Fire Eater

Shackled ankle and wrist, the creature barely breathed. He drooped like a wet blanket between the two turnkeys. Pasty pale orange skin drew taut over long limb bones. If the creature could stand on his own, he might top seven feet. A pair of black horns spiraled another three feet from a lousy mat of hair faded to a sickly pink-gray, and black talons grew uncontrolled from fingertip and toe.

Mother Mirrah lowered a perfumed kerchief and asked, “What is this?”

“It’s a draeling, mum,” said the turnkey.

“I can see that! Why was he not moved with the others last week? Wyvern Prison can’t be demolished until the inmates are out of it.”

“Yes, mum, but the thing is–“

“The thing is,” the second turnkey interrupted, “we rather forgot he were there.”

“He were in the well, you see.”

“The well?” Mirrah asked.

“Yes, mum. The keeper of the Ass Level tells us yesterdee that there had to be someone down there, for the bread always got ate. Best to make sure it weren’t rats, he said.”

“The well . . . ,” Mirrah said, anger flaring in her cheeks. She heard tales of abuse far too often.

The turnkeys looked uneasy. Offending a priestess of Vatanne wouldn’t earn them the gods’ favor. “Yes, well, you see, mum–“

“I see perfectly. Clean up this creature and take him downriver to the infirmary immediately.”

“Don’t let him fool ya, mum. He were down there for a reason.”

“Aren’t they all.”

Wyvern Prison for Extraplanar Delinquents rose like a black boil above the Rahnish town of Aureth. Mirrah had first encountered the prison ten years earlier when, as a novice, she had made a pilgrimage to pay homage to the shrines dedicated to the Earth Mother. Compelled to visit the precincts, Mirrah longed to bring the light of hope to the creatures penned there. She quickly learned the arrogance of her intentions. The prisoners, gaunt and dull-eyed, hid from her in reeking dark corners, if they took note of her at all. The turnkeys had no qualm about torturing the inmates in her presence, and the warden had considered her a menace and kicked her out. Mirrah returned to Moonfall Monastery, sick with the certainty that something had to be done. Five years she appealed to the throne for help. She must’ve written a thousand letters. When the High King had died without so much as a line in reply, Mirrah had no reason to suspect that his heir would regard her any more favorably. So she was astonished when one of the royal ministers came to the monastery to escort her to Caryth, the city of kings.

Now, seven miles below the old prison, the Wyvern River divided in a turbulent froth around a series of rocky islands. Upon the largest island, a compound of basalt towers neared completion. New Hope Prison was a commendation to High King Astyn’s generosity and vision, the sign of a new age, or so Mirrah hoped. Iron bars still secured the windows and iron doors the exits; guards armed with mace and crossbow still patrolled the corridors. The King told Mirrah she would be a fool to dispense with those basic precautions, and he would not invest in a fool.

Returning to New Hope, Mother Mirrah went straight to the infirmary. Healers resided on the island, continually available for the care of the inmates. Cleanliness of both facility and residents was a primary priority; novices in white robes scrubbed the corridors and set out fresh rat traps. So different from the dank filthy darkness of old Wyvern. But the crisp scents of lye soap and sun-bleached sheets weren’t enough to mask the odor of lingering disease. Among the rows of beds, a naede gurgled for water, an elphin tossed fitfully and coughed up bloody phlegm. Like these and a hundred more strange and wondrous creatures, the draeling had been shaved head to foot and powdered with lime to get rid of the lice, then bathed and clothed in cool white trousers.

A long time Mirrah stood at the foot of the draeling’s bed, watching for each breath. They came slowly and shallow.

“I’m afraid we’re going to lose that one,” said Healer Selisse. She hovered behind Mother Mirrah and looked at the draeling from the corner of an eye.

“You’ve no reason to fear him, Selisse.”

The healer regarded Mirrah with stinging doubt. “Begging pardon, Verdant Mother, but I have plenty cause. You didn’t read my report?”

“I came straight here. Why? What happened?”

“See the bloody welts on his wrists? We had to restrain him to bathe him. I’ve never seen such immediate wakefulness and fit of violence. Two of our orderlies are in the recovery room upstairs, one with a broken jaw, the other with a concussion.”

Mirrah found it difficult to believe that this wasted creature could sit up on his own, much less attack anyone. But the welts told the truth of it. The breadth of the draeling’s chest and shoulders, the weight of his bones, spoke of a strength that had once been formidable, but now? He was but a shadow on the edge of oblivion.

All at once she realized what must’ve roused him. “The water! Selisse, he’s a creature of fire. The water must’ve awakened instinctual panic in him. Of course. We shall have to remember.”

