Monday, June 17, 2013

Free Fiction Monday: Firedancer by S. A. Bolich

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S. A. Bolich
Chapter 1
The Ancient
This fire was malicious.  Jetta felt it the instant she stepped through the door of the flaming houseplace.  Fear struck her like a raptor, draining her strength as if great claws had pierced all her veins and bled her life away.  Heat blasted the naked skin of her arms and legs; smoke stung her nose. Startled, she took a step sideways, and shied again from hot grit crunching under her bare feet.  She stopped just inside the door, heedless of the flames running up the lintel beside her, reaching hungrily for the carved ceiling. Her legs, her strong Dancer’s legs, suddenly felt like grass bent before a storm wind.  Shuddery cold swept through her, for all that the hot breath of the fire was in her face, a reek of charred wood and scorched stone that swept her straight back to a damp spring night laden with screams and the smell of destruction.
I can’t.  Not this time.  Not again.
Fire exploded from the wall on her left.  Jetta spun toward it, and shied back from the sight of white stone crawling with flame, paling rapidly from sullen red to eager gold.  Here was no tame hearth fire escaped from its bondage to take vengeance on its captors.  Only the deep fire, the heartfire of the world, the Old Man himself, could eat stone.
The Ancient was coming.
She retreated a step, shaken so badly that for an instant even her training deserted her.  All she saw was fire writhing in febrile, hungry curtains.  Like last time.  Reaching for last time.  Out of control.  Like last time.
She stumbled back, flinching from flame curling hot fingers over her toes, and turned blindly for the door.  Two steps, and she would be free of fire forever.
A scream reached her, high and frightened, piercing the laughing roar of the fire like a thin-bladed knife.  She jumped, and all around her fire leaped back.  Jetta spun all the way around, instinct greater than fear rooting her in place.  The fire retreated, uncertain now.
Shame drove through Jetta’s fear.  She took a step—forward, not back.  Fire fled on the right.  On the left it feinted, a licking yellow coil as long as her arm reaching for her face.  She jerked her right hand up, palm out, in imperious demand.  The fire recoiled out of reach.  The smothering heat suddenly lessened as though winter had breathed on the flames.  Jetta laughed and stepped into the Dance.
Bare feet ground soot and ash underfoot; the flagstones cool now against her soles.  She shoved off from her right foot into a leap and spin, completely over a knee-high flame trying to sustain itself on bits of a charred chair.  Fear spun away with the turn; Jetta landed on smooth-polished stone and twirled on one foot, arms raised, exulting in the sudden cool rush of power swirling up through her from the ground under the pale stones laid over Earth Mother’s thick skin.  All at once the air tasted of damp earth and the green density of living forest.
She stamped an infant flame into non-existence, the smoke of its death curling impotently around her legs.  Step, step, turn, shoving more smoke out of her way, her arms stretching now toward the ceiling in mocking imitation of the enemy, now outward in the demanding arc that drew a line that flame could not cross.  Step, turn, step again, her feet grinding flame underfoot, forward into the teeth of avid death.  Fire leaped and roared around her, licking eagerly into the air that was its goal, its life, its escape from its prison in the earth.  Flame squeezed up through the joins of the stone floor and walls and raced eagerly toward exposed lintels and furniture and draperies sweeping into peril from window rods.  Jetta raised one bare arm, her dusky gold skin glistening in the uneven light, and shoved her palm toward the threatened ceiling.  Smoke parted in front of it; the fire that had been crawling into the irreplaceable Fornay carvings recoiled.  Step, turn, step, caught up in the ancient, soaring power of the Dance.
Another scream, fainter.  Jetta faltered.  Heat suddenly blasted at her; smoke tasted bitter on her tongue as the sustaining cocoon started to shred around her.  Malicious fire….
Memories of death, and pain, and screams, and a fire that laughed, a deep coughing roar as it consumed….
I am master!
Training and a lifetime’s conditioning shoved down the memories, forced phantom pain from her left arm, her leg.  Jetta clapped her hands and pirouetted in place, willing the barriers of the Dance back up around her.  Fighting rebellious little quivers deep in her gut, she looked closer at the flames running over the pallid stone, and saw that this was surface fire still, pale, but not yet the white heartfire no water could quench.  She heard no hissing pop of collapsing rock as flame consumed the air in the porous windstone.  This fire was malicious, aye, but as yet it was only the forerunner of the ancient fire that lived in the deepest core of the earth; it was not the foe itself that the Fire Clans had hunted since time began.  The yellow of these flames was well diluted with the base red that spoke of uncertainty.  This fire had not learned—yet—how to use its malice.
