Wednesday Serial: Part XLVII

Eoin fire_hand


Rhian pushed them back, slowly, but with all the elegance of a barroom punch. Over her shoulder, she snapped a command to the line behind her, and they raised their hands. When energy poured out of their palms it was not the shining sheet of hot ice that it had been the night before. Their horses reared back, eyes going white. Then they sent their horses running into the trees.

This was a flood, something that spread and tumbled in front of them, and ate through the grass in the half moment it took them to take their first step forward. Each person’s cloud of twisting, crackling flame met with their neighbor’s, and knit together. They set their heels down on blackened ground, barely even smoking, and drove the ash-blue conflagration in front of them. Ahead of that, orange fire caught in the grass, coughed out smoke as it if were choking on its first breaths, and the whole line rolled forward, one living, reckless thing.

Even Rhian ran from it. She watched it catch and darted immediately to the side, while Eoin, Idis and Wesson fell immediately back. The heat splashed on their faces, while the smoke reached rough fingers into their throats. Rhian continued at a flat run down the line, until she came close to the end, and a man and woman split to leave a gap for her to slip through. Even then, Eoin saw her bring her arms up to protect her face, and she winced before she disappeared behind the smoke.

“Pull back!” Wesson shouted.

“Pull back!” Idis echoed, and for the first time she sounded something less than steady. Eoin understood why. This was not the perfect wall, an echo of the mind’s control, that they had expected. This was a loosed thing, fueled by the men and women behind it, and prodded forward.

Eoin ran a few paces, but his feet were slow, and when he saw that most of the crowd was ahead of him, he stopped again.

He spread both hands at his sides, spilled ice inside his skin and heat across his palms, and pushed back. The orange flame clapped out in the press. The smoke was crushed to almost nothing, a thin black pane, between the flat edge of his energy and the gnawing face of theirs. Then the smoke broke and fell apart, and their fire screamed across Eoin’s, sparked, and spat. He skipped back, dropped his hands and relaxed the energy in the air, just to escape that answering scrape that he’d felt along his bones.

He glanced over his shoulder. Danta was a running back for him, and everyone else was climbing into the hills, the rest of Eoin’s men stopping at the base of the slope to let the others climb up into the rocks ahead of them. Eoin waited as long as he dared, to give Danta time to arrive. Two breaths, and then he crossed his wrists in front of him. Driving his energy into a point with two sloping walls on either side of him, he pushed forward and hoped to see their rolling fire break around him.

In the mess, he only caught the flash off a blade a moment before he saw it cut toward his ribs, and stop on a hiss of metal. Danta had made it to his side, too, and he held Rhian’s long knife away with the flat side of his sword.

She didn’t disengage from him for a long moment, her hand lit up on her other side. Then she shoved him back with a quick step inside his grasp, and quick kick against the joint of his hip. Her eyes stayed on Danta’s wrist as he stumbled and the bright bit of red wrapped there.

Rhian looked at Eoin, blinking in the heat. “You tell your warlords to run,” she told him. “It won’t take long to get word to Madden, and then they’d better hope they stay ahead of his announcement that those bands don’t protect anyone anymore.” Then she shoved him away too, and stepped back into the line to take up her place in the rolling heat.

Eoin grabbed at Danta’s sleeve and they ran back for the hills.

Eoin thought the stone would stop them, that they would just build a bigger wall at the bottom of the slope to keep heat on the escaping men and women’s backs and not bother scrambling in the rocks themselves. But they pushed there too, high onto the hill. Their line broke into pieces, around one cliff face, and then another, and then rolled back together.

Higher, and higher.

Until Eoin was scrambling on his hands and feet, pushing off rocks as fast as he could, lungs burning on motion and smoke.

Eoin thought they would stop on the other side, too, but they climbed after them there as well, still blazing like they had an hour before at the bottom.

And then, on a moment, a sharp command reached high in the air, and the fires tamped themselves down to nothing. Back on even ground, they stood in their line. Eoin found Rhian, back in the center, and after a moment, her eyes found his as well. then she just stood still, baldly questioning he wanted to try her again.

