“Who is supposed to be watching you?”
Orenda turned to follow the sound of the voice, and was not at all surprised to see who it belonged to. The woman looked exactly as if she never spoke above a whisper. She was short and thin, an earth elf like most of the people on the street, with the same narrow face they all seemed to share. Her dress was much more subdued than most of the women Orenda had been watching, and a pair of glasses sat on her small nose so close to her face that Orenda thought the flesh may grow over them.
“No one watches me,” Orenda said with indignation, as if the idea was ridiculous. “I have set out into the world to seek my fortune.”
The woman looked first one way, then the other, as if she was afraid someone was listening in to their conversation, then leaned forward and spoke even quieter than before.
“What is your name?” She asked.
“I am Orenda Nochdifache,” Orenda began with all the pomp she felt a long-lost princess would speak with, and was about to tell the lady all about her title, but the mousy woman cut her off.
“Oh thank god,” The woman did look overjoyed as she put a hand on Orenda’s shoulder, and Orenda did not know whether or not to trust her eyes as she continued, “We’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
Orenda, despite her misgivings, was no fool, and her hand instantly shot to the fire stone in her pocket. She felt the magic coursing through her and narrowed her eyes at the stranger who had dared touch her.
“I am Eletha,” the woman said in a frantic whisper, “But you would call me ‘Ellie’, of course. We need to get off the street before they find you! I wonder- but we’ll discuss it later...”
Orenda weighed her options. She was still hungry, and it was possible that this woman was sent by her parents, or one of their spies. Orenda had not considered that they may have recruited earth elves into their army, but now that she thought about it, it made perfect sense. They could blend into the populace in a way that fire elves could not- after all, Orenda had been out on the street for several hours and had not seen another fire elf in that entire time. Besides, if the woman was a crazy kidnapper, Orenda thought that she looked as flammable as anything else.
After this consideration Orenda nodded and allowed the woman to take her by the hand. They walked briskly, while Ellie kept looking two and fro, as if her head was mounted upon a swivel, until they arrived at a rather large building that Orenda thought looked important enough to be a secret meeting place for an underground army, though a little conspicuous for the task. Ellie ushered her inside to the sound of a little bell that twinkled when the door was opened.
A human man darted from behind a desk, opened his mouth to speak, then seemed to recognize Ellie and smiled instead. Orenda stepped to the side to allow Ellie entrance, and looked around to take in her surroundings, should escape become a necessity. The building was nothing but storybooks, as far as the eye could see, stacked one upon another in shelves that not only lined the walls, but were also lined up in rows. A few tables and chairs were littered about, as well as a few earth elves among the stacks of books.
“Master,” the man said to Ellie, “There’s a few patrons who are right desperate for somebody who can read to help them.” He sighed and continued, “I tried to tell them that I know the layout, despite my obvious handicap, but they would not see fit to listen to me.”
Ellie stared at him for a beat, as if the gears in her head were turning, before she responded.
“Right, well, that’s understandable.” She motioned to Orenda, “This is Orenda. Would you please take her and get her settled in, Charles?”
“Yes, master, of course,” Charles smiled at Orenda and offered his hand. Orenda stared at it for some time so that he eventually withdrew it and instead asked, “Well now, if you’d kindly follow me, then, miss?”
Orenda nodded and followed the stranger through the maze of books. She glanced over her shoulder to see Ellie take her position behind the desk that Charles had vacated, and wondered what this place was. She quickly lost sight of her as they turned one corner after another and eventually came to a doorway, which Charles opened, and motioned for her to enter.
Orenda stepped through the door into a hallway, which was long and poorly lit with a single kerosene lamp, and which terminated in another door. The strange man was now at her back, so her hand closed around the crystal in her pocket as she took first one step, then another. He made no move to hurt her, but she clutched the crystal- as she did she felt the flame in the lamp, the heat in his blood, and the energy radiating from the places before and behind them.
He reached over her to open the door-
And Orenda took in the most homey scene she had ever set eyes upon. The door opened into a pleasant room, with a rug laid out on the stone floor before a blazing fire, upon which a human woman was kneeling, slowly turning something in a metal pan that filled the room with a delicious aroma. Vegetables had been laid out along the edges of the fire, and a cauldron hung over it, boiling away.
Orenda stepped inside and saw that the room extended past the kitchen to see a little table all laid out, several chairs, a couch, a writing desk covered in papers, and another hallway that led to places she did not imagine. There were windows in the room high up on the far wall, and some sheer curtains were drawn over them.
“An elven youngun?” The woman asked, then stood, almost as if in a panic.
“Ellie brought her,” Charlie explained, and it calmed the woman enough to fix the contortion on her face, but not enough to settle Orenda’s nerves.
“Is she… does she belong to-” The woman began, but the man held up a hand, and hastily closed the door.
“I don’t know,” He said, leaning against the door, and added, “Wait ‘til Ellie comes. I have to get back to work. Her name’s Orenda. Get her settled.”
He waited until he got a curt nod from the woman, the two of them exchanged knowing glances, and then he opened the door, closed it carefully behind him, and Orenda listened to his footfalls echoing down the hallway.
“Well, Orenda,” the woman smiled at her with her teeth but not her eyes, then knelt beside the fire to spin the metal contraption as she had been doing before she was interrupted, “It’s right nice to meet you. My name’s Susan.”
