The first warning Dareios heard of the fire came from a dog.
He was lying on the miraculous grass beneath the village’s one tree, that trunk which had sprung overnight from the earth, restoring life to the parched ground around it. He lay exhausted from a long morning trying to coax crops from the dirt, while also trying to ignore Yianna’s mindless talk of hope and the future. Dareios worked as hard as anyone because this was his home and that was what you did, but any fool could see that the land was dying, and he was sick of suffering through Yianna’s delusions.
A howl ripped through the air. He bolted to his feet, caught the hint of smoke, and hurtled into the village.
“Fire!” he bellowed, sprinting toward a crackling sound. From the fields, others took up his cry.
However the fire started, it had spread fast. Four houses were ablaze and flames were advancing into neighbouring homes.
Dareios tore a curtain from a doorway and battered at the flames. Sparks flew and ashes whirled while hot air scratched his throat. Neighbours appeared, some with blankets to batter at the flames, others buckets of dirt. No water. There wasn’t enough in their world for this.
Dareios beat at the flames until his muscles ached and he grew dizzy with the effort. Others were wearying too, but not the flames. They ate their way through the village, swallowing homes and hope.
“My house!” Yianna dashed past Dareios and through her front door, despite the smoke spewing forth.
“Don’t be an idiot!” Dareios shouted. “It’s too late for yours.”
“Never too late.” Yiana flung bedding out the door while the smoke billowed thicker and darker past her. “I’ll want these in my new home.”
“What new home?” Dareios flung the curtain down. “There’s nothing left.”
The flames had devoured half the village, were approaching the last few houses and the tree beyond, one green thing in all the parched hills.
“There might be.” Yiana flung pants and tunics out the door. “You’ve got to have hope.”
“Hope?” In his fury, Dareios flung one of the tunics back through her window, into the flames. “I’ll give you hope.”
“No.” He flung shirts after the tunic, then grabbed a stack of wooden cups. “You don’t get to tell me to hope any more.”
He pulled the cups back, ready to fling them into the flames, but Yianna flung herself at him. They went tumbling in the dry dirt and falling ashes, punching and kicking, clawing at each other. Dareios poured all his misery and frustration into those blows, and Yianna, ever the hopeful, ever the fighter, hit him just as hard.
“Stop it!” someone shouted. “Stop, both of you!”
His heart burned with a furious heat, fuelled by the pain where the dry dirt of misery had rubbed at his raw soul. He kicked and clawed and pressed Yianna into the earth, even as he choked on ashes.
Hands grabbed Dareios. No one was strong any more, but they hauled him and Yianna apart, dragged them to their feet and made them face the end.
The tree, their beautiful miracle, was in flames. Branches charred. Leaves blackened, curled, flew away. The grass at its roots twisted and crumbled.
Yianna sobbed. Dareios sneered.
“So much for hope,” he said, trying not to remember how that grass had felt beneath him, how the wind had seemed gentler in the tree’s shade.
The tree groaned and fell, hit the ground in an explosion of charcoal. Nothing living should burn so fast. Dareios forced himself to watch, even as the others turned away in tears, watched the stump of the tree collapse inward, nothing but black dust.
“No hope,” Yianna whispered.
Then it happened. Water sprang from the hole where the tree had stood. Dareios rubbed his eyes, unable to believe what he saw. A second miracle born from the death of the first. Then he was running again, out to the fields and the tools abandoned there.
“Quick!” he shouted. “Dig ditches, carve channels, get the water to the crops.”
“What about the houses?” someone shouted, waving toward the raging flames.
“Forget the houses.” Dareios pointed at the water flowing across the ash-mottled ground, turning the ghosts of lost homes into grey mud. “This is life. This is hope.” He stared wide-eyed at Yianna. “Who knows how long this will last? So dig!”
This is the second story in a short series. You can find the first, “Picking the Bones of Hope”, over here.
If you enjoyed this story, then you might want to check out my novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, which is set in the same world and explores our troubled relationship with history and tradition. It comes out on the 7th of February – that’s just four days time! – and can be pre-ordered here:
Luna Press for physical books