The woman bore a scorch mark from her chin to her brow. The vision in her left eye was still blurry, as though she were looking through a scratched pane. She had been walking away from the burning for a few weeks by now and so supposed the eye would never heal, even if she lived long enough to give it time. Closing her bad eye, she squinted to see where she was going. There was a patch of greenness on the horizon that stretched into the east. A forest. Perhaps that would be far enough away.
As the woman walked, she leaked fire unawares, and the dead river wood occasionally smoked beside her or crackled into flame. Once or twice, to ease the burning, the woman threw herself into the stream beside her path, choking on the water and weeping as the stream took away her heat. It was hard to get back up after that, but memory of the horrors she left behind drove her on.
Her skin twitched to remember hot ash falling; her eyes roved as though watching again and again the village in flames. She clutched the sack containing the vellum tighter to her chest, remembered her purpose, and walked faster.
She walked until the wet forest air enclosed her and washed the scorched smell from her hair. She walked until she fell. Then she dug where she fell, pulling away handfuls of soil from under a young fir tree.
“Here,” she said, talking to the fir, “keep this.”
The woman unrolled the oiled cloth and took out the vellum, looking again at the writing that had started the end of her everything. It was still in beautiful condition though the vellum had been made from lambskin in her mother’s time. Tight, delicate writing filled its face, each black stroke bleeding tiny lines thin as spiders’ legs, each word stitched together in a lacework of ink. Glancing over it again, she sobbed once at the beauty of the knowledge it held. Her eyes stung, and the fever burned away any tears.
She loved the fire, loved it more than her own flesh now. Destroying the vellum and the truth it held seemed a hopeless gesture. Deep inside, behind her scorched eye, she knew she probably should. But no, she would hide it to prevent destruction like the kind she had caused. And she would hide it so that perhaps one day someone with the talent to learn could read it and know its goodness. She prayed it might be someone stronger than she.
She wrapped the vellum back in its cloth, then slipped both into the slim clay pot she had used for water, burying the tiny coffin beneath the pine.
The woman lay down and let herself relax, deep inside, where for so long she had trembled to hold the fire at bay. Her control broke like a tree limb under too much weight, and the snap made her cry out. Heat poured from her chest and pressed out against her skin, burning her as she had burned others. Her blurred eye went dark, her good eye saw gold, and the forest pulsed with life, then stilled under a winding breeze.
She rested her head on the ground. The pine needles pressing into her cheek began to crackle. Smoke rose in fragile tendrils, and she watched them rise until she could at last give in fully and die.
Enna let the fire burn out.
She was not used to this duty. For the three years she had lived and worked in the city, the hearth had been the hall mistress’s responsibility. And when Enna had returned to the Forest a year ago at the onset of her mother’s illness, her mother had continued to tend the fire. After her mother’s death in the spring, Enna had become the mistress of this little Forest house, but with a garden to tend, wood to chop, and a brother, a goat and chickens to feed, she often forgot the fire.
It was not hard to do. A fire in a kitchen hearth was a quiet beast.
Of course, Enna thought, she would overlook the coals on a night when her brother and, more important, the flint in the kindling box were out wandering in the deep woods. So she walked to the house of her nearest neighbor, Doda, and borrowed a spade’s worth of embers in her milking pail. She struggled home, gripping the hot handle with a rag and the end of her skirt.
The embers drew her eyes. They were beautiful, pulsing red in the bottom of the dark pail like the heart of a living thing. She looked away, and the orange coals stayed before her eyes, burning its image over the night. She tripped on a tree root.
“Ah, ah,” she said, trying to regain her balance and keep the hot pail from touching her or spilling to the ground. She cursed herself for the hundredth time that night for being so careless, sought out the dark outline of her house, and headed for it.
“Strange,” said Enna, blinking hard to clear her vision. There appeared to be a light in her window, and it was getting brighter. Enna ran through the yard and looked into the open window.
First she noticed the hearth fire blazing. She was about to exclaim when she saw her brother Leifer sitting beside it, his pack on his lap, his attention taken up by something in his hands. Enna thought he looked handsome like this, his face still and thoughtful. He shared with Enna the black hair and dark eyes that had marked their mother. At age eighteen he was older than Enna, though unlike her he had never left the Forest even so far as to visit Bayern’s capital, just two days’ travel from their home.
