Fog and Flames

Preface: This is Chapter 1 in a full-length novel. If you are interested in reading on, feel free to email me at the address at the bottom of the home page. Be advised: while this post is okay for most audiences, the full novel contains mature content.

We met the same day the tribesmen now call the Day of Hot Rain. She wasn’t a queen yet – just my student. I was a teacher back then, and at a school large enough that we had six teachers. Tribesmen from hundreds of miles around sent their most promising and most elite young people to study with us. I taught the specialty classes for the older students. Architecture was my favorite, but tactics, history and mathematics were all also topics I covered. Archery, swordsmanship, and command were all considered basics classes that every student took. I confess I preferred the specialty classes – the students at least wanted to participate in those.
It was Alanna’s first day, and unfortunately for her, also the first test of the season. She took it, with the rest of her classmates – I thought nothing of it at the time. It was normal for the class to wait within the room and socialize while I graded them. She hadn’t caught my eye yet, so I don’t recall if she was making friends on her first day or not. It was her response to that test that made her first stand out to me.
“Thank you,” she answered as I gave her the paper. This was architecture, and being her first day, naturally failed the test.
Understand that the students that came across my class could mostly be sorted into two groups: the know-it-alls and the self-deprecating ones. The humility in her tone and words immediately put her in the second category.
“It’s okay to fail this test,” I told her before entirely letting go of the pages.
Her response was accompanied by a small smile. “I know.”
“Then why are you thanking me?” I felt compelled to ask. It was not the typical response from students like her. I didn’t realize then that I would only ever meet one person like her again.
“I didn’t know what I didn’t know before. Now I do.” For sounding cryptic at first, the words made a great deal of sense.
I then offered to help introduce her to the concepts after class, and it was after sunset when we finally started wrapping up. I remember sharing one of my books with her, and mentally noting that she was sweet – if a little headstrong – a quick study, and that she would not take long to catch up with her peers.
That was when the siege started. It was like thunder: shaking the ground and heart alike. I remember rejecting that thought immediately – it was abnormally dry for this time of year, and had been all week. Though I hadn’t been outside in hours, I could normally smell moisture in the air, even behind these stone walls.
“A storm?” Alanna asked me.
Two more loud – but somewhat distant – quakes answered her before I could.
“Clansmen,” I corrected, keeping the alarm out of my voice as I listened. The clansmen were nomads, travelling on horseback though the tribal lands. Almost every tribal leader had tried to wipe them out, but they were elusive and numerous. I myself had spent six years of my prime as their slave, used for my knowledge as well as manual labor while they led campaigns against my own people. Escape had been impossible, but eventually I had earned my freedom and I returned home, and ultimately to teach here.
When I looked to Alanna, she was emerging from my workstation with my sword and a bow in hand, handing the former to me and slinging the quiver over her own shoulder, clearly ready to defend herself and the school from our attackers.
“You any good with that?” I asked as I took the sword. Archers were usually easy to tell apart from swordsmen – each used different and distinct muscle groups – but she had the look of neither.
“Not really.” Still, she pulled an arrow from its brothers and placed it loosely on the string.
Part of me wanted to send her back to the student rooms, but I didn’t know where on campus was safe and where should be avoided. Safest was by me, I decided. For now. It was the teachers’ job to take up arms to defend the students, so, remembering the direction I had heard the thuds, I stepped out of my classroom.
The students knew to move quietly, so there was none of the screaming expected if the clansmen had attacked a tribal town instead of a school. The older would protect the younger, and many had excelled in their classes and would be capable enough defenders. As I went outside, I couldn’t see any of the attackers, but one of the students caught my eye.
Shaddum. He was one of my longest-trained students – I and the other teachers here had practically raised him – and he was quite a capable warrior. But this time, he wasn’t armed. He had his little gang of about eight students nearby. Though insolent toward the other teachers, he had, for whatever reason, chosen to obey me, and was looking to me for instruction now. The group was a fair distance away, but easy enough to see as other students sped past me.
I lifted my sword so he could see it clearly, pointed toward the armory, then the library. The latter was the only tall building and a reasonable enough place to make a stand.
“Is someone taking out the siege weapons?” Alanna’s whispers behind me startled me; I had assumed she had gone with the other students back to their rooms.
I nodded – the two men who taught the younger classes were brothers and quite adept and capable in guerrilla combat. Alanna followed me to the library, where everything was surprisingly normal inside. They were unaware of the siege outside. I knew it tended to be one of the loudest places on campus – after the courtyard and the dining hall, but students were playing drums of all different types in there, laughing and enjoying themselves. Music was a thing mostly for the students to exhale and alleviate stress, but now was not the time for that! Now, they needed to be armed and ready. They would draw attention to themselves this way.
