• My eyes flutter open and focus on the low ceiling. I lie there, quiet for what seems like an eternity, listening to the songs of the early morning birds. One song particularly stands out, eight notes that sounds vibrant and alive, yet mournful and in pain at the same time.
    I move my legs off my low cot and stand up on the creaky wooden floor. Avoiding the spots that make the most noise, I skip and jump softly over to the only window in the attic, a tiny, dusty little thing. Still, I peer out the window and look for the singer.
    Suddenly, a screeching voice ruptures the beautiful silence. I jump and turn around, and out of the corner of my eye, I catch the flutter of wings disappearing from sight.
    "Akara?! You ungrateful child! I know you're awake! What do you think you're doing up there, being lazy!? Get yourself down here and get to work."
    I sigh, pulling an old green tunic and a pair of ripped dove-grey leggings from my drawers. Both articles of clothing are two sizes too big for me. As expected from hand-me-downs from my stepmother, the one with the screeching voice.
    Quietly descending the stairs, I wonder to myself, why do I stand for this? Why is there a reason that I have not run away yet?
    A small voice from somewhere within me quietly answers, because you would die by the fangs and claws of the wolves before you got ten miles into the forest.
    Well, surely that is better than this?
    I ask that voice inside of me. It is silent.
    I let out a deep sigh, and a sharp pain on the back of my head takes me by surprise. I swivel around and see my stepmother standing behind me, her hand held up to deliver another blow. She opens her mouth to yell at me once more:
    "Sighing, are we?! What, do you think your life isn't good enough? You should be happy that we even took you in, instead of turning you out into the city streets!"
    I remember that day twelve years ago, when I was but a toddler of 4, when my mother lay on her deathbed, shivering even though she was so close to the fire. I remember kneeling by her side as her spirit left her body, and I remember the warm tears that crept down my cheeks and splattered on her cold, pale hands. I remember the last words she said before she took her last breath and and her eyes froze in a glassy stare forever.
    I could barely hear her, much less understand her words at the age of four, but the mind is a funny thing. Years later, it will pull up a memory you would have wanted to forget forever.
    She said, "Akara, my child, my only child. This illness has taken me too quickly from your side. You have only seen four summers... you must take care of yourself. I know your father may not remain long in the world after I leave. He may take another wife, but for your sake... Akara... take care... of... yourself..." then she exhaled, and I waited for her to continue speaking. But she never took another breath, and her fingers loosened around mine. I remember staring into her glassy eyes for several minutes, and then, as the truth hit me, I remember screaming and crying, and shaking my mother's body, until relatives came to take me away. I remember my father sitting blankly in the corner, as if his spirit had indeed left with my mother's.
    He did indeed take another wife, hoping that she would be a good mother to me. And she was, for as long as he was alive. Her daughter, too, treated me well.
    Then, last year, my father perished of hypothermia in the winter, and we found his cold-blue body frozen in a kneeling stance before my mother's gave. We buried them right next to each other. And then, hell broke loose.
    My stepmother forced me to work, doing all the chores, going to town and buying food, wiping the floors, cooking, cleaning, everything, while her and her daughter grew fat. She took another husband, one who was just as cruel and uncaring as she was. My hands became rough and callused from the millions of accumluated splinters, and my pale skin acquired a golden tan from the hundreds of hours working in the garden.
    It was hell.
    However, the only chore I enjoyed was tending our snow-white stallion, Snowstar, and our pitch-black mare, Shadowsbane. I raised them from when they were foals, and now they have a foal of their own, a little black foal with a white star on her right flank and legs. She was born but two days ago, and we hadn't named her yet.
    After cooking breakfast, a stew of wild rice, vegetables, and meat in a pot, I left it on the stove to cool, ladled some into a bowl, and went to the barn to take the horses out to pasteur.
    Shadowsbane nickered softly as I approached, and in response, i rubbed her mane fondly. The foal also whinnied for attention, and I responded with a scratch on her white star.
    Snowstar snorted, as if he was above all the attention that his mare and foal needed, and I smiled, lifting the saddle off the wall and placing it on his back. I fastening all the buckles, then holding my bowl of stew securely, leaped onto the saddle.
    I rode Snowstar out of the barn, then dismounted. I walked back into the barn and looked at the rusty metal sword hanging on the wall, my father's. He was once a valuable officer in the King's army, perhaps even his personal guard, or so I heard.
    I brought it along with me, strapping it around my waist. Perhaps it would afford me some protection.
    I got back on Snowstar, and together, with Shadowsbane and the foal following us, we made our way up the hill towards the mountain, where the grass was sweetest.
    Before long, I spotted the outcropping of rock that was the spot where I lay down to rest. I tied a long rope to Snowstar, and the other end to a sapling. I knew that Shadowstar and the foal would go nowhere without him.
    How nice, I say to myself as I lie down under the rock in the shadows. They are a family, a family that would never break apart, I think with a touch of bitterness towards the happy horse family. Then I smack my forehead and think, what am I doing? They are horses, for heaven's sake! If I feel envy for them, I would be throwing away my pride, wouldn't I?
    The foal suddenly turns towards me and canters to my side, flopping down so he can nuzzle against my arm.
    "Oh, you," I say. "You just want to be scratched, don't you? I think I'll call you Soother. It fits you well."
    Soother falls asleep after a quick scratching, and I feel her steady, slow heartbeat against my ribs. It is so soothing, and I find it so nice just to close my eyes for a little bit... just a few minutes.
    I awaken to the sounds of whinnying and screaming of horses! Jumping to my feet, I startle Soother and she too leaps onto her feet. Through my blurry eyes, I see a blur of grey fly past me towards Snowstar and Shadowsbane, who are both on their hind legs and screaming in terror.
    I catch a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye, and i see a wolf has sighted me for it's target. I steal a glance back at Snowstar, who is pulling frantically at the rope. Running towards him, I slice the ropes and slap his haunch, sending him off down the mountain, with Shadowsbane and Soother behind him.
    Good, I think. They shall not die.
    Some of the wolves chase after them, but are no match for their speed and quickly turn back. I see a dozen or so wolves gathered around me, and I quickly climb onto the low outcropping. This way, I stand a better chance.
    I unsheathe the sword, and find it sparkling, almost giving off a glow of its own.
    I stare at it in amazement, then hear a chorus of growls grow behind me. The wolves have found their way up the hill and now keep me stranded on the outcropping.
    With a loud snarl, one particualarly large wolf leaps towards me, and I swing the sword, closing my eyes. I feel the sword slice through flesh, hear a whimper, and feel a spray of warm blood spray my face.
    Opening my eyes, I see the wolf sprawled on the ground below, bleeding its life out.
    Now the pack has taken more caution, seeing how one of their brethren has been killed.
    As one, they leap towards me and knock me off the ledge. I feel sharp teeth tear at my arms, and suddenly, I hear whimpers of pain. One by one, wolves are knocked off me, and I feel myself being lifted off the grounds. Blearily, I peer through the haze of pain, and I see a human face. The arms place me on a bouncing object, then climbs up behind me, and I register dimly the feeling of riding horseback down the mountain.
    Then, everything goes black and I can't feel anything anymore, only the feeling of a heavy blackness pressing on me, suffocating, killing.
    When I wake up, my head throbs with pain, as if someone is beating on it with a sledgehammer, and even opening my eyes hurts.
    When at last I open my eyes, I immediately register that I am not in my stepmother's house. Instead, I am lying on a soft, hay-stuffed mattress and I have someone washing my wounds and bandaging them. He looks up at me when I open my eyes, and I recognize him as the one who saved me.
    I open my mouth to thank him, and all that comes out is a creaking. He instantly holds a pitcher of water to my mouth and I gulp thirstily, swallowing as fast as I can.
    I wipe the water from my mouth, and say, "Thank you. My name is Akara Thornlake. And yours?" I use my father's last name, knowing that it is not as well known as my stepfather's name that I commonly go by, Windson.
    To my surprise, the boy hugs me, and exclaims, "Akara! Don't you recognize me? I'm Aekin! Your childhood friend! I haven't seen you in so long!"