Fire to Ashes
by Sauron Gorthaur

In the ring of stones, the fire had burned down to ashes. I gently laid another log on top of the grey embers and watched the flames lick hungrily at the fresh wood.

I was such a coward.

They were only words, right? But hadn't I learned long ago that words can hurt so much more than knives? And wouldn't I be the one to know?

The flames were fighting for the wood, curling around each other in their eagerness to feed. Even if they spoke a strange language here, even if I could not understand them, I still knew what they must be whispering. Like dogs, they could sense fear. They were laughing at me, for they knew I was afraid. That I was a coward.

My eyes strayed, as they always did, to the backpack on the ground an arm's length away. I knew the contents of the pack better than I knew my own hands: bottles, flasks, torches, my juggling balls, a worn doublet of red and black, and probably a few stray feathers or tufts of fur from Gwin's last snack.

But there was one other object in that pack, and it was that object that drew my gaze and fanned my fear.

Words.

Words that I was too much of a coward to read.

As if my hands had a mind of their own, I reached towards the pack and opened it, pulling into view the book that I alternatively loved more than my life and hated more than my death. I opened it slowly as if it could bite me. It probably could, not my hands maybe, but my heart, my heart that was already thudding unnaturally fast at the very sight of it.

I began to read the words on the first page. I didn't need to read them – I had read them so many times in this past year that they were burned in my heart – but I did, just like I did every evening. Why? Why was I sitting here again reading the words when I knew they would only cut me? Did I think it wouldn't hurt this time? That I could just forget?

I wasn't reading anymore. Instead, my eyes scanned the pages with feverish speed, glancing over the words because I knew the story they told. As I turned over each new page, my heart sped up and fear clouded my mind.

It was not a long book. Soon, I reached the second-to-last chapter and my hands stopped their frenzied turning of pages. I had never read past this point. I had never had the courage. What made me think that this night would be any different?

The chapters didn't have names – there was just Chapter 20 and then the words began again. The first letter, a D, was decorated with red flowers like drops of blood on the page. I let my eyes wander down. The first word was my own name. It still gave me a shock to see my name written there, as if I were only a character in a book, a character that words could strike down and kill.

Dustfinger was running.

My mind screamed at me to stop reading, but my heart would not listen. My stupid heart. So, I read on slowly, as every word became a burden in my mind, as I lost myself in a story I had wanted to know for so long, but had always been wise enough not to read. Then as if I had passed some invisible, mental boundary, I was no longer struggling against the words. I had to know how it ended, and I had gone too far to turn back here.

Finally, I reached the words that had haunted me ever since Silvertongue's daughter had told me the end of my tale. I read them, trembling, hardly able to believe that they were really written there.

And one of Capricorn's men leapt forward and drove his knife into Dustfinger's back, so deep that it reached his heart. And the fire of his heart was turned to ashes within him, as he collapsed and felt Death's fingers close around the smoldering embers of his soul.

I recoiled away from the book, almost throwing it from me in my haste to get the words out of my sight. But the damage had been done, as my mind had warned me when my heart would not listen. The words were within me now, and I could never be rid of them until they finally came true. A cry of horror that had been bubbling up inside of me burst out, and for a second I could hardly believe that such a sound could have come from my own mouth. I had heard that cry before, in the mouths of dying animals, but I had never expected to utter it myself.

"Are you all right?"

I jumped at the sound of the boy's voice and mentally kicked myself. Where's your reserve, Dustfinger? You can't let him see you like this. It's bad enough that you had to cry out like that and wake him.

Usually, I could hide the pain from him, even on a particularly bad day, but I had never just read my own death scene before. So, I turned my face from him and sat unmoving, trying to control the trembling in my limbs.

"Was it another nightmare?"

"Yes."

I didn't like lying to him, but what was I to tell him? The truth? No, Farid, I just read how I'm going to be brutally murdered in my own world. What would he do if he ever found out what the words had in store for me? He'd probably make sure I never saw my world again, even if it meant burning the last copy of the book that could send me home. No, it would certainly not do to tell him the truth. And, anyway, maybe it wasn't so far from the truth after all. Maybe it was a nightmare, one that had just gone on for ten full years.

I had hoped that he would just roll over and go back to sleep, but I knew it would not happen. I did not look at him as he slipped around the fire on bare feet and settled down next to me on the grass. His eyes burned into the back of my neck.

"Usually I hear you," he said. "I must have been sleeping too deeply. I'm sorry – I won't let it happen again."