I hurried to the center of the circle, swinging my sword around me at a safe but close enough distance to get their attention. The gesture had the intended effect of immediate silence. These students were a little younger than Shaddum and most of his gang. “Go to your rooms and keep yourselves there,” I ordered, keeping my voice low. “Now.”
As they scuttled out, I looked to Alanna, who spoke before I could give her the order to do the same. “I haven’t been assigned one yet.” Right. Quite a first day for her.
So we waited in silence for a full two minutes, ducking behind the desk at the center of the room. I knew without looking that the library was longer than it was wide, with a balcony that could only be accessed from the outside from the east or inside on the west end of the room. The siege seemed to have stopped, if not the attack. They’d send men on foot soon.
That’s when I heard the clansmen on campus. A handful of voices, all coming from the ground level on the east side. I kept Alanna low, hidden beneath the solid oak desk, sword unsheathed as they sauntered in, laughing and pulling book from the shelves. It broke my heart to hear the tomes treated so. Every one of them had been penned by hand; I had written several of them myself.
I was too consumed with fury at our enemies that I lost my grasp on the remaining student by my side. Alanna must have felt the same fury as myself, as the instant she sprang up, into the line of sight of the clansmen, she aimed the bow at the one closest to her. With a remarkably loud war cry, she loosed an arrow. It struck home, but in doing so, the attack attention to us both. I only had a split second to decide to pull her down again in an attempt to continue hiding or join her. I chose the latter.
The clansmen, now plain in front of me, were four in number and only carrying melee weapons of varying types. I threw myself over the desk, landing on my feet and swinging as the first charged to meet me. My weapon cleanly sliced his gut as he ran into it full-force, but I was already beginning to swing on the other that Alanna had shot before the first even met the drums at my feet.
Suddenly a hail of arrows from the west end of the room flew over my shoulders and into my opponents, killing the last two where they stood. I caught my breath as I watched them fall – we were safe. For the moment.
I looked at our reinforcements – most of whom were students nearly finished at the school. Eight in total, with Shaddum at their lead. They all had bows and arrows in hand and student-issued swords at their hips. They were also entirely drenched. What on earth? It was very dry outside just minutes ago. Still, I nodded my thanks to the students before addressing their leader. “Go for a swim?” I asked him.
Shaddum answered with a shake of his head. “It’s raining.” Impossible! Now was not the time to be joking.
“It’s a hot rain,” another supported his friend before I could reprimand him.
“Like soup,” a third put in.
“Or tea.”
“Was a clansman throwing hot water on you?” I asked the conclusion that came closest to making sense in my imagination.
As one, they rejected the idea.
“Rain,” Shaddum said again. “Hot rain. It wasn’t like boiling or painful, but it was… odd.” Shaddum was certain and clear on his point.
That left only one explanation left, and it made even less sense than the first idea: the clansmen had a sorceress. They were rare – maybe two or three in a generation, and each had a certain type of thing they were able to manipulate. The only one I had met before was gifted with sand and fine dust. The old hag had almost choked me to death with it. Now it seemed the clansmen had gotten their hands on another, who was perhaps skilled with pure water? But why announce it this way? Were they trying to strike fear in the hearts of the tribes?
Alanna interrupted us then. “You two, to the north balcony, and you two, to the south,” she commanded, splitting our reinforcements in half – with the other four remaining on ground level – and covering the entire library in their protection with the order.
The students all looked to me quizzically. I nodded – it was a reasonable plan. Half a moment later they were obeying, trotting up the steps. The only door near the center of the room was heaven and wooden along the north wall. It led to the main courtyard and the other buildings surrounding. We almost never opened it – students inevitably preferred the light and easy-to-open portals at the ends of the library.
Suddenly another student rushed in, also soaked to the core. If he had had time to wield a weapon against our enemies, he had lost it by now. “They’re slaughtering us!” he managed, out of breath. As if to emphasize his point, a scream came from behind him, in the direction of the dining hall. “What do we do?” he asked.
His question implied a statement that was now obvious to me: I had to do more. I looked to Shaddum. “Can you hold the library?”
The student was probably a little too confident in his nod. “Absolutely.”
“Good. I’ll send any more I find here. There may be other fortified positions, so if I send for you, you are all to come. Am I clear?”
“As hot rain,” Shaddum joked. I leveled my gaze at him, and the young man’s smile disappeared, replaced by a stern nod. “Yes, sir.”
Good. As I headed to the west doors, I stopped as soon as I recognized the young lady I had been teaching earlier was still at my heels. I turned to Alanna, ready to order her back with her fellow students.
“My father ordered me to stay safe,” she said stubbornly before I could send her back behind the desk again. “That means staying with you.”
