Orenda began to grow accustomed to the daily routine of the library. She would awaken at dawn, do a few chores, then be set, for hours at a time, with no particular direction to continue her studies. She had not even trusted herself to memorize the syllabary and often carried it with her, but she slowly found herself referring to it less and less as she continued to read.
She devoured the written word.
She went through much of the children’s section in less than a week; she learned about all sorts of things, not only bunnies and fairies, but also princesses, knights, dragons, magic, swords- slews and slews of stories that she suspected were not true in the slightest, but which were still great fun. However, she had wanted to learn to read in order to further her education on real-world matters, and quickly moved into non-fiction.
Books about fire elves were shockingly rare. She had expected to find great tomes detailing history, fashion, culture, music, dance, lineage, politics, and especially religion, as she had been told that it held importance to her people. But she found none of those things, so she began to read the history of the earth elves, hoping that it would tell her anything.
There had been a war; it had to be recorded.
Important people in that war would be noted in the text.
Orenda was not prepared for what she had read.
The book recorded that the fire elves had been a people weak and frightened, who had lived in fear of that which they did not know, because they refused to embrace the more scholarly pursuits of the Urillian culture. They had been overthrown easily; the entire country had fallen in a day and a night. Their names were not recorded. Their history was not recorded.
They had fallen because though they were deeply devout, they did not have the knowledge to accept the chosen one when he appeared among them. Thesis had chosen an avatar among mortals, referred to in the text as the “The Emerald Knight”. He had come on a mission of peace, to teach them all the marvelous things the Urilians had, to spread knowledge and love at the hands of a god.
But they had been frightened of his gifts. They had not believed him- and they were punished by their god for their hubris. To reject such a gift had been sacrilege, and the fire elves were smote. The Sacred Mountain had erupted, burying their capital in lava, burning their civilization to ash, and completely wiping them from the face of the planet.
They were gone.
She was alone.
Orenda had decided not to believe the history books any more than she did the story books, and had gone to Ellie to ask if she could borrow the tome she kept in her room.
It was much more interesting, but so thick and so full of beautiful illustrations that it took months of devoted study to get through. Orenda poured over it during every spare moment, reading the same passages again and again, staring for hours at illustrations- the other books she continued to read were wonderful, but they were not, could not be, anything like the secret tome. Orenda grew so devoted to this study that she did not notice the passage of time as it continued to flow around her. All she knew was that one morning she awakened and the house was full of people.
“You can’t go no further right now,” Charles was explaining to another human man, much younger than he was, “It’s dangerous. Y’all gonna have to hide for a few days.”
“I understand that,” The man said, “But them soldiers is hot on our tails- I think we might need a new safehouse.”
“This is as safe as you’re going to get,” Charles argued, and added, “Let me see your neck. Does everybody have them, even the kids?”
“I couldn’t bear to watch,” A human woman was sitting on the rug with Susan, unswaddling a baby that could not have been two years old, while one of her other two children rubbed his neck. “Yeah, even the younguns. The ones what was big enough to be branded.”
“He was so nice,” A boy who looked only a little older than Orenda said, “But… but he held me down, and…”
“Are you alright?” Orenda asked him, because he looked as if he was about to cry.
“No, I ain’t alright, you knife-eared bitch!” He snapped, and the woman, whom Orenda assumed was his mother, slapped him across the face so hard he went thumping into the carpet.
“Orenda,” Susan said to her, “Come here and strain the coffee, would you, darlin’?”
Orenda caught the words, “How dare you,” from the woman to her son, but she correctly guessed that the conversation was none of her business and did her best to tune it out as she took the hot kettle from the fire to the table. The boy began to cry, to wail in earnest, and Charles marched over to him, knelt, and Orenda tried very hard not to stare, but she watched from the corner of her eye as he spoke in the most serious voice she had ever heard him use.
“Listen at me,” He said, “I know you’re upset. I know you’re scared. But you can’t scream. You can’t cry. You can’t be loud; you can’t give any indication that you’re here. They out there looking for you, and if you give yourself away, they will find ever one of us- do you understand? This is a safehouse. We have to all work together to keep it safe. Think of it as hide and seek.”
