Orenda had joined the crowd, but did not like to linger. She had to make a snap decision about whether to follow Susan and find her, or follow her advice. She had not had to make many decisions as important as this one, but realized that she did not have time to waste thinking about it. So she let her body lead her and tried very hard not to think at all. When she thought, she saw Charles or Ellie and had to remind herself that they were dead. She did not like to do that, so she concentrated on the smoke in the sky, the darkness that fell around her, the soldiers that she knew were looking for her.
It was not always hot on the fire continent. Sometimes, the nights would be cold, and as night fell, it was no longer strange that she was wearing the cloak with the hood pulled taunt. To her left, the cityscape eventually ended and there were towering mountains beyond, touching the clouds and disappearing into them. To her right there was nothing but more buildings. She didn’t care about either of these things, but she noted them, because it was better than thinking. She was walking away from town.
As the crowds began to thin, Orenda ducked into alleys. She was somewhere that she had never been before and she thought that she disliked it. Gone were the fancy women in fancy dresses and in their place were stringy, hardened people in very little clothing who spoke to each other in pleasantries that made Orenda’s flesh crawl.
In one of the alleys, an earth elven man was speaking harshly to two humans who looked only a little older than Orenda. They were both dressed strangely, especially compared to him, and as she passed, Orenda heard him telling them how much he loved them as he handed each of them a small white circle, not unlike the ones she had once watched the girl who looked like a princess shoveling into a bag at the grocers. But these humans seemed much, much happier to get it.
Orenda lost sight of them as she came out onto a backstreet and hugged the building closely. She didn’t know how long she had been walking. When she grew hungry, she broke off a piece of the naan in the sack and ate it. But the way Susan had spoken, it may take days to get to her location. As Orenda walked, the world around her became gradually lighter, and she knew that she would have to get off the streets and find somewhere to hide until nightfall.
It was odd to her that she was not particularly tired, given the amount of time that would have had to have passed and the distance she would have had to have traveled. Orenda did not know where the energy she had came from, and did not care to think very hard on it, as she did not care to think very hard on anything.
She was walking through another alley when she made the sensible decision that it would be better to have the high ground, and pressed her hand against the side of the building she was leaning against. The stone was rough, but did not offer many good hand-holds. She reached up as high as she could and concentrated as the stones in her medallion began to glow. The stone heated, then melted, and Orenda pulled herself up. She climbed in this way, opening the handholds with her hands, and attempting to close them with her feet, though she did not do a particularly good job with the latter, until she reached the roof. She was fortunate in that the building was already a little dilapidated and it did not take her long to find a hole in the ceiling. She had to make it a little wider, as she was still very stout, but she crawled inside and thought that she didn’t much like climbing.
The hole had opened onto a rickety ceiling composed mostly of support planks covered in cobwebs. She set her sheet down on the wood, turned around carefully soas not to fall, and stared up at the sky. The sun could work a little better here, peeking through the soot in a way that Orenda had never seen. She thought that she quite liked it, and dug around in her pocket for the note Susan had given her.
It was not so nice as the note she had gotten from Gareth. It was only an address, Susan’s name, and a hastily drawn heart. Orenda rolled it up and stuck it back in her pocket, reminded her body that it must keep very still while she slept lest she roll over and fall from her position, then let exhaustion carry her away.
Orenda was a princess. She had always been a princess. But fire elves did not have princesses, in the traditional sense. Their princesses were chosen, by a voice in a flame, which would call out to them from birth. It was located in the middle of a beautiful, open-air temple, and Orenda was here for a very important ceremony. The flame had called to her since she had been born, had told her that power was within her grasp, and all she need do was walk up and take it.
Orenda walked towards the flame and was interested to see that it was not the fire at all that had spoken to her. It was a long, sparkling mage staff, almost, but not quite, like the ones that had been carried by the soldiers who had taken away her friends; it was much more beautifully crafted, with more crystals arranged in a wide circle. The staff was taller than she was, obviously meant for an adult to wield, but it called to her from within the flame.
Come to me, master. The staff begged. You are the chosen one, You are destined for great things. Come to me, and I will give you what you seek. I await you, master. We shall defeat the Emerald Knight and the imposter Xandra. You shall become queen.
Orenda reached into the flame and she felt nothing. Her hand closed around the staff, and she drew it out.
“Who are you?” A voice asked, and drew Orenda from her slumber.
She turned slowly, and looked over the side of the wooden plank, to see a human girl, a little older than her, dressed much like the humans who had been so happy to get the candy.
“I am no one,” Orenda told her, “I was never here.”
“I see a lot of noones,” the girl told her, “I won’t say anything.”
“Thank you,” Orenda told her, then stood, gathered her things, and went out the hole she had come in.
Orenda traveled for two days in this fashion until things began to change and the change made her weary. The buildings became more scarce and farther apart. This troubled her, because she had been breaking into back yards to refill the water skein that Charles had given her, but she could see, stretching before her, that soon there would be nowhere for her to do that. The few houses that she saw were that- houses, not buildings. They were few and far between and had long fields that surrounded them. Orenda thought that they might be farms, because they matched the descriptions that she had read about, but she had never seen a farm and could not be sure.
