Elthinor was being horrible. I had moved from bed rest to light activity, granted graciously by Aloron and my father. My forehead was still bruised pretty badly, and it hurt to make expressions with my eyebrows sometimes, but the world didn't swim or tilt when I walked, and the headaches had receded to tolerable levels. But as soon as Elthinor had gotten to Greensage, he had found me at the archery range, watching the boys—they were quite good by now. Elthinor had turned me around. When he got me all the way around, I had my knife to his throat. He waited until I had sheathed it before grasping my face in his hands and carefully observing my forehead.
"Oh, Fily!" he exclaimed. "We should have gone together. Why can't you be sensible?"
"What's the fun in that, Elthinor?" I asked with a sly smile.
"Well, Gabrithon now has control of the Centaurs, but I don't think it was worth it."
"What's done is done, and it can't be changed," I replied.
After that, all of Elthinor’s focus was on training the troops. I didn't mind. I knew how important it was. I saw Tynan a couple times, but I was pretty sure he was avoiding me. He did seem to be able to fight well, which would be good in the great battle.
When my forehead only had a thin, red line on it, that wretched she-Elf showed up. She came up to stare at me and Elthinor while we were talking. When we looked at her, she smiled the prettiest smile I had ever seen. She was pink with a nice sky blue, with gentle eyes and a soft face.
"Hello," she said, almost shyly. "My name is Shaylee."
"That doesn't sound Elvish," I said.
Her smile faded around the edges a bit, and she looked from Elthinor to me. "My parents are very interested in Humans. They think my name is lovely."
"I'm not insulting your name. I think it's nice. Mine's Filynora."
"That doesn't sound Human," she said calmly. "But everybody around here is quite aware of your…" she paused for a moment, her gaze cool."Condition."
Condition? What was she talking about? Before I could piece it together, Elthinor bowed to her and stepped forward.
"My name is Elthinor Cyzaen, milady. What can I do for you?"
"I'd like to learn how to do that," she said, pointing at the archers.
"Certainly! Filynora is one of the best, if not the best, archers in the land. She'll teach you everything you need to know."
"Actually, no offense to the Strangeling, but I'd rather have you do it. You're an Elf like me. She frightens me a little bit."
We both stared at her then I shrugged. I handed her my bow—she was about my size—and Elthinor took her out and began showing her how to shoot. She kept fumbling the arrows, and she was clearly holding the bow wrong. I watched silently as he got behind her and repositioned her hands on the bow again and again. Something was wrong, but I couldn't place it.
"Well, that's enough practice for today. Mother will be wondering where I got to."
"Are you from Starrydale?" I asked.
"No," she said. "We arrived only two months ago. We're from Leafhaven."
"Interesting," Elthinor said then turned to me. "That’s one of the farthest cities into the forest. They have to deal with Elemental problems."
"Elementals are not problems," I said firmly.
"They are when they try to eat you," Shaylee said.
I glared at her as the beginnings of dislike wormed their way into my conscious thought. I was not going to budge on this position. She eventually turned away from my gaze, looking a little scared. We bid her goodbye. She was back the next day. And the next. Steadily she got better, but too slowly in my opinion. I knew for a fact that girls weren't halfwits like the Centaurs thought. She was bright, but she kept making the same mistakes over again. One day Elthinor cut his lesson short and shooed her away before grabbing his head.
"That little maiden is giving me a headache. I have never seen such a slow learner in all my life!"
"Well, Miyana and Laetitia gave Leah this amazing tea recipe that helps relieve headaches. Come, let's get you some!"
We were halfway there when I realized I forgot my bow and quiver. I turned and ran back for it as he continued on. I grabbed them from the ground and slung them over my shoulders. I turned and paused. There was Shaylee, with a cold glare aimed right at me. I walked over with a smile, hoping to soothe the situation over.
"Hello, Shaylee. Is something wrong?"
"You are," she spat. "Stay away from Elthinor."
"Excuse me?" I asked incredulously.
"Elthinor's mine. I plan to marry him. He'd make a perfect husband."
Suddenly everything she'd been doing made sense. She'd been flirting with Elthinor. Shock settled onto me, and I laughed because I couldn't think of anything else to do. She didn't like that and walked forward to slap me. I grabbed her hand before she could, but I didn't put pressure on it. I had the mentality of a male (from every culture but the Centaurs) in that I wouldn't harm a female. She began jerking her hand to try and get it out of my grip, but she stopped quickly as she realized that she might dislocate her wrist.
"Don't threaten me, Shaylee," I said then threw her hand away from me. As I turned away, I looked over my shoulder. "Elthinor is my friend. Get your own."
She was back the next day, acting sweeter and stupider than ever. It made me feel a hot ember in the pit of my stomach as I watched them. I could now see through her act, and every little move of hers was calculated to cause as much contact between them as possible. When I had time to analyze this feeling over a dinner of venison, rice, and beans while my friends and I sat around a fire, I didn't understand it. I mulled it over in my mind until my friends commented on my silence. I looked up and simply rubbed my forehead. I really did have a headache from all the figuring. That was the end of that.
Each day she came, and it made the ember in my belly climb slowly but surely into a raging inferno. The one time I had shoved her, Elthinor had grabbed me and demanded me to tell him what my problem was. When he had turned away, Shaylee had grinned meanly at me then said softly, "Don't worry, Elthinor. She didn't hurt me." It was sickening. I hated her. And she slowly began to spend more time with Elthinor, even going to spend time with us around the fire at dinner then having my Elven friend walk her back to her tent. The first time she appeared at dinner, the water skin I had just finished drinking from burst in my fist, soaking both myself and Jaiden, who was sitting beside me. He leaped up and I just stared at her. She smiled sweetly, and I thought about plunging my knife in her pale throat.
