“He should be up there,” Kevor said to me over his shoulder. He was barely panting, the bastard, but then he wasn’t hauling half his weight in a pack. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought the firestone after all.
Kevor stopped where the path briefly leveled, and I was happy to pause and catch my breath. The wind was at our backs, blowing as though it needed a running start to get up the mountains ahead. It twisted his cape around his legs, so that the twin streaks of flame on the black cloth seemed to dance even without their enchantment. But he didn’t notice. He was watching me.
I let my bag slump to the ground. We had only left the Occultarium an hour ago, and already I no longer cared how the rocky road would treat the albino ox leather I had paid so much for. My own cape, a dreary black, was stuffed in the bottom of my bag, but my velvet doublet kept the wind out and looked phenomenal to boot.
“You don’t have to do this, Dasper,” he said. His whole face seemed clinched with anxiety, an expression I hadn’t seen on him in the months since his own Venture. It was a welcome relief from the flat, grim face that he’d worn recently.
“Sure, I do. Headmaster Laren will expel me if I don’t.” I didn’t add, and probably even if I do.
He put his hand on my shoulder, gently, as he once had. “It might be better that way.”
“Easy for you to say, you’ve already earned your sword and cape.” I gripped the ten-inch athame at my belt to contrast the blade at his hip.
His face slackened as he began to withdraw again into his melancholy, like there was an ice fortress in his eyes in which he could hide.
“I’m sorry,” I said after a sigh. “I know that something happened to you during your Enkindling.” Something he wouldn’t tell me, or anyone save his fellow Blazes. “But each Enkindling is different. Everyone’s price is different. I’m not afraid.”
“Then you are a dolt.” His eyes were cold again, the icy gates had closed. He looked away from me, up the path, and pointed.
A man, surely my client, stood where the mountain trail met the sky, silhouetted against rolling clouds.
I picked up my bag and began my trudge. Kevor did not move.
“The price is always the same, Dasper,” he shouted after me. His voice echoed through the foothills so I would hear him half a dozen times as I hiked toward my client.
“As much as you can bear.”
He looked like sex and war. He was big, a head taller than me and half again as wide. On his shoulders he wore a fur mantle, but his thick arms crossed a chest barely concealed beneath a spun wool shirt. Iron bands gathered long black hair into a rope past his shoulders. This was a mark of the Pravic tribes to the north, but I had never read of a boy older than fifteen still wearing iron. The shield he rested against a scrawny pine confirmed it though – stout oak painted white, with a black iron border. Beside this leaned a staff capped with an iron ball as big as a fist.
He watched me trudge up the hill without speaking, without moving. He was either glaring, or the sun was in his eyes.
“Hello,” I said. “Did you order a fireworker?”
I looked around for a wheelgolem, or at least horses. Anything that could take up the miles ahead. “And we’re to go to the Ruins of Darius?”
He seemed to struggle with the question, which was strange, but I had always heard Pravic men could not lie. Half my heart hoped he would say yes, and we would have a short, safe trip to the picked-over rubble of the once-famous temple. The rest of my heart knew that a safe trip wasn’t likely to lead to Enkindling, and Headmaster Laren would expel me when I returned. The thought of a life as a clerk didn’t get the blood flowing through that half-a-heart.
“Yes,” he said.
“I don’t really know the way,” I said, in case he wanted a guide.
I waited, but he didn’t add anything. Instead he picked up his shield and hammerstaff. He hung the shield from his back on a strap, then began pounding the earth with the iron shoe of his staff with both hands. Gravel shattered underneath. After a few more thumps, the gravel was ground to powder, and the thunking sound deepened.
Wind rushed over the rise, mingling with the echoes of the pounding. Then there was a sound like a plow digging through rocks. A great lizard charged out onto the road. I fell back a step. It was half again as long as a man and stood waist-high on four bent legs. It surely weighed twice as much as the Pravic and I together, and it looked far, far from home.
The Pravic laughed, as shocking as the sun rising at midnight, and it rushed to him like a puppy. He ran his hand over the thing’s head while it nuzzled his leg. Its amber eyes looked over me, and its tongue flicked out as though it couldn’t wait to taste me.
The Pravic tossed one leg over the beast and climbed up near its head. It didn’t shred him with its claws or tear his leg off with its teeth. If fact, it seemed to smile a bit.
“Come, the saurum will not hurt you.”
“I prefer to walk,” I said.
“Very well.” He strapped his staff and shield along the creature’s back. He clucked at the saurum, which looked at me once more before starting down the road at a brisk walk.
I hauled my bag to my shoulder and followed on foot.
I dozed on the lizard’s back as it carried me with my blistering heels hitched near to my flanks. Its skin was surprisingly smooth, almost dusty feeling, and softer than I could have imagined. Little specks like mica sparkled in it. How it would look as a pair of boots?
Beside us the terrain passed by at the pace of a trotting horse. Trees going dormant for the coming winter and dusty gray rocks stood as an ode to dullness. Even having my knees around the muscle-bound Pravic had become boring, in part because he didn’t seem to notice.
We had exchanged names, but his was something primitive and strange, and I had lost track of it while I slept. I didn’t know how to ask him again.
