Aira sat panting near her fire. It had taken her far longer than she had anticipated finding wood dry enough to catch and the night was cold. Her fire was not large enough to do more than warm her toes and her hands, which held her knees tightly to her chest.
Staring into the flickering orange flames, she tried to comprehend what had happened. Trish, her best friend and only confidant, had called the city guard. For Aira’s own good, she had said. As if being imprisoned and beaten until she resembled what her city thought a woman should be would benefit her in the slightest.
Her boots shifted in the dirt as she tried to compact herself tighter into her legs. It wasn’t her fault she felt this way, was it? And if Nailan hated what she was, why had he saved her? It didn’t make sense. Perhaps it had been a ruse, a trick, to make her vulnerable and then he would tell her how awful she was in his sight.
“I didn’t mean to. I really didn’t. She was my friend and I thought I could trust her…” Aira whispered to the fire.
It had been Trish, that had pushed everything to a boiling point. Trish was a human, destined to live a short life without access to any Power whatsoever or the ability to shift into an animal. She was, by many standards, completely boring. Aira, herself, was a werewolf, able to turn into a wolf at will, able to access the Nightforce Power. The only drawback was that during a full moon, Aira had to transform into a wolf whether she wanted to or not. Despite Trish’s boring humanity, Aira was enchanted by her. Her rounded ears, her flat teeth, her… Aira’s cheeks flushed and she squeezed her eyes shut.
That had been the problem. Aira’s heart had always fluttered near Trish and her stomach always felt in knots. But she couldn’t stay away. They became fast friends and Aira began to feel herself relax more and more around Trish. The human didn’t mind that she wore pants, though she teased Aira mercilessly about how the trousers clung to her form. Aira’s stomach did somersaults for weeks after that. After Trish had offered her a bed in her house, Aira had hoped that Trish cared for her as Aira did. But that had been naive. No, worse than naive, stupid. Aira should have known it was too good to be true. She should have known!
“What are you doing out here?’
Aira leaped to her feet, her hand jumping to the long dagger at her waist, wrenched from her thoughts. A man stood on the other side of the fire, his black hair sweeping across green and black eyes. He smiled and Aira noticed that he had pointed teeth like hers. So, he was a creature.
“What are you doing walking up on my fire?” she snarled, easing her dagger in its sheath.
“I was taking an evening flight and spotted you. You seemed alone and out of sorts so I thought I’d come down and see if you needed help.” he shrugged and sat cross-legged in the dirt, adjusting his coat so that he did not sit on it. It was emerald green and she thought she saw dragons embroidered in gold along his sleeves. Dragons and… wolves?.
“Hey! I didn’t say you could stay here! You make a habit of creeping up on women in the dark?” That would put him off balance. He would run away quickly once he realized she wasn’t a man! Either that or try to drag her back to Nefti and force her into a dress, or worse.
To her complete surprise, he did not start at the pronouncement of her gender. In fact, now that she thought about it, he hadn’t even blinked at her clothing. Had she crossed into some alternate plane of existence when she crossed the river? In Nefti, a man would be calling for the guards or trying to arrest her if he found out. This man though…
“Not particularly. As I said, I saw you alone, I thought you might need some help. Your mental state–”
“My mental state is none of your business! You can just jump back into the air and go back where you came from!”
He raised his eyebrows and tucked some of his black hair behind an ear she now could see was pointed. “As you wish. I just thought… No matter.”
He rose and stepped back from the fire, his green-black eyes taking on an amused light. Aira shifted her stance, grounding feet into the dirt and tightening her grip on her dagger in case he rushed her. What an odd creature. Suddenly, large black wings unfurled from his back. He snapped them open and Aira could see light green webbing on the underside of the wings. He bent his knees, turning his face to the sky and leaped into the air, his wings taking him higher and higher. What was he? Some sort of Shifter, obviously, but what? A dragon? A Polivorn, able to change into many animals and shapes? She had never seen this half-transformation before, however.
Aira followed him with her eyes as he rose into the air, higher and higher. He really was leaving. That made sense, of course. He said he just wanted to help her, but if he was from Nefti, he would want to take her back in chains, more than likely. If he was from Nefti, he would hate and revile her because she was dressed like a man. If he was from Nefti, he would hate and revile her for Trish. Oh, Trish. Why did you betray me? The thought ran across Aira’s consciousness and she felt a tear run down her face. No! Focus. If this creature was from Nefti, there was nothing to stop him from striking her down and stoning her. True, a soldier in Nefti would most likely jail her rather than stone her, but if he thought she couldn’t be changed, couldn’t be made to conform, she would be executed. A shudder ran through her. Why can’t I be true to who I am? Why do they hate me? Why does Nailan hate me?
What if, a small thought said in the deepest corner of her mind, what if this man isn’t from Nefti? What if he truly does want to help?
Her mouth was so dry as she opened it to cry out, “Wait! Come back!”
She sank to her knees and hung her head. It was too late. Of course, it was. But Aira felt the air stir and saw the man’s boots light back on the ground by her fire.