“LolaShar!” A deep voice bellowed off the water from the ledge above.
“I am almost done!” A girl’s voice replied.
“You should not be doing that!”
“You do not seem to mind when I sell them, Papa.” She yelled this back at him. They couldn’t see each other, but she grinned and jammed her blade into another clam.
Lola sat dripping at the back of the alcove carved by tides and waves over millennia. She picked a pearl from the mollusc, held it up to examine, and then set it into a depression in the rock that made a natural stone bowl.
The girl grabbed the pile and dropped them in a small leather pouch. With the drawstrings pulled tight, Lola rose and dove gracefully from the ledge into the sea. Floating on her back, Lola gently propelled herself through the clear water and into view of her father. Long black hair waved at her side, and the saltwater lapped over her olive skin as she fluttered her feet. It didn’t take her long to exit the water on a low rock shelf and scale the step-like formations back toward her father, who watched in silence except for his grinding teeth. His disapproving look and crossed arms seemed ineffective on his defiant daughter as she climbed, grinning ear to ear. The creases in his brow were emphasized by a retreating hairline and his look of admonishment.
“You can not pearl dive, Lola. The Flame-keepers... You are almost twelve Longsuns.” He said when she had rejoined him topside.
“I know, Papa. Emberlaw,” Lola replied with professed remorse. “Fire is light. The sea is darkness.”
Her father did not buy the daughter-wide eyes she was casting his way.
The pair trudged back through the wooded trail toward their village.
“Shake yourself dry,” The father commanded, “Why I let your mother teach you to swim, I do not know.” He muttered with a look to the sky.
“Look, Papa!” She opened the pouch and held it for him to see, and he failed to contain a proud smirk.
“Get these pearls hidden when you get back.” His voice was more direct this time.
The father and child, though barely a child, hiked southwest for half an hour. Lola, despite her brashness, made sure to partake in her briny adventures well away from town.
The forest opened upon a collection of yurts arranged around a large stone fire pit. In the centre, three hollow stone spires roughly seven feet tall spewed a slim but ferocious blaze another two feet higher. Their tapered base had an opening where community elders fed logs dipped in various oils depending on the wood and the weather. The Flame-keepers worked their fires sleeveless. The disfigured skin of their arms was white from shoulder to hand, contrasting the sun-kist olive skin they and the entire village had from the long summers of the region. The disfigurations weren’t random scars but intricate designs painted in heat and pain.
The sea gently lapped at a sandy beach to the west, about two hundred yards away. Lola had always avoided the town-adjacent beach in favour of secluded escapes. Why a people would live so close to their sworn enemy was something that kept her up at night; maybe that was the point, she had concluded once.
The town bustled with activity around the spire. Some talked and cooked. Others sat on large stones strewn around the fire. At one end of the village were a set of posts where a collection of painted horses were tied and being brushed and fed by children. It was a pleasant and bustling place full of people devout to the flame. Lola and her father turned well before the spires and headed to their yurt.
“NitoShar!” Came a booming voice from behind. Lola looked up to her father and watched his eyes close in frustration.
Nito turned to face the voice, as did Lola. She grabbed his hand in the process and squeezed it, not out of her unease but to comfort her father. The voice belonged to one of the Flame-keepers who stood with his hand outstretched, and a small rosy pearl pinched between his thumb and forefinger.
Lola looked to the keeper’s side and stared daggers at MiMoShar, who met Lola’s eyes for a moment, then lowered his gaze in shame.
“Snitch,” Lola mouthed in the direction of MiMo before turning back to her father. “It is okay, Papa. I do not mind.” She let go of his hand and walked back to the spires. Sharp eyes went to RinShar first, the Flame-keeper who held the pearl and then at MiMo, his grandson. She plopped on a stone with resolute stoicism and pulled her shirt over her head. A series of scars in various stages of healing marked nearly the whole of the exposed back.
“Bring me the drake tail,” Rinshar called to a junior keeper with just a hint of enjoyment. A young woman with an arm half-covered in pale, intentional scars darted away and returned with the implement.
Rin wrapped his fingers around the wooden handle and let the eight leather lashes fall to his side. He was above average height, but the tails of it still brushed the ground. They whistled during a half-powered practice swing before his attention turned to Lola’s exposed back. As an older man, one might expect the strikes from Rin to be tolerable, but the entire town winced and looked away after the first. Nito, most of all.
