We Who Have Burned


This isn't part of O Happy Dagger exactly; but since it's set in the same world i'm posting it here anyway! There's no sex or anything, though.

Wind howled and thunder roared through the night. Divona waited patiently, crouched in a shallow, muddy cave, staring intently through the downpour at the barely visible silhouette of the old tree on the hill. She’d been waiting for hours now, though with no fire to tend, it was difficult to determine how many. She could keep waiting for hours more. She refused to let the two weeks of preparation be wasted. Each blink was reluctant.

For the first several hours, her layers of wool kept her warm, but eventually the chill permeated every part of her, save for the banked embers inside her heart. Being cold and wet was a choice she made in order to conserve energy. It was a difficult balance, to be ready to act in a moment for hours on end. Releasing just enough heat to keep her fingers from trembling.

Another hour passed. Perhaps two.

She saw a transparent tendril, like a ghost reaching up from tree to sky. The hair on her neck pricked. As soon as she spotted it, she looked away, squinched her eyes shut, and plugged her ears.

Light and sound ripped through the sky, shattering upon the hill, an explosion of power unlike anything mankind was capable of. Every instinct told her to hide, to bury herself deeper into the cave. Instead, she forced herself up and out of the hole, thunder ringing in her ears. The fire in her heart came fully alive and she pushed invigorating warmth through her veins; a haze of steam rose around her as raindrops sputtered off her skin. Her vision cleared: nearly half of the tree was missing, blasted off by the lightning. But she couldn’t tell through the storm whether it had taken light.

She climbed the muddy hill as fast as she could. She knew the route from cave to tree well, but the downpour made it unfamiliar, feet slipping in spots that should be steady, cold water carving channels in the clay. A great gust of wind unbalanced her; she toppled backward, twisting as she fell to avoid falling onto her pack and crushing the fragile contents. She landed with a splash and slid ten paces down the hillside. The fire-keeper composed herself, wiped mud from her eyes, and began the climb again, more slowly and carefully on four limbs, using her hands to steady herself.

When she reached the top, for a moment she detected the scent of smoke before it was blown away. She hurried to the tree and put her hands to the great trunk. Warm. Deep in the tree, protected from the wind and rain, perhaps the embers would last through the storm. But…she grabbed a branch and pulled. The whole tree shifted. There was no chance it would stay standing for the rest of the night. And once it blew over, those precious embers would be exposed to the elements.

Di took off her pack, rummaged in it, and took out her hatchet. She made a few quick chops, then pried away a chunk of wood, exposing the hollowed-out interior of the tree and the glowing embers within.

She-Who-Stokes-Want,” Di prayed, “let my breath be yours.” She took a deep breath and exhaled it into the tree. The glow of the embers intensified and spread. Another breath and the embers burst into a small flame. A smile spread across Divona’s face to see it: the joy of a new life emerging from the dying husk of the old. She listened for a moment to see if the newborn sky-fire would speak to her, but it only crackled, still too fresh to understand the wisdom inherited from the old tree.

She returned her hatchet to her bag and pulled out her fire-pot. Careful not to let any water get inside, she cracked open the lid, put it up to the hole in the tree, and started to gently coax the flame inside. Curious, it sent a few sparks in and set the carefully prepared tinder alight. “That’s it…good girl…it’s comfortable in there, isn’t it?” It seemed to agree, and sent more sparks, spreading into the pot. The embers in the tree began to fade as the sky-fire’s essence left them. Di closed the pot, tied it tightly shut, then slid open the hatch that allowed airflow but kept out water. The pleasant scent of smoke rich with lightning drifted out.

The fire-pot would keep a flame smoldering for several hours; plenty of time to make it to the shelter she'd set up a quarter mile away. She squinted into the distance, relying on flashes of distant lightning to illuminate the shapes of the adjacent hillsides. Someday she'd barter for a lodestone with a sky-watcher, but Divona had few things of equal value. After ten minutes, she was satisfied with her bearings. She pointed herself west and counted twenty paces away from the tree to her first way-marker.

