Chapter 45: Pyre
Somewhere, far away, there was a sound.
It was a pleasant sound, almost comforting. The somewhat prolonged sound of two soft objects colliding. A heavy, soft object hitting a wet surface. Like a limp body landing in a body of water. A pool, or a river.
She fell for a moment. Then she, too, landed in the sewer.
Ada awoke and gasped for air. She immediately wished she had not done that. Her limbs, weakened by starvation and inaction, were flailing futilely as she tried to reach the surface. Her body tried to inhale and vomit simultaneously, failing at both. Unable to coordinate her movements, she resigned and allowed the current to carry her.
Did I survive on rats, only to drown in a river of piss?
As the putrid stream accelerated, the turbulent flow of the sewer brought her upper body to the surface. She suppressed the urge to breathe until she had coughed once and managed a hasty inhale before she was submerged again. That only made things worse, as the remains of sewage from her previous attempt at breathing underwater was pulled further down towards her lungs along with the small amount of air she’d caught. Again, she was stuck between the urge to inhale and the necessity of removing the contents from her lungs. As her body fought this internal battle, she was unable to swim to the surface.
Help sometimes comes in the most unexpected ways. Centuries ago, a gate of vertical metal bars had been built across the sewer, as a means to prevent enemies and sappers from entering the city of Sha’ton. As the current slammed Ada into those rusted bars, the air was forcefully expelled from her lungs, more effectively than any cough she was able to produce. Grabbing hold of the grime-covered bars, she regained her composure and control of her breathing.
In the dim light of the sewer tunnel, she looked around and took stock of her surroundings. There was no going back unless she was able to swim against the current for who knows how far. She considered squeezing her sickly, thin body between the bars but realised that her head would be too broad.
‘I’m sorry I pulled you into this mess,’ Ada said, as she found Rayn’s body two feet away from her. Most of it was submerged, thankfully. There was a dead dog as well.
‘Just the three of us, then,’ Ada said.
It felt good to talk and even better to see. Above, there were holes around each bar, slightly wider than the bars themselves.
‘Let’s rest here for a while,’ she said, ‘until they open the gates and let us continue our journey. If this gate was shut permanently, there would be more of us down here.’
Half an hour later, a loud clang sounded. Soon, the metal bars stirred, and rusted wheels and chained squeaked somewhere in the wall. Slowly, the portcullis rose until the bottom spikes hung a foot above the surface. Ada made sure her travelling companions were loose from the bars before she let go and followed them wherever the sewer would take them.
‘We’ll probably end up in the river, eventually,’ Ada said, assuming the role of the cicerone of their party. ‘It will be cold, but once we get some distance from the sewer outlet, we will be able to wash off this filth and look presentable again.’
The first hints of daylight and a gust of wind indicated that she was right. The sewer passage ended in a six-foot drop into the river. Ada grabbed Rayn and the dog, and let the river carry them a quarter of a mile downstream before she found a suitable spot to climb up on to the northern bank, keeping the river between herself and anyone travelling on the road to Sha’ton.
Ada revelled in the morning sunlight and the cold air. After she had pulled her two companions out of the river, she waded back into the water to wash herself and her clothes thoroughly. She drank a few delicious mouthfuls but resisted the urge to drink more. The dangers of eating and drinking after prolonged starvation were well known and in a land frequently exposed to failed harvests, pillaging armies and sieges.
Standing in the freezing river, Ada frowned as she examined her body. There were cuts and wounds everywhere. Apparently, the rats had nibbled at her as well, and the ride down the sewer and river had not been gentle. More worrisome, her ribs and bones were clearly visible under her thin skin. As she rinsed her hair, some of it fell off and stuck between her fingers.
‘Wouldn’t earn a copper in a brothel looking like this,’ she mused, as she climbed back on the bank. She hung the tattered clothes to dry in the wind, and naked she collected firewood, as much as she could find. She assembled several layers of the thickest logs of driftwood and fallen trees at the bottom and stacked dozens of branches over the logs. On top of that, she placed an armful of sticks and tinder wood.
Confidently, she grabbed a handful of bark and started channelling heat through her hands. Devoid of nearby fires, and without the shard to enhance her abilities, she focused her attention until the smoke emerged from between her fingers. Around her, the wind grew cold and strong as Ada sucked the heat out of the air. Once the wood caught fire, the wind helped it spread. Soon, Ada stood naked in front of a pyre at tall as herself, the flames twice as high.
She let it burn for a while until she placed the dog on top and watched the fire consume it.
Afterwards, she went back to Rayn. The river had washed away the grime, and what remained of her clothes did not conceal what the rats had done to her. Ada winced.
‘I’m sorry, my dear friend.’
With considerable effort, she managed to drag, lift and push Rayn on to the pyre. She stood still, staring as the flames finished the job the rats had started.
When only charred bones remained, she waded back into the river to drink and wash away the soot and smell from the fire. She brought her clothes over to the south bank of the river, and let the wind dry her skin before she put them on. Her clothes were not yet dry, but walking in the midday sun would remedy that.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘I promised I would send for you,’ the wind replied.
‘I never doubted you. What do you need me to do?’
‘You have to go back to the city and find the two shards in the old castle,’ it said.
‘Why?’ The thought of returning to Sha’ton did not appeal to her.
‘Because the demon who inhabits the castle will be able to cause much harm with the shards in his possession.’
‘A demon?’ Ada exclaimed. ‘What is a demon? What does it look like, and what do I do if I find it?’
‘You will see when you get there. You will find a way. Now, go! Before it kills again.’