Lola’s jaw clenched when the first landed. A bead of sweat formed along her forehead with the second, but no sound came from her lips and no expression washed over her face. After the third and final strike snapped across her back, LolaShar quietly let out held breath, and Nito opened his eyes.
After a long minute, Rin finally spoke, which gave Lola a chance to conspicuously blink away her tears.
“The sea is darkness, LolaShar.”
“And the fire is light. Thank you, RinShar.” She said, with the sharpness only an adolescent could deliver. “But I think that is wrong. The sea could provide–”
“That is Elder RinShar,” he interrupted.
“Elder, RinShar.” She conceded in rancour.
He frowned in disapproval before turning to address those who had gathered to witness the punishment.
“At the dawn of time, she rose to blaze across the sky for the first time. On her firstday, the Sun lit our spires. We are the ancient flames. We are the house of Three Fires, and Emberlaw is our creed. To enter the sea is to break Emberlaw. The sea is cold, and fire is warmth. The sea is darkness, and fire is light. We must not offend her. The sea exists to choke our flames. It brings only pain and suffering to our people. We must remember our sister VaiShar.”
Most of the townspeople shook their heads, but Lola pulled a bit of strength from the mention of the myth.
She pulled her shirt back on and walked straight past her father. Knowing all eyes were on her, she did her best to hide the arch in her back as she walked. Lola had done this enough to know pulling off a blood-wet shirt was almost as painful as the lashings.
“That child has a spirit like none I have seen, Nito.”
“I know, Elder Rin. I do not know what to do.”
“She will bring terrible things upon our people.”
NiTo wanted to respond but bit his tongue. Lola, who had stopped and looked back, could see her father’s jaw pulsing.
“If she transgresses after the kiss, we will have no choice but to banish her,” RinShar said matter-of-factly.
Nito frowned as he nodded. As he left, he cast a worried eye toward BoShar. Rin gave the drake tail a little twirl before returning it to the attendant keeper.
“By Emberlaw, a child on their twelfth Longsun shall receive the kiss of the coals.” BoShar, head of the three Flame-keepers, bellowed to the entire town who had convened around the spire pit.
“Please step forward and present your shale, LolaShar.” Lola stepped forward, carrying a chunk of rock the size of her two hands. A wry smile crept across her face as she bowed, presenting a rock she’d secretly pulled from the seafloor. To her right, Rin looked on with disdain. Bo took her sea-shale, laid it on a flat rock, and struck it with a stone mallet. He did this several times, shaping Lola’s seastone into a sharp edge on one side. He placed the newly-formed piece into the red coals at the pit’s edge and turned back to the crowd.
“LolaShar, daughter of NitoShar and Li-Ti-Shar, of Ash,” Bo began to proclaim as father and daughter locked mournful eyes. “Today, you will receive the kiss of the coals. Do you accept the fire as your friend?”
“Yes.” Came the unconvincing reply.
Bo signalled for quiet until the only sounds were the soft lapping of flames and a gentle wind that whistled through the yurts. Lola shuffled in her spot before Bo finally turned and pulled on thick leather gloves. He retrieved Lola’s sharp-edged stone from the coals and held it above his head for the town to see. Lola sat on the flat chair-stone and presented her sleeveless arm to the head flame-keeper. He pressed the shale flat against her skin and scraped downward, lightly burning it and smearing it black with charcoal. Then he turned the stone edge-wise and proceeded to carve 3 rudimentary flame symbols into her upper arm. Only a clenched jaw came from Lola as she received the kiss of the coals.
When he had finished, Bo picked up a jug filled with sand and poured it over her arm as the charcoal and blood washed away, leaving only the red and blistered flames.
“The sea is cold, and the fire is warmth.” He called ceremoniously.
“The sea is darkness, and the fire is light.” The townsfolk answered in unison.
As the chatter of townsfolk grew at the conclusion of another rite of passage, Bo leaned into Lola.
“Please, Lola. You must not go into the sea again. Rinshar is a keeper and has passed the Trial of the Flame. I cannot help you if–”
“I Understand, Elder BoShar. I will not. I promise.”
