The flames were the bane of the Blackland.
Every autumn they devoured it. Blade and body failed against them, sorcery found no way. Nothing vanquished the flames, and everything burned, be it water or fire, earth or sky.
No one knows when the lands first suffered under their assault. No one knows how the flames were sparked, or even if they ever were. Some thought that, mayhap, the flames were there from the very beginning, always there, never started and never to be stopped . . .
But one day, long ago, long forgotten, a philosopher was thinking. And his thoughts ran far and wide, idle and unchained. They ventured to places no one else had bothered to, sniffed in the dried-out riverbeds and dug in the barren soils. And they found something.
A thought that changed everything.
Kirl resolir ifa dajif ag kir. Kirl resolir. Only ashes.
Only ashes do not burn.
He passed his thought on to the people of mannakan, the magicians and wizards. And a few understood what this meant.
They took that thought and fashioned it into a sword to slay the flames.
These wizards burned, and by sacrificing their magic and life, they became Keepers of the Flame. Thea become ashes, and rose from the dust, like shadowy wraiths, in order to combat the flames.
They fought and they protected, for the Unshadowed were ashes, and ashes did not burn.
And so it is to this day.
To this day, when the young girl Ophelia lays in the tall grasses of the moor, thinking over what she is. And where she’s going.
The sun always rises slowly on the plains of bequir. It climbs unhurriedly, step by step, and then hovers over the land lazily. It dyes the sky in the color of rust for long hours. The morning stretches on and on in its golden glory, growing warmer slowly- very slowly.
Grasses on the moorland ripple like the water on the ocean, golden and burnt from the sun’s rays. They smelled almost sweet.
Ophelia smiled slightly from where she lay, and twisted over, turning face-down. Hidden by grass, she breathed in deeply, closing her eyes.
The stalks whispered against her cheeks.
Even though she knew that she could only afford another minute of the blissful serenity, Ophelia didn’t stir from the rough, prickly bed.
Cold as hoarfrost, the wind blew through her thin, pale brown hair; it chilled her scalp and sent shivers down her spine. The heavy weight of her too-big cloak pressed on her back, and she felt the dry grass against her chest. Peaceful, almost sleepy. It wouldn’t be so bad to fall asleep here.
No bugs, anyway. She could hear the faraway sound of crickets, but not a thing rustled in the stalks near her. The moorland was nice that way; it left you alone if you wanted it to. Spurred by fondness, Ophelia smiled into it.
Peaceful rustling and the warm sun, what more could she ask?
A short nicker rang out in the silence, faint from distance. Ophelia sighed into the ground, well aware that she was lazying far too long. Grimacing, she gathered her willpower and pushed herself up. On her knees for a moment, the girl watched a flock fly across the hazy sky, listening to the sound of hooves crumbling the grass, drawing nearer.
The sooty mare trotted up and circled her young rider, chocolate eyes flashing accusingly. Grimacing again, Ophelia finally pulled herself to her feet with the staff. “We’re going, we’re going.”
The mare snorted.
The pale brunette frowned, then tapped her steed on the forehead with the staff. Hard.
In a few moments, both horse and rider were walking side-by-side along the beaten road that lead towards the nearest town. Ophelia yawned into the dawn sky, drawing her brown cloak closer and glancing at the repetitive hemstitch of kenaz runes. It was far too big for her, and a good foot of material dragged on the ground while the hood hung limply, like a burlap sack on her back.
The sun neared its peak, albeit unwillingly, and Ophelia felt herself grow sleepy again. All she wanted was to throw herself back onto the ground and fall into serene oblivion. Somehow, the warmth lulled her weary mind better than night did. It was as if the heat made worries evaporate. But they didn’t disappear, and you still had to deal with them later on.
She frowned. There, she had already become gloomy. Just a moment ago, she felt relaxed and sleepy. Now she felt tired again, and defeated. As always.
It was the end of autumn.
Most keepers would be finishing their last rounds, eager to set off for the Keep, where they’d weather the winter, finally able to rest. The flames always raged with a vengeance in autumn, fading only with winter’s touch. Of course, flames also appeared a bit during spring, and a bit more during summer, but it was in autumn that the keepers rode hard over the trails, answering pleas from towns and wayward sightings. It was a time of hard work. The arrival of winter was always a sort of deliverance, greeted with sighs of relief and weary smiles.
Ophelia, as far as she knew, was the only keeper to spend winter away from the Keep. For most keepers, the Keep was also the place they became Keepers of the Flame, or Unshadowed, as the commonfolk called them. Keepers were said to feel a special bond to the place in which they were burned, where they shed life and self for duty. These places were called ‘hearths’ after all.
But Ophelia had burned out here, in a shack on the plains of bequir, and she never felt at ease in the great tower called the Keep, which had received its name in a rather half-witted attempt at wordplay.
