They buried Verit on the same night that he died. There was no choice. Their home was now reduced to ashes, and to leave him outside was unthinkable. Even Verit’s scrawny little carcass would have drawn creatures from far and wide searching for a free feast. Someone would have had to stay constantly on guard at his side or he would have been eaten; flesh gorged, sinews chewed, bones gnawed, devoured. Yalka could not bear that. He had to be buried that night.
The charred ruins of the River Settlements, Yalka’s home for almost all of her sixteen years, were still smoking as she and her grandfather started up the hill. The air was heavy with soot and the bitter stench of fire. Here and there islands of embers glowed in the dark where shacks had once stood. From time to time a gust of wind would spin them, whirling firefly sparks into the air.
Yalka went first, trying to pick a path that would not be too hard for the old man who followed, carrying his grandson over his shoulder. They had wrapped the boy in a piece of brightly coloured cloth, a riot of embroidery set with glass beads and small squares of silver. It had belonged to Yalka’s mother and it was the most valuable thing they owned. Her grandfather had wanted it to be Yalka’s pairing shawl, her bridecloth, and it had been the first of the few things he had managed to snatch from the fire. It was not a burial shroud; the gaudy colours mocked their grief and the bleak destruction around them, but it was all they had.
Yalka was weary beyond imagining. All the time the fire had been raging she had been its adversary, labouring to fight it off. She had been powered by pure energy as she rushed between the blazing houses, looking for her enemy’s weak spots. She had filled buckets from the river and organised a chain. She had dragged people and things from the searing shells of homes, her eyes streaming as she stared into the caverns of fire. She had tugged, wrenched, ripped, borne, in her efforts to salvage. She had screamed as a tongue of flame licked her calf, and again when another caressed her shoulder, but mostly she had felt nothing. She felt it now; her whole body hurt with a ferocity beyond tears.
She had also seen the masked fire raisers, and she had demanded why Peglar, whom she had trusted, was allowing this to happen.
All three of them – Yalka, Verit and Syramos, their grandfather – had been asleep when their shack was torched. The two children must have woken together, because as Yalka leapt from her bed, the smell of burning already strong, she was aware of the boy at her side. Her grandfather was still sleeping soundly and she had to shake him awake. Then, signing to Verit to stay put, she slid, almost fell, down the narrow stairs from their sleeping loft. The door to the street was swinging open and there was a smoky, smouldering heap in the middle of the room. The fumes stung her eyes and she could scarcely breathe. As she backed away, a black shape appeared in the doorway and hurled in a blazing brand. There was a percussive thump like a great beast sucking in air and the heap ignited. Yalka screamed, and her grandfather tumbled down the stairs behind her.
For a few frantic moments they struggled with the blaze but they could see that it was beyond the two of them to put it out. The timber shack, the simple furnishings, and Syramos’s books were ideal food for the flames. The choking smoke forced them out, and then they saw with horror that theirs was not the only fire. Every other shack they could see was burning.
They were stunned, watching helplessly as their home was devoured. Then without speaking, without thinking, they began to work. Syramos wrapped rags around his hands and head, Yalka doused them and his clothes with water, and he plunged back inside. At once he was lost in the smoke, and Yalka watched anxiously, searching for movement in the murk. She thought he was gone, and she was on the verge of rushing in to drag him out when he appeared in the doorway, clutching some smouldering objects. He flung them from him and Yalka took over, getting them away from the house, away from the inferno. Syramos went in again and again, each time fighting for breath as he staggered out, each time bringing fewer things. He bent double, fighting for breath, his clothes charred and smoking. Yalka had filled two pails from the river and she tipped them over him.
As the girl and her grandfather worked the burning shack became increasingly dangerous. It was now completely ablaze, a cone of flames. The sleeping loft was almost gone and looked as though it might collapse at any moment, bringing blazing boards down on their heads. When Syramos next came out Yalka grabbed the old man’s arm and held on, but there was no need. He had reached the end of what he could do. He tottered away from the heat and crumpled to the ground. He gulped the water she gave him, and retched. She squatted beside him and looked into his face, her arm around his shoulder. His eyebrows were gone, his beard was singed and his nose and forehead were streaked and raw.
Yalka stared at the remains of their shack and along with the despair came a rising torrent of anger.
‘Peglar never said this would happen,’ she cried. ‘He promised we’d be all right. He lied.’ She wiped her stinging eyes. ‘Why didn’t he stop it?’