Jetta closed her eyes, drawing reassurance from the quicksilver feel of the Dance shivering like a lightning storm along her skin.  It all but shoved her straight up off the littered floor to defy the fire eye to eye where it roared over her head; she moved, a quick step and turn into the heart of it.  Time now was precious, before the fire learned to call its terrible parent.  Now, while a Third Rank master could still hold it alone, now while the Dance ran in her like a flood, the only flood that could tame heartfire.
She aimed for the door across the room, knowing where the screams had come from; she had run the halls of this place since she was a child.  She leaped a small flame chewing at the floor, spurning the blackening spot to plant both feet on solid stone beyond.  Flame spat at her; belatedly she remembered the meaning of the positions her body shaped without thought, and made a barrier of one leg stretched behind her, toe touching the littered floor, threatening the flames behind her even as she bent her arms into the open crescents that would trap flame into a tight, contained circle in front of her. The fire retreated instead, fleeing toward the walls.
Jetta smiled grimly and straightened.  Ruddy light reflected dully off the leather hip guard and breastpiece that were her only garments and played along skin turned a deeper gold by the light, catching red gleams from the silver promise bracelet around her right wrist.  Heat scorched up around her but did not touch her any more than the light burned her.  Smoke coiled around her, chains that did not know—yet—how to trap and bind a Firedancer.  It breathed jets of flame toward her but she spun away into the heart of it, fearless now, caught into the most ancient rhythm of her people.  The Dance pounded in her blood, driving out heat and fear, smoke and memory, quelling her awareness of malice and binding the infant hostility of this fire to her will.
She stepped into the third movement, sweeping almost to one knee, hands at face level and touching at the wrists, fingers spread to form a bowl.  With supreme arrogance Jetta filled it with fire torn from a licking tongue of flame that tried to curl over her head, and gazed through a shimmering crimson ball at its parent.  The fire shied back in confusion.  Jetta, cool as river water now, launched herself up and flung her hands wide, dispersing the flame to sparks.  Flames sank and scattered, leaving a clear path to the door.
Another step and leap, and she was across the great room and into the corridor beyond, reaching for the door of the nursery where old Minna had cuffed and applauded the stray brats roaming here as impartially as she had her own grandson Kori.  Jetta shoved the hot wood of the door aside with the heel of her hand.  Smoke and flame curled out of her way, exposing a small boy standing rigid in the center of a tiny clear space, short legs spread, guarding a smaller figure yet, who cowered and sobbed in abject fear.
Her screams, not his.  Nekka would never make a Dancer, but Tekkorin—there was a different matter.  He had the gift, right enough, and the fire had not yet taken his nerve.
Minna would approve this child.
The boy’s gaze found her through the smoke, childish blue and wide with fear in a small, grimy face.  Relief flooded his expression, but he did not lower his arms from their half-instinctive, half-trained barrier stance.
“Good, Tekko!” Jetta called.  “Stay as you are.  I have this now.”
With deliberate speed she danced, turn and turn again in a widening circle around the children.  The girl had stopped screaming and was watching her now, her eyes streaming tears from the smoke, her face red and running with sweat.  Tekkorin’s skin was as dry as Jetta’s, though he was gasping from heat as much as effort.  Jetta felt neither heat nor the acrid bite of smoke in her lungs.  The Dance sustained her, a weapon forged over eons to balance the hunger of the Ancient: Dancer against flame, builder against destroyer, order against chaos.  With each step the flames drew back, and everywhere her foot touched the fire died for an arm’s length around.  She began to sway, feet planted solidly on stone perilously warm underfoot.  Straining outward to the farthest extent of her arms, she shoved the fire farther and farther from the children.  With the flames in retreat she followed, stamping each foot down, the shock of it jolting power through every nerve, building and building until it felt as though it must flash out and consume fire and house and all.  Jetta held onto it, building the shell of protection around the children, forcing the fire back.  She moved on instinct and memory of this room, her head thrown back to eye the ceiling, spinning at every third step to prevent a bold rush.  In one round of the room the fire sank to half the height of the walls; in another the space was clear, dark where it had been full of burning light.
“Tekko, come!” Jetta called, her mind stretching beyond the wall to the fire in the hall, which was trying to launch a new assault.
Without a word Tekkorin snatched the girl up by one arm.  She came, stumbling but determined now that the way to the door was clear.  Jetta leaped into the doorway.  Fire had reclaimed the path she had forged to this spot, surprising her.  Flame was rarely so bold, to claim a Dancer’s footsteps.  But then she heard the roar, a deep vibration more felt than a sound in the ears, underlying the sharp crackle of the flames running up the walls.  Laughter.
