Backstory

Cinnamon

The story of Cinnamon begins long ago. What started as a fairytale, turned to one of sadness and hardship. It’s a story of forbidden yet true love, and a lesson that just because something can be done, doesn’t mean that thing should be done.

CHAPTER I

It started when her mother, elvish and long lived, happened upon a scene of carnage one day while traveling along a narrow trail near her home. She found several bodies among the wreckage of a large wagon, the type families used when moving from one place to another. There was a man and woman, and two children among the dead, as well as four men dressed in ragged clothes. All the dead showed signs of struggle, and some of the men were missing limbs.

Hearing a whinny nearby, she noticed a man facedown by a horse, his hand hanging limply through one stirrup. Approaching, she found that the man still lived. Since she was a healer, she decided to try and help the man. Turning him over, she saw that he as well was gravely wounded, with a bloody gash on his forehead.

Stirring, the man opened his eyes, looking around wildly. After a few moments, he focused on her face and seemed to calm a bit. “Bandits” he said, before closing his eyes again.

So that was it…the man had come upon a family beset by bandits, and killed the brutes, but unfortunately not in time to save the family.

Grunting with effort, she managed to push the man onto his horse and take him home to nurse him back to health. As days passed, and with all sorts of rudimentary potions and ointments and elvish teas, he slowly recovered strength. Day after day they talked and talked. He told her tales of his travels, and that he was once in the service of a good king, but the kingdom fell. Since then, he had been selling his sword to merchants as protection for caravans. He happened upon the family and bandits while traveling from one city to another. She told him about her love for the forest, tales of her youth, and how her craft was healing through nature and small magic.

Since the man’s wounds were grave, it took weeks for him to heal. All the while he and the elvish woman spent their days together. Inevitably, they fell in love. Cinnamon is the fruit of that love.

Born out of love, but a victim of prejudice and circumstance, Cinnamon was destined to live a hard life. Unions between Elves and Humans were rare and frowned upon by both races. While a few kids were curious about her pointy ears and unusual olive skin, Cinnamon was often teased and bullied by most of them, in the small village near her home, when she had occasion to go there.

Forbidden by their parents, none of those children ever became her friend, so Cinnamon spent her time alone in the woods, playing on her own and observing and learning about nature, plants, mushrooms and herbs growing in the wild. Her mother shared with her the ancient art of animal lore, and she learned to communicate with creatures of the forest. She even learned, on a rudimentary level, how to listen to the elements (fire, water, wind, and earth).

Her father continued his work, but after one journey, he never returned. Without the protection of her brave father, Cinnamon and her mother were forced from their home by wicked townspeople, some of whom imagined that when any sort of disaster occurred, it was her to blame for. “It was that elf woman! She should not belong here!” They said. And blamed her thinking she had “cursed” them.

With the disappearance of her father, her mother struggled to make ends meet, traveling from town to town, taking whatever work was available in exchange for a few coins or a couple slices of bread. 

Her mother rarely got to use the knowledge of her ancestors, but made sure to faithfully complete the rituals of binding each solstice, and made sure Cinnamon learned and understood the importance of the tasks.

Cinnamon no longer had the luxury of idyllic days in the forest, she also had to work, often as a scullery maid or cooks helper. Her pointed ears were targets for scorn and ridicule, and she learned that most people, especially humans, were cruel and not to be trusted.

When she was only sixteen years old, her mother was killed in a brawl while working at a local tavern. She had nothing to do with the brawl, but was unfortunate enough to have stepped between two men who had no cares for anyone or anything.

Cinnamon fled the town, into the woods. Using the skills she learned as a child, she was barely able to stave off starvation. Every day she traveled deeper and deeper into the forest, determined to never again deal with the likes of humanity.  As time passed, she became at one with her surroundings, turning from mere survival to comfort and contentment. She became almost feral, and after years in the forest had mostly forgotten the ways of so-called civilization.

Many years had passed, and during the Summer Solstice of Cinnamon’s 33rd year, she was sitting before the campfire, her eyes closed, the pungent sweet smells of the herbs from the ritual she was performing slipping into her nostrils. Bittersweet memories of rituals past with her mother filled her thoughts.

She noticed a slight warmth on her right shoulder. Strange, since she hadn’t heard the noise of any approach. Unwilling to interrupt the ritual, she continued to meditate. Gradually, the warmth grew, spreading across her bosom until it was a warm embrace.

Beloved Daughter” was whispered in her ear. Stunned, she waited to see if the voice returned, or if it was just her imagination. It had been SO long since she had heard another speak.

Come with me”, said the voice. Cinnamon felt a gentle tugging sensation, as though she was being taken by the hand. She decided to let herself relax and be guided. She soon realized she could see, even though she had not opened her eyes. She could see herself sitting. Looking at her hand, she could see a faint presence, and then she looked into the smiling face of her mother.

Soon, they were floating through the air, and the sun rose, crossed the sky, and set. Then again, faster and faster, but backwards, from West to East. Before long, the sun was just a blur in the sky, and the seasons changed, winter, fall, summer, and spring. Again, and again.

Finally the frantic dance of the sun and moon slowed, and Cinnamon found herself in an unfamiliar land, hovering close to the ground. She heard the sound of hooves, and around the corner came a caravan of three wagons, and among the riders – no, it wasn’t possible! She recognized that chestnut mare, and the man riding it! It was her father!

Still in shock, confused on how she could see him, several dark shapes passed her on both sides. A war cry went up, and the caravan was beset by no less than a dozen heavily armed and armored men.

She watched as her father and three other men met the attackers, but there was no chance. She saw him fall. Now she realized at last why he never came home. Watching him draw his last breaths, she ran towards the now lifeless body, kneeled beside him and crying, she whispered “Oh, forgive me, Father…! I hated you all my life for abandoning us.” Through tear streaked eyes, she embraced him tight and added, “…I missed you so much.”

As the light slowly faded from her view, Cinnamon found herself floating again, shrouded in mist. Her mother’s voice sounded in her ears, as if circling her. “I’m sorry we left you all alone. We never imagined this would happen.

Cinnamon felt her face flush with anger at all she had endured, but that emotion was quickly replaced by guilt and an acute sense of loss. “What I’ve endured is nothing compared to you and Father. At least I’m still alive… you’re both dead!

Again she felt that warm embrace, a phantom hug. “My sweet child, our pain is long ended. We are at peace – almost so – but it’s you who are important. Yes, you are alive, but what kind of life is it?

Mother, I’m safe in the forest,” said Cinnamon. “I have everything I need.

But you aren’t being everything you need to be,” said her mother’s voice. “You ran from the world. I understand why you did, but it’s time for you to become what you are destined to be, to use your gifts and shine your light for all to see.

Cinnamon scowled “I don’t WANT anyone to see me. I wish they were all dead! I hate them!

Is that what truly fills your heart?” asked her mother. “When you look deep inside, when you REALLY search your soul, do you feel the desire to hate, or to love?

