Liada hummed as she turned the corner onto Lansee Road towards home. The betrothal party had been fun. There had been baskets of sweets. She and her friends had danced and laughed. There had even been punch with a hint of wine in it. This was the first of the friends her own age to get betrothed. Liada wondered who would be next.
"See you later, Liada," Zeph called to her from in front of his house.
She looked over her shoulder and waved to him. "Oof!" she gasped and bounced off a man's pot-belly.
"Watch out," the man snapped. "Best go another way. Priests are after someone down there."
She pushed past him. It couldn't be at the inn. That was still four blocks away. Besides, the priests wouldn't be after anyone there.
In the middle of the next block, three priests stood in front of a dirty-gray wood shingled house, their red robes covered by a white surcoat with a red cross on the breast.
Liada edged closer to the small crowd of people gathered on the corner. A woman grasped her arm. "Stay back. They have a Quag with them."
"Merchant Dmitar, the Priests of Roganista demand you open the door," the tall, thin priest shouted, his robe with the silver trim of a senior. "You have been accused of plotting with the First Ones against the people of Ostono."
"I've never even seen a First One." The voice from behind the door quaked. "Merchant Kristis wants my business, so he tells lies about me. What proof did he give?"
"He said your wife knows. She will give us proof."
"She is here. Ask her."
"We will question her at the temple where you will not be able to coerce her."
"Alazizfaysal!" The silver-robed priest shouted, and a foot-long Quag became visible, floating above his head. "The door, Alaziz."
Fire shot from the ugly flying creature and engulfed the door. The Quag, covered with brown mottled scales, was no bigger than a large crow. A second blast of power tore the door from its frame and it flew into the house.
The two junior priests ran into the house. There was a crash and shouting.
Liada pressed her hand to her mouth. She'd heard stories about what the priests did to people who aided First Ones, but she'd never seen it before.
A priest dragged a woman out the door and shoved her face first into the dirt. Another priest yanked a man by a chain looped around his neck. Another yank of the chain made him fall onto his knees. He pulled desperately at the chain, his clothes torn and singed.
"Tell us, woman, how many First Ones is your husband helping? Who else is helping them?"
"None. No one!"
"Alaziz." The Quag zipped into the house. A second later, flames crackled around the doorway. The roof began to smoke and then the whole house burst into flames. The Quag whizzed back out and hovered above the senior priest's head.
The priest turned to the crowd. He raised his arms above his head for silence. "Alaziz found a First One and killed it." He motioned to the younger priests. "Take them to the temple. They will tell us where the rest are and what destruction they are planning against the people of Ostono." He turned back to the crowd. "Today, we have saved you from the First Ones, as is our sacred duty."
The woman who had grabbed Liada's arm snorted. "They may have saved us, but you can be sure we'll never see poor Dmitar alive again."
Heart thudding, Liada watched until the priests had dragged their prisoners around the far corner. Then she ran for the Hideaway Inn and home. She burst through the door and hurried into the Tavern. "Pa!"
He put a foaming tankard of ale in front of a customer and smiled at her. "What's all the excitement?"
He wouldn't be happy to frighten the customers so she went close and told him in a low voice what had happened. His brows drew together in a worried look, and he put an arm around her shoulder to hug her. "Thank Goddess Anu, you're all right."
* * *
Liada carefully placed a basket of eggs on the wooden table. Perhaps her mother wouldn't notice that she was late with her chores this morning. She had been sleepy after last night's party and then she had spent more time than she should making up a story about a strange land with flying sea dragons than gathering eggs to be used for the inn's cooking.
Her mother looked up from kneading the huge lump of dough. Flour covered her white dress, arms, and face. The white cap she always wore while cooking saved her hair. Her figure was round but solid. She booked no nonsense from anyone and could stare down the toughest men. "Liada, hurry. You're late. Get into the garden and finish your chores."