You can't wake me, Farid, not from this dream. Oh, what will you do the day you find me with that knife in my back? You won't be able to wake me then, either. But aloud I only said, "You worry over me too much. I had nightmares before you came and I dealt with it then, so I can deal with it now. You'll wear yourself out."

"But you shouldn't have to suffer, not when I can stop it. Don't bother about me – I didn't sleep much when I was in my book. I can't sleep, not when I'm afraid you're in pain."

I couldn't help it – a smile, sad, but still a smile, crossed my lips. I reached over and laid my hand on his shoulder. "What would I do without my shadow, eh? But, I suppose you can catch a little sleep now. I'm not going to be having any more nightmares right away."

He stood and was about to do as I recommended, when I saw his eyes wander past me. Then I remembered it. The book was still lying on the ground where I had dropped it, open, with the spine up. I saw the realization come into his eyes and the flash of anger that followed. He turned back to me and when he spoke, his voice was full of cold accusation.

"You weren't asleep. You were reading it again. Why do you always read it when it only breaks your heart?"

Why indeed? It hurt to see the anger in his eyes, far more than it should. Haven't you learned by now that love only brings pain, Dustfinger? Isn't that why you promised yourself to stop giving your heart away the last time it broke? And here you are, yet again, letting your heart control your mind, even after all you've been through. Your heart is so stupid. Cowardly and stupid.

I turned away again, this time so he wouldn't see the shame in my face and so that I didn't have to see the anger in his. But then I felt his hand on my shoulder. When I looked around again, the anger was gone from his eyes and had been replaced by an emotion I could not name.

"I understand why you do it," he said softly. "It's because it's all you have, and even if it hurts, it is better than nothing. Because there's no other way for you to see the ones you love. If you were gone and all I had were words to read about you, I'd read them, too, even if the memories hurt. But you'll get back, I know it. And then the words won't be able to hurt you anymore."

If only. But I knew so much more than he did. I knew that I could never escape the pain of the words, for somewhere those words had created a knife that I would feel in my back someday. For a moment, I wondered if I should try to go back at all. Was that what it was finally going to come down to, whether I must live in the world I hated or die in the world I loved?

But that was nonsense. As if I could escape Death in this world any more than my own. Death was ruler of this world, too, and sooner or later I would feel those cold fingers closing around my soul here, as well. Maybe it wouldn't come in the form of a vicious knife, but it would come all the same, and it probably wouldn't be any more pleasant. No, if the door between the words was ever opened for me, I would take it, no matter what lurked on the other side.

The boy was watching me with concern in his face, and I wondered for a second if I had let my eyes show him too much. He was better at reading my face than most of the other people I had met, a fact that was continually keeping me on my toes. For there was a good deal that went on inside my head that I wouldn't want him to know, this moment being one of them.

He reached over and picked up the book, giving it a scowl as he slipped it into my pack. Then he scooted even closer to my side. "There," he said, "don't look at it any more. Tell me, instead. Tell me about your world."

So I did. I spoke of fairies and of fire and of the Motley Folk as he listened, hanging on my every word. I could talk to him as I could never dream of talking to most others, and, although I still guarded my words, I let my longing and love for that other world seep into my descriptions. I let the memories drown out the present and most of all, I let them drown out the thought of the knife. Yes, words were powerful, even in my own mouth, a rather ironic fact. How could it be that some words could be so dreadful and others so very comforting?

I fell silent, and he smiled at me, his dark eyes glinting with firelight. "There, you feel better now, right?"

I put my hand against his short, dark hair and let a smile cross my face. "I really don't know what I would do without you. Now, will you go to sleep?"

He smiled back at me. "Only if you promise to go to sleep too and stop worrying."

I couldn't stop a low chuckle from coming out. "Okay, I promise. Look, I'm going to sleep. And the book's not coming out again." I pushed the pack away out of my reach and he grinned, retreating back to the other side of the fire where he lay down.

I closed my eyes and let the memories I had recalled for the boy drift through my mind. He had done his work well – I felt, maybe not happy, but no longer despairing. Yes, someday I would get home, and when that day came, I could not imagine that the knife would seem so dreadful. How could it when I would be surrounded by the things I knew and loved? No, staying here was a much worse fate. And anyway, the words had not said that I would come here, but here I was. Perhaps I was writing the story now.

I opened my eyes sleepily to glance briefly at the boy. His dark face was so peaceful that I smiled. Between him and me, the fire had eaten its log and died down again. Yes, the fire could burn down to ashes, but one spark could make it blaze brighter than ever again.