Light blossomed from Ci’erra’s fingers. Warmth licked across her skin, but didn’t burn. Not as long as she focused.
Medaska slapped her hands so hard they went numb. “They’ll catch you!”
Ci’erra glared at her older cousin as she sucked on her index finger. It stung enough she thought she might have burned herself like last time. But if so, it was Medaska’s fault. Ci’erra’s control was good enough she hadn’t burned herself, or anything else, since the last great moon. Fingers stinging with a return of feeling, Ci’erra crossed her arms to tuck her hands against her sides as a draft of wind filtered through the loose stone where the moss waddle had eroded. The breeze was strong enough to brush her cheek and ruffle her hair.
“They’ll come to take you away,” Medaska said, voice hovering between stern warning and worry. “We need you to fix the nets and help ma fish the stream, not play with fire and sit in some temple.”
“If the Priests come, I’ll refuse to go.” Ci’erra crossed her arms. No one would make her leave her home, not until it was time for her vwahalla when she would journey alone to the far lakes and return to a place as an adult amid the Valain.
Medaska snorted. She swept the one thin braid that emerged from thatch of her short hair over her shoulder. One braid to prove she was a girl while the rest was hacked to barely an inch from her scalp so that it was easier to clean and less likely to catch in nets or spear as she fished, which was unlike Ci’erra’s childish, long locks.
“Yes, a six year old girl telling a Priest she ain’t going to leave these salt covered rocks for a life of fine cushions and nice jewelry will likely be obeyed.” Medaska squinted at her through the faint light that filtered through the high, tiny window set in the earth and stone of the house.
Ci’erra giggled at the look on Medaska’s face that mimicked Dagny, the old woman of the village of Valin.
“Get out ye,” Medaska growled, waving her arms as if to flush stone birds to the air. “If ya’ll not work, then d’not slow me.”
Chased around the table in a game of wolf and fox, Ci’erra escaped the dark house by diving under the precious wooden table fastened from shaped driftwood and rolling out the door. Squealing in laughter, Ci’erra raced along the path at full tilt, balancing on the uneven rocks with easy familiarity despite the thick mist and speed. She left her older cousin behind to sharpen old fish hooks and shape new from the spool of metal wire.
From rough stone path to the tumbled boulders near the shore and river, Ci’erra dodged and wove between the stone and earthen huts, smelling the burning peat fires in one breath and the thick salt air in the next. Wind carrying cold salt spray lashed the shoreline. The air held so much dampness, Ci’erra thought it was raining. But when she ducked behind the massive boulders on the far shore of the river, the soaking chill eased. Rubbing wet, cold fingers, Ci’erra squeezed through the narrow slot between rocks larger than her parent’s house.
Beyond the tiny, rough gap the ground dropped and the space between the tumbled boulders opened into a wide chasm. Here in the sheltered vale small trees grew amid hardy ferns above a floor of moss. This was Ci’erra’s forest and refuge.
Ci’erra wove between small rocks and stunted trees to the center of the hollow. There, she’d peeled away the moss and lined the exposed earth with rocks, most of which were blackened or cracked now. But it wasn’t for her little fire ring that she’d come to her hideout.
Taking a breath to focus, Ci’erra held out her open palm and whispered, “Seifa.”
The air above Ci’erra’s palm glowed red. Ci’erra held still, brows scrunched and barely breathing as she fumbled with strengthening her gift. In a burst, warmth flowed from her chest and down her arm. The faint glow became flame which reddened to the color of the setting sun as it uncurled. Spikes formed teeth and talons, a long swirl became a tail until a small dragon made of fire stood before Ci’erra’s, it’s spiked head reaching as high as her waist.
“You came!” Ci’erra hugged the creature, unafraid of flame or teeth. Seifa, at least, had never burnt her.
Seifa offered warm breath to her chilled hands, prancing around her and leaving smoldering black footsteps on the moss in his wake. Ci’erra didn’t care. No one came here. Of the few other children in Valin, only Atle was small enough to fit between the entrance boulders and he was too clumsy, and small, to cross the river on his own. The rest were three babies and a half dozen older children who still wore long hair and were too young to hunt or fish.
