Lesson of the Fire

By Eric Zawadzki and Matthew Schick



"Each color of the cloaks worn by wizards corresponds with those of the eight kinds of myst, which is the source of Mar magic. Green is for Energy, which is used to create or negate heat, light and sound. It can also increase the duration of other spells. Most Mar find Energy the easiest magic to use, and producing a tongue of flame at the tip of the finger is almost always the first application taught to an apprentice."

— Nightfire Tradition, Nightfire's Magical Primer

"The villagers heard Nightfire's terrifyin' words an' flinched," declaimed the elder on the green of Rustiford. "The price the wizard asked was too much! Many townsfolk grumbled, an' it may've come to blood an' fire, but Bran' Halfin shouted over them all."

"Hold, neighbors!" Finn Ochregut called tremulously, walking forward from his seat in the crowd and reciting his part of the story. "We couldn't have made it here without Nightfire, an' we would've died if we'd stayed. We know the Law an' what it demands for a life preserved. We must do as he asks."

"But who'll go with him?" the villagers demanded as one.

"I'll go first," Finn announced in an uncertain voice.


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Cover illustration © 2011 by Alan Gutierrez.

A younger Sven watched Finn from a log near the fire. Cloaked in black, he sat with three others, all one year younger than Finn. Across from them, two villagers sat. They were Finn's age — safe from slavery to Nightfire and torn by guilt at Finn going instead of them.

"Nightfire heard the boy's words an' smiled," Sveld, the elder, continued. "He allowed Bran' a few hours to bid his family an' frien's farewell before takin' him from us.

"Ev'ry year, Nightfire has come to collect, and ev'ry year, a brave young man or woman has stepped forward to pay Rustiford's debt. Bran' Halfin was the first. He was my gran'son, the son of my daughter, Tora Halfin, who fell during the passage to Rustiford."

All the names were repeated, as they were every year. Rustiford had sacrificed seven young men and women to Nightfire, and now an eighth would go. None had ever returned.

The names were branded on Sven's soul, and his eyes were rooted to Finn.

Had I thought, eight years ago, that I could be the one chosen? Maybe I did know.

Eda's eyes were still liquid brown in his mind, and Katla's fiery green. Brand was a distant memory, a young man more like an older brother than a playmate, but strong and stern.

The first to choose.

And Horsa, who had taken Sven in like a younger brother when his sister had made her choice.

The elder paused for a long time, looking at the small crowd that was the whole population of Rustiford.

"This year, Finn Ochregut has offered himself as the tribute to Nightfire. This town is in his debt an' the debts of all who've gone before him."

To Sven, Finn looked more like a man who would sooner plunge his head in a marsh pond than do this. Whether he had made his choice to gain honor or because he owed a debt, Sven could tell that the ceremony was the only reason Finn wasn't fleeing. Though Mar distanced themselves from immediate family at a certain age — community was key to survival — Finn's mother was crying.

"The Weardfest has en'ed with the night. Today comes the wizard who will take our tribute an' leave us t'our grief."

The crowd did not stir as Sveld walked slowly away from the dying embers of the bonfire. When he reached Finn, the elder raised his right hand, palm open to near his own shoulder in a deferential blessing and salute. Finn returned it automatically, sweat rolling down his face despite the cool air. Others in the crowd did the same. Some spoke to him in hushed tones, but most could not find words.

Finn's mother looked into her son's eyes, tears streaming down her face. She seemed on the point of clutching him in a crushing embrace, but thought better of the embarrassing display of physical affection in public and settled for placing a hand on his cheek before walking past.

Sven and his three companions, Erbark, Hauk and Lori, made no move to leave, waiting for the two across from them. Finn's peers left without speaking to Finn, without saluting him and without inviting anyone else to join them. Sven watched them, and at first he thought he alone saw them touch hands when they were nearly out of sight. He caught Erbark looking in the same direction, but his friend quickly pretended not to notice.

"Th' people of Rustiford came here to avoid this," Lori said quietly.

Sven huddled closer to them nervously, looking over his shoulder. He thought the great wizard could hear them.

Dad said the Duxy of Flasten used to raid our town, and all the towns around us, to take our people for slaves. That was years ago, when Sven was just a child, and halfway across the swamp. His father had said they had lived in a town with clean water and flat fields on the edge of two duxies.