Liada hurried out. She knelt between the rows of vegetables pulling weeds and gathering carrots and onions, putting them in separate buckets. Her story needed an evil wizard to be the dragon's enemy. The weeds would eventually rot to become fertilizer for the garden. And her mother would use the vegetables to make today's meals for the inn's customers.
Humming as she worked, near the end of the garden beside the pine woods, she spotted a green spiky-leafed weed with a large yellow and red flower, petals spread like the fingers of a hand. She sat back on her heels admiring the flower, not wanting to pull it, and lowered her face to capture its scent. The flower smelled faintly like lilies.
A bug lay nestled in the flower asleep. She laughed. Liada didn't really like bugs, mainly because her pest of a little brother Tybes did, but this bug was different. It looked like a beautiful dragonfly with delicate wings but without the big eyes. The wings had a lavender tint and the tiny body seemed to have arms and legs.
Liada leaned closer. It looked like a tiny girl no more than six inches high with silver hair flowing around her shoulders. Liada sat stunned. After several minutes staring, she realized it hadn't moved. Was it…she dead? Liada gently eased her hand under the tiny creature to pick it up. It was warm but limp and didn't react to her touch. She took the cap she wore when cooking out of her pocket and wrapped the creature in it. Then she carried it gently to the barn where their two cows and twenty chickens lived. Early each morning, Liada milked the cows and gathered eggs as part of her chores.
Carefully, she set the creature down in a pile of hay. What is it?. But whatever it was, she should keep it secret.
Magic was banned in all three empires. Being caught with one of the magical First Ones meant a dungeon cell for the rest of your life. The priests of Roganista along with their Quag enforced the law. She'd seen the proof of that yesterday. She didn't think this could be a First One, but whatever it was, she would be in trouble if anyone knew about it.
What now? How can I help it? Perhaps she could feed it. That might help. Pulling a hair from her head, she dipped it into a bucket that still had a few drops of milk at the bottom. She touched it to the creature’s mouth. She couldn't be sure, but she hoped some made it in. She tried several more times then quit afraid she might overdo it. Carefully folding the creature's wings, she wrapped it in a clean cloth, added some chicken feathers, and tucked it inside her dress to warm it.
"Please Goddess Anu, don't let it die. Let it live to fly free," she prayed. Liada rarely prayed. Her prayers never seemed to be answered, but it couldn't hurt. Maybe the goddess of healing would have mercy on the little…creature.
"Liada, where are you with those vegetables?" her mother shouted from the kitchen door of the inn. "Bring them in here and help me with the cooking."
"Liada, how is the stew coming?" Liada's mother asked, smiling with approval.
"It’s been cooking for an hour. It looks fine, Ma."
"Do you think our customers might like the taste?" The smile disappeared but her lip twitched anyway.
"Yes. I followed Aunt Shara's recipe." Liada raised the small parchment covered with her aunt’s wispy handwriting. She liked learning to cook, but it could be boring especially when all she did was follow a recipe. I’d rather see new places, meet interesting people, and discover strange creatures. She made sure her restlessness didn't show on her face.
"You need to test it. Anyone can follow a recipe. That doesn't mean it will be the same. The meat, potatoes, onions, carrots, and herbs, will be different. Even the water can change the taste." Her mother dipped a spoon into the stews and sipped it. "Here, try it."
Liada sipped the broth. "It's bland," she said uncertainly.
"Yes, it is. It needs a pinch or two of salt, a pinch of peppercorns, a little more garlic, and maybe thyme. But be careful with the garlic, not everyone likes it too strong." Her mother collected the ingredients and put them on the table next to Liada. "Now I want you to add these a pinch at a time. Keep tasting it until it tastes right to you."
"But, Ma—-" Seeing the stubborn set on her mother's mouth, she began adding, then testing. After several minutes, it tasted much better so she raised the spoon to her mother who took a sip.
"Very good. You have created your first Shara Stew. Cooking is about creating interesting and tasty meals. If you just copy recipes, you'll never be a good cook."
Liada nodded. She had enough of the kitchen and wanted to go—anywhere else.
"Now go help your brother with his sums and your sister with her reading."
Anywhere except to tutor her brother and sister. "Ma—-"
Her mother glared at her.
"Yes, Ma." Tybes and Kesti would be outside, probably in the little yard between the cottage they shared with their parents and the vegetable garden. The small cottage was attached to her parent's inn, the Hideaway. The cottage had five rooms, a family room with a large hearth, sturdy wooden table and chairs, a storage room, and three bedrooms. One for her parents, another for her brother Tybes, and a third she shared with her sister Kesti, who was the youngest. She couldn't win. If she had been a boy, she would have had to share with Tybes. She wasn't sure which would have been worse. Tybes was four years younger and seemed to like everything she hated: bugs of every kind, climbing and rough housing, and grubbing in the dirt. And Kesti just wanted to play with her dolls.
Since her mother and father insisted they all learn, Liada had to oversee their lessons. It wasn’t fair, but it would do no good to tell mother and father that. They just asked her who ever told her life was fair.
Sure enough, Tybes dangled by his legs up in the big oak tree next to the cottage. And Kesti muttered to herself as she played with her two rag dolls.
"Time for lessons," Liada said. "Get inside."
Kesti looked at her but her face got that mulish look that made her face look like ma's.
"Not going to," Tybes said and threw an acorn at her. A good thing for him it just bounced off her foot.
"If you make me come up, I’ll swat you a good one. I mean it." She did too. Why did he think she liked this any better than he did? She must have sounded as grumpy as she felt because he dropped to the ground. She ignored the way he stuck his tongue out at her as she grabbed Kesti by the hand and led them inside. Tybes whined to go outside to be with his friends and sulked through his lessons. Kesti had an endless supply of questions most of which involved a present for her name day next week.
After two hours, Liada was ready to scream. It felt like trying to turn mud into stew. She would be glad when they no longer needed lessons and were old enough to help her with the chores.
But maybe even by then, she would be gone. There had to be more to life than milking cows, gardening, and teaching Tybes his sums, if only she could figure out how to find it.
* * *
Liada woke early. The thunk thunk of her mother's big knife came from the kitchen, and her father grunted as he brought up a barrel of ale from the cellar. Kesti was still asleep. Liada dressed quietly and tiptoed out of their room. Tybes would stay in bed all day if no one rousted him. In the barn, she dipped more milk into the small creature's mouth and rewrapped it in fresh feathers. She wondered if it looked better or worse but couldn't tell. It still didn't move. Well, she had done what she could. She had fed it—she hoped—and kept it warm. She collected some eggs, milked the cow, and headed for the kitchen to help her ma.
* * *
That night she returned to the barn, safe from prying eyes. She fed the tiny creature and spent time examining it. Only dim light filtered in so she found it hard to make out what it looked like. It was a little longer than her hand and light as a feather. Its body appeared exactly like a tiny human.
She wished she could keep it but that wouldn’t be fair, like making it a slave and keeping it in chains. Besides, how would she keep it a secret? That night she stared for hours into the dark instead of going to sleep. Her mind ran wild with magic and exotic adventures with her strange creature.
Another five days passed. Liada fed it and kept it warm, determined to nurse it back to health. It remained warm so it must be alive even though it didn't move. On the sixth night as she returned from the kitchen, tiny lights danced around the garden blinking on and off. The bugs left trails of light as they whirled in circles and flew in darting patterns. A fiery cerebration performed just for her. She clapped even though they wouldn't understand or care. As she walked toward the barn, the lightening bugs followed. Just maybe they did appreciate an audience.
When she pushed the barn door open, the fireflies swarmed inside. Her heart jumped. The bugs couldn't hurt her, but bugs don’t follow people. They flew around the shed, past the cow, to the chickens, and at last to where the little creature lay. They circled it and two landed while three hovered nearby. The two that landed seemed to help the creature sit up. Liada backed against the rough wooden wall. What was going on? After a while, the bugs flew out of the shed and disappeared in the night.