"Fily!" Jaiden gasped. "What happened?"
"I don't know," I said through gritted teeth.
"Must have been a bad skin," Shaylee said then introduced herself.
I didn't eat my food, just moved it around my plate. Elthinor was talking animatedly with my friends. Shaylee was watching him with a lovey-dovey expression on her face. Jaiden suddenly got up and Valtrak took his place.
"You should eat, Filynora," he said, taking a small bit of rice with his fingers.
"I'm not hungry," I said, my voice sounding funny.
"That doesn't mean you don't need to eat," he said firmly, placing the rice he had taken into his mouth. He chewed, watching me with those wise eyes of his, and swallowed. "You don't really like her, do you?" It was said quietly so the others wouldn't hear us.
"What's to like? Her colors don't match, she's never done a day's honest work, and she's just so stupid!" I growled low in my throat.
Valtrak stared at me then nodded. "I see."
There was a bark that interrupted all of us. As I cried out in joy and stood, Shaylee shrieked, diving behind Elthinor.
"It's a Hellhound! Kill it!" she wailed.
I laughed hard. "Cowardly Elf!" I said sweetly, mimicking her. "Come here, Ember!"
He bounded forward and placed his paws on my shoulders, licking my face. He had taken a trip with Aloron, my father, and a few Centaurs to get wood from the forest to the east. Elthinor came forward to get his face licking. Pinnathir, Valtrak, and Jaiden pet him kindly and Gabrithon knelt down to receive the same treatment Elthinor and I had gotten. When they had settled back, Shaylee stood there, looking terrified. Elthinor smiled kindly.
"Come now, Shaylee. I know you've had trouble with Elementals, but this one is quite tame."
He took her and guided her to Ember. He slowly led her outstretched hand towards Ember's nose. I was kneeling down with my head beside his. I stiffened as she got closer, that hot mote in my belly springing into a fire. Ember turned to look at me, and we locked eyes. In his smoldering depths, I saw a gleam of understanding; he turned to face the hand as Elthinor gently released it. I knew what was going to happen. I didn't stop it. He bit her as hard as he could, blood bursting out of the punctured skin. She screamed, tugging backwards. That just tore her skin more. I felt gleeful as I watched her struggle. I was suddenly smacked on the back of the head.
I yelped and turned to face Valtrak. "What?"
"Tell him to release her!" he snarled.
I placed a hand on my Ember's head and he opened his mouth, releasing her hand. Shaylee gasped and held the mangled flesh against her body, blood dripping down to stain the skirt of her dress.
"I thought you said he was tame!" she cried, turning to slap Elthinor with her good hand. I got satisfaction that she wasn't hanging all over him.
"He just doesn’t like some people," I said solemnly, meeting her eyes.
She froze. "Just take me home Elthinor," she said, the fresh tears on her cheeks sparkling in the firelight.
He escorted her into the darkness. I was left with my friends. Valtrak planted himself in front of me.
"You did that on purpose!" he boomed once the two Elves were far enough away.
"Did what?" I asked. "It's not my fault if Ember didn't like her!"
"It's not Ember who doesn't like her. It's you. Animals sense things like that, and he's the highest form of animal: an Elemental! He knew you didn't like her and bit her because you don't have permission to do it yourself!"
I didn't respond, petting my Ember. It was true. But I didn't care. That horrible Elfina had deserved it.
"Filynora, you didn't do that, did you?" Gabrithon asked. I said nothing. "What has gotten into you lately? You're not your old self. You're silent and sullen, and you've practically stopped eating. Now you let Ember bite that wonderful girl? It's not—"
"Shaylee is a horrible, stupid girl. And her designs are quite ugly, too," I spat, turning to glare at him.
There was shocked silence.
"Filynora, you're sounding…" Jaiden trailed off and looked to my other friends.
Pinnathir continued for him. "Are you jealous of Shaylee?"
"No!" I said angrily. "I just really don't like her spending time with Elthinor. He's my friend, not hers. She should go find her own friends. Now she's trying to steal you all away, too! If I have to have Ember destroy her then so be it!"
"That sounds like jealousy to me," Gabrithon said pointedly.
"Fine, I'm jealous. Happy?"
"No. You have no need to be jealous. I'm certainly your friend, and I'm sure everybody else here would rather spend time with you than that fawning she-Elf," the Centaur said then paused, looking at me carefully. "Why don't you like her spending time with Elthinor?"
"I told you, he's my friend! Besides that, she's trying to marry him!"
"And how does that make you feel?" Pinnathir asked.
"Like my insides are roasting," I responded, nuzzling Ember's head when he started growling.
"Do you know why?" Jaiden asked; they were all being so careful.
"Because he's my friend!"
"That's your final answer?" Valtrak asked. "I mean, there's no other reason for you to be jealous of her spending time with Elthinor?"
"Oh, come on!" Pinnathir shouted. "Why can't we tell her?"
"Because Elthinor would kill us," Jaiden said pointedly
Gabrithon moved over to kneel in front of me. "Filynora, let me fully reassure you that Elthinor would, definitely and always, pick you over Shaylee. Every single time."
I smiled and nodded, but I knew that they knew that this wasn't over.