Chapter 4 of Through Fire

A Familiar Scent

   The Phranhikaf gathered on the open ground before the Elderhall. Smoke rising from the collapsing poplars obscured the morning sun. The crackling walls of their infernal prison cast an orange glow over the tanned skin of their faces. Sparks glinted on beads of sweat as they merged into rivulets and streamed along old, jagged scars before dropping onto the packed dirt.

   Fear, dark as the pall from the sacred grove, rose in their chests at the rumors of the dark beast that had encircled them. The fire of their wrath, however, was beacon in the darkness of their hearts. After all, they were the terror of these grasslands and the bordering forest; eighty-four warriors, each one blooded and proven in raids. Among their number there was not one frail or feeble frame, no teat-latched infant unable to hold a blade. Fire fences were merely tools. Even turned on them, it was little more than an inconvenience to be swatted away. The beast was another matter. Every member of the tribe was murmuring epithets against the useless girl who failed to satisfy the demon and allowed this cataclysm to occur. 

   “<Shut your mouths!>” roared the chief, casting off the heavy furs that signified his office. Sweat drenched the heavily tattooed skin of his massive frame and dripped from his low brow into his eyes. He couldn’t plan with the constant jabbering around him, nor was he chieftain by grace of wit. Capturing that weird, cursed, nomad brat and making her a slave had been a stroke of luck that put him in high standing with the elders and placed him within reach of his desire. He achieved that desire by killing the previous chief in his sleep; and he maintained it by making sure no one did the same to him.

   Wiping the sweat from his eyes, he growled, “<We all know who is to blame for this. If the useless slave is lucky, it ate her before it came here. Now, the demon has destroyed the sacred grove, probably devoured the Ghel, and has trapped itself here with us. When we’re done killing it, we can see if the slave escaped the demon’s maw and make her pay for her failure.>” 

   A chorus of shouts responded and one voice rose out of the crowd, “<Yes! First the hellbeast, then we punish that worthless bi—>”

   “<That is enough.>”

   Together they searched for the stern woman who spoke. Her voice had seemed to come from every direction at once, yet from no farther than an arm’s length. A breeze blew in from the west, fanning the flames on all sides into towering walls and reducing their world to the huts and hall on a rough circle of dirt. A voice cried out in their midst and the group turned to follow an outstretched hand. Where the sacred grove had been there loomed a dark silhouette at least twice the height of the tallest warrior. Four luminous eyes glared down at the crowd, seeming almost like holes cut in the blackest of fabrics.

   “<You have cursed me as an evil thing, without knowledge of my nature or my intentions. Your nature, though, I have seen in the memories of the one you sent as sacrifice—all of that cruelty and viciousness which you have wrought upon her. It is you who are evil things, and you have earned a fitting punishment.>”

   The dark hulk glanced toward the ground beside it and the brigands followed its gaze. For a moment they could only see the fire; then a wavering shadow appeared in the flames. The shadow resolved itself into a human form, which strode slowly through the inferno. Their slave emerged naked from the flames and paused. Her arms and legs were coated with a dark layer of soot and ash that cracked and fell away where the joints bent. Beneath the dust, her tarnished-copper skin seemed to glow faintly. The tattoo on her forehead had changed from the familiar blueish-green to a vibrant red. She stood for a moment, a steel blank freshly drawn from the coals of a forge and caught in the moment before the hammer struck. Tense eyes surveyed the people before her.

   “<Long have I lived among and unwillingly served you, the murderers of my people,>” she called to the assembled brigands. Angry, savage faces were the only reply. “<You tormented me for thirteen years, then cast me aside to be consumed for the safety of this village.>” She raised an open hand upward to Ishné and continued, “<You placed me upon an altar to feed her flames; but, as you see, her fires can harm me no more than could yours. Instead of destroying me, you have introduced me to an ally. Now, you shall all taste the fate to which you sent my mother, my father, and the rest of my people.>”

   The furious flush of their faces deepened throughout her address. As she finished, one of the warriors lifted her spear and charged, shouting curses. Lhorta was second wife of the chief and one of Cae’s worst tormentors, starting from her first day in captivity. Many of the girl’s broken bones had come from this one. With reflexes born of long practice avoiding cast stones and other objects, Cae sidestepped the thrust and took hold of the haft. Smoke rose from between her soot-blackened fingers as the wood and leather cord beneath them smoldered. Her other hand covered the warrior’s face, immediately searing the flesh. Lhorta’s shrieks took on a desperate, frenzied tone as she released her spear and grabbed Cae’s arm with both hands, which themselves quickly succumbed to the heat. Cae took a half-step forward and pushed, toppling the warrior backward onto the ground. The woman’s face was a ruin of char, blister, and blood in the shape of Cae’s hand. 