They nodded mutual respect before she rose, careful not to coddle her arm. A look of contempt made its way toward Rin, who retorted in kind.
For the next six months, Lola kept her promise. Though she skirted at the edges of Emberlaw, she had stayed out of the sea. She fished from the rocks that overlooked her sea cave and collected shellfish from the tide pools. A few times, she swung on a vine that would drop her into the sea if it snapped. Watching his daughter around, but not in the ocean, only accelerated NiTo’s hairline recession.
Lola woke to the sound of her roof violently flapping, creating a deafening thunder inside the tent. Her father wasn’t in his bed, but it wasn’t unusual for him to rise before her. NiTo wasn’t a keeper but a decent oilist and would help the keepers with different fuels for their logs. He had always told Lola the best time to work flame was in the still morning when the fires weren’t affected by the environment.
It was anything but still on this morning. The straps that held their leather door were barely hanging on. Lola struggled with the taut lines before stumbling out of her tent and looking to the sky. Swirling darkness surrounded the town and stretched for miles on either side and out over the sea. In the distance, in any direction, Lola could see large debris flying cyclically, things that had no right to be airborne. Trees, cabins, and livestock were helplessly whisked up into the storm. The wind-walls were closing in on the town, and LolaShar frantically looked for her father amid the chaos of bodies running in every direction.
“LOLASHAR!” The father and daughter met among the scrambling townsfolk. He looked at her, parental despair wide in his eyes.
“THE CELLARS!” He yelled, pointing to where the Flame-keepers had their tents. The undercrofts were usually meant to house winter stores, even though winters were mild, but Nito wasn’t the only one thinking of taking refuge in the underground pantry.
Lola looked and saw a man struggling to get in. Rin barred his passage. It was impossible to hear, but ‘there is no room’ was easily deduced. Rin kicked the man in the gut, driving him back. Horror and hopelessness were thick on the face of the denied man, but it didn’t matter. A large yurt-pole burst through his head, almost perfectly in one ear and out the other. Life didn’t leave him immediately; he slowly went to his knees and eased into death, looking at Rin the entire time. Rin looked around but covered his head and retreated underground, slamming the horizontal door behind him.
Lola and Nito glanced back at each other, and NiTo’s eyes widened. He tackled his daughter to the ground as an entire yurt filled with wind boomed past. It snared a woman further down its path, and together they were hurled up into the sky. The body fell back when her shirt tore, but the deafening storm covered the sound of her landing.
“COME. THIS WAY!” She shouted only a foot from his face and pulled him to his feet. Nito let his arm come up, taking in the pale flame scars on her upper arm, before moving in pursuit. She led him through the forest to the rocky ledges of her pearling grounds.
Lola leaned in and yelled directly into his ear over the roaring storm.
“THERE IS COVER BELOW. WE HAVE TO JUMP.”
Nito stared back at his brave daughter, but decades of Emberlaw held him in place.
She cursed something, then grabbed his arm and pulled him over the ledge. Their hands broke apart when they hit the water, but both surfaced near one another in the rumbling black sea. He matched her overhand strokes toward the seaside cave before they clamoured up some jagged rocks in the tumultuous surf crashing around them. They clambered to the cave’s end with only a few scrapes, out of the water and storm.
“What…What is this storm?” Nito asked rhetorically.
“I do not know, but I am glad Mama taught you to swim too,” Lola replied, thankful. She wasn’t sure when she pulled him off the ledge into the sea. The pair pulled one another close, and Nito angled instinctively, putting his body between the storm and his daughter.
Soon the wind walls had closed to a focal point on their location. Rock and debris whipped across the opening but couldn’t reach them at the back of the grotto. The entrance to the cave was like a window to chaos and havoc. They buried their heads in each other’s shoulders, and Lola prayed, to no god in particular, that the surf didn’t rise and drown them both.
It might have been ten minutes, or it might have been an hour, but the sun broke the tempest, and the wind abated to a gentle breeze. Their window to the world had turned quite pleasant. Lola opened her eyes and saw Nito breathing heavily, staring back at her. Both were covered in blood from the dozens of nicks the storm had inflicted. But nothing fatal.
Lola lowered herself from the ledge at the back of the cave and turned back to NiTo, who remained hesitantly on the shelf.