I love the forest. I love the animals and plants. My heart is full of love for them, but not for the humans.” 

None of them?” her mother asked. “What about your father? If he were alive, would he deserve to die, just because he’s human?

Cinnamon didn’t answer. It was too painful to think about her father, the shock of seeing him too fresh.

Your father was the kindest, most loving man I ever knew.” her mother said. “He gave up everything, and I mean everything, because of that love. It led him to protect others, that’s why he chose to do the work he did. Even though he died, I can tell you he did not regret trying to save other people.

That same love is in you. It’s a part of you. As is my love. We were so in love when life gave you to us, and that love continues, never waning, never ending.

And you obviously respect my teachings, I couldn’t be talking to you now otherwise. I’m here because, knowingly or not, you called to me. Thankfully so, because now I can do the one thing I need to do to be at peace, and that’s to remind you that it’s wrong to waste your gifts. It’s painful for me to see you, brought into this world by two people so full of love, lock yourself away.

Cinnamon felt her heart beating like a drum in her chest… she didn’t know what to do to change her feelings. She thought of all the years she had put between herself and the rest of the world. How could she just… “go back”???

Mother… I am scared…

This will be my final gift to you. To help you open your heart again and let it heal. To let you feel love for others, and to realize that not all creatures are bad.

Leave the forest. Believe in yourself. Share your gifts. And always, always remember our love and let it fill you.

Cinnamon felt the tears falling before her mother’s voice faded, and realized she could feel heat on her face, and hear the crackling of the fire. “Farewell mother… farewell father” she whispered.

Sitting there with her eyes closed, she considered all she had heard and seen. Was it real? Or was this just a vision?

She was trying to work up the courage to even think if she would seriously consider leaving the forest, when she opened her eyes and saw the fire had died down to just coals. Reaching for another log, she noticed something that hadn’t be there when she started the ritual earlier that night…a small, white mushroom, ringed in blue. She had never seen its like.

She knelt down closer, and when she was within a few inches of the stalk, she caught a sweet odor, like the necklace of flowers her mother used to wear.

My final gift” she remembered her mother saying.

Without thinking, and drawn to it, she reached down and popped the mushroom into her mouth. It tasted surprisingly sweet.

Suddenly, her chest swelled, as if her heart was going to leap out of her ribs. She fell to the ground, awash in a wave of emotion. She sensed world spinning. She heard a cacophony of voices in her head. She felt…EVERYTHING.

**The wood of her branches as she swayed in the wind. 

**Her lips as she kissed her child.

**The cool air on her scales as she used her fins to propel herself from the water.

**His sorrow as he looked at his hungry children.

**Laughing as he chased his love around the building.

**Spreading her wings as she leaned forward and fell from the cliff.

**Wiping the sweat from his brow as he worked the forge. 

**Leaping a brook, his antlers held high…

After what seemed like a lifetime, she gradually settled back into herself. 

Now she understood. Now she felt it — the connection. Now she knew what she had to do.

Leaning forward to lift herself from the ground, she fell back, off balance. Knitting her brow, she reached back and felt…what?

ANTLERS?!? I have antlers?!?

Taking the time to explore her body, she realized she could sense every part of her being. More than sense, she felt the ability to control. To picture herself like a fluid, changeable.

Thinking of the cliff she could swear she just left, she felt her body change again, slowly at first but then with increasing speed. The antlers melted, and she lifted her arms to reveal lustrous feathers.

Concentrating, she experimented with her new-found knowledge, and was soon shaping her body with more ease every time into any form she wished.

Smiling, and thinking of her parents, she formed an image in her mind. A creature of both man and magic. She extended her body, growing, changing. When she was finished, she looked with satisfaction at her two sets of strong legs, strong enough to carry her where she needed to go.

Gathering her most useful tools and belongings, and placing them in a bundle on her back, she turned toward the coming dawn and headed out of the woods…

CHAPTER II

After some days of walking, the forest had become more and more unfamiliar to Cinnamon. She had left behind the lands she knew like the palm of her hand. A couple of days ago, she had recognized a system of rocks and caves behind a big waterfall she passed as the same ones she fled through years ago to escape from civilization.

She recalled several days after she left the town, she heard a big water rumble. Following the sound, she found herself at the top of a cliff, the ending part of a U shaped canyon that contained a huge waterfall. Her father knew and told her about this place in one of his stories. During war, the King he once served was killed by an army of dark creatures, and with his death, the kingdom had fallen. Her father, knowing that sooner or later, death would head towards the town and its villagers, decided to ride his horse back with word of the king’s death, and save as many families as he could. He led them into the forest and hid them in the extensive cave system for months and they survived with no losses until the threat was over.

Remembering her father’s story, she climbed down the north side of the cliff, finding the path he described right behind the waterfall to get into the cave system, and once inside she made her way downhill even more until she reached a slow river at the bottom. She had used a driftwood chunk as a makeshift raft and floated with the current into utter darkness. After what seemed like hours, she had seen light ahead, and finally reached the mouth of the cave.

Standing now at the same spot, she realized it would be impossible to go back against the water current with all her belongings, so she decided to detour around the cliffs, even if it meant several days going uphill. That route also increased the possibility of finding humans… or elves… or some other living talking creature. The thought didn’t please her, though she knew she would have to face the fact one way or another soon.

While making her way around the mountains, Cinnamon began to notice a strange change in the forest. Something in the ambiance had shifted; something… she couldn’t quite explain, but the clouds seemed lower and darker than before and the daylight didn’t seem as bright as usual. A slightly odd stench seemed to saturate the plants all around. Anyone not as attuned with nature might say “Of course… Fall is coming, that’s all it is”, but not Cinnamon. She could sense things and see signs in the elements that no one else did.

But, perhaps it was just a reflection of her mood. When she first started her journey back toward civilization she was filled with joy and hope, but the longer she traveled, fear and uncertainty crept into her consciousness. Maybe that was causing her to imagine things.

As the hours passed, looking down as her steps took her forward, she noticed something on the ground that she hadn’t seen before. The grass and vegetation a few steps ahead, and a few steps behind her, seemed to be browning, as if Fall was happening all of a sudden. However as she approached, the brown field seemed to turn green under her hooves. It was quite subtle, almost imperceptible, so she walked back and forth, side to side, closely observing. Yes, it was definitely happening. The grass underfoot and the leaves on the trees seemed to change from brown to green as she walked close to them, and back to dry and withered as she left them behind.

Suddenly a strong wind blew through the trees, cooling the air abruptly. Cinnamon looked up, to see birds chattering and taking flight. Something had clearly disturbed them. Then she felt a deep rumble under her feet. Was it an earthquake? Now she heard as well as felt the rumble. It seemed a stampede was approaching! Cinnamon looked left and right, where was it coming from? Her intuition was telling he she had to think quickly. She bent over and placed her hands on the ground, buried her fingers quickly into the dirt and pictured them and her hooves growing deep roots. Concentrating, she made her skin hard as bark, her whole body into branches and her hair started growing leaves. She had turned herself into a tree, and as she continued to grow, her finger-roots extending ever deeper into the earth she heard the rumbling continue to grow.

Then she noticed a different sound…several slow and low-pitched voices were resounding around her… “It’s the darkness… the darkness… is …coming…” It was the voices of the trees whispering to each other!

As the rumble became louder, the trees quieted down, they were scared, she could feel it. She looked, and listened, and extended her senses. Now she could see them, through the trees, approaching fast. A horde of dark creatures; centaurs, fawns, elves of differing races riding emaciated horses. Darkness seemed to cling to the riders, some with their pupils dilated, the whites of their eyes a sickly shade of yellow. Others with eyes completely black as obsidian. Even though Cinnamon had never seen dark magical creatures, she knew that is what these must be. Feeling their touch through the forest floor sent a wave of revulsion through her changed body. Stranger still is that there were so many grouped together in a horde like this.

The dark creatures spread out, apparently hunting for something.

Again, she heard a deep, slow voice in her mind. “I see… a man… the darkness doesn’t possess him… Survive… He has to survive…” One of the elder trees slowly continued. “Child… you need to protect him… We can’t help him… but you can… Protect him… Be quick!… Protect him!

Cinnamon cast about herself again, and found that the elderly tree was right. There was a man, dressed in worn leather armor and carrying two saddlebags, running away from the horde. She looked into his eyes… quite normal, though wide from fear and exertion. He was obviously attempting to escape the dark creatures.

As the man ran, the sentient trees slowly lifted their roots and lowered their branches in several ways to block his path, diverting him, guiding him towards her. As soon as he ran close, Cinnamon tripped him and grabbed his foot with her roots, making him drop his cargo. As quickly as her tree-body would let her, she entangled both his legs in her roots, dragging him, lifting him up against her trunk, wrapping him up more and more in roots and branches. Soon the man was completely hidden inside the darkness of her tree-body. She then pulled the dropped saddles under the ground with her roots to keep them safe.

“WHAT…. the hell…..??!!!” The man sputtered, and tried to reach down for his blade, but Cinnamon quickly surrounded his hand and said “No!” Forming a human sized face out of her bark in front of the man’s face, Cinnamon whispered “Shh. Be quiet” The man stopped struggling. “You are safe” she added. She opened a small hole in herself above his head to allow light and fresh air into the cocoon-like space. “My bags!” the man exclaimed. “Shh. Safe and hidden.” she answered, “Now quiet, they are coming!” Hugging him and his precious cargo, she kept still, waiting and observing.

Soon she could hear the hunters, as well as feel them. “Where’d he go!!??? He can’t be far!!! FIND HIM! FIND HIM!” She could clearly see all the dark creatures riding around the trees, hunting for the man. One of the elves, who seemed to be the leader of the horde, screamed commands at the others. They spread out across the woods in every direction, searching. They beat the bushes, broke branches and hacked with their swords. Cinnamon could feel all of that, as her roots were connected deep into the forest, and she flinched in pain every time, but remained silent.

Cinnamon and her captive stayed in place, quiet, and waited. Finally the noise grew less, until they could hear no more. The forest quieted down, the tension and the oddity in the air slowly vanished away. Minutes later, the elderly tree whispered “It’s safe now, you can let him go.” She slowly opened her entangled branches and roots freeing the man, who jumped out of her hollow trunk to the ground. Then with much cracking noises her branches started to shrink, her leaves changing into entangled curly black hair. Her roots pulled free from the dirt, forming her legs and feet. Lastly, she pulled her root-hands off the ground, retrieving from the dirt the man’s pair of saddlebags. She placed the cargo at his feet, and then the roots shrunk down forming hands. Pieces of bark fell off her body, turned into glittery dust and disappeared on the ground, revealing smooth olive skin, and the remains of a tree trunk turned slowly into the body of a young woman.

The man watched the transformation with eyebrows raised, looked her up and down from head to toe as the transformation completed, then looked pointedly into her eyes. Dropping down to one knee, he quickly inspected the contents of both saddle bags, then stood up, slinging a bag over each shoulder.

“Well,” he said with a crooked smile, “that is without a doubt, the most interesting thing to happen to me today. Thank you.”

After a few seconds, Cinnamon realized she hadn’t answered and must have been staring at him. She quickly turned away and started dusting dirt and dry leaves off herself and fixing her furs. Avoiding his gaze she started to walk away.

“Wait!” He said, grabbing her wrist. “What… Who… are you?”

“I am …no one” she answered timidly.

“You just saved my life! You can’t be no one…” he insisted, refusing to let her go. “What’s your name?”

Cinnamon felt his firm grip. Slowly, she met his eyes and then averted her gaze. “They asked me to save you”.

“They?” He looked around, confused.

“The trees. They wanted you safe” pulling her wrist free from his grasp. She sighed and added “My name is Cinnamon. I was born elven… half elven.”

“You were born…” the man looked at her with eyebrows knitted and said “I’ve never seen an elf, or anyone for that matter, do anything like what you just did. There is obviously much more to you than meets the eye.” Smiling, he said “My name is Gunnar. It is nice to meet you, Cinnamon, and thank you again for saving my life.”

She nodded politely and said “You’re welcome.” She looked at the sky and noticed the sun was nearing the tops of the trees. “It’s getting dark. You should find shelter.”

“WE …should find shelter” he interrupted. “They might come back”. It’s not safe here, and I will feel much better knowing that I didn’t leave you alone in this forest. Besides, I have a few questions I would REALLY like to ask you,” he said, shaking his head and smiling.

Cinnamon and Gunnar headed out, looking for a place to make camp for the night. They found a grotto on the side of a small cliff. She gathered some wood to made a fire, and Gunnar asked if he could use her bow. She reached over and handed him her bow and quiver. Nodding in appreciation, he headed out to hunt. Settling in next to the fire, she watched him leave and thought about the events of the day.

She was surprised at how easily she had found it to talk with Gunnar. After years of being alone, she expected her first encounter with people to be awkward. But with Gunnar, it was just the opposite. There was something about him, that made her feel like he was a friend. Now that she thought about it, her only real friends had been animals, and when she had looked into his eyes, she hadn’t seen the cold menace she remembered from humans in her past. What she saw was the eyes of the forest; the wolf, loyal and brave…the bear, strong and proud…and the buck, gentle and protective.

She was still very wary of his intentions, but despite her best efforts could not help but be drawn to him, to want to know him better. She found herself anticipating his return. She also had many questions about what had happened. Who were those creatures who had attacked him? Where did they come from?

She sensed him before she heard him. Gods, he was quiet!

Gunnar came back with a couple of rabbits. Laying her bow and quiver close to her, he sat down by the fire and started to prepare the rabbits. Cinnamon remained quiet, as she rarely used her voice in all the years she spent isolated.

They sat in silence while Gunnar shaved bark from some branches to make a spit. Once the meat was roasting over the fire, he asked “How… earlier today, how did you do what you did?”