   The assembled mass murmured angrily but looked from the woman writhing on the ground to the strange pair before them with increasing uncertainty. Growing more confident, Cae glanced at the spear she still held, now burning in her grasp. She took a half step forward and hurled it over the heads of the crowd. Half of them tore their gaze away to follow the missile’s arc. The tufts of decorative fur and braided grass which were wrapped around the haft below the point left a trail of fluttering sparks through the air. The blade lodged with a muffled thump in the thatched roof of the Elderhall. 

   One of the elders shouted as the dry grass ignited and the flames quickly spread. With a roar the chief sprang toward Cae, followed immediately by the rest. They came as a disorganized whole; eighty-three men, women, and youths hellbent to destroy her. Sweating bodies jostled for forward position in the crowd; each of them wishing to be the first to push the point of their weapon through the girl. When the swiftest of them had marked half of the distance to Cae, Ishné stepped forward and stood over her, lifting the girl in the careful embrace of her forelimbs. She planted her remaining legs to steady herself, and the tips of her splayed toes sank into the soil as her wings stretched out to their full span. The pinions blurred in the wavering air that surrounded them.

   Before the attackers could recognize their peril, the wings swept down and forward. A wave of superheated air buffeted the Phranhikaf, knocking them backward, followed by a dual cyclone of flames drawn from the inferno that still raged behind her. Their clothes ignited moments before their bodies. Wrapped tightly in Ishné’s embrace, Cae squeezed her eyes shut against the sight. The smell of burned flesh was too fresh on her hands; so the girl buried her nose and mouth in the crook of her right arm to block out the smell of immolation. The sound of crackling fat and screaming assaulted her still-open ears. She couldn’t find a way to block it all out at once. The sounds, scents, and sights before her recalled the last night of the Antsezi, the night she lost everything.

   As the wretched, sputtering mass stilled, Ishné released the girl. Cae forced herself to survey the broader scene. The flames were encroaching from outside the village with the collapse of the hedge wall and spreading faster through Elderhall. Over the roar of the fires and the rushing wind, little else could be heard. Any sense of closure she had sought failed to wrest itself from the scene of horrors. There was no bringing back her people and no erasing the things that had been done to her in the village. The suffering and obliteration of a small tribe of murderous thieves would save the lives of many future travelers; but death was death and it would never be something she could feel wholly good about. The hammer had struck and left her cooling against the anvil.

   Ishné watched the scene impassively. She looked down when she felt the girl’s shoulder rest against her forelimb. Relief, sadness, and fear warred with each other in Cae’s mind. Ishné bent her head down and touched the tip of her dark muzzle to the smooth skin atop the girl’s head, saying, “Perhaps it would be best if we departed, Cae.” This earned her a weary smile.

   “Yes.” She wiped at the soot, ash, and tears on her face with her forearm. Giving up on brushing away the stains, she stood in thought for a moment and muttered, “First, I need to gather some things.”

   Cae dashed into the burning hall and across the main chamber. All along both sides were the sleeping quarters of the clan elders; she passed the doorways without a spare glance. At the back wall were the entrances to the chief’s quarters and a separate chamber for his wives. Between the doors sat a raised dais where the chief stood for clan meetings; above it was one her objectives. 

