The sky was mottled grey over murky water. Beside the Temple of Dancing Light, a skinny girl sat on a standing stone and stared at the grey horizon. Waves crashed below her dangling feet. The Sisters of Light promised that anyone with the Gift of magic, would be able to see the faces of their loved ones in the very first rays that broke the surface. The first wash of light was pale and slow to spread and Feia held her breath, hoping to see something, anything. Disappointment was a familiar companion.
Her dark hair was tied back, and the grey school uniform hung loose from her shoulders. She would have given up, but that meant accepting that she wasn’t special. Perhaps she couldn’t see anything because she didn’t know who she was? Like a tickle in the back of her mind she felt incomplete. But what if that was just wishful thinking? What if this was all she was, a girl who no one wanted?
Feia watched a shaft of light as it pierced the black clouds above her. Then she slid down a tall standing stone, hands scraping on the rough-hewn surface. Her feet landed in the long grass that sprouted through cracks in the paving.
A shriek screeched over the wind: ‘Get her!’
Feia heard the heavy thud of boots and turned in horror to see a pack of girls charging towards her. A shiver of shock and fear raced from her skull down her spine. She darted to the side, but before she’d gone two steps she was grabbed. Her captors pushed her against the obelisk. She flinched as the stone chafed her skin through the woollen dress.
Knowing it would provoke the leader, Feia smiled.
‘Saka, nice to see you out in the fresh—’ she said, then faltered as a slap silenced her. She looked down, refusing to search Saka’s gaze for mercy; she’d never find it anyway. A second slap had angry tears building behind her eyes, despite the promises she’d made to herself never to cry in front of them. Beyond the group of girls was the familiar courtyard and then the Temple. None of its windows, though, looked out towards the standing stone.
‘What are you doing, Feia?’ Saka demanded.
‘The stone is sacred, Saka,’ she replied.
They always said that Feia didn’t have any sense, and she agreed. If she had been sensible, she would have been asleep. The sun was yet to rise over a cold autumn morning but she had already left a warm bed behind. She had decided that she’d rather be a slug, a dead fish or anything that meant she wasn’t like her classmates; nothing like them at all.
In many ways, it was good that she’d made the decision. Feia didn’t look like the other girls, and because of her differences they had turned her body into a battlefield of scars, scratches and competing bruises. Children in Arngeir typically had dark eyes, and Feia’s were the colour of morning frost. Most children were also taller, broader and stronger than her. She’d learned to be quick; she’d had to. Even if she had looked like them, which she didn’t, she wouldn’t want to act like them.
‘You’re not on the stone any more, Foundling. What are you doing out here?’
‘You think you’re special, don’t you? We know you’re not.’ Saka laughed. ‘I know exactly what you are.’
Feia kept her gaze lowered.
‘What are you, Feia?’ Saka asked, grabbing her throat. She was so close that Feia could see the tiny hairs on her face. Saka’s nails punctured her flesh. ‘You’re a dirty Foundling, and if you were special then someone would have wanted you!’
‘Choke on poison!’ Feia fought the iron grip of the girls. Her skin stung. It wasn’t true. She told herself for the hundredth time that Saka only spoke aloud what she feared herself, but it was hard to ignore the murmur of doubt. What if it was true? What if Saka was right?
Saka drew out a long thin knife. ‘Have you ever seen this before?’
Feia’s gaze was caught on the steel blade. It had a sharp serrated edge. She squirmed harder against the arch, willing to scratch her back on the surface if it meant freedom.
‘You’re a ghost,’ Saka said. ‘Sometimes we don’t even see you.’
Feia watched the slow movement of the blade. She wished they couldn’t see her now; she wished that she could vanish.
‘If you died, would you haunt us?’
Feia gasped, feeling the press of Saka’s blade against her chest.
‘I want you to remember me,’ the girl persisted.
‘You won’t be home for long!’ Feia snapped back. ‘They’ll sell you off to the ugliest—’
She was slapped again. Pain flared in her cheek.
‘I don’t want to see you any more, Feia! The Sisters don’t want you here either.’ Saka tossed her hair over her shoulder. ‘They’ll thank me for this. Ridding them of a pest.’
The girls pinned Feia tight to the pillar. She pushed against them and tried to scratch at their hands. She kicked against the muddy ground, searching for a hold. If she could just get a bit higher, get rid of one of the girls – too late. The knife was pressed to her throat. The edge of steel felt icy against her skin.
‘Are you worthy, Feia?’
Feia pulled her head back out of the way. The girls pushed her so she couldn’t move. The blade was laid against her neck, sucking out the warmth of her flesh.
‘Let me go!’ Her cry was picked up the by the wind and tossed over the cliff.
‘My, what is this?’ Saka leaned forward and touched her fingertip to the leather cord that held a necklace around Feia’s neck. ‘You’ve stolen from a baby, Feia.’ She tsked. ‘I can’t believe that you, of all people, would take the only possession of another Foundling.’
