At first they didn't see her atop the great horse.
She sat low, riding bareback, her cloak and frayed robes blending well into the pale brown stallion. Narrow shoulders hunched beneath a worn cloak and only two long golden plaits of hair tumbled from beneath the shadow darkened hood.
The villagers who first noted that the horse did have a rider were closest to her path and so stopped to study the stranger with wary, hollow eyes. When she didn't stop to ask their leave to enter the village, a low murmur began to swell among the throng of people. More villagers stopped, most too startled by the sight of the stranger to do much but stare and mutter worriedly. More than one woman gathered her laundry, wares, and children and hurried into their flimsy clapboard homes.
At the center of the village a great, roaring communal fire provided most of the light, warmth, and cooking needed for the entire village. The buildings themselves were arranged in a large circle surrounding the great fire, so that each door faced it, but perched several feet off the rocky ground on stilts or platforms.
The stranger let the horse move unhurriedly toward the great fire, as if she didn't attempt to lead him at all. The horse stopped short of the fire, but well within the radius of the comforting light and warmth.
She slid free of the horse in one blur of motion, so that the villagers who now had all paused to watch, stared agape and noted that she was now standing before the fire, gloved palms stretched toward the wildly flickering flames.
Even standing now, she still seemed oddly petite and where her robe, cloak, and worn leather boots touched the dry earth, the colors seemed to mysteriously blend together so that they were indistinguishable.
More villagers hustled away and all around the circle flimsy wood doors clattered shut. A few brave souls, maybe a dozen, remained…determined to get answers from their uninvited guest.
They approached her slowly, in a solid mob, but with no one declared leader to parley, they were at a loss for a long, tense moment. The small figure seemed to not notice their approach and continued warming her gloved hands. The closer they shuffled to her, the more they as a collective realized just how slight she was.
"Why, she's but a little girl!" Aggie Crower gasped as she pushed to the front of the mob. They halted, murmuring loudly and watched tensely as Aggie Crower moved to stand just behind the girl.
"Little Lady?" Aggie swallowed dryly but stopped short of touching the strange girl. "Do you need help?"
Their collective gasp would have been comical if the situation hadn't been so dire. Her voice was low, soft, yet grainy…the voice of a child mixed with the voice of an elder. Aggie licked her lips and stepped closer.
The hood moved this time and Aggie caught a flash of gold eye shine within the shadows of the hood. Maybe it was just the fire reflecting…but Aggie didn't think so.
The figured turned back to the fire again, her flowing gold plaits sliding silently against her clothing.
"It is you that need my help, I am afraid." she spoke again, puncturing the stunned silence so that it erupted into a chaos of cries and protests as the remaining villagers spoke out in terror.
"What do you mean?" Aggie wasn't sure who which feared more…the mysterious child or what she meant.
"Evil is coming. I am charged with protecting you." her words were soft, but firm, almost commanding…confident.
"What evil? Who are you?" Aggie hushed the clamoring crowd with her bold words and they watched and waited now, all eyes on the small figure silhouetted against the crackling bonfire.
The hood turned again and another glint of gold flared in its depths.
"I am called Emaranthe."
The hood slid free of the gold braids and the entire crowd gasped. Her beauty was vivid and unmistakable…as was her youth. Golden waves, loosely braided in two streamers that threatened to escape their bonds hung nearly to her waist. Skin that was creamy in color and blemish free seemed to glow in the dying firelight.
It was her eyes, however, that held everyone still.
Gold- vivid, electric golden eyes watched their reactions with patience. Only a slightly arched eyebrow betrayed her inner humor at the situation. The flickering flames caught her eyes and they seemed to glitter even brighter though the sun was sinking fast and shading their desert valley.
"Emaranthe? I am Aggie …" Aggie swallowed, finding it hard to speak in the face of such youth and beauty…deadly beauty, she realized astutely.
"I mean none harm here, but I do come charged to aide your village." Emaranthe turned back to the fire again, tugging the thin hood back up and once again returning her gaze to the shadows.
"Aid us? How can you aide us? You are but a child!" Igoras Morne ducked around Aggie and brandished a small stick.
"A child? I haven't been a child for many, many years." Emaranthe sighed. She studied the small group of villagers from the shadows of the cloak. Her uncanny eyes settled on Igoras, noting the old woman's withered body and silvered hair that strung unkemptly from a loose chignon. This woman was knowledgeable, an elder.
"Hah, you can't be more than ten summers!" A man's voice huffed from the throng, but he did not dare to show himself.
"Eighteen. I was eighteen summers." Emaranthe whispered so softly that only the village elder and Aggie heard. Her gold eyes glittered in the firelight as the sun sank behind the red and orange cliff walls to the west.
"Ascended...she's an Ascended." Igoras gasped and licked her cracked lips. Aggie, only barely hearing her, looked up in time to catch the golden flare from within the shadowed hood.
