Keeping the Fire Alive – a fantasy short story

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Image by erikgoetze from Pixabay

Joran pulled his dirty blanket tight around his shoulders and crept out onto the crag, testing the packed snow with his foot before each step. To the west, the pass was draped in shadow, the tips of the trees not yet visible. Dawn took a long time to reach those depths.

Snow crunched as Letta trudged up the mountain, pushing a rickety barrow full of logs. She stopped a few feet away and squinted.

“Seen anything out there?”

“Of course not.” Joran gestured at the contents of the barrow, wood for their cooking fire and for the beacon on top of the tower. The beacon never burned, but still Letta chopped and tarred fresh wood each day, never giving it time to dampen and rot. “You should let me do that. I’m stronger than you.”

With the head of her axe, she prodded at the chain running from his ankle back into the tower.

“If you wanted to run free, you shouldn’t have killed that man.”

“It was him or me.”

“That’s not what the judge said.”

Joran pulled the blanket tighter, shivering against the wind, and peered west. He could see the tops of the trees now.

“There’s someone moving up the pass.”

“Merchants?”

“Is it ever anything else?”

Letta squinted again. Joran snorted.

“Why are you even up here if you can’t see?”

“I won’t leave my kin’s safety to criminals like you.”

“I could push you off the mountain, you know.”

“Try it.” She hefted the axe. “I’ll be checking the beacon, just in case.”

Joran looked down the valley again. This whole thing was a cruel joke played by some malicious god. One punch swung too hard and now he lived here, watching for an invasion that never came.

It was a bigger merchant caravan than usual, and better guarded. Sunlight glinted off something, spear tips or helmets. Scores of them. Hundreds. Thousands.

“Letta!” He turned, slipped, slid through the snow toward a precipitous drop. The chain jerked him short and he grabbed a protruding rock a moment before he would have screamed. “Letta, they’re coming!”

The crunch of footsteps. She appeared above, hauling on his chain.

“Get up here and help me with the fire,” she said. “We have to warn the city.” Then she looked past him, into the woods below. “Joran, what’s moving down there?”

“I don’t care, just help me up!”

“Damn your eyes, Joran!”

He cursed, shifted his weight against the crumbling ground, and peered over his shoulder, into the woods below the beacon tower. It would be a wolf or a cluster of crows, the sort of hard-living beast that survived the snow.

Steel glinted between the trees.

“Scouts,” he said. “Must have run ahead during the night.”

Letta let go of the chain and grabbed her wood axe.

“Don’t leave me!” Joran shrieked.

Letta strode off, toward the lone trail up from the wood.

“Light the fire quick,” she shouted. “I’ll hold them off.”

Cursing and straining, Joran grabbed a protruding rock and pulled himself up. He kicked a foothold from the snow and pushed higher. From below came voices, Letta and the scouts. He hoped that she could hold them off with words, because six to one was terrible odds.

Joran hauled himself back onto the crag, then dashed toward the tower, snow flying from his feet, chain clinking. He flung the flimsy wooden door open and, in the gloom of their tiny barracks room, scooped a bowlful of glowing coals out of the fire.

Thuds and shouts rose from the trail. A man screamed. Letta was putting up a fight, but she was no soldier, and her weapon was no war axe.

Joran’s chain rattled against the stone stairs that spiralled up the outside of the tower. Almost at the top, a jerk at his ankle stopped him short and he fell, arms slamming against hard edges, hot coals flying into his face.

The chain had snagged. He had to go back. Except that the sounds of fighting had stopped, and now three men were approaching the tower, dressed in armour and carrying swords.

Joran shook the chain. The men looked up and one of them shouted. Joran shook the chain again, shook as hard as he could. A few more feet of chain came loose, a few more seconds of hope.

Footsteps on the stairs, the jingling of chain mail. Joran ran up the last few steps and flung the remaining coals into a heap of carefully stacked wood. Smoke emerge from the kindling, then a flicker of flame, then a blaze as the heat touched Letta’s tarred logs.

Joran turned and raised his hands as the scouts reached the top of the steps.

“It’s done,” he said. “No point killing me.”

One of the men cursed. Another spat and peered east. “Maybe they won’t see it.”

On the next peak over, fire flared from a beacon tower. A minute later, it rose from another further east, and then another.

There was a red stain in the snow on the trail, and a dirty brown one at the base of the tower, where Joran’s blanket lay discarded. The fire warmed his back, a comfort in the cold and one last gift from Letta to her kin.

***

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The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.