The fire crackles. I try edging closer, but a large hand catches me and pushes be back. “Let him feel the heat. Don’t steal it from him.”
Tannen kneels down beside me. White pellets of snow pelt us, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He’s so big that a little snow can’t hurt him. Nothing can hurt him. At last I’ve found someone who won’t betray me. Not like dad. Not like Eli. Pyremen never desert their own.
He smiles and points to the dead body that the flames are devouring. “You helped me carry him out here. What did his skin feel like to you?”
“Cold,” I answer.
“Of course he’s cold. He’s dead.” Tannen nods. “But who wants to be cold forever? Let me tell you a pyreman secret, Aydrik. People tell stories about Before, when we didn’t have to dig down to heat, when we used to be able to see the sun. They say we used to bury our dead in the ground. And it’s true. Every once in a while a ‘shovel will find bones as it tries to uncover a new heat spring. I’ve been there to help honor the dead and move them respectfully.”
I pull my cap tighter on my head. My gloves are already too small. I won’t be able to wear them much longer.
“They say the reason we don’t bury our dead anymore is that we need more room for us under the soil. But that doesn’t make any sense. Look out at the plains. Do you think we could ever run out of room to bury our dead and live up below the surface?”
I follow his gesture and take in the white, white plains beyond the valley that holds the Pits. It goes on forever.
“There’s a very different reason that we burn the dead.”
I find his eyes again, and they’re very intense.
“We do it to honor the dead. We do it to give them one last taste of warmth. We do it to help remember.” He stops. “Aydrik, if we don’t remember the dead, we cannot honor the living. The only way anything will ever get better for us in the Pits is when we don’t hide from death, but remember and honor.”
He’s using a lot of words I don’t care too much about. I want to use the warmth of the fire to help fight the chill of the wind. “Yeah, sure, but if you don’t honor the living, who would ever care about some dead guy?”
Tannen looks down and shakes his head. “Aydrik, you’re dreaming. Wake up.”
The fire behind him flares brighter. The heat surrounds me for just a moment.
“Who are we burning?” I ask. Anything to change the subject.
“Look for yourself. Tell me what you can before the flames erase his features forever.” Tannen stands and gets out of the way.
I edge closer to the fire, careful to keep my feet well clear of any coals. The flames obscure the body within. Bodies? It must be a trick of the heat; it looks like there’s more than one body – two? Maybe even three, all piled on top of each other.
“While you’re looking, recall what you found out when we claimed the body.”
I try to think. Where did we get the body? We must have. A pyreman only immolates the bodies given directly to him; we watch from claiming the dead until they are gone forever.
There it is. I shake my head. Why couldn’t I remember right away? We got this man at the bottom of a pit. He’d fallen from the very top. Maybe he was drunk or something. He’d been pretty banged up. He had a red hat, too. That meant something.
“He was an officer,” I say.
“That’s right,” Tannen answers. “Fallen in the line of duty. Someone pushed him.”
“No, that can’t be right,” I answer. “He was drunk. He had to be drunk.”
“Wake up, Aydrik. That man wasn’t drunk. Yes, some officers will have far too much vodka before they begin their patrol, but this was a good man. He was married. He had three daughters. Whoever pushed him didn’t care, though. They didn’t honor the living, and that’s why this man is dead now.”
I shrug. “Maybe the officer had it coming.”
“Maybe. But that’s not for a pyreman to decide.” Tannen points. “Don’t look at me. Look at him. What do you see?”
Back to the flames. I still can’t see too well. The flickering keeps getting in my way. What’s going on here? “Is there someone else on the pyre?”
“We honor one at a time. Each life is precious. Each death is important.”
“But I see two heads.”
A gust pushes down at the pyre, smothers the flames for a moment.
No. The face of the dead man. It’s the officer I murdered.
No. I didn’t murder him. He was trying to kill Kaynie.
“Wake up, Aydrik.” Tannen’s voice is harsh. “Face facts. A person who kills can’t be a pyreman. A person who doesn’t care about the Pits and takes the plague into them? That man doesn’t deserve anything.”
There’s a second face there. The other officer. What were their names?
“You can’t even remember their names? What kind of a man are you? No man at all. No better than the dogs that come to chew on your bones. They don’t care about your name, either.”
Something snarls behind me. I spin. The dogs – they’re circling. Countless dogs. I can’t see the horizon anymore; there’s just shapes moving under the gray light of the clouds. An endless sea of ravenous, starving mutts stare at me.
The fire pops.
It’s Kaynie in the flames. She’s screaming in pain.
“You killed her too. You gave her plague. I hope you’re happy.”
“No.” I shake my head. “I don’t have plague!”
“Wake up, Aydrik!” Tannen screams. “Wake up!”
The dogs attack. A sea of dogs, claws and teeth and slobber and snarls and eyes that shine white, all burying me, clawing at me, chewing on my wrist and my leg and my face. I feel a claw slice into my stomach, another into my shoulder, all over, they’re eating me but I’m not dying and I can feel their teeth chewing me and my ears won’t stop and I can smell them and there is nothing left but pain and more pain and Tannen screaming, “Wake up!”
Everything is black and cold.
There is no snarling. No barking. No fire pops. Tannen’s voice is silent.
There is only black and cold.
Can I breathe? Is this what death is? A dream from the past mashing together with guilt? And now just cold and dark?
Why should death be full of guilt? I’m not guilty.
Patr’s voice floats out at me. “He took your guilt away. He threw it into the depths of the sea. And now that every sea is frozen over, you can never, ever get it back.” And then his voice changes. It’s full of disappointment. “But if you walk away from him, he gives you that guilt back. Aydrik, my son, do not turn your back on him. It will not help you.”
There’s air here. I suck in as much as I can.
It’s not just cold and dark. There’s pain, too. Pain all over.
I open my eyes.
A lantern burns nearby. A woman sits beside me. “Wake up. It’s not time for you to die yet.”
It’s the woman who found me outside the Pits. Her gray, frizzy hair seems to go everywhere. She smiles, revealing that most of her teeth are missing. “You had us worried.”
“You’re still my apprentice. I have to care for you.”
No. I don’t want to deal with him. I don’t want to have to think about him. The one I betrayed and started this whole mess.
But, no. Tannen stands beside her, watching me with his dark eyes.
We’re both in the Plaguer Camp.
Read the next post here.