. Your mother would be in grave danger if you did this.” Alin looked away as he spoke.
“You never look at me when I ask about my mother,” said Eleni. “What do you know?” Eleni could smell his bitter sweat, she could feel him fidgeting with his hands. He said nothing. He opened his mouth and closed it again. He did not look at her. “You were a friend to my mother,” said Eleni. “Once. You were a friend to me as well. But now I think you are just like the rest of them. You speak lies and half-truths. I do not think you came here to bring me food. You know I hate swine. I think you came here to spy for Cosmin.”
Alin didn't respond. Just shook his head.
“If you want something to tell Cosmin, tell him this: I can leave any time I want to,” said Eleni. Alin looked quickly at her.
“How can that be?” he said. These walls are as thick as my hand is long. No one could escape.”
Eleni looked at him defiantly. Without unlocking her pale eyes from his, she placed her hand on the cool metal of the wall. Alin's mouth dropped open as he watched. The metal under Eleni's hand grew quickly red-hot. Within moments it began to sink into the softly melting iron. Wisps of smoke rose from her hand. She pulled it away with a wet slurping sound. The red heat of the wall quickly cooled, leaving the imprint of her hand. Eleni held her palm out to him so the light from the lantern shone on her skin.
“Not a mark,” breathed Alin. “Why do you stay? Why do you not flee?”
Eleni's voice was cold when she spoke. “I want my mother,” she said. “And I want her alive.”
Alin looked at her face for a long moment. “What will you do?” he said. He was sweating profusely.
“I will bide my time,” said Eleni. “I will hunt for the village. For now. But not because of Cosmin or you or anyone else. For my mother. See that she is well-fed and I may be merciful when the time is right.”
“Why do you wait?” said Alin. “Why not just take her now?”
“Because the time is not right,” she said.
“When will the time be right?”
“If I knew that,” said Eleni, “I would not tell you. First snow is coming, though. I do not think she would survive in the wild through the winter. I will wait until spring. So sleep easy, old man. You could very well be dead by the time I come.” Eleni saw him swallow heavily, as if trying to swallow his fear.
There was no joy to be had in frightening him. He had been more kind to her than anyone else. But she was tired of these games. It was time the village knew who held their fate. They had no livestock after the Reivers came last full moon. Their crops had rotted. Without Eleni, everyone in Krasna would die, either from starvation, invasion, or from the predators that lurked in the forest.
Alin stared at Eleni, his bushy eyebrows quivering, his lips moving, trying to form words but failing. “I want you to go now,” said Eleni. “Lock me up if you must, but know that it will do no good.”
Alin rose slowly, heavily. He lifted his lantern and turned to leave. He banged on the hatch door three times.
“Alin,” said Eleni. He turned to look at her, slow with shock. “Take that plate with you,” she said pointing to the food he had left on her pile of fresh carcasses. “The smell makes me sick.”
Alin reached down and took the plate and when the door opened, lifted by two men that Eleni recognized as Cosmin's friends, Alin walked slowly out. The door closed behind him and in the darkness Eleni made a fist. Lying in her cot she opened her hand and watched the flame flicker, casting strange shadows on the wall of her prison. She closed her fist and extinguished the flame. Then she rolled over and slept.
The hatch squealed open again what seemed to Eleni moments later. But after getting her bearings, she realized it must be almost nightfall. The light streaming in from the open door told her it was dusk. And the hulking silhouette standing there looking at her could only be one man.
“What do you want, Cosmin?” she said said, annoyance in her voice. He stepped into the darkness of the metal room. He had lost his swagger, and his movements were slow and uneasy. He crouched down just out of arm's length from Eleni and rested on his haunches. He rubbed his hands on his knees. Eleni looked past him. He had left the hatch door open. He'd never done that before. He held a bundle which he tossed to her. They landed softly on her cot.
“Clothes for you,” said Cosmin. “Fabric is scarce now, so try not to burn them.”
“Alin has spoken to you,” said Eleni.
“Yes,” said Cosmin. The smugness that usually permeated everything he said had disappeared. It was very unlike him. Eleni sat up, her head foggy from lack of sleep.
“How is my mother?”
“I cannot let you see her,” said Cosmin.
“Why not?” said Eleni, her voice hard.
“I cannot let you into my village,” said Cosmin. “You are a danger to everyone beyond the wall. You must understand, I have to look out for my people.”