Leifer unrolled the thing in his hands, and the firelight illuminated it from behind so that it glowed like a lamp. Enna could see it was a piece of vellum with writing on one side. Leifer could read a little, as could she—unusual for Forest-born, but their mother was from the city and had taught them. Parchment was rare in the Forest, and Enna had no notion where he had found such a thing.
A slow, burning pain in her hands reminded her what she held, and she tottered onto the porch and through the door. She caught sight of Leifer hastily rolling up the vellum and stuffing it in his pack.
“Hot,” said Enna at a near run. She put the pail by the hearth and brushed off her hands. “Ow, but that rag grew thinner the farther I walked. Greatness, Leifer, I thought the house aflame from a distance.”
Leifer closed up his pack and shoved it into the darkness under his bed. “Well, had you kept the fire going…”
“Yes, yes,” said Enna, shooing away his protest with a wave of her hand. “No need to remind me I’m as good as a fish when it comes to the cookfire. Really, you’re good to get a full blaze going in a dead hearth in just the time it took me to get a pail of embers from Doda. You did spook me coming up out of nowhere, though. Why’re you back a day early?”
Leifer shrugged. “We were done.” He looked out the window, though the night was so dark that it opened only to a view of blackness. He seemed thoughtful, but Enna would not have the silence. He had been gone for six days, and she had driven the chickens to ceaseless squawking in a vain quest for conversation.
“So,” said Enna, her voice expressing exaggerated impatience, “what’d you find?”
“Oh, you know. Gebi found settling places with fresh springs about an hour’s walk from here. We found another pasturing place, brought back some berry bushes and onions for planting, and….” He paused, then rose to close the shutters on the night. He stood a moment, his hand splayed on the wood. “And I found a lightning-dead fir in the deep Forest. We, we pulled it up by the roots, dragged it to the spring for settlers to use.”
His voice hinted at more. She cleared her throat.
“Something curious…” He looked back at her, and his voice was edged with excitement. “There were some shards of pottery wrapped right up in its roots, like something, maybe a bowl or jar, had been buried there before the fir took deep root. I counted the rings, and I think the tree was near a hundred years old.”
“Hm. You find anything else?” The vellum, she thought. She knew if Leifer did not bring it up on his own, all the cajoling in the world could not squeeze a secret out of him. When he did not speak, she grabbed a boot and threw it at his backside.
“Ow,” he said with a laugh, and rubbed the spot.
“Why’re you so quiet?” said Enna.
Leifer snorted. “You know, Enna, you’re like a baby who needs to be constantly cuddled and cooed at.”
Scowling, she scooped up the remains of an apple-and-oat stew and shoved the bowl into his hands. “Would a baby serve you supper?”
Leifer smiled at his bowl. “Thanks,” he said.
He eyed her to see if she was actually angry, so she scowled again and ignored him for her knitting.
“I mean it,” said Leifer. “Thanks for…”
“Swallow, then talk.”
Leifer swallowed hastily. “Thanks for sticking around all year, after Ma…and everything. I mean it. You know I can tell…I see how you look. You’re not always happy here.”
“The Forest isn’t exciting for you, after living in the city, I guess.” The corners of Leifer’s mouth twitched. “Stay a while longer. I think it’ll liven up soon.”
“What, pine nut season?” Enna smirked. “You Forest boys have heads stuffed with fir needles. There are other things in this world besides trees.”
“I know.” Leifer finished his bowl and then stared at the bottom. A crease formed between his eyebrows.
“What does that look mean?” Enna asked.
“I was just remembering something Gebi told me. When he was in the city at marketday a city butcher called him a squatter. The more I think about it, the madder I get.”
“Hmph,” said Enna, knitting more emphatically, “you never step out of the canopy’s shade, what do you care what some city butcher thinks about you?”
“I don’t know.” He rubbed at the tight spot on his brow. “I don’t know, but it bothers me now. Our people have been living for over a hundred years on land the city folk thought was too rough. And still, they call us squatters.”
“There are some ignorant people in the city, I won’t argue that, but you know that things’re changing for us.”
“Yes, I’ve heard you go on before, and I don’t want to hear it now…”
“Well, you’re going to,” said Enna, her heart beating harder at the prospect of a good quarrel. “In the city, when I kept chickens for the king’s house, all the animal workers were Forest folk like us, living there because our parents couldn’t afford to feed us out here. Dozens of us huddled together in our animal keeper quarters, not permitted to mingle with the city folk.”
“I know, Enna, but...”