   A long, thin bow and a quiver of arrows hung crossed upon the wall. They had been a gift to a past chieftain by a warlord who hired the clan to stop his enemies’ forces from reaching his coastal estate during some long-past war. The bow and quiver were forged in far off Nifa. They were a splendid example of Nifal metal craft: heating and fusing a light, pliable metal with a heavier, stronger alloy, which were then repeatedly hammered and folded until they formed a single, marbled blank from which to forge tools and weapons. The light of the conflagration around her rippled beautifully across the variegated surface of the metal. Inside the quiver were a dozen thin arrows, whose shafts were steel but the heads were intricately wrought from the same Nifal metal as the bow. To the girl’s delight, the bowstring and the arrows’ fletching were made of a sturdy, braided wire. The set was meant to be a trinket; as far as she knew, they had never been used. Cae grinned as she ran back out of the hall, clutching cool metal to her bare chest. Perhaps they were meant only as decorations, but under the circumstances tools that could not burn would prove useful to her. 

   Inside the village pantry she tossed a small knife, some dried meats and fruits, flatbread, and nuts into a small metal box with a thick glass lining. The lining was deceptive, for within the glass was an open space, a vacuum that served to insulate the contents. She closed the clasp and stared at the deeply engraved image of a rising sun with five rays that adorned the top of the box. Thin, trembling fingers brushed across the grooves, turning the etching black with soot.

  Cae returned to the the yard, clutching the items that she had grabbed. Stooping, she picked up the pendant that she had dropped when she fended off the spear and added it to the box as quickly as she could, to avoid exposing the things inside to too much heat. She looked up at her new friend and asked, “Where will we go?”

   “I have slept through many changes to this world. I do not yet know the lay of this land or where would be safest for you. Also,” a flicker of embarrassment reached the girl, “I know little of what your kind needs in the way of shelter and food. There are areas in the mountains where plants grow sparse enough for me to move without causing excessive fire and bringing attention to us. However, there may not be food to sustain you.” 

   Cae pondered that. She had gone hunting with her family as a young child and was taught how to make snares. These skills were necessary for long caravans, where the weight and space of supplies had to be carefully balanced against their merchant cargo. She had learned about edible and toxic plants in much the same way. While living in the village that continued to crumble around her, she was forced to construct and maintain household items, like baskets and utensils, as well as the warriors’ hunting tools and weapons. Between snare and the bow and arrows, she should be able to manage meat. Fire for cooking and warmth…

   The girl chuckled softly at that thought and said, “I can find what I need to survive. The mountains sound fine to me. A place without people to hurt me sounds wonderful. I also secured enough food to sustain me for a few days.” She lifted the box for Ishné to see.

   Ishné blinked down at box dubiously. “Are the contents safe from my heat?”

   “I think so,” Cae said with sad smile, pointing to the emblem, “it is one of my people’s insulated storage boxes. They would keep important things in these to protect them from damage by fire or cold. The Phranhikaf used them as simple containers.”

   Now that the girl had the supplies that she needed, the pair struck off quietly, leaving the village to burn. Rather than exhaust energy by flying, they walked back through the grassland to the circle where they had met, unconcerned about the wake of wildfire and smoke that spread behind them. They passed by the decorated post close enough that Ishné’s heat ignited the wood. Cae glanced at it and shuddered, thinking of how things were supposed to have gone.

   The girl looked up and said, “Ishné, thank you,” earning her a pause and a nod.

   The pair walked on as night fell and shrill calls echoed from the long grass. The insects and birds were forced to take flight, and the rodents and frogs retreated into their burrows, as the grassland burned in the wake of the mismatched couple. The trek took two days at the human’s pace. When Cae wearied, Ishné would kneel to allow her to rest between her forewings, but the girl would not suffer such treatment for long. She preferred moving on her own feet; however, she did acquiesce to crossing the cold river on her companion, gasping at the fresh steam and fog that billowed around them. 

   They reached the rocky security of the mountains and located a shallow cave, within which was enough space for both of them to fit. The little box of supplies, which had begun to warp on the outside from its constant exposure to heat, was left outside the cave to protect it and its dwindling contents. The girl was exhausted from the events of the past few days. Her large companion lay upon the floor and beckoned her to lie close. Cae curled close against her companion’s hot, dark skin and quickly succumbed to sleep. Ishné remained awake, still fresh from hibernation. She listened to the girl’s steady breathing and to the faint singing of the universe.


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