Now, We Burn

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15 | Ember

November 10, 2104

“Hurry up, ya dog scarfs!” the red-haired woman with dreads yelled. “If we don’t scavenge these things by sundown we’ll be dragon grub.”

Ember sneered, her teeth chattering from the biting wind and her limbs stiff from the cold. If the woman didn’t stop yelling at them, Ember thought she might strangle her with her own dreads.

Ember turned back to the pile of rubbish she was sifting through, her hands numb as she pushed aside a rusted car cap and what looked like a fire hose. They had been scavenging for hours now, the red-haired woman forcing she and the other gang members from rubbish heap to rubbish heap until Ember’s back hurt from the objects strapped to it and her anger had grown inside her like an inferno.

Ember kicked aside a broken lamp, instantly regretting it as pain coursed through her wounded leg and the force of her kick sent lamp shards flying across the ground. Normally, Ember would have picked up the pieces because they could have made something useful, like a bead or a decoration for a clay pot to trade. But the gang wanted none of that. Every pretty or interesting item Ember had found had been thrown aside by the red-haired woman, pronounced useless and foolish. Ember’s anger grew each time.

Another gust of wind whipped past Ember, so strong she had to brace herself against the ground. Ember looked to the side as she picked up a rusted bike tire. She could see Eliza rummaging in a pile close by; her sister’s lips were pale and the paint around her eyes was smudged, but she didn’t look unhappy. She seemed unbothered, almost calm and at peace, like something good had happened.

Ember felt her gut tighten as she thought of Eliza and Pierce together, and guilt and anger flooded through her veins. She still hadn’t forgiven Eliza. Ember couldn’t understand how her sister could even stand to be near that monster. Pierce had killed their father -- Eliza couldn’t possibly forget that these gang crussers were their enemies. Then the memory of Hugo’s body against her’s surfaced, making her cheeks flush. Maybe they weren’t all bad.

“What do ya got there, Loner?” The woman’s voice cut through Ember’s thoughts, she turned to face her, not bothering to hide the disgust twisting her expression.

The woman was stocky, with biceps as big as Ember’s head and a scar running from her left eyebrow up to her hairline. She glowered at Ember, her face hard enough to scare the life out of a person, but Ember just bared her teeth.

Ember pulled two objects out of the sack tied to her back, thrusting them at the red-haired woman. She looked down with narrowed eyes, examining the dented lighter and jagged metal fan blade in Ember’s palm.

“Very nice.” The woman said, “But your work rate is slow, Loner. Pick up the pace or I’ll have to give ya a reason to start moving, myself.”

Ember bit her tongue, watching the woman as she turned away. Harking gang scum. They had no right to tell her what to do, no right.

The instinct Ember had first felt when they had been captured came over her again. It was the urge to run.

Ember’s senses sharpened as a plan began to form in her mind. They were in the perfect position to run -- Eliza was here, and they were away from the rest of the gang. They could make it, if they were smart.

Trying to act as normal as she could Ember walked toward Eliza, stowing the items with the others tied to her back as she did.

Ember shivered, hugging herself for warmth as she crouched down buy the rubbish heap next to Eliza, glancing behind at the woman as she did. She hadn’t noticed.

“Hey,” Ember said, not making eye contact as she pushed aside the remains of a teddy bear in the pile.

Eliza looked up -- she had dark circles under her eyes -- and Ember realized that this was the first time they had talked alone since their fight when their dad disappeared. The thought made Ember’s stomach twist.

“Hi,” Eliza replied, glancing over. The air between them was tense.

“I can’t harking take this anymore, Eliza,” Ember admitted through chattering teeth, trying to get the words out as fast as she could before the red-haired woman noticed. “I’m freezing, and if that harking lady tells me what to do one more time I might harking kill someone.”

Eliza froze in her scavenging, biting her pale lip.

“Her name is Harla, I think,” Eliza whispered, digging into the pile again. “ And please, Ember, for the love of all things, stop swearing!”

Ember didn’t have time to roll her eyes as the red haired woman, Harla, was turning their way.

“But we have to go,” Ember hissed, picking up what looked like a rusted pocket knife out of the pile and glancing at Harla. “We can’t live like this, getting ordered around like we’re slaves or something. We’ll always be Loners to them, and Thane still hasn’t forgiven me. He could get fired up at any time, Eliza, and guess who will be the first ones in the gang to go? Thats right: us. They might want my fighting on their side but I’m sure Thane will kill us the second he has a chance.”