“No, you listen. You weren’t there. It was hard. Our boys couldn’t buy a drink in a tavern or court a city girl or earn a coin any other way but tending animals. We’ve got rights now. I saw with my own eyes the king bestow Forest boys with javelins and shields, just like the city boys and village boys get when they come of age. We’re citizens. Just look at how we’re clearing our own market centers and acting like proper villages.”
“But don’t you care? They call us squatters, and I’m not going to just take that.”
“Of course you will, because…”
“I’m not!” Leifer bolted out of his chair and hurled his clay bowl against the wall, shattering it to bits. Enna stood, dropping the yarn. The ball rolled until it hit his boot.
Leifer kicked the yarn and scowled, and for a moment Enna thought he might break something else. Then his breath heaved and his face softened.
“I’m sorry, I—” He shook his head, grabbed his pack from beneath his cot, and ran outside.
Enna followed him into the yard and watched him disappear into the night forest. “What’s the matter?” she shouted after him. “You sick or something?”
She stood a while in the yard, expecting him to mope back and apologize, but he did not return.
“Leifer?” she called again. He was gone. Enna shook her head. “Wonders.”
It was late summer. The air felt thicker at night, the darkness full of unspent action. The house stood in a clearing just big enough for the animals and the kitchen garden, and then the yard was stopped by towering evergreens—thick trunked, spiny armed, their heads blocking the view to the stars. Sometimes, especially at night, those trees felt like a wall.
She walked to the edge of the yard, leaned against a dark fir, and felt her chest stretch against that familiar feeling, that yawning bit of panic. It felt as though something were missing, but she did not know what she was mourning. Maybe Leifer was feeling the same way, that the Forest was not enough anymore, that he had to find something bigger to fill his life. But just going to the city to tend the king’s animals was not the answer now, not for either of them.
You’re not always happy here, he had said. He could see that. Enna wondered what had happened to the girl who was content just walking the deer paths padded with needles, her feet sticky with sap and her pockets full of pine nuts. She pressed herself against the coarse trunk and felt again how much she loved the Forest and remembered a time when she had never wanted to leave.
And then there had been the city, and her best friend, Isi, who had been an animal worker just like herself. Enna sighed homesickness, missing her friend whom she had not been able to visit since her mother took ill. Isi was wonderful. She had stopped a war, honored her friends, married her love, discovered a great power. Enna could not be content now that she had seen all Isi had done. There could be something like that for me, thought Enna again, if I knew where to look.
A hunting owl passed so close that she felt the air from his wings brush her face. Then he was gone, as he had come, in silence.
Leifer did return the next morning, though not quite apologetic enough to satisfy Enna. She found herself glaring at him regularly. The glowers did not work. Leifer’s easy laugh seemed hard to come by. Once he yelled at her over some unswept ashes.
“What’s the matter with you?” she yelled back. “Why’re you acting like an injured boar? Has this got something to do with that vellum?”
Leifer gave her such a hateful look that Enna found herself wishing for her mother. Then she grabbed a broom and pushed him out of the house.
“You can come back when you can be nice!” she shouted after him.
Enna spent the morning glad to have him gone, then bored, then so lonely that she wished he would come back and glare at her some more so she could have a nice interesting fight or at least have another try at dragging information out of him. She was thinking on Leifer and kneading bread dough so vigorously, she did not know anyone had approached until she happened to look out the window. Someone was watching her from the yard—a boy of sixteen with longish black hair, large eyes, and a mouth fixed in a pleased grin.
“Good crows, Finn, how long’ve you been standing there?”
“Well, come in, don’t stand out there like a stranger,” said Enna. “Why didn’t you speak up?”
“I was just watching you.” Finn set his pack on the floor, washed his hands in a water pail, and grabbed a lump of dough. “Didn’t want to interrupt.”
“Don’t be trying to help me, Finn. Sit. You must’ve been walking since daybreak.”
She tried to snatch the dough away from him, and he sidestepped her.
“What’re going to do, wrestle it from me?”
Enna laughed. “Well, thanks, then, and good to see you, Finn. How’s your mother?”
Finn nodded. “Good. I’m—we’re ready early for marketday, and she said I could take a couple of days to come see you.”
She said I could. Enna sometimes thought it was good for Finn to get away from his mother for a time. If not for her, undoubtably he would have gone to live in the city with other Forest folk like herself. Through their friend Isi, he had made many friends among the animal keepers there and often went to visit when in town for marketday. Since Enna had returned to the Forest, he had become a regular guest at her house as well.