“I am a shape-shifter,” she said.

“A shape-shifter. I have never met one, the gift must be rare,” he said. “So you can change into anything?”

“Only living things. Deep in our spirits, we are all connected to each other. I can feel that connection, very strongly, and use that to become what I feel,” she said. I can feel you as well, she thought to herself.

“Well, either you are loved by the gods, or you are a dark witch. You said you were born elven?”

“Half elven” She corrected. “Mother was an elf. Father was a human. I lived during my childhood in the outskirts of Thessaly”.

“Well, half elven… the gods must think you are special then, for giving you that ability.”

“I am not… that special” she replied, lowering her gaze to the flames.

“What I witnessed today says otherwise, Cinnamon. You saved me, and you have no idea how fortunate that is for everyone. I have an important task to complete, and I must not fail. I can’t help but believe you were sent to me for a reason.”

“Well. I saved you because I was told to do so. All I did was to obey”.

“Some trees” he scoffed.

His dismissive comment irritated her. “Trees have been here long before us. When the trees ask you to do something, you don’t hesitate. They are old and their knowledge is infinite. But they are very very proud creatures, it must have been really important for them to keep you safe, to be bothered to talk to me at all”.

You can hear the trees talking?”

“I’ve always been able to communicate with other living creatures. My Mother taught me, it’s an elvish ability. I’ve always sensed the wisdom of the trees, especially during the days close to Solstice. But they had never talked to me in my own language before”.

“So. They asked you to keep me safe. And you obeyed, yes, but you still used your own judgment, AND abilities, Cinnamon. YOU chose to help me. Don’t underestimate yourself”.

Cinnamon felt conflicted. She didn’t think she was special, at all. Memories of childhood bullies made certain of that. And yet, the way he said that she was special awakened an unfamiliar feeling in her. What is this feeling?

She remembered feeling like this when her mother smiled at her as she learned the name of a new herb. Or when her father laughed and hugged her when she hit the mark with her arrow. She felt like this when a doe looked at her warily, but approached her anyway, trusting enough to nuzzle its nose into her hand.

She glanced up and saw he was still looking at her. She looked at the flames again for a moment, thinking.

“What were those creatures?” she asked.

“Know you not of Vitrollia?” he asked. She shook her head no. He looked at her, puzzled. “Well, not everyone knows, or realizes the danger. Let me enlighten you.”

“Those were dark scavengers. They are sent by Vitrollia to hunt creatures that have, in one way or another, not fallen under her spell. She sends hordes of them into the forest. It’s open season on people like us. They either kill you or abduct you, then take you to their dungeons and torture you until you succumb to her will or beg to be killed. There are very few safe places now, most of them are just remote little areas, or isolated enough for Vitrollia to not be interested enough in dominating.”

Cinnamon listened to every word of his story. She learned about the evil sorceress Vitrollia, and how the world in her domain had slowly, without even being noticed, fallen into darkness, turning creatures against each other, and corrupting the land. “She has been doing this for many years. She seems to take a perverse pleasure in corrupting the fey and other gentle souls” he said. “She has also enlisted the help of creatures of darkness, those who are inherently evil and hate everything living. They were the ones you saw whose eyes were black as the night.”

He told her about the secret resistance groups, and how he had been sent by the centaurs of the tribes of Cloudbirth and Roonwit with several vials of a powder-spell, “Invertitia” along with the recipe and precise instructions to replicate it. When inhaled, invertitia counteracts Vitrollia’s control. Creatures treated show confusion at first, often stopping whatever they are doing and standing with a blank expression on their faces. With time and care, they can be brought back to some semblance of normal.

The plan was to use Invertitia in a coordinated surprise attack against the dark forces of Vitrollia in a few days time. A signal would be sent and the attack would start at the exact same time across the lands. Gunnar had been delivering caches of Invertitia for weeks to different resistance groups around the country. This was his final delivery, meant for the men of Whitburn. Since humans didn’t possess the skills to replicate Invertitia, his current cargo was even more precious. They would have to make do with what he carried.

As she learned more and more about the dark state of the world, Cinnamon searched her memories. Maybe that’s why her Mother and Father chose to locate her family home away from town. She suspected they would have known this was happening. And about her Mother’s magical skills, she might even have been part of the resistance. But she wasn’t sure and there was no way to know. She did remember that the more time passed, people’s behavior became more and more cruel, so much so that it seemed to be their nature. Her father had mentioned once that the king he served, was defeated by an army of dark creatures. She had no doubt now they must have been commanded by that same terrible witch. Maybe that’s where all that evilness came from. Maybe during her childhood, it wasn’t that everyone was truly hateful, just that she was living through the start of the dark years.

“So that’s why it is crucial that I make it to Whitburn and the nearby villages with my delivery. If I don’t get there in time…” Gunnar shook his head. “And now I have no horse.”

Cinnamon recalled the words of her Mother during her vision. ”It’s time for you to become what you are destined to be.” The words resounded in her head. “Maybe,“ she took a deep breath and continued “I guess if getting to Whitburn is as important to you, perhaps I can help you with the delivery?”

Gunnar smiled, his eye widening. “I was hoping you say that.”

“Then we should rest” She said ”We have a long day ahead”.

CHAPTER III

Cinnamon and Gunnar headed out from the cave at first light. Once in flat land, she stepped back and closed her eyes, recalling strong horse legs and elven upper body. When she opened her eyes, she had turned into a Centaur. Gunnar smiled and looked at her appreciatively.

That’s so impressive,” he said. “I’m not sure I’ll ever get tired of seeing you do that.”

She shook her head, then smiled herself. “Get on” she said, “we can’t waste any time.” She got to her knees to make it easier for him to mount. Settling his saddlebags across her haunches, Gunnar climbed onto her back.

Umm…I’m used to having stirrups and reins. How do I hang on?” he asked.

Cinnamon lowered her head and hid a smile. “Put your arms around me. That way you won’t fall if I have to make any sharp turns”.

Gunnar slid forward and clasped his hands together around her abdomen. She stood effortlessly and soon they were riding fast like the wind, towards Withburn.

During the long hours of travel, he shared with her many tales of his adventures. She found herself sharing as well. She was surprised that he seemed genuinely interested, and the words just flowed. When they stopped to rest, she even laughed and joked with him.

The third night of the journey, when they made camp and built a fire, she was looking at him as he stared into the fire. He quietly started to sing, and she found his voice soothing. As she listened to the words, she lost herself in the song.

From the land down low,
comes a tale of woe.

Ne’er a land so fair,
yet filled with despair.

And yet still I go,
when the cold winds blow.

Cause I’ll ne’er forget,
how it used to be.

There I learned to smile,
if only for a while.

There I learned to cry,
as I said good bye.

The ashes of my friends,
carry on the winds.

Ne’er more to see,
how it used to be.

Though I tried to fight,
tried with all my might.

When at last I woke,
the reaper man had spoke.

I found my self alone,
na trace of my home.

Now I roam the land,
living by my hand.

But I can’t forget,
how it used to be.

When he stopped singing, she wiped hot tears from her cheeks. Her emotions were raging. The words she just heard woke old bittersweet memories of her Mother and Father, her lonely times in the forest, the town and it’s people… His song filled her with sorrow, and as she looked at him she felt a fierce desire to protect him. He seemed so kind, so giving, and yet – so alone. Why had life been so cruel to him? Why do the kind have to be the ones to suffer? She wanted to hug him, and to tell him that he wasn’t the only one who felt afraid and isolated.

That was the root of it, wasn’t it? Fear? The fear of trusting, because you might be betrayed? The fear of caring, because you might lose what you love?

Thinking back on all she had lost, she began to think that maybe not everyone was cruel. Gunnar had lost everything as well, but rather than running away, he fights against those who are evil and who take from others.

Is that what I’m supposed to do? Is that my purpose? She thought about how she met Gunnar so soon after that night seeing her mother. In this wide world, what were the chances of running into someone with such a similar background, who was on a mission to fight the very type of beings who are trying to destroy everything she cares about?

Yes… yes she DOES care. About the forest, about the animals, and about Gunnar. She didn’t realize how much she cared… until this moment.

Oh gods, but did she dare to care? What if she opened her heart to him, and then something happened? What if he was taken from her, just like her Mother and Father?

A phrase from her father slipped into her mind, “To win everything, sometimes you have to risk everything.

Looking again at Gunnar as he stared into the fire, he noticed her gaze, and broke into a crooked grin. “Well, now you know a little more about me,” he said.

She continued to stare. What emotion was she seeing in his eyes? Was it just sadness from the song, or something more? Was it – longing? Did he feel the same for her, as she felt for him?

He tilted his head a bit and made a questioning expression. She made a decision. She stood up and walked over to him. Settling beside him on the ground, she looked once again into the fire.

I FEEL you, Gunnar. Deep in my soul.” He continued to listen in silence, waiting for her to say more.

I think we are a lot alike” she said. Slowly, tentatively, she slid her hand over to brush against his. Her heart beating in her ears, she waited.

She heard a hitch in his breathing, and then a gentle sigh. He covered her hand with his, gently clasping her fingers.

They sat in silence for a while, just holding hands and staring at the fire. She could see him looking at her from time to time. She heard him take a deep breath, hold it, then slowly let it out.

I have to be honest with you,” he said quietly. “I’m afraid. I’m more afraid that I’ve been in any fight.” A few seconds passed, and he continued. “I’m afraid to be honest, because of how I feel about you, and I’m afraid to be hurt. I’m afraid to tell you how I feel, because you might not believe me or think I’m crazy, and I might scare you away.

She gave his hand a squeeze and tried to speak, but found her mouth was as dry as cotton. Licking her lips and swallowing, she managed to say “I’m scared too. I’ve been scared for too long that I almost have forgotten how kindness used to feel

He reached over and clasped her other hand, and turned her so he was looking her in the face. He searched her eyes, and apparently finding encouragement there, continued.

When I was a boy, I was so happy,” he said. “Life was wonderful… magical. I was loved, LOVED, by my family, and I loved them. But then everything changed. They were taken from me. All of it was just – gone. I was so lost. I wanted to just give up.

Eventually, I found purpose. Since I couldn’t forget, I focused my pain, my sorrow, into anger. I wanted to hurt those who had hurt me. So I trained, and worked, and learned, until finally I was ready to go after them.

That was good enough for a while, and I found some satisfaction, especially when dealing final justice to thieves, bandits, and worse.  But I found it to be a hollow pursuit. I didn’t find any happiness there. I realized that hate was not what I wanted in my heart, that I was made for another emotion.

So instead of killing, I turned to searching for and sharing information. I found no small amount of work as a courier. And so I have made my living for these last years. Content to learn all that I can, and to find enjoyment in seeing new places and different cultures.

I thought I had found my balance. Until, that is, I quite literally ran into you. The moment I saw you, when I looked into your eyes for the first time, really looked, I felt something stirring inside me. The more time we spent together, the more you shared with me, the more I realized how similar we are. And the more I saw of you, the more I started to care for you.

That’s why I’m hoping now that you don’t run away from me. That you believe me when I tell you how I feel about you, and what you are doing for and to me. For most of my life, I’ve been missing the love that I used to hold in my heart as a child. That wonder, that joy. But when I look at you, when I watch you do the simplest thing, my heart feels like it will burst.

I know we’ve only known each other a short time, but believe me when I say that I love you. I want to be a part of your life, and I hope you will share yours with me. Because now that you’ve managed to open my heart, I can’t close it again. And with the world at war as it is right now… I can’t bear the thought of you slipping through my fingers without having told you how I feel.

Please, trust me. Look into my eyes, really look, and then tell me. Do you, can you, be with me?”

He looked at her with a hopeful, yet pained expression. She did look at him, and realized she could see HIM, really see him. Closing her eyes, a tear slipped down her cheek. She placed her forehead against this, caressed his cheek and then slowly placed a kiss in his lips. He pulled her into his arms and hugged her oh so tightly.

That night, for the first time in her life, she gave herself to another. She discovered an undreamed of joy, and formed a deep connection with Gunnar. Impossible as it seemed, she professed her love. Gunnar, in turn, pledged himself to her. Hers, until the end of his days.

—< o >—

They arrived safely to Withburn after another day of traveling. On the outskirts of town, Gunnar told Cinnamon it would be best if she appeared in her true elven form, instead of as a centaur.

These people are mistrustful of anything that seems unnatural to them,” he said. “It wasn’t always this way, but they have suffered many attacks in the last few years, and always from fey or dark creatures. So from their point of view, it’s hard for them to trust anyone they don’t know.

It’s been more than 2 years since I last passed this way. Hopefully many will remember me kindly.

He slid from her back, shouldered his bags, and watched as she changed. When she was done, he faced her and raised one hand to gently rub the tip of her left ear.

They will be leery of you,” he said. “It’s not right, but it’s understandable. So please don’t do anything to spook them.

I…” she hesitated and gave a step back. “Not sure if I can do this…” She looked at him in the eye, as bad memories from the people of Thessaly filled her thoughts.

You will be safe with me. I promise.” said Gunnar, laying a hand on the hilt of the sword at his belt.

They walked into the village together, and people scurried out of their way, casting furtive glances in their direction. A few stared at them, and frowned when they saw Cinnamon. She, nervous, avoided all gazes and kept her eyes low, as she held Gunnar’s arm with both hands.

Suddenly, her nostrils flared as she picked up a familiar stench, and her instincts made her raise her eyes and look into one of those staring gazes. As she stared, the old man narrowed his eyes into an intense glare. The white in his eyes had turned into a sick shade of yellow. She quickly turned her look away as to not provoke the man further. “It is here”. She whispered. Gunnar, without reacting dramatically, leaned his head closer to her. “The darkness. It is here already”. Then among a group of merchants on the street she noticed an elder man. And then that woman carrying water from the well… She kept briefly looking into people’s eyes and using her empathic abilities to determine whether they have been turned into the darkness or not… apparently there were not too many, however, she could feel them. It felt exactly like before, when she was a child and her Mother took her to town to buy fruit and bread. The same staring gazes as if she was for some reason a target of their scorn.