“You have already been in the sea today, Papa.”
He jumped into the water, barely clearing the rocks. Lola led him to her exit ledge, where they climbed back atop the outcropping and walked back through the forest toward the village. On either side, trees that may have been hundreds of years old were snapped like twigs and cast aside.
“We must tell the keepers what we have done,” NiTo said repentantly.
“We would have died, Papa. The sea saved our lives today.”
NiTo didn’t look convinced but didn’t speak further.
The storm proved powerful in the forest, but its unyielding cruelty was fully displayed in the village. Not one yurt remained upright. Bodies littered the entire town, some impaled by the large tent spikes, others had limbs sheared clean. Lola cursed the stupid tradition and the sentimentality of keeping kiss-shales, likely responsible for the shearing. Cries of agony, both from loss of kin and loss of limb, rang through the town. Bo sat slumped in front of the spires, his head in his hands. NiTo and Lola ran to his side. NiTo gasped when his attention left Bo and turned to the spires. One of the flames had been extinguished.
“We are doomed. Three flames have burned in these spires since the First-Keepers. Lit by the dawn of time.” Bo explained. Most in town tended to the wounded, but soon a hush fell across every person as they laid eyes on Bo and the absent flame. Murmurs and hushed voices soon turned to shouts.
“She did it. She snuffed the flame.” One woman said, pointing to Lola.
“Throw her in the sea to return the flame,” another called.
“Stop it. Please. LolaShar has obeyed the flame. She has not transgressed since the kiss.” Rin, seemingly unscathed, boomed for everyone in town to hear before lowering his voice for NiTo. “Is that not right, Lola?”
Lola wasn’t sure what to say, but Rin went on.
“You are both alive. That is most important,” he said. “Where did you take cover?”
“In the forest.” NiTo offered quickly. “Against a large tree. We are fortunate. Praise the flame and the sun herself.” Neither he nor Lola gave any indication of their briny shelter. If it was an interrogation, it ended there.
“Where did you shelter, Elder RinShar?” Lola asked, bathing her voice in innocence and feigned concern. But it was his turn to be saved from a theological examination.
“IN THE WATER!” A voice boomed.
Ni-To froze, sure he had been outed and took a deep breath.
“A PERSON. AT THE BEACH”
NiTo relaxed, and Lola turned her attention toward the beach a few hundred yards to the southeast of town. There was a body. It was half ashore, its legs disappearing under the water with each gentle wave. She broke from her father’s arm and bolted to the sea. In between waves, her arms hooked in his, Lola dragged him a few feet up the beach, out of reach of the water, then rolled him onto his back. She put an ear to his face, locked her mouth on his, and exhaled deeply. She did this several times, stopping only to check if he had regained breathing. On her fourth series, he coughed a heavy load of seawater into her face. She pushed him over on his side and let him empty the rest of his lungs on the shore. The ragged townspeople who could still stand looked on as Lola fell back and lay on the sand, her chest heaving, almost in harmony with the waves.
Bo was the first to speak.
“Get him up and take him to the fire.”
“The sea is our enemy. It fills the lungs and steals the fire from within.” Rin added as a fine point to the matter, shooting a glance at Lola.
Two townspeople grabbed the unconscious man and dragged him to the spire pits. Someone threw out a bed roll, and the two carriers slumped the large pale body onto it. He had a head of blonde hair, a scraggly beard and was at least a head taller than anyone in town. He had only a pair of linen breeches on. On his bare and muscular torso, strange tattoos and blade scars were on full display.
The scarred man lay in front of the three spires and two flames, creating an unpropitious tableau.
“He was asleep for three days, BoShar. And has no idea who he is. What are we to do with him?” Rin asked.
“I do not know, Rin. He is a Stranger, but it seems the storm put him here. There must be a reason.”
“One flame has gone out, Ko. We can not light it. We have tried everything. Since the sun lit them herself, three flames have burned. This man from the sea is a bad omen.”
“He is here now. Only someone who transgresses after receiving the kiss of the coals may be cast out. Until such time, he is in our care.”
Rin grumbled under his breath but knew that Bo, and Emberlaw, were right. He huffed a little more as he stood, then left Ko’s company. He joined a group of people huddled in conversation, occasionally looking in the Stranger’s direction.
