Bonus edition: I finished the full draft of Ancient Fire today! In celebration, I’m posting a double-sized installment of Ancient Fire (hope that doesn’t make your eyes roll back, overwhelmed). 🙂
Continued… (for a full list of the parts to Ancient Fire, click here)
(Previously: Lottie and Elad set off in vigorous pursuit of the Deathbrand pirates to try and reclaim Fyre, and Lottie experienced a battle with conscience concerning her refusal to fight the Witch)
Elad was gone. Lottie lay still for what felt like hours. She didn’t really notice when her breath came back, but she did notice when she was able to sit up without exploding. She was interested in seeing what the terrain looked like. They had been running over rocky ground for the last stretch of the eternity they had traveled, but only very the last bit had been so rough and full of loose stones and boulders. She was used to grassland – it was all there was to see from the castle – and even slightly acquainted with treed areas. But rocks? What would one call a rock forest, anyway?
Dawn painted the world in pale light. All she could see was stones, sand coated rock, and straggling dune grass. She frowned a little. Where would Elad find something to eat in this barrenness? Then, even more alarmingly, she wondered how they were supposed to cook whatever he caught. She swallowed nervously. She was never going to eat raw meat. Handling it was going to be bad enough, but eating it raw was not figuring into the picture.
To distract herself, she took out the map again and peered at it in the early dawn light. Where were they?
She needed a wash. She pushed her straggling, dusty hair out of her damp face. Had she only been gone three days? It felt like forever. And yet… somehow, she didn’t find herself wishing for the old days, the ignorance she had had then, nothing. Here she was, everything changed and upended, her mother suddenly a half-demon kidnapper, herself the stranded heir of Nimrod, with a Werewolf friend, tromping in the completely unfamiliar wilds in search of a legendary sword… It was rough, it was scary, but she wasn’t wishing for the days in the castle.
“Why not?” she asked the map. “Why am I not as scared as I was?” The map stared inkily back, and remained silent.
“I give up.” She pinned the map with her foot and rubbed her eyes. The wind was strong, and smelled funny, even foul. Like… rotting pickles or something, Lottie wasn’t sure. She wrinkled her nose. Day was getting stronger, and with each passing minute was making clearer the fact that the barren landscape offered no shelter or place to hide. She looked about uneasily.
“Much better than dead monkey,” Elad called, coming up the rocky incline behind her. She jumped.
“What is it?” she asked suspiciously. He was carrying something wrapped in leaves.
“Dried rabbit. Traveler’s rations. Don’t worry; it’ll taste exactly like chicken.”
“How did you dry it?” she asked, waving at the surrounding rocks. “There isn’t a tree in sight.”
He tucked the little leaf bundles into her bag. “Where you find rabbits, there are usually trees. I thought it best if I made the fire as far away as possible. If that Witch of yours is really looking for you, a smoke stream is as good a signal as I can think of.”
“Oh!” Lottie said, horrified. “I hadn’t thought of that.” She pulled the map from under her boot and held it out to him. “And… where are we, exactly?”
Elad dropped down beside her and took the map. “Not sure, exactly. Shortcut, you see,” he added, noticing her alarmed expression. “The Deathbrands’ trail we’re following took a detour toward Khent-Ali, that little outlier village outside of the great city.” He pointed to a small dot on the map marked Khent-Ali. “Probably a two-for-one raid or something, so I took a shortcut back to the sea. They’d have to head for the water at some point, and I was able to pick up their trail again, much fresher now. Maybe four days old. We’re right here, on the coastline. You can smell the sea, and if you went to the edge of the cliffs, you could see it too, but I wouldn’t do it.”
“Four days,” Lottie muttered. “And we’re at the coast. How are we going to catch them? Doesn’t that mean we’re already too late? Unless…”
“Unless what?” Elad asked. He handed her the map and lay back in the sun.
“Unless they are everything the tales make out. You know, the feasting? The partying… and everything. Aman told me that tales say that after a successful raid, the Deathbrands would make a huge celebration – well, huge for pirates – and do all sorts of horrible things to their captives. He never gave me details and I never asked.” She shivered. “They drink and brawl, and murder most of their captives. Only a few have escaped to tell the tales.”
“So…” Elad reflected, “their ‘celebrations’ might just buy us enough time to get there. If we knew where the Deathbrand was anchored.”
“Well, where would you anchor it within a four days’ walk from here?” Lottie asked, musing over the map. “I’ve got no idea. Maybe around this point here, if those are trees marked on the land. It’d be out of sight, and if they had any repairs to make on the ship, the supplies would be right there. And it would be easy as a wink to screen it with branches and stuff. Is this close enough to be likely?” She held out the map, pointing.
Elad sat up, squinting at the map. “Sure. Though it might be a bit too close. It’s probably only two days from here, going as they did. A day and part of a night at our pace.”
“Our pace?” Lottie laughed. “Your pace. I could barely keep up. Pretty soon I’m making a sled and having you pull me.”
“Nice try,” Elad grinned. “There’s no wood to make it, remember?”