“It's my village, too,” said Eleni. “I was born there.”
“Your mother was an outsider,” said Cosmin. His voice was quiet, calm, but his body had become twitchy, as though he'd like to be anywhere but here, speaking to her. Like he itched to be away. “We still have no knowledge where she came from.”
“Then ask her,” said Eleni.
“She does not speak to us,” said Cosmin. “Not anymore.”
“Bring her out, then,” said Eleni. “Bring her to me and I will not have to come.”
Cosmin was quiet for a time. He looked toward the open door. “I cannot,” he said finally. “I fear the winter too much to let her go.”
“You are making plans for your own funeral, Cosmin,” Eleni said quietly.
“If you kill me now,” he said, a tremor in his voice, “Rastin has instructions to slit her throat. He will not hesitate.” Eleni knew this to be true. Of all Cosmin's friends, Rastin was the most fearsome. He was smaller than the others, but there was a manic look about his eyes that told her that he would do anything if he could get away with it.
“If this is the way of things,” said Eleni, “it will not end well. For any of us.”
“The way of things has not been well for a long time,” said Cosmin. He shook his shaggy head. “There is no good left in this cruel world. Kill us if you can, but we will continue to defend ourselves. Continue to bring us game and your mother will be well-fed. We can gather wild vegetation during the day, but we dare not go deep into the wood. We are not strong enough, not like you. We cannot survive without you, not after losing the crops and the sheep. But your mother will not survive if you leave us. And she will die if you murder any one of us.”
Eleni glowered at the broken man. She leaned forward and held out her hand. A flame sprang to life. Cosmin looked at it, his face illuminated in the light, the darkened circles under his eyes, the lines deep in his face. He was not much older than Eleni, yet he looked like an old man. There was even white in his beard. “You will burn,” said Eleni. “And you won't know it has happened until you smell the flesh melting off your bones. If you treat me like an animal, I will hunt you like prey.”
“I will not let that happen,” said Cosmin. He rose slowly and took the few steps to the open door. He stopped and turned to look at her. “I am sorry,” he said.
“If you did not know that I had the power to harm you, you would not be sorry,” said Eleni.
Cosmin nodded slowly. “No,” he said. “The gods will punish me as they see fit.” He left, ducking through the doorway. Eleni watched for a long time, putting out the flame in her palm. No one came to close the door. She was no longer a physical prisoner. Now she just had to bide her time until the moment was right.
She put the clothes on, a simple rough-woven dress, worn through and patched in several spots. She left the wool boots on her cot. Eleni turned to leave, then crouched down and pulled the jacket Fin had given her out of the corner. She smelled it. It smelled of smoke, like her hair. She breathed in deeply. Under her own scent she smelled something clean and cold. Like the wind. She put it on over her dress and walked out the door.
It was turning dark. She closed her eyes and felt the night rolling in like a wave. Eleni looked up at the iron wall. It had taken the men of Krasna years to finish it. All they had was iron and sheep after the fire. Now they just had the iron. Eleni knew it wrapped all the way around the village. It was little defense if something really wanted to get in. It was two or three men high, but it could be scaled. She supposed it gave people comfort to have the wall there.
“Move along, Eleni,” called a voice. She smiled at Sabin who had an arrow notched. He aimed at her shakily. “I like you, girl. But I will follow orders.”
Eleni followed the top of the wall with her eyes. Cosmin must have put every man in the village on the wall. She smiled again. “You cannot stay there forever, Sabin,” she said, walking away. She would wait until spring to take her mother. She could be patient. But best not to let them know. She would keep her plans secret.
The wolf joined her as she reached the field. Crops used to grow here, row upon row. But last spring nothing had sprouted but weeds. Now it looked like any other field. Alin had said that the gods had forgotten about them. She looked for Fin, even knowing he wouldn't be there. Such a strange name. She wondered from where he had come. Or where he was going. She followed the path she had seen him take, following it to the edge of the wood, then lost the feel of him. It wasn't a scent exactly, but she could usually trail something once she had a bead on it. But it had been too long. She walked into the forest anyway, though she was surprised not to see the marks of his horse's hooves anywhere. Who was this man? This outsider that came from the world that she had been told no longer existed. What else was out there?