“So, do you live near the Occultarium?” I asked when my boredom had grown nearly terminal.
“I live nowhere.” His voice was muffled, since he hadn’t turned to speak and a thick wall of meat sat between his mouth and me. “I wander.”
“Surely you lived somewhere, though. Before.”
He pointed to the mountains ahead. “My foremothers were from there, before they were driven away. I was born in Vale Corto.”
I racked my brain for details of the history of the Prava, but all I could remember was the King’s war in the valleys beyond.
He must have been thinking of something similar, because the muscles in his back became even tenser. He said nothing more.
I sighed and tugged a bag of dreamcap mushrooms from my pocket. Two would have been sufficient, but I looked around at the landscape and the dull-as-dirt primitive in front of me and popped three into my mouth, washing them down with a swig from my flask. There was a flare in my mouth like earth and fire rioting, and reality gently dissolved.
As the mushrooms wore off, I found that I was propped against a fir tree in a gravel-strewn clearing. The Pravic must have carried me, or at least dragged me from the back of his beast. He had also already stacked wood in a ring of stone, but he and the beast were nowhere to be seen.
I crawled to my gear and drained my canteen, trying to get my tongue back down to a normal size, before finally sitting by the fireless fire ring.
The dead wood wanted to burn, nearly begged for it. The flames writhed wantonly just beneath the surface. I drew my athame across the wood and stirred them, teasing them. It took only the lightest touch with my will to set the naked flame free.
The Pravic and the saurum sauntered into the clearing. “You are with us now, I see.” His voice was flat as a blade, but at least he was speaking.
He spitted two rabbits over the fire as I settled back against my tree. A third rabbit he tossed to the lizard, which swallowed it in two bites and collapsed by the fire with a dreamy smile. The Pravic stroked its head while squatting next to the fire pit. His haunches were pulled taught as harp strings, and I twirled my athame, thinking of strumming them.
He frowned down at me, and I thought he must have caught me staring.
But he said, “In my land, only men carry steel.” He nodded at my blade.
“I am a man,” I said, more quietly than I had meant.
He frowned. “Yes, I suppose. But big men. Right men. Warriors.”
“Why do you carry iron?” I asked.
He jabbed a stick into the fire, stirring the flames as I had before they were freed, but of course he didn’t know this.
“The axe you carry is steel,” I said.
His back straightened and he stared into the flames. “It is only a tool.”
I sipped from my flask. Smoke and fire, it was good. The saurum sauntered over to the edge of the pit, getting so close that I worried for it. But a cold-blooded creature such as that must have been uncomfortable in the night’s chill. I wondered what would happen to it as a cold night fell, or as we passed higher into the mountains.
“Even the clever ones like you don’t carry steel,” he said. He turned his head and eyed his stack of logs. “The earthworkers of my tribe, they carry great drums. The fireworkers carry sticks. Wands.”
“Foolish,” I said. “Trees are made of air and water. Steel is born in fire.”
He grunted and tossed a split log as big as my leg into the fire, which splashed me with sparks.
“Bastard! You had better not singe my doublet! It’s velvet.”
The saurum hissed quietly as the Pravic stopped petting it. “You make fun of me.”
I looked at him, shoulders hunched and eyes fixed on the fire, and in that moment tweaking his nose further seemed as sad as it did dangerous.
I pulled out my flask and held it out. “A peace offering, then.”
He nodded, so I crossed the camp to sit next to him. He took the flask.
“Why do you still wear iron? You must have twenty years on you.”
He stared into the fire, then held out his hand toward me. I passed him the flask and sat cross-legged next to him. He seemed huge, squatting next to me, like he could swallow me up in his arms so I’d never escape, even if I wanted to.
“My family revoked the steel I won. My people are not like yours. In many ways, this is good, but-”
He stopped, staring into the campfire.
“Why did they take back your steel?”
He took a long drink from the flask. Then he handed it back.
I raised my hand and brushed the hair from his face. It was like a waterfall of silk.
He struck my hand away. “Your people would not understand.”
“Then let your people play with drums and sticks, with your iron and steel.” I picked up the flask and smirked over the top of it. “It certainly worked for them in the Vale.”
He glared at me, eyes glinting in the firelight. “One day I will unite my people. Then we will crush yours.”
He said no more, and I heard only the grind of his feet in the gravel and the leather-on-sand sound of the saurum following him.
I rolled out my blankets, having dug them from my bag. His name came to me, then, as though I had stuffed it into my pack – Jarngeir. By now I had started regarding him as the Pravic even in my mind.
From the bottom of the bag I drew the hand-sized block of firestone. It didn’t seem hot in my hand, but when I tapped it with my athame, the fire inside it began to leak out as warmth. I shoved it into the foot of my makeshift bed.
Making myself as comfortable as I could on the rocky ground, I drifted to sleep.
We hardly spoke the next day, or the day after. The lizard’s legs chewed through the miles between us and the pass that would take us to the Road of Darius. Each night we would sit around the campfire, each alone in our heads. Even the saurum grew melancholy.
The mountain was musing upon winter. Its premature chill seeped through my blankets, and I awakened on the third day to numb toes.
