Chapter 1 – Mila

An odd smell was in the air. It was more than earthy mildew or the plants around me;  those scents were familiar. This was something foreign. 

I sniffed my armpits in case it was coming from me. It wasn’t, although I did need a bath. “Mother will make me wash before I even finish unpacking,” I moaned. Not that I was truly upset. I had a bad habit of caring for plants and patients far better than I cared for myself, and she knew it. It was why she kept ‘mothering’ me even though I was well past needing it at twenty-eight.

I smacked my hands on the rough-hewn table. “No more delays, time to go home.” It was only a sturdy plank propped up by two large rocks, but my mentor, Rowana, had placed the table there long before I was born. She had brought me here to forage many times during my apprenticeship, teaching me the secret ways of the woods, how to harvest Mother Mountain’s natural medicines, and how to use those plants to support life and ease death.

She’d shared much more than healing wisdom with me, too. As a half-elf, she’d had a wealth of dangerous knowledge about the Elven people and their language. Even about their magic. 

Elves had been warring on and off against humans for hundreds of years, although nobody understood why they hated us so much. Unfortunately for Rowana, this meant that humans often feared her. Yet as a half-human, the elves viewed her as an abomination. 

Luckily for everyone, our isolated mountain village was too small and remote for the elves to take notice. Even so, my great-great-grandparents’ generation had only allowed Rowana to stay because they desperately needed a Healer, and she had needed somewhere to disappear.  

I sighed deeply—this time armpit free—savoring the mixed aromas of chamomile, sage, wardbloom, calendula, and the ghosts of dozens more. I wrinkled my nose again at that disconcertingly unfamiliar smell; it bothered me that I couldn’t place it, when I knew the other smells so intimately.

I tried to shrug my concerns away. “Ah well. Best to finish packing and get home to a bath.” I checked my journal one last time to ensure I’d catalogued all the plants I’d harvested. Even though it had been a mild Fall, this would be my last foraging trip for the year. It wasn’t safe to be caught alone this far up the mountain once the snows started, not without supplies to last the winter. 

The morning light gained strength as it filtered through the thorny brush covering my cave’s entrance. I verified the last herbal container, wrapped it in cloth, and tucked it carefully into my leather pack. “I think that’s everything. Time to go!”

Journal in hand, I stood and looked guiltily at my half-eaten breakfast. A slice of my mother’s bread, dried meat, and a few wrinkly berries stared accusingly back. I could have taken time to make a simple vegetable herb stew, but hadn’t wanted to waste the time. There was always something more important to do. 

I also hadn’t finished my tea, and now it had gotten cold. Today I was in the mood for Lemon Balm, with cinnamon, ginger, and a pinch of dandelion root added. The cinnamon and ginger were a rare treat I had purchased from the village’s only store. They were exotic spices that grew in the far south, and they covered the bitterness of the dandelion root. Tomorrow, my sister and I would use the remaining cinnamon to bake special pies for the Harvest Festival.

“I should at least drink my tea, don’t want it to go to waste.” I sat back down and curled one hand around the cooled cup, stroking the embossed leather cover of my journal with the other. Mila, it read. Rowana had bartered with Sam, the village leatherworker, to create it after she nursed his young daughter through a serious bout of measles. 

Except for my name, the journal looked to be a twin of Rowana’s. Although I had inherited her belongings at her death two years ago, I’d always think of it as hers. It contained her life’s work, even if I could only read the parts written in Common Tongue. Many of her notes were a combination of that and Elvish, which is why I had needed to create my own herbal journal instead of only relying on hers.

I swallowed the last of my tea, scooped up the remains of my breakfast, grabbed my bag, and left. I hoped the strange smell be gone from the cave before I returned next spring. 

———————

It only took a few steps outside to realize that the strange smell had not originated in my cave after all. I wrinkled my nose in disgust, lamenting the overgrown tangle of thorny bushes surrounding me. Normally, I was thankful that Rowana had the foresight to encourage their growth, as it provided a semblance of privacy and safety now that I often foraged alone. But right now, it also prevented me from seeing where the smell came from.

It was a smoky sort of smell, like wildfire, except—different. It was unsettling.

With the wet summer we’d had, nobody expected a wildfire this year. And yet, now that I was outside the cave, that was what the smell most reminded me of. Almost a wildfire, and yet…

I started walking down the hidden pathway that led away from the cave entrance, keeping close to the rock wall so as not to snag my tunic on the brambles lining the other side. We had pruned the hedge to create a path that led several yards beyond the actual cave entrance as another safety measure to prevent it being found; this way, if any local hunters accidentally found the hedge opening, it would only look like a well-worn game trail.

I sneezed. Was the smell coming from a wildfire? What else could it be? 

It must be a wildfire. I quickened my pace. 

I could only think of one other reason a ‘not-quite-a-wildfire’ smell would start overnight and linger through the morning. That reason had never happened before, never ever in the history of our village. We were too far away from the larger cities like Braemar, too remote and insignificant to be bothered with. We weren’t a threat.

