chalice Page 8

Wordlessly, she pulled out her jar. It was the calming honey, and she saw it, as she tugged the stopper out, as the tiny frail thing it was, absurdly so, to set against a forest fire. The flames were now leaping taller than the trees, seeming to erupt out of the strangling smoke, and the increasing heat, as close as they were, was no longer only heat but pressure, squeezing her like a giant's hand. But she felt as if she were already on fire: the flick of her hair against her neck must be leaving welts; the brushing of her own fingers against her skin burned; she expected to see flames licking up the sides of her heavy, sweltering, rain-sodden cloak. But honey was the thing she could do, to mend a rent in the landscape, to put out a fire. And here she had a Fire-priest with her. This time it was not all up to her.

After a moment's hesitation, as she had not remembered to bring a spoon, she scooped up a little honey on one finger – it felt pleasantly cool – and stirred the finger through the water in the cup. Still wordlessly she held it out to him.

"Can you come any closer to the fire?" he said. "I can protect you, I think."

It was a little like that day he had first said "stand by me," the day he had healed her hand, when she had had to pull the bandage off quickly and hold her hand out toward him quickly, before she lost her nerve. Rain, wind and red fire-heat beat and tore at her; the last thing she wanted to do was go nearer the heart of the maelstrom. She knew that lightning fire was hot enough to burn, even through rain, but it felt all wrong – it felt like the end of the world. Was this what Elemental Fire was like – the end of the world?

She turned away from him and stumbled in the direction where the heat and redness were the most savage, with her wet and steaming hood pulled as far down as it would go over her face as protection against sparks, and her hands tucked under her cloak – one holding the cup and one covering the open top. She did not dare fall, and she could not see her way; her feet felt for each step blindly, and her heartbeat in her ears was almost louder than the fire. She had to open her mouth to breathe, but the smoke scorched her lungs, and her mouth felt as hot as if she were swallowing fire.

The Master walked behind her. She could not sense him doing anything, but when he said "this is far enough" and they halted, the fire was raging all around them, and either the rain had stopped or it was evaporating before it had a chance to fall. Her cloak and hood were dry, and despite the intense, aggressive heat she shivered as if she stood in a blizzard of snow, not fire. Everything around her was fire-red: the air, the earth, the sky, the poor burning trees – the Master himself was red, his black cloak as red as his red eyes.

No way out, she thought. The fire's come round behind us, and there's no way out.

Again she held the cup out to him, but she needed to hold it, small as it was, with both hands, because her hands were shaking so. He held his hands over it for a moment and then said, "No. You will have to pour the water into my hands. I'm sorry – there may be a bit of a – sudden reaction. I believe I need the Chalice's hands to do the pouring, but you will want to step back quickly, I think."

She thought she might be weeping, in terror or despair, but her tears too evaporated before they touched her face. The heat was indescribable – unbearable – and in that moment she knew that the Master was doing something, or she would already be dead. She took a deep breath – slowly, because of the heat; still it felt as if her lungs were boiling in her breast – and poured: steadily, not too fast, not just slopping it into his cupped hands, trying to let the weight of the cup stop her own hands from trembling. She remembered having done this with the cup of welcome; but this one was too small. In the smoke and the shadows and the glaring red light she could not see if the water was pouring or not…perhaps it was only steam erupting out of the mouth of the cup…and then she stepped back, as quickly as she could without, she hoped, leaping like a rabbit. In any Chalice work you had to do it gravely and unfalteringly or it didn't incorporate properly – like not letting the sponge work if you were trying to make bread – I wish I were at home now, with the dough rising and a nice little fire to heat the oven – those are all I know, the ordinary, commonplace things, those are what this Chalice works in; I was not made for this – oh, I can't breathe – my face is burning – my hands –

This is still a rite like any other, she told herself, even if it isn't in any of my books, even if I don't know what it is, even if it is in the middle of a holocaust. I am still Chalice; I bear the cup; I bind and I – I calm – and I witness.

She was half prepared for the pillar of fire that shot up from his hands as it had done that day at her cottage, although this was much more frightening, a red-gold, dazzling-bright column as big around as a man, roaring even louder than the fire. And smelling faintly, mysteriously, of honey. And of…wet. The backwash of heat that slapped her face was damp.

And the fire went out. The column that had leaped up from the Master's hands simply rose up and disappeared, like a falcon from the fist of the falconer; when it had gone, the fire in the grove was gone too.

Nor was there any wind, and the rain fell gently, softly, with a quiet susurration; it was now little more than a mist, a drizzle. Even the lingering smoke seemed benevolent, and barely stung her eyes and throat. In her astonishment, and in the sudden release of fear, she staggered, and fell to her knees; the earth she fell on was cool and moist. Hastily she scrambled to her feet again; the Master was looking in the other direction, and had not seen.

In the near silence she heard a shout, and then another. Of course: many other people would have seen the red sky and smelt the smoke, and they would be coming, with their buckets and spades, to see what they could do. It was only a few years ago that Mirasol had been one of the members of the water-chains when Cag's barn had caught fire from another lightning strike; she remembered the weary, terrifying boredom of passing the buckets hand to hand to hand with the fire towering over them – but they had saved the barn.

She guessed what the Master would do, so when he slipped away among the trees she followed him closely, that he might not lose her. It was difficult because she was exhausted by what had just passed, and her feet refused to obey her. Her head swam, and she had to keep stopping and putting her hand on a cool wet tree, till the dizziness passed. She would not have been able to keep up with him if he had been an ordinary human, even an exhausted ordinary human, walking at an ordinary human speed. But he did not – could not – move quickly, so following was a matter of recognising which set of oddly shifting shadows was him. This was strangely difficult to do, partly, she thought, because he still did not walk as most folk walked. His gait was half a shamble, half a kind of rolling lurch, not unlike that of an old sailor, permanently home from the sea; even landlocked Willowlands had a few of these.

She was not surprised when they arrived at a small clearing and Ponty was waiting for them. He appeared entirely unperturbed by the fire; he had been dozing, and calmly raised and turned his head to watch them approach.

She did not ask her Master why he had left before any of his people saw him; she knew why. His people – his own people – would not like it that their Master, who was still too visibly a priest of Fire, was the first person there when lightning set fire to a wood. This did not – could not – trouble her as it might trouble them, but for her own reasons she had to ask, "How did you know? How did you know the storm would come, and lightning strike, and strike here?" She did not add, And Ponty is no racehorse.

Ponty was wearing a rope halter, but when the Master had lifted the loop from the tree-stump it was tied round and gave it a tug, the headstall fell apart. If the Master had been wrong about his ability to stop the fire's advance, Ponty would have been free to flee as soon as he tried. She wondered if a Fire-priest also had a charm to enable a slow, elderly pony to outrun a forest fire. Would the folk with the spades have dug a fire-break in time to save the Chalice's cottage and her bees?

"I didn't know," he said. "If I had guessed wrong I might not have been here – somewhere – in time. But lightning is often mischievous, and I did hear this storm coming toward us and the lightning" – he hesitated – "bragging. I knew it would strike somewhere in Willowlands, and – we are not so far from the ruin of the old pavilion here, you know. I thought it might be drawn here."

"The pavilion did not burn by lightning," she said.

He hesitated again. "It holds the memory of fire," he said at last. "Lighting is young and strong and thoughtless, but it could also wish to visit the site of some particular victory of one of its kind – as a young soldier recently commissioned might visit the scene of some great battle – and leave some token in memory of the members of his regiment who fought and died there." With a hand on Ponty's withers he moved the pony into position beside the tree-stump, clambered awkwardly up the stump and then eased himself onto the pony's bare back. For another of those unexpected moments, as he settled himself, he looked fully human: someone accustomed to riding, and fond of his mount. The angle of Ponty's ears, as they tipped back toward him, said that he found his strange rider agreeable. "May Ponty and I save you a walk home?" said the Master, as near to light-hearted as she'd ever heard him. "I – er – I don't weigh as much as you think. Fire doesn't, you know," and he wasn't light-hearted any more. "Ponty would find you no burden."

"I – oh," she said. Her first impulse was to refuse, but then she thought, I'm tired, and – why not? Ponty was built as if from oak; he wouldn't mind a second rider even if the Master did weigh as much as a human man. "Thank you." Nonetheless she slid gingerly behind the Master, trying to keep a little distance from him, difficult without a saddle. Her exhaustion overcame her and when Ponty stopped outside her cottage door and she groggily dragged herself awake again she found herself snuggled comfortably against the Master's back. The rain had stopped, but she was cold from weariness; the unusual warmth of her riding companion was very pleasant, although her cheek felt chafed from the peculiar fabric of the Master's cloak, and possibly from the heat beneath it. It was a bit like being pillowed against a frying pan.

When she took a deep breath her throat and lungs felt as they always felt. Even her eyes were no longer sore. And there was a faint, lingering dream-sense like the memory of the ecstatic sweetness of the Master's healing of her hand.

It took her a moment to get herself down – long enough for Ponty to turn his head to watch, which made her laugh. "Good night," she said. "Good night and – thank you."

"I am sorry for tonight," he said. "I was clumsy. It should not have been necessary to frighten you."

"I should not have been frightened," she said. "You had said you would protect me."

"It is to be an exchange of compliments between us again, I see," he replied. "Therefore I will say that your courage astonished me."

"Courage," she said. "I was too frightened to run away. If there was any safety, it was to stay with you."

"It was your presence as much as the water and honey from the Chalice cup that enabled me to do what I did."

"You put out the fire."

"You came. Alone with a pot of honey."

"I am Chalice," she said simply. "You came too. You are Master. What else could we do? Thank you for the ride home."

"My pleasure," he replied, after a pause, and she wondered if he was talking about the fire, or the ride, or the conversation. He added, "I will see you tomorrow at noon, for the clearing of the well."

"Oh – the Journey Well. Yes. Yes…."

He nodded, once, his red eyes eerie gleams in the darkness above her head, and Ponty took a step away.

"Won't they" – she hesitated, not sure how to ask what she wanted without saying bluntly "if they knew you were at the fire they might think you set it" – "won't they miss you? Have missed you?"

"I go out often at night," he said. "With Ponty. It is – it should be no worse that I was out the night of the fire than any other night."