“He always cries,” The little girl had been playing with the hem of her dress, “He ain’t very brave.”
“He wouldn’t be alive if he wouldn’t brave,” Charles argued and turned his attention to her, “All humans are brave. To be human and be alive is a sign of courage. But please, please, be quiet.”
“You best apologise to that young lady,” the mother ordered, and Orenda saw the boy scowling at her.
“I’m sorry,” he said, in a tone that implied he didn’t mean it at all.
“He’s scared of you,” The girl, whom Orenda suspected to be about half her age, told her.
“Is he?” Orenda asked, “Why?”
“On account of you’re an elf,” The girl explained.
“Are elves frightening?” Orenda asked, and was waiting for an answer, but received an order instead.
“Orenda, would you please pour that coffee for everybody?” Susan said in a tone that made it very clear it was not a question, “Breakfast is ready. We’ll have oatmeal. It stretches real easy.”
“Yes, mam,” Orenda agreed, and the boy stared at her as if she had lost her mind.
“It’s way different here,” The girl said.
There was not enough space at the table, so the children sat by the fireside on the rug. Only Orenda had taken the coffee with her breakfast; the other two drank water from a single cup. Orenda studied them and disliked the silence. The boy seemed to positively hate her, for reasons she did not understand, but his sister was much more friendly and ate much more quickly.
“I’m Jill,” She said.
“I’m called Orenda,” Orenda said to her, “I like young children. You’re all so cute. Would you like me to teach you how to make kitty whiskers?”
She unwound a piece of twine from her pocket that she had tied in a loop, and stretched it over her hands. “Pay attention now,” She continued, and wove her fingers through it, like a spider weaving a web. She dropped the twine from her thumbs, pulled, and the string knotted itself into a shape that did look like a cat’s whiskers. Orenda put them against her face, and Jill laughed.
“Are you our new master?” The boy asked her, with an edge to his voice.
“I wouldn’t think so,” Orenda pulled two of the whiskers and the twine unknotted itself, “I’m an apprentice, at best, myself.”
“Xac says that there ain’t no gods, no queens, nor no masters,” The boy said to her.
“I’m sure that isn’t right,” Orenda said, going through the motions again with the string, “There must be at least one queen- Xandra. They put up posters of her likeness. Who is Xac?”
“The white rabbit,” The boy said, glaring at her.
“I don’t know that I would trust a rabbit,” Orenda said, “I’m not sure how knowledgeable they are on the subjects of religions, politics, or employment.”
“I hate the way you talk,” The boy scowled at her, “You think you’re so fancy.”
“I think nothing of the sort,” Orenda rolled her eyes, “You seem to have a very low opinion of yourself.”
“You don’t know nothing about me.”
“Johnny shut up!” his sister said and smacked him as her mother had done, but her youth seemed to rob her attack of any strength.
“Ma!” Johnny screamed, and all the adults glared at him, so he lowered his voice and spoke again, “When are we leavin’?”
“When it’s safe,” she replied, “For now we rest, and we wait.”
“Orenda,” Susan asked, “Could you please take them younguns somewhere and play quietly?”
Orenda did not want the boy in her room around the book, because he seemed the kind of person who would destroy it, so she got to her feet and asked, “Do you like to read? We can go into the library.”
The boy stood and Orenda was caught off guard when he took a step forward as if he was going to hit her. She held up a hand, grabbed her fire stone with the other, and a plume of fire sprang from the palm of the hand she held toward him. She held it there, to the amazement of everyone, and warned, “Think it through, Johnny. This will not be my first fight. Will it be yours?”
After he had recovered from his shock, Johnny asked, “Who have you ever fought?”
“Fights often break out in workhouses,” Orenda explained, released the stone, waved her hand, and watched the fire dissipate, “People can get annoying when you have to spend too much time together. I fear it is inevitable.”
“...what’s a workhouse?” Johnny asked.
“We extracted the ore from clumps of earth,” Orenda explained, “and smelted it into shapes, I believe.”