Ember’s mind turned to Eeros’s funeral yesterday. The whole gang had got up before sunrise, and as the sun had risen, staining the sky red, they’d burned Eeros’s body. Ember had stayed far away from the leader after that. She still remembered the anger burning in his grey eyes.

“We can’t run away,” Eliza said, tucking a rusty screw into her pocket before turning to Ember. “They’ll kill us as soon as we try!”

“They’ll kill us if we stay!” Ember said, her voice rising, her anger going with it. “They murdered our dad, and they’ll murder us too.”

Harla was coming closer to them now. Ember saw her gaze turn on the girls, her eyes narrowing. They didn’t have much time.

“This is our chance, Eliza!” Ember hissed. “We have to run now, or we might never get free!”

“Right now?” Eliza asked, hissing back. “Why now? “

Ember hesitated as her thoughts went to Hugo. She was unable to shake the memory of the passion in their kiss. He was the only one who treated her well here, even after their initial hatred toward each other. He had only been following his orders. He was a practically a slave to the gang, just like her.

“Okay, maybe not now,” Ember said, glancing at Harla, who was still looking at them, but she wasn’t moving. “But when we get back to the camp, we can get Hugo and--”

“Hugo?” Eliza interrupted, her voice rising. “Why in the world are we bringing him?”

Ember hesitated, unsure if she should tell Eliza about Hugo, about her feelings for him. She had yelled at her for being with Pierce, but Hugo was different.

Hugo hadn’t killed their father.

“Well, me and Hugo are kind of . . . together, I guess,” Ember stammered, rubbing her cold, numb fingers together. She looked at Eliza’s face, waiting for a reaction. She didn’t want to care what Eliza thought about she and Hugo, but she felt herself tense as Eliza’s brow creased.

“What do you mean ‘together’?” she asked, her voice taking on a stiff tone.

“I mean that I like him,” Ember explained, pulling a teakettle out of the pile. “And he likes me, and we’re in love, I guess.”

Eliza nearly dropped the wooden box she was holding.

“Him!” she hissed, her eyes growing wide. “Are you joking, Ember? He kidnapped you. You remember that, don’t you? And tortured you? How can you love him? You’ve known him for a total of six days! Less, even!”

Ember felt her face heating up.

“What does that matter?” Ember said, forgetting the cold air in her anger. “Yes, he did kidnap me, but he was only following Thane’s orders! He was probably kidnapped too, Eliza! He’s just like us.”

“He is nothing like us,” Eliza fired back. “I can’t believe you fell for a gang guy after yelling at me for just being near Pierce -- and he followed me!”

“Well, Hugo didn’t kill our father,” Ember quipped, her violent emotions starting to take over. “Or have you forgotten that, Eliza? Have you forgotten that our dad is dead because of him? Or does it not even matter because he wasn’t your real dad?”

“No, of course not! He didn’t kill our dad, Ember.”

“Who told you that?” Ember hissed, her hand balled into a fist so tight it hurt. “Did he say that?”

“Well, yes,” Eliza stated.

“He’s lying to you, Eliza!” Ember said, not believing what she was hearing. “You can’t seriously believe him! He’s a killer. Once a killer, always a killer.”

Eliza turned to Ember, her face flushed. “He’s not, Ember. He said he didn’t kill Dad and I believe him.”

“You’re harking mad!” Ember cried, no longer trying to keep her voice down.

“I don’t think I’m the one who’s mad, Ember.” Eliza’s voice was cold, her face stormy.

“Oh, I think you are!” Ember shot back. “The gang will kill us, Eliza! Pierce, Thane, someone will kill us! We need to run. I trust Hugo. He can come with us, get us out! We need to! We can’t be their harking slaves anymore!”

Eliza stood, her green eyes blazing, “No,” she said coldly, and with that she dropped the wooden box in her hand and walked away. As soon as the box hit the ground it sprung open and the soft sound of music filled Ember’s ears as she watched Eliza go.

Trying to keep her anger contained, Ember picked up the box, fully opening the lid to reveal a twirling ballerina, only her head was missing and her pink tutu was dirty.

Ember tucked it into her backpack, feeling like her whole world was crumbling around her.

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