Gunnar led them through the small town, looking from side to side. Finally, he stopped in front of what appeared to be a small temple. Looking at Cinnamon, he pointed to a faint symbol unobtrusively painted on the eave. Cinnamon looked up and recognized it as one of the secret symbols of the resistance he had shown her.

Raising his eyebrows at her, he knocked firmly on the door. Then again. Eventually the door opened to reveal a large man with one eye missing. Looking first at Gunnar, then to Cinnamon, the man grunted and turned back inside, motioning for them to follow.

Once inside, Gunnar closed the door behind them. The man looked at Gunnar and said loudly, “You’ve got a lot o’ nerve showin’ yer face around ‘ere.

Facing Gunnar and sticking a meaty finger in his face, he spat on the floor. “In fact, I’ve a mind to fix that ugly face for ya!” Stepping right up and putting his nose almost against Gunnar’s, he swayed from side to side, breathing heavily.

Suddenly a wide grin split the man’s face, and he and Gunnar hugged each other and broke out into laughter.

Gort, you old scoundrel, how are you?” Gunnar asked, slapping the man on the back.

“‘andsomer than you, as always!” Gort replied. Looking at Cinnamon, he said “Not as ‘andsome as this one ya got wi’ ya, though!

Cinnamon blushed and smiled. Gunnar introduced the two of them, and Gort led them to a small table, and once they were seated brought 3 mugs and a jug of ale.

Gort told them of the overall situation in Withburn, how there had been sporadic raids from small bands of marauders, and that so far they had been able to repel the attacks. Work had begun on a wooden palisade, and stores of food were being set aside in case of a siege.

Gunnar said that he wanted to hold a town meeting to let everyone know that a large battle was imminent and that they had to make preparations. He explained about Vitrollia, that she was the cause behind the troubles, and how she used her powers to turn people to her will. He showed the bottles of invertitia he had brought, and explained its use in freeing people from Vitrollia’s spell. Cinn told Gort about the few people in the town whom she suspected had been corrupted.

After an hour or so of getting caught up with each other, and Gort cajoling a few answers and a smile or two out of Cinnamon, Gort headed to the town hall to set up a meeting for later that evening.

—< o >—

It seemed that most of the townsfolk had gathered outside the great hall for the meeting, curious and eager for any news. Gort asked for quiet, and then introduced Gunnar and Cinnamon, letting everyone know that Gunnar was a courier who carried an important message. Gunnar stepped to the center of the gathering, raising his voice to be heard.

Good people of Withburn, I know you have suffered in recent years, both from less than normal crop yields and from attacks. I’m here to tell you that these are not coincidental. There is a dark force at work, and has been for a long time.

A powerful and cunning sorceress, named Vitrollia, has been casting a spell over the land. You may have noticed the forest seems drier, and in places is withered or rotting unusually. This is her work, as she sucks the life from the land as well as from the people.

But equally as vile is her ability to turn people, nay, not just people, but all manner of folk and creatures to her will. Once enthralled to her, they enthusiastically follow her instructions, believing they are doing the right thing, even if it means sacrificing themselves. They let nothing get in their way.

Cinnamon noticed an old man leaning on a withered staff, frowning as he listened to Gunnar. She realized it was the same man she saw earlier, who to her senses, reeked with the stench of malice. She looked pointedly at Gunnar, and then back to the man, placing her hand upon the dagger at her belt.

Her reach is vast, and she commands huge hordes,” Gunnar continued. “And yet there are groups working to defeat her and her plans for domination. Resistance groups have been preparing for months, hoarding weapons and developing a way to break her control. That is why I was sent here, to let you know that we have intelligence that suggests a huge battle is likely only days away, and so that we can work together to prepare.

I have brought…

BAH!” interrupted the old man, spitting on the ground, and waving his staff around to draw attention. “What a barrel of hogwash! You, you say, have been sent to ‘save’ us all, have you? And from what? Bad crops? Thieves? Those are nothing new, as any farmer can tell you.

Several of the townspeople were starting to mutter, a few of the nodding their heads in agreement. The man turned to look at them as he walked past. “I say, he’s just a shyster, him and his elf partner, sent here to try and talk us out of our hard earned goods!

Gunnar raised his voice as well, “On the contrary, we’ve not come to take anything from you, in fact, I was sent with a gift for the town.” Kneeling down on one knee, he opened one of his saddlebags and took out a small glass vial.

Snake oil, is it?” the old man shouted. “Magic tonic to heal all our ills?” Turning and walking toward Gunnar, he raised his staff over his head as if to strike. “I say you’re a liar and a thief!

Moving faster than seemed possible for a man of his size, Gort stepped past the man, grabbed the raised staff in one hand and clamped the other arm around the man’s neck. At the same time, Gunnar uncapped the vial and in one smooth motion swung it in front of the man’s face, releasing a small cloud of powdery dust that in a magical motion traveled into his nostrils. Much as if the potion knew what its job was.

The man opened his mouth and took a deep breath in order to yell a curse, but then stopped with his mouth open. His eyes took on a blank expression, and he released the staff and fell to his knees, Gort released his neck as he dropped.

Gunnar heard muttering erupt in the crowd of people. A woman’s voice shouted “He’s poisoned him!” Desperate to get the situation under control before it got out of hand, Gunnar yelled, “WAIT! He’s perfectly fine. Look, and watch.

Here, I will take the Invertitia as well, as will Gort and my companion Cinnamon, to prove it’s safe. Look!” He poured a small amount of the powder into his palm, raised it to his nose, and inhaled. Then, he made it obvious when the other two took it in as well.

This powder is the gift I was sent to deliver. It’s called invertitia, and it has the power to counteract the effects on those who have been seduced by Vitrollia. On anyone else, it has no effect, but for those acting against their will, it frees them and slowly allows them to regain their senses. The immediate effect is confusion, followed quickly by a new sense of awareness. Watch. Within the hour, this man will be a different person.

Gort chose that moment to speak up. “Ye all know me,” he said. “I been ‘ere longer than some o’ you been alive, and there’s ‘ardly a one o’ ye what ‘asn’t come to my place to ‘ave me mend a wound or set a bone.

A few of the crowd looked at each other, then looked down and shuffled about. Gort continued, “An just as ye know me, I know this man ‘ere. ‘E’s as good as they come, ‘e’ll have your back in a pinch, and I trust ‘im wi’ my life.

Gunnar capped the vial and handed it to Gort, clapping him on the shoulder. “Any of you who wish, may examine the bottle. It is precious, however, so please be careful not to open it. Believe me when I tell you there is a battle coming, and if we aren’t ready, it will wash over us all, and I do mean us. I’m here with you until this is over, no matter the outcome.

