Chapter 4: Marked by Love

Roxane started to worry the moment Dustfinger wasn't back for lunch. She kept staring out the window, watching for any flicker of fire on the road that would announce the fire-eater's presence. Delicious smells wafted out of the kitchen, but she ignored them. Strange how once she had been perfectly happy on her own and now she couldn't even stand to go one morning without seeing Dustfinger's mysterious smile. The meal was good, but she ate half-heartedly, despite Arrisa's assurances that Dustfinger would be back any minute.

But he did not come back. Soon it was four in the afternoon and still there was no sign of him. "Oh, he's probably found a good audience and is enjoying himself," said Redwind. "I'll bet that he comes back with a few coins."

But then evening came and the sky began to darken as the sun set behind the hills. "He's never left me for this long," said Roxane.

"Fire looks better at night," said Redwind. "Doubtlessly, he was asked to stay at Tranton and put on a night performance. He'll be back in the morning."

Roxane woke long before the sun was up and immediately hurried into Dustfinger's room, hoping with all her heart that he would be lying in his bed with Gwin curled up on his chest. The bed was empty – it had not been disturbed all night. It was then that Roxane began to fear that something truly dreadful had happened to her fire-eater. None of Redwind and Arrisa's confident assurances that he was fine and had merely stayed the night in Tranton helped. Every moment that passed made Roxane more afraid. By the time evening had come again, she was desperate.

He'll come, she kept trying to tell herself. He'll come back laughing and playing with fire. We've both lived our lives separately until a few months ago and I can go a few days without seeing him. But she didn't believe herself.

On the third day since he had left, finally Redwind and Arrisa seemed to be getting worried. At noon, they told Roxane that they were going to Tranton to see if they could find him or at least get news of him. Roxane stood at the window and watched them disappear down the road. Finally, she fell asleep on the broad window sill that overlooked the road.

She awoke to the sound of the door opening behind her. Groggily, she pushed black hair out of her face as she turned to see what news her friends had returned with. She froze, all sleepiness draining from her as fear surged in to take its place.

Basta chuckled. "Well, well, all alone, are we? I've been waiting for your two friends to leave for some while, so that I could drop in and pay you a visit by yourself."

Roxane stood quickly, pressing herself against the sill. Redwind, Arrisa, come back. Oh, come back, please. "They went to get some bread," she said, trying to keep her voice from trembling, "but I'm not alone. Dustfinger's in the back room."

The look on Basta's face made Roxane shudder. "Oh, Dustfinger's here, is he? Dear, beloved, wonderful, perfect Dustfinger. The man who was better than me. No, Roxane, I don't think he's here. He might be in a ditch somewhere or, who knows, he might still be lying in the road. But I don't think he's here."

Basta's words confirmed Roxane's worst fears. Horror seeped into her heart. "What have you done with him?" she choked. "Why are you here?"

The fire raiser pulled out his knife and ran his finger delicately along its edge. "I am surprised. I would have thought that you'd know the answer to the second question, at least. As I told Dustfinger, I don't like it when I'm refused. You made me rather angry in the Castle of Night, so I'm here to get what I still want – you. It was easy to track down Dustfinger after I'd found someone who could read your little orb. He's rather famous. And as for what I've done with your dear Dustfinger, well, I've turned him into a pretty piece of art. But I doubt if you'll ever get to see him again." As he spoke, he moved forward until his knife pricked Roxane's shoulder.

"Get away from her, Basta!" A column of fire shot up from the floor singing Basta's jacket. With an angry shout, he turned to stare at the doorway where Dustfinger stood, a hooded cloak thrown around his shoulders. Basta reacted quickly by seizing Roxane and pressing his knife against her throat. But Roxane barely noticed the cold steel. He's alive.

"Make the fire go away," Basta shouted. "One tiny flame and I'll cut her throat." Instantly, the fire receded and Dustfinger stood in silence, his eyes glinting in the shadow cast by the hood. Basta smiled again. "Ah, so you did live. I hoped that I hadn't bled you too much. After all, it would be a pity if Roxane never got to see your face. I was just telling her about it."

"I don't care." Dustfinger's voice betrayed the opposite of those words.

Basta sneered. "Then why the hood? Come on, fire-eater, show her your face. I want to see her horror. I want to hear her say how hideous you are."