But wildfires? Well, wildfires sometimes happened. “It must be a wildfire,” I whispered.

The elves had never attacked our village, but I had heard the stories. Stories of Vandori, and Raxaulu, and Elonion; all terrifying elven warriors who led large armies of ruthless elves. They destroyed our cities and struck us down five at a time with a single blow. Every story ended the same way: no survivors, with the town burned to the ground.

My two older brothers had been killed that way, after leaving to join the alliance forces. 

I stood at the path’s opening, looking out at the clearing beyond. No sign of fire here, but my legs wouldn’t move. They wouldn’t take the next step towards home. They wanted to turn around and run back to the safety of my cave and finish my pathetic breakfast so that my mother wouldn’t fret. She always thought I was too skinny.

I swallowed, suddenly wondering if I still had a mother who would fret over me. My knees crumbled, crunching into the fallen leaves. “It must be a wildfire,” I whispered again. I slid my pack off my shoulders, and pushed it behind the hedge, hidden from view. Just in case. 

In case of what? Who besides me might find it? I didn’t want to think about why my instincts made me hide the pack. I’d worry about that later. After all, there probably wasn’t anything to worry about anyway. 

Except that smell…

I knew of a tree, a pine tree, about ten-minutes from here. My brothers and I used to race to climb it whenever they joined me on foraging trips. Rowana would watch and laugh at the sight of grown adults behaving like children. 

I hadn’t climbed the tree since before they left, almost five years ago. Rumors had reached us of an elven-human alliance, and Rowana had been thrilled. She always repeated, “Mercy and love will win this war, not anger and revenge. I’ve been alive long enough to know. Just wait and see.” 

I’d always assumed my brothers believed her and left based on her words alone, but my father insisted it was only their naive hunger for adventure. “If it hadn’t been the alliance, it would’ve been some other grand, noble cause to get themselves killed over,” he’d frequently said after their deaths. 

The elven armies had destroyed the nascent alliance less than two years after it began, decimating the city it had been based in, as well. No one survived. 

Rowana had passed quietly in her sleep shortly before we learned about the failure of the elven-human alliance and my brothers’ deaths. I endured as best I could, and tried to move on despite the tragedies: it was part of a Healer’s job to accept death as a natural part of life. And I was thankful that Rowana never lived to see her hopes for peace shattered.

I missed them all so much.

The pine tree would offer a perfect view of the entire mountainside, including our little village. If there was a wildfire—or if there was anything out of place at all—I would see it from there. I would go to look before I started for home. 

Just in case.

“A girl my age has no business climbing trees anymore, I hope I don’t end up breaking a bone,” I muttered, taking a step forward. Another followed and another, and I quickly fell into a brisk walk towards my brothers’ pine tree. 

—————————

Barring a minor incident where I collapsed in a sweaty, heaving mess after a woodpecker innocently tapped for its breakfast, my short trip was uneventful. 

I leapt for the lowest branch and swung myself up, wrenching my shoulder in the process. A few swear words and a brief self-assessment reassured me there were no serious injuries; I was simply out of shape. 

The surrounding trees didn’t seem to have grown too much over the past several years, which meant the best vantage point for the village would be about 2/3rds of the way up. I tucked my thick, dark braid into the back of my shirt and started my ascent. The sticky resin coating the bark was impossible to avoid, but at least I could keep the worst of it out of my hair. Or try to. 

Reach, pull, step, repeat. It was a calming rhythm that soothed my mind as I deeply inhaled the smoky pine around me. And yet it wasn’t enough.

When I reached my destination and leaned against the solid comfort of the tree trunk, my heart pounded at the same rate as the woodpecker’s staccato tap. It was a simple task: push aside a single branch, and I’d have an answer to my question: what is that smell?

My arm reached, pulled back, then jerked forward again even as my mind screamed to stop. But it was too late. The branch was pushed aside, and I could never unsee the burnt and blackened ruin lying at the same location where my home used to be. 

The branch snapped back into place, giving me the odd sensation of two Mila’s living in my body simultaneously. 

One Mila indifferently noted the bitter taste of pine resin filling her mouth, the sound of high pitched shrieking, and the calm observation that the smoke coating her nostrils contained the ashes of friends and family. 

The second Mila unsuccessfully stifled her screams with the back of her dirty hand. 

The two Milas collided back together as I doubled over to retch. Splatters and splashes of partially digested breakfast bounced their way through the pine needles and down to the forest floor. A strange sort of gratitude sparked, the idea that at least part of me could easily return to the earth to rejoin my family, my friends, and every person I’d ever known, by returning to the ground and into Mother Mountain’s ancient embrace. I vomited again until there was nothing left of my meager breakfast.

I sat up and wiped my sleeve across my mouth, then shoved the branch aside once again before I could change my mind. 

