I had just collected my final few petals, ready to head home with my haul, when a booming crash of thunder warned of a coming storm. Cursing under my breath, I hastened my pace and made it a mere dozen long strides before the second crash sounded, accompanied by heavy sheets of cold spring rain. In an instant, I was soaked through to my skin and my hair had matted tight against my face, constricting around my arms and waist like snakes. The familiar woods changed into a treacherous labyrinth of whipping branches and unsteady ground; the once bright moonlight was replaced with near blackness, leaving little light to guide my way. The canopy of leaves above were powerless to protect me against the surging winds and cacophony of rain. Winding roots below guided the falling water into miniature rivers which hampered my every step. Unable to navigate under such duress, I had little choice but to run and pray to the gods for some semblance of shelter.
The gods did not disappoint, though they always had an odd sense of humour.
In a flash of lightning, a small structure appeared through the shifting curtains of rain. I had no idea where I had ended up, not a clue how far I was from the hazards of the roads or the safety of my village. The shack was small and not of elven design, though not the same as what the nearby humans built either. Its walls were formed from vertical wooden planks, treated in some fashion to repel the rain, forming hundreds of little rivulets that pooled into a circle of long-dead foreign shrubs at their base. Atop the walls was a roof made of woven material—leaves or leather, it was impossible to tell from a distance—which I hoped was set above a waterproof base. There was a single doorway on one side and a small open-air window on the other. Inside, I saw a narrow cot, a wooden table and chair, and a pile of ashes and burnt logs scattered over a neatly-lain stone floor.
In the safety of the abandoned shack, I tried my best to dry off, laying my outer leathers on the bed to be rid of their added weight. The storm had intruded through the window and two small holes in the ceiling, creating puddles which had started to crawl toward the door. Closing my eyes, I tried to sense the village or hear the voice of the elders who would be calling out to any away from home. I felt nothing but the rumbling of the earth and heard only the flood of water falling through the trees and onto the roof of my temporary abode. Peering out the window, careful not to stand where the wind-swept water flew through, I searched the darkness for any disturbances. I saw the trembling trees and their waving branches, budding leaves being ripped from their perch before their time. From inside, the rain was almost peaceful, each drop a gentle drumbeat celebrating a coming change in season.
The low growl of thunder and a quick burst of light startled me out of my lull. From the corner of my vision, I saw the faintest hint of glowing light reflecting off the soggy forest floor. Panicked, I began to gather my things, trying in vain to make no sound. I had nearly climbed out the rear window when I heard a man’s voice calling out behind me, speaking a language I did not recognize.
I froze. The wind must have dwindled the intruder’s lantern before he had entered, but it was impossible that he had not seen me. I could attempt to run, but the storm was disorienting and I was unlikely to be safe fleeing through it. I had a simple dagger strapped to my thigh, but my hands were still slick and I had little faith in my ability to best a stranger in combat. I turned just a fraction to see the man, hoping in desperation that he was an elf from another region.
My heart sank when I saw the face of a human. He was not an imposing figure, perhaps just larger than myself, and his face showed no sign of age beyond the very beginnings of a beard. He was, of course, drenched from head to toe as I had been, his hair forcefully parted down the middle and trailing water into his ears and across his jaw. His clothing—not armour, a good sign—clung to his limbs revealing their poor fit. He held one hand shut, clutched against his chest, and his lantern hung from his left hip.
He called out in a calm voice—low like the thunder, yet not aggressive or demanding—again in a language I did not know. A moment passed. We stood together on opposite sides of the small shelter, still and silent, confined by the danger of the storm. I made again to leave through the window, but before I was able to even lift my leg up to the sill, the room filled with firelight. My heart raced, its pounding even louder than the rain in my ears. He called out a third time, but his words were deafened by my spiralling thoughts and the booming thunder. My legs disobeyed me, stiff and unmoving as I yearned to run; I fought back and forth within my mind to determine my safest option. He seemed unarmed, so surely he was not a threat. But he was a human. He didn’t seem angry, but he would change his mind in a flash if he discovered what I am. There could be any manner of weapons or poisons in his hand or against his back. But his voice did not seem harsh. But, but, but.