Syramos shook his head slowly. ‘I doubt Peglar could have done anything about it.’ he said. It was then that she realised Verit was missing. Why hadn’t he helped her to move their things and fill the pails? Where was the little bugger when you needed him? She had last seen him when she and Syramos had first found the fire and started beating back the flames, just before they had been forced out. He had been frightened and confused, but she hadn’t had the space to deal with him so she’d pushed him towards the door and pointed towards the edge of the clearing and safety. He must have gone there to hide.
For some time they sought him. They called to neighbours but all were distracted by trying to save their own lives and wouldn’t have noticed a skinny boy lurking in the shadows. They searched the river bank and looked in a shallow cave at the edge of the woods where he would sometimes go to be on his own. They shouted his name, but he wouldn’t have heard them; he was deaf. Then it came to her. She knew where he would be. She let out a cry and ran back to what was left of their shack.
The fire had almost finished its work, there was nothing left for it to consume, but it was still unbearably hot. In the middle of the floor of what had once been their kitchen were four flagstones. In their centre was a metal plate. Syramos had dug out the space beneath it many years before, a shallow trough to keep food cool in the summer or store other things of value. Verit sometimes hid there when he thought he was in trouble, or when he simply wanted to avoid people.
Yalka seized the ring on the plate. The hot metal burnt her fingers but she ignored the pain and wrenched it aside, and there he was. She could just make him out in the gloom, curled up in a ball at the end of the trough. Her grandfather came behind her and they both looked down at the still figure. Syramos knelt, reached into the hole with both arms and pulled the boy out. Yalka grabbed his shoulders and tried to wake him but his head flopped loosely to the side. Syramos put a hand on her arm and shook his head.
She looked at her brother again. He might have been sleeping, but now she could see that he was not. He was dead. She felt his face, his arms, his hair. He was warm, and there was sweat on his skin, but he was dead. He looked whole and unhurt, but he was dead. Beyond the casual grime of a free-ranging eight-year-old there were no marks on him. So what had killed him?
Her grandfather lifted the boy up and slowly carried him out and away from what had been their home. Yalka looked at the meagre pile of things they had managed to save and wept at the price they had paid.
Yalka knew exactly where they should bury her brother. Syramos didn’t argue, even though he knew that it would be a struggle to get the body up the hill. He was exhausted, but he accepted that he had to do it.
He started by cradling Verit in his arms, like a baby, but even though the boy was small he was a dead weight, and after only a few steps Syramos had to put him down. He readjusted the coloured cloth they had wrapped him in and bound it in place with his belt. The man’s belt went twice around the boy’s small frame but the arrangement worked. He was able to get the bundle onto his back, and that was better.
They climbed through the woods, leaving the remains of the fire behind them. Most of what was combustible had gone, and what had been a scene from hell was now reduced to no more than a series of smouldering heaps lining the ravine. On their left, the city rose above them. At first they could see plenty of activity in the streets, with lighted windows, milling pedestrians, and the flicker of burning torches. Then the track curved away around the side of the hill where the woods were thicker, and they were on their own.
The moon had risen but its light was dim under the trees, and as they went deeper it became impossible to see more than a few feet in front of them. The track was not as steep here but the ground was rough. Yalka took the lead, alerting her grandfather to obstacles and holding back branches so that he was able to get through without losing his grip on his burden. Even so, the old man stumbled several times and once he almost fell. From time to time they had to stop while he set Verit down and rested. Each time they started again she saw that it was harder for him to lift her brother’s body once more.
At the back of the hill, they came out from the trees at the foot of a long, steep path. The first hint of dawn was just beginning to pale the eastern sky and above them they could see their goal, the rear wall of the Citadel high on the rocky crest. The slope up to it was strewn with jagged boulders, some of them huge. Syramos pursed his lips and gritted his teeth as he took the first few steps up the path.
Back in the River Settlements Yalka had struggled to understand what had happened to her brother.
‘He’s not burnt. So why is he dead?’ She’d wiped the back of her hand across her face, smearing the tears.
Syramos had spoken slowly, his voice dry and hoarse. ‘As the house burnt the fire must have sucked the air out from the trough.’
Yalka had looked at her grandfather in wide-eyed horror. ‘You mean he was suffocated. Will it have hurt him?’
The old man shook his head.
‘It must have hurt him.’
‘No, I don’t think it would,’ her grandfather had said and then had to stop, wracked by a fit of coughing. Yalka had looked at him with concern and clutched his arm while he struggled with his breathing. It had been a while before he’d been able to continue. ‘But he would have been frightened.’
She didn’t know; neither of them did.