A charred wasteland met my eyes. There would be no pie-baking with my little sister, no Harvest festival, no scowling mother demanding that I bathe. Nobody was left. Nothing was left. Only smoke rising in lazy spirals that pirouetted with the breeze.

How? Why did this happen?

It must have been the elves. They were the only ones capable—and ruthless—enough to sweep in and destroy an entire village overnight. 

Why now? After they’ve ignored our tiny, insignificant village for so long?

If the wind had favored the south, I realized I never would have smelled the carnage until it was too late. I would have travelled home in ignorant bliss, maybe walked directly into the murderous hands of their elven war camp. Are they still there, or will they have left by now?

I leaned forward to examine the devastation below in more detail. I couldn’t make out any movement, but that was to be expected at this distance. I didn’t see any signs of a war camp, but that didn’t mean they weren’t still there.  

A sudden flicker of movement nearly sent me tumbling down after my breakfast. The pine branch snapped back into place to hide me.

Could Elves see ME at this distance?

Rowana had confirmed that elves had heightened senses. It was one reason they were so good at killing us. That—and magic. I looked down at the empty forest floor, half expecting a squadron of silent elves to magically appear. Nobody was there.

A bird. It had probably been a bird that caught my eye and startled me. “The elves clearly did their work well,” I muttered bitterly, beginning to climb down. “And they have no reason to know about me, or even to travel this far up the mountain to find me.”

I felt a sudden urge to go home. Perhaps their were survivors I could help. 

But I knew there would be no survivors. There never were. It’s how my brothers and so many others before them had died. 

And how could I be certain that the Elves were even gone? The more I considered, the less sure I was that it had only been a bird. 

I dropped from the final limb and stumbled to the ground. I couldn’t get up. My arms and legs were numb with exhaustion, much more than I’d expect from a simple tree climb. A sob wracked my body, then another. 

Everyone is dead. No one is left. What is the point of a Healer when there’s nobody left to heal?

I pictured my mother’s admonishing looks, my father’s tired smiles, heard my sister’s giggle. I prayed to Mother Mountain that they had found my brothers in the afterlife. 

The weight of the forest pressed heavy as as my body convulsed, grinding me into the earth that had reclaimed everything I lost.

I will die alone. Everybody is gone.

—————————

The sun was at its height when I reopened my eyes. The weight of everything I’d discovered this morning still pressed down with unusual heaviness, but it felt more like the heaviness of a deep sleep. My stomach ached to realize it already felt like an old friend.

I rubbed my face, groaning with instant regret: I had forgotten my hands were still covered with pine resin. Now my dirty trail of tears were further decorated by sticky streaks. 

I needed a cup of hot tea. Chamomile would be nice. 

Every muscle protested as I rose to my feet. “Maybe Braemar,” I murmured. Butterflies danced in my abdomen as I considered the possibility. I’d always been content to let our mountain set the boundaries of my world, but trying to endure a winter without supplies spelled death. Could I leave? Others had travelled Braemar to trade, so I’d heard the directions. “Head south till you find the Northron Common Road, then West to Braemar,” they’d said. 

How hard could it be?

I almost rubbed my face, but remembered to stop in time. “Perhaps some pine needles for my tea.” A nearby pine had branches within easier reach, so I left the sour smells behind me and snapped off a twig full of pine needles. I wouldn’t be able to outrun the smoke.

I twirled the twig in my hands, admiring the way the needles splayed out, very much the way the smoke had spread and twirled as it rose into the empty sky. “I should probably keep my hands free,” I said, ignoring the very specific reason why. Instead, I reached back to poke the stick firmly into the base of my thick braid. The needles tickled my scalp. 

I had a sudden image of what I looked like standing alone in the middle of a vast mountain wood: wild and untamed, tacky resin smeared across my face like war paint, connecting a host of freckles surrounding the grey-blue eyes that were a touch too large for my face. My fingers reached to trace my collarbones, sharply protruding beneath my loose tunic. Mother had been right; I was too skinny. I needed to eat more. 

And now I crowned myself with a mantle of pine needles, as if I were Mother Mountain’s own child. I supposed we all were, in a way. We came from the earth, and to the earth we would return. I felt halfway there already. 

What if an elf saw me like this? The errant thought flitted through my defenses, and I leaned against a tree for support. A dark chuckle escaped me. “I would likely confirm every animalistic thought they have about humans.” I certainly felt more animal than human at the moment, plus I smelled of vomit, pine, and body odor. “Well, let’s hope I don’t run into any elves on the way back to…” I didn’t say home. My home was gone. 

Tea first. Then I would wash up, get my bearings, and decide what to do next. “Good thing I’m still nauseous, I need to ration what little food I have. Not much time left to forage for more.” Not to mention the risk of running into elves. The sound of my voice was a surprising comfort amidst the bird song and rustling leaves around me, and I didn’t want to ruin it by speaking of the elves out. 

Pine and chamomile; one for focus and one for calming. A well-made cup of tea made everything better.

Braemar. I would find a way to Braemar.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top