Warm. Welcoming. Timid. These were the ways he thought of fire in a time before. He’d watch the central bonfire dance in and out of the night, painting wavering shadows upon the carpets of snow.
They sat on stone blocks, warming their palms against the crackling flame.
“…the final clockwork guardian, a giant woman taller than the highest frozen peak. Beyond her…”
“The Mad Tinker!” spouted Tig.
Low grumbles played from the first speaker, “You learn well, my son.”
Tig smiled back at the bulking man and found the man still locked on the flames, licks of it spat out in orange and red against the man’s steely eyes. ‘To learn well’ was his father’s best and only compliment, and he savored it like every fatty bit of a stone seal stew.
“Hearing an awful lot from you tonight, Toklo,” said an old stony crone as she approached them with two steaming bowls in her hands.
“The boy needs to learn eventually.”
Tig accepted the bowl that was handed to him, as did Toklo. Stone seal meat. He knew that pungent smell anywhere. He could detect brown chunks of the stuff as it floated to the top of the frothy yellow broth.
The women had a perpetual hunch and a body formed completely of black rock. Her eyes were pearls and her hair, spiral of granite, “Only you speak of such tales, Toklo. This night as well as a few nights ago. Could it be that you’ve remembered?”
Toklo shook his head, “Merely pieces, Mother Merivya. Scattered bits here and there, though things I think he ought to know.”
“About giant women?” laughed Merivya. “Surely it is time he learns the hunt.”
“No. Tiguak is not meant for that.”
The man eyed him with an iron smile, “We all have our callings, my son. Some are healers, others shamans, hunters, explorers. You are no hunter.”
“Do you mean for him to become an explorer, Toklo?”
“That path is his to decide. Look into the fire, Tiguak, see how ebbs and flows?”
The boy nodded.
“That is who we are, fires. We are willed in the ways of others while burning whatever fuels us, makes us.”
Toklo reached low, grabbed a twig on the ground and tossed into the flames, making it jump to the new addition.
“But know this, my son, it isn’t what makes the fire that defines it, it is how it burns. Always burns.”
The woman made entirely of sand and cloth stared intently at the owl faced monstrosity. Her expression painted by black bits amidst the tan shifted haphazardly. A crinkled frown, disgust. Lowered brows, shame.
“Witch doctors.” Repeated the woman. “Eight of them, maybe more.”
“Relax.” Said Inyande, now standing by the bride to be.
“How can I? They took my mate. I am alone.”
“We’ll find him, honored-dara.”
Tig stared at them from a few steps away. His wooden hands were clutched tightly over the cut on the Mad Gent. “Blood’s gone down.” He reported. “Should we take him?”
Inyande shook her head, “Too many travellers. We’ll leave him some rations and keep onwards.”
“Off this island?” asked Franco.
Inyande spun to the woman, “When abouts was your mate taken?”
“A day ago?”
“Then they’re not here. This is good fun and all, but it seems we’ve a fight on our hands.”
Franco seemed ecstatic at the notion, patting his arms his expressively as he howled like a dog, “Fight? Now that I can do.”
“Me to.” Added the Professor. “Given a drink that is. Speaking of, know of any taverns on this fine island?”
The bride to be glowered at him, “These are sacred border isles, we do not build on anything except for Impeh.”
“Right, awful island then. I’m headed home.”
“You have a home?” started Tig, squinting at them man. Strangely, some of the bronze by the Professor’s neck had gone an ivory white.
“Oh aye, lovely property, view of the ocean to. Great big cellar with the finest drinks in all the land. Drinks. Drinks! Hours damned I need a drink!”
“And what of Remy?” asked the boy.
The man stumbled for a moment. His nose scrunched and he glanced away, “Don’t do that Tig, don’t use my own task to bind me.”
Tig stepped over his patient and jabbed the drunk with a finger to his chest, “You said you owed her didn’t you? You said you’d find her later. Well is that now then? Is that the reason you’re headed back? Or is it to steal the supposed liquor Oke promised?”
“Most definitely first part, mate.”
Inyande balanced her massive blade on her shoulders, one brow raised, “Shi. You’re not thinking of taking our boat, are you?”