The people around him were stumbling to a stop in the sudden quiet. The woman beside him coughed into the back of her hand. The man on her other side took a hesitant step forward again.

“Keep going!” Eoin shouted. He watched Rhian, expecting her to smile at her victory, but she didn’t. She held her dark glare until he turned his back and started to run again himself. “Keep going!” he shouted.

It wasn’t that far to where they had left Tiernan and the others. He hoped that Rhian wouldn’t push any farther, listened hard to assure himself that they were staying behind.

Anie fire_hand

The trees made walking louder and quieter all at the same time. There was more jostling than their had been in the open valley. The horses and mules complained at the weaving path, at the jolt of the carts behind them as they rolled over roots and the uneven roll of the forest floor. Twigs cracked under foot. Leaves rustled, and people called back and forth more often, warning and advising and working to find the widest paths. But Anie couldn’t see most of them, buried too far ahead in the interlocking branches, and their voices came back to Anie muffled on the chilled air. The breeze hissed in the tops of the trees, but barely reached her. Even the front of the cart where Thea and Darien sat on the board, seemed far away.

Anie glanced sideways at Mel. Her sister had been loping easily along beside her, fitting her stride to Anie’s without any sign of her usual impatience. From time to time, she spun around on one foot, walked backward for a step, leaning out to see a long way down the line, and then faced forward again before she could collide with anything.

Anie watched her.

“Why do you always pick fights?” she asked quietly.

Mel turned her slowly, eyebrows high, mouth hung open a little. “What?” she asked.

“Why do you always pick fights?” Anie repeated clearly.

“I don’t,” Mel said.

“Yes, you do,” Anie said. “Whatever anyone says, you say the opposite.”

Mel opened her mouth, blinked, and shut it, realizing that she had just done exactly like that. She faced forward, and Anie thought she might laugh at herself. She only shook her head. “It’s not always,” she murmured.

“Almost always,” Anie said. She leaned forward on her next step, to catch her expression. “Especially with Thea.” Anie had lowered her voice on the last word, but she glanced at the cart just the same, knowing how names drew attention. But Thea didn’t look back at them, and she turned back Mel, content she hadn’t been heard.

Mel still wasn’t looking at her. They took two, three, four more strides before she said anything.

“The first time you glowed, or whatever it was that you did, how did it feel?” Mel asked. She looked down at Anie, her smile so small that it seemed to leave her face open and blank. Anie couldn’t read anything in it, except for some hard thought in the way her eyebrows were folding together.

Anie shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Mel laughed. “What do you mean? They were sitting around the fire talking about how you all are storms wrapped in human skins, and you’re telling me you lost the first sensation of being one?”

“It was hot,” Anie said. “So, hot it should have been bad, but it wasn’t.” She shrugged. “I liked it.”

Mel nodded along, listening harder than she usually did. “Did it make you feel different from everyone else?” Mel asked. “Or finally the same?”

Anie paused, and then all she could do was shrug again.

Mel faced forward to nod to herself. Looking down at her hands, she took her next few steps, and pulled her skirts out of the way of a rough bush as they passed. “I’m different from Thea,” Mel said. “I know it, but it’s more a feeling most of the time. I don’t have her hands.” She raised her fingers helplessly. “And I don’t have her head.” She smiled, and it looked a little lost, but turned back to look Anie in the eye carefully. “I’m not trying fight with her, though. A fight with her – a real fight – would terrify me. But we think differently, and sometimes she’s right, and sometimes I’m right. But I have no way to know which time is which if I don’t tell her when I have something different in my head than what she has in hers.”

“So, you start a fight to see who’s right?” Anie asked.

Mel shook her head. “No,” she said. “I talk, and I’m me, so everything is loud and quick and not careful. And I don’t care who’s right. I want to see what’s right.”

“That’s it?” Anie asked.

Mel hesitated. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t mean to fight.”

Anie took a breath, and let it out, loudly. Then she slid both her hands around Mel’s, and held it close. Mel squeezed her fingers, and Anie thought she heard her laugh quietly.

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