“Well, Finn, you came just in time to save me from screaming craziness. Leifer’s gone mad, that’s all there is to it.”
Finn looked concerned. “What, he didn’t hurt you?”
“Oh, no, just woke up with a case of grumpiness that would scare off any nanny goat. And I swear he’s got a secret, something he found off in the woods. What with his strangeness, I haven’t spoken to a sensible person in days.”
Enna peeled the dough off the table and threw it down again. “Look at me, Finn. When we met in the city two years ago, did you see me in this kind of life? Kneading this dough, living out here like my ma, tending the house and animals, and talking to myself for company? She was married at my age, but that doesn’t fit me, does it, Finn?”
“Somehow, I can’t think of anything you could do that would surprise me,” he said. Enna pushed him playfully with her shoulder. He took a couple of off-balance steps, but she suspected he did it on purpose to make her feel tough. “What do you think you’ll do?”
“About Leifer? Knock his head and listen for the hollow thunk.”
“No, about you.”
Enna paused. “I don’t know, Finn. I need to do something.” She flexed her hand and watched the sinews stretch. “I feel like I’m homesick for something, maybe for Isi and the old days in the city. When I was an animal keeper, it was hard work, but I loved the winter nights or rain days when all us Forest-born would hole up in the workers’ hall, Isi and Razo and the rest, and play games and hear tales and watch the fire.” She smiled. “And later, too, when stuff was happening, and we helped Isi from the louts that tried to kill her and she married the prince. What a wedding, huh? You in fine cloth and holding a javelin and all? And the nights up in the palace when you came to visit, and Isi would have a picnic on the throne room floor and invite all the animal workers.”
Finn nodded. “Times I thought I could stay there forever, and I thought you’d never leave.”
“Me too, once.” Enna stopped pounding the dough and watched it rise a moment. “But later, I don’t know, I felt different, like I was just a guest, you know? With all the courtiers and ladies-in-waiting and guards and everything, after a while, it didn’t seem like Isi needed me anymore.”
“But you had to leave, for your ma,” he said.
Enna nodded. “I know, and I stayed because I thought Leifer needed me. But lately…it seems like all he really needs is a good kick to the head.”
“I’d miss you, Enna, if you left the Forest…if I couldn’t see you much.”
“Well, thanks for that.”
The ease of the moment made Enna realize just how many times they had stood together in such an exchange, Enna talking about whatever was on her mind, Finn listening. She thought that perhaps he had heard more of her thoughts than any other person. She turned to look him over. He noticed and glanced away.
“Huh, what a patient person you are, Finn,” she said. “I should be more like you.”
Finn shook his head. “No. If I’m patient, then you don’t have to be, because one of us already is.”
Enna did not argue. To Finn, the point seemed to make perfect sense.
They worked together until the house was clean and bread hot to eat, then sat outside to watch the night come on. The tree shadows merged into a general darkness, broken only by pale splatterings of moonlight. The crackle of a pinecone underfoot startled Enna upright in her chair. Leifer emerged from the Forest blackness.
“Oh,” she said, leaning back. “It’s just you.”
He came up behind her and rested his forehead on the crown of her head.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“That’s the first bit of sense I’ve heard from you in days.” She hoped Leifer might be all right after all and gave a friendly tug to the back of his hair. “Say hello to Finn.”
“Hello, Finn, I can barely see your face. Dark, isn’t it?”
Leifer walked over to the yard fire pit, his back to them. Enna saw an orange spark, then the pit was blazing. He turned to her, his smile lit by the orange glow.
“How’d you…that was a fast fire,” said Enna. “What did you put in there besides wood?”
Leifer ignored her question. “Finn, I’m glad you’re here. I was just thinking I needed to talk to someone like me who’s always been Forest blood to bones, someone who never ran off to live in the city.”
“I’ve been in the city many times,” said Finn.
Leifer waved off his comment. “Yes, to marketday, and to visit your old friend the princess.” He hit that word with a touch of mockery that immediately put Enna on her guard. “But it’s clear where your allegiance lies.”
Finn glanced at Enna for a hint of how to respond, but Leifer did not give him time.
“Just listen a moment—don’t interrupt, Enna—because I’ve been thinking. We’ve done all right in the Forest, haven’t we? Now the borders of Bayern have tossed a noose around the Forest and claimed it a boon. I don’t trust them, Finn, touting their cobblestones and saddled horses and all the while enslaving Forest girls and boys.”
