Continued… (for a full list of the parts to Ancient Fire, click here)
(Previously: Lottie experienced a vividly real flashback, her first solid memories to be recovered since the Witch hid them from her)
They made a straight line of it, cutting through the forest and pressing hard, only detouring to pick up Lottie’s bag from their campsite. They came across a river late the first day, allowing them to replenish their water supply and Lottie to rinse off some of the salt grime that still clung to her. It wasn’t quite the proper wash she was looking forward to, but at least it was better than nothing.
Elad also found two fairly hefty sticks which, as he told Lottie, were nothing to what a good sword ought to be, but were better than nothing to begin teaching her the basics.
“The second we can though, we’re trading these in for real swords,” he said, eying his with distaste. “No sense getting too used to these and then having no idea what to do when you have the real thing.”
Lottie found it difficult enough as it was, and struggled to imagine how she could handle a huge, unwieldy sword, but when she voiced her concerns, Elad only laughed.
“Just you wait!” he said. “These are clumsy toys. You’ll see.”
Traveling hard by night they practiced and slept in the day, ever wary of the skies. They pushed hard, setting out the second the sky dimmed with sunset and stopping only when day was in full swing. As their second night gave way to dawn, they reached the forest fringe Lottie recognized as where she had first met the Cloak Girl.
Quickening their pace, Lottie breaking into a run to keep up, they reached it within the first hours of early morning.
And as the trees cast their shade on her face, Lottie had a sudden pang that something was wrong. She didn’t know how she knew, but she felt sick, as though someone had given her an almighty punch in the stomach. She slammed to a stop, shrinking into the protecting overhang of a tree, eyes roving about, seeking the cause of her disquiet.
Elad had glanced at her and was about to speak, but stiffened. He sniffed the wind, now blowing more in earnest and towards them, and a strange look crossed his face. Lottie sniffed too, trying to catch what he had, and then she smelled it.
Smoke. Old smoke, only the memory of something that had been, but it was too strong to be a simple campfire smoke. No less than a large bonfire of heady pine logs by the smell of it could be the cause.
“Oh, no,” Lottie whispered. “I don’t like this.”
“Me neither,” Elad said quietly. “If your Cloak Girl wants to be unnoticed – well, this isn’t exactly a very effective way to do it, is it?”
The concern and mounting fear were evident in her voice as she said softly, “I really have a bad feeling. Something is very wrong.”
“What do you think? Stay, or go on… or what?”
Lottie chewed her lip. Something deep inside her that she refused to look at knew what she would see. But she also sensed that there was no immediate danger, and whatever was amiss was something they couldn’t change. She drew a deep breath.
“Let’s go on. But carefully.” She clenched her fists by her sides as Elad nodded and turned, leading the way into the heart of the forest.
The smoke smell grew stronger. They stepped into the clearing where Lottie had spoken with the Cloak Girl, but it could not have looked more different.
Trees had been torn up by the roots and flung about the clearing. Burned husks were all that remained of them. The pine needled ground was a film of ash and cinders. The ferns that had screened the Cloak Girl’s cave were all burned away. The Cloak Girl herself was nowhere in sight.
Elad moved cautiously further into the clearing, searching for any sign to tell where the Cloak Girl might have gone. Instinctively, Lottie moved closer to him, as if somehow standing in his shadow might protect her from whatever was coming.
“Hello?” he called softly. There was no answer. Then the faint echo of strained coughing reached them. With a bound, Elad was at the entrance to the cave, Lottie right on his heels. Already, she knew what she would see.
“Daughter… daughter of Nimrod,” a whisper was torn from the woman who lay in the darkness.
“Cloak Girl!” Lottie blurted with a sob. She ran forward and knelt by her head, brushing gray strands out of her face. “We need to get you out of here! What happened?” She slid her hands under her shoulders and together she and Elad carried her out into the early morning light. The Cloak Girl gave a small gasp of pain, but seemed beyond all strength to resist or cry out. They laid her down and she let out a painful sigh.
“Where are you hurt?” Lottie asked urgently. “We’ll help you, just take it easy.”
The Cloak Girl rested a feeble hand on hers, stopping her. “No,” she gasped. “I don’t have long. My days here are over.”
Lottie felt tears sting her eyes and she took her hand. She couldn’t even argue. She had felt it would be this way in her bones.
“Listen to me.” The Cloak Girl dragged in a slow, wracked breath. “You must stand… against the Witch.”
“I know,” Lottie said softly. “I’m going to face her. We’re going to get the sword remade and then I’m going to fight the fight the All-Maker appointed for me. I’m going to stand where Nimrod stood.”
The Cloak Girl sighed in relief. “Then… then it was not in vain. Beware her, Charlotte. Her anger is unquenchable. In her search for you, she found me.” She closed her eyes. “She will be appeased for a time because of this.”
Lottie’s tears spilled up and over. “Isn’t there anything we can do?”
The Cloak Girl shook her head, and winced. “Not long now.” Her voice was scarcely a whisper. “Go to Khent. Tell them your tale. Tell them of this. They will help you then.” Her words faded and she lay still. For a moment, Lottie thought she was gone. Then she spoke again, so suddenly and clearly it startled her. “Ulaf can help you. Go to him first – no one else, understand?” Her fingers gripped tighter on Lottie’s hand. “Tell them I sent you, and that I beg them to give you all you ask. Go. Watch the skies. Her hunger is all-consuming.” She coughed up blood, and seemed unable to stop. Then she fell back, and Lottie just caught her whispered words, “stand strong, daughter of Nimrod.”
She lay perfectly still. She was no longer wracked by uncontrollable coughing, no longer tortured by painful breaths.
Lottie bent her head, squeezing her eyes shut against the tears already spilling out. She hadn’t known the Cloak Girl long – scarcely known her at all, in fact – but in that short time this woman had changed her life completely around. Dimly she heard Elad moving behind her, and he placed a hand on her shoulder.
“We should go,” he said quietly. “We don’t have much time. Her soul is at peace.”
Lottie stood up slowly, blinking the tears away. She knew he was right; the Witch could be back any minute.
“I can’t bear to just leave her like this,” she said. “A legend like her deserves to be put to rest.”
They laid her body in the cave, which seemed strangely bare of any indication that one of the greatest world changers had lived there. They covered the entrance with stones and boughs, and Lottie whispered, half to herself, the lament half-forgotten from her lessons with Aman.
“Gone is the one
Who changed my life
Gone is the one
Who fought a good fight
Gone is the one
Who I will see no more
Until I reach the hither shore
May your memory never falter
And your legacy never fade.”
Then, driven on by the winds of the storm to come, they were forced to turn and make with all speed for Khent.
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