PLAYING WITH FIRE

I trudge through the barren grasslands of Somerset. The harsh sun beats down on me, forcing me to stop and catch my breath. The yellow grass, arid and dry from lack of water is crying out for rain with parched dry throats. So is half the world. Ever since 2090, we have had droughts, droughts so bad that four billion people have perished. Ever since 2090, we have had disease and plague. Illness has ravaged the land, devastating the remaining population. But still, many hung on grimly, clutching to their lives with tear streaked hands. But worst of all the three curses is the one that seldom strikes, but when it does, causes devastation. Ever since 2090, we have had – no. I mustn’t think of it. I must push it to the back of my mind, just as I have done for the 13 years of my life. But now it is 3003. A new millennium. But still the same fears.

A thought occurs to me. I shield my eyes from the glare of the sun and mentally map out its path across the sky. Two hours. Two hours, and I shall be ritually named. Two hours until my coming of age. Two hours until I reach thirteen. I smile as I replayed the scene from this morning in my mind. My father tousled the flaming mop that was my hair. A mark of the devil, the village elders said. My parents did not care. A wytch-child, they cried. My parents laughed. People did not use to be so superstitious, but when the third plague struck…

“Thirteen – unlucky for some, but not for you!” my mother had smiled. I wondered what my naming gift would be. Maybe a lucky crystal, like Senhu had had. Maybe a jade brooch, like Mara. Maybe even my very own horse! But no. We would never be able to afford a horse.

My pack is slung on my back. I have had a good catch today. One whole rabbit, still kicking when I found it entangled in the snare that I had set. My parents will be pleased with me. My father was the one that taught me how to lay my snares. But hunting has become increasingly dangerous. My father was crippled in a hunting accident, crippled by – no. I mustn’t think of it.

I begin to draw close to my village. Immediately, I sense there is something wrong. The silence, for one thing. Not even the birds are singing. But most ominous of all is the thick fog in the air. Doubt gnaws at my gut. Fog, on a dry day like this? Fog, or – smoke.

My heart leaps in fear. I sprint across the plains, desperately hoping, praying that the third plague has not struck. But as I arrive in the blackened remains of what was my village. I know the worst has happened.

The dragons have come.

The smell of charred flesh surrounds me. The stench of carrion hangs in the air. Everywhere, there is silence, deathly silence. The ground is still hot beneath my bare feet. Not a soul but me. I feel like I’m trespassing over land that is not mine. I know that I am trespassing over land that is not mine. This land now belongs to the dead. I reach my house. Or what is left of my house. Ashes are scattered everywhere, a grim reminder of the fire that burned here mere hours ago.

In the centre of the wreckage, a huge beam has collapsed. My father’s soot covered skeleton lies there, flesh burned off by the heat of the flames. I tug on his arm bone to try to bring him out from under the beam. At least he should get a proper burial. The arm falls off. I turn and retch, vomit gushing from my mouth and nostrils. I retch until I have nothing left in my stomach. Still, shaking from the horror, I push my long red hair back from my face. My one beauty. My father used to call me Carrot-head.

By my father lies several splintered arrows and the scorched remains of what looks like a bow. My mothers’ body is nowhere to be seen. She was probably consumed by one of the dragons. At least she died fighting. Rage and despair floods through me. I scream curses to the heavens.

“Why them! Why do you always punish them! What have they ever done?” I shake my fist at some obscure god. “If you truly are helping me, send me some sort of sign!!!”

At that moment, I realise I am not alone. Lumbering out from behind one of the ruins of the houses is a huge dragon. Its muzzle is flecked with brown stains. Dirt, or dried blood? My fury takes over, fury at this evil creature that killed my parents. Something inside me snaps. All my anger at this dragon surges through my mind in a tsunami, breaching an invisible barrier I never knew was there. I realise I want to burn this creature like it burned my village. I go hot, then cold. The dragon swivels its head to face me. Its crest on its forehead flashes scarlet in excitement. Its tail thuds against the ground in anticipation for a fight. Leathery wings open, creating a noisome stench. A red glow emanates from its belly. It is about to breathe. My muscles are tense and I’m tingling. I see red. I lift my hands. Pain fogs my mind. I feel white-hot energy coursing down my veins, into my fingertips. I begin to smoke. I scream, and a huge jet of unnatural blueish flames fans out from my hands. The dragon shrieks in pain, extinguishing the fire it was about to breathe. It soars away into the cloudy sky. Probably looking for easier prey. Maniacal laughter issues from my mouth. I collapse, Facing the sky. The sun has reached its zenith. I have come of age. Thirteen. Unlucky for all. Rain starts to fall, thick and fast, cooling my fevered mind.

In a way, I suppose I have received my Naming Gift after all.