The Fires of Easterly

Little did we know that beneath the glow of the continuously burning Easterly fires was a city of magic.

Some say it’s been two hundred years since the Third Eradication.

I don’t know. How would I? I don’t keep a calendar. I don’t have a way to tell time aside from the sun’s location against the burnt trees. I can tell you the day, the month, the time of year. But I can’t tell you what year. I don’t know anybody else who knows, either. If it mattered, I suppose somebody would start keeping track.

When I see the glows in the Easterly realm, I wonder if a firestarter like me gassed up some old industrial waste and created a fire that will never end. And then I wonder whether they did it on purpose, or if it was an accident.

Original image: Photo by Erik Mclean from Pexels

Roquanna teases me by lifting her skirt to her torso, then scampers out of our filthy abode. What a tart she is.

I want to paint my fingernails before I start my ritual. A ritual before the ritual. One I always want to initiate before I begin the incantations, but this time the urge is stronger than usual.

I can use black dye Roquanna makes from rusty metal objects like nails and clasps she finds in the Scavenged City just north of here.

Sometimes I trade an incantation with an Acquirer who gets the rusted objects for us. It’s faster. People like my incantations. I make things happen that others can’t. I’m sort of proud of that.

Roquanna makes a vinegar solution out of the nectar alcohol she also makes and drops the metal objects into it to make the dye.

She’s fiendishly good at making a good alcoholic mixture, and I believe that is why I first kissed her. But that’s another story.

This building we stay in is temporary. It keeps the rain out, but when winter sets our dwelling will become too cold. The fireplace is broken, the walls are shorn and painted with ancient ash, and the ceiling has a gash the size of a small tree.

We are nomads, fighting to stay a few weeks in one place while the armored eagles hunt us. They’re ghastly things, covered with bronze armor.

A long time ago, it was thought that they were the uniforms of the Exterminators, but that's not what they are. They are machines. They have helmets that make them look like predatory birds, but with one single slot that glows a dark neon blue where the eyes should be.

And they fly. They have wings, but I really think those are for show. To scare us. They make a horrible mechanical buzzing sound but they don’t make any sense from a practical standpoint. I believe their mode of locomotion through the air is derived from something else.

Here’s the thing. I have no idea what I’m talking about. I have never seen one for a period longer than about a minute. How long is a minute? I don’t know. My mom said it’s about the amount of time a bee takes to pollinate a flower.

A few minutes after telling me this, she was crawling through blackened tree branches and leaves, her body on fire, screaming for her life, which ended a few minutes later as a Hawk, that’s what we call them, tore her burning body apart as if participating in some form of sadistic entertainment.

Mom said I was ten years old at that time. I don’t know. I don’t keep a calendar.

I guess mom did.

“You’re a big girl now,” she shrieked as she burned. “Go!!!”

But I couldn’t go. I watched it all. I was frozen still. I’ll never know why the Hawk didn’t come for me, too. I was hiding behind a small brick wall but it had to know I was there. They had heat sensors to help them find people. But it didn’t. It simply flew off, as if its bloodthirst had been quenched.

I reach for Roquann’s jar of dye, find a brush, paint my nails. It feels good. My fingernails are long, sharp, sublime. And now, they’re black. I add a streak of dye to the corners of my eyes with my pinky.

There are a lot of people around here and my ritual keeps out the assholes. I have pretty much a zero-tolerance policy towards men, so my incantations are designed to keep them away. I don’t honestly know for sure if they work, but we’ve never been woken up at night by an intruder.

Roquanna says they work. Most of my spells do, so I guess she might be right. A lot of people say if you just believe it enough, something works. But my mom, she didn’t think she could be hurt by a Hawk. So, you know.Roquanna steps through the open doorway just as I’m finishing my incantation. She is with a man. She has a rope around his neck and has led him into the room like a dog on a leash. I can’t imagine what she’s thinking.

“Did you find a pet?” I ask.

“He fell away from his group,” she says.

The man is covered in what looks like a bearskin. He has wild hair, frizzy, black, tight coils. His skin is almost the color of the blackest coal. “What group?” I ask, annoyed at the presence of a male in our sanctuary, especially after a ritual.

The man squirms but the rope tightens around his neck, becomes taught between Roquann’s hands and the mans’s neck without any motion from her. “Ah, ah, pretty boy,” she says. He is a rather handsome fellow, if you can look past the grime on his face.

The bearskin vest he wears is torn at one shoulder. It is shoulderless, revealing an athletic pair of arms each highlighted by a ridge of tricep trailed by long muscles along the forearm. His face, when I can see it from behind his wild expanse of hair, is finished with the pointiest of chins, like a devil. But a handsome devil. His lips are bright red as if painted by animal blood.

“Roquann?” I pray to the Gods she does not want to mate with him. I glare at her with intensity.

“They call themselves gunners. They hunt Hawks.”

I shake my head. “Much good he’ll do. I don’t see a gun.” Not that it would work if I did. “Why do you have a rope around his neck?”

“Because he’s a man. Can you see if he’s tame? With an incantation?”

