It had been a long journey, but Charra had finally reached the place she once called home. She stood atop one of the hills overlooking the little village where she’d grown up. From up here, it appeared peaceful, untouched by the war that had ravaged nearly half the country. Nothing like her. She reached up to touch the long, jagged scar that ran down the left side of her face, marking the wound that had taken her eye. The faint feel of it through her thin leather gloves seemed to confirm her feelings: she’d seen too much to belong here any longer. And even if she hadn’t, she had other reasons she could no longer stay. Nonetheless, she started down the hill into the village. She might not be staying, but she had questions that could only be answered here.
It felt strange to enter a village with no wall around it. Elsewhere, even the smallest towns had some kind of wall to protect against enemy attacks. She walked slowly down the streets, looking around at all the places she remembered. The village seemed as unchanged down here as it had from above. The only real differences seemed to be new faces among the children playing in the streets and yards and the pine-and-poppy mourning wreathes on many of the doors, reminding her that even this place was not completely untouched by the war.
Charra’s steps slowed as she neared the spot where her house had been before the fire. She’d been the only one to survive that fire. By all rights, no one should’ve. Some nights, most nights, she called it a miracle and thanked the One God for saving her life then and so many nights since. Other nights, when she burned almost too hot to control, when the pain bordered on too much to bear and the memories wouldn’t stop storming through her mind, she wondered just how much of a blessing it had been.
Five years later, all that remained of the house was a few charred ruins. Charra was slightly amazed that the remains of the structure hadn’t been cleared away to make room for a new house, but then again, the war had meant that few people were settling and building new houses. Reverently, she approached the place where the doorstep had been. She knelt there, bowing her head and remembering. She tried her best to remember only the good: evenings around the hearth listening to her parents tell stories of Long Ago, hide and seek with her little brother and sister, picnics on summer afternoons, harvest celebration feasts. But as hard as she tried, she couldn’t forget the smell of smoke, the cries, the flames.
She wished for tears. She wished she could cry for what she’d lost. But ever since the burning began, she’d found she had no tears anymore.
A young boy’s voice broke through her thoughts. “What are you doin’ in there? Don’t you know you aren’t s’pposed to go where dead people used to live?”
“I know.” Charra stood slowly and glanced over her shoulder at the boy. He was no more than five or six, too young to have known her. Slowly, she turned away from the ruin. “I used to live there.”
The boy stared at her for a long moment, his eyes growing slowly wider and wider. Then he turned and took off running away from her. Charra bit back a groan. What had she been thinking? He probably thought she was a wraith or something else of that sort now. With her scar and black uniform, she certainly looked the part.
With one last glance back, she walked away from the site of her old home and continued down the street. She pretended she didn’t feel the stares or hear the whispers of those she passed. Did any of them recognize her? She wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t. She was certainly a far cry from the almost-sixteen-year-old who was always getting caught with her head in the clouds, who often preferred the company of younger children to people her own age, who still wore her hair in pigtail braids even though she was old enough to start putting it up.
It took about five minutes’ walking for Charra to reach her second destination. She circled around to the back of the familiar little cottage and knocked. A few moments later, the door was opened by a woman in her late fifties. She and Charra stared at each other for several long moments. Confusion clouded the woman’s face at first, and then suddenly recognition shone out. “Charra? Is that you?”
The woman pulled Charra into a tight hug. “Charra! My, but how I’ve missed you! And how you’ve grown! I didn’t recognize you at first! What happened to you? That scar . . .”
Charra gently returned the woman’s embrace. “The scar is a long story. I’ve missed you too, Tatia Ama.”
Ama released Charra and stepped back. “I was wondering when I’d be seeing you again. I hoped that you’d come home now that the war’s been won, but I wasn’t certain, especially as I’ve been hearing that you’re something of a hero now. You should’ve let me know that you were coming; we would’ve had a grand celebration.”
Charra shook her head. “I didn’t want a celebration. Being a hero isn’t all it’s made out to be anyway.” She took a deep breath. “Besides, the reason I came back is that I need to talk to you about . . . certain things.”
“Ah,” Ama sighed. “That’s what I feared. Come in, then.” She stepped aside, allowing Charra to walk into the cozy kitchen, and then she shut the door. “Are you thirsty? Hungry?”
Once more, Charra shook her head. She sat down at the worn kitchen table. “No, thank you.” She waited until Ama had taken the seat across from her. Then, quietly, she asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Ama regarded her, a hint of sadness in her hazel eyes. “Tell you what?”
Instead of answering, Charra pulled off her gloves and pushed her sleeves up to her elbows. From her fingertips, past her elbow, and into her sleeves, a pattern of red and orange flames covered her skin. “You know me, Tatia. I’m not the sort for tattoos or other skin marks like that. And these aren’t anything like that. I just woke up one morning and they were there, and I felt like I was burning up inside. The next thing I knew, I’d been moved to Gifted training and had to struggle not to set things on fire whenever I was upset.” She paused. “You knew all along that I had the FireGift. I put the pieces together. That’s why you let me join the war, even though I was just barely old enough to be a soldier. That’s why I overheard you telling the recruiters to keep an eye on me for any unusual behaviors or any odd fires around me. That’s why you gave me that strange advice when I left about not burning too hot, no matter what. That’s why you were the only one in the village who wasn’t surprised when I survived the fire.” She looked up from her arms and met Ama’s eyes. “You knew. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Ama remained still and silent for a long moment. Finally, she took Charra’s flame-marked hands in her worn ones. “I knew? That would be a bit strong of a word. I didn’t know until the fire. But I suspected. I saw the clues. You always had a sort of spark under your sweetness. You seemed perkier around fires, never feared them, and they seemed to burn hotter when you were around. You never seemed to mind the heat, even in summertime. And you never seemed to get burned. It wasn’t enough to prove anything. But it was enough to make me guess.
“Why didn’t I tell you? As I said, I didn’t know for sure. And even if I had, I wanted to protect you, to give you normal life for as long as possible. I wanted to make sure you didn’t have to grow up too fast. I was just trying to do what’s best for you. Can you understand that?”
Charra looked down at her hands. Trying to protect me? What about trying to prepare me? What about giving me some warning that this might happen so it didn’t take me completely by surprise? What about warning me that having a gift like that has its downside? Ama trying to protect her, she could understand. That was the sort of thing Ama had always done for her. But surely there would’ve been a better way to do that! The burning inside her started to rise with her anger. She should’ve told me.
Charra took a deep breath and shut her eyes, trying to force herself to calm back down before the burning became remotely dangerous. She focused on wrestling her fire back down to a manageable level, knowing that calmness would come easier if she wasn’t focused on her problems. When she’d forced the burning back into submission, she considered the problem again. Would I have understood before the fire? Before the war and my training as a soldier? Maybe before the war, but not before the fire. Childlike, she would’ve grown excited over the thought of having a gift and stuffed the warning in the back of her mind to be forgotten until it was too late. And even after the fire, she would’ve been too hurt to understand. It had taken both the fire and her training to make her mature enough to handle the truth of her gift.
Charra opened her eyes once more and looked up at Ama. Slowly she said, “I think I understand. It still hurts, but I understand. And thank you.”
Ama gave Charra’s hands a squeeze. “You’re welcome, Charra.” She tilted her head. “So. What will you do now? Will you stay here, now that the war’s over?”
Charra shook her head. “I can’t, Tatia. I have duties. My company’s been assigned to help track down any groups of enemy soldiers still in the country and make sure they return to their own country without making trouble. And once that’s done, I’ve been asked to help with training others with the FireGift.”
Ama looked steadily at Charra for a long moment. “That’s not the only reason, is it?”
Charra shook her head sadly. “No. It’s not. When you have the FireGift, you have to have something to put all your passion into, to burn for. And if you don’t, you just burn up inside. That’s why I have to keep moving, keep doing things.” She pulled one hand free and touched her scar. “Besides, I doubt anyone would want me around. I scare people now.”
“I’m sorry, Charra.” Ama rose to her feet and walked around the table to embrace the young woman once more. “Surely, though, you can stop here, just for a few days? Surely you can rest for a bit? More people want you here than you think. You’re our hero. They want to see you. Even if they didn’t, you’d always be welcome here at my home, scar or no scar.”
Charra sat for a moment, still and quiet, contemplating Ama’s words. “You’re sure they’d want me to stay? That you want me to stay?”
“Without a doubt.”
For the first time in a long time, Charra smiled. “Then I think I will. Just for a few days. Just to rest a bit.” And maybe, just maybe, while she was here, she wouldn’t burn quite so much.