Against my better judgment, I lowered my bare foot back to the now flooded floor and turned to face him again. He had not moved from the doorway, still standing half in the rain, but had managed to turn up the light of his hooded lantern and wipe the water from his face. He held his hands up, palms facing out toward me. In his left, I saw what he had been protecting: a small cloth pouch dangled down in front of his wrist, its drawstring tied around his fingers. I mimicked his gesture like a fool. With great care, he moved one hand to his chest, pointing to himself.
I was unsure how to respond. I straightened my back, lowered my arms, and bowed my head with grace. He followed my lead and did the same. An uneasy truce. I pointed up toward the pouch, not daring to speak, hoping with desperation that he had not yet identified me as one of my kind. He smiled and untied it from his finger, tossing it with care onto the bed at my side. Reaching in with trepidation, I found a handful of human currency and a light stone cylinder. It was about as long as my pointer finger and had been carved into a totem of sorts with a rough face and intricate curious designs. I placed the contents back inside and tied it tight, lobbing it back to his open hands. He began to speak again, too fast to understand and definitely in a human tongue, then abruptly stopped with a look of bashful glee.
The rainfall had begun to thin, though it still trickled in to join the flood beneath my feet. With sudden clarity, I heard footsteps approaching from outside. The man jolted up straight, eyes wide in my direction and gestured for me to duck down beneath the pale light of the window. I pressed myself tight against the cold wooden wall behind me, crouched like a child cowering in fear. I was thankful that my village would not witness my cowardice here. The man put out his lantern, turned around and opened the door wide, standing tall to obstruct as much of the room as possible. Through the wind, I heard his soft voice speak with careful intention in the language he had first tried with me. Despite not understanding the words, it was clear he was not fluent; he stumbled frequently and the other voice that had arrived seemed to repeat several phrases, sounding more confused each time. After just minutes, the man bowed low, re-entered the shack and closed the door behind him, holding a dripping wooden box at his waist.
Relighting the flame, he placed the lantern on the table. I stood up slowly, wavering as my feet grew numb and my jaw began to chatter. In a heartbeat, the man was at my side and braced my arms, guiding me to sit upon the unmade cot which stood just a hand’s breadth above the wet floor. He used the linens to dry my feet before I could even protest and just as quickly shot back up, his face growing red. I couldn’t help but laugh—at his abundant display of charity and gentle kindness juxtaposed against his awkward youth, at my own luck in finding myself caught in a storm with a human, at the curious humour of the gods, at the strange transaction I had just been witness to. He began to chuckle as well.
“Henry.” He repeated the same gesture from before, pointing to his chest as he spoke. An introduction of sorts, I guessed.
“Unnyr.” My hand felt like ice against my chest and my voice shook with the chill running up my spine. I feared what my family would think of introducing myself to a human like this. But they were not here, and he didn’t seem dangerous. He was caring, gentle even, far from the stories I had been told and the horrors I had seen. I gestured to the room around us and then to him, amused by my own attempts at speaking without words. He shook his head: this was not his home. A meeting place for some sort of trade, I assumed. I was glad to have not trespassed.
The rain crawled to an end, but we didn’t notice. For an hour or two, we made attempts at communicating with varying degrees of success. By the end of our so-called conversation I hadn’t learned much about him. He didn’t seem to understand much of what I attempted to say either. He seemed keen to watch, however, as I started the process of drying out the various foliage and flower petals I had collected in my earlier search. In exchange, I examined the sturdy box he had received in his trade and its divided contents: three slender corked vials, each containing a different mixture of bright coloured powders, likely spices; a handful of smooth stones engraved with various symbols; another cylindrical stone, not yet carved; and a letter in a strange language. He seemed to offer one of the stones to me, but I had no use for such a trinket.
By the time the initial stages of my drying process were complete, my clothes and leathers mostly dry as well, we both stood up in unison to leave. In his bumbling way, he made half a dozen quick gestures in my direction, attempting to find a way to say goodbye.
“’Enry.” I struggled to remember how he had pronounced his name, blushing at my poor attempt. I bowed my head slightly.