“It’s very nice to meet you, Susan,” Orenda said and did not smile back. As far as she could see, the only way in or out of the place was the door she had come from. She wondered what was down the other hallway.
“I reckon you’ll need a bath,” Susan said, “But I can’t boil no water ‘til after dinner.”
Orenda was a bit insulted by this, as it was nowhere near bath day and she wasn’t particularly dirty- by the standards of the workhouse. But, she had to admit, the standards did seem somewhat different here.
“Where am I?” Orenda asked.
“Ellie runs the library,” Susan explained, “As far as I can tell, it’s just a place to put a bunch of stuffy old books written by stuffy old elves.” She made a ‘huff’ noise, and then her eyes lit up as if she believed she had made some kind of mistake, and she quickly amended, “None of that mess matters none to me. I can’t read.”
“Lessons were not given much importance at the workhouse,” Orenda agreed, “but I do like stories. The older children tell stories. I would very much like to read.”
“Well,” the woman said chipperly, as she stood and carried the metal contraption to the table, “Maybe Ellie’ll teach you, if she can find the time. Do you like chicken?”
She opened the contraption, and a roasted chicken fell out of it. She took two forks and began to pick the meat off the bones, then to shred the muscle into smaller and smaller strips. Orenda was not accustomed to eating much meat. At the workhouse it was a rarity reserved for times like the solstice or equinox festivals, and even then the servings were small. It smelled delicious, and she nearly forgot to answer as she watched Susan work.
“Yes,” she finally answered, “I like it very much. I daresay most people don’t eat much of it.”
“Ellie provides right good for us,” Susan said, “But now normally we get us a lot of fish. I don’t rightly know where this come from. I don’t ask no questions regarding good fortune.”
“I always ask questions,” Orenda replied.
“Well you might want to get over that,” Susan advised, placed the stripped bones back into the metal contraption, and continued, “Always save them bones, Orenda. They make good flavor for soup.”
Orenda thought that she may need that information one day, as it was being given like good advice. She watched Susan pick up each of the vegetables in turn in a towel and carry them back to the table; they were soft now that they had been roasted, and Susan pulled them apart with the forks, just as she had done the chicken.
“I ain’t particularly accustomed to the way of cooking here on the fire continent,” Susan said as she opened a cabinet and ruffled through it, picking up various containers of spices and looking at them, until she had gathered everything she needed and returned, “But I reckon I like it.”
“You’re not from here?” Orenda asked.
“I was…” Susan said, and changed the subject, “As a cook, I reckon I don’t speak to many new folks. I ain’t real accustomed to children here.”
“I’m not accustomed to adults,” Orenda told her.
“Well,” Susan smiled at her, “maybe we can get accustomed to each other.”
“Yes,” Orenda said, after much consideration.
“Now how did you come to be here, Miss Orenda?” Susan asked as she mixed the meat, vegetables, spices, and some liquid from a bottle all together on a large plate.
“The same way anyone comes to be anywhere, I suppose,” Orenda pulled the chair closest to her from its position and sat in it, “I walked.”
“Oh,” Susan stopped what she was doing and stared very hard at Orenda, and Orenda clutched the stone in her pocket. Finally, Susan continued, “Where’d you walk from?”
“From the workhouse,” Orenda explained.
“They got elves in workhouses?” Susan asked, as if the idea had never occurred to her and she found it particularly interesting.
“Elves are not uncommon,” Orenda explained.
“I reckon they’re sure less common than humans,” Susan clarified, “I ain’t never known an elf to work.”
“Haven’t you?” Orenda asked. This was as foreign a concept to her as her prior employment had apparently been to Susan. After she had considered it for some time, she asked, “Then how do they eat?”
“Humans work for them,” Susan explained, wiped her hands on her apron, and walked back to the fire.
Orenda thought the conversation, and Susan herself, were both very strange. She watched her open the lid of the cauldron, look inside, and stir what Orenda could now see was rice. She seemed satisfied with it and stood with a huff using the same towel to carry the cauldron back to where she had left the rest of the food. She busied herself with getting a stack of plates from a cabinet and Orenda’s stomach reminded her that she had not eaten since breakfast. By the look of the light shining in through the windows it was now nearly dusk. Orenda reached for the lid of the cauldron-
“Don’t touch that! It’s-” Susan warned as Orenda lifted the lid, but her expression changed as Orenda held it and looked at her, “...hot.”
“Yes,” Orenda agreed. It was hot. She didn’t know why the woman was making up excuses. Orenda knew not to sneak food. “I… apologise, Ms. Susan. I haven’t eaten since breakfast. I wasn’t going to take much.”
Susan’s face softened and she carried the plates to the table. She smiled at Orenda, with her entire face this time and piled a heaping spoonful of rice onto the first plate. She scooped up another spoonful of the meat and vegetable mixture- piled higher than Orenda had ever seen a serving of food- and sat it in front of her.
“Here, darlin,” She said, and began preparing the other plates, “If you’re still hungry, there’s more to go around. Eat all you want.”
Orenda stared at her and tried to understand the concept- that there could be excess. She had spent her entire life being carefully watched, carefully rationed. Susan was making three more plates and they could not have known that Orenda was coming. Yet, she was right. When she finished, there was food left over- lots of it. The cauldron was still nearly half full.
“Thank you, mam.” Orenda smiled and began to eat.