“We need rebranded,” Charles said, and Ellie nearly choked on her food.
“No,” She said simply.
“Susie and me,” Charles went on, “we need to be branded with your family crest. They gonna check. They getting worse about that stuff.”
“I won’t,” Ellie began, cut herself off, and began again, “I won’t… it won’t help anything. Yours is unreadable. It’s so scarred they won’t know whose it is.”
“It needs doin’,” Charles said.
“I won’t be the one to do it,” Ellie told him.
Orenda watched the adults stewing over this, then looked back to her plate, then into the fire. The other family- they had no last name, apparently, very few humans did, she had discovered- had been staying at the library for a few days and everyone was tense. Tonight, a mysterious figure that Orenda had never met was supposed to be coming to the house, a traveling merchant, who would smuggle them to a different safehouse, closer to the mountains. Everything felt darker than it should, and Orenda did not like how heavy the air was. Everything was too quiet.
“Have you ever heard of the Emerald Knight?” Johnny asked.
“I read something about him,” Orenda said, breaking her naan into chunks small enough to eat with, “he was the Chosen One, sent by Thesis to educate the fire elves.”
“No,” Johnny told her.
“It’s a scary story!” Jill said happily, “the Emerald Knight is a boogieman!”
“I’m telling it,” Johnny told her, “hush.”
“Oh?” Orenda asked, intrigued.
“Yeah,” Johnny said, “The Emerald Knight is a monster. He’s the one who hunts you down, when you run away. He’s killed thousands of people, all over the world. Back home, they say that he killed the god who used to live in the Sacred Woods. Now, them woods is angry- and haunted. If you go there, there’s monsters who lure younguns into the trees, and they-”
“And they never come back!” Jill interrupted.
“Hush!” Johnny warned.
“They say that nobody sees him and lives to tell about it,” Johnny said, “But that ain’t true.”
“It couldn’t be,” Orenda agreed, “If no one lived, no one could tell the story.”
“Right,” Johnny continued, “But he’s supposed to be ten foot tall, all armored. And he glows like the sun. It can be the middle of the night, but he lights it up like the middle of the day. You can see him coming, but if you do, it’s too late. I heard he’s a demon-”
“No,” Jill said, “He’s a ghost!”
“No, he’s a demon,” Johnny said, “Hush!”
“Don’t scare her,” their mother said, “The Emerald Knight ain’t real. It’s just a legend.”
“Xac said he’s real,” Johnny argued, “And Captain-”
“What did we say about talking about the good Captain?” His father interrupted him.
“But these people won’t tell,” Johnny began- but silenced himself at the look his mother gave him. He lowered his voice and spoke again, “I think the Emerald Knight is real. And I think he killed gods, like they said.”
“Gods?” Orenda asked, “More than one?”
“That’s what they say,” Johnny answered and the flickering firelight made his face look strange, “When he killed the one back home, it caused an earthquake-”
“I thought you said it caused a haunted forest.” Orenda said, “Which is it?”
“It can do more than one thing,” Johnny huffed.
“It just seems like a lot of different stories,” Orenda said, “He’s a demon or a ghost or a man in armor. He causes earthquakes or hauntings. He’s either evil or good. It sounds like a legend.”
“You can think what you want,” Johnny huffed, “But Xac and the Captain have seen him.”
“The rabbit?” Orenda asked.
“He’s not really a rabbit,” Jill explained, “He’s a human. He’s just called a rabbit.”
“No, he’s a rabbit, too,” Johnny said.
“I think you just like to tell stories,” Orenda told him and took her last bite.
“You can think what you want,” Johnny huffed, apparently disappointed that his story didn’t have more effect.
“The history books say that he caused an eruption,” Orenda said after a long silence, “An eruption that wiped out the fire elves.”
“He probably did,” Johnny said, with a smug sense of satisfaction.
“No,” Orenda countered, “He obviously didn’t wipe out the fire elves. Because I am here. I exist. I live. We are not gone.”
“I’ve only ever laid eyes on two,” Johnny said, “You’re practically gone.”
“Wait,” Orenda sat down her plate and stared at him, “You’ve seen two? Who was the other?”
There came a knock at the back door and Ellie got up to make her way cautiously down the hall.
“Who comes to call at this late hour?” She asked, “And where are you going?”
“One who believes in the path of order,” the caller answered, “I follow the white rabbit.”
There was the sound of the door opening, then closing, and a moment later, Ellie appeared followed by a woman Orenda had never seen. She was an earth elf, dressed in plain traveling clothes, and she looked impatient.
“Won’t you stay and eat?” Ellie asked.
“We’re burning moonlight,” The woman answered, “Everyone who’s coming, come on.”
“You can read; you were lying,” Orenda said to Johnny as he stood.
He paused, looked down at her, and nodded.
“Then… write me,” Orenda ordered, “When you get where you’re going. Write me and let me know that you are safe.”
“I’ll try,” He said, “I don’t know where I’m going.” He paused, looked away, then back at her, “Thanks, Rendy.” He stared deeply into her eyes, “Thank you for… all your help. Thanks for hiding us.”
Orenda nodded, and Jill tackled her.
They were gone so quickly. They had come into and out of her life in only a few days, and as she watched them all climb quickly under cover of darkness into the woman’s caravan she wondered where they were going. Orenda liked to think that beyond the mountains there existed a vast city, constructed by the humans who had escaped. She thought that it was tall, and offered shade from the harsh sun. She liked to think that they had discovered a way to stretch what little water would trickle down from the snow-capped mountains in a way that would let them grow food. She liked to think that they had created vast libraries, nice homes, schools, and had great festivals to celebrate holidays.
Orenda also liked to think that she was a long-lost princess, who would be saved by her royal parents, who had gone into hiding after their kingdom had fallen.
Orenda liked to think a great many things, because she knew that they were not true, but they were better than reality. In the real world, there was nothing beyond the mountains but a slow death under a hot sun with too little water and too much sand. In the real world she was an orphan whose parents were probably commoners who had probably died after a harsh life. In the real world, these people were not special, and neither was she.
But they were going off to find adventure, and freedom, and the people who had gone before them. They were going to live, and find the city the other humans had built, and live out full, rich lives.
And Orenda was a long lost princess who would grow up to be a queen.
Because they were special. They were good people. And good people got happy endings.
She watched Ellie close the gate and did not see where the wagon went from there, but Orenda liked to think that in a little while, perhaps a few months or a year, she would receive a letter that would tell her all about the wonderful place that existed beyond the mountains, all about the wonderful life that Johnny was leading with his parents and his siblings.
Orenda knew that she would never see any of them again, and she wiped the tears that fell from her eyes as she made her way back inside the library.