Lottie rolled her eyes. “Right. Well, let’s get going.”
They made pretty good time for the next several hours, despite the awkward terrain and a night of hard going without sleep. The cliff side they were following sank down towards the level of the ocean, and Lottie could see it now, big and roaring off to her left. She could make out the woods up ahead vaguely, too. When darkness came, it would hide the woods from them, but they might reach them just after it did. Then it only would remain to find if the Deathbrands were there at all or if it was just a dead end.
The cliffs had sunk low enough that they had been able to scramble down, and Lottie was still getting used to the feel of sand shifting beneath her feet. At least here, under the sheltering shadow of the cliffs, it wasn’t so burning hot, and they were less exposed to prying eyes. She felt more comfortable this way.
Lottie blinked, rubbing her eyes and glancing up at the sun. She had a sudden sense of nervousness, and perhaps because of it her mind was playing tricks on her to scare her. Or had she really seen something dim the sun for a moment?
She froze, sure she heard the too familiar sound of rough wings in the sky, and instinctively shrank back against the cliff wall. Elad stopped and looked back.
Before she could answer him, he heard for himself. The air seemed to vibrate with the thunder of scaly wings, and a hoarse, angry voice shook the earth.
“Ma chérie! Little one, blood of Nimrod! Your blood is strong, stronger by the day! It shall be mine. I will find you. You cannot hide from me!”
Lottie pressed herself against the wall, trying to become invisible. Her shoulder found an alcove and she leaned into it, smashing as much of her as would fit inside. The wings were circling, and the Witch’s voice was faint and no longer understandable. Elad was standing in front of the gap where she hid, leaning nonchalantly against the stone. The Witch bellowed, and Lottie just saw her over his shoulder.
She was flying low over the sea, up straight towards the cliffs.
“I know your presence. I will find it though it take me ten thousand wingbeats. You cannot hide! Your death will come to you, and with it the death of your family, the death of your world, the death of both the worlds as they are, and the death of my fears – forever! It is the way things shall be. You cannot change fate, ma chérie. I shall always be your Mistress.”
Lottie shut her eyes, squeezing down as small as she could.
“You, black man!” the Witch’s voice was harsh and scornful. “How dare you stand there when your Mistress is before you! What are you doing?”
“Thinking, ma’am,” Elad answered calmly, and the ground trembled as the Witch landed before him. “I certainly meant no disrespect.”
The Witch growled, seeming suspicious of sarcasm. She gave a funny shriek and lifted into the air. “Blasted water!” she hissed. “Well, black whelp, if you truly mean no disrespect, you will appear at my gates within seven days with a girl named Charlotte in your hands – alive. Spare no pains in the search and success cannot help but find you. Fail, I will know what contempt is in your heart and you shall pay folly’s price. You cannot hide from my eyes. Choose wisely.” Her voice burned like acid in the ears. Her wings pounded the air, sand swirled chokingly around them, the Witch gave one final roar, and the sound of her wings slowly faded. Only the ocean washing the shore forever filled the air, and its cool salt mist mingled with the sweat on her face.
Elad stepped cautiously away from the cliff, and after several minutes of anxious waiting while he searched the skies, Lottie wriggled out.
“Well, she’s a charmer,” he remarked. Lottie shuddered. The shock of the near discovery and all that it would have meant was still sinking in deeper and deeper.
“I don’t know how you can say that,” she said, rubbing her arms and still watching the sky nervously. “But thank you. I’m pretty sure you saved my life just now.”
He looked at her solemnly. “Well? You heard her. I’m afraid I have to march you straight away to her castle.”
Lottie glared at him. “Look, that’s not… funny.” Though deep inside her she felt that in another time and another place, she might have laughed.
“I take it back then. And anyway, she should know I’ve already ‘paid folly’s price’. Apparently, she’s not good with faces, or else she would have recognized me from our last encounter. But it was just as well, I suppose.”
Lottie gave him a shaky smile in return. “Okay, black whelp, you can just say ‘you’re welcome’ and be done with it.”
“Alright. You’re welcome. And I enjoyed it. If she wasn’t so dangerous, she’d be fun to bait.” He turned and started off towards the woods. “We’d better be well under cover by the time she might even think about coming again.”
Lottie swallowed and ran after him. Urged on by fear, she kept the pace, only stopping for rests when she had to. The few days she had spent in the wild were already transforming her into a hardened traveler, but even still she wasn’t even close to matching the hardiness of Elad with his ten years of practice.
She was coming to the last of her strength, and knew that fear or no fear if the tress hadn’t been in sight and getting close she would collapse soon. She was a little surprised when Elad announced that he was done in. His inexhaustible energy had seemed boundless, and she thought of him pretty much as indestructible.
“Sunset’s coming soon,” he said. “But we’ll be well under the trees by then. I think if we’re sheltered enough we can afford a rest, if just a short one, before scouting around for these pirates.”
Lottie shrugged. “Don’t have to tell me twice,” she panted.
P.S. You can expect Ancient Fire posts to come more often/regularly from now on. Thank you for being patient with my tardiness! 🙂
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