The way-marker wasn’t there. Washed away, Di supposed. Slowly, carefully, conscious of her precious cargo, she picked her way back down the hillside to where the next way-marker should be. She searched for five minutes, anxiety growing in her chest, before she finally found it: a sturdy wooden post, dutifully rooted to the place she’d driven it into the ground.

Divona sank to her knees and kissed it, leaving a charred mark. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Will you come with, or will you stay?” She pressed an ear to it, to hear over the din of the storm. It had decided to stay, it told her. Now that it had tasted earth and water again, it was afraid of the flame that would surely await it if it came with her again. The fire-keeper didn’t usually ask wood if it wanted to burn, but wood that she’d shaped and marked and had loyally done as she’d asked deserved her respect. She left it there, to the rot, to return to the earth, as it had chosen. Not the end she wanted for herself, but to each their own.

Of the twenty way-markers she’d made, thirteen remained, and only two of those chose to come with her. One tried to negotiate with her—it wanted to be made into a tool handle in a grasp at immortality, but Divona refused to make any promises and had no time for bargaining.

* * *

“Shit,” Di spat, despair threatening to overwhelm her. “Fuck!”

The shelter had collapsed.

She stared at the remains of the small hut, trying to understand what had gone wrong. It had served as her base of operations in the eastern hills for two years now; this was not the first storm it had weathered. The thatched roof had caved in, as though a large branch had fallen on it; but she had avoided building it under a tree for that very reason. She picked through the wreckage, debating whether or not it would be possible to fix during the storm. The wood stored inside was soaked, but that wasn’t an obstacle for her. If she could get the beams set back up and a layer of thatch in place, perhaps—she pushed aside a mound of thatch, and her heart sank.

The central beam was broken, snapped into two like a twig. Sabotage? Divona was not without enemies, but the effort required made it seem unlikely. A curse? She was careful about such things, but perhaps she'd offended a god or witch without realizing.

A quick fix was impossible. As she made a plan, her limbs started to ache, so she took a few minutes to rest, leaning against a tree and devouring a strip of dried meat. That done, she got out her tools: her knife, her hatchet, and a length of rope. She pulled the salvageable beams from her hut, then searched the nearby trees for branches with the right length and shape, chopping and carving them as needed. Once she had enough, she found a spot under the sturdiest tree in the area that was well-shaded by canopy, dug a small pit and lined it with stones. Around the pit she used her branches to build a conical shelter, then piled armfuls of soaking wet thatch on top, leaving a hole at the very point of the cone. She crawled into the small space underneath and took a moment to catch her breath. It was calmer inside, though the thatch was dripping on her.

Divona focused on the fire in her heart. Her efforts at conserving it had paid off, she had plenty of heat stoked for what she needed to do. She reached up and touched the dripping thatch. Heating it would be risky; it would be easy to do too much and set it alight. Instead she used a more advanced trick; rather than pushing hot into the straw she pushed dry. A torrent of water flowed from the thatch onto the ground outside, like a sponge being squeezed. Dizziness threatened to overwhelm her, and she stopped to rest. Doing it this way was so much more work. When she’d recovered some, she did it again, pushing dry until her stomach heaved.

“Good enough,” she said between gasping breaths. The top layer was still wet, but there was enough dry that the hut was warming up and no longer dripping. She closed her eyes. Thunder rumbled and growled outside. Gods, she wanted to take a short nap. Instead she forced herself back into motion, stacking the remaining wood inside the shelter, biggest pieces on the bottom, then finished it with tinder on top. These she dried with plain heat, a relief after the difficult drying of the thatch. There wasn’t room in the shelter for her and the pile, but she’d survive being rained on a little more.

She observed her work. The cozy little shelter was just missing one thing: a tendril of smoke lazily drifting from the chimney hole. She started opening the fire-pot so that the oversight could be corrected. Thunder growled again.