“Enslaving?” said Finn. “I don’t think…”
“There are others who see like we do, Finn, others that would join a fight if we decided to rebel.”
Enna felt her jaw lower in awe, and she waited for Leifer to laugh and admit he was joking. But there was a hardness in his voice she had never noted before, and he flexed and unflexed his hands as though he meant action.
“Leifer,” Enna began.
“Hush, Enna,” he said. “You know, Finn, lately I can’t stop thinking about Bayern over there, eyeing our lands and trees and using our people—and it all started with that meddling, foreign princess.”
Enna croaked a dry laugh. “Oh, you wouldn’t dare start belittling Isi with me sitting right here.”
Leifer turned to Enna, though in the dark she could see only the glint of one eye. His voice was thin. “I know she’s your friend, and I’m supposed to be scared of her because of the rumors she can summon birds and wind. I say there’s something bad about her, and when I get the fight going, she’ll be the first to burn.”
“Leifer!” Enna stood. “How dare you talk like that?”
“I’m talking to Finn, Enna. I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
“You think I’ll stand by while you threaten the princess?” said Enna. “You know I won’t.”
“Hush, I said.” Leifer crossed to the fire and threw pinecones into its heart. They hissed and popped.
“I can’t believe what I’ve put up from you this week. Poor Finn has sat patiently through your crazy talk, but when you start mouthing off on Isi, well, you’d be half a horse not to think either one of us would knock you down flat before we’d allow you to say another word.”
“I said shut up!” Leifer turned. Enna could see his face caught up in the fire’s shivering orange glow. His shoulders and arms trembled, and his expression was so foreign, she could scarcely believe he was her brother.
“Leifer,” she said, suddenly afraid, though she did not know what she expected would happen.
Leifer grimaced as though fighting pain, then cried out. Enna felt a rush of heat and a sudden sting. She looked down to see her skirt on fire.
Enna screamed and dropped to the ground, trying to kick off the blazing skirt. Finn tore off his coat and beat at the flames. He extinguished them, and Enna lay still, breathing hard.
“Are you all right?” said Finn. He knelt beside her, his anxious hands hovering over her legs, afraid to touch them. “Enna, are you all right?”
Enna nodded, too stunned to speak. She looked up to where Leifer stood, his hands covering his mouth. Finn arose, putting himself between Enna and her brother.
“Leifer,” said Finn, like a challenge.
The fire at Leifer’s feet died down, feeding leisurely on the wood. The low yellow light lit his features from below, exaggerating the creases in his forehead and under his eyes so that he looked like a very old man. He stared at Enna, and he seemed his old self, her brother, the little boy who had put beetles in her bed, the young man who brought her a bucket of mushrooms as proudly as if he had found gold. There was a sad horror in his face as he seemed to realize what he had done.
“Enna. I’m sorry, I, I didn’t mean…” He turned and ran into the trees.
“Leifer!” He did not turn back. Enna exhaled slowly and felt her chest shudder. “What just happened?”
“I didn’t see, it was so fast,” said Finn. “Do you think he’s got fire, you know, like Isi has wind, and he can control it? But why would he hurt you?”
“I don’t know.”
Finn helped Enna into the house and looked at her red ankles, humming to himself as though to ease her worry. He would not leave her alone long enough to fetch her neighbor Doda, so he himself applied soothing lard to her legs and wrapped them in clean rags. His natural calmness made the strange night and the biting pain feel easier to bear.
“I’d best stay with you for a time, make sure he doesn’t try…whatever it is he did.”
Enna stared at the hearth fire. “All those bedtime tales were preparing me for this. Isi once said that hearing and telling unbelievable stories make it easier to believe when strange things happen.” She found she could believe what Leifer had done, but what frightened her was the unknown of what he would do next.
They both were silent, watching the hearth coals throb orange in the ashes. Even the sight of fire made Enna’s ankles feel worse. Just then, she thought burns the cruelest wound. Enna’s mother used to call the ache from cuts and bone breaks “the feeling of healing,” but the burn kept on burning as though the fire were still in her skin, using her body as fuel.
A lump of blackened wood crumbled in the hearth and a yellow flame rose higher for just a moment before pulling back inside the embers. Enna closed her eyes against it, heard Finn creaking in the rocking chair to the pulse of her blood in her wounds, and knew she could not wait for Leifer to act again. She needed help, and there was only one person to ask.
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