Frowning, I dug through the blankets until I found the firestone by my feet. Only dim flames lurked within it now. I fed it with fire from the ground beneath me, but I had only the strength to pour a trickle into it. It was as good as dead, weeks before it should have been. I chucked it into the brush, making a mental note to demand a refund at the shop.
Chilly and grumbling, I gathered my supplies for a scrub. A pool formed at a turn in the stream, and though I could not awaken the fire within the water as a Blaze would do, I found that I could shift the flames within the rocks. Gripping the athame in both hands, I brought fire from within the ground, as deep as I could reach, and dragged it near the surface beneath the pool, which it warmed. It was cooler than I liked for shaving, but it served as bathwater.
When I was finished, I treated myself to a breakfast of dreamcaps and some whiskey from my final flask. The Pravic chewed berries and gave the saurum slivers of cold cooked rabbit.
Then we set out in silence. The day was filled with sun-dappled paths and floating geometric structures. The secrets of the universe whispered themselves to me for hours.
By the time my visions subsided, the horizon was dragging down the sun like hunters netting a griffin. I was pulled against the Pravic’s body by my arms, which he had tied together around his torso. Even through the fur of his mantle, he felt solid and warm, like a monolith standing in the desert noon.
More trees passed by in the twilight, but the saurum was ascending on a road that hardly deserved the name. Trail, perhaps.
“Haven’t we reached the road to the Ruins yet?” I asked. It was difficult to get my mouth around the words, as if it were full of molasses and crackers.
“You’re awake,” he said. Pressed against his body, I could feel the rumble of his speech in my sternum. The rise of his chest stretched my arms as he breathed.
He tugged on the rope, some clever knot, and my hands were freed. “Among my people, only the wise ones eat the mushrooms, and only on spirit journeys.”
“You could call mine a spirit journey,” I said, pausing to sip from my flask, “but I am nearly out of spirits.”
He sighed. “We passed the road yesterday. You would have seen it if you had been able.”
Then where was I being taken? Yesterday on the back of a trotting lizard meant days on foot. The spindly pines around me seemed like the bars of a cell.
I grabbed my bag and jumped from the trotting saurum. Landing on the rocky track and tearing the skin of my knees and palms, I scattered gravel along the path. The Pravic stopped a little ways away and walked back. The saurum waited, watching.
“You lied. Pravic cannot lie.”
“A Pravic man would have to give up his steel for lying.” He held out an empty hand. “I am not yet a man.”
I ignored his hand and stood. The ground seemed to roll under my feet. His face left a trail in my vision.
“You can go if you like, but there are dangerous things in these mountains.”
I looked around at the darkening wood. Branches creaked and sticks cracked. Were those red eyes, or just the sun glinting off a shiny stone? Or a remnant of my mushroom dream?
The Pravic made no move to stop me as I strode back down the mountain trail.
It was hard to stomp down the steep graveled path, but I gave it my best effort. To the west, the sun drooped, and shadows reached greedily for the eastern horizon. After walking for an hour, I began to doubt my decision.
It was the creature, pale white and short, that brought my doubts into sharp focus.
It stood a bit higher than my waist. Its whole body was covered in long white hair. It should have been matted or filthy, but instead it was straight like the hair of a merchant’s pampered daughter. It might have been beautiful if not for the snarling face and the skewer-like spear it held across its chest.
I stood stock-still. The air was like stone in my lungs. Was this a figment of the dreamcaps?
At a rustling beside me, I turned and saw another, this one slightly shorter and brandishing a dagger as though it were a sword. It gripped the tang of the naked blade rather than a handle.
I backed away. How many were there? What were they?
“Peace,” I said, in case they understood.
Whether or not they understood, they did not comply. The taller one screeched, and the other lashed out with the knife as fast as a raptor striking from the sky. I leaped back from the blade, but something caught my foot and I fell onto my back.
My head struck the ground and rang like a bell. White-haired creatures stood around me with weapons poised. The tallest one, the one with the spear, made chucking noises at the other two.
Lying on the ground, I could feel the fire within it, but locked away like a maiden on the night before her debut. I reached for my athame, still sheathed at my belt, and the ground opened itself to me.
I drew the fire into my blade before slipping it free. Yellow eyes went wide, and the tall one shrieked even before I released the flame with a flick of my wrist.
It did not grow like a fireball a Blaze would throw in battle. Though it was little better than throwing a rag lit by a candle, the hair of the creature burned like a lace curtain. It shrieked and ran. The one with the knife screamed and stabbed at me. A silver gleam raced at my face.
It never made it. There was a growl, a green blur, and then a cry.
The third one raised a sharpened rock in its hand, but before it could jab at me, its head crumpled beneath an iron ball.
The world spun gently around me. The Pravic held out his hand to help me up.
The saurum snuffled at the tallest creature, which lay burnt and wheezing at the side of the path.
“Ferm,” he said, kicking the shorter one at his feet. “They must have burrows in these mountains.”
I stumbled over to the burned one, though I had to lean against a tree to stay upright. Its skin was blistered and red, but it still breathed laboriously. It caught my eyes with its own, begging pity. “Why don’t we know of them? Men travel these mountains.”
