The Fire Sermon (The Fire Sermon #1) - Francesca Haig Page 0,1

to my body. The rope cut into my arms, but at least it held me steady, grasped firmly by the man at my back. We traveled that way for the rest of the day. At nightfall, when the dark was slipping over the horizon like a noose, we stopped briefly and dismounted to eat. Another of the men offered me bread, but I could manage only a few sips from the water flask, the water warm and musty. Then I was again hoisted up, in front of a different man now, his black beard prickling the back of my neck. He pulled a sack over my head, but in the darkness it made little difference.

I sensed the city in the distance, long before the clang of hoofs beneath us indicated that we’d reached paved roads. Through the sack covering my face, glints of light began to show. I could feel the presence of people all about me—more even than at Haven on market day. Thousands of them, I guessed. The road steepened as we rode on, slowly now, the hoofs noisy on cobbles. Then we halted, and I was passed, almost tossed, down to another man, who dragged me, stumbling, for several minutes, pausing often while doors were unlocked. Each time we moved on, I heard the doors being locked again behind us. Each scrape of a bolt sliding back was like another blow.

Finally, I was pushed down onto a soft surface. I heard a rasp of metal behind me, a knife sliding from a sheath. Before I had time to cry out, the rope around my body fell away, slit. Hands fumbled at my neck, and the sack was ripped from my head, the rough burlap grazing my nose. I was on a low bed, in a small room. A cell. There was no window. The man who’d untied me was already locking the metal door behind him.

Slumped on the bed, the taste of mud and vomit in my mouth, I finally allowed myself to cry. Partly for myself, and partly for my twin; for what he’d become.

chapter 2

The next morning, as usual, I woke from dreams of fire.

As the months passed, the moments after such dreams were the only times I was grateful to wake to the confines of the cell. The room’s grayness, the familiarity of its implacable walls, were the opposite of the vast and savage excess of the blast I dreamed of nightly.

There were no written tales or pictures of the blast. What was the point of writing it, or drawing it, when it was etched on every surface? Even now, more than four hundred years after it had destroyed everything, it was still visible in every tumbled cliff, scorched plain, and ash-clogged river. Every face. It had become the only story the earth could tell, so who else would record it? A history written in ashes, in bones. Before the blast, they say there’d been sermons about fire, about the end of the world. The fire itself gave the last sermon; after that there were no more.

Most who survived were deafened and blinded. Many others found themselves alone—if they told their stories, it was only to the wind. And even if they had companions, no survivor could ever properly describe the moment it happened: the new color of the sky, the roar of sound that ended everything. Struggling to describe it, the survivors would have found themselves, like me, stranded in that space where words ran out and sound began.

The blast shattered time. In an instant, it cleaved time irrevocably into Before and After. Now, hundreds of years later, in the After, no survivors remained, no testimonies. Only seers like me could glimpse it, momentarily, in the instant before waking, or when it ambushed us in the half second of a blink: the flash, the horizon burning up like paper.

The only tales of the blast were sung by the bards. When I was a child, the bard who passed through the village each autumn sang of other nations, across the sea, sending the flame down from the sky, and of the radiation and the Long Winter that had followed. I must have been eight or nine when, at Haven market, Zach and I heard an older bard with frost-gray hair singing the same tune but with different words. The chorus about the Long Winter was the same, but she made no mention of other nations. Each verse she sang just described the fire, and