All great mannakan gathered in towers, but since keepers were no longer magicians, they had only keeps. Ophelia stayed away from the Keep if she could help it. She preferred the lost paths of the plains, the rare cottages made from dark wood and even rarer groves of trees, lonely on the widespread flatland. The feeling of riding horseback over dirt paths. It was only her third autumn of life on the bequirian plains, but she felt the trails and land in her bones.
With a sigh, she forced herself to keep the pace. It was a long way to Ervik’s Stead, and she had to make it before sundown. Gritting her teeth, Ophelia quickened to a trotting step between jogging and striding. The sooty mare matched her pace without a sound.
The lay of the land changed not at all, and only the red sun changed, moving slowly over the wide and empty sky. Wide and empty. The perfect words to describe Bequir’s great plains.
Once, they crossed a small creek that appeared out of nowhere, and the mare snorted when Ophelia nearly slipped on a stone and grabbed the horse’s mane to stop herself from falling.
“Next time, I’ll let myself fall in, and then make you carry me the rest of the way. How does that sound?” Ophelia growled under her breath, in response to the sooty’s reproachful glare. The dark horse sniffed, but followed her rider onwards, onto dry land.
Their boots and hooves dried in moments. The bottom of Ophelia’s cloak took a bit more time, but it had suffered worse before. And they reached Ervik’s Stead in good time, with three hours to spare. The sun still hovered over the horizon when Ophelia strode up to the gates and tapped on the dark wood.
A light flickered in the guard’s tower over the gate, and she saw a dark-skinned man look out at her.
Raising her chin, she carefully positioned herself so that he could see her and the mare’s shadows- or rather, the lack of thereof. “A keeper at the gates!” she called out, coolly.
The dusty guard’s eyes widened slightly, and he gave her a sharp nod before disappearing. She stood before the gate for a few moments, glancing around at the walls and lights.
Ervik’s Stead was not a big town, but it was a town nonetheless, and true towns were rare on the bequirian plains, where most folk were farmers who lived in village-manors, small groups of buildings that housed a few families, surrounded by their fields. Thus, Ervik’s Stead had quiet but decent activity, receiving a steady stream of wheat and crops from outlying fields that was then sent out farther, to castles and greater towns, perhaps even to faraway ports that would take it to even farther places, beyond Bequir’s plains.
Ophelia shrugged, drawing her cloak closer. She had no business in such fancifully far places. Her job was here. And when the gates swung open, she stepped in sure-footedly, tilting her slightly towards the guard, who bowed, a bit stiffly, but respectfully.
“Greetings, we will be glad to guest one of your kind- we of Ervik’s Stead.”
Ophelia smiled, a bit weakly. She loved these simple people and their sincere respect, but weariness made faces blur and words echo strangely. Blinking away the exhaustion, she asked, “Is there any,” place for a traveler to rest, “-work to be had?”
The man nodded his head again, sharp eyes and sever features covered by dark shadows, similar in color to the typical black bequirian hair. Dark skin was covered in dust, much like Ophelia’s own. “Flames out near one of the fields. Old Dwire’s lands.” The guard suddenly spat, slight bitterness twisting his features, anger at a friend’s plight. “He’d be right out there risking it though, if it wasn’t for his daughters and wife. They’d go bad if something happened to him. No sons means no safety. A good man, Dwire, but it’s too dangerous for him to be working.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Ophelia replied, immediately turning around to jump onto her mare’s back, even as her mind wearily calculated the hour-long ride before her. Duty comes first. Always. The sooty stood still as her rider swung onto her, moving back a step when Ophelia gripped the back of her mane. The keeper looked over, down at the guard. “Where are Dwire’s fields?”
The guard grimaced, then pointed past the gates, towards the dark horizon. “The third fields in that direction, on the very edge.” The closest fields to the moor’s wilderness. For the toughest, most fearless man and his family. Leaving those words unspoken, the guard spat again.
“Old man’s sleeping at the inn, but if you come back here, you’ll have a spot in the guard’s hall or the inn, whichever you prefer, miss.”
Ophelia paused for a moment, looking thoughtfully towards the faraway fields. Once she got there and slayed the flames, she could always just rest on the plains instead of making the long ride back. Or even Dwire’s home, since the old man and his family weren’t there anyway. Falling asleep under the stars didn’t sound so bad if it meant she didn’t have to make the ride back. Then, she could get up early and already be off for her next stop before the sun rose.
Then, a faint stir of longing tweaked her heart, and she turned her gaze to the dark-haired guard, whose serious eyes never left hers. “Ready a spot at the inn for me, with warm food and quilts. I’ll be back by the time the sun sets.”
And with that, Ophelia nudged her mare’s side and rode out into the coming night.