A flame born seemingly of nothing burst into life, blinding in its brilliance. The candle, cold and dark only moments before, now flickered with a dancing golden glow that chased away the darkness. The warmth Aerdrin felt was more than the heat from the candle flame alone could account for. Nothing so delighted her teacher’s heart as the success of a pupil. She kept her hands clasped behind her back lest she start clapping and ruin the little girl’s concentration. She could not keep the pride from her voice though. “You have done well, Tieka, very well.”
The freckled-nose girl smiled, but kept her gaze locked on the candle in front of her. The other girls in the class surrounded her and murmured their awe. Like Aerdrin, Tieka was particularly gifted in the wielding of fire. Unlike Aerdrin though, Tieka had not yet learned to control her ability, as her candle flame, which began to stretch and spark, demonstrated.
“The flame is an extension of your will in elemental form. You need not force it.” Aerdrin reminded her.
The flame ceased its showering of sparks almost instantly.
“Yes, just like that. Excellent.”
“Excellent indeed,” echoed Inga, who had been an experienced wielder for more years than Aerdrin had been alive.
All of the women and girls here were wielders of the elements –women born with the ability to command air, earth, water, and fire. Long ago, wielders were revered as the blessed of the goddess, but those days were no more. Far from being respected, wielders now were hated and feared. The burning of wielders at the stake was still practiced in many lands, something Aerdrin knew well. She was still haunted by nightmares of the devouring pyre that had claimed her mother.
A sudden bolt of pain struck behind her eyes. A flash of silver-bright light seared her vision. She squeezed shut her eyes and tensed for further assault on her senses. None came. She chanced a look around her. All was as it should be. Her students and her classroom were unchanged. Nothing at all seemed amiss. She willed her muscles to relax and massaged her temples. The pain and the light were gone, but their memory haunted her mind like a specter.
The press of wind against the manor house sent a chill billowing across the floor, recalling Aerdrin to her surroundings. She was safe here in the sanctuary in the Northland, a place –the only place –where wielders could live free from fear and persecution.
The roof beams popped and creaked, and the next gale slammed into the structure with such force that it unhinged the window shutters.
Inga sighed, accustomed as she was to such blustery displays. “I’ll get it.” She left to retrieve a crossbeam with which to reinforce the shutters.
“Continue on, Tieka,” Aerdrin said, but the girl’s attention was no longer focused on her flame. Instead she stared, wide eyed, at the window where the loosened shutter, tossed about by the insistent wind, banged and clawed.
“Tieka, there is nothing to fear. Nothing will harm you.” Aerdrin soothed, but her words failed to penetrate the terror that enveloped the girl.
Tieka’s candle flame flickered and danced, but did not go out.
Aerdrin motioned for the other girls to back away. “Tieka, it is me, Aerdrin. You are safe. You are in the sanctuary.”
The women and girls here had survived unspeakable horrors. Aerdrin had been even younger than Tieka when Mother Corra had rescued her and brought her here.
Aerdrin put a gentle hand on Tieka’s shoulder, but the girl recoiled as though struck. In that instant, the candle flame swelled into a ball of red fire.
“Run! Find Inga!” Aerdrin yelled over the growl of the blaze that grew higher and hotter and separated Aerdrin and Tieka from escape.
She lunged forward, hurling herself away from the advancing fire and pushing Tieka into the corner farthest from the flames. Aerdrin fought the rising smoke that threatened to choke her.
“Tieka, you must stop. You know I cannot save us.”
It was a bitter truth. Aerdrin could not wield water. That most basic of needs, that most critical element to survival, and Aerdrin couldn’t produce so much as a drop of it. That’s why Inga, an accomplished water wielder, had to be always present in Aerdrin’s classes, though she appeared to be doing nothing but knitting.
“Wielder Aerdrin?” Tieka’s voice was small and frightened. “Oh Wielder Aerdrin, I am so sorry. I thought–”
Aerdrin waved away her explanation. “This fire is alive all on its own now. Nothing can stop it but water. Have you ever wielded water?”
Tieka wrapped her arms around herself as she shook her head. “No, just fire and air.”
Neither of those would save them. “Can you try a water wielding?”
“Yes, of course,” Tieka said, eager to help. “How is it done?”
Aerdrin’s hopes vanished. She had no notion at all how one wielded water. The rhythms of fire, earth, and air were as familiar to her as her own heartbeat, but she and water were strangers. Tieka might as well be asking a stone how to swim.
Aerdrin used her body to shield Tieka before turning to face the flames. The smoke stung her eyes and burned her lungs. The lance of pain returned, a relentless drumbeat in her head that grew louder and faster. The silvery light flashed, turned to gold, then deepened to a red glow. When the smoke cleared, Aerdrin saw the fire. It writhed in a serpentine dance. The ecstatic flames reached for the heavens. They blocked her view of everything, everything except the tops of the great trees.
Such enormous trees. They surrounded her. A statue, nearly as tall as the trees, of the Mother Goddess round with child stared down at her. It swayed in the heat shimmer. The image was familiar, but this place was not. Never had she seen such trees. And Dearest Mother save them, there were people with her in this fiery grove. They called to her. They wailed, begged, and pleaded for her to save them. Save them? How was she to save anyone? She could not even save herself.
One voice, a man’s voice, cut through the cacophony. “No!” he cried, sounding as though his very soul was being rent apart. All around her was smoke and flames, yet she searched for him, this man whose voice carried the grief of ages. She must get to him. Together, they could put out these flames.
The voices silenced. The trees disappeared. The scorching heat became a damp chill. The firelight vanished in one great silvery flash. And Aerdrin was left in darkness.