There had not been a flash of lightning.

Panic caught in Di’s throat and she frantically looked around. It was too dark to see anything. She gulped air, her lungs working her internal flame like a bellows, then opened her mouth wide. Firelight poured out and glinted off a pair of eyes shockingly close; she allowed herself barely a glimpse before she shut her mouth, grabbed the pot, and dodged backward.

Something huge and dark crashed into the hut, annihilating in an instant what had taken her nearly an hour of hard labor to build. Di’s annoyance at the waste was a muted undercurrent to the pure terror that thrummed through her, and she fled into the dark forest as fast as she could, risking a flash of illumination now and then to keep herself from tripping.

Once she’d made enough distance, she found a fallen log and huddled under it, rain cascading around her. Her mind kept replaying the moment. The shadow that she’d assumed was a boulder suddenly revealed as a massive cave lion, green eyes flashing, mouth parted in a snarl, crouched and about to pounce. How long had it been there, creeping closer? A shiver ran through her that had nothing to do with the cold.

She’d bought herself some time. It was faster, so much faster, but it wouldn’t chase her. It would hunt her. Under normal circumstances, she’d be able to outpace it simply by continuing to move. If she kept walking, it would tire long before she did. But in the dark and rain, hungry and tired, with a precious load to keep burning…escape would be difficult. Divona would have to scare it off.

First thing: feed the sky-fire. She carefully opened the fire-pot, leaning over it to prevent any errant raindrops from getting in. The fire had consumed the tinder and was smoldering contentedly on shelf fungus in a nest of charcoal and moss. “Hungry?” she asked. It didn’t answer, still nonverbal. “I’ve got a snack for you.” Di reached into her hood and pulled out a lock of hair. She focused her soul into her head, into her scalp, out along the length of hair. The hair dried and frizzed as power ran through it and she sliced off the last three inches with a knife, allowing the clump to drop into the pot.

Next she took out one of the two loyal way-markers. She scraped off the markings for stability and navigation that she’d carved previously and added new ones for heat and light and longevity. “You’re going to save us,” she told it. She blew on it and embers glowed within the carvings, activating them. The fire-keeper stood back up, secured her pack and, rod in hand, set back out into the forest again. A few minutes later she found what she was looking for: a pine tree with an oozing clump of resin where a limb had broken off. She cut it off, heated it until it was looser, and smeared it onto the end of her torch.

Finally, she hunkered down and waited, unlit torch in one hand, hatchet in the other. Still as stone in the wind and rain, the fire in her heart shrank to embers and her body cooled.

* * *

When the cave lion arrived, she knew it by the silence it carried. A shape darker than darkness that, almost by magic, made no noise at all. As it crept closer, Divona let her fire roar to life. A cloud of steam burst from her as strength and warmth filled her limbs. Her torch came alight; she sprang forward with a cry of defiance and thrust the flame at the lion’s face.

The fire glinted in the cave lion’s eyes, but it barely flinched. As Di moved the torch back and forth, it watched the flame with something like hunger in its eyes.

It was not merely a beast. That complicated things.

“We made a deal!” she shouted over the storm as they started to circle each other. “Remember! You agreed: if the lightning took you, you would allow me to take the sky-fire.”

The spirit within the lion did not respond, opening its jaws in a snarl instead. Divona was not insulted. She recognized all too well what had happened. Making an oath was easy. Keeping it was harder. The old tree-spirit, driven mad by the death-kiss of lightning, would attempt to consume the sky-fire to prolong itself, ignorant that the sky-fire was itself. Like a starving man eating his own heart. The wreckage of the old life smothering the new before it could finish being born. Divona sympathized. When her catalyst had come, she’d also tried to fight. 

“You have to let go! The things that you will gain are so much greater than what you’ve lost!”

Her words fell on deaf ears. It was pointless, she knew it was pointless. How could it accept what she said when its essence no longer resided within it? She wasn’t talking to the spirit, not really, just its old, cast-off shell.