“We are far from the King’s road, farther from the passes your people use.”
“What are they?”
“These are fermlings – the drones of the species. Sexless.”
“They look like little men,” I said. That wasn’t true, unless a man wore a full-body wig, but they walked like men and carried weapons. And the panic I saw in its eyes looked like the panic of a dying man.
He nodded. “The fermlings work and fight, but they are not wise like men. They will use tools if they are given them, but they cannot create or build. Only the queens, who are great,” he held his hand above his head to indicate their height, “can reason. The rest are like dogs.”
It didn’t look like a dog. It looked like a child, one with a ruined face and a short future.
The Pravic moved next to me, putting his hand on my shoulder and speaking softly. “It would have killed you. Fermlings near my hamlet took away some children when I was a boy. My father sent a team to destroy the burrow. It was my first battle.”
The fermling locked its eyes to mine just as the Pravic raised his staff to end it.
“They are not men, Dasper.”
The Pravic put me on the saurum’s back and once again lashed me to his body. I stared into the woods as though the dreamcaps still captured my mind, but I only saw one vision: two eyes amid blistered flesh.
“Dasper,” he said. “This is Jarngeir. Do you hear me?”
Jarngeir shook my shoulders. Some time had passed. The sun was gone from the sky, and the quarter moon was high.
“Dasper? I need you.”
I saw his face floating in front of me, just inches away. His eyes were intense, his jaw seemed worked from stone.
“See this plant? I want you to find five more of them and dig up their roots. Do you understand?”
I looked at the plant. I didn’t recognize it from botany class, but it had opposite compound leaves and a small red bloom. I left the camp, stepping through ankle-deep snow that I hadn’t noticed falling.
A high cliff rose to the north, but at its base a sparse forest grew. The undergrowth was thin and largely buried in a white blanket. The plant was rare, it seemed, and it took an hour of careful searching to find enough. Which had probably been Jarngeir’s intent.
When I returned, the ground of the campsite had been cleared, and there was a stack of split wood by a stone ring with a haunch of venison spitted above it. At my raised eyebrow, Jarngeir smiled and pointed at the saurum, who gnawed on the carcass at the edge of camp.
I sparked the fire with a twist of my athame and we sat while we cooked venison and roots, seasoned with strips of leaves from the plant I brought.
The Ruins of Darius, and their patrols of Kingsmen, were far from here. This was a place of sharp edges and danger, where I might be Enkindled. But I hadn’t been. My life had teetered on the point of a blade, and I had only been saved by Jarngeir and the saurum. I had no more flame at my call than ever, only a trickle. Magic had not come to the rescue.
Jarngeir sat away from the fire, staring at the night sky. The saurum lay curled next to him.
I went and sat on his other side. He studied the stars, and I studied him. A short, ragged beard was growing in, a little lighter than his hair, which he wore lose at the moment, foregoing his iron bands.
“What are you doing?” My hand was so near his that I could feel its heat through the air.
“Speaking with my foremothers,” he said. “They sleep in the skies, our elders teach, and waken in our need.”
I studied the stars, trying to remember the shapes of them that my tutor had taught, The Plow, the Spire. But they looked all the same to me.
“The firemasters tell us they are made of fire and air, and are more distant than any man could travel in his whole life, or in the lives of all his forefathers.”
He nodded, then lowered his face.
“But you believe they are your ancestors,” I prodded. His face was shadow, and I wanted to light my athame to see him. Was he growing angry, impassioned?
“No,” he said at last. “I said that our elders teach that it is so. Still, when I have questions, it is a comfort to come and speak to the shapes of them.”
What would it be like to have family in the sky? Ones that watch, and care? But the stars do not care. They only burn. There is a lesson in that.
I moved my hand, just an inch, but it could have well been the distance between two stars. He pulled away.
“The food is ready.”
Afterward I sipped from my last flask. It helped dissolve the garlic taste of the roots.
I handed him the flask, which he accepted.
“Is there a pool nearby?”
His brows came together, but he nodded and pointed.
My tone of voice was a masterpiece of craft, perfectly casual. “Care for a dip?”
“I did not think your kind cared for the cold mountain waters.”
“We don’t.” I raised my athame.
He followed me to the pool, a little spring pool a few feet deep and a man’s height across, and watched as I heated the stone to warm it. His face was alight as he reached his hand into the waters. “You can make it cooler, too?”
“Why would I?”
When he didn’t answer, I pulled off my clothes and stepped into the pool. It was deliciously warm, better than I had managed before.
After a moment, Jarngeir stripped in the brush and joined me quickly, so that I barely caught a glimpse of a pale back flashing in the moonlight before he was lounging in the pool across from me. He reached out for my flask, which I handed to him.
I grabbed the oilskin bag from the pocket of clothes by the pool and removed the last dreamcap. “Split it?”
“No. As I said, only the wise ones may take them.”
“So, that rule you choose to observe. What about the others?”
It was dark, with only a low-hanging quarter moon to light his face, but still I could see it darken.
“The lying. The axe.”
He looked away. “Those are different. Necessary.”
“Everyone has their own boundaries, Jarngeir. I think growing means allowing those boundaries to stretch.”