"We came here because of this," Erbark said dully. He sat up straight, but his eyes were staring after the two who had just left.

They took us as slaves, Sven thought. Two kinds of slaves were allowed under the Law — tribute slaves and oathbreakers. Tribute slaves, like the ones Nightfire took, volunteered their service to repay a debt. Oathbreakers served as punishment for a crime, repaying their debt to the Oathbinder for breaking their promise to obey the laws of their community. A slave was supposed to serve a sentence of no more than eight years.

Flasten's slave-takers were magocrats who came to town and arrested whomever, claiming they were oathbreakers. The judge was a Flasten magocrat. The sentence was always the maximum. But it was worse than just lying about oathbreaking. Flasten then sold the slaves to foreigners, who did not understand the Law. No one ever returned.

"I feel so bad for them," Lori said, and everyone's eyes turned to the log Finn's peers had sat on.

"I feel relief," Sven said, letting his thoughts spill out. "They say we were starvin', that all the people Flasten took left us with not enough han's to feed an' clothe ourselves. That Dinah's Curse was runnin' through us like water through mud, an' we were on the edge of death, when Nightfire came an' saved us."

Across half of Marrishland, he added to himself. Dad said thousands of us left with the great wizard, and there's less than a thousand in this town. He looked at Finn, standing alone briefly. And soon to be one less.

He put his arms around his friends as they huddled together.

One of us four next year, Sven thought darkly, his breath puffing out in front of him. We are the only four who will be of age.

He remembered there once being seven kids his age. The trek from their old town took one kid, and two more had died from Dinah's Curse after Rustiford had been founded. He shook his head and stood up, his friends' eyes following him. There had been six when Katla had chosen to go. There were three for this year. Next year, there would be four.

And the year after that?

Sven realized he could not recall the number of sixteen-year-olds in Rustiford.

Brand will return to Rustiford next year. It's only eight years.

But eight years seemed like an eternity right now. Eda had told him of her plans to stay away from all the men in Rustiford until she could volunteer to join Horsa as Nightfire's slave in just a year. Two months later, though, deep in despair over her loss, she had come to Sven for comfort. Sven still wasn't sure which he regretted more — that he didn't refuse her or that she still volunteered to go with Nightfire the next year.

No. Eight years meant that by the time he returned, many people here wouldn't even remember him. It would break his father's heart, his father who had already lost his wife and daughter to the wizards.

Erbark helped Lori stand, and silent, giant Hauk, who had a tear on his cheek, grasped Sven's hand to pull himself up. Sven looked at his companions, his friends, and saw his fear mirrored in their faces as they left the green behind. They knew it, too.

Erbark broke the silence, "This is our last Weardfest together."

They walked, their boots breaking the frost on the ground, their breaths puffing out in clouds. The morning sun crawled out from behind the horizon as though it had overslept. The tall homes of the first adult citizens gave way to the shorter cabins of newly declared men and women.

"I'm scared," Lori voiced what they all felt.

"I'm not tired yet," Hauk made a universal suggestion.

"I've some soup," Sven invited.

"All right then," Erbark agreed for them.

They walked through the village. The sun struggled over the trees, slowly shedding light on the town. The smoke from scores of chimneys hung against the blueness of the clear sky. A brief gust of wind from the north moaned through the trees. Their heavy boots clunked up the stairs to the door of Sven's house.

Sven turned the latch and pushed the door open. The sun had not yet become bright enough to light the cabin, so he lit a lamp and stirred the hearth fire before hanging a small pot of soup over it. The four of them took a seat in a circle near the hearth.

They sat without speaking for a long time. Hauk lit a pipe, inhaled deeply, blew a stream of smoke through his lips and launched into a brief fit of coughing. Lori pulled the strip of cloth away from her hair, allowing the dark strands to cascade to her shoulders. She produced a brush and began brushing the black, curly hair rhythmically. Sven stirred the soup, watching as the flames engulfed the wood with greedy hunger. Erbark sharpened a dagger along a small whetstone.

Long moments passed in this way — the scrape of the metal, the crackle of the fire, the spoon against the bottom of the pot, the coughing fits between puffs of smoke and the whisper of hair against the brush. Then Sven spoke.