Roxane's eyes were fixed on Dustfinger. He returned her look and for a moment she saw the glint of agony in his eyes before he nodded ever so briefly. Knowing what he wanted of her, she made her move swiftly, ramming her elbow into Basta's thin chest. At the same time, Dustfinger leapt forward, faster than the flames he controlled. Roxane leapt out of the way and the two men crashed into the wall. Basta was trying to use his knife, but Dustfinger held his hand away, twisting as he tried to rid his opponent of the deadly weapon. Suddenly, Basta howled in pain and dropped the knife, staring down at his leg where Gwin was resolutely biting away. That was all Dustfinger needed. He swung his arm around and caught Basta on the side of the face with a stinging blow, sending the fire raiser staggering to the floor. It was over then, and Dustfinger knelt over Basta, the knife held against its cruel master's throat.

Basta was breathing hard. He stared up into Dustfinger's angry eyes and chuckled. "Are you going to kill me? Do you really have the guts? Go ahead, I've left my mark on this world, carved all over your pretty face."

His voice trailed off as the knife pressed a little harder. "I don't kill," Dustfinger grated, "and I don't like weapons. But I'll tell my fire to teach you a lesson if you don't get out now." As if to prove his point, a flame appeared on the floor and curled around Basta's hand. Evidently, the fire raiser could feel its heat for suddenly his face twisted in fear. Dustfinger's voice was as hard as rock. "Get out, Basta. Get out now."

He released Basta, and the fire raiser bolted upright, pursued by the flames. Not even bothering to take the knife that Dustfinger had thrown away, he dashed out the door, followed by a trail of fire.

Dustfinger sank against the wall and Roxane was instantly at his side, concern written all over her face. "Are you alright? Did he hurt you?"

The fire-eater smiled wryly. "Yes, I'm fine. Just need to get my breath back. Seems that I came right at the perfect moment though. It's a good thing that he's afraid of fire or I might have had more than I could handle."

Roxane frowned. "You should have killed him while you had the chance."

Dustfinger shrugged and leaned his head back against the wall. "It didn't seem right. Even after all he's done, I had no desire to kill him. Scare him, maybe, but not kill him."

Roxane remembered Basta's words and worry returned. "But what has he done? Is your face…?" She trailed off, overcome by emotion.

Dustfinger looked at her, but she could read nothing in that look save perhaps pain. "Very well." His voice faltered as he reached up, pulled back his hood, and turned his left cheek to Roxane. The light from the window fell upon the three gashes.

Roxane bit her lip so hard that it hurt, but she couldn't stop the gasp of shock from coming out. She knew enough of healers' lore to know that Dustfinger's face would never fully recover, but she did not care. She had been so afraid that he would never come back at all and from the look of the wounds, she knew that Dustfinger must have lost a great deal of blood. It would have been easy for him to bleed to death on the road. So dreadfully easy. She continued to stare at his face, horror for what might have happened and relief that it hadn't written on her face.

Dustfinger only saw the horror and he took her gasp to mean what he had so feared – that she was revolted by his appearance. Sucking in his breath sharply to control a sob, he turned his face away as he whispered, "Don't worry – I'm not going to stay. You won't have to look at my face any longer."

Roxane caught his sleeve. "What do you mean?"

"I understand. You're young and pretty and there are plenty of other men out there who have more than half a face. This was what Basta wanted all along anyway – for me to be so mutilated that you wouldn't want me anymore."

Roxane stopped him as he turned to leave. Gently, she put her hand against his cheek and turned his head so that he was forced to look at her. Her voice was barely above a whisper. "Oh, Dustfinger, is that what you think? You think I would turn you away just because you have a few scars. I do not know and cannot even imagine what you have been through, but I know that it was for my sake. You saved me from Basta. If I turned you away now, I would deserve a far worse punishment than you have received."

"Then you don't mind? They're hideous, Roxane, hideous."

Roxane drew his face to hers and kissed him three times, once on each scar. "No, Dustfinger, they're beautiful. They're the most beautiful things I've ever seen. I can always look at you now and know how much you love me and if I ever doubt, all I have to do it look at your face."

It was a rare occasion for Dustfinger's face to be readable at all, but as Roxane looked at him now she could see his every thought and emotion – weariness, relief, and love. She collapsed into his arms and as he squeezed her tight, she heard his soft voice. "Nothing will ever separate us, Roxane. I'll always be here for you, always come back. I promise." And as Roxane buried her face in his shoulder and breathed in the smell of fire she had come to love so much, she knew his words were true, and contentment swept over her like a warm flame.

The End