She was on the edge of town now with the denseness of the town at her back and these possible farms stretching out before her and the night sky above her held something that she had never seen before. Orenda risked a glance upwards, and without the constant smoke and soot blocking the view, she saw a void that stretched into eternity, speckled with stars. Twin moons moved in unison across the sky, so slowly that it was almost imperceivable, one silver and the other white. It was beautiful, but she could not stay out on the streets. She had to think of a way to cross the expanse without being detected.
One of the buildings on the very edge of town had a stable and Orenda thought that this may mean that there were people inside who would be willing to show some compassion and give her a ride, as was often the case with long-lost princesses. She walked inside, pulling her hood tighter over her face and took the place in. It smelled like yeast, as if someone somewhere was baking bread, and something that she could not place. It was sparsely populated. There was a bar, with a barmaid behind it, and several tables lining the walls, with dividers between them and cushions for seating. Orenda did not know the name of the contraptions that sat upon the table, but she thought that they were beautiful as she watched the smoke rise from their center and the mouths of the people holding the long tubes that protruded from the contraptions like tentacles.
Most of the tables were empty, but the few that were not held people who looked as if they would like to be left alone.
Orenda walked slowly across the room, trying her best to be inconspicuous. Everyone here seemed to be exuding the same aura and Orenda thought that perhaps she blended in with them, that she, perhaps, also looked as if she would like to be left to her own devices. She studied each patron from the corner of her eye- mostly earth elves and all adults. She seemed to be the youngest person in the place. They were all speaking quietly, but their voices would die away as she passed.
Nothing. There was no hope here. She leaned against the far wall and surveyed the room- and noticed something. At one of the tables sat an earth elven woman and a human boy, a little older than Orenda, old enough that she considered him quite adult, maybe fourteen or fifteen. He had leaned forward to whisper something to his companion, which made the back of his head visible from her perspective, and though his dark hair was normally long enough to cover his neck, he had swept a hand through it, and in that brief instant, Orenda saw that there was no brand upon his neck.
She walked slowly to the table, walked as she had walked to the wall, casually, calling no attention to herself, and their conversation died away as she stopped, to stand beside them.
“Would you mind if I took a seat?” Orenda asked politely.
“Miss, this is a private party,” The woman told her.
“I am one who follows the path of order,” Orenda told her, “I am following the white rabbit.”
The boy and the woman exchanged glances, and slowly the boy nodded. The woman stood and indicated that Orenda should sit closest to the wall. It was only after she had sat down that the woman took her seat as well. They were silent for a moment, but the boy broke it.
“Our friend looks like she could use something to drink,” he said.
“Yes,” the woman agreed, and stood. Orenda watched her walk to the bar, and the boy stared at her with his beautiful, dark eyes.
“Who are you?” He asked in a whisper.
“I am one who follows the path or order,” Orenda said.
“So am I,” He said, “My name is Ali AlHadeen.”
“I am Orenda Nochdiface,” Orenda told him.
“You’re Orenda!” He said, as if it meant something, and Orenda nodded, so he continued, “You know Johnny!”
“Johnny is alive?” Orenda asked. “What about his parents? What about Jill? What about the baby, and all the others?” Then a thought struck her and she said, “Your name is Al-Haddin? Not OfSomething?”
“I’m not a slave,” Ali told her, “I was born free, in the human kingdom, beyond the mountains.”
This news changed something in Orenda. She had not cried when she had seen Charles and Ellie die, had not thought of it, had forced herself not to think of it. But now… if this boy was to be believed… it meant something. Everything that they had done had meant something. She pulled her hood tighter, held her face in her hands, and let the tears come. She felt the woman sit next to her and heard Ali speak.
“This is Orenda. She worked at the library. She’s been helping people.”
“Oh,” the woman said, “You escaped? We thought you were all dead.”
“No,” Orenda told her, “I… left. Susan told me to leave, and I left. I think she left too. Charles and Ellie are dead.”
“Here,” the woman set two glasses before Orenda, “Drink this first, then the water. It will settle your nerves.”
Orenda sipped the liquid and it felt like drinking fire. Orenda had decided long ago that she had a great fondness for fire and did not feel that she needed the water until she drank it. Then she realized how thirsty she was.
“I didn’t like to see it,” She said, and she felt that her words flowed easier than they normally did as she took another drink, “I… I like them both, very much. Charles told them that he used to be a cage fighter, and he fought them. He let Susan get away, because he fought so hard. But there were too many of them, and the way they fought together was amazing… I had never seen anything like it. It was like a dance.” She took another drink, and then the water, and the glasses were half empty, “they killed him, and Ellie… she drank something, poison I suppose, and then they set fire to the library.”
“Our sources say that the idiots burned themselves alive,” the woman told her, “So at least there’s that. My name is Rychelle, and this is Ali.”
“Susan told me to go to an address,” Orenda told them, “Are you going out of town?”
“Yes, but we have some unpleasantness to attend to first,” Rychelle glanced at Ali, “You may actually make it easier. Are you a fire mage, Orenda?”
“Not as such, no,” Orenda said, “I’ve never been trained, but I’ve had to… be pragmatic. I’ve had to learn to work some magic so… so I don’t… end up like the others.”
“I think we can help each other,” Ali said with a smile, then leaned back, put the tube in his mouth, and inhaled deeply, “But I’m getting absolutely shitfaced for it. I thought I would have to do it myself with a mirror, but now that I know I won’t, I might knock myself out. Because this is going to hurt.”