“How shall we forget?”

“We need to find a different bed for him as well. This won’t do at all.” Though the draeling was propped up on a stack of pillows, his feet dangled six inches off the bed. “What did you learn from him?” A vice couldn’t convince some inmates to talk, others couldn’t be made to shut up. Of course, Mirrah intended to use gentler methods to accomplish both.

“Nothing, Verdant Mother. It’s in the report. Except for the fit in the bath, he’s remained largely as you see him now. His eyes though . . .” The healer stepped back from the bedside. “When we tried to feed him, his eyes opened. It wouldn’t trouble me to never see them again.”

“Healer Selisse,” whispered Mirrah, “if you cannot stomach the work to be done–“

“It’s not the work, Mother. It’s him! It’s all these foreign . . . monsters! They don’t belong here.”

Mother Mirrah had become adept at taming her anger. Long years of training among the Emerald Order had shaped her into a well-disciplined pacifist, in deed as well as word. “Yes,” she said, “I understand your . . . discomfort. But you must understand something, too, Selisse. Many of these creatures, the draeling included, share human blood. Many more are here simply because they are considered foreign, misfits, outsiders. They have been abused and neglected by men who can’t imagine that these creatures share the same pain and fear that you feel, Selisse. And until we came along, no one cared. These creatures, from that wingless harpy over there to this draeling, deserve our unflinching compassion, not because they are good or pretty, but because we have it to give.”

Healer Selisse looked contrite enough, large black eyes larger still and misty.

Softly Mirrah requested, “Bring me a chair, child, I’ll sit with him awhile.”

He must’ve been a splendid creature once. Half human, half drilyga. His kind were rarely seen in the Plane of Flesh; drilyga raiders preferred to take human women back to the Plane of Fire with them. Mirrah herself had never seen a drilyga, though she remembered tales of draeling mercenaries wielding blazing swords or throwing balls of fire at their foes. There was also the tale of the draeling troubadour whose voice had set maidens’ hearts ablaze. He had eventually married one of the many and was supposedly the progenitor of the Sunfire Clan in northern Rahn. Certainly not a tale of violence.

And this creature? Mirrah couldn’t learn why he’d been thrown down that horror of a well until she learned who he was.

His color hadn’t improved since he was raised from the dark, and he stopped swallowing the broth Mirrah spooned into his mouth. For the safety of the orderlies, the long spiraling horns had been sawn off; only six inches remained. The black talons, too, had been cut. A husk, pale, shrunken, and helpless was all that Mirrah had to work with. She could think of nothing to do to help him but apply more salve to the welts on his wrists. She noted the size of his hands. His palm dwarfed hers, her fingers half the length of his. The lines in the palm, the delicate rosettes of the fingerprints, so very . . . human.

“Don’t die on me, draeling,” she sighed, smearing on another coat of salve. The medicine smelled of mint and must’ve burned like fire and ice together, for the draeling’s arm flinched and Mirrah found him staring at her. She couldn’t prevent the spark of fear that surged through her at the first sight of his eyes. Selisse had been right about that. The irises were red-orange, like embers, the pupils wide at first, but fast narrowing to slits in the strong daylight sifting through the shutters on the high windows.

Mirrah caught her breath and asked, “Can you . . . can you understand me, draeling?”

For a moment he just stared at her, as if the slight movement of those eyes over her face were the only response he could manage. But at last his shaved, dehorned head gave a tiny nod.

“Good. If you feel you have the strength to speak, I need to know your name.”

The draeling made several feeble attempts before he muttered, “Name?” The voice, rough and unused, had a great deal of bass in it.

“We have records, you see,” Mirrah explained slowly. “It’s my duty to review the inmates’ cases, but I can’t identify your case until you tell me your name.”

The draeling stared past the whitewashed ceiling, frowning, shallow breath coming quicker now. The lids rolled down over the eyes, and with immense effort he whispered, “One Four Three . . . Nine.”

Mirrah choked on a sob. “Not . . . not your prison number.”

He appeared more confused than ever. Then a distant, inward-seeing look came into the smoldering eyes. A tear rolled from one of them and down the side of his face. “Derinzan,” he said. “I am Derinzan.”

* * * * *

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First published in Midnight Times in 2007. Reprinted in Kaleidotrope, Issue #9, 2010.

copyright 2010 Court Ellyn

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Praise for “Fire Eater”

“a very well-written story” –Sam Tomaino, SFRevu

“superior craftswoman . . . deeply affecting” –Kimberly Todd Wade, author of Thrall