“Jetta!”  It came out a frightened wail, terror from Tekkorin at last.  Truly the gift ran deep in him if he could sense the coming of the Ancient at his age.
Flames ran together in the center of the room, rearing up higher than her head.  Jetta hesitated, seeing a hysth forming beyond the swirl of black smoke and the strange thickening of the air lent by the Dance.  In a moment it would be living flame, able to understand its own malice—and do something with it.  She brought her hands up, clenching her fists to pull the flames into an impotent knot, but the hysth was faster.  It turned from hot red to pale gold in a breath, shading to white at its heart, working itself into a doorway for the Ancient lurking in the deeps.  Everywhere, stone groaned under the heat and began to hiss and crumble as the proud and perilous windstone gave up its air.  A section of ceiling fell from the far corner near the door, priceless carvings shattering apart into a chaos of blackened wood.  Anger exploded through Jetta, seeing something she loved taken forever by a thing without soul.
She leaped recklessly into the center of the great room, spinning as she went, so that her hands made the warding gesture of the Third Rank master’s Dance in a full circle before she landed lightly astride a small flame racing for the safety of the hysth.  But the hysth refused the smaller red flame and fled before her, leaving its younger brother to die in a curl of smoke.  The deep roar changed to a thinner crackle, its malice transmuting abruptly to fear.  The hysth wavered, faded from pale gold to red, and lost its nerve.  It retreated into the porous stone walls, dying to sparks and then to nothingness as Jetta’s dance drove it back to its spawning ground.  Abruptly the room was filled with smoke and nothing more, heavy amid an acrid stink of scorched stone and blackened wood.
“Tekko, the door!”
Tekkorin grabbed the girl and ran for the front door, where hands snatched them through into clean air and sunlight and safety.  Slowly Jetta let her dance wind down, stepping lightly between hole and hole in the floor.  With bare feet and palms held flat as a barrier, she drove the fire deep into the ground where it always slept, waiting for carelessness, for a lapse in the watchfulness of the folk who lived in the air it craved.
Finally, deep in her bones, she sensed victory, a lessening of the quivering, fizzing sense of fire in proximity.  This upstart youngster was beaten, licking its wounds in some deep crevice far below her, hiding from the Ancient, which would not welcome this setback.  Another skirmish in a long, long war was over.
Abruptly the weariness hit her, the inevitable aftermath of the Dance.  Jetta stopped in the middle of the littered, blackened great room, drooping like a wilted flower.  Dimly she heard someone shout, and pounding footsteps.  A hard-muscled arm slid around her waist and bore her up, and then sunlight touched her face along with a cool breeze clean of fire stink.
Kori, she thought, but that wasn’t right, Kori was dead.  Suddenly her arm hurt, and her leg; raw red pain licked like the very fire deep into her body.  Jetta screamed and fought the hands trying to soothe her.  She wrenched free, overbalanced, and crashed to the hard-packed dirt of the square in a graceless sprawl, setting off a sudden alarmed babble over her head.
She scuttled backward, seeing nothing but flame.  Strong fingers seized her chin, halting the frantic thrashing of her head.  “Jetta!  Stop it!  You are out and safe!  Jetta ak’Kal!  Stop it!”
The voice penetrated, ringing along familiar pathways.  Jetta froze, looking up into a pair of intense dark eyes as hard as containment stone.  “Farahk ak’Kal,” she gasped.
He released her.  “Is your mind your own, ak’Kal?”
Shakily she nodded, and sat up, drawing her knees into an instinctive barrier.  Farahk’s eyes narrowed; Jetta caught herself huddling and surged to her feet, shaking off the memory of pain and loss still tender after a year.
Faces framed in charcoal hair, bodies in the deep reds and yellows of the Fire Clans, surrounded her.  She looked up at her neighbors, villagers she had known all her life, and bit her lip, groping after the professional calm a Third Rank master should never lose.  They crowded back, breaking the circle of concern drawn tight around her.  Farahk stood up more slowly, hard muscles rippling in the late afternoon sunlight.  It jolted Jetta to see him dressed in the brief leather hip guard of a Dancer with its protective flaps guarding buttocks and groin, his legs and upper body bare of anything the fire might snatch.  His flowing black hair, like hers, was braided up tight and bound with a thong at the nape of his neck.  Wide dark eyes met hers.  Jetta stared, first in realization, and then embarrassment.  Hot color flooded her face.