“You did that?” The human man Orenda assumed was Johnny’s father asked, “But you’re an elf.”
“Elves are not uncommon,” Orenda explained. She didn’t understand why more than one person had that reaction.
“He can’t read,” Johnny’s mother explained, “Can you, Johnny?”
“No,” Johnny said in a tone that implied he was obviously lying. Orenda was confused. Why would they lie about that? It was a useful skill to have.
“No humans can read, Orenda,” Charles explained. “If any elf asks you, no human can read.”
“Alright,” Orenda said, tilting her head as she absorbed the information. “Why?” The silence stretched on for an unbearably long time, so Orenda asked Johnny, “Would you like me to teach you?”
He stared at her, his eyes boring into her, before he said, “You really don’t know nothing, lil’ girl.”
Johnny had locked himself in the room that he was apparently staying in, so Orenda left Jill with her mother and walked into the library to pick out some storybooks to read to her and the baby. She had just entered the children’s section when Ellie approached her and bent down to speak in a panicked whisper.
“No, no, Orenda, I can’t believe they let you leave. Stay inside our apartments today. You’re too conspicuous.”
“Ms Ellie,” Orenda asked, grabbing books as quickly as she could to obey her, “May I ask a question?”
Ellie tugged her by the shoulder, into a row of bookshelves, as the little bell over the doorway tinkled, and Orenda stared past her to see who had entered. A team of five people had come into the library, all earth elves wearing identical tunics that, to Orenda, seemed out of style. They all had swords and looked like toy soldiers come to life.Ellie glanced over her shoulder and answered in a whisper, “Yes, but very quickly, and very quietly.”
“What is a knife-eared bitch?” Orenda asked, and Ellie’s face contorted into a look of shock.
“That’s… very rude, Orenda. Don’t say that again, please? Now, head back to the apartments, quickly and silently.” She shoved her, and Orenda knew something was wrong. Ellie was never violent, not even enough to playfully shove someone. She wasn’t very physical in general. But this hadn’t been playful, it was the sort of shove that meant business.
One of the toy soldiers had gone to the desk to ring the bell, and Orenda stayed in the shadows as Ellie rushed to answer it.
“Good morning, officers!” She said chipperly, and Orenda was interested in the change in attitude- what had come over her? “What can I help you with today? We have an extensive collection on military history-”
“Actually, mam,” the man who had rang the bell answered, “We’re patrolling the area. The Burned Roc was spotted a few towns over, and we have reason to believe that stolen goods may have been trafficked through here.”
“Oh,” Ellie said pleasantly, “you’ll be looking for the merchant’s guild then. You head left when you exit the library, follow the cobblestone path, and you’ll see a large sign. You can’t miss it.”
“Actually mam, it may be a bit more difficult than that,” the toy soldier explained, “we’re looking for a group of stolen slaves. They could be hiding anywhere. We’d like to search the library, well, all the public buildings. You know how it is.”
“Of course,” Ellie smiled, and Orenda began to move, quickly and silently, as Ellie continued, “Is there any place in particular? We’ve just opened for the day and I haven’t seen any unaccompanied humans, but I will certainly do anything I can to help.”
“The library is a waste of time,” one of the other soldiers commented, “There’s no reason for them to come in here. It’s not like they can read.”
Orenda skuttled past the rows of bookshelves, grasping the storybooks in one arm, hurrying to the little door that led to their apartments.
“It’s a big building,” another observed, “They probably just want somewhere with a lot of hidey holes.”
Orenda pried the door open, closed it slowly, and leaned against it. She could feel her heart beating against her rib cage, could hear them, still inside the library, just outside the door, could feel the heat radiating from their bodies. Orenda bolted down the hall as fast as her legs could carry her, opened the door at the end, closed it quietly, and slammed the lock into place.
The adults were all in the living room, and were staring at her in shock, but she paid them no mind as she rushed to the back door and locked it as well. She ran back to the living room and commanded in a whisper, “Everyone! Be very, very quiet! There are soldiers in the library, looking for ‘stolen slaves’.”