Cinnamon slowly approached the old man, and kneeling in front of him, she held his head straight to be able to look into his eyes. The sickly yellow in them slowly started to dissipate and his breathing became a tad labored as the potion-spell fought the darkness inside this body. After a few minutes, his breathing steadied and the whites of his eyes were almost completely clear. “It is working…” she smiled and looked at Gunnar, somewhat relieved… “He’s coming back.” Gunnar nodded and smiled grimly.

A short while later, the old man with the staff started to blink rapidly. Cinnamon stood up and walked back to Gunnar’s side to give the man some space. He looked around confusedly, then his eyes took on a faraway look as if remembering something. Closing his eyes, he began to weep, his soft sobs broken by the occasional “I’m so sorry.

People from the town gathered around the man, touching him encouragingly, and he began to tell them that it was true, that he had until just now been under a spell. He told of meeting a man who he now realizes must have been an acolyte of Vitrollia. The man spent close to a week at his house, talking with him and explaining, quite reasonably it seemed at the time, about his queen and how she was working to change the world for the better.

He named a few others who had spent time with the man, and after Cinnamon confirmed they indeed appeared to be corrupt, they too were given invertitia and recovered. Cinn, Gunnar, and Gort spent the rest of the day meeting everyone in the town to ensure there were no others who had been turned.

A meeting was set for early the next morning for the men of the village to start planning the defense of the town. Gunnar and Cinnamon spent the night with Gort, visiting briefly with town leaders to become better acquainted.

Cinn asked Gunnar for a vial of invertitia, and for the recipe. Thanks to her mother, she was well versed in mixing poultices and solutions, and wanted to examine it. When she opened the vial, she noticed the sweet smell from earlier when she had taken it. A familiar smell. She unfurled the recipe and carefully read the ingredients.

Centaurea” she murmured. A memory of her Mother making cornflower garlands for her when she was a girl came to her mind. Her gaze drifted away from the parchment as she remembered filling baskets with her mother with items they found in the forest. ‘Toadstool, quartz, crocus sativus…’ she kept reading.

The instructions mentioned that Centaurea -also known as cornflower- is a flower associated with love, capable of neutralizing negative effects on those who carry it. As with all living things however, the magic vanishes when it dies. Apparently though, according to the recipe, some of the ingredients in the precise amounts listed serve to preserve the effects, making them permanent.

Another integral ingredient for the process was any magical amulet. She looked down and reached into her vest, and pulled out the pendant she carried at all times. She kept it more for sentimental reasons than for any magical purposes, for It was her Mother’s pendant, an ornate elvish piece of jewelry made of old silver, with tweaked swirls that encased a hollow quartz, and a small plate at the top with carved runes.

Holding the pendant in one hand, she read the recipe several times, and drifted off to sleep considering the steps necessary to create more.

—< o >—

The next morning, Gunnar and Gort were gathered with several others around a large table inside the town hall. Cinn sat a short distance away from Gunnar, her back against the wall, once again perusing the recipe for invertitia.

The discussion covered several topics, from attempting to complete the palisade, to setting up ambush sites away from town, to provisions, available weapons, and to the protection of the women, children and those too old or frail to fight. They also discussed the best use of the limited stocks of invertitia available.

Hearing that, Cinn looked up and spoke. “I think I can help with that,” she said. “I’ve studied the recipe, and I’m pretty sure I can make more. I just need to go and gather…

Absolutely not!” Gunnar interrupted. “There is no way I’m going to let you go out gathering, not when there might be raiding parties like the one we ran into on the way here.

I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself,” snapped Cinn. “Remember who saved YOU during that attack!

Gunnar looked her in the eye, glared and said “Be that as it may, we still can’t risk losing you. We need you, and your ability to sense the corruption. The answer is no. We will make do with what we have.

Cinn slumped back against the wall, crossing her arms and looking away, an angry expression on her face.

The conversation at the table continued, and at one point the need to protect those unable to fight came up again.

It’s going to take more than we ‘ave to keep ‘em safe,” Gort said. “There’s nowhere we can put ‘em that we can defend.

Cinn sat up, and said quietly “I know a way…” Everyone looked at her. She stood up and walked to the table. Looking at the map spread across it, she pointed to a spot some distance to the east of town. “This is Whitburn… Thessaly is here.” She drew a circle. “Half a day walking southeast from Thessaly, there’s this huge waterfall…” she said, making an X on the map.

The Half Moon falls” said Gort, smiling at her.

Cinnamon lifting her eyes, replied “I didn’t know the name… Father talked to me about them. When the Kingdom of Norton fell, he saved half the town by leading them to hide behind those waterfalls many years ago. They all survived”.

Everyone muttered in surprise. “Behind?” Gunnar asked.

There is a cave system not many know about. It is well hidden, has water, and is large enough to hold everyone. Walking distance is a couple of days, more or less. We could take the women and children there to safety.

Gunnar raised his eyebrows. Then he looked at Gort, then back at Cinnamon. “Do you know exactly where they are?

I do. In fact I just had passed the falls on my way before I met you”.

Gunnar looked at the spot she indicated, looked her in the eyes, then looked around at the others seated at the table and back at Cinn for a few moments, then nodded. “Agreed,” he said. “You and a few warriors will lead the townspeople to the caves, and keep them safe. I must remain here to work on the defenses and remain for the battle.

Cinnamon felt his words like a punch in her guts. She hadn’t considered splitting up, and felt sickened by the idea of getting separated from Gunnar. She gritted her teeth and swallowed, then went back to her seat for a while. The rest of the meeting turned to battle strategies and ambushes for the enemy, things she knew nothing about. Discreetly, she walked out of the building and sat on the door step, and watched the people passing by.

It was cloudy, and the air had a humid mossy smell. She heard soft thunder in the distance, and before long, rain drops began to fall. She looked at the sky, closing her eyes and breathing in the fresh air. Overwhelmed by emotion, she thought of everything that was happening around her. The people in town. The potion. The upcoming war. Her newly given responsibility over elderly men, women and children, to keep them safe. The fact that she and Gunnar were going to have to part ways soon. She kept her eyes closed as she let the rain pour over her face. ‘Running water cleanses it all’ Mother used to say.

A child’s laughter brought her back from her thoughts. A young boy and girl were playing in a newly formed puddle across the street, laughing and screaming as they jumped and splashed each other. Suddenly, the little boy slipped on the mud and fell into the water. Breaking into tears, he wailed until his sister helped him to his feet. Still with hiccups from crying, a minute later a woman came out of the building and picked him up in her arms, cleaning his muddy face with her own sleeve. Cinnamon watched the heartwarming scene and then closed her eyes, drifting into her thoughts again.

As always aware of her surroundings, she sensed the small presence by her side, but continued to meditate, until she heard a small voice. “Are you an elf?” Opening her eyes, Cinn saw a small girl, perhaps six years old, looking at her. Wearing a homespun dress, hands in her pockets, she had pale skin, rosy cheeks and ebony hair split into two braids, and wet as a mop from head to toe. Standing about two feet away from her, the girl was paying enormous attention to Cinn’s unusual pointy ears.