The Professor side stepped Tig and fixed his jacket, pointing in the supposed direction of the ship and failing miserably at it, “I would never steal that ship.”
“Nor that you could, Gemjo’s guarding it,” said Tig.
Inyande nodded decidedly to that, “Ah, a seawolf guard. Then that settles it. I’ve known none better. But, so much as I trust in her ability to keep you away, Professor, I must insist we all leave as a company to the next isle.”
“You’re escorting me, Inyande-dara?” asked the bride.
Inyande crafted a wide smile, “And find your lover to, Chireke.”
Tig noticed how Chireke shifted to that and dipped her head ever lower. A wrinkle formed on his fleshy forehead and he realised just who he had stepped over.
His black hairs tussled as he faced the lot of them. “And what of the mad Gent?” he asked.
“We leave him.” Answered Inyande promptly.
Inyande crouched low to his height, “they heal very quickly. Your dressing will be enough. I know you doctor types refuse to leave your wounded alone, but right now our lives and that of the grooms’ will be in danger should we be slowed by the gent. Don’t worry,” she said, glancing over her shoulder at the wounded creature, “he understands.”
Tig shared the same sight, saw the same creature breathing slowly, calmly. It was alive. That was all that mattered.
Hesitantly Tig nodded, “I do to.”
“Good.” Said Inyande, rising to her feet and covering her brow to her upwards squint. Sun strokes brushed her brown skin. “We’ll need that understanding while the sun still burns. Shall weyou’re your guard in action then?”
Nods from the boy, and the five of them treaded back to the coast comfortably. They heard snoring when they got there, saw the girl slumped awkwardly against the rocking ship with her mouth drooping open and a line drool oozing off the side of it.
Inyande nodded with a smile on her face and her hands on her hips, “She’s asleep.”
“Behold,” said Tig, gesturing at Gemjo as if she were an exhibit, “The world’s greatest sea wolf guard.”
Gemjo snorted awake momentarily, eyed the lot of them, shrugged and resumed her slumber.
Chireke brushed by Inyande, “And how much did the chief pay you?”
Inyande’s smile was twitching, her posture straight and absolute. Tig realised then that Inyande had a powerful ability. She hid her shame better than Franco, who had begun unceremoniously dislodging Gemjo from her slump against the rocking vessel.
The boat departed a little after noon. Upon it sat the snoring Gemjo, the melancholic Professor, a quivering Franco, a rowing Inyande and just two regular passengers who sat face to face near the prow.
Tig traced the intricate features of Chireke’s face with his eyes.
“These Witch Doctors, why would they attack you? How could they attack you?”
“I’m not sure, honored Dara.” She confessed. “Just that it was them.”
“Call me Tig.”
“Tig-dara. When they came, Kwake bid me to hide.”
Tig spotted the still sheathed dagger on her hip and cocked his head, “You’re a warrior, why did you hide?”
Her gaze wandered, “I don’t know. I--”
“We’ll get him back for you,’” echoed Inyande from the back. “As I’ve said, it’s a promise. Now when we fight, I can handle who ever comes from the front and I know you can handle whoever should focus you, but if any should get near Tig or the Professor I will charge you with defending them, Chireke-dara.”
“Defending?” she asked. “Me?”
“Right now, right here, you are a part of my crew. And that is an order.”
“Crew?” managed Franco. “D-Do you mean us to? Because I’ll have you know I’m the c-captain of t-t-this here crew.”
“Acting captain.” Added Inyande. “You’ll have them back after our task is over.”
From the way he was huddled and even lowering, Tig had a feeling Franco was in no mood to argue.
“Fine,” surrendered Franco, “just get us to shore will you?”
“I will.” She paused before she continued, “Chirke-dara, you were just a girl when I met you a few years ago, do you remember that? A group of pirates laughing and partying in Impeh village.”
“The first in decades.” Laughed Chireke, her eyes directed at Inyande in the back.
Inyande spoke with a row, “All after we saved the wise woman’s son, Kwake.”
Chireke frowned to that, “I wanted to be like you-dara.”
