Deep in a shady forest, tucked away near the base of a mountain, was a small village.
It was a dark place - the tall trees that surrounded it created a perpetual blanket of shadows. The few beams of light that made it through the crisscrossing branches were diffused in the shroud of fog that constantly filled the village, creating a strange sort of gloom. All of the town's buildings looked roughly similar, long, flat, wooden structures with high rooves, which were covered with dark moss. They seemed to curve around the trees - built to be one with nature, not to cover over it... that was the elven way.
A long, wide, winding dirt path served as both the village's main street and town square. It was filled with life - there were some stalls lining it on either side, and people dragging things along in carts. This was where most of the village's trading happened, and where most went to spend their free time.
Traveling down that path was a lone girl. The hood on her baggy green cloak was pulled up - she made herself as hidden as she could. People in this town... well, they tended not to like her kind.
She was a half-breed. Her skin was neither the deep taupe shade of her dark elf father or the light, tree bark brown of her wood elf mother - no it, was somewhere in between. Same with her hair, which was an odd blend of father's silver and mother's green. There were scarce other half-breeds out there - miscegenation between the different lines wasn't technically illegal in the Elven Kingdoms, but it might as well be. The girl had left from the furthest edges of town, near where the dark forest gave way to open fields - it was the only place where her family had been permitted to live.
Those who were in the girl's way moved as soon as they saw her coming, as if she was contagious... she tried not to let it bother her. At the side of the street, she noticed something - a fruit stall. And among the various produce offered, perfectly ripe apples, their skin pink and red. They looked delicious...
The girl's eyes moved from the fruit to the person at the stall. It was a young man, probably around fifty or so - elves aged much slower than humans. He was that trader's son, she recognized... his prices seemed rather high.
She could do something about that.
The girl snuck off, heading behind a house nearby. There was a barrel of rainwater there... murky, but it'd do the trick. She lowered her hood and stared down at her reflection. Dipping her fingers in the water, she fixed up her messy green-silver mane, slicking down anywhere too frizzy. When that looked good, she improved anything else she could - pushing up her eyelashes, straightening her cloak, other little things that still made a difference. The finishing touch was to unfasten two of the buttons on her rumpled white shirt...
When she was happy with her appearance, she headed up to the stall. The boy there had been staring at a book, but when he caught sight of her, he couldn't look away. A fake smile split her lips.
"Hi." she said, reaching for one of the apples and turning it over in her hand. She made sure to lean forward a bit - give the boy a good look. "Say, I'm a bit short on money right now... can I still get an apple?"
"Um..." it had worked. He was staring.
The girl smiled wider, leaned over further, moving a hand to the heavy bag slung over her shoulder. She dropped two coglike brass coins on the table - elven currency. "This is all I've got... I'm sorry..."
"It's, it's okay..." the boy smiled back, taking the coins. "You can even take two, if, if you want that."
"Why, thank you!" giggling, she dropped the fruit into her bag. She took a third one... the boy didn't seem to notice. "See you again sometime!"
"Yeah, um... see you again too, sometime!"
As she walked away, her fake grin faded. She buttoned her shirt back up, and once again pulled up her hood.
Ugh... she always felt so gross after doing that. But at least her brothers would have some nice snacks to eat.
It wasn't long before the girl made it to her destination: the town hall. Given the size of the village, the building was understandably rather small. Still, it was busy - the girl had to wait in line for about ten minutes before she could talk with the clerk at the front desk.
"Hello." she said, pulling down her hood. The clerk recognized her immediately, adjusting her glasses.
"Ah... Alexis." the old elf reached for a stack of papers on her desk, shuffling through it. "The administrator's not going to see you today."
"But..." the girl's thick eyebrows knitted together. "But I've had this appointment for a week?"
"More important matters have arisen." selecting a paper - a job application - from the stack, the clerk took it and stamped it with a red seal. She passed it to Alexis, who had to try hard not to tear it up on the spot. It was the third she had recieved from the government offices.
Seeing the girl's frown, the woman sighed and leaned in. "Now, I don't speak for the administrator, but... I think you'd be better off looking for work somewhere else, Miss Woodborn."