"The soup's ready."

The other three looked at him, a little surprised. With tired smiles, they accepted the meal offered them.

The soup was mediocre, being leftover from the previous day. It was a mixture of rabbit and root vegetables with just a hint of laurita, a wintertime soup that they would soon grow to detest. None of them complained, however. They merely ate quietly, even slurping up the last of the broth in their bowls.

The hum of voices and the scrape of walking feet on sandy paths alerted the four that Nightfire had arrived. Much of the town would turn out to watch Finn depart. Sven did not stir from his place in the circle, and neither did anyone else. They would not be going this year. It was important they stay together today.

"Which one of us?" Lori demanded. "It has to be one of us, so we might as well decide now."

None of them spoke for a minute, staring at Lori. She didn't blush.

How could you feel embarrassed about this? Sven thought. It's like asking who'll go hunt for food or who'll boil the water so we can drink.

"I can't go," Hauk said. "I've a duty to my neighbors."

They all knew what he meant. Hauk had trained with Thorhall, the blacksmith, for years. Thorhall was becoming too old to do smithwork, and Hauk was doing most of the work now. He was irreplaceable.

"I don't want to go, either," Lori said. "I want to raise a family."

Each one of them knew how important Lori's family was to her. She had been the oldest of nine children, making her practically a mother already. She had made it her duty to see that the children of the village did not wander into the swamp. The parents in Rustiford depended on her and trusted her.

But someone could replace her, Sven thought, but he forced his mouth to stay shut. Is there an argument for everyone not going?

He opened his mouth to speak.

"I'll go," Erbark broke in suddenly. "Perhaps he'll even let me visit Rustiford sometime."

He smiled and leaned back casually. Lori did not react so favorably.

"He's never let any of th'others visit, Erbark!" she snapped. "For all we know, he's sellin' all his slaves to the Dux of Flasten or findin' a reason to keep them longer than eight years."

"Not all wizards are slavers," Erbark said, testing his dagger's edge with one finger. "If he tries to cheat me, well ... " The blade flashed in the air and sank into a knothole in the far wall.

"He's a wizard!" Lori cried. "He'll just hurt you if you fight him."

Erbark shrugged, and Hauk laughed so hard he pitched into a coughing fit.

It's a fantasy, but what else do we have left? Sven thought, but he chuckled and pulled the hood over his head, his green eyes gleaming red in the firelight.

Lori stood up, pulled on her boots and stormed to the front door.

Erbark hurried to her side. "Where are you goin', Lori?"

"To watch Nightfire take Finn away from us with the rest of th'adults i'the town. When you're done talkin' like mapmakers, let me know."

Then the door opened, and Lori was gone. Erbark paused, deciding, and then returned to his chair.

Sven, Erbark and Hauk regarded each other in silence, suddenly uncomfortable. For a long while, none of them spoke. The sounds of Finn's departure filtered into the cabin, interrupted only by the occasional pop of the fire in the hearth.

Hauk stood up suddenly. "I'd better get some sleep. Thorhall might want me to make some nails this afternoon."

It was a weak excuse. Compassionate almost to a fault, Thorhall would spend the day consoling Finn's mother. It was unlikely he would work at all. But Erbark and Sven empathized with their friend. They all needed some time alone, now. Sven opened the door for Hauk and wished him peace and comfort in Marrish's name. Hauk murmured a blessing in return and plodded toward his house.

Sven returned to his seat and watched the flames of the hearth fire. His hooded head nodded once, and he woke instantly. He looked around his cabin, re-familiarizing himself with the room. Erbark's grey eyes were still open, but the eyelids were heavy, his expression blank. The fire had burned low, leaving only hot coals and ashes. There was little firewood left.

Not yet ready for sleep, Sven found that he was glad of the chore of chopping wood. Ignoring the crowd of people gathered at the distant village green, he began chopping vigorously, splitting the logs into flinders with heavy-handed blows. When the well of energy in his stomach had died down, he gathered the wood and returned to his fire. He fed the greedy flames until, it seemed, they would accept no more wood. He kicked off his boots and sat on his chair, satisfied, watching the fire dance madly around the logs, devouring them.

He sat there feeling the heat on his face — fascinated, horrified, afraid for his life, helpless.

"You or me?" Erbark asked suddenly.

