Tunnels connected all the cellars of Kaladim. They kept the citizens connected during the Darktimes—it was how the midwife had arrived to help Amma through her labor fifteen years before. Yulla and Kell had spent several of the last few days sweeping the cobwebs from the passageway ceilings. Where their tunnel split from the main one, they’d met the ropemaker. He’d been hard at work replacing the lines that served as guides through the darkness, but he’d taken a moment to show the girls how to tie a half-hitch before he’d sent them on their way.
Yulla walked her fingers along one of the chalk tunnels. It ended in a room with three stick figures. She thought they might be dancing. “Who do you think these are?”
“That’s me, and your Aunt Mouse, and our cousin Ro.” Amma stood in the doorway, a wistful smile on her face. “I’d nearly forgotten about those.”
“This was your room?” Kell tilted her head, as if she didn’t quite believe it. Neither could Yulla. Amma as a little girl? And Aunt Mouse? She couldn’t picture either of them her own age—they’d always been old. Not ancient like Old Moll, maybe, but old all the same.
“It was. Our family has lived here a very long time. Your ancestors were the stonecutters who carved out these cellars.” She traced a circle around the three dancing girls, her eyes gone soft with memory. Then she was Amma again, all business as she said, “Come on. We still have much to do before tomorrow morning.”
She was not a woman prone to exaggeration. Over the next several hours, they finished stowing the furniture, baked enough extra flatbread to last through a year of the Darktimes, and checked and rechecked their supplies.
When Abba came home, they began memorizing the space that would be their living quarters. Someone would call out a place to start from and a place to go, and the five of them took turns navigating around with blindfolds on. Abba made it into a game, taking away points if you barked a shin on an obstacle; awarding them if you could find your way even after someone spun you around a few times.
Aunt Mouse and Amma won, of course. Despite the grey twisting through their hair, they moved around like girls at the versam: confident, graceful, sure.
Kell was slightly less poised, the loss of sight stymying her, but only at first. Soon she’d learned the room as quickly as she’d learned the versam. Yulla felt awkward and ungainly when it was her turn beneath the blindfold, but she figured out the trick soon enough—shuffle your feet forward, sweep your hands along. Listen. Feel.
Abba had a terrible time of it, stubbing his toes and tripping over everything in his path. Once, he ended up in the privy instead of the tunnel, and only came back when they all started giggling. Yulla suspected him of faking, but it was rare for Abba to be so carefree. She played along, like the others.
At sunset, they made their way to Kaladim’s main thoroughfare and took part in the feast. Amma and Aunt Mouse had made a double batch of lemon cakes—one for the townspeople, one for the Fire Children. While the adults prepared smaller tables for their families and friends, the children of Kaladim set to painting the great stone trestles in the middle of the street. Suns dominated the others’ pictures, and likenesses of how they imagined the Fire Children would appear. Squabbles broke out here and there among the younger children as artwork got critiqued.
Kell drew winter flowers, “Because the Children are here in the summer, so they won’t be able to taste them.” She looked sad as she dabbed crimson on the white petals’ tips, and Yulla thought she knew why: Kell was seventeen. As much as she enjoyed playing the grown-up, this would be the only time she’d be able to participate in this part of the festivities. When next the Darktimes came, she’d be an adult—maybe even married, with children of her own. The last time, she’d been too young to remember much of anything aside from the excitement of her little sister’s birth.
It was true for all of the older children in Kaladim, Yulla included. She could be twenty the next time Sister Moon visited Mother Sun. Or older. It was too far away for her to worry over, but she’d heard the others discussing it these last few weeks as the temperatures soared, heralding the return of the Scorching Days.
“What is that?” asked Kell. She’d finished her flower and peered critically at the scene Yulla had been painting. Yulla’s heart sank.
Now that she looked at it, what had been so crisp and real in her head was barely more than a pair of brown blobs with a silver X between them to represent bared steel. One had a smeary dab of crimson on what was supposed to be its head. Yulla had applied her paint too thick, and the day’s heat had made it run. “It’s the Brigand Queen,” she murmured, “and…” Yulla had begged Abba to read the tale to them at least once a week when they were little. How would the Fire Children know, if her own sister didn’t recognize it?
“No, wait, I see it now.” Kell patted her shoulder. “I just wasn’t looking close enough. Why don’t we fix the flower in her hair, so they know it’s the Brigand Queen?”
Yulla frowned at it. “Can it be fixed, do you think?”
Her sister bent and, with a hand steady as Old Moll’s, thinned the smear of red paint, making the impression of petals curling outward. The scene came alive again in Yulla’s mind: the Brigand Queen, her signature rose tucked behind her ear, confronting the Scourge of the Seven Sands.
Sometimes, Kell wasn’t entirely horrible after all.
They feasted until Sister Moon rose, only the crescent sliver of her smile visible in the eastern sky. By the time the people of Kaladim had eaten their fill—or more; Yulla was so stuffed she didn’t think she’d need to eat again until after the Fire Children were gone—the painted trestles had dried. The grown-ups arranged the extra food and set out wooden plates and utensