In a world where everyone is half-animal and can change to their counterpart at will, what will happen to a girl who is born with no animal half? She may be more than she thinks...

Chapter 1: Market Day

"Aspen! Hurry up, dear, or you'll miss the market!"

Aspen, wistfully staring into her mirror, jumped at her aunt's call and darted across the room to her chest of drawers. "I'm coming!"

The fifteen-year-old jogged down the wooden stairs, wincing as one certain step creaked. Ever since the house had been built by her uncle's father, that one stair had been fitted incorrectly. The nail was too small, and the step groaned loudly every time someone stepped on it.

Her aunt, a slight figure with white swan wings folded neatly on her back, was placing breakfast on the table. It was solid oak—her uncle was very proud of it. Her uncle was a rugged man, raised in a secluded forest by strength of will and arm. His skin was darker than the rest of his family's, accentuating his grizzly bear half. He was often gruff, and his dark brown hair was thick and shaggy. He had bear ears poking out of the tangled mass of hair.

"Aspen," he rumbled. "I would have eaten your breakfast." He shot a glance at a lean teenage boy, his dusty red hair topped with two tan-red ears. "Though Jacob would have fought me for it."

The teenager flicked his tail. It was long, tan, and ringed with the same color as his hair; Jacob was half red panda. "I'm almost a man!" He proceeded to quote a phrase coined by his grandfather. "'Hard working makes hard eating!'"

Aspen's aunt came over, her long, pale blond hair brushing her son's shoulder. "You'd better be working hard," she reminded him, "else your family will starve!"

Aspen's uncle winked; his deep brown eyes twinkled merrily. "I doubt your little gazelle-girl would appreciate having a house full of starving kids."

A red hue blossomed on Jacob's tanned cheeks. "Sari is...!" Jacob trailed off and hung his head, embarrassed.

Aspen slid into her seat by Jacob. "Sari will manage. What's for breakfast?"

"You get porridge and strawberries, with sausage on the side. I worked hard to keep it from the starving men in this house."

Aspen's uncle laughed, a deep belly laugh. "We work hard. We need our food."

His wife sighed in mock despair, though her pale blue eyes were shining. "You could save some for the women, too. We work hard to give you food to eat."

As her family chuckled, Aspen dug into the porridge. It was rich and flavorful, just the way she liked it. She would have preferred a cheese omelet this morning, but her aunt had qualms about working with eggs. Aspen mentally shrugged. She would manage.

"I've been saving up," Jacob announced with his mouth full. "I've got enough money for something special."

"For Sari?" Aspen teased.

Jacob flushed. "Yes."

They ate in silence, acutely aware of any noise from outside. The market came every autumn with items for sale, from candy to jewelry to wood. If you wanted it, the market had it, or so they claimed. Local farmers also sold their grain and produce to buy supplies for the winter.

Aspen's uncle rose from his chair. "Is everyone ready?"

Aspen hurried from the table and up to her room. She yanked a large pouch out from underneath her bed. This was her money case. It was heavy with coins, having been saved since last autumn. Aspen took the stairs two at a time, surprising herself by managing to skip the creaky step. Her heart was light in her chest. This year would be the best. She thought that every year, but this year she felt as if it would come true.

Aspen's uncle took the lead outside. The sun shone gaily, defying the season. Farmers were toting their crops to the center square where the market was usually held. Children squealed and chased each other around the square. This was the only place with stone instead of the hard-packed dirt track of the rest of the village. It needed to be; this was the place where things happened. Last year, a couple married at this very spot. Often announcements were proclaimed from here. Once a woman gave birth here. This was a happening place, full of activity when it was used. More often than not, it crouched forlornly at the center of Mahogany.

"They're not here yet," an old half-panther grumbled irritably. "Koru, go up and find them."

Koru, a young man with white owl wings sprouting from his back, consented to his uncle's command. He closed his eyes. His body was momentarily obscured by light; then he was gone, replaced by a snowy owl the same size as him. He hooted loudly and took to the air.

Aspen watched Koru soar through the sky in awe. It always amazed her when a half-animal did something impossible by human standards. A trace of the animal remained even when they retained their human half; for example, Koru was very active at night. He had only come out for the market. And when Jacob had been younger, he had enjoyed climbing trees. He almost broke his neck after falling out of a huge tree. Then Aspen's uncle had given him a severe talking-to.

Aspen craned her neck to watch Koru loop through the air. He was scanning the town and the surrounding areas for the caravan, Aspen guessed.

With all her heart, Aspen wished she had an animal half. She had, in fact, been the child born at the square. Her mother had died during the birth. The swan-woman and her husband were Aspen's aunt and uncle. Jacob was her cousin. She was grateful that her kin had taken her in, but she longed to see her mother. Had she been a whole-human, too? Or was Aspen some sort of genetic mistake? She recalled the words that her aunt had told her when she had proposed the question a few months ago. "You're not a mistake, Aspen. You have family who love and care for you. No one is a mistake."

But what will happen to me?

At that point, Aspen's aunt had kissed her and said, "No human, neither half or whole, can truthfully answer that."

Aspen's mind was drawn from her memories with the sound of hooves and Koru's raucous cry as he landed.

"They're here," he panted after his transformation.

The crowd turned expectantly toward the sound of the caravan.

A ram's horn was tooted pitifully by a short, stout half-baboon dressed like a minstrel. He shoved the horn into the hands of the half-jaguar next to him and leapt ungracefully off of the cart.

"Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye," he hollered in a thick accent. "The market is now in session!"

Within minutes, tents were systematically set up throughout the square. As soon as the jeweler set up his tent, Jacob departed and strode nervously to him. He caught the eye of a fair teenage girl with hair like sheets of caramel and two neat horns swirling out of her head. Jacob stared awkwardly before winking at her. The girl blushed and continued on her way.

Aspen hefted the money case as she scanned the complete marketplace. She didn't know where to start, so she took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and pointed in a random direction.

She groaned at her choice. This place was called a rip-off. Michel sold love potions made from dead tadpoles and fermented maple sap, to name one of his wares. If he found a peculiar item, it would go into the store. One year he had sold the sword of a fallen hero, which in turn got the government—a monarchy—involved. It was settled quietly.

Oh, well. Maybe he'll have something worthwhile this time. Aspen braced herself and headed off.

This is my first story on here. I was inspired by Eragon by Christopher Paolini, though the similarities are not major ones. Any fans of the book might notice them. This cannot be a fan fiction, however, because this story does not relate to Eragon.

Please review. I appreciate your support!