Igoras dropped to her kneels and bowed her head in absolute respect, her gnarled, bent fingers clutching at the hapless stick, streamers of silver hair dragging loose and tangling in the stiff desert breeze.
"Please, forgive us Ascended. We meant no disrespect!" Aggie took cue from the elder and bowed as well, followed quickly by the remaining villagers, until even those cowering within the rickety shacks bowed low as well.
The silence grew agonizingly long. Golden eyes studied the cowering, humbled throng with aching sadness.
"Please, rise. I ask no one for homage." Emaranthe called out so softly that a few wondered that she had even spoken aloud. When all had risen again, she let the hood slide free once again and once more people wondered at her youth.
As they watched in silent awe, she reached over her shoulder with one hand and slid free a long, slender, twisted wood staff-something that had moments before simply not been there.
It appeared to be an entire tree branch grown for the sole purpose of arcane use. At its peak the staff was partially curled, like a shepherd's crook, but was charred and splintered midway through the curve. She held it away from her, over the flames of the bonfire and the villagers watched the flames flicker, twist, and curl over and up the length of the staff. At the end of the splintered curl the flames danced and twisted. Neither the staff nor her hand blackened and burned and here was proof of her identity.
"How can one so young be an Ascended?" Aggie watched the mesmerizing fire dance along the staff. Emaranthe caught and held Aggie's wondrous gaze for a long moment and Aggie saw a glimmer of sorrow pass across them like a shadow. The girl's thin shoulder seemed to hunch even more into the threadbare cloak as she struggled with a tide of long buried memories.
"Please, tell us, child." Igoras sank to the ground. "I have never heard rumor of one called so young before!"
Emaranthe closed her eyes and leaned on the fiery staff as if for support.
"It was cold…and growing dark. The easterly winds were bringing a wild spring storm. I remember seeing the clouds gather angrily over the mountains, but I could not leave my flock." Emaranthe swallowed. "I built a small fire beneath a large boulder and hoped to escape the worst of the storm."
The villagers were leaning forward in rapt attention now.
"My goats and sheep huddled near bye and I was confident that they and I could weather the storm," she continued after a slight pause. "But something else was moving with the storm as well, I could feel it in the wind…a warmth, a fire, evil and anger."
More than one villager gasped.
"I stayed put, my crook in hand as my only defense and watched as the thing moved with the storm ever closer. Lightning tore the sky and rain fell before it. I held a vain hope it would pass me by and leave me in peace." Emaranthe opened her eyes and Aggie saw a depth of pain in them that she had never seen before in anyone.
"They came then; wreathed in fire and an ancient sorcery I had no hope of defeating. Demons of fire and torment. I held them off for a short while, brandishing my crook as pitiful sword." she swallowed dryly and closed her eyes once more.
"My crook was torn from my bloodied fingers and tossed into the fire. I wrenched free of the demons and dragged it from the flames in desperation."
Aggie flinched at the terror glittering in Emaranthe's golden eyes as they opened again.
"Burning, smoking I wielded the staff, crying to the sky for a savior…but none came and I was at my end."
Emaranthe lifted the smoldering staff and returned it to its place at her back where it once again vanished into shadow.
Tears streamed silently down Igora's wizened face, tracking through her wrinkled flesh like paths of a river way.
"I don't know why, but the demons fled then and I was left dying beside my fire, in the cold rain…alone. I could only wait to die. I held onto the staff, still afire and felt the darkness calling me within the thunder and rain. "Emaranthe turned back toward the fire and held her gloved hands out to the flames again.
"The next thing I knew I was standing before a Messenger, gripping my fiery staff and gasping. I was chosen."
The silence was long and awed until Emaranthe turned suddenly to face the small crowd. Gold eyes seemed to watch the growing darkness behind them. A smile, small and sad twisted her lips slightly.
"Good. They approach."
The throng of villagers turned and stumbled about, looking for an unseen foe.
"Hold, friends. I did not mean evil approaches." Emaranthe sighed and moved toward the large horse that stood unconcernedly nipping at a patch of weeds at the edge of the firelight. "My companions approach from the South. We are here to help your village keep its secret."
She led the horse further from the bonfire and to a small weedy field behind the shacks.
"What? How does she know?"
Igoras followed the girl at a reverent distance, struggling to think of something, anything to say. The clamor of the worried villagers behind them was steadily rising in fear and anger.
"Madam Igoras, three of my companions will be arriving any moment." Emaranthe tipped her head slightly to look at the old woman. Gold eyes burned in the darkness. "I will need to lead them here. You must keep the villagers calm until we return."
The girl was suddenly atop the huge horse and gone.
Igoras stared into the darkness, watching the black shadows play and dance over the desert landscape behind their village as the bonfire flickered behind her.
"Thank the Vigil. Oh thank the Vigil." She cried softly into her patched apron. Hope had arrived.