The house of Three Flames had kept its word and did not turn him out. They fed the Stranger and provided bedding near the flame. They would have provided accommodations, but very few of the yurts had been reconstructed. It would be years before they had hunted the stags required for their walls and roofs. The hospitality was obligatory, and the tension was palpable.
Lola had taken up the habit of talking to the Stranger at night after full days of repair had been completed. She’d bring him helpings of boar-jerky and fruit from the forest.
“How do you not know?” She asked.
“I’m not sure…I remember falling. And then salt water.”
“And you do not know your name.”
The Stranger just shook his head.
“What do your tattoos mean?”
“I haven’t the foggiest.”
She paused and played back the word foggiest in her mind. The Stranger spoke differently than the townspeople and often said things she didn’t understand.
“It means I don’t know,” he added.
“You washed ashore in nothing but underclothes. Think about yourself then. Do you feel you would wear clothes?” She pressed.
“I feel like the kinda person who would wear clothes, yes.” He chuckled.
She stood and started to walk away, then abruptly turned and hurled a stone in his direction. The Stranger raised his hand and caught it while his other arm reached across his body at his waist. She smiled proudly.
“I think you had a sword, Stranger.”
“What if I hadn’t reacted?”
“Then you would have a broken nose, and we would still not know anything.” Lola smiled mischievously. “Let us see what else you can do.”
“Get up.” Someone had approached the pair.
“Go away, FloShar,” Lola said to the man.
“No. My corn has wilted. We have grown crown since the first keepers. It has never wilted like this.” He pushed the Stranger hard in the chest. “You put the flame out. It is your fault, you–” He started to yell, but it was ended by the strong hand of the Stranger clamping hard on his neck. A cold storm broke in his eyes as the offending villager’s feet came off the ground.
“Stop it!” Lola screamed, and the villager fell to the ground gasping before stealing away.
Lola gave the man a fearful look but let it slide from her mind.
“It is not your fault,” Lola explained. The Stranger’s warm eyes had returned, and he nodded thankfully.
Over the next six months, Lola led the Stranger through dozens of experiments trying to coax any details from his subconscious. The ire he drew from the townspeople only field her rebellion against Emberlaw.
Her first experiment was sparring. Though not a worthy adversary, Lola was disarmed by the stranger so quickly that even he had to agree with her sword thesis. He removed the wooden stick from her neck, and they both laughed.
“You certainly had a sword, but your scars say you had better opponents than me,” Lola observed. The Stranger rubbed a hand over his shirt and the old blade scars that marked his chest.
“We have something in common.” She said as she turned her back to him, but their moment of shared injury was cut short when a group of villagers approached them, led by Rin.
“Stranger, I do not like your presence here.”
“I’m well aware of that, Rin.”
“The third flame is still out!” A brave-ish villager in the back yelled.
“He did not do anything!” Lola responded.
The villager approached Lola and drove a stiff finger into her collarbone. “You did this too.”
The villager’s face swung to the side, propelled by NiTo’s fist, but he didn’t fall. He spat a mouthful of blood to the side and readied to fight. NiTo, outmatched by the muscular, younger man, raised his hands in response. The villager backed off when the Stranger stepped to NiTo’s side.
“I didn’t extinguish the flame. I’m grateful to this house.” He held out his bare arm for the villagers to see. “I’ve taken it as my own if any of you had forgotten.”
The Stranger had strived to engrain himself in their customs and rituals. He even started learning about Emberlaw, but the tall, pale man stood out in every way possible, except for the ceremonial scars on his arm.
“I do believe that, Stranger.” Rin nodded to the not-yet-healed fire symbols on the Stranger’s arm. “You have proven yourself to our house, but I fear you may have to leave all the same. Our crops are failing. Our hunts are not returning enough meat or leather. We have resorted to striking our own kin.” Rin shot a glance at NiTo.
“You are the only variable, I think.” Rin had a hint of joy in that last bit. “...but, all the same…” he trailed off suggestively.
“I’m not nearly as learned as you, but I know that much of EmberLaw, Rin.” The Stranger said.
“You can only leave if you choose to, Stranger,” Bo spoke authoritatively as the group turned to see. “ He has taken the flame into his soul. He is one of us.”