The wolf growled and Eleni followed his eyes. Something white flashed in front of her, making her flinch. A white bird landed just above her and looked at her. A white raven. It turned its head this way and that, taking note of her. Eleni looked down at the wolf. She was no longer growling. She was staring at the bird and then she lowered her head in an odd way. Almost as though bowing to it. Eleni looked at the raven. It looked back. She frowned. Ravens were not supposed to be white. It wasn't albino, like the rabbit her mother had showed her once as a child. That rabbit had red eyes and snow white fur. Eleni had even been able to touch it as her mother held it. But the raven didn't have red or even pale eyes. It had normal beady raven eyes.
The raven let out a shriek and flew to a higher branch. Eleni marked it, but moved on. There was no sign of the strange man from the night before. The creatures were quiet, as well. As if even they, the beasts and monsters of the wood, feared Eleni as well.
She walked with the wolf until her feet were tired and the hem of her dress was wet with dew. There were no monsters this night. And the raven followed her incessantly, squawking occasionally. Shooing it away did no good. It just hopped just out of Eleni's reach and watched her in an eerie way, as if it knew her.
Finally, just before dawn, Eleni spotted a deer. A great deer with horns that spread out from its skull like the bony hands of a giant. Eleni crept up on one side, the wolf on the other. She held out her hand and the buck was dead before it even registered the scent of wolf and fire. She went to the carcass. The head was still partially attached, the wound burned black by her fire. There was no life in his eyes. Eleni let the wolf feed on the meat from the throat. Then she used her hand to cook the remains of the tender meat and picked at it with her fingers, careful not to soil her only garment. When she had her fill, she hefted the deer up, her powerful muscles working to keep her upright with the great weight on her shoulder.
She had once seen Cosmin try to lift a carcass like this when she was a child. She had giggled as he staggered underneath it, finally letting it drop to the ground when it was obvious he couldn't carry it. But strength had always come to her easily. The pig from the night before had been difficult only because she was weak from the blue creature that attacked her. Now she walked lithely with the deer on her shoulder, the horns poking into her thigh with every step. The wolf ran off, as she always did at dawn. When Eleni reached the village gates she dropped the animal unceremoniously into the dirt.
She looked up to see Rastin looking down at her with an arrow aimed at her head. She smiled at him and let a flame burst from her hand. He pulled back his bow further and she walked away. When she took her mother from the village, Rastin would not live to see her walk away. She would make sure of that.
Eleni slept soundly that night for the first time in many months. She was usually plagued by strange, fevered dreams of faces she didn't know and places she'd never been. But to her relief, she slept dreamlessly with the door to her iron box wide open and the scent of the traveler wrapped around her.
She woke at sunset, feeling refreshed. She walked away from the village, ten men pointing arrows at her back. The wolf joined her as she walked toward the river. When she got there, she carefully hung the jacket on a tree, followed by her dress. She stepped into the water and washed herself. She could tell the water was probably frigid, but it didn't affect her. She could sense the cold, but she couldn't feel it. When she had scrubbed the grime off of her body and hands and feet, she submerged her head and let the current of the river wash her hair.
It had been her hair that had first worried the village folk. Her mother told her. It was an omen after the fire to have a child with hair the color of flame, even though her mother's had been nearly as bright. At the time Cosmin's father, Farin, had been in charge. He had been a level-headed man. The day after Farin died, Eleni had seen the blacksmith working on a great iron box. Her box. In a month's time, she had been sent to live there. She had seen her mother every day after that until five winters ago. Eleni hadn't seen her since.
Eleni wrung out her hair as she emerged from the water. She wished she had a comb. Her mother used to come and comb her hair. By the time she reached her clothes, the water had evaporated from her body, becoming steam and trailing away into the cold wind. She dressed and walked along the snaking tree roots, smooth and cool under her feet, to find the wolf. The animal joined her, licking blood from her muzzle.
Eleni looked past her to see a freshly-killed polecat. The wolf licked his snout again. There was a flash of white and something landed on what was left of the carcass. The white raven from the night before looked at her and thrust its beak into the polecat's face. It tore at the fur to get at the meat within.
` “Strange-looking creature, is it not?” said a deep voice behind her. Eleni jumped, moving quickly away from the noise. The traveler was standing there, smiling at her.
“Where did you come from?” said Eleni, moving further away from him.
