Spring is in the air. Or at least that’s what people keep saying. Ember has never known the season by the air (or the trees or the sky); she’s only ever known the seasons by the water. But the water surely tastes of spring.
Last night turned out to be an absolute shitshow. She had no idea what she was getting into, coming into this city. And during the Spring Festival no less!
After days spent trekking through the woods—glorious days of exploration and wonder and freedom(!), but also terrifying days of new noises, new creatures, new sensations, shifting shadows and ominous sounds—she finally made her way to the big city –Gallanore. From a distance it was magnificent. Awe-inspiring. The stone buildings at the center rose higher into the sky than she even imagined a building could rise. And the vastness of it! It spread out in front of her in all directions: roads and alleys and houses and shops and rooms upon rooms! So many rooms! Just beyond the city was a glittering expanse unlike anything she had seen—the sea! This sight brushed against something deep within her mind, something distant and fuzzy. A line she read in a book perhaps? She could just barely make out the ships in the harbor, their white sails gleaming in the sun. I wonder if there are pirates… or mermaids or sea monsters! she thought to herself, her imagination running wild. Only one way to find out! and she began her final descent from the mountains of Ebonguard into the river valley, towards the city and the sea.
Upon entering the city Ember realized that not only was Gallanore filled with an unfathomable number of rooms, it was also filled with a mind-boggling number of people! And people of all sorts! Short and tall, light and dark, tan and green and red and blue! Small ears, big ears, no ears. She saw piercings, tattoos, talons, fangs, fur, hoofs, horns, everything! She never knew such an array of people existed! It was beautiful, shocking, overwhelming. A wondrous discovery! And simultaneously, a startling realization of an epic betrayal.
. . .
This city was so different from the one she just left. Ebonguard was pretentious and unwelcoming with its snooty shopkeepers, unspoken codes of conduct, and outrageous prices. An air of privilege and luxury saturated the whole place. Ember couldn’t have gotten out of there fast enough. Thinking back on her brief time there, she cringes and feels a flush of shame color her pale cheeks.
“And what do you want?” the lady snapped at her as she stepped into the restaurant.
“It just smelled so delicious from outside” Ember squeaked. “Do you have any food?” the naïve hope unmistakable in her voice.
“Not for filth like you!” the lady squawked back. “Practically dressed in rags! Covered in dirt and grime! Get out of my establishment at once!” she bellowed.
Taken aback, Ember stumbled out. She was not unused to harsh words or cruelty. Nor was she new to the feelings of shame and disappointment. But, she thought, this is the outside. These people aren’t them. This was supposed to be different.
As she wandered about she was met with more the of the same: rude words, derisive snorts, wary gazes, glares of disgust, and often a total disregard of her existence. After multiple failed attempts at finding food, lodging, information, or an ounce of compassion she finally plopped down in a fit of despair. She was, at last, getting to engage with the world, and what a disappointment it was! All this talk of money (of which she had none), her bathing and hygiene (which were decidedly lacking after the recent events), and her generally tattered appearance had her doubting her ability to survive the expectations and high demands of this new existence.
Ember’s mind began to run over situations and possibilities: she began calculating how long she could go without food, her chances of survival in the woods with no gear, no shelter, no weapons… But wait! The sword! In a flash she remembered the weapon hidden at the edge of town in a pile of brush, along with her scroll case. Perhaps I could sell or trade that for some supplies, she thought. But as she further considered that plan she realized the danger in it… she’d read enough books in her 19 years to know that peasants with highly valued items were usually assumed to be thieves, not rightful owners. And I am, in fact, a thief, she thought morosely. A thought which quickly triggered a series of increasingly alarming thoughts. Would they come looking for her or the sword? Would one of these people she met today report her to some sort of authority? Was she endangering herself at this very moment, sitting in plain sight on the edge of a street?!
Ember rose from the sidewalk in a panic, turning to rush into the woods and away from this place that suddenly felt rife with danger. As she spun around, however, she found herself abruptly face to face with a beautiful, dark-skinned Elven woman. The woman was as tall as Ember and looked directly into her eyes with a strange mix of surprise, concern, pity, and suspicion. Ember, startled and self-conscious, took a step back and reflexively began apologizing, as the desire to be hidden among the trees pulsed through her even more strongly than before. She moved to leave. “No, wait” the woman said, not unkindly, and reached out to gently grab hold of Ember’s arm. At her touch, Ember froze. Her mind raced.
“I saw you sitting here,” the woman said, “and I couldn’t help but wonder…” Her voice trailed off as she glanced around. Her hand dropped from Ember’s arm and her posture shifted. Ember turned her gaze and noticed a finely dressed man across the street, eyeing them closely.
“Are you hungry?” the woman asked curtly, her tone having shifted to one of aloof politeness. Ember paused for a moment before nodding meekly. “Go around back and I’ll bring something out for you.” She turned and walked stoically back into her shop.
