Forest Fire by Roquen
Characters: Neyrika, Rylerion, Khata, Relonia, Sirin
Summary: A young Carrysh girl goes cloudberry-picking and meets a stranger in the forest.
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Sirin promised her parents she wouldn’t stray too far from the village, but after an hour of chasing sunlit patches in search of cloudberries she looks up and realises the trees have closed in around her.
The cloudberries weigh down the basket on her arm. She licks the juice from her fingers as she thinks.
Her parents warned her about going too deep into the wilderness. There are forest fires every summer, but this year the smoke has brought darker rumours. Sirin’s parents won’t tell her what they’re so afraid of, but her cousin said there’s a ghost up in the mountains, a terrible white ghoul with a long black cloak and fire dripping from its bony fingers. Sirin found it hard to sleep that night, seeing horrors in every shadowed corner of her bedroom.
But her basket isn’t full yet.
She picks her way onwards, through sweet-scented trees and the comfortable half-light of the thickening forest. Ahead the sun shafts down like spears.
There are golden motes floating through the clearing, so bright Sirin has to blink several times before she can be sure of what she’s seeing. A woman standing with her face turned up to the sky, her bark-brown arms held up in welcome. Her hair is long and grey; not the grey of age, but somehow a young and renewing grey, like the colour of willow-catkins.
Sirin takes a step back. The woman’s eyes open and she lowers her arms.
“Don’t go back yet,” she says. Her voice is rich as earth. Sirin stops, comforted but still wary.
“Are you a traveller?” Sometimes travellers pass by the village. Few of them stop.
The woman shakes her head.
“I’m an observer.” She follows this cryptic remark with a smile. “Didn’t your parents warn you not to go too far into the forest alone?”
“Yes,” says Sirin, incurably honest. “But the cloudberries…”
“They are good,” the woman agrees. Her voice is still warm but her attention seems only to be half on Sirin. Her eyes are distant. “Have you ever seen a forest fire, Sirin?”
“I’ve seen the smoke.”
“Smoke is deadly as fire in its own way.” The woman’s gaze is still turned inward. Her voice is a sorrowful murmur. “Both are a horror and yet a necessity. Not everyone can be saved.”
Fear begins its slow creep down Sirin’s spine. She realises she didn’t tell the woman her name.
“I should… I should go home.”
“It’s your decision,” says the woman, with only a hint of sadness. She turns her face to the sky again as Sirin stumbles back out of the sunlight and under the pressing weight of the trees.
She runs. She trips on rocks and fallen branches and she scrapes her elbow when she misjudges the gap between two spruce and when she sees the forest’s ragged edge glimmering in the distance she hauls in a breath and tastes smoke on her tongue.
A shriek rings out from the sky, an inhuman cry. Sirin drops her basket.
The village is burning.
The houses are cloaked in shadow and smoke shot through with flickering red tongues. Shapes move in the depths, some human and writhing in agony, some strange and warped and jubilant. There are more screams now, human screams, in voices Sirin knows. She screams back.
The sun is gone, obscured by a suffocating cloud. Sirin runs through choked streets, leaving bloody footprints as her shoes burn off her feet.
“Mamma!” she shrieks. “Pappa!”
No answer comes but the screams. She claws at the front door but the latch is red-hot and melting and it sears the skin off her desperate fingers.
“Mamma!” she howls again, but now the only answer is the roar of the flames.
She turns, with the wild thought that she can try one of the windows, and comes face to face with a monster.
Face white as the snow that drowns the village in winter and brings death to the weak and the sick. Eyes like the abyss. Its hair is as black as its cloak and the high sharp crown on its inhuman brow.
“Please,” Sirin begs, the tears evaporating on her cheeks as fast as they fall.
“You deserve this,” says the monster, and its voice is wavering, its abyssal eyes uncertain. She realises, suddenly, that it’s very young; barely older than she is. A child. But it repeats the words more strongly, voice rising to its own primal scream. “You deserve this. You deserve this!”
“I’m sorry,” Sirin weeps, though she doesn’t know what she’s sorry for. She’ll be sorry for anything. She’s so scared and it hurts so much.
The monster is calm again, its face an empty mask.
“Sorry isn’t good enough,” it says. “Khata.”
A shadow emerges from the shadows. A long lean head, a graceful neck, keen and glittering eyes. The vast mouth opens to show razor teeth, so many teeth. Fire blossoms from the dark throat, red as blood and orange as cloudberries.
Sirin screams one final time.
Many miles and many years away, King Rylerion ZanTaoyaka wakes in a cold sweat. Above him float silk canopies, and beneath him lie silk sheets. Beside him is the silken tangle of his wife’s golden hair.
“Go back to sleep,” she mumbles, voice throaty as a lion’s purr. Obediently he closes his eyes again, but in the dark behind his eyelids the flames still flicker.