“I came to see you,” he said. The wolf was looking steadily at the man and Eleni expected the creature to run at him and sink teeth into soft flesh. Instead, the wolf walked over to the man, sniffed him, and kept walking. Eleni looked at the man, Fin, in shock.
“No one ever sneaks up on me,” said Eleni.
“I'm sorry,” he said. “I just wanted to speak with you.”
“Why does the wolf not tear you apart?”
The man shrugged. “I have a way with animals.”
“You are wearing clothes now,” he said. His eyes twinkled as he looked at the jacket. His jacket.
“They are afraid of me,” she said.
“Weren't they always?” said Fin.
“They are afraid in a different way,” she said. “They know they cannot control me. It scares them.”
“They stopped locking you up,” he said.
“You were watching me?” she said, narrowing her eyes. “How long have you been here?”
“Don't worry,” he said smiling. “Nothing I haven't seen before. Remember?”
Eleni looked away from him, listening to the forest. It had been so quiet for the last few days. No monsters. She didn't know what it meant. She looked back at Fin. “Where is your horse?”
“Epona? I left her with my friends,” he said.
“Another town?” said Eleni. “Where?”
“Not a town,” he said. “More of a camp. Would you like to sit down somewhere? So we can talk?”
“We are talking now,” she said.
“You don't make things easy, do you? Are you going to tell me your name at least?”
She eyed him suspiciously. “Eleni,” she said quietly. “Who are you?”
Fin smiled again. It was a kind smile. “Someone that might understand who you are. Someone that's just like you.” He turned and started to walk into the wood. Eleni watched him go. He looked back at her. “Are you coming?” he said. He disappeared in the trees.
Eleni looked around for the wolf. It had gone when she was busy talking to Fin. She shook her head at her own negligence. She needed to be more alert. She was growing lax. Slowly she put one foot in front of the other, almost surprised to find that she was following the way Fin had gone. As if her body had made a decision before she could do anything about it.
Fin was sitting on a rock smoothing his beard. He had his legs stretched out in front of him and held something that looked like a boar tusk in one hand. He saw her and gestured to a similar rock next to him. Eleni froze, looking around. The white raven let out a scream in her ear as it flew past her head and alighted on Fin's shoulder.
“I saw that raven yesterday,” she said.
“It belongs to a friend of mine,” said Fin. “Please. Sit.” Eleni felt nervous and twitchy. She couldn't remember the last time she had been invited to sit with another person. Not since she'd been separated from her mother. Fin watched her with patient eyes. He lifted the tusk and Eleni heard the sound of a cork being pulled. Fin lifted it to his lips and drank, making a face as he re-corked the container.
“You drink from the tusk of a pig?” she said, suddenly curious again. She took a step toward him, but stopped again. She was afraid to be close to him, but at the same time she did not want to leave him. She looked behind her, into the thick of the woods. Two golden eyes grew larger as the wolf emerged from the brush. She looked at Eleni almost chidingly, then walked over and lay down next to the large stone Fin had invited her to sit on. Haltingly, Eleni followed, stopping every few steps and looking around, as if she would find a reason not to stay. The man, the raven and the wolf all watched her progress in silence. All three seemed to know the difficulty of what Fin had asked her to do.
Fin looked down as she sat. He lifted up the object he had raised to drink. “This is a horn, not a tusk,” he said without looking at her. His voice was friendly, without a trace of the contempt she felt from most of the villagers. All but Alin. Though she had felt fear from the old man quite often. Fin did not seem to fear her. He did not seem to loathe her either. Eleni did not know what to think about him. She felt a great curiosity towards him, but she was afraid he, too, would leave when he grew tired of her. Either that or he would come to loathe her.
“A horn,” Eleni repeated. Fin handed her the object. It was nearly as long as her forearm and heavier than it looked. It had a strap on it so it could be worn.
“From the head of a steer,” he said. “Great wooly beasts. As tall as you and ten times as heavy. At least.”
Eleni stared at him, transfixed at the way he spoke, the languorous way he leaned back watching her. She could listen to him all day. She looked down at the horn in her hands. It was polished to a sheen, and was cool and smooth in her hands.
“You don't see many these days, of course. But every once in a while I come across one.”
“Where?” she said suddenly, surprising even herself.
Fin smiled. “I come from the West,” he said. “From the Islands.”