He waved impatiently at the gawking villagers.  “It’s done here.  The fire’s out, thanks to Jetta ak’Kal.  Go and see what can be salvaged.  Take Nekka to her parents and see to Tekkorin.”
People scattered without objection.  Quite apart from being a Fifth Rank master, Farahk seldom brooked being questioned.  Hands brushed Jetta’s shoulder in passing: silent thanks, appreciation, and then they were gone, and she stood alone with Farahk in an awkward silence.
“So,” he said.
Stubbornly she looked away.  Firin’s house oozed acrid-smelling smoke out the fire-shattered windows facing the square; the roof of the great room bore a gaping hole, but the majority of the sprawling hall stood untouched, its opalescent walls gleaming in the golden light.  The rest of Firehome still dreamed in the sun, a scatter of arrogant white stone and wooden roofs crowning a hill shaped like flame itself.  The vulnerable trees of the forest formed a scantly-tamed green circle a hundred paces from the nearest walls, far enough the Ancient could not use them against the village.  At the far end of the valley the sun hovered low over the hills, turning the river and the high falls pouring over the Guardian Ridge to silver.  Tall hills hemmed the wide green bowl, dreaming in quiet peace, lush and verdant like no other place in ten leagues, for here fire walked with caution, and rarely.  This was Firehome Vale, clan home to the Fire Clans.  Every third person here was a Dancer.
Farahk’s hand touched her shoulder.  “Jetta.”
The hard edge had gone from his voice.  She turned, caught in spite of herself.  Their eyes met, alike in the liquid blackness of mastery, as their faces bore traces of common ancestry in the wide set of the eyes, the winged dark eyebrows, the narrow nose and flat, hard lines of cheek and jaw.  She saw compassion in his face, and flushed, caught all sideways.
“So you are not as well healed as you thought,” he said quietly.
Jetta looked up, her pride caught.  “I did what was needed!  The fire is driven deep, and Firin’s house is still standing.  And the children live.”
“Indeed.  You did well.”
“But still you were set to come in after.”  Bitterness edged her voice.
“Were it needed, yes.  Should the children have died for your pride?”
“How long have you had someone standing my watch behind my back?”
“You have not been cleared by the Circle again to work alone.  Surely you knew that.”
“I—”  But she had known, she had just refused to think about it, as so much else of this past year was forbidden territory.  Of course her credentials were gone; no one trusted a Firedancer who had failed her task.  One dead village to her credit was enough.
Jetta stared at the ground, absently rubbing her left arm.  He caught her hand, raising it when she snatched her head up, startled.  Farahk only looked at her, still holding her wrist quietly.  Jetta flushed again and wrenched away.
He ran a light finger down the unmarked golden skin of her arm.  “It healed well.”
“Dancers always heal well.  And the Water Clan healers are adept.  No scars.”
“No scars outside.”
She met his eyes.  “I am ak’Kal of the Third Rank!  I’m not afraid!”
“Yes, you are.”  His voice was so matter-of-fact it quenched her anger as though he had danced it away.  “You conquered it today.  What of next time?  What when you meet with the Ancient itself?  You came out screaming, ak’Kal.  The fire has touched your flesh.  Did it also eat your nerve?”
Her chin came up.  “The Ancient has no hold on me.  This fire was malicious but it gained no victory.”
His eyebrow lifted like a bird rising.  “So?  Then you did better than well, daughter of my sister.”
She drew a deep breath, steadying as he let formality go at last.  “It was a young fire, not the Ancient—but it tried to call the Old Man.  It tried.”
“Why does that surprise you?  Any fire will try if you let it.”
“Here in the heart of Firehome Vale?”  She stared.  “Since when would it dare?”
“Since when would it dare rise here to begin with?”
Jetta blinked.  Since when, indeed?  Suddenly uncertain, she stood, squirming like a First Ranker, while those eyes that had seen more fire than half the other Dancers in all the clans studied her face.
“You have great talent, Jetta,” he said finally, startling her, for it was not what she had expected.  “Since you were a child it has been expected that you would rise to Fifth Rank, perhaps even to the Circle.  I have never seen a Dancer so aware of how a fire will run, of where it sleeps, of its mood when it bursts from the deep.  Because of you, Setham Village was fire-clear for full five years.  That is a thing unheard of.”
“And now Setham Village lies in ashes because of me.”
“No.  You know why Setham died.”
She looked away, her vision blurring with the easy tears of the past year.  “Kori,” she whispered.