“I called fire today from nothing but air,” Ci’erra told Seifa as she pet his flames like he was a wolf pup. “And didn’t burn myself. But then Medaska made me stop.”
Seifa hissed like the roar of wild flames the time Brage’s hut had burned. Ci’erra smiled at her little fire sprite.
“If I’d been able to control fire then, I could have saved Brage’s house.” Seifa pawed at her arm. “I was too young then, you know that. You were the first flame I called.”
Ci’erra gritted her teeth, focusing her memory only on the amazement she’d felt when Seifa appeared out of the screaming anger she’d hurled into the wind alone. For three months, Seifa had been her companion whenever she could sneak away from the village.
“When I grow up, I’ll be a strong Fire Elemental and I won’t hide you. No one in the village will dare threaten to send me away to Solaire and you’ll live in my stone house… though maybe we’ll live further inland so the ocean doesn’t bother you.”
As the day grew darker and wetter, Ci’erra and Seifa struggled to begin her first stone hut, rolling the largest stone she could move, which were almost as high as her knee, into a nook between two of the larger boulders that looked like a giant’s head and shoulder. She filled the cracks with moss and mud, but there was little she could do to make a roof. None of rocks she could lift were flat and Ci’erra refused to cut the twiggy branches from the little trees.
As the drizzly mist became rain, Seifa cowered under the tiny lip of the great boulders, whimpering hisses. Tears borne of frustration and an ache she couldn’t name made her snap at him. “Fine, go back. It is your real home anyway.”
Seifa sprang from his hiding place to her, leaving behind a vapor trail of steam. Cheek pressed against his flaming form, Ci’erra hugged her only friend. “I wish I could take you back with me now. I would if I could. Soon… I promise I’ll find a way for us to be together all the time soon.”
It was so hard, to let him fade into the damp air. Every time Seifa returned to where it was she summoned him from, Ci’erra feared it was the last time she’d see him. Maybe tomorrow she would wake up and not be a Fire Elemental again, just like she hadn’t been before the day she called him the first time. Or maybe he’d have found a less wet place to go and just wouldn’t come?
Her little refuge held an inch of spongy water and it was so much darker without her little fire dragon illuminating the space. Dampness was leaking into Ci’erra’s boots and through the rough hide cloak she wore over woven wolf hair leggings and shirt. Ci’erra wiggled out of the narrow entrance, knowing it was later than she’d realized. Her aunt would have dinner ready and she was late. In the pattering rain, Ci’erra stumbled to the river. It was high with the damp and tide, the normal stones she used to reach the far side were under water and barely visible in the gloom.
Already soaked to the skin in her second hand clothing long past its waterproof best, Ci’erra tried to navigate the swollen river not mindful of new wetness. She waded into the pebbled shallows, scrambling onto a rock that rose above the waves. A long leap lay between her and a second such boulder. With a deep breath, Ci’erra jumped. Her right foot landed solidly, but her left slipped on muck. Waving her arms to keep her balance, Ci’erra tumbled into the cold water.
She came up sputtering in water over her head, pushed up river by the strong tide. Her sodden clothes pulled at her arms and legs as she struggled to catch passing boulders. They slipped by her outstretched fingers, too cold to feel the scrapes of hard rock as she grasped for a handhold. Her head sank under the waves, but she kicked off the bottom to emerge the short distance to the surface.
Above water, she slammed into a stout piece of driftwood. The little breath she had left her as Ci’erra clung and crawled onto the limb where it was wedged between boulders. Over six times her height and as wide as her thigh on its small end, the branch created a bridge to nearly the shore. Ci’erra leaned against one of the boulders holding it fast until she caught her breath but not so long that the tingling numbness left her limbs. The water was still rising and she was already late.
Ci’erra tottered along the length of the beam, jumping into swift, knee deep water to wade quickly to the shallows.
Covered in sand and debris, Ci’erra stood alone in the wind and rain, tears of fright mixed with anger.
“I should have been born a Water Elemental!” she yelled into the night. That would have at least been useful.
Alone, wet, and tired, much less frightened for her life, Ci’erra tore at the power of her gift that anger created in her chest. She flung the burning heat at the wet stones of her feet. Flames burst skyward.
