Where does one hide the living essence of an element? I looked at my satchel and only the bag part remained, the leather strap had burned off. I opened it and the map, letter, and vase appeared to be fine.
A light breeze blew across my skin and it stung a little. I looked at myself. I looked and felt like bloody charred meat. I touched the leather jerkin and it fell from my body, crispy. My pants, made from wool, burned long ago. I lifted my leg and the leather boot fell away, also crispy. I touched my hair and I had none.
I heard voices in the distance and realized that there would be no way to explain this to the citizens of Southallow that wouldn’t lead at least one of them wondering if I was a witch. If my fire elemental friend were discovered, I’d truly be in trouble. Witches were uncanny and uncanny things belonged to the weather gods and so were returned to them as soon as possible – so as not to offend. Most often this happened whether the witch wanted it or not. Magic wasn’t illegal or immoral or wrong. It just wasn’t something that man should have. It belonged to the gods. Burning, drowning, stoning, or hanging – sometimes all four; the witch had to be returned to the elements.
I felt a pang of guilt for accusing Tiria.
“Best not disparage others lest you find yourself in their place,” as my mother used to say. My mother, the witch.
“No time to ponder that now,” I said to the fire elemental. “Could you hide in here?” I held the satchel open.
It started to flow in, but the letter started to burn.
“No, no, that won’t work.” I needed that letter to lead me to my past. The fire elemental returned to my shoulder and purred in my ear.
I pulled out the vase. Perhaps I could ask the fire elemental to hide there?
I looked at my cooked arm. I should be dead. Maybe if I put water from the well into the vase and poured that over myself, I’d heal. I suspected that the sooner I healed, the less permanent damage I’d take.
The well mechanism had burned and fallen into the well. Unless I could find a rope or some way to get into the water? I looked for handholds. There were a few. I swung my leg over the edge and the fire elemental hissed at me and shot sparks of warning.
“I need to heal,” I told it.
I heard “Hey, I think I see something,” and had to decide.
I could play severely injured, which I probably was, and lie here, letting my burned skin touch the dirt and ashes and let them touch me. I shuddered. At least then they wouldn’t think I’d escaped the fire unscathed. Or I could climb into the well, hopefully they’d miss me until I healed, and climb out whole and escape the town. On foot. Naked.
I looked at the sparking elemental. “This isn’t good.”
It hissed again and floated off and landed on the burned remnants of the well’s pulley, which crumbled and fell into the water.
“Gestin?” Torgood shouted my name.
Out of time, I gestured for the elemental to get into the well and slumped over the edge.
“Here he is,” Torgood called. People ran up. I hissed in pain as hands pulled me off the well’s edge and lay me down on the cobbles.
“He looks like a festival roast,” someone commented.
“Torgood,” I said, trying to make my voice sound parched. I didn’t have to try hard.
“I’m here, man.”
Pain flared up and I could hear the fire elemental hiss.
I opened my eyes. Torgood, looking a little cooked himself, sat on his haunches to my left, and the copper-haired man hovered at my feet.
“Water,” I repeated.
“Vytar, get us some water,” Torgood asked the man. He glanced at the well and then ran off, almost slipping on the dusty cobbles.
He returned with a bucket and a rope momentarily. As he lowered the bucket into the water I struggled to get up. The fire elemental would attack him. Torgood held me down. I didn’t hear the man scream, so I hoped the elemental had gone invisible – could it do that? – or hid somewhere else. The bucket landed next to my head. Torgood propped me up and scooped water into his hand, holding it to my lips.
It tasted wonderful, full of ash and dirt. I didn’t care. I slurped it and the next handful.
Just these two near me. I could use the vase. I could perhaps influence Torgood not to speak, but Vytar…
I sat up.
“Easy now,” Torgood said, putting a protective hand on my back. His touch felt like needles.
“Bandages, clothing?” I asked, looking at Vytar.
He nodded and ran off again. Good.
I grabbed the satchel and the vase out of it.
“What are you doing?”
I could explain it and trust that Torgood wouldn’t betray me. Ha.
“Torgood, look away.” My voice came out smooth and calm.
He blinked at me and then stood and turned his back to me. I hadn’t been sure I could use my voice to influence him, but it appeared that I could. If it failed, I could always blackmail him I guess.
I dunked the vase in the bucket and then dumped the water over my head. Soothing, cooling, lovely water. I repeated the process, splashing the water on my arms. The black burned skin sloughed off, new pale pink skin appearing underneath. I sipped the water from the vase and felt much renewed.
The man, Vytar, returned and I whispered to Torgood, “Turn around.”
Torgood turned and looked at me out of the corner of his eye.
I let Vytar and Torgood bandage me and put me into a robe. They helped me to stand and were about to move me off when I remembered the elemental. I turned.
“My lord, you should come with us,” Vytar protested.
“I need my satchel,” I told Vytar, ignoring his odd words. Torgood put the vase back in the satchel and handed it to me. I didn’t see the elemental, but I told it silently, “stay,” and hoped that worked.
They took me up the hill to the keep, which seemed mostly intact. Sooty people milled about or sat on benches. When they saw us, they cheered.
Watchman Engli came forward with an older couple, elders.
“Thank you, stranger, for your bravery.”
The people cheered again, but someone yelled out, “How did you do it?” That question caused others to question and the mood of the crowd teetered between relief and fear.
“The weather gods took pity on Southallow,” I announced, holding up my hand and praying that I could influence so many. “I merely offered up myself to them.”
People gasped in wonder. I made to step forward but crumpled to my knees instead. Healed, but not enough. Torgood and Vytar lifted me up.
“Sorry, I am injured.”
“No need to apologize, man,” The male elder said.
The female elder said, “You are blessed and are a blessing to us. Let us celebrate.”
Any excuse for a party I guess.
They put me on a pallet near the long table and people produced food and drink from somewhere – probably the keep’s storeroom. Groups came by, filled their plates and mugs, looked at the ‘blessed’ freak on the pallet and moved on. Many touched my hand or my foot. Finally, someone brought me food and a full mug of dark beer. The food tasted like dirt but the beer was smooth and refreshing. Not as good as mine, but good enough.
Torgood and Vytar hovered near me, either to keep me there or to keep people away, I wasn’t sure. I needed to get the fire elemental soon, before it got lonely and found me here in the wooden keep, and I needed to get away before my influence wore off and the people started to question my blessed status.
“Torgood,” I whispered. He leaned close. “I need to leave soon.”
“Not just yet, my lord,” Vytar said. “Rest comfortably tonight. Let the people celebrate this unlikely victory.”
Unlikely indeed. I turned and looked up at the copper-haired man. He had cleaned up and changed clothing, as Torgood hadn’t. He wore a gray tabard with a black symbol of a stylized bird on the front. It seemed familiar but I couldn’t place it. Was I still under arrest? I glanced at Torgood, who compressed his lips and have me no hints.