“Come on, Cowrie, ask her a question!”
The small boy looked down, so she leaned forward and smiled encouragingly. “That’s a nice name. So, Cowrie, what would you like to know?”
“Why…” he trailed off and her grandson nudged him encouragingly. “Why are we all different?”
“According to legend, there was a time when all humans were the same, all walkers, no flyers or swimmers or delvers”.
Her grandson gaped—he’d not heard this before. “You mean, no windborn or lakeborn?”
The old woman nodded. “And no seaborn, or woodborn, or the others.”
One of the children wrapped her tail around the old woman’s ankle. “No…Fireborn?”
“Well, now, there’s different versions of the legend. Some say that the fireborn have always been among us, and that it was by their doing that the different forms of humans came into being. Others say it was the fireborn’s meddling that caused the Gods to scatter us to all the ecos of the world. Still others say that our varied forms were a special blessing of the Gods, and the fireborn, and the shifters too, came into existence as part of that blessing.”
“Fireborn are scary.” This from a solemn-eyed child clad only in her own wings and blonde fur.
The old woman didn’t contradict the girl. “Have you ever met a fireborn?”
The girl stepped back. “I wouldn’t want to!”
There was a rustling, as the children reacted, some leaning forward, some stepping back, one landborn boy playing with the fringe on his shirt. But it was clear that now she had all of their attention.
The blonde windborn girl voiced their question. “What was he—or she—like?”
The old woman settled into her seat, adopting the formal storyteller’s erect position, and spread her hands, “He was a small man, woodborn like me, with fur mottled in greys and browns. Neither handsome nor ugly, though he had a nice smile.” The smile had transformed him, she remembered, though mostly he looked sad. If he’d smiled more, he might have been thought comely. Almost like it was an afterthought, after a careful pause, she added, “He made puppets.”
“You mean he made them dance without string?”
“I suppose he could do that too, though I never saw it.” She smiled and waved a hand, dismissively, “No, I mean he carved puppets, and attached the strings. He did a little bit of showing them, but mostly for customers, or children. He wasn’t an actor.” She waved her hand toward the puppet stage on the square. “Not like Sarai.”
“He couldn’t make them come alive?”
“Well, he could show you how to make one wave it’s hand, or bob it’s head, or curl it’s tail around a stick and drop down and hang like Todd is doing over there—“ she gestured toward the woods, where older children were playing. “But it was all businesslike". She dropped her voice to imitate him. “You hold your hand like this, and wiggle your wrist like so, and see—“ She pantomimed, as if she were the peddlar, “Come on, child, step up, you can do this. You hold it like so, and turn your hand like—no, no, if you try to flip it over your head, you’ll tangle the strings!”
Most of the children giggled. But the little windborn girl frowned. “He sounds ordinary.”
“He was ordinary, mostly anyway.” She remembered him smiling at her, giving her a bouquet of flowers carved of exotic wood. They had been beautiful, and she had dreamed—
“Then how do you know he was fireborn?”
“Well, he usually walked into town with a pack full of puppets, and other wood carvings, spoons and bowls and dolls, taking his time and greeting everyone. But one time he came running in, fast, with no pack, not even his belt and carving knives. As soon as he reached the first boys playing in the woods, he yelled at them to “hurry, warn everyone get out of the village, get everyone, and food and supplies, away to Thistle Island. A fire is coming”, he said, “a terrible fire”.
The boys saw no evidence of fire, but flew to tell their elders, who dithered about until he arrived, breathless, in the town. He ran right up to the Mayor, not Mayor Arawn, but the one before him, Mayor Jann. “Fire”, he panted, “Fire from the mountain, in just a couple of hours. Warn everyone, and warn the lake people too, this lake might not be safe.”
It was clear that Jann had questions, but the puppetmaker leapt into a tall tree, climbed so high it was swaying, and started to sing.
Now, we’d never heard him sing. It was beautiful, and distracting, and clouds began to gather over the village. It was then that we realized he was fireborn. Jann issued orders, and everyone scurried to gather food, clothing, bedding, valuables, as much as we could carry as far as Thistle Island. Sarai, who was a child at the time, set off running to warn the herders; and the windborn among us took air to warn their fellows, and the lakeborn. Someone started to lug water toward her house, and the peddlar broke off his song, briefly, “I’ll wet the town down, though I don’t know if it will help. You folks get out of here.” And we did, as fast as we could, carrying babies and old Auntie Trisi, who could barely walk.” She paused to take a drink.
“The mountain’s top blew off, throwing rock and steam and molten rock high into the air. That set the forest afire, or maybe it was the stream of red, molten rock that flowed into the western edge of the lake that did that.”
“Where the black rock is now!”
“But rock doesn’t melt.”
“It does if it gets hot enough.”
The boy with the fringe on his shirt spoke up, “It’s called a volcano.”
“You’re right, Doumbek. But we didn’t know our Mountain is a volcano back then.”
“What happened to the village?”
“Well, the peddler had got it raining, but even so the village ended up covered in black ash. And a great deal of the forest burned, along with the houses that were nearest the trees.”
“None of our houses are near trees!”
“We decided to keep a firebreak between the houses and the trees, after that, Sami.”
“But what about the fireborn?”
“He showed up at Thistle Island, all covered in soot and with burnt hands, helping Sarai and the herders with the sheep and goats. He was crooning to the sheep, and they kept moving forward, though their eyes were wild. That must have been magic too, to keep the sheep from bolting, silly critters that they are.”
“Well, Mayor Jann made a quite a show of thanking him, of course, since every person and critter in the village was still alive, and we even still had the paintings and flutes and gitars. But people were afraid of him now. No one wanted to sit next to him. He left, saying he had to check on other people, shortly after dinner, but I think he didn’t like having people looking afraid of him.” Her voice cracked as she remembered her own fear, how she had avoided his gaze.
“Did you see him again?”
“Once. He came by with his pack the next year.” He had come to see her, but she had refused to speak with him. “Only a couple of people bought any of his carvings, though, and they kept their children away from him. Only Mayor Jann dared to offer him a place to sleep, and then the Mayor’s wife and baby went to visit her mother. The peddlar didn’t come back after that.”
The old lady looked sad, and Cowrie patted her on the knee. “I bet he found other people to carve puppets for.”
“I hope so, young man.”
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Thank you for reading!
Want to read more? The start of Fireborn is here. The table of contents is here.