The Hungry Fire by A.M. Obst

Chapter 1 – Betharad

They were whispering again. Heads close together, the occasional glance in her direction.

Stop it, Betharad told herself. Not everything is about you.

On the left was Councillor Ferran, the town’s gossip-in-chief. He was always speaking in mock-hushed tones about some scandal he considered juicy. But the other party was Councillor Haveld, so perhaps they were discussing important matters after all.

Betharad sighed. She had aspired to put such useless emotions behind her. On the threshold of her greatest success, perhaps she should forgive herself a little paranoia.

Marshal Kavilas approached, his stride purposeful. Responsible for the town’s security, he was everywhere today, checking and re-checking the details. His air of understated competence usually created a pool of calm.

But now his brows were drawn together and his jaw set firm. What could be amiss?

She turned back to the plaza. Nothing looked out of order, although everything was different.

The central plaza was the beating heart of Naerun. All day it buzzed and burbled with a hubbub that was both soothing and invigorating; people talking while they ate and drank at tables spilling from the inns, children darting around playing games or delivering messages. They had to make way for the occasional delivery wagon as it clanked its way through, though the new road meant most bypassed the plaza if they were headed to the docks down on the river bank.

The busy market pushed all that to the edges three mornings a week. Betharad found shopping somewhat tedious, but the market still occupied a special place in her mind, a vibrant symbol of Naerun’s prosperity as a key borderlands trading post. Remarkable, given the town had almost been destroyed twenty-three years ago.

But today, the tables had given way to rows of chairs, order where chaos belonged. The scrape of wood on paving stones echoed off the building facades as the people lucky enough to have seats tried to make themselves comfortable.

A temporary wooden platform crouched at one end of the space, as if a gigantic bird had chosen to nest there. Betharad would soon be climbing to the top of it, where all eyes would be focussed.

Breathe. You can do it.

Even the docks were closed, silence in place of the punctuating rhythms of loading and unloading that provided the usual background music to daily life. The merchants grumbled about loss of revenue, but she’d worked for one of them and knew this single day made little difference to their profits.

Today was a significant event for the town and for herself, with the Deliverance Ceremony and her investiture as steward, but she would be content when the town returned to normal.

Whatever it was that worried the marshal, Betharad could leave it in his capable hands.

The sky had forgotten clouds existed. The relentless sun slid higher in the blue dome, spilling more rays over rooftops and down east-facing streets to burn away the dregs of the shade.

Now and then, a light breeze teased the waiting crowd, coaxing banners to flap and flash their hidden colours, before fading away. Heavy, still air reigned once more. The ceremonial robe was voluminous, its many folds threatening to drown Betharad. Not only that, someone had had the bright idea to weave it of thick black wool. The slightest air movement was better than a much longed-for gift.

Her wait was almost over. Another step forwards, on the way to proving she was worthy to be her parents’ daughter.

Another small stir of air carried the scent of roasting meats from the large food tent. Betharad’s nose caught a hint of warm spices, and she regretted skipping breakfast.

Her appetite deserted her as quickly as it came. Kavilas and the two Councillors came over to her, all wearing sober expressions. Had they discovered some irregularity with the election, mere minutes before she was sworn in as Naerun’s steward?

“We were debating whether to worry you,” said Kavilas, “but I’ve been informed that a group of strangers was seen acting suspiciously in the plaza early this morning. When they were challenged, they fled without identifying themselves.”

That was odd, but not as much as the marshal’s countenance suggested. “How do you know they were strangers? Did you get a description of them?”

The marshal shook his head. “They were wearing long cloaks, with hoods drawn up to cover their faces—that made them stand out, in this hot weather.”

“They were seen standing under the platform,” added Ferran.

Under the platform?” That was definitely suspicious. Betharad’s trickle of unease intensified.

Kavilas nodded. “I’ve checked and there appears to be no trace of interference with it. The chief carpenter assures me there is no damage to the structure. All the same, we should be cautious. I’ve assigned a pair of Town Protectors to look around for anything out of the ordinary. Discreetly, of course.”

“We think they were seen on the eastern road a few hours later, heading out of town,” said Haveld.

“Unless they came back when nobody was looking,” added Ferran, his face lit up with glee. He was in his element. “Should we cancel the ceremony? If there’s some danger to us…”

Betharad tried to not hold her breath, to stay calm.

Haveld’s look at his fellow Councillor was mild, but his voice was firm as he said, “It’s too late to do that, and as the marshal has informed us, the platform is safe and sound. We have no evidence there’s any danger.”

Kavilas said, “Agreed. I can post more protectors around the plaza to keep an eye out for any further problems. If that’s acceptable to you, Steward?”

Betharad appreciated his use of the title, even though it wasn’t strictly accurate yet. While the ultimate decision was his to make, she was pleased he sought her opinion.

For a moment, she was tempted to agree with Ferran. The idea someone might have attempted to sabotage the platform made her insides churn. What if something terrible happened today? She was nowhere near as brave as her parents, but she could take steps to minimise the chances of harm occurring.

The strangers were probably new refugees, confused about what was going on, and Kavilas’s protectors were well-trained and capable. Besides, it was hard to contemplate delaying the moment when she would be sworn in, now it was so close.

She was determined to be a leader who showed courage, and made balanced decisions based on facts and evidence rather than emotions.

“Of course,” she said. “We should go ahead.”

Kavilas nodded and went about his business. It was no surprise when Ferran lost interest and moved to join the other councillors.