The creature stretched and lay back down. Liada gasped and ran to look at it. It was awake! She wiped her cheeks dry. She hadn't realized she was crying with joy.
She wrapped it and gently tucked it into the hay. When she did, it shifted around snuggling deeper into the covering. It was the best moment of her life. In the dark of her bedroom, she lay awake most of the night. The light creatures had danced and flown—just for her!
The next several days whizzed bye. Liada could hardly keep her mind on her cooking lessons with her ma, chores, or lessons with Tybes and Kesti. Whenever she found a few minutes, she sneaked out to the barn to check on the creature. Wonderful days. Each night the bugs returned to dance and visit and the little creature seemed more active.
Finally one night, it stood and launched itself into the air. It swooped around the barn, returning to hover above Liada's shoulder. She felt a touch on her ear. It tickled.
"I'm a Sprite, one of the First Ones. My name is Talibaprimitivasaltheasaria, which loosely translated means 'A Seeker of knowledge, first born, queen of my circle, healer, and wanderer.' You may call me Tali. It's easier," the little creature said in a squeaky voice.
Liada's heart was thumping in her chest. "You can talk…and I can understand you…Tali."
"We are gifted with an understanding of all human languages." Sparkling laughter tinkled from Tali. "My Circle and I owe you much for looking after me. I would have ceased to exist if not for you. The Quag attack left me near death. I was lucky to get away. With the Quag so close, my circle couldn't help. For your help, I will grant you one wish if it is in my power to do so."
"You’ve already granted my wish to see a magical creature. I’ll remember you forever. Anyway, you should thank Goddess Anu. I’ll find some way to thank her for answering my prayers."
"Granted," Tali said.
"I didn't make a wish, did I?"
"You long for a life with magical creatures. But be careful what you wish for, young one. Having me for a companion will be dangerous. The priests of Roganista will imprison or kill you if they discover you keep a First One. They hunt and kill us—and any who befriend us."
"Are you evil…Tali?" Liada asked. Whether evil or not the answer would be the same–no. But she had to ask.
"In the long pass, we did evil things, which all of the First Ones regret except the Quag."
"But aren’t the Quag First Ones?" Liada had always been told the Quag were the pure and true First Ones. The others were evil monsters that hated the true First Ones.
"The Quag were created at the same time as the First Ones, but the Quag were deformed and jealous of those who were not. They hated us. But they were few in number and couldn’t challenge us. When the wars started, the Sprites aligned with the Ostono Empire, the Firebirds with Gorlack, and the Seadragons with the Sporish Empire. Many of us were killed. After the wars, we still fought each other. Now the Quag out number us. And they have the support of the priests and people of the three empires."
Liada sat down, feeling sick to her stomach. "Hunted by everyone?"
"Perhaps you want to take your wish back?"
"Can I?" The little sprite the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. It seemed too honest about its past to be evil. But how could she endanger her family?
"You can't take a granted wish back, but—" The creature hovered in the air and looked into her face. "I can't repay you by causing your death. If you want me to leave—then I will."
A life of adventure with a magical creature! Her dreams come to life. How could she send Tali away? Liada chewed her lip thoughtfully. "I'd love to have you stay with me. It's something I've always imagined. But I couldn't keep you in bondage for a day, much less for always."
"I will not be in bondage since I linger of my own free will. My circle stays because I do. I said you could have one wish, and I will gladly grant it."
"But so many years. A few hours or a few days would be enough," Liada said.
"Those years you speak of are, to us, but seconds."
Liada frowned at the idea. "How old are you?"
"I was created when the continent Nilord was formed and will be here until it is no more. Unless I am destroyed by the Quag."
Liada sat stunned. They lived forever. They were more magical then even she could think up in her imaginary adventures. "Do you have magical powers?"
"All the First Born are invisible unless we choose to be seen. We can fly and are pure energy although you see us as having shapes. Sprites have the power to heal and to bring lighting to the ground."
Liada pressed her hand to her mouth to contain a gasp. These were the powers of the gods.