“FloShar, has he not taught your children how to set game traps?
“Did he not help the injured by making crutches ” Bo shot at another villager, who hung his head in shame.
“He offends the sun, the flame, and everything we hold dear. We should never have allowed him to live with us. HE IS FROM THE SEA!” Rin shouted back at Bo. “THE LASHES ON HIS BACK ARE PROOF OF HIS INSOLENCE.”
Before he took the kiss from the coals, she had run a swimming experiment. She had forced him to wade into the sea and pull his feet from the seafloor. He casually flipped one arm, then the other, in and out of the water back to shore. That earned him his first visit from the drake tail, though it seemed not to bother him much. Rin seemed to enjoy the ordeal until the Stranger stood laughing and asked Lola if a mosquito had bit his back.
“ENOUGH!” Bo yelled with a timbre no one in town had heard before. Rin let the matter be for the moment, and the angry mob of villagers dispersed. The Stranger’s eyes flitted, and he looked to the side in an attempt at recollection.
“I can not keep this up, Stranger,” Bo said to him and Lola before shaking his head. He frowned at the unlit flame as he left their company.
In time, the town had caught and tamed a few wild horses to replenish their harras. The Stranger turned out to be an experienced rider as well. Whatever he’d been before, he was certainly skilled in many things.
The calls for his expulsion continued to mount, but Lola was determined to figure the man out before it came to that. One day she sat with the Stranger doing rapid word associations.
Her eyes exploded in epiphany.
“What?” The Stranger asked. She shook her head with a cunning smile.
“Nothing. I think that is enough for today. We will try more things tomorrow.”
That night, she waited until her father was asleep and the moon was just after its peak. She slunk through town with timid footfalls toward the beach. The tide was well out, and the moon glowed off the water’s calm surface. She squinted into the shallow water, looking for something, anything. Then a sparkle, faint but unmistakably unnatural. She followed the location of the shine back to her feet which she had planted dryly on shore. It was fifteen feet in front of her and in less than a foot of water. She rubbed at the kiss on her upper arm but then rolled up her smock and walked out into the sea.
The sparkle happened a few more times, but whatever was causing it was lodged under a rock. Bent at the waist and careful not to get her garments wet, she plunged an arm toward the sparkle. It was a soft and lumpy thing her hand met first, but it wouldn’t budge when she pulled. She reached in again, two arms this time, and leaned back, pulling her full but unsubstantial weight against the object. Nothing. The water had risen to her just above her knee.
She put a hand under the bag but recoiled when something stung her.
“Ahhh.” She whisper-yelled at herself as a clean-cut across her palm leaked blood and mixed with salt water.
She reached in again, careful not to touch whatever had cut her. Probing her hands slowly, the thing seemed lodged under a small boulder and pinned to the sea floor. Standing, she put her hands on her hips and looked around. She had been struggling with the thing for long enough to know it was something. And for reasons unknown, knew it was necessary.
Her eyes narrowed in determination. The moonlit water was up to her mid-thigh now, but she dropped to her knees anyway. She drove her shoulder against the obstruction and craned her head to the side so she could breathe. The girl who hadn’t been in the sea for months buried her feet in the sandy bottom until they met solid rock. Her body contracted between the two stones, forcing all of her might into its expansion. Slowly the rock obstruction budged and then rolled off her target. She fell entirely into the water over the top of it, soaking what little of her remained dry. When she regained her footing, her prize came up with her. A bag of sorts, with a brilliant short sword strapped to the outside, sharp as if freshly honed. She thought about opening it, even took the latch into her hands, but thought better of it.
She ran out of the water and darted into a thicket of trees to give herself time to dry. She stood up and shook like a dog to accelerate the process. Though she hadn’t looked in the bag, she had tipped it every way to drain whatever water might be caught inside. In a few hours, the girl and bag were both dry, so she shouldered it and headed toward town. Moon fall had given way to sun-rise, and the village was just starting to come to life.
Grinning through town, Lola approached Bo, Rin and the newest Flame-keeper, MunShar, who were doing their Affairs of First Light and tending to the spire flames. Mun’s predecessor had been one of the many casualties of the storm. The man’s heart had stopped when he saw the extinguished flame. Bo was teaching Mun on one of the two lit spires and discussing theories on the third.
