We plant the future in the ashes of the past.
It was what the Watcher had told me when he’d sent me out here. Meant as words of comfort, I suppose. Or perhaps a way of making this sound more meaningful than it felt. All I could think of now was that I wished I’d been able to afford the option of ignoring the past from somewhere cooler.
Dry, hard ground stretched in every direction, all of it covered by patches of golden grass that might have been tall enough to sway in the breeze if there’d been one. The monotony was broken only by a single muddy stream which meandered just nearby.
It had been a cloudless day, and the slow setting of the sun wasn’t helping with the heat as much as I’d hoped. The air was heavy and still in the evening light, and it was just dark enough for the insects to start getting bold. I guessed it would be another few hours before the bats and frogs rallied forces to combat them, but I planned to be gone before then.
This wasn’t somewhere people with good sense liked to visit. I liked to think I had at least a little good sense.
Resting my hands on my knees, I let out a sigh as I looked over what remained of the cabin in front of me. Two walls still stood among their scattered companions. Windowless piles of rough stone and stacked logs covered in gnarled, peeling bark. They stood out like pieces of a long abandoned fort in the flat plains.
Thus why it has to be taken down, I reminded myself once more.
With only two openings, a doorway and a chimney, the cabin might as well have been a fortress. We’d pulled the heavy, braced door from its frame and stowed it in the cart along with anything else valuable. The chimney would stand until someone with a pick and a lot more motivation than I had decided to do something about it. The old bed from inside sat out in the field nearby, alongside some thatch and frame from the roof. It would be good kindling when the time came.
“Aerif?” I called out.
“At your convenience,” a voice answered from the other side of the wall.
I took one last moment to flex my fingers, working the stiffness out a bit before picking the rope back up. I turned and put my weight into it, pulling against the top of the wall. The rope went taught, digging into my shoulder as boards strained and creaked. Behind me, the sound of an axe biting into wood gave way to the loud crack of splintering supports. The rope suddenly fell slack in my grip, and the wall and I both tumbled to the ground.
I rolled over, lying there for a moment. The idea of not bothering to get up was suddenly very tempting.
How much comfort is my pride worth, I asked myself.
Still a little more than a brief nap in the dirt, the better part of me answered. I pushed myself up to sit, resting my arms on my knees.
Aerif’s voice caught me. “I believe you may have gotten it that time,” he remarked. The amusement in my so-called friend’s voice was palpable.
“If I told everyone the roof collapsed on you, do you think they’d believe it?”
Aerif offered a smirk and a hand up as he walked over. Streaks of grey ran through the sides of his short black hair and the stubble at his chin. Age had somehow managed to make his harsh, intelligent face a little friendlier. It only served to make the smile all the more annoying. At just over two decades older than myself, he had no right to be as suited to a day of hard labor as he was.
He turned to examine the rubble, allowing me a moment to dust myself off. Jagged posts jutted from the ground where the wall once stood. It had taken a fair deal of digging, coordinated pulling and cutting to get through the supports.
“Seems a shame,” Aerif commented, drawing us back to seriousness against my wishes. “It was well built. Sturdy. It likely would have long outlived us all.”
“He was obsessive,” I replied, a little more dismissively than I’d intended. I didn’t appreciate the topic.
“Comes with living this near to the Ashes, I imagine. Better to take unnecessary precautions than to risk not taking necessary ones.”
I couldn’t help a chuckle. “Almost as if there’s a reason no one but sentimental old fools live this near to the Ashes?”
No answer to that. Instead, he nodded to the last wall, a change of subject. “We’re not going to have enough time to take that one down and build the pyre if we don’t hurry.”
I put a hand up to shield my eyes some as I took a glance at the sun. It sat low behind the towers of Vigil Keep far in the distance, framing them in a fiery orange. But that wasn’t the direction I was concerned about. Opposite, a shroud of darkness crept slowly in from the east, bringing with it an odd, anxious sort of fear. Unpleasant to think about, but worse if ignored.
It had taken three days, dawn to dusk, to clear out everything and tear down the cabin. I didn’t plan on coming out again tomorrow.
