The campfire crackled throwing off sparks that sizzled out on the damp grass. They sat huddled under blankets. Helian had promised to explain himself once they stopped for the night. Now they stared at him expectantly.
‘Kintra, do you have the book?’
She nodded reaching her arm out from underneath the blanket. The night air was cold. Autumn was on its way. She handed the book to Petra, who handed it to Vlarimar, who hesitated, staring at the cover, before handing it to Helian.
‘There’s a passage in this book I want to read to you.’ He flicked through a few pages, leaning into the fire’s light. ‘The book is about Earth Magic. It’s meant to be used as a student’s guide, while studying with a Master. It’s been invaluable to me. I also possess WildFire. This book, and the Stone you now have, Kintra, have taught me how to control it. To a point.’
A log fell, rolling out of the fire towards Kintra. She jumped and gazed at the flames lapping its edges. Farron kicked it back into the pit. Sparks flew as it tumbled over the edge. Not from the log, but within her body. The Wildfire listened. Helian was staring at her again, talking to her. She could feel him.
‘There is an intriguing aspect of WildFire. It can be directed into a vessel, as long as that vessel is capable of withstanding it, and so the power is divided between two, making it easier to control. The force it gives off is the same, when two work as one.’
‘What sort of vessel?’ Vlarimar asked. Kintra glanced at him. He stared at Helian like a small boy entranced with the mythical tales of a court Bard. She thought back to Petra’s words, and tried pushing back her hatred.
Helian smiled. ‘There aren’t many vessels capable of holding fire, especially not sentient ones. In fact, the book only mentions two. A Phoenix … or a dragon.’ He paused. Kintra couldn’t decide if it was for dramatic effect or so that his words with sink in.
‘You are kidding,’ Farron said. ‘You want us to catch up with those dragons…and what…tame them?’
‘Essentially. Yes.’ Helian looked around the campfire. ‘Let me read the passage.
‘Two vessels are able to contain Wildfire and be used in conjunction with a wielder. These two vessels are rare and so this method is rare also, but three legendary Mages of Wildfire are known to have successfully used Dragons and Phoenixes to great advantage. When the creature is willing to bond with the Mage, the Wildfire can be channelled into the creature, so the burden on the human counterpart is reduced. Dragons and Phoenixes use Wildfire naturally. There are even myths saying that those who wield Wildfire come originally from the Draco’s, a race that came down from the Stars on their dragons and mated with the human’s they found. Who knows if these myths are true? But it is known that Dragons and Phoenixes will bond with possessors of Wildfire.’
Vlarimar broke the silence that followed with one word. ‘How?’
Helian flicked the page in the book and read on.
‘To approach a Dragon or Phoenix the Mage must first bring Wildfire to the surface in a controlled manner so the Vessel is aware of it. This quickly allows the creature to assess whether they can work with the Mage, by way of something termed, ‘tasting the fire’. While this sounds alarming, all this means is that the creature can sense if the fire wielder is an energetic match.’
‘I have no chance then!’ Kintra laughed.
‘That’s not true. You just need me to teach you.’
‘Will you teach me too?’ Everyone stared at Vlarimar. Helian reached out a hand and grasped his arm. ‘Is that why they took you?’
Vlarimar nodded. ‘But they tattooed a mark on me, to keep it in check.’ He rolled up his shirt revealing a black rune, the same one that marked the Stone in Kintra’s pocket. Petra looked at Kintra.
‘Can you still feel the fire?’ Helian asked.
‘Yes. But only sparks. When they first took me, it emerged to protect me. However, they were ready. Three Sorcerers stood against me, negating the fire. They knocked me out. I came to in chains, with this.’
‘The stone Kintra has bears that rune. It acts like ice, cooling the fire. In fact, the stone is called an Ice Stone. I only have the one, which is a pity, because sometimes it’s all that keeps the fire under control. I don’t know whether we can negate the rune, or whether they have stifled your gift for life. I’m sorry.’