The bag hit the ground at their feet, and the sword strapped to the outside clanked as it settled.
“LolaShar!” Her father called, but no one seemed to notice.
“That… That’s mine.” The Stranger said with his brows furrowed. “I’ve no idea why…but it’s mine.”
Rin was the first to speak.
“Let us examine the contents before we assign ownership, shall we.”
“The Stranger is a swordsman,” she said, pointing to the blade. “Let him tell us what is inside before we look.”
Murmurs fluttered through the townspeople, but no one raised an argument in response to the girl’s sound plan.
“I…I can’t remember.” He said.
“Necklace. Ring. Boots.” She prodded him.
“Yes…Boots!” He closed his eyes and rubbed his temple. “…made from a creature’s hide! Ring…Ring…” He closed his eyes again.
“Titanium! A Titanium ring. Dull in shine, but stronger than anything you’ve seen. And the necklace…it can change my voice!”
Bo knelt, opened the bag, and emptied its contents before the town and its heir apparent. With one final shake, two small crabs hit the ground and scuttled away. Lola swallowed hard but didn’t say anything.
“She has entered the sea! She must be exiled!” Someone from the gathering crowd called. Lola flushed.
“Yes. I did. The Stranger was missing something. I am trying to help.”
“By entering the sea?” Rin asked rhetorically. “You must be exiled, LolaShar. It is Emberlaw.”
The calls began to rise, calling for exile, even her death. The crabs scuttled away, but the ring and boots were just as the Stranger described. The Flame-keepers glanced at Nito, who looked to LolaShar, who bit her lip. The Stranger narrowed his eyes and grabbed the necklace. He pulled it on and faced the tinder box that had become the crowd.
“ENOUGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” He screamed toward the crowd. At first, their hair blew back, and then they had to lean into the shout to maintain their footing. Some villagers stumbled and flew back under the force of the scream, luckily collected by those behind them. The Stranger brought his voice to heel and looked at the crowd. A few had trickles of blood coming from their noses and ears.
“These are my things.” The Stranger proceeded to put them on, not waiting for permission from the elders, and no member of the town intervened. Even the flamekeepers watched in subservience. Rin had cowered like a wolf who’d just lost the pack.
As he went, each piece fit with impressive precision. The boots went on like gloves, and the leather gloves went on just like the boots.
At last, he picked up the sword and slid it into the sheath hanging from his belt. The hilt hit the guard, and a low rumble came from the spire pit but no one said anything. They glared at the empty but crescendoing spire and then back at the newly-minted warrior before them. Some villagers backed up in response to the hollow roar. Lola stepped closer and moved around, trying to locate the origin of the sound. But then it stopped.
Without warning, a flame burst into life in the bulbous bottom of the spire and exploded upward through the shaft. The fire peaked with a large mushroom-like plume ten feet above the spire before setting back to its familiar, columnar shape.
Like the third flame, the villagers erupted into cheers and cries of joy.
“The sun smiles on us once again!”
“Fire is Light. Fire is Warmth!” Complete jubilation came from the crown who had surrounded Lola and the Stranger and were fawning over them. Some burst into tears, and a few wept into another’s shoulders. Rough shoulder shakes brought a smile to NiTo’s face. The mood of the village had changed so much that one might think they’d be pinned under the sea, gasping for air themselves. Before the flame pulled them back to life.
The Stranger had washed up broken and nearly as naked as a firstday baby, but now that he’d dressed in his things, he’d lit the flame. He picked up a torch, lit it in the third spire and held it up victoriously to a raucous celebration from the village. Lola, the real reason it was burned again, stood proudly. NiTo ran to Lola and scooped her up in his arms. Surely the pain and suffering were over.
“How?” Bo asked the Stranger.
The Stranger lowered his torch and began to pace back and forth, muttering, thinking, trying to remember.
“The hell if I know.” He said, barely audible. Gasps came from the crowd as his whisper boomed from the spires.
“He is of the flame!” Lola decried. She pushed him from behind and told him to run to the far side of town. Lola had been his only advocate, so he ran without question. He jogged a hundred yards with the smoke from his torch marking his trail. Those with good eyes could see his mouth moving but couldn’t hear anything.