I reached out with my foot and stroked his thigh with my toes.
He watched me for a moment. I took his silence as consent, and I stretched farther.
“You are an interesting creature, Dasper.” He caught my ankle in his grasp. “But you are wrong. To grow means to learn where your own boundaries lie, and to guard them.”
He rose, glistening in the moonlight, and vanished into the trees with his clothes.
I left my last dreamcap by the pool that night, and slept curled in my blankets. By the time I awoke, Jarngeir had the saurum packed.
“We are done with the trails that men can follow.” Jarngeir cinched the lines around the saurum’s body. Above him a span of rock rose, and beyond that the summit stabbed the sky.
Using deft knots and strong hands, Jarngeir tied us prone to the back of the saurum. At his command, it ascended.
With each vertical step, the creature’s claws fused to the surface. The dusty green of its scales flowed into the gray-brown rock of the mountain like a man sticking his hand into pudding. Only the rock hardened around the claws after it was placed. This took only an instant, and the saurum scaled the face as quickly as a man could crawl, only straight into the sky.
Jarngeir was between the saurum and me. We were tied body-to-body and leg-to-leg. My arms encircled his neck. Iron rings held his hair in a band, which hung over my shoulder.
He cleared his throat into the silence. With the quiet now wounded, he slew it.
“When I was thirteen, my father led us to fight the ferm. I fought and defended my father, my brothers, and sister. But the steel the ferm carry is rare and usually poor quality. I did not win my steel. In truth, I probably didn’t even make a kill. My younger brother did win steel, though, at only twelve. I vowed that I would win my own.”
The saurum began crawling up an overhang, so that Jarngeir began to hang downward into me. His weight was crushing and enticing.
“There was an older boy who had won steel at Vale Dorak. He agreed to train me. He was not large like my family, but he moved like an eagle striking, with his whole body behind each blow. He was smart too, and could read a battle like song from a tapestry.”
“I loved him.” His voice rose barely above the scratching sound of the saurum’s climb.
“My sister found us together and told my father. I thought he would send me away. I thought he might kill me, or deny me food and shelter. He did none of it, though the Elders demanded it. Still, he never spoke to me again; commands were given through my brothers.”
“The boy was not so fortunate with his family.”
The saurum paused at the lip of the overhang. I raised my hand and rested it on Jarngeir’s head, above his ear. He tilted his head into my palm.
“When next the King’s men came to Vale Prava, I was fifteen. My brothers and I returned, though many did not. This time I killed three of your king’s men by myself before we were driven out.”
A boy against the hardened men of the King’s army, wearing and carrying steel. Not to mention the troops of Blazes they would have had, casting fire into the Pravic ranks, or the students released at the point of Enkindling into their lines to wreak unfathomable havoc. My throat was tight.
“After the battle, my brothers knocked me down. They took my steel, saying that I was not man enough to keep it, that I would remain a boy while the sun still glowed.”
Jarngeir ran his hand along the saurum’s shoulders. It rumbled, like a cat purring. “I did not kill them, but I left them broken and bleeding on my father’s soil. I let them have their steel and left that night. When I return, it will be with steel they cannot deny. My grandfather’s sword, lost here in a battle with the ferm when my people still lived in these mountains.”
The saurum scampered over the round of the overhang. A few dozen feet remained between us and the top of the ledge. I shifted forward, and he turned slightly toward me. His face was stern, but his eyes were damp. I pulled his head back, gently, by his hair and kissed his cheekbone.
He grabbed my other hand, which rested still on his shoulder. His calluses felt like the bark of a red oak. He squeezed my hand gently.
The world seemed to tilt as the saurum dragged us over the top of the cliff.
We stood on a wide shelf on the mountain’s edge. On one side, the mountain rose to dizzying heights, though less steeply than the cliff we had just scaled. Before us, a hot spring-fed pool billowed steam into the air. It was large, as wide as three men are tall, and to my eyes bottomless. Rivulets poured down the porous stone behind it, and the spring’s heat kept the shelf free of snow. To my right, the cliff below and above melded, making it impassible. Only a narrow path ran down to the left, away from the King’s lands and roads.
Jarngeir pulled his bags from the saurum’s back and propped them against the rocks along the farther edges, away from the pool. I warmed my hands in the vapors.
“This place is sacred to the ferm,” he said, squatting next to me.
I watched him from the corner of my eye. He frowned.
“Not sacred. Special. But they come here frequently. We must be quick.”
I swallowed the knot that built in my throat and nodded. “I’ll watch your back.”
“I need something else,” he said. “The water is too hot.”
I frowned. The fire was too deep in the water for me to even see, much less draw out. The rocks around the thermal pool glowed with hidden flame. I could move it, stir it, but to move enough to cool the water was beyond anything I could manage.
Still, I drew my athame and tried. After ten minutes of struggle, I had cooled a section of rock the size of my head. The water didn’t seem to notice.
I dropped my athame, dejected. “I can’t do it, Jarngeir.”
“Then, you must make me-” he trailed off and held out his arm. “You must make it so fire cannot harm me.”
The ground seemed to drop away from me. “Jarngeir. Is this why you hired a fireworker?”