A flash of lightning filled the forest; for a moment the lion’s eyes were not focused on Di and she took the opportunity. Di lunged forward and jabbed the torch into the lion’s eye. It recoiled and she buried her axe in its neck as thunder shook the trees. Not deep enough. She was not a warrior and it was not a battle-axe. The lion let out a roar that turned Di’s arms to jelly and lashed at her with a great paw, but she was no longer there, dashing past it on its blinded side, dropping the torch as she went; if the lion wasn’t afraid of it, it would only make her a target. For the second time, she fled into the storm-wracked forest. The lion gave chase.

Divona crashed through the underbrush, stumbling on roots, whipped by branches, pelted by rain, barely keeping her feet under her. Thunder boomed directly above; she collapsed into a tree, heart bursting from her chest, certain that it was the sound of the lion pouncing on her, then kept running when she discovered she was still alive.

Suddenly she was in the open. A clearing? No, the riverbank. She’d gotten completely turned around. The sound of rushing water below was barely audible above the cacophony of the storm. Divona was atop an outcropping of dirt ten feet above the water. The river was mad with the rain, swollen and raging, thick with debris. Trying to cross now would be nearly as foolish as fighting the lion. Not to mention the risk to her fire-pot.

There was no time to decide her next move. The cave lion emerged from the woods, low to the ground, eyes flashing. Di tried to back up further and nearly slipped into the water. She was well and truly cornered.

The lion pounced, jaws wide, claws outstretched, and with no escape in sight, Divona allowed herself to fall backward. For a moment they hung, suspended in the air, the beast reaching for her, inches away. And then: the dark, cold embrace of the river, ripping her away, tumbling downstream. The beast thrashed in the water, fighting the current, but Di allowed it to carry her away.

She surfaced for a moment, gasping for air, then was pulled back under and bashed against a rock. Light flashed behind her eyes and most of the breath she’d managed to get escaped her lungs. Her mind went blank of everything except survival and she flailed at the water, but she couldn’t tell which way was up. The river boiled around her as she panicked, wasting her carefully saved heat. A current grabbed her again. Darkness blacker than the water filled her vision, and then she slammed into the mud.

Mud! She reoriented. Mud was down. She kicked off it and clawed to the surface.

* * *

Divona lay shivering on the riverbank for a few minutes before her brain got the message that she’d survived. The storm had died down to a drizzle and an occasional rumble. The fire in her heart was low and flickering, and she was loath to draw on it any more, but death of cold was approaching. She released just enough heat to keep her fingers working, then reached for the fire-pot. Miraculously, it was still intact; the only lucky break she’d had all night. She opened it enough to confirm that the sky-fire hadn’t gone out.

She’d lost her knife, most of her provisions, her fire-starter, her rope. She’d kept the clothes on her back, her hatchet, the way-finder, and of course, the sky-fire. It was too much to hope that the cave lion would die in the river. It would come for her again.

If she gave up the sky-fire, it would leave her alone. Hell, if she put the sky-fire out right now, what remained of the tree spirit would die shortly after. Divona looked at the river. Guilt wrenched in her stomach as she considered it. She opened the fire-pot again to look at the bright embers.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m not willing to die for you.” A tear dripped into the pot before she could catch it, and it sizzled.

The sky-fire spoke to her. It said: Good. It said: I don’t want you to die. And it said: I have burned and that is enough. The fire-keeper curled into a ball and sobbed, meaningless apologies pouring from her like water.

Then, an idea.

She stopped crying and looked back into the pot, thinking. “I, too, have burned,” she breathed.

Divona wiped her eyes and set into action. She picked up the way-finder. She blew it dry and held it into the pot. “May I have a spark?” The sky-fire obliged; a spark landed on the wood. Quickly, Di coaxed it into a flickering flame. “Show me the way one more time,” she told it. “Take me to where the sky-fire was born.” The fire pulled her northeast.