“Kori didn’t cause the fire any more than he caused his own death.”  Farahk’s voice was gentle, but inexorable.  Jetta flinched.  She did not want to hear this, could not bear to think of that time.  But Farahk’s hand was on her chin again, forcing her head up.  Finally she met his eyes, furiously blinking her vision clear.
He dropped his hand, a reluctant smile catching up one side of his mouth.  “Your courage is intact.  Find whatever path will lead you past Kori, and you will yet stand in the Circle.”
“Lead past Kori?” Jetta echoed incredulously.  “And should I forget him, my lifemate, my second self, who died because I failed?”
“Did I say forget?  But he’s dead, of his own mistake, and if you dwell on that mistake it will take you, too.  Or, you will never dance fire again, and then how many will die who might have lived had Jetta ak’Kal had the will and the courage to dance for them?”
Jetta spun away, staring into the sun sinking over the falls.  “I will not fail my duty,” she said through her teeth.  “Is that all?”
Silence behind her.  She waited, hating his trick of outwaiting opposition, but it worked nonetheless.  She turned to find him still watching her with neither anger nor compassion in his face.  He was master now, and she apprentice.
“Annam Vale has requested a Dancer,” he said evenly.  “You will go tomorrow.”
“No!  No, ak’Kal!  Not yet!”
“You object to backing on your watch, and yet refuse an assignment elsewhere?  Make up your mind, ak’Kal.”
Jetta jerked upright.  “Flame has attacked Firehome itself!  How can I leave—?”
“And are there no other masters in Firehome, with more years of facing the Old Man than Jetta ak’Kal has been alive?”
That silenced her.  Even now she could hear First Rank apprentices chanting the histories in the sprawling teaching house where she had learned the Dance.  Firehome had no need of her to keep the Ancient at bay.  Maybe it was only because she was on watch that the Old Man’s spawn had dared to raise its head.
She looked away from Farahk’s gaze.  Setham Village lay like an accusing ghost behind her eyelids, a specter of ashes and tumbled walls and screams.  Maybe if she stayed, it would be Firehome itself someday.  And maybe if she left, it would be Annam.
“If you are not fit to dance anymore, now is the time to find out, Jetta ak’Kal.”
She forced herself to meet Farahk’s eyes again.  “I can dance,” she said through stiff lips.
“Then you go.”
Go with Circle sanction, or just go.  That was in his voice, the thing that happened to Dancers who lost their nerve.  Go to the wastelands where fire could find no foothold and make what life she might.  When fire rooted in a human heart, it was too dangerous to stay.  She looked down that road of bleak wandering, a magnet for the Ancient, welcome nowhere, and swallowed hard.
“Yes, Farahk ak’Kal,” she said thickly.  “Is that all?”
“No.  Settak goes with you.”
“Settak!  But he’s only a journeyman, and Second Rank.  He isn’t qualified—”
“To take your place if you fail?”
“Old Man Fire!  That’s not what I—”
“But it’s what you were thinking.  There’s no danger of you failing here, with a village full of Dancers to catch what you do not.  In your heart you know that.”
“I didn’t know!  I didn’t know you were there, so why should I have feared failing?”
“Then why does Firin’s house have a great hole in its roof?  How is it that flame got such a hold there, if Jetta ak’Kal did not hesitate?”
“It was already well alight when I came, ak’Kal.”
He frowned and looked down his nose at her.  “So?”
A little silence stretched.  Her anger trickled into uneasiness as still Farahk said nothing.  Abruptly he raised his eyes as if some inner debate had ended.  “All the more reason for you to go, then,” he said cryptically.  “Settak is competent enough in the Dance.  Annam lies in the heart of the containment quarries.  The risk is small.”
Which brought the bright blood rushing to her face again, in humiliation this time.  “Then why send us at all?”
He watched her unblinkingly through a long moment that cooled her anger and hatched a small worm of doubt in her guts.  Something was not right about Annam Vale, and the danger was greater than he pretended.  “Uncle?”
He drew a quick breath and let it out in a sigh.  “Annam is full of Windriders, sister-daughter.  Think on that, if Old Man Fire indeed comes calling.”
Farahk dropped a hand onto her shoulder, a quick, hard squeeze of reassurance, and walked away with the floating, arrogant step of the very top Dancers.  She watched him go, hardly seeing him for the swirl of fear and excitement and doubt squeezing her insides into knots.  She felt like a First Ranker again, facing the fire for the first time.
Windriders….Old Man Fire, what was she supposed to do with a village full of Windriders?
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