He nodded and held out his arm again.
“Jarngeir, it’s impossible.”
His face began to redden. “I have seen your kind. I have seen them make it so a man on fire will not burn. I have seen them turn the air to steam and walk through it unharmed, though it boiled men’s heads.”
I shook my head. “Firemasters, perhaps, or Enkindling Blazes. How much did you pay for me, Jarngeir?”
“Twice the price of a good horse,” he said, spitting.
I sighed. “Jarngeir, a firemaster would cost ten times that. Fifty times, maybe. Do you know what I am?” I touched my athame. “I am a Brand. A student. I am Unenkindled.”
His face looked like it burned in the steam, so red was he.
“You must do this!” He shoved me. “I must have the steel.”
He shoved me again, and my foot slid on a rock. I fell to my rump.
He began tearing off his clothes and his gear.
“No!” I reached out my hand as though I could work the air and catch him. The splash swept out and soaked me. It was like the boiling oil at an enemy’s gate.
I rushed to the side of the pool, peering through the haze, but all was dark. The saurum pushed past me, and I thought it was going to dive into the water, but it only stuck half its body in. The saurum’s rear legs clamped into the porous stone, its tail stuck straight out to balance.
In a moment it pulled Jarngeir out, his left shoulder in its teeth. The trails of blood were barely redder than his skin. As his hand emerged from the pool, the steel flashed in the sun. It struck the rocks with a clank and slipped free.
The sword tumbled in the water against the slight rocky slope in the pool. I dove unthinking, left arm outstretched. I might have well shoved my arm in a furnace. Still, I gripped the blade and yanked it from the waters. A scream seared my throat.
My arm was pain. I held it outstretched from my body and swung it in the cool air. The scalding water remained soaked into the velvet sleeve, but it began to cool after a moment. Then I remembered Jarngeir.
Scalded flesh was already blistering, and some blisters had burst. His flesh was as red as the end of day, and he shone like wet leather. I snatched my athame from the ground but the heat that burned him was locked behind flesh.
The saurum cried, a grinding rumble that seemed to rise from the ground itself. It nudged Jarngeir’s shoulder, then his neck. Whimpering, it laid its giant head on his chest.
I dumped out my bag and grabbed my cape from the top of the pile, and then ran past the ridge of rock that surrounded the spring, down the narrow path. With cold-burned fingers I shoveled the snow onto my cape, slung out into a train.
When I returned, the saurum was slumped on its side, steaming and alight with inner fire so bright that it shined even to my poor sight. Jarngeir’s skin was pale and clammy, no longer red. I knelt by them. Jarngeir’s skin was as warm as a summer day, but not scorching. The saurum was too hot to touch. I thought of my exhausted firestone, and what it would take for a cold-blooded creature to survive a trip into the frosty mountains. The saurum could work fire, at least into itself.
I dumped the snow on its body, which added to the clouds of steam without doing any visible good. It breathed in ragged gasps.
It took four more snow-gathering trips before the saurum was cool enough to touch. Both it and Jarngeir remained unconscious.
I made one last trip for snow, which I packed around my arm before I huddled on the rocks and sat watch.
Jarngeir’s legs trembled as he lifted the final stone and placed it carefully at the top of the cairn.
“They bury themselves in the sand,” he said, resting a hand on the highest stone. “The old ones, when they are near to death. They crawl from their caves and wander into the desert.”
He lowered himself unsteadily to a rock to sit. After a long sigh, he pulled the sword out. He gripped it in two hands at the handle. It was long and curved, widening a third of the length from the tip before tapering to a hand-and-a-half grip with a simple cross guard. It looked a thing that could be had by a month’s worth of a laborer’s wages, except that after untold years at the bottom of a thermal pool, it was still in perfect shape. He turned it over in his hands, looking at every inch, never letting it touch the ground.
At last he laid it across his lap to look at me, sitting cross-legged on the ground. His eyes sought mine.
“Tell me what happened to your arm,” he said. His voice was empty of concern. Suspicion crept into his eyes.
I held his eyes. “The saurum was struggling to pull you out.”
“The sword?” he asked. His face was a mask, but his eyes were desperately asking, was his hand the one that rescued the sword?
I shrugged. “You wouldn’t let go. I had to pry it from your hands to keep it from burning you more.”
He examined his right hand, frowning.
I looked at the haphazard cairn that housed the body of the brave beast that had brought us up the side of a mountain and dragged Jarngeir from a boiling death.
“How will we get down?”
I held up my arms to shield my face from the whipping branches. My feet fluttered faster than dancing the tarantella, but the rocks tumbled and crashed beneath them. To fall meant gashes on my face rather than scrapes, and potentially worse.
The minute path from the shelf with the pool was steep and treacherous, but only dusted with snow as it wound north. Jarngeir and I made precipitous progress, punctuated with periods of rest. As we traveled, it widened ever more.
I held on to a tree. Jarngeir crashed into another one nearby, grabbing on to catch himself. His staff and shield were strapped to his back. His new sword was tucked through a belt at his waist.
Clouds of breath billowed out in front of him. He turned and leaned back against his tree, tilting his head back to rest against it. He ran his hand over the hilt of his sword, almost caressing it.