“Oo— On—” His face flashed bright red as his tongue failed him.
“Unnyr.” I chuckled.
He waved his hand and bowed his head as I had, smiling like a young boy. He turned and left through the door as I scurried out the window in the opposite direction. With the storm a distant memory, the forest had returned to normal. I had wandered too close to the roads, but I still sensed the village and my people. As I began my trek back, I glanced over my shoulder to ensure he was not following. He was gone. My heartbeat fluttered in my chest, wondering if I would ever run into him again.
In my grandparents’ time, the world was a very different place. My grandfather often groaned about how much the city had changed for the worse, regaling the family with stories from his heyday. When the elven scourge arrived, he would explain, they mucked everything up; all other mortal races were forced by their leaders to band together and cooperate against a common enemy.
“I never seen an elf still, not within these city walls. Those others are everywhere now though. Can’t near take five steps before runnin’ into one of ‘em.”
Grandfather would spend hours debating a silent room about the “error of their ways.” They worshipped gods which clashed against our own, they were taking the city away from us, they spoke in tongues which lashed against his ears, they were discourteous to the humans who had allowed them refuge here… Even as a young boy, I saw through his decades of prejudice. I was never enthralled by his tales. The city he had loved, a home to humans only, seemed colourless to me. It took only two arguments between us before I was no longer welcome under his roof.
Those that my grandfather called devils were the first to welcome me in as one of their own. I spent years drifting from family to family, taken in by all manner of people from across the land. One month, I would live with an older couple from the far north, helping them gather the materials they needed to speak with their god. The next, I was seen as the newest member of a family of eight children, enjoying the succulence of their native cuisine. Every day was new and exciting, learning more with each passing week about languages, the gods, history and lands far outside the city walls.
Of course, I heard stories of war and suffering, too. When I was nine, a mother choked back tears as she told me how I reminded her of her baby, lost years ago as they fled from a spat between gods. Three children recalled in hushed whispers that they had come to the city to escape the elves that threatened their home; their father, once a city guard, never told them this truth. Two brothers from the southeast fell silent as I asked them if they had ever seen mana; I apologized a hundred times when they recalled how their sister met her end a decade before. For these people, and many more, my once small city had become a safe haven, though it was clear that many of its original citizens and even those in charge disapproved.
It was fortuitous, then, to have found the old abandoned hut just within the edge of the forest outside the city’s borders. I had been looking for a place like this for over a year by that time, all the while building a reputation as a trustworthy human. I ran errands, traded goods, delivered packages and messages, and always listened for more I could do to help. The people of the city, all of the newcomers, were my family now. By my sixteenth birthday, I was well-known across the slums and outer reaches of the city streets. Despite my efforts within the walls, however, there were many outside that were wary to ever enter. Family members that missed their loved ones but feared the hatred of humans. Traders who took foreign coin and dealt with precious goods many humans would have discarded as trash, often unwilling to pay steep tariffs on their wares. My trade centre in the forest was perfect for these folk—near enough for me to safely access, yet far from the eyes of the city. I never bothered to repair the roof, fix the lock on the door, or make the place feel at all like home. It was meant to look abandoned, as it had been for ages, so it wouldn’t draw much attention. This lack of care worked perfectly. There was never evidence that it had been used at all in the time between my visits.
That is, until the stormy night I met her. Perhaps a fortnight later I returned to my post, waiting to meet with a city dweller’s aunt to give her a small care package. Sitting on the table was a neat bundle of dried flower petals, wrapped into a cloth and sealed with leather straps. They were the same that the elven woman had showed me that night, though I didn’t remember her leaving them behind. I left them untouched—perhaps she had forgotten them?—but the next time I arrived, another bundle had appeared as well. I took them to a woman I had stayed with once who had taught me about the plants from her lakeside village. She told me the petals were medicinal in nature, used in poultices for healing wounds or calming fevers. I gifted them in turn to a young father whose children were in need of medicine too expensive for him to afford. He insisted I take some food which he had grown as payment, which I decided I would pass on to the elven woman for her kindness.