"Do you really think filing papers was my first choice? Is it anyone's first choice?" Alexis snorted. Anger was steaming up in her, but she tried to keep the lid on the kettle. "Nowhere else will hire me."
"I'm sorry about that, truly." there was nothing genuine about how the woman spoke. "Have you tried the butcher's? I know he's looking for someone to-"
"Yes!" Alexis cut the woman off, exasperation in her tone. Without even knowing it, she had raised her voice. "Yes, I've tried the butcher's, and the tailor's, and the cobbler's, and everywhere!"
Clearly taken aback by the girl, the woman shook her head.
"Well... I'm sorry. Next in line, please!" she called out.
A makibi bird glided from tree branch to tree branch, watching for movement in the scraggly grass below. Mice, insects, and even smaller birds were all part of its diet... despite this, it had been unlucky in it's search so far.
The bird looked up from the ground below, trying to spot another branch to fly to... but, it caught sight of something even more enticing: a female. It's destination clear, the bird took flight, landing on the same branch as the other makibi - but as soon as it did, the female disappeared, shimmering into light. The bird cocked it's head in confusion.
Before it even knew what happened, an arrow had pierced it's heart.
"Good shot, Alexis!" sweeping aside some fallen branches, the girl's father went to collect her kill. The female makibi had been a magical illusion she had cast - a technique taught to her by the older elf. Part of the strategy of hunting was finding out the best bait for each animal, and given that it was mating season for the makibi, a potential partner seemed like it'd be most effective for luring them in.
Alexis lowered her bow... she should be smiling, but she wasn't. Her father was quick to notice.
"It's wonderful that you want to support us, you know." he said, pulling the arrow from the bird and wiping the blood from it with a small cloth. The arrow was in fine condition - it could be reused without having to be mended. When his daughter got close, he offered it to her. "But our family is fine."
"You know that's not true." Alexis replied, grabbing the arrow.
"I've been keeping track of our expenses. At this rate, we won't have enough to pay taxes next season."
Her father sighed. "That is for your mother and I to worry about."
"And Thalis's shoes need fixing. The soles are coming off." Alexis crossed her arms.
"Your mother can sew them back up."
Alexis rose an eyebrow. "With what thread?"
"We can buy thread!"
"With what money?"
The older elf paused... then stepped back, drew an arrow, and let it fly. Soon after, another makibi dropped to the ground - he had hit it in midair.
"There are things we can sell..." he said, tramping off to grab the bird. It was clear he was trying to get out of the conversation. Alexis was having none of it.
"We shouldn't have to do that!" she chased after him. Sighing, the elf stopped in his tracks.
"Alexis... have I ever told you how your mother and I first met?"
Alexis rolled her eyes. "Yes. What’s that got to do with anything?"
"The Tournament of the Phoenix King." pausing, her father gazed wistfully into the distance. "I wished to compete, you know."
"Yes, I do." Alexis said flatly. "You tell the story all the time... the mountain, or whatever."
"Phoenix Mountain!" her father said happily. "Some say the trek to the peak is even more grueling than the tournament itself..."
It was no use... the old elf was lost in the past.
"Half-buried in snow, that’s how I found her... the poor thing. I’m happy I stopped to help her, even if I lost my chance to compete..."
"That’s very cute, father, very cute. But we were talking about-"
"It’s being held again this year.” he interrupted his daughter, looking back at her. "I think you should go."
There was a pause.
"I'll give you the money to travel there!" the man had a wide smile on his face. He spun around and grabbed Alexis by the shoulders, who recoiled. "Jerai, an island in the Eastern Oceans, part of the Human Kingdoms... you could make it far. You could win us a lot!"
What... had her dad gone crazy? Alexis, well... okay, she was something of an archer. And her illusion spells were the best in town... but she thought this was a silly plan.
"Father, we're in no position to gamble... if you couldn't make it up the mountain, what makes you think I could?"
"I don't know... a feeling in my gut?" he let go of her. "Now, I won't force you... but please, consider my words."
Alexis shook her head.
"Okay, father." she said. "I will."