Nights of Fire
Part Two – Fire in the Sky
The weather closed in on around them. The breeze picked up to a wind that howled across the barren hill slopes with a knife like intensity, shredding through their clothes as if they were mere tattered rags, to chill them to the core. Even Nhaqosa, born as he had been in colder climes and graced with a thick hide, felt it. In his mind, the cause of it had been the long years spent in hotter lands, to which he had become acclimatised.
There were further flurries of snow, ones which whirled around them upon the winds, yet these did not settle, melting away as soon as they touched down.
The going was slow as they scrambled up rough, stone strewn slopes, or made their way through the deep ravines that cut through the hills, all the time beset and afflicted by the winds and the snow. Off in the distance, lying between the hills that they were traversing and the far off mountains, they could make out a vast and dark spread of trees across the horizon, an ancient forest in the deep northern wilds, far from the axes of civilisation.
As the long shadows of the day lengthened and the evening came upon them, the winds that had accosted them during the day died away. The clouds that shrouded the sky began to break apart, slowly scattering. A first few stars glittered in the spreading sable sky.
In the shelter of a tumbled pile of boulders that were strewn in one of the canyons they had been working their way through, they made camp for the night. A small fire was built up in the lee of the boulders so that it was sheltered from the wind should it pick up again, fed from branches from a few hardy bushes they found in the surrounds. Between two of the larger boulders they stretched out canvas, weighing it down with heavy stones, there to shelter during the night out of the inclement weather.
They partook of a simple evening meal before they began to settle into their bedrolls under the canvas. As they did, the darkening sky came to life overhead. A burgeoning of iridescent colours crept across the northern horizon above the mountains. Shimmering veils and ribbons of colours twisted and rippled in displays that blazed bright, a wide spectrum of blues and reds and greens. The longer they watched, the more intense it became until it seemed as if the night’s sky was a sea of shifting fire.
“I had forgotten about this,” one of their number said. He was a short and wiry man named Lakach, who bore a large and droopy moustache. “Once, when I was a very young lad, I had come to the north and saw the night lights, but until now that memory had been forgotten.
“Where I come from,” Nhaqosa rumbled, “There are a people, the hobgoblins of the Aracan nations, who had a myth of the southern lights, that of a man they call the Sky Painter. He is a mythical being who travels the Sky-Plains and is responsible for the lights in them, as well as the stars strewn across the night, the rainbows and the displays at dusk and dawn. Their legends say he does all this to impress a woman.”
“That seems rather a lot of effort to go to for a woman, boss,” Lakach noted.
“Not if she was worth it, and she would be,” Abasan retorted.
Nhaqosa smiled faintly to himself in the dark as he listened to the banter between his companions, a return to more pleasant times, back before the darkness that had touched them all of late had arrived, back before the deaths of so many friends.
“What is that?” Keeping watch beside the fire was a man named Katako. He had not been a part of the conversation, instead keeping an eye out for trouble. He pointed off towards the mountains. Heads turned to see what he had spotted. From out of display that lit up the sky there fell a dot of light, in its wake a trail of flame. It was no falling star, but something else entirely.
Its plunge suddenly halted and it shot forward at great speed, headed their direction, a fiery spark that swooped low over the terrain, skimming just above the ground. They watched as it grew nearer, moving at an incredible speed. It soared over the dark forest and then dropped out of sight behind the hills.
They waited in silence, watching to see if it would reappear, until at last a sound came to them, growing louder in intensity with each passing second, reaching its crescendo in a roar. Suddenly it burst into sight, bright flames shrieking overhead, tearing southwards at a pace that buffeted their camp with wind and heat.
“A Phoenix,” Nhaqosa said in wonderment. “This is truly a night for surprises.”
It had been no mere bird, but vast and majestic in form and awe inspiring in size, and no creature of simple flesh and blood, bones and feather. As much flame as it was flesh, an aurora of fire enshrouded it, of reds and yellows, of oranges, purple and bright whites.
“It is a night of fire,” Abasan said sombrely, quietly, as the Phoenix dimmed away to the south, and in those words there was a hint of foreboding that brought a heavy chill to Nhaqosa for reasons he could not fathom. “And the day will end in fire,” Abasan added.
“Abasan?” Niati, the slender, graceful woman asked, “What was that about?”
“I am not sure,” the man replied, giving a shake of his head. “It just felt as if it were the right thing to say.”
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