‘I’m going to give it back!’ Feia protested. The necklace belonged to Edeara. It had been left in the courtyard and Feia had tied it around her own neck to keep it safe.
‘Are you jealous, Feia?’ Saka’s voice softened.
Feia trembled and the knife-blade dipped. She could feel every move of the metal, every tiny scratch of the tip and every expectant breath from the girls around her. Grains of time passed. The knife-point pressed against her skin. Her heart skipped a beat. Don’t give up. Do not give up, she thought. Feia kicked up, hard and sudden. Her knee collided with Saka’s middle and the girl pitched forward, and the knife flew out of Saka’s hand and spun. Feia twisted her face away and felt it nick her nose. She heard with agonising clarity as it pinged against the stone column and dropped. It thudded into in the mud by her foot. She pushed hard against Saka’s shoulders, shoving her back, then ran. Feet slipping on damp grass, she charged towards the edge of the cliff, anywhere forward, anywhere far away.
Saka spun around to shout after her. ‘You’re nothing special!’ she roared. ‘No one wants you!’
‘Stop it, Saka!’ Feia turned back to face the group. She could feel the thump of her heart against her ribs. It would have been better to run, safer to flee, but she was trapped. Caught between the stone and the cliff Feia balled her fists. ‘I warn you!’ She felt like a cornered animal, desperate. A surge of bitter frustration rose like heat in her veins. She could feel it building within: she was burning with energy.
Saka stormed towards her, though the other girls hung back. ‘No one wants you.’ She gripped Feia by the shoulders and shoved her back towards the cliff. Feia gripped her hands tight, trying to push back, but slipped in the sodden ground.
‘Your mother didn’t want you!’ Saka was relentless and shoved again. Fear gripped Feia by the throat as she risked a look back. One more step and she’d fall over the edge. Her fingers tightened their hold on the other girl. Fighting back.
‘Give up! The world is better without you!’
‘NO!’ Feia pushed her back. All the misery and the fading wounds that Saka had inflicted surged up within her. The heartache couldn’t be stopped and it poured out without warning, rising from the centre of her chest and into her arms. She couldn’t hold the misery inside any more. She couldn’t hold back the tide of pain. Then, in a flash, it happened. In the final desperate shove, white-hot heat rose in her body and coursed down her outstretched arms and out through her palms. Her anguish manifested. It struck Saka’s shoulders in two bright bursts of avenging fire. The girl’s clothes burst into a wrathful roaring blaze. Saka shrieked and fell back as the flames licked into her hair until it blackened. They curled around her face, and the girls at the arch screamed in terror. Saka spun desperately. She wrapped her burning arms over her face. She staggered.
As Saka’s frantic steps wavered towards her, the stench of burning flesh broke through Feia’s horrified enchantment. What had she done? Was she more like them than she’d thought?
Without thinking she ran at Saka and wrapped her arms around her, bundling her to the damp, muddy ground. She pinned the other girl down, grabbing handfuls of slick mud and throwing them on top of the flames, feeling helpless. She didn’t know if it was the impact of her body on Saka’s, or if it was the mud she piled on top of her, but those flames that had survived the fall now ebbed. A few small and particularly wicked ones curled in Saka’s hair, and Feia smothered them, smearing mud through the pale locks as the girl lay whimpering beneath her.
‘Help!’ Feia looked up at the girls who had been quick to pin her for Saka’s knife. The girls who were so ready to damage someone different. She felt, with a sense of detachment, that her hands and face were hot. Tears fell down her cheeks.
‘Help me!’ she cried again. One of the girls broke away from the arch and fled, skirts flapping, across the courtyard. The others chased after her, wheeling like a flock of crows. Panic curled and twisted in her belly. Saka rolled and turned away from Feia, wrapping her face in her cloak, sobbing.
‘Saka…’ Feia’s voice dropped to a whisper. ‘I’m so sorry I – I didn’t mean it.’ As soon as the words left her lips, she knew that she lied. She had meant it; she’d wanted the girl to be burned to oblivion. She’d wanted Saka to suffer. She had wanted revenge.
‘I’d take it back—’ this was true. The sincerity of her own emotion rocked her and she laid a hand on Saka’s shoulder. Revenge was bitterer than expected. A sour taste on her tongue. Saka pulled away from her with a cry of pain. Feia rested her hands in her lap, pulling down her dress sleeves to cover the newest bruises that purpled her skin. Footsteps came quickly. Feia watched as Sisters scuttled towards her. She was pushed back, out of the way, as two of the Sisters let out shrieks of horror. A kitchen hand, a strong young man, joined the group with a dark blanket that he tenderly wrapped around the collapsed victim. Feia was left motionless on the grass as Saka was picked up and carried away.
Thanks for getting this far, I hope that you are enjoying the story. Burning Embers is available at most online outlets including Amazon! If you have kindle unlimited you should be able to read the whole story for free.