Vlarimar pulled his shirt back down. ‘I still want to try. Those bastards ruined our lives, and those of our families. The only thought that keeps me going is wiping them off the face of our world.’
Kintra could feel it now. The underlying passion laced with fire. And the deep vein of sadness. Vlarimar was as much a victim as she was. Helian had been right all along.
‘So, what happens once this bond is created?’ Farron asked.
‘I’m not sure. Something has been spilt on the rest of the page and the ink is smudged. I do know that the book sees the Dragon as advantageous and not a threat. Imagine what we could do with two, maybe three dragons helping us?’
‘I say we sleep on it,’ Zorbel said getting up. ‘It’s late, and the sooner we start in the morning the better. I’ll take first watch. Farron, I’ll wake you in a couple of hours.’ No one argued. There was much to think about.
Farron’s face was hidden in the dark as they settled down, his arm pillowing her head, but she sensed his unease. She pulled him close, wrapping a leg over him.
‘Hey,’ he whispered into her hair, ‘I said you were a match for a dragon’.
She loved him for his humour. Even though she knew he felt nothing but fear.
She awoke cold. Farron sat hunched in his blanket, just a silhouette next to the orange flames. She pulled the blanket over her head and tried to get warm. It wasn’t happening. The nights were definitely getting colder. She got up, taking the blanket with her and went to join him.
‘Pour me a cup,’ she said sitting down at his side. He smiled and picked up her mug from where she’d left it at the edge of the fire.
‘No. It’s bloody freezing without you!’
‘Autumn seems to be hitting early. And we are travelling North.’
She nodded, taking the tin mug from his hands. The steam rose up as she held it close to her chest, letting its heat take effect. Farron yawned and stretched.
‘I can take over the watch,’ she said. ‘No point us both being awake.’
He glanced at her and smiled again. ‘I hear it’s cold in bed.’
She inched closer to him, leaning her head against his arm. ‘It’s a good night for stars.’
He said nothing, sipping his drink and staring into the flames. She nudged his leg with her foot. ‘Hey. Are you there?’
Farron let out a long sigh. ‘I’m thinking about dragons. You and dragons. I’m not sure how I feel about that.’
‘What do you mean?’
He shook his head as he topped his own cup with hot water from the kettle perched on the edge of the fire pit. ‘Since…’ he looked at her. ‘Since all this, between us…I think differently about you. I know you can look after yourself. But… I want to protect you. Fuck…I worry about you Kintra. It’s new, it’s strange, and it disturbs me.’
She placed her hand on the side of his face holding his gaze. ‘That’s not necessary. And it’s also really nice. Thank you.’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘I expected you to tell me not to be so stupid.’
She kissed him, wrapping both arms around his neck, and he pulled her closer. She laughed. ‘Ah. There’s that heat I was missing!’
‘In more ways than one,’ he whispered huskily.
‘Farron. That is NOT what I meant!’
‘You’re an awful liar.’ She couldn’t answer. Her lips were busy.
They woke curled within their blankets, feet towards the fire. Petra was stirring the logs back to life, adding some dry grass and twigs.
‘Great watch companions you two are. Good thing I got up for a pee.’
‘Talking about pee…’ Farron pulled back the blankets and the cold dawn air rushed in. Kintra groaned and sat up.
‘I’m going to wake the others,’ Petra said. ‘The kettle needs refilling.’
Kintra nodded through a yawn, grabbed the kettle and wandered over to the shallow stream nearby. She splashed the icy water over her face then walked back to the fire, cold water sloshing down her boot.
‘Fuck!’ She scowled and held the kettle at arm’s length.
‘Again?’ Farron grinned at her. The Farron grin. The one that made her legs tremble. She couldn’t help but grin back. Helian was awake, walking towards them. He glanced at her briefly, enough for her to catch his disapproving glare. She’d had enough.
‘What is it Hel? The fuck or who I’m fucking?’