I had just closed the rusted door of the abandoned shack behind me when I heard her voice drift out from the trees nearby. In a heartbeat, she was behind me, her hand against my back. By the time I had turned around, she had already entered through the door. We spent an hour or so together that day, pronouncing our names and trying to learn how to greet each other. I tried my best to explain where the food had come from, but she seemed to insist she could not take it with her. We ate together instead, the first of many meals to come.
For several months, she and I tried to meet, leaving cryptic messages and small gifts. In time, I learned a few words and phrases of her language, and she had made great strides in absorbing mine. After a year, we began to run on a schedule, meeting once per lunar cycle regardless of weather. For a while, Unnyr seemed timid, afraid almost to be interacting with me. She explained that her family did not look kindly upon the other mortal races, that she had been distancing herself from them in order to see me. It was a story that felt all too familiar to me. Despite our differences, we grew quickly close and my little shack began to feel more like a second home. Even if we sat in silence or struggled to communicate, with her I felt I had found a place that I belonged.
When I had begun to outgrow my little forest trading post, I was hesitant to tell her the news. A family I had been living with—a mother and her three sons, originally from a small town that sat in the shadow of miraculous island in the sky northwest of the city—had sent word to their people about me, and they told me that the village was desperate for supplies. When I told others that I was planning to leave, their sadness was paired with similar stories of friends and loved ones who were in need, overlooked by their frightened leaders and warring gods. I knew I had to go.
I knew, too, that Unnyr could not come with me. She was an elf, loathed by even the most generous within my home city. There was little chance that her kind would be welcome elsewhere, either. We sat together in the damp grass outside our meeting place when I told her, weeping silently into the night. I tried to find the right thing to say, but she was inconsolable. Through the tears and in a language I still struggled to fully comprehend, she admitted that her family had learned about our meetings, that she was likely to be cast out and left homeless, that without me she had no one. Rain began to fall, masking the tears that ran down my cheeks. I held her head to my chest, clearing her long hair from her face, and said nothing. Each gasping sob was another reason to stay here forever. But I had made promises I couldn’t stand to break. There had to be another way.
At our last meeting, Unnyr was strangely filled with glee. Her words came so fast I couldn’t tell which language she was speaking.
“Slow down, Unnyr. I can’t understand you!”
“A fix! I have a fix! I learned—” and off again she sped. Her mouth seemed to move at such a speed that her head couldn’t keep up. I remained silent, wide-eyed, and waited with patience for her to calm down.
“I can show you.”
“Show me what? I still don’t know what you’re—”
Before I had finished my sentence, my vision began to change. I rubbed my eyes, trying to clear the sudden blur that had overtaken them, but to no avail. I blinked and squinted, but nothing worked. I soon saw why: it was Unnyr herself, not my vision, that had blurred. It was as if she was suddenly underwater, or rather, behind a faint mirage like in the distant fields on the hottest summer days. Her entire body was at odds with the world around her. Small dots of light appeared encircling her body, drifting up her legs, her torso, her head—and then it was over, a brief moment of confusion preceding yet another hastened string of incomprehensible words.
This time, it was my mouth that couldn’t stop. I was speechless, but compelled to ask a thousand questions at once. In front of me stood Unnyr, but not. She was the same size and stature, from a distance I might not have even noticed the change, but remarkably different. Human. Her once angular face and ears had softened and rounded. The long, dark hair that once reached her waist had lightened and fell just past her shoulders. The piercing green eyes I had learned to see even in the trees had become a rich brown. I couldn’t believe what had just happened, rubbing my eyes with a fury to dispel whatever dream I had fallen into. She smiled, her redder lips curling in the same way as always, and I felt my heart slow.
“You, you… How? Unnyr you told me you couldn’t do magic, you weren’t chosen to learn… But that, that was mana—that was magic, wasn’t it?”
She nodded and her smile widened further, tears forming in her familiar eyes. No more words were needed. I practically leapt forward and embraced her, spinning around into a dance to the music of our laughter. The gods truly did have a strange sense of humour. She was not chosen by the gods or her people. In fact, they were likely glad to never see her again.