* * *

Together they found the remains of the old tree. Dawn couldn’t be far off, but probably the cave lion would find her first. Divona stashed her few remaining things in the shallow cave, then opened the fire-pot and took a deep breath from it. There was still so much lightning in it. This wouldn’t be pleasant, but it wouldn’t kill her.

“I gave you a taste of myself. Could I have a taste of you?”

Yes, it said, shooting off a spark. Di caught it on her tongue and swallowed.

The memory of lightning blasted through her body, pure catalyst tearing her apart, fracturing her mind into pieces. But it was not the first time she had broken, and the wounds that opened were old; wounds she was practiced at repairing. When it was over, Divona put the pieces of herself back together again and stood on shaky feet. She smelled her hair. The scent was smokey, rich with change, indistinguishable from the scent of the sky-fire itself. When the lion arrived, it would think the sky-fire was in her, and not hidden in the cave.

She climbed the hill, barefoot, wearing nothing but her loincloth. She was cold and tired but electricity and adrenaline hummed in her veins; she wouldn’t be able to rest even if she’d wanted to.

At the top, she grabbed hold of the old tree and tore it down. Using her hatchet when necessary, but mostly with her bare hands, she ripped it apart, paying no attention to her broken nails and bleeding palms. She piled bark and branches, the dead limbs and the dying heartwood.

She was so focused on her task that she didn’t notice when the lion arrived. Not until it was upon her. She felt it above her; not even enough time to turn and see it, and she would have laughed if she’d had another moment. The fixation that was her greatest strength had nearly killed her at the last. Claws touched her back. Since she didn’t have time to laugh, she burned instead, the last of her heart’s fire bursting from her skin, and the bonfire that she’d prepared burned with her.

The lion pushed her to the ground, but there was no strength in it; it was already trying to escape. The fire-keeper turned, wrapped her limbs around it, and willed the flames hotter. The fire was eager to obey. All she could see was light. All she could hear was burning. All she could smell was smoke. All she could feel was heat. It was heavenly. But after a few seconds, the fire began to forget that it had ever been a part of her, and started to burn her as well. The lion thrashed under her, and this time she didn’t cling to it; she was flung from the bonfire into the mud.

Now she laughed. She stood, naked on the hill, and watched the cave lion burn. If it had been just a lion, it probably would have survived. But what remained of the spirit, like the tree itself, was deadwood, as flammable as kindling, and the beast burned from the inside.

Divona collapsed, starting to shiver as the adrenaline wore off. She was exhausted, physically and mentally. Her insides felt scorched. She had completely expended her internal flame. But she was alive. She ran her hands through her hair and realized that it was still on fire.

* * *

To be honest, Divona didn’t know anything about delivering babies. So, when the chief’s son was being born and Ibex, the mother, requested her presence, she mostly kept water boiling for the midwife. And tended the hearth, of course.

The warmth from the sky-fire permeated the room, thick with the healthy, enduring power of the oak it had been. Di was confident in the midwife’s skills, but a birth was always dangerous, and she wanted to do absolutely everything she could to ensure that mother and child were in good health.

Once everything was done and the baby finished with his first meal, Ibex called Divona over and handed him to her. It was the first time she’d felt truly nervous to hold a baby. She stared in newfound fascination at his little hands, his little ears. Di brought him to the hearth, and showed him to the fire. “Isn’t he beautiful?” she asked it. He is, it agreed.

The baby cooed and stretched and opened his eyes, looking at Di blearily. His eyes were red-brown, same as Divona’s, and similar enough to the chief’s to avoid suspicion.

Di handed the baby back to his mother, who ran a hand through Di’s short-cropped hair and gave her a furtive kiss. The chief would be a good father, and Divona would help with his raising as much as Ibex needed. And if someday the boy decided that he needed something different…

Well, then she could come to Di and learn about fire.

Read on A03