Confused but curious, and aching with hunger, Ember slipped around the side of the building, trying to avoid drawing any additional attention to herself. They alley between the shops barely classified as an alley, based on what Ember had read of them. This was spotless—no trash heaps or vermin in sight. The stone street was swept clean and it smelled pleasantly of freshly cut flowers. A few minutes later the woman emerged from a door and motioned her over.
“I can’t give you much, but I’ve pulled together some of my daughter’s old things from her adventuring days, as well as a few days worth of rations.” She hoisted a moss green backpack with leather straps towards Ember. “That’s a blanket and bedroll attached to the bottom. I doubt you’ll be able to find lodging anywhere in Ebonguard so you’ll have to make do in the woods. I recommend heading west, towards Gallanore” she said, glancing about nervously.
Taken aback and overwhelmed with emotion, Ember looked at her benefactor through teary eyes. “Why?” was all she could manage to utter.
“Well, overall it’s just a larger, more diverse and welcoming city. There will be more opportunities for work and especially with the Spring Festival coming up it’ll be easier to make connections and—”
“No, why are you helping me?” Ember interrupted.
“Oh.” The woman looked as through she was mentally cycling through numerous potential responses. She sighed. “You just looked like you need a hand and I know this place isn’t always the most welcoming.” She smiled wryly and shrugged. “Besides, we would have just ended up incinerating most of this anyway.” At Ember’s look of horror, she elaborated. “We have no market for secondhand shops here. Only the finest in Ebonguard,” she said, straightening with rehearsed pride.
“Well…” Ember fumbled for words. “Thank you so much. I don’t know how to repay you—”
“Go,” she said brusquely. “It’ll be better for the both of us,” she added gently, her eyes drifting down to the patches on Ember’s clothes. “Giving handouts is frowned upon around here. Besides, I should get back to work.”
“Oh, uh, okay. Well, thanks again Ma’am. Thank you so very much,” Ember sputtered before gathering her new belongings and slinking out of the alley, feeling the woman’s guarded gaze on her back until she turned the corner.
. . .
Once Ember had successfully retrieved her scroll case and sword, she retreated to a secluded spot in the woods to open the bag and check out her new possessions. On top were neatly bundled food rations, like the woman had mentioned. Ember ravenously tore into one, consuming half an apple before taking a breath.
On one hand, she was shocked at her current appetite. Having lived primarily on bread and water for much of her life her body had grown used to malnutrition and mild starvation. She was used to the dull ache of hunger. But this was a level of hunger unlike anything she could recall. However on the other hand, the more she thought back over the events of the last 24 hours the more justified her hunger seemed. Surely that was more physical activity (definitely more running!) than she had ever done before. As her mind drifted, her expression darkened. The long pale pink scar that crossed her face—from her scalp, across her left eye, and down her cheek—darkened as well: a deep red cicatrix that almost glowed in the fading sunlight.
Nearby, rustling leaves startled her out of her rumination. Glancing around she saw a squirrel, eyeing her curiously as it continued to rummage. Having gotten down to the core of the apple she held what was left out to the little creature. It hesitantly crept forward, snatched the fruit from her fingers, and darted up the nearest tree. Ember smiled to herself, her face once again bright and open, her scar its usual shade of pink. She turned back to the sack and continued unearthing its contents.
. . .
A few minutes later she had an assortment of gear and clothes spread before her: a mess kit, tinderbox, filled waterskin, torches, a bundle of rope, a bedroll and blanket, a green and white striped shirt, a well-crafted but worn leather jacket, green pants with many pockets, and wool socks, in addition to the food she had re-bundled and secured in the pack, away from critters or bugs. To this spread she added the herbalism kit she had stored in her scroll case, along with the scroll case itself and the stolen greatsword.
She felt a surge of hope spread through her. I can do this, she thought. I’ve read so many books and I’ve made it this far. Determination swelled in her chest. I will make it to Gallanore. I will find a job and make friends. I will start a new life. I’ve got this.
And with that she set to work getting changed into her new clothes and making camp for the evening. As she gathered her gear back into the pack she noticed a pocket she hadn’t before—a little leather pouch with a brass clasp affixed to the strap. Undoing the clasp, her eyes widened with shock. Gold! Eight shiny coins were nestled into that pouch and upon seeing this Ember finally broke into sobs. Who was that woman and how had she been so lucky to find her??
Wiping away the tears and brimming with gratitude, Ember laid down on her new bedroll. She covered herself in her new blanket and clutching the stone she always wore around her neck—the only consistent thing she’d been able to call her own until today—she drifted off, dreaming of squirrels and apples and the eyes of many, many strangers.
. . .
A few days later, after wandering west through the woods and marveling at the way the light filtered through the leaves on the trees, foraging for mushrooms, losing track of time while watching ants navigate along the dirt, and splashing joyfully in a creek filled with icy water and tiny fish, Ember finally made her way into Gallanore. She was sad to leave the wonders of the woods behind, but also eager to see what new adventures the city held.