“Safe is here.” I didn’t have the patience to be diplomatic in that moment. Another scream echoed to us, this time from the courtyard, the clansmen were close, and Alanna was wasting time. “Your father -”
“- Is chieftain of the Denzu tribe.” I didn’t know he had a daughter Alanna’s age. “That means he outranks you.”
Fine. She could stay with me now, and I could deal with her disobedience later.
The instant I stepped outside, I was drenched in the hot rain the young men had spoken about. Even still, it wasn’t hard to hear the all-too-familiar slice and scream as someone was slain to my right, in the courtyard. I spun in time to see Faenna, the only female among us teachers, fall to the ground from a kneeling position. Executed. I choked on my emotions for a moment, then let my battle mind take over, abandoning my heart for the moment.
The powerful looking woman in the center of the courtyard was immediately commanding her horde in the clansmen’s native tongue as the strong warrior beside her wiped his blade. “Another.”
“But there are only so many women here.”
The clansmen were looking for females? Why? They were relatively scarce at the school, but not unheard of. About the same gender ratio as the teachers: one in six.
The warrior pointed his bone and stone blade to the other clansmen. “She said to bring another. So you will find another, and bring her here. Got it?”
Remembering my student, I pressed her back against the stone outer wall of the library. “They’re looking for females,” I whispered in tribal to her. It was a rarity for anyone to speak clansmen and tribal both, and not a gift I was particularly grateful for. But I hoped the information might scare Alanna into submission. It didn’t work.
“Will they stop this once they find the girl they’re looking for?” Her voice whispered close to my side. The honest answer was yes, but there was no way I was going to sacrifice a student. Not when there were other choices.
I admit now, looking back, that I had let my emotions fuel my decision to attack the pair left alone in the courtyard as the clansmen obeyed their orders. They had killed a teacher, and likely dozens of students. But at the time, I had convinced myself that the pair I saw before me were the leaders of this attack, and that the clansmen would fall apart if only these two fell in battle.
The sudden rain, though driving, had not been long enough to break the hard-packed ground of the courtyard, so running at the pair was easy. As soon as I got into the fading light, though, they noticed me. With a twist of the woman’s hands, the hot rain turned biting, burning the skin in dots as it pelted me. With another flick, a glassy dart cut through the rain, landing just underfoot as I pushed myself toward her. Instead of shattering or splashing, it spread out, like butter melting in a pan, but over the course of about half a second. Ice. My foot landed and immediately gave way under me. I promptly dropped my other foot onto the bedrock, slipping around the icy patch despite the pain in my now-twisted ankle but managing to stay standing. When I looked up, an arrow sailed over my shoulder, toward the sorceress, but it did not strike home. Alanna.
I was close enough to hear the sorceress addressing her companion even as she sent another dart of ice to my feet. “Bring her to me.” No! I sidestepped to my right then, hoping to intercept the warrior before he reached my student, but another ice dart beat me there, creating a frozen wall between myself and him as it connected to the rain, cracking like static in the air. Alanna would have to protect herself for now.
Faenna’s body was still at the feet of the sorceress when I turned back. Every emotion filled me then. Fear – absolutely. Batting a well-trained sorceress alone was practically suicide. The sadness wasn’t exclusive to me either – not with the carnage at the school around me. Even happiness was in the mix, as I was glad that I was on the battlefield and she showed no sign of surrender. That alone gave me my own permission to strike her down where she stood.
But anger was the purest and most overwhelming of all, guiding my steps as the raindrops turned to steam around me. No one was allowed to attack the school – my school – and especially not a clansman. I was the sword of justice this time. Another shard of ice came my direction, but I chopped it down before it could land near me. I was almost to her now.
Then a blast of ice filled my nostrils and mouth, starting as frigid air and turning to a solid without ever passing through the water stage. I tried to breathe around it – with the sharp cold surprising my lungs – but it only took half a second for the blast to solidify, like a hunter’s mask, over both inlets for air at once. My only hope now was that killing the woman would break the enchantment stopping me from breathing. And even at my age, I could still do that in a single breath.
When I finally was able to swing on her, she sidestepped lightly and my poorly-aimed chop went straight down, into the ground instead, where another flick of her wrist froze it in place. With only moment to choose between sword and air, I abandoned my weapon and started to claw at my own face. It wasn’t melting. Too thick to crack, too.
Then the sorceress went on the offensive, lunging at me and putting a palm against the ice over my mouth as if to silence an impossible scream. It only took a moment to realize what she was doing – sending hot water through my ice mask and into my nose and lungs. I stopped or swallowed what I could, but it was too much too quickly. I felt my own fists weaken as they beat against her, but it was only a couple of seconds before I went down. Alanna’s cries for help are the last thing I remember from that day.

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