“He looks about as tame as a jackal. I don’t need no incantation to tell you that.” The man offers up an appropriately timed grunt.

“I think he might be tame,” says Roquann. She is giving me a strangely coquettish look with her black-covered blue eyes. One strand of her long, sandy brown hair is falling over her left eye in the way that drives me crazy.

She had really mastered that look over the last few months, knowing that it leads me to points of no discipline. “If he’s tame, he can help us,” she continues.

“He’s an animal, Roquann. Send him out of here please.”

She just looks at me.

I stand up and walk to the dye. I figure I’ll just fake it. An incantation to see if he is tame? Is she mad? Whoever heard of such a thing?

“Can you do it?” she asks.

“Sure. Why not. Although you can, too. Just drop that mallet over there onto his feet and if he growls you know he hasn’t passed the test.” She laughs at that as I dab some dye onto my fingertips.

“That’s convenient,” she says as she watches.

I approach the beast and apply some of the dye onto his cheeks. He doesn’t react, so I declare him tame.

“Oh my God, seriously?” asks Roquann.

I shrug.

“Seriously. A kitten,” I say. “Now, how is it that the beast can help us?”

“My people know the way of the Inkantu,” says the man in a surprisingly high-pitched voice.

“Of course you do,” I say. Then I mouth to Roquann, “What’s an Inkantu?”

“The fires burning beyond?” says the man. I nod. “They are born of the Inkantu. I can make your village Inkantu.”

I stare with incomprehension.

“Listen, Maria, he — I mean, his people, that’s what they do,” says Roquann.

“They burn villages?”

The man laughs uproariously. “That village is set back in time. Until the armored birds are gone, then it returns. Until then, all the armored birds see is a burning. A permanent fireball. They are confounded by this, so they linger, but eventually, they will leave, their questions unanswered. But while they linger, we kill them.”

I don’t know what to say to that.

“It is Inkantu,” offers the man, as if in explanation.

“And why would you help us?” I ask, ignoring the ridiculousness of his proposition.

“Because I want to be rid of this rope.”

“Roquann. You can’t force someone to help us. That’s not how magic works.”

“It’s working now, isn’t it?”

“No. No no no no. You have to let him go. If he wants to help us in some way, well, we can talk about that with him. Something other than this Ick can’t do or whatever.”

“You don’t believe,” says the man.

“Of course not,” I reply. “That’s just — magic has to have some connection to the physical universe. To the laws of physics. My mother taught me that much before she left.”

The man nods and closes his eyes, and the entire shelf of dyes and vinegar and alcohol immediately becomes consumed in flame. But it is controlled; the strangest fire I’ve ever seen. As a firestarter, I am quite impressed. The fire remains at a very specific height, without flaming lips but instead an even canopy at its top along the shelf.

“Our stuff!” I exclaim.

“It is here,” he says calmly. “In another time.”

“Bring it back, please,” I command. The fire dissipates as if blown out like a candle, and the material on the shelf reappears intact.

“Well, I’ll be a flying turkey,” I say. “Roquanne. The rope?”

The rope disappears from the man’s neck. “My name is Maria. And this is Roquanne.”

The man looks at her disdainfully. “We have met.”

“Sorry about her way. She’s not…”

“This is a village of many women. Few men. She is how she must be. You must survive. You must fight more than just the armored birds.” I nod at that. Truer words were never spoken.

That’s when I decide he is tame.

The man, whose name is Walton, spends the night on a blanket between Roquanna and me. I am unable to sleep for obvious reasons, but he does, snoring like a wild boar through the rest of the night.

I finally drift off as the dawn breaks.

I don’t sleep long, maybe for about a few dozen bee pollinations. I wake to the smell of bacon. Roquanna is cooking breakfast. The man is sitting cross-legged on the floor at the wooden spindle we use for a table, gingerly sipping a hot black spruce tea.

I crawl sleepily over to him, astonished that we let a wild man sleep in our quarters. Was it instinct that allowed this? Some hidden magic we hadn’t tapped into that told us he’d try to do no harm?

He looks at me and smiles warily.

“What happened to your group?” I ask.

“I fell behind. I had encountered a Flusher. I had taken position at the end of the line, as it was my turn to do so, and the Flusher caught me unawares.”


Walton nods. “A bandit, you can say. Many skills. They flush the last man or men out of a group and sling them into the trees to hang by their ankles until they die.”

“And then what?”

“They eat them.”

I make an ugly face with my mouth. “That’s disgusting. I’ve never heard of this.”

“They are not common here. They are found in living forests. This forest does not live.”

“But you got away.”

Walton nods. “I also have many skills. But I am unable to know where my group is. I cannot do this.”

Walton has a strange accent. For a moment, I wonder where he’s from, but then realize that it’s irrelevant.

“I am from the savannas of the eastern seaboard,” he says.

“You can read minds?” I ask, alarmed.

“I can read intent. Different than mind. I cannot read mind.” Walton shakes his head, sips some tea, looking at Roquanna as she stirs a pot full of some kind of stew. It smells good, but I realize he’s watching her hips sway. I want to smack the tea out of his hand, but I realize that the tamest of men will watch a pair of swiveling hips.