“What will you do now, Jarngeir?”
He looked at me. I could see the luster of his eyes from where I stood.
Instead of answering, he turned and dashed down another expanse to another tree. I followed, dodging whipping saplings and low branches.
“Return,” he said when we had come to a stop again. “Perhaps kill my brothers, if necessary.” He said it dully, and I hoped it was his grief that chilled his voice.
“Right away?” My voice was as even as a master carpenter’s cut.
He twirled around the tree and danced down the slope. Again, I followed.
The slope curved upward ahead, a wide swath of flatter, snow-covered ground. Jarngeir slapped at trees to slow himself, but still tumbled and rolled into the drifts. I feigned a stumble and dove on top of him.
We rolled through the snow, laughing. It was cold, but he was warm. I wound up laying half atop him. His mind played upon his face: grief and triumph, attraction and fear. The mask had slipped, and I felt like I knew him. His lips twitched up into a grin. I lowered my head to his.
His lips were warm and softer than I had thought, and though he could crush me with his arms, his kiss was as gentle as a fawn’s first steps.
Sex is fire and earth, water and air. Stone churns the seas, breath fans the flames. Elements synthesize and erupt like a geyser.
I had felt it before, with both men and women. I wove those elements like a firemaster worked true fire. But there was something else that I hadn’t felt before. A fifth thing that bound the others in new ways. I saw it in his eyes. I felt it in his hands and lips and body.
I nearly whispered the truth of the fifth thing, but I clamped my lips around the secret, lest sunlight burnt it away in the open air.
I was falling in love.
I lay tangled in his arms. We were dressed again against the cold, covered in the blankets from my pack. He hadn’t spoken, but he stroked my hair absently as he stared into the clouded sky.
But then he shoved me aside with one hand, just as a spear the length of my forearm embedded itself into the snow bank beyond our bunk. He rolled to his feet, and slipped the harness of his shield onto his back. He drew his sword.
There were six fermlings, armed with sharpened shafts of wood, bent bronze daggers, and stone tipped spears. They were as fast as cats, dodging from the charging bull of a man. But he was no fool, and turned quickly to avoid being hamstrung as the fermlings regrouped.
I drew my athame and pointed it to the ground. I pulled fire from the stones beneath the snow and, with a flick of my blade, threw a ball at the closest one, a gray-white beast carrying a club. The fireball went wide, but he noticed. With a tisking sound he turned and rushed at me. He hardly made it a step before Jarngeir’s sword decapitated him.
I threw another ball into the bulk of them, singeing one, but its back was too snow-damp to light.
Jarngeir danced around them with his long legs, never getting between two of them. One by one his sword found them. He never spent longer than it took to deliver a killing blow before he was on the next.
A stubby fermling caught him with its club, but it did no more than bruise. I distracted a dagger-bearer with another fireball, and Jarngeir cut him down.
The remaining two fled. I looked at the four small bodies on the ground. It was hard not to think of them as children.
Jarngeir turned a circle, keeping perfect balance and his sword ready. Seeing no more, he straightened the shield on his back.
A battle horn echoed around us. Jarngeir’s face became grim.
“She is coming,” he said. He grabbed my shoulder and shoved me eastward, back toward the steep rise we had just run down. To the west, the ground dropped again steeply. He retrieved his hammerstaff and held it in his right hand, moving the sword to his off hand.
They surged over the tops of the stones like ants streaming from a nest. Each carried a weapon that would be pitiful alone, but looking out over dozens of them they froze my blood.
The sound came again, much like a horn, but now I could hear the raw vibrato of a screaming throat. It was the ferm queen.
The fermlings swarmed. Jarngeir swept them away with great swings of his hammerstaff, but each swing only killed one, if that. The rest were shielded by the bodies of their comrades.
I pulled the fire from the stones with my athame and flicked it into the pack descending upon Jarngeir, striking one fermling in the face. It screamed and clutched its eyes.
Three of its neighbors turned toward me and charged. With no time to pull fire, I held my athame out in front of me like I had seen alleymen do in plays.
I stabbed at the first, but it ducked aside and swung at my knee with a club. I toppled to the ground. A taller one raised its spear to stab.
It flew into a tree, first smashing into its friend with the club and taking it along. The final one lost its arm to a chop from Jarngeir’s sword.
Jarngeir jumped back into the fray. Around him ten or more fermling bodies lay motionless, but two dozen live ones swarmed around, looking for holes in his guard. Already his legs bled from a handful of wounds. He seemed to drag his left leg a bit as he ran.
As he used his hammerstaff to force a trio of fermlings back, one quick creature climbed onto the shoulders of a comrade and leaped upon Jarngeir’s back. It shoved a bronze dagger into his shoulder.
Jarngeir dropped the hammerstaff and screamed. The fermlings swarmed.
Terror boiled up in my throat. Each glint of bronze or flint seemed like a promise of Jarngeir’s death. But then each gleam flared, a sea of reflected fire. Primal heat welled up in my bones, seeming to bake me from within. It was as though I had fallen into the volcanic spring and drunk my way out again.
As I rose to my feet, the world became fire.