Startled, Ci’erra pinwheeled backwards, sitting hard on the stony ground with enough force she bruised her rump. The fire, burning brightly above stones, diminished in the rain and her lack of concentration. Ci’erra reached out a scratched hand that she could barely hold steady. With a breath, she reached for her power. The flames steadied. They were so warm. She was already late.
Ci’erra stripped to her damp skin and experimented with drying her woven shirt and leggings alternately with warming her brush burned and chilled skin. She almost called Seifa. His presence as she sat in the darkness on the stone beach would have been so nice. But then she’d stay longer. By the time she and her gear were close to dry, the rain had changed to mist again.
So Ci’erra ventured homeward with no path through the unfamiliar rocks. The fire left her blind in the darkness. She tripped, falling against a large boulder. Her next step banged her knee. Ci’erra kicked at the uneven path and felt the warmth of her annoyance, the warmth of her gift. Ci’erra held still. She was blind because she’d called fire. She could also call it to see.
Cautiously, Ci’erra used the warmth saturating her to create fire before her. It took a few tries before she managed to shape it into a ball that hovered before her, then a few more attempts to keep it formed and glowing while moving ahead of her. Slowly, she made her way through the labyrinth of stone and scratchy brush toward the village of Valin. Peat smoke in the wind guided her. But it wasn’t until Ci’erra tripped again, landing on her belly in damp sand, that she realized the light from the sphere worked best if behind her instead of in front. The last ten minutes of the walk home were the easiest between finding paths and the little fire orb that bobbed in her wake.
Dim lights shone from the high windows or between poorly waddled boulders as she emerged into Valin. The turf roofs shed rain in slow drips as Ci’erra dodged between the houses partially built into the earthen dunes. Finally home, she remembered at the last moment to snuff her conjured light before she opened the door to her aunts home.
Rik’ke stood with one booted foot on a driftwood bench as she gutted a long, silver river fish. The fine bladed knife sliced into the fish’s belly as if Rik’ke stabbed air. She flicked a sidelong glance at Ci’erra as the heavy door thumbed against Ci’erra’s back and pushed her a step forward into the room toward her quiet aunt whose efficient, short hair held the same orange as the flames that lit the cramped house. Rik’ke’s leather vest glistened with fish scales and fins from the work her sure hands accomplished.
Medaska’s dark eyes were large over her bucket of fish. The look was warning enough to tell Ci’erra that Rik’ke was in a mood. Tiptoeing as if silence masked her late arrival, Ci’erra slipped to a bucket overflowing with river perch. Medaska’s share to be filleted was half finished, the neatly deboned fish pinned to woven, twig drying racks lying in a stack to be smoked in the morning. Rik’ke’s bucket held less than six fish.
Hand trembling, Ci’erra reached for the knife sticking out of the barrel rim. A blow to her ear sent her sideways before she reached it.
“How dare you hide when there is work to be done!” Rik’ke stood over Ci’erra where she’d crumbled on the floor, boning knife still held in her hand. “You knew I was returning tonight.”
Ci’erra cowered from her aunt.
“I sent her out, Ma.” Medaska stood but kept out of her mother’s immediate reach. Rik’ke was svelte and fast though. No where in the small home was truly safe from her. “She’s barely wet. Ci’erra must have waited out the rain.”
Rik’ke kicked Ci’erra, draining the air from her once again. She didn’t hear what else was said from the ringing in her ears and needing to find a way to fill her lungs that didn’t cause them to ache.
When Ci’erra pushed herself off the floor, her aunt was saying “…and don’t you help her! Get up!” Rik’ke growled. Ci’erra scrambled to her knees, fighting dizziness as she clung to the bucket.
“Start working,” Medaska hissed.
The world not quite clear on the edges of her vision, Ci’erra hauled herself upright using the full bucket as a support. Wobbling, she clutched the knife handle on the second try and grabbed a fish. The knife sliced her hand but the fresh pain cleared her vision. Her blood mingled with fish guts as Ci’erra sliced open her first fish. If she were lucky, she’d finish before dawn because if she didn’t, Rik’ke would be furious.