“I was told we’re not to leave any unoccupied shelter standing,” I reasoned aloud. “Unless it happens to rains sideways, I don’t think one wall counts as shelter. If the guard disagrees, they’re welcome to march out here and deal with it themselves.”
“Your choice to make. But if you decide to tell them that, please invite me to watch first,” Aerif joked dryly. He started towards the pile of thatch but paused as he reached me, placing a hand on my shoulder. “I am sorry, Abel. I wish we could have gotten here sooner.”
There was quiet for a moment as I was struck by the thought of how unhelpful those words really were. I shrugged the feeling off, along with the hand. “I got more warning than most. Watchers keep a closer eye on anyone this far out. I could have just gotten a notice and a bill from the Cremators. At least I get to salvage something from this mess.”
A disapproving frown. “You know what I meant,” my mentor spoke.
“I know what you meant.” I walked the short way to sit on the fallen logs of my father’s home, the sun’s fading light at my back. Aerif sat down next to me.
Specks of light had begun to dance on the edge of the forest at the foot of the eastern mountains. Eerie greens and reds. A few left trails in their wake, as if they were bleeding color into the black around them. Others moved just inside the treeline, passing behind trees, blinking like fireflies. They were still miles off across the plains, but they were as clear and bright as the twilight stars.
I liked to imagine that those same stars might someday grow jealous enough to come down and set things right, but I didn’t put much faith in them.
My voice was quiet when I spoke, nearly drowning in a heavy silence that returned as soon as the words had passed. “Time is running out.”
In the corner of my eye, I saw my mentor still sitting like a statue as he stared off towards the horizon. I wondered for a moment if he’d even heard me before he let out a breath through his nose and leaned back. “We’ve still a few hours till we need to worry,” he answered.
His teeth flashed a smile in the dark beside me, stopping me before I could complain.
“Yes,” he said, that same smirk in his voice. “I know what you meant.”
I found myself lagging behind as he swung his legs around and stood back up. Hard to get going again once the momentum was gone. I swung around after him and pushed myself up to my feet, hoping to get a bit of that momentum back.
This wasn’t something I was cut out for. Laboring. Not that I ever thought I was. It was part of why I’d left so many years ago. My father labored all his life, and all it had ever brought him was a meager shack on the outskirts of civilization and an equally meager son.
And here we are, his only two accomplishments, one of us about to build a pyre for him out of the bones of the other. I had to fight off the sudden urge to laugh. Aerif already thought I was unwell, and I had no desire to help him feel any more right than he did already.
The urge quickly faded. It really wasn’t funny outside of a brief sense of dark irony. Part of me pitied my father for the suffering he’d inflicted on himself. Part of me resented him for being unwilling to change.
Mostly, though, I just wanted to move on.
When I brought my thoughts back to the present, I found my legs had already carried me to the old wooden bed sitting alone out in the field. It creaked as I leaned against it, propping my hands on the foot. We’d left it in the cabin as long as we could for fear of stirring up the smell. Moving it out had caused the horses to wander a bit, but their noses must have been better than mine. Even in the still air, I couldn’t smell much. A benefit of getting here as soon as we did.
The Watchers, keen to everything that went on near the edge of their territory, had seen it before it happened. They’d given me the choice of making the trip or letting the Cremators deal with it. I’d chosen the former. I knew at the time that I wouldn’t make it in time to say goodbye, But I didn’t fancy the idea of paying someone to loot and burn my father’s home.
So here I was.
Unlike myself, Aerif had no stake in being here. In fact, I hadn’t even asked him. He had his own troubles and tasks to attend to, and this wasn’t a short trip. And yet here he was, carrying a stack of boards from the roof in his arms. He knelt and begin arranging them under the bed.
Neither of us said anything. When he returned to the pile, I followed. A few more trips and we’d built what resembled a funeral pyre, near as we could manage. Thatch and odd boards stuffed under the frame and around the sides of a bed, dull quilts draped over the body on top.
We didn’t spare any unnecessary words before lighting it. Time was short.
In the distance, the sunset flared a final, brilliant red. A chorus of frogs and crickets sang the dirge.