The flame in the stones, so dim before, was as bright as summer noon. My athame was on the ground, dropped, though I didn’t recall when. It no longer mattered. The fire in the stones begged me for release, and so I granted it.
I pulled the fire up through my legs and let it fly as a stream into the throng of fermlings that surrounded Jarngeir, aiming at those farthest from him. This fire pulled more from the stones as it flew and struck the fermlings like a jet of magma. Hair burned and flesh seared to the bone. High-pitched screams tore at my ears.
They turned toward me and I pulled fire again. This time I pushed it into a thin wide sheet that cut at waist height. All but those closest to Jarngeir clutched at faces melting in a blaze.
Jarngeir swung his sword warily at the last ten fermlings around him. Two more were upon his back, stabbing with their little knives. His legs crumbled.
I dredged the earth for fire, but the stones had no more to give. Around us, spindly pines bowed under snow. With a thought, I burst the trees into a blaze, and I dragged the paltry fire from their limbs. It was enough to send two balls of flame into the faces of the crawling fermlings.
Smoke billowed from the smoldering trees, obscuring the band of remaining fermlings that crept toward me, teeth bared and weapons raised. There was nothing left to pull from the ground or trees.
Jarngeir struggled to his knees, fending off a few fermlings with wild swings of his sword. The others approached me cautiously.
A horn-like scream echoed, sounding like the war horns at the end of the world. A giant ferm, clearly the queen, clambered over the edge. She was huge, bigger than Jarngeir by half, and covered in the same downy white hair as her children, though hers was braided in dozens of strands and stuck through with tiny flowers. Her cry cut through to my bones.
She looked around the shelf of stone. I looked with her, seeing the piles of smoldering bodies, each one a child of her blood. She screamed and clawed at her face, leaving streaks of tears and blood. Then she turned and looked at me, and then turned to Jarngeir. I saw rage and terror and despair swim in her eyes. She raised both arms, each ending in a murderous set of claws. And she charged him.
The others rushed me. Without fire left to draw from the stone or trees, I looked into them. As they neared I saw the fire in their flesh, flowing in their blood. I reach out with my mind and touched them, one at a time, and set it alight. Flames burst through their mouths, their eyes, and then their skin, which cracked like a boar on a spit before their white hair flashed.
The ferm queen crashed into Jarngeir, smashing away his sword and falling upon him, teeth gnashing and claws dragging across him.
With a scream of rage, I rushed at her. The two or three remaining fermlings dove out of the way and cowered, but I barely noticed as I set them alight. I saw only her.
I saw the fire in her blood that I could set alight, but not without incinerating Jarngeir. I saw the fire in her heart that gave her rage. The fire in her mind was her intellect, surely as great as a human’s. And the fire in her, in her spirit, that gave her life.
She looked up at me, claws and teeth dripping blood, with eyes that could have been a grandmother’s. I reached out with my will and snuffed her fire out.
She crumpled to the ground, lying half atop Jarngeir. I ran to his side, and what I could see was a travesty. Jarngeir was stabbed and slit and bit and clawed so much that he looked nearly flayed.
Deep inside him, I saw but one faint flame. I drew a breath, pulling faint fire from the air, from the flitting tiny things that live inside it. Newly born frost competed with smoke to fill the sky. Locking my mouth to his, I stoked his fire with the bellows of my lungs.
The spire of the Occultarium stood as a testament, and as a beacon. From the rear of the trader’s cart I stared back up the mountain road, hoping to see a giant man with a gleaming sword, but the track was bare.
Headmaster Laren was there, waiting at the gates, arms folded under her breasts. Kevor and a dozen other Blazes, each of whom I had known as a Brand, stood behind her. I expected scowls, or grins, but each face was soft.
Laren took a folded cape from Kevor’s arms and unfurled it. Twin streaks of flame danced in the cloth.
“Welcome home, Blaze,” she said.
She bade me turn, so she could drape my shoulders with the prize I had bought. Through the great gates I could see the distant mountains scrape snow from the sky, and I thought of the battle.
“Tell me, Dasper,” she said, her voice uncharacteristically kind. “Can you feel the fire?”
It was around me, in the stone, in the sky, in the bodies of those around me. I held out my hand and drew it effortlessly into a ball the size of my head. Some of the other Blazes muttered, impressed. I hadn’t even touched my athame. I supposed I would receive my sword soon.
“This is our secret and our curse, Dasper. The strength of a Blaze depends upon the hardship of his Enkindling. You pay as much as you can bear, and open to power proportional to the price.”
I turned to look at her.
“It is vile to let students think they had a choice,” she said. “Most students wish they had never paid their price, and the rest should never be allowed to attain great power.”
I turned away again. When I closed my eyes, even if only to blink, I saw a field of corpses, mostly small except one giant, and the horror in the face of the man I had brought from the brink of death as he stumbled to his feet to flee from me and from the terrible fire he saw in my eyes. Fire that burned away that faint fifth thing.
It was as much as I could bear.
Jackie Neel spends his days playing with words and brains, often cramming some of one into the other. He does all this somewhere in the Southern U.S., where he is fortunate enough to be accompanied by his wife and various furry domesticated friends/overlords.