Umm… I am.” Cinnamon smiled slightly.

The girl smiled back at her, and taking a hand out of her pocket reached out to touch Cinn’s right ear. Cinnamon followed her hand with her eyes and stayed very still, a bit nervous, but letting the little girl satisfy her curiosity. A few seconds later and without thinking, she leaned her head forward so the girl could reach better. The little girl smiled even bigger.

Once she was done examining, she put her hands back in her pockets. “My name is Faylen. What’s your name?

I am Cinnamon” she replied.

Like the flowers?” Faylen said, opening her eyes very wide and smiling. “My mama makes tea with them. She says it’s good for the coughs

Yes! Like the flowers.” Cinn smiled at her widely. “You are a smart little girl”. Faylen smiled broadly and giggled at that. Plopping herself down beside Cinnamon, she began talking. Cinnamon found herself talking animatedly, and realized she was thoroughly enjoying the conversation.

At some point, the conversation lulled, and Faylen watched a man limp by, his left leg wrapped in a large bandage. When he had passed, she asked Cinnamon, “Is it true that there’s bad people out there? I’m a big girl, but that scares me a little”.

Yes, Faylen, it’s true. But don’t be afraid. We will keep you safe.” Cinnamon replied, gently twirling her fingers along one of Faylen’s braids.

The woman from earlier came outside calling for Faylen, who ran to her, but not before pausing to wave goodbye to Cinnamon.

Someone has made a new friend, I see?” said Gunnar, as he was standing right behind Cinnamon. He offered her a hand to stand up. She smiled slightly, and took his hand. “Come on,” he said. “We need to go spread word about the journey.” They were to leave at first light the next morning. Gort, Cinnamon, and two rangers would accompany the group, and keep them hidden once they arrived.

That night, lying in each other’s arms, Gunnar and Cinn pondered having to part after such a short time together. “I can’t believe we have to do this,” he said, stroking her hair as she lay with her head on his chest. “I hate it. I’ll do it, because it has to be done, but I hope I don’t live to regret it. You have to promise me, my love, to keep yourself safe. I have to know that you will be alright.

I don’t want to leave you here; why don’t you come with us?” Cinnamon said, lifting her eyes.

I can’t. I have to remain in town and organize our defenses. They will be lost without someone to tell them what to do”.

Then YOU promise me YOU will stay safe,” she said. “I can hide in the forest and disappear in a moment, shifting into anything. It is you who I am worried about.” She laid her head again on his chest and could not help shedding a tear. “Please, promise you will stay safe. I can’t bear to lose you.

Gunnar wrapped his arms around her and hugged her. “I promise to be as careful as I can,” he said.

—< o >—

Early the next morning, the townspeople were gathering at the eastern edge of the city. Mothers with their children, the old and infirm, most of them carrying only a few provisions, nothing more. A long tiring walk was ahead of them. Cinnamon, Gunnar and Gort arrived, she with her belongings in a bundle, her bow and arrow in her back.

Gunnar took out of his belt pouch a couple of vials of Invertitia. “Take care of yourself, my love”. He said, putting them in Cinnamon’s hand. “Here. Just in case”.

She closed her hand around the vials. “Please come with us, Gunnar.” she answered.

You know I can’t,” he said.

Placing her forehead onto his, and her hands in his arms, she closed her eyes and whispered a prayer to the gods for protection.

Suddenly Cinnamon’s nostrils flared. Opening her eyes wide but not making a move or a sound, she listened… and sensed. In one quick motion she pulled her bow and one arrow and shot it towards a dark spot between the trees. Something in that darkness cried out in pain and Cinnamon could barely see a figure topple from its mount. The beast that had just had lost its rider whined and turned around, running away.

Cinnamon dropped her bow on the floor and ran after it, fast as her feet would allow. As she pushed to go faster, her body started to change, growing bigger. She started to run even faster. Her upper body dropped forward and her limbs elongated. Her hands and feet changed shape and grew claws, and her skin morphed into gray thick fur. Her mouth turned into a snout and from her jaws emerged vicious fangs. She vanished into the forest in pursuit of the now riderless mount.

Several men including Gunnar tried to follow her, but she was gone. Before the group got very far, they found the body of a dark elf, his black eyes staring sightlessly, Cinnamon’s arrow protruding from his chest.

A few seconds later, they heard snarling and a yelp that was abruptly silenced. Continuing in the direction Cinnamon had ran, they encountered an unusually huge wolf approaching, the body of a warg hanging from its jaws. The direwolf dropped the lifeless monster on the ground, and closing its eyes, slowly stood upright and turned back into the shape of an elven woman. She had blood covering her face and catching her labored breath, dropped on the floor, exhausted. Gunnar ran and knelt before her and held her by the shoulders, steadying her.

The people stared in silence, trying to make sense of what they had just witnessed. One of the men, with eyes wide as plates, pointed at Cinnamon, yelled “The elf! She killed the monsters!” The people started to murmur, another woman among the crowd shouted “She saved us!

Did you see what she did? What is she?” another asked.

Gunnar explained to them about Cinnamon’s ability to shift into anything living, and that her abilities were tied to her connection with nature. He told them how she saved him from a previous attack from Vitrollia’s forces a few days earlier.

Now you see that you are in good hands,” Gunnar said. “And it’s time to get moving.

Cinnamon had walked a bit away from the others after returning. Gunnar walked to her, and found her looking down, sullenly. He placed his hand on her arm, then pulled her close and embraced her. Trembling, she buried her face into Gunnar’s chest and hugged him very tight.

Stay safe, my love,” he said. Letting her go, he turned to walk back to the others. “I will see you when this is all over.

A few days later, Cinnamon and the others arrived safely to the waterfalls. They settled in the caves behind them, and she and Gort organized tasks for everyone, rationed the food, and set rules for everybody to follow.

As Gunnar had instructed her, she started counting the following days. In a few days more, a certain signal would be sent all over the lands to start the fight against the dark forces. “A message carried in the wind, for all to hear at once”, he was told by the centaurs from the north lands. The same centaurs that had sent Gunnar to deliver Invertitia to human villages. On the tenth day from now, the wind will carry the signal, for everyone to start the fight to end the darkness once and for all.

Cinnamon spent the next days helping the people around, sharing the chores like everyone else, at times watching the mouth of the cave, making sure there was no dark creatures around, but always thinking about Gunnar, and also, heavy in her mind was always the remorse of not having insisted further about her idea of making more Invertitia. Before going to sleep, everyday she’d read and study the recipe. With the right instruments, she was pretty convinced she would be able to make it. But it was no use at this point, as the plan for them and the townspeople was to stay hidden until the war was over. “I am sure Mother would know how to make it”… resting her head in the pillow, she tucked the parchment underneath, and held her necklace-amulet in her hand. Before too long, her thoughts slowly drifted away and she faded into a deep slumber.