Eleni's eyes widened and her heart beat in her throat. “The West,” she repeated.
“Have you never been away from here?” he asked.
Eleni averted her eyes. It made her nervous to meet his eyes. “I was born after the fire,” she said. She was quiet for a long time, staring at the horn, turning it this way and that to make the ivory catch the light of the moon. “They tell us that nothing survived,” she said. “Only our village and the monsters and the Reivers.”
“Who tells you that?” he said.
She didn't meet his eyes and spoke as if he hadn't. As if she had to continue or she wouldn't be able to say it. “They tell us that all this is because of me. I am a bad omen. We are being punished. We survived the fire so we could see what happens. So we could see what has come because they were kind to take me in.” She fiddled with the cork in the horn. Fin was silent. “They tell us nothing survived,” she said again. “But you are here. So either they are wrong, or you are not real.”
“I'm real,” Fin said softly.
“I could not find your horse's tracks,” she said, glancing up at him. “I looked for them last night. You left no trace.”
Fin looked up at the sky. The moon was rising and was almost directly overhead. It was almost full. “You and me,” he said softly, “we're not the same as the rest of them. There's some that will fear us. There's some, nothing can stop them from hating us.” He looked at Eleni, his face finally serious, unsmiling. “There's some that would do anything to worship us.”
Eleni didn't breathe for a moment. She forgot to look away from Fin. He stared right into her. “That cannot be,” said Eleni, her voice a whisper. “What you are saying, I don't understand...”
Fin smiled with his eyes. “Let me show you something,” he said. He leaned forward. “Put your hand here, on this patch of grass.”
“Please,” he said. “I want to show you.” Eleni did as he asked, crouching down and placing her hand on the ground. The wolf raised his head from his paws, watching them. “Now burn it,” he said.
“Burn it?” she said, not comprehending. “What is the use of that?”
“Just burn it,” he said.
The raven hopped down to Fin's knee and then down to the ground, seeming to be taking in Eleni's every movement.
Eleni let the fire flow gently through the palm of her hand. Smoke rose from between her fingers, lingering in her nostrils. She removed her hand to show him the hand-shaped burn in the earth. He nodded and Eleni sat back down on her stone, watching Fin. He smiled at her confused expression. He knelt next to the scorch mark and placed a large, scarred hand over the smaller, blackened hand-mark. He exhaled oddly and Eleni saw something in his eyes. A flash, like the lightning in the mountains, only bright green. It was gone in an instant. Eleni sensed something happening in the ground under Fin's hand. Like a cool sort of heat. She felt a gentle rumble in the ground, like thunder with no sound.
There was a pressure in the air, and then a movement under Fin's fingers. Eleni leaned forward. Something was coming out of the earth under the man's hand. At first Eleni thought it was a living creature, then she realized they were plants. Green grass and vines snaked out of the ground, wrapping around Fin's arm as the vines sprouted leaves and the buds that came before the blossom. Fin took his hand away, untangling himself from the vines and laughing at the look on Eleni's face. The scorch mark was gone. The damage her hand had made had disappeared and been replaced by new growth. Eleni shook her head, frowning. She knelt down by Fin and examined the ground. The plants had roots when she tugged at them. It was real, not a trick. She looked up at him.
“You're not the only one,” said Fin.
“The only what?” said Eleni. “What am I?”
He hesitated. “I know someone that can explain it better. Someone you would believe. Will you come with me?”
Eleni sat back on her heels. “Come with you?” she said. “Away from the village?”
“Yes,” said Fin. “There's a world out there. Much is still recovering, but there are sights that you wouldn't believe. The world is resilient. There are people that would treat you...well, they wouldn't lock you in a box, that much is certain.”
“I cannot leave,” said Eleni.
Fin stared at her. “Why not?” he said after a moment.
“Cosmin,” Eleni said. “He keeps my mother in the village. He says if I leave he will kill her.”
“Your mother?” said Fin, sounding even more confused.
“Yes,” said Eleni. “I will take her, of course. But I do not know if she could survive the winter in the open.”
“Have you seen her?” said Fin. “Your...mother?”
Eleni frowned at him. He was acting strangely. “Not of late,” she said.
“How long?” he said.
“Five winters ago,” said Eleni.
Fin looked down at the raven. Eleni could swear they were sharing a look. Fin shook his head at the creature, then looked back at Eleni. “How do you know she's still in the village?”