Farron’s grin faded, and Helian looked startled. Farron took the kettle with one hand and grabbed her arm with the other. Helian shook his head and walked away.
‘Why did you do that?’
‘I’m sick to death of his disapproving looks!’ She shrugged Farron’s hand away.
‘Can’t you ignore them? Believe me, I hate to say this…but you need him. I would love it if we could ride off into the dawn, just the two of us. And whenever you want to, I’m right there at your side. But if you really want to save your family, you need Helian.’
‘He’s right,’ Petra said from behind her. ‘Sometimes you act like a spoilt royal brat.’
Kintra whirled around, furious. Petra stood, hands on hips looking down at her. She suddenly felt small. Small and foolish. She marched away from the fire, sweeping up the blankets as she went, pretending to fold them and put them in their saddle bags. Then she took up a horse brush and gave Sorrel a vigorous brushing. The mare stamped, swishing her tail.
‘Don’t you start!’ She threw down the brush and walked away from them all. She could feel tears brimming up into her eyes and swiped them away with the back of her hand. It wasn’t fair. She had never felt this before…whatever this was with Farron. All she wanted was to find somewhere alone with him, to explore it. To explore HIM. Helian was spoiling it. She never asked for him to come back into her life. She wasn’t the same person anymore. A part of her wanted nothing to do with her family, with Swallowsmere, with Wildfire. She felt trapped. Like the life she had fought so hard to gain control of, was now slipping away at the least convenient moment. She wanted to feel protected, loved, secure in Farron’s arms. She wanted the romance the Bards sang of. She didn’t want to fight anymore.
The sun rose in front of her, the ground turning golden. A cacophony of bird sound erupted from the silence. The beauty of the moment flooded her senses, and she sank to the ground and cried, a mixture of sadness and awe at the splendour she was witness to. The Wildfire left her in peace. She let her head sink down into soft grass and gave herself over to the moment. She let go.
When she next looked up the intense golden light had turned a pale yellow. She wiped her cheeks on her sleeves. In some ways, she felt better. In other ways, nothing had changed. With a sigh she got to her feet and turned to go back to the camp. Farron sat on a rock a few feet away. She walked towards him. He didn’t smile, he didn’t speak he just wrapped her in his arms. And in that space, she found all that she needed.
Everyone sat waiting. The horses were ready, the fire out. Silence reigned. They saw her and mounted, setting off towards a hazy mountain range. Helian hung back. As she nudged Sorrel forwards, he watched her.
‘Kintra. I’m sorry.’
The tears welled up again. She couldn’t look at him. ‘I’m sorry too.’
He turned and trotted ahead, leaving her alone with Farron.
They rode through two villages that day, still close to the Eranian border. There was no talk of the war amongst locals here, but much talk of the dragons. They pretended to be a hunting party, which brought much ridicule, but also free food at a small inn, for their stupidity and bravery, according to the landlord. The mountain range they rode towards ran for hundreds of miles. But as Helian said, dragons tended to fly in straight lines, directly to their destination, making it easier to find them.
When they stopped that evening, he approached her, the book held in front of him like a peace offering.
‘The sooner we start our training, the better.’
‘Yes. I know.’ She tried to soften her tone. ‘What do we have to do?’
‘Practice bringing the Wildfire to the surface and then extinguish it again.’
‘I guessed that. But how?’
‘The Ice Stone is a great training device. It’s how I learnt. I won’t say I am a master yet, but I certainly have some control.’
She took the stone from her pocket. ‘I’ve been thinking about this rune. You said there were times when you needed the stone still. Is it the stone or the rune itself? Vlarimar’s rune tattoo seems effective.’
Helian shrugged. ‘I don’t know for sure. The Stone came with the book. What are you suggesting?’
‘That we try painting the rune on our palms. Then if the Wildfire rises, we place our hands together, or on our belly. Perhaps the stone is just a nice stone.’