Tig could not see her, but he knew Inyande was smiling even then.
Another row, an Ita-quality sigh, “I know.”
It had only been minutes before the next island neared. The craggy rocks weren’t as apparent here and instead the lay of the land leaned more towards an open beach and small silver thickets above golden grass.
Inyande’s boots crunched the shoreline.
“Franco, Gemjo, with me,” She directed.
Tig glanced at the snoring girl behind him. He saw her ears flick, and with her eyes still shut, she spoke, “How did you know I was awake?”
“Shi shi. You sea wolves are aware of your surrounding in sleep. Hence why you make the best guards.”
Her golden eyes pried open and she yawned yet again, this time stretching as she straightened her posture.
She fixed on Tig and frowned momentarily, “Did you really have to tell Tig that?”
Tig blinked, his ears flashed red, “Then back at that island, you heard me? You heard all of that?”
A slow smile started to her cheeks, “Whatever do you mean, chitik? What island?”
She patted him on the shoulder and leapt off the boat, “Oh you must be imagining things. Which by the way, I must be imagining your ears red right now.” He covered them just as she snickered. “But ofcourse ‘blood runs hotter than steam’ eh?”
“You did hear!”
As Gemjo strolled to Inyande’s side, the woman peaked back at Tig and, with the utmost subtlety, she whispered loudly into Gemjo’s ear, one hand cuffed over her mouth, “Do tell everything he said while you were asleep.”
Tig sniffed, rolled up his sleeves and stood up, “Alright, I’m going to.”
A bronze and white hand held him back by the shoulder.
“Mate, there aren’t many rules on the sea, but it when it comes to sailing, you always follow captain’s orders.”
“Especially, and this parts important, if that captain knows what she’s doing.” Finished the Professor.
Tig slumped his shoulders and sat back down. He saw Franco creep out of the boat one leg at a time, and he sighed extravagantly. This would be a long trek even if it was for only a few islands.
The scouting troupe returned an hour later and they set off immediately after, tracing the coastline for island to island. No sign of anything. By the fourth island in a chain of seven they settled down for the night.
Mooring the ship by a particularly trusty rock, the company found a quiet thicket where silver palms rustled overhead and yellow grasses brushed their backs below. The night had set, and the incessant chirp of copper locusts melded with the light crackle of flame. It was a quiet orchestra, a melody of metal and wood, flame and wind.
Franco stood a few minutes away, charged with night duty. Tig could hear him yawn even then. The sleeping figures of Inyanda, Chireke and the Professor lay nearby.
But it was not the brilliant starry sky, nor the gentle dance of silver leaves that stole Tig’s fascination as huddled awake. It was the flame, his constant reminder.
Gemjo sat nearby, huddled in a similar fashion.
“You’ve been staring at that for some time,” she said
Tig peaked at her half-heartedly, “Have I?”
Her ears twitched, her brows lowered, “Intently.”
“So you knew then? Who I was? Even though…”
“I wasn’t born in the north.” She cut in.
“But you’re a--”
“Sea wolf.” She finished him. “Aye, and you’re a chitik who doesn’t know what sea wolves can do.”
“Didn’t have much of a chance.” He laughed weakly.
Gemjo leaned back, “A chance huh? Well Inyande, she can…” She started abruptly, “she can do something I thought only sea wolves could do. So maybe I didn’t get that chance either.”
“Which is?” he asked.
For a moment, the girl with golden eyes distracted him from the flame. Little splotches of orange glinted along her steel hairs. The caress of fire brightened half her face, while the other half became blue in the night. He realised he knew little about her. That he did little to learn.
Gemjo puffed and smiled lazily before laying down, “you’ll see soon I think.”
She turned over, tightened to a ball and her tailed curved with her. He ebbed away from her then, feeling distant as he hugged his knees tighter.
The fire crackled. It reminded him of home. But not the home Anu knew, nor that which the Trimblys made for him. No, his home. The one by the great big bonfire, where he’d sweat into tightly packed furs and enjoy stone seal stew. Where stories of bizarre clockwork beasts would entertain him and he’d go drunk to the scents of incense and charcoal.