“She would not leave me, even if Cosmin let her,” said Eleni. She sat back on the rock. “I suppose she could have died, but I do not think so.”
“She's not dead,” said Fin. “I promise you that.”
“How do you know?” said Eleni, her voice suddenly cold.
“I know,” he said. “So you will not go?”
“I will not go,” said Eleni. “Not yet.”
“I can go with you,” he said. “We can take her before they even know we're there. It's your choice what happens to this Cosmin. I will not interfere.”
“She cannot survive the winter, I told you.”
“Eleni,” said Fin, “this person you call your mother, she can survive anything.” He rose and sat down on his stone again. “But if you are worried, we can take her to our camp. She will be protected there.”
“I do not even know you,” said Eleni. She appraised him for a moment. “No, I must wait. You could be tricking me. Maybe you are a Reiver, a clever one. You are trying to get me to lead you into the village. I will not do it. Not while my mother is inside.”
Fin sighed, exasperated. But a moment later he smiled at her. “I'm not leaving, Eleni. I'll stay here until I change your mind. I won't go anywhere until you come with me. That is a promise.”
“Why?” said Eleni.
“Why will I wait for you?” said Fin. Eleni nodded. “Because you're important. And I think you could be in danger.”
Eleni snorted. “Cosmin cannot hurt me.”
“Not from them,” said Fin. “From other things. The people from your village are gnats. You do not have to live this way. You should be worshiped.”
Eleni stood and handed the horn back. The wolf stood with her. “Keep it,” said Fin. “A gift.”
“I do not want your gifts,” said Eleni. “They seem to have a price.”
“No price,” said Fin mildly. “Only the truth.”
Eleni narrowed her eyes at him, but held the horn pressed against her anyway. She walked backward, away from the stranger.
“I'll see you tomorrow,” he called to her, waving jovially. “Happy hunting.”
Eleni turned and ran, almost surprised to feel the earth beneath her feet. She felt lightheaded, though not dizzy. As if the ideas of the traveler made her lighter, as if she were made of sky instead of woman. She ran until the feeling dissipated, until the wolf frothed and panted beside her, until she reached the snow. She pulled up her skirt and let her feet sink into a mound of snow, the crust crunching under her, steam rising from beneath her. She saw something move out of the corner of her eye and her hand shot out, the fire leaving her before she even realized what she was doing. A rabbit, its fur once as white as the snow, lay blackened and dead in a puddle of melted snow.
Eleni didn't understand why Fin had upset her so much. All he had done was ask her to come with him. But it was his proclamation that he would wait for her that had really upset her. She couldn't explain that, even to herself. Perhaps after so long being alone, Eleni didn't want someone waiting for her, someone to feel responsible for. Her mother was no doubt waiting for her to come, to rescue her. But the time just wasn't right. Eleni was positive about that. A regular person could not survive a winter traveling through the mountains. And with mountains on all sides, surrounding the forest and the village, they would have to take the mountains to get anywhere.
The wolf growled at her and Eleni sighed. She jumped when a great flash of lightning lit up the sky above her. She'd never seen it so close. It was usually in the distance. It startled her out of her thoughts. She stood and walked to the burned rabbit. She stripped the crackling skin off and ate the cooked meat inside. She was surprised at how hungry she was. When she finished, she was calmer. She looked at the horn slung over her shoulder. She wiggled the cork until it popped out and sniffed the contents.
“Gah!” Eleni exclaimed, turning her head away. The smell burned her nostrils. She looked at the horn for a moment before, very slowly, putting her lips to the opening and tipping the horn up ever so slightly. The liquid rolled across her tongue and down her throat, the taste on her tongue bitter and pungent. Eleni made a face, wrinkling her nose. She replaced the cork.
The wolf was staring at her reproachfully from a tree stump away from the snow. Eleni kicked snow on the rabbit bones and organs. She stepped out of the snow. The wolf still stared at her, its golden eyes the only thing that would be visible from a distance. Her black fur blended into the shadows of the night perfectly.
“I want to go,” said Eleni, “but I have to stay.”
The wolf turned away from her and stepped off the stump and into the darkness of the forest. Eleni sighed. She wouldn't see the animal again tonight. She knew by the look it had given her. She looked up at the moon. It was time to hunt.