“RAISE THE TORCH!” Lola yelled back, and he brought the fire up from his side.
“Can you hear me?”
The townspeople gasped as whispers came from the spires as if meant for every person.
Bo looked at Rin and Mun, who offered only confused faces, no answers. The leader nodded to the man before he ran back to rejoin the townspeople.
“How did you talk to us like that. How did you light the third flame?”
“That flame…I think it’s like me and my things. We’re connected.”
A cough came from one of the keepers.
“There is still another matter to discuss,” Rin started. “LolaShar, you have entered the sea a coal-kissed. You must be exiled from our home.”
“You can not do that. She lit the third flame!” NiTo responded, but Bo interjected with a tortured look on his face. The crowd, fully elated just moments ago, was quiet. Mimo tugged at his grandfather’s robe, the only other villager to come to her defence, as timid as it was.
“I am sorry, Nito. It is Emberlaw. She must go. On the next whole moon, she will have to leave.” Rin said as Bo looked on helplessly.
“What are we, if not observant of Emberlaw….” Bo said, in philosophical defeat.
“Then I will leave too,” Nito replied, anger in his voice.
“This girl saved your flame,” the Stranger piped in. “She’s saved your house, and you would cast her out. The realms will know her name. I will go with her.” He had amplified his voice again, but only for effect this time. “I will accompany you both.” He added, looking at NiTo.
“I owe you my life, LolaShar, saviour of the Three Fires,” he said in conclusion.
“On the next whole moon then….” Bo said in solemn summary.
For the next twenty-or-so days, the Stranger and Lola continued their work of discovery. The house had captured and tamed a few horses, and the Stranger was a skilled rider, but his voice captured most of Lola’s attention.
“You made your voice painfully loud and then whispered on the flames.” She said to the Stranger but more to herself. She grabbed half a dozen torches, lit them in the three flames and set them at varying distances from town.
In no time at all, he was at the first. A grown man, decked in plate and sword, giggling like a child with fascination and wonder.
“Can you hear me?” He whispered. She nodded. He ran to another.
“Can you hear me?”
“Yes. Can you hear me?” She whispered back in the direction of the spire.
“I can!” He yelled, and Lola covered her ears.
“Easy!” She yelled into the spire and watched as the distant figure covered his ears.
“Stay there.” She whispered and then ran to one of the torches she set. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes…by the gods. Lola, you are something.”
The twenty-or-so days passed quickly. The townspeople were kind and provided provisions and tools for their trip. It seemed the townspeople had found relief that Lola had finally invoked the inevitable.
Mimo sheepishly handed Lola a bolt of green cloth, the same shade as their Banner. She unfurled it and saw it ended in a single point but had only two of their town’s three flame symbols.
“You will add your own symbol, Lola. I am sorry for telling on you.” Mimo said. Lola stooped to the young boy and gave him a hug.
Rin kept his distance and his tongue during this period of impending exile while Lola bounded around the village, the picture of excitement.
She’d spent every day in the water, knowing full well that Emberlaw didn’t allow the use of the drake-tail on one who was to be imminently banished. As a result, she almost found more joy in strolling past Rin sopping wet than she did in collecting pearls.
“Elder BoShar. We will speak into the flames as we go and report our progress. We will spread the fire across the Realms.” Lola said as NiTo looked on, wondering where the years had gone. “I do not know how far we will be able to speak, but we will test its limits.”
“Fire is warmth. Fire is Light.” Bo replied, and Lola returned him a warm smile.
“Do not worry for me.” She said.
“Of all the things I worry about, You, LolaShar is not one of them. Go. Spread the flame.”
The night of the whole moon came, and Lola, Nito, and the Stranger were packed and ready to embark. Several others stepped forward to join them. Ten in all, including the Stranger, headed for the jungle forest away from town.
They had walked for some time before Lola finally broke the silence.
“What shall we call you? We cannot call you Stranger for the rest of our lives.”
“I don’t know…why don’t you give me a name?” he replied. She scratched her chin, and then the devious grin that had become commonplace crept across her lips.
“Well, had I not saved you from the sea, you would have become fish food. Yes?”
“That’s true.” He chuckled.
“Then we shall call you Worm.”