On the edge of town she spotted a group of people. There were four of them in total, just milling about under some trees, chatting. One lazily pushed an empty bottle around with his toe. Another, lounging on a bench, threw her head back in laughter. About 50 feet away, Ember stood completely still, staring with wide eyes, her mouth agape. They looked happy, friendly, and most shockingly, her age.
Ember’s stomach churned with nervous excitement as she began to approach the group. As she walked, an image of the angry restaurant owner popped into her head, causing a rush of apprehension—what if these people are just as mean as the people in Ebonguard?—but she pushed that thought away, focusing instead on the words of the woman who gave her the backpack. A more diverse and welcoming city. Easier to make connections. I can do this.
As she got closer, she noticed details she couldn’t see from afar. A colorful patch on the girl’s jacket. The long lavender tail extending from beneath the guy’s cloak. A shiny silver nose ring. A pair of yellow eyes that had turned to look at her. She looked back, searching. The eyes were curious, surprised, amused. Not a hint of malice or disgust. These new clothes are great, thought Ember.
The person with the yellow eyes nudged their closest companion and nodded in Ember’s direction. A face adorned with a set of horns turned her way, and soon all four of them were looking at her. With tilted head and raised eyebrow the girl in the jacket spoke first. “Hey there. What’s up?” She lifted her chin slightly in greeting.
Ember looked up, confused. And then back at them. “Uh hi! I’m new here.”
“You been in the woods for a while?” the guy asked, suppressing a smirk.
“A few days, yeah. How..how did you know?” she fumbled in response.
“You’ve got leaves in your hair, for one.”
Ember’s eyes widened and she ran her hands over her head in panic. Not for filth like you…covered in dirt and grime. “Oh shoot I’m so sorry I thought I got all of that out. I’ll just—”
A laugh from the side cut her off. “Heyyy, chill out dude. No need to get all frenzied from some stray tree flakes.” The rest of them burst into laughter as well. “Tree flakes?! You’re fucking weird Caldra! Who has ever called a leaf a tree flake?!” “Psh, all words are fake, man. Who decides what words mean what anyway.” The laughter continued. “I mean, you’ve got a point,” the guy said in response, shaking his head while wiping tears from his smiling face. “But you better remember that point the next time you peer edit one of my poems in Mr. Hopple’s class.” “Oh trust me, I will do no such thing,” she said in response and stuck out her tongue playfully.
Ember watched this encounter, hand lingering on her long blonde braid.
The one they called Caldra looked over to her, grinning. “So kid, what’s your story? You say you just got to Gallanore?”
“Um, yes!” Ember replied. “Just right now. Like, five minutes ago.”
“Woah that’s crazy dude! Pretty lucky to have stumbled from the woods right into the arms of the welcoming committee!” Caldra said throwing her arms wide.
“Gallanore has a welcoming committee??” Ember replied in surprise. “And you guys—” She glanced around at them in their studded leather clothes, edgy haircuts, and pierced features. They stared back at her, waiting. “Ohhh, was that a joke?” she said at last, as Caldra closed her eyes, shook her head, and lowered her forehead into her hand, laughing.
“Guys, we’re clearly gonna scare her off,” the girl in the jacket said to her friends. “Let’s cool it for a minute and let her get her bearings.” Turning back to Ember she said, “Alright woods-woman. You seem weird but cool and I know we just met, but honestly we needed something to do today anyway so we’d love to show you around town or something if you want. Do you have somewhere to stay? Where are you headed?”
“I heard there was a spring festival happening sometime soon, so I guess I was thinking about checking that out,” Ember replied, dodging the first question.
“Oh yeah! The festival is great! We can definitely take you there!” she said enthusiastically. “I’m Xan, by the way. This is Eb and Parch,” she said pointing first to the lavender skinned man with horns and tail, then to the golden-eyed person with earthen brown skin. “And that’s Caldra.” The stocky girl wiggled her fingers at Ember, her piercings glinting in the sun.
“It’s nice to meet you all!” Ember said, looking around at each of them.
Caldra broke the moment of mildly awkward silence, “So, what’s your name? Unless of course you’d prefer we call you Tree Flakes?”
“Oh…nobody’s ever…” Ember paused. “They call me…” she started, her mind racing. These people don’t know me. I can be whoever I want now. This is a new life. “They call me Emm…ber. Ember.”
“Ember. Cool. Well nice to officially meet you!
This was the first fiction writing I have done in a very long time. In 2021 I was part of a virtual d&d campaign (that’s dungeous and dragons for those of you who aren’t massive nerds) and this was written when I was creating the backstory for character. I played weekly for many months with 5 other amazing women and it was such a great experience. I would love to continue writing this story, and if I do I’ll have to decide if I include the events that happened in our actual campaign or if I go off the rails into an ‘alternate universe’ of my own creation. (None of this was part of our gameplay, just my imaginings of what would have brought Ember to the location where our campaign actually began.)
Anyway, thanks for reading!
P.S. Another very short piece of writing related to this, that was written after but shared before, is posted here.