Haveld beamed at her. “I don’t think we should concern ourselves with it. We need to make sure we’re ready for this important occasion.”

“You’ll be perfect. I’m glad you were chosen to lead the ceremony this year.”

“Thank you—it’s a great privilege, and you can be assured I’ll do my best to honour your parents in the way they deserve. If it wasn’t for their selfless acts all those years ago, none of this” —he waved his hand to indicate the plaza, if not the whole town— “would be here. They would have been very proud of you. Our youngest steward ever.”

Betharad smiled back. It helped to hear that. “Thank you. I hope they would have been. But I haven’t done much yet.”

“That’s not true. You convinced the Council to support the improvements to our water and sewage system. No mean feat, given how resistant some of us are to change. And spending money. Though I confess, I’m glad we’re spared the smell for one day.”

“I was only a Councillor then,” she replied, then realised what she’d just said. “Sorry, I had no intention of suggesting Councillors aren’t important. But when I’m sworn in as steward, I can do so much more. Five years seems much too short, for all the things I want to achieve.”

“That’s one of the reasons people voted for you. But please be careful not to demand too much of yourself; you could put yourself under an unrealistic amount of pressure trying to live up to what your parents did.”

“I’m proud to be their daughter.” It was almost an automatic response, though true.

“I know,” Haveld replied. “But—forgive me for putting this so bluntly—you don’t have to kill yourself doing it. I’m sure they didn’t set out with the intention of sacrificing themselves.”

She smiled to show she didn’t mind his choice of words. What he said was logical, an echo of her own thoughts.

“Of course, you’ll have my full support,” Haveld went on, dropping his voice so only she could hear. “But the same cannot be said for all the Council members. We’ve got some work cut out for ourselves, convincing them you’re more than a figurehead who will let them do what they want.”

“I’ll do my best,” she said, careful to direct her gaze anywhere but at the others, who waited nearby. “Though it’s hard to know where to start. Most of our services are at or beyond their limits already, and our population keeps growing.”

“We are in some ways suffering from our own successes. But I think we’ll soon have a steward who can lead us through those growing pains.” He winked at her.

The dilemma was that if some of Betharad’s plans came to fruition, even more people would be attracted to Naerun. As steward, she would have the power to sign off on trading deals that could double demand for naerhos oil and fruit; as hardy as the people, the scrubby trees thrived in the poor desert soils, and had given the town its name as well as a major export industry. But there would need to be many changes before the town was ready to face such a future.

The visiting dignitaries were seated now. The town was graced with no less than seven, including one from the capital. It seemed strange the central government would be interested in what happened out here.

The size of the plaza and the limitations of the human voice meant less than a fifth of the town’s population could be here to witness the ceremony. Given the actions of their parents, Betharad’s small family were allocated seats every year, a privilege that made Betharad uncomfortable since her election as a councillor three years ago. Still, she was glad they could be there this year.

The twins sat on either side of their grandmother about halfway back, the sun catching fiery glints in their dark, curly hair. From this distance, it was difficult to tell if they were watching her, so she nodded, just in case.

For a second, she fell back on old habits, musing on how it might feel to have her parents there. But they’d died when she was four.

She closed her eyes, focussing her mind on the meagre store of memories she refused to surrender to the passage of time. The scent of her mother Maenna’s favourite hair wash, a strong herbal tang Betharad thought she would recognise if she smelled it again. The curve of Veric’s smile and the echo of his laugh as her father threw her into the air and caught her again. The feel of being held close in a protective embrace.

The habit of reviewing these fragments helped calm her.

Kavilas’s light touch on her arm brought her back to the present. “Almost time,” he said, with his serious smile. “The other Council members are making their way up, so you and Haveld are next. Are you ready?”

“Yes.” She had been ready for hours.

“I thought you would be.”

Then it was Betharad’s turn to ascend the steps. They were steep, and had no side rail. She had expected her leg to cause problems, but with the aid of her walking stick she reached the top easily.

Constructed by the best carpenters each year for the ceremony, the platform was higher than it looked from the ground. She’d stood up here as councillor for the last three ceremonies, and seeing the familiar buildings and streets from this unusual angle made her feel as if she had been plucked out of her ordinary life and deposited in a world that was almost the same, but fundamentally different.

She took a deep breath to slow her heartbeat. First, Haveld would read the traditional speech that reminded them all how the violent Enjeb had besieged the town twenty-three years ago, and how her parents had given their lives to defeat them. The story never failed to send a surge of pride through Betharad—although this year, she was most looking forward to the next part of the Ceremony. That was when she would be sworn in as steward, her answer to them all for doubting the quiet, aloof orphan child with the funny leg.

Unlike her parents, Betharad had no natural affinity with the Lifespring, no ability to take hold of the fundamental energy which flowed through the world in invisible currents. But she liked to believe she possessed other powers.

The sun was shining into her eyes now, and she refused to squint.

Councillor Haveld stepped forward and raised his arms to signal the Deliverance Ceremony was about to begin. The silence that followed had an expectant weight of its own, and she straightened her back.

That was when the whole platform burst apart in front of her. The world was lost in fire, and smoke, and a terrible roar. Blinded and deafened, Betharad fell backwards while something hard dug into her arm.

 

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Do you want to know what’s happened to Betharad? Or how her sister Jessa and brother Sarnd react? Find out how this incident is just the first step in the unravelling of the siblings’ lives, as the dangers around Naerun escalate and shocking secrets about the past – and the present – are revealed. Click here to get The Hungry Fire from your favourite online retail bookstore.

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