Sven did not answer, could not.

"Your dad's already lost Katla to Nightfire."

Sven turned his head to face his friend. "An' your mom lost both your brothers to ochres on the way to Rustiford." His eyes shone in challenge. The very memory of the mossy, muck-covered Drakes would not be enough to shake his friend.

Erbark paused and looked at Sven intensely. The smile vanished, and a look of understanding replaced it. "You're a good man, Sven. None doubt your courage. You won't take Lori or Hauk away from their duties an' dreams any more than I will." Erbark leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes heavily. "But I'm goin' with Nightfire next year. Rustiford'll need someone as smart as you when you're old. You're a good man, Sven."

Sven did not respond. But you're in love with Lori, he wanted to remind his friend. But he knew it would be useless to argue.

A light snoring filled the room. Sven turned back to the fire. It crackled and smoked heavily in the still-wet wood, fingers of it seeking the cracks that would lead to the logs' dry hearts. It snapped wildly throughout its cage — yellow and red on the outside with sharp blue at the heart. Not for the first time he wondered whether the colors of the wizard's cloaks came from the colors of the fire. Sometimes he thought he saw deep reds and dark greens and black on the logs themselves. He knew the colors Mar wore were protective, helping them blend in and hide from Drakes. The wizards, though, wore bright colors that made them stand out. The brighter the cloak, the more powerful the wizard.

Nightfire wears red, so he must be very powerful. But why do they choose the colors they wear?

The room grew warm, and Sven became drowsy. His head dipped and did not rise for a long while.

The flames painted patterns on his closed eyelids, sending him strange, disturbing dreams of a burning town and swarms of attacking gobbels and ravits. He saw Lori at the center of a throng of children, trying to shield them all from the poisoned darts of the small, bristly ravits. Then he saw Erbark watching them all, too far away to help her.

He woke with a deep sense of guilt. He had missed Finn's departure. He had not objected to his friend's self-sacrifice. Sven turned to check Erbark, jaw open and head back. Then, as silently as he could manage, he pulled on his boots and slipped out into the cold morning air. He knew what he could do. He could save his friends from separation. He might even be able to put a stop to slave-taking in Rustiford.

A dark cloud loomed over the sky to the north. The leaves of the trees, painted with the colors of fall, danced along the ground as the north wind hurled itself against them. Sven closed the door softly behind him and began to walk, cloak flapping no matter how tightly he held it.

Fear strangled his stomach as he thought of Lori's words. What did Nightfire do with the slaves he had taken? Even if he obeyed the Law, what kind of master was he? Was he kind? Cruel?

A fog hung lazily in the air, drifting along in the wind without rising. He reached the homes of the town's founders.

I can stay here in Rustiford. It would be far easier than volunteering. Erbark has made his decision.

The sun battled to shine in spite of the thickening clouds, faltered and sank into the darkness. He approached his father's house.

He felt suddenly very stupid. How could he possibly hope to stop the wizard's slave-taking? A wizard could be killed, yes, but there was no doubting their power to defend themselves against Mar like himself. And if he stopped Nightfire, what would prevent some other wizard from demanding the same tribute? He suddenly felt very small and helpless.

The sun peeked through a small hole in the darkening clouds.

I can save just one person, Sven thought as he steeled himself to knock on the door. If I go next year, Erbark can stay here and marry Lori. He smiled at the thought of his friends being happy together. He could not help himself. They deserved to be happy. The sacrifice of one person would bring joy to two.

He knocked. A long pause before a very drowsy Pitt answered.

"Father, I've come to volunteer to go with Nightfire next year."




"An' Sven Takraf stepped forward an' volunteered to pay Rustiford's debt to Nightfire with his own life, never thinkin' of his own fate, but only that of his people."

The storyteller's voice trailed off into silence. Sven wasn't sure he heard it finish. A part of his mind — the part that remembered everything it heard — began recounting the various lies and stretching of truths the man had told, sorting it with the other knowledge he had acquired and might one day use.

He touched his forehead with his hand as the crowd applauded, leaving the past behind. A bead of sweat glistened there.

I know my own story. I know why I began. But to do what I am destined to do, I must sacrifice more than myself to save just one person. I must sacrifice others to save all of Marrishland. I continue as I began.