He looked thoughtful. Farron got up. ‘I’ll leave you both to it. The horses need a rub down.’
Helian sat in his place. She tensed, not wanting him so close, and moved back, turning towards him. He seemed not to notice.
‘We can try it, with charcoal. We can always resort to the stone if it doesn’t work.’
‘How do we summon it at will to practice? It only seems to come when I am under threat.’
Helian opened the book. ‘The instructions are here. Shall we invite Vlarimar over?’
She stiffened. This time he did notice. ‘He wants to learn too. I have a feeling he won’t get far unless we can negate that rune, but it’s worth a try. Three of us working together is quite a force.’
Helian waved Vlarimar over and Kintra found herself moving back once more as the tall prince sat far too close for her liking. She pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. Helian grabbed some charred wood from the fire and left it to cool.
‘This gets easier with practice,’ he said, placing the stone on the page to hold it open. ‘The method of calling up the Wildfire is really simple. You know how it feels in your stomach when it begins, that sparking warmth that quickly becomes fire, rising up towards your throat and down your arms to your hands?’ Kintra and Vlarimar nodded. ‘Well all you need do is close your eyes and focus on that feeling, imagining it into being.’
‘And then what? We burn each other alive?’
‘No. Kintra I know its scary. That’s because you have only ever felt it while being out of control. You will get to a point where you can control how fast it rises, and where to direct it to. In the Inn when you were attacked it went up to your throat, probably because you felt the need to shout for help. But when the Sorceress attacked it came from your limbs, because they were being held, by her magic.’
‘So how do I direct it?’
‘With your thoughts. You must focus on where you want it to go. I started by allowing it to come up to my hands. I learnt quickly to light a fire or provide myself with light in the pitch black. Watch this.’
He shut his eyes and held his arms out in front of him, palms up. A couple of seconds later two balls of fire spun lazily in each hand. Kintra gasped, but Vlarimar leant forward, mesmerised.
‘That is amazing! I can feel the heat. It’s real fire.’
Helian shut his eyes again and the fire began to fade until after a few moments it disappeared. He let out a deep breath. ‘As you can see it takes longer to push back down. I still need practice. It’s easier with the stone. But I want to test your theory Kintra.’
He reached for the charred wood and drew the rune on the palm of his left hand. Then he closed his eyes once more. After a moment the fire ball appeared in his right hand. This time it was far larger and spun angrily in place. Helian lifted his left hand above the right one and lowered the rune down towards the fire ball. He tensed as he did so, and his breathing grew faster. His left hand was shaking now, but he kept pushing it down towards the fire ball. Kintra watched. Surely, he would burn his hand.
‘Hel…’ He shook his head once, focusing on his hands. As the left hand reached the top of the ball, the fire suddenly went out. Kintra blinked. She’d stared so long at the intense light; it had imprinted on her retina. Helian’s arms dropped to his sides and he breathed deeply.
‘Well it works…it’s just a little intense. He turned his left palm over. The rune had vanished, but his hand was not scorched. ‘We need some sort of ink, something that will stain the skin.’
‘Blackberry?’ Kintra asked. ‘There are plenty around. We could collect some tomorrow.’
‘It’s worth a try. Anyway, you can see how it is possible to control it. I haven’t been tested yet in the same way you have, Kintra. But if we have the runes…’
‘I wonder if we can change the one on my stomach,’ Vlarimar said. ‘If we can make it into a different rune, or shape, it might enable my Wildfire again.’
‘Petra could probably add to your tattoo. She has many of her own.’ Kintra suggested.
Helian nodded. ‘Yes, that’s worth a try. We just need some information on runes. If we replace it with another, we need to know it’s not going to do something else!’
Vlarimar smiled, nodding too. ‘Indeed. But how do we find THAT information?’
‘Hey, are you three coming to eat?’ Petra called over.
They got to their feet, Helian placing a friendly hand on Vlarimar’s shoulder. ‘Somehow, we will find a way.’