Walton reflects a guilty look my way. “I am sorry. She is yours?”

“Well, I don’t own her, no,” I say softly, wondering if Roquanna can hear our conversation.

Walton sips. “No Hawks here. When?”

“Never. Not here. Not yet.”

“Hmm. They be here soon. They not around because of Easterly fire. Not knowing what to do yet. We kill many of them. They afraid.”

“They have no fear. They aren’t alive. And they can’t be killed.”

“Destroyed. That is death to them. But we need a firestarter. They are the only way.” He looks at his tea in thought. “You are right. Not afraid. Evaluating.”

I don’t want to let him know of my skills. But since I’m thinking about it, it may be too late. He can sort of read minds, even if that’s not how he describes it.

I stand up to pour myself some tea. “I’m a firestarter,” I say.

“I know,” responds Walton, looking at Roquanna again.

“Roquanna can help.”

Walton is silent.

“Find your group. She can help you with that. She’s a searcher. You help us, we help you. Fair?”

“Thank you. You are kind. I would have helped you anyway. You are a poor negotiator.” He smiles as he takes another sip.

“But you have no rope around your neck. You said that’s why you’d help.”

“The Hawk is a merciless thing. I will not watch your village die.”

“If you leave you won’t watch it die. That’s what most people would do. Most men.”

“If I leave, and do not help, it will be like I watch it die. I will sense the screaming, the agony. I will feel the pain as if I was here.” He shakes his head. “This I cannot do. But I will gladly accept your help, Maria of the Fire.”

“So we wait? Just sit here and wait?”

Walton nods.

“But I don’t know how to kill these things. I only make fire to, well, make fires. You know, for the stove? For a camp?”

“That is a problem. You need it be weapon. Maybe you can learn.”

“I… I just don’t know how.” I become fearful at the thought of trying to do battle with a Hawk.

“Many Hawks,” he corrects. The liar. He reads minds.

I can’t do this. All we’ve done so far is run from the threat. They are not something with which one does battle. The Hawks have proven their superiority. The best hope is to escape, to run, to hide.

“You cannot hide in a dead forest. The trees are but scattered posts of burnt limb.”

“I can’t stand this. You reading my mind.”

“Your intent. It is your fear I read. I do not know what your thought is. I do know you do not wish me to leave. But that is intent. I know you no longer wish me harm, the way you did when I entered your home.”

“But you said many hawks. I was thinking of one.”

“You are afraid of the one hawk that may come. But more than one shall come. They come in swarms.”

I had only seen one at a time. The one that killed my mother. Other people had different tales, but I hadn’t paid much notice. I ask Walton if the one that killed my mother might have left me alone because it was alone. Away from its swarm.

“Perhaps it knew you were a firestarter.”

“How could it know that? I didn’t even know that. I was ten.”

He shrugs his shoulders. “I do not know these things.”

Roquanna brings steaming iron pots of food to the table.

“How long will you stay?” she asks. “We will find you quarters with the other men.”

“I stay until the Hawks come. Then you help me find my group.”

She sits down, lifts a glass, and offers a toast to Walton, who smashes his iron mug against hers.

“Sorry about the rope,” she says.

“I would not be here without the rope,” he responds. “I would not know of this village. It shall not perish while I am living and I am here. Your men, can they fight? Have they the skills of magic?”

“Eh, not really. They mostly fight each other,” I say in an annoyed voice.

“They drink and fight. They’re pretty useless and awful to tell you the truth,” says Roquann.

“Why do you stay with them?” he asks.

“We stay here because of the other women. And some of the other women keep the men around to mate,” answers Roquann.

“They do not live with them after mating?”

I shake my head. “They want to keep the species going, but they ain’t crazy.”

“That is a good life for these men. Perhaps I shall live here with you,” he says while snapping apart a crispy piece of bread.

Roquanna laughs at this.

“And the birthed children. They are watched by the woman only?”

“The women. All of us, but there are godmothers who do most of the child-rearing. We are always on the run,” I answer. “Everyone has a specialty.”

The glow of the Easterly fires continued to burn while we waited for the next onslaught.

But the Hawks never came.

Walton helped Roquanna and me build a new cabin that could withstand the winter. Most of the men in the village left, but Walton stayed after finding a mate. He stayed with her in her home, where they tended to the needs of their child.

The Easterly fires never dissipated. I knew that meant that the village that had once been would not return.

I wondered if that meant that the village was somehow lost to time itself. We all knew our grasp on magic was tenuous, that using it always involved a high degree of risk.

It was a lot like the science of fire must have been to primitive humans emerging from their apelike existence. Sometimes the fires burned down the forests they lived in.

It was a price we had to pay in the face of the danger from the Exterminators.

Our forest, with its charred stalks of memory, sprouted new growth, and our small village began to know peace for a time on a calendar I never made.

This is part of the MagicLand Chronicles. You can buy MagicLand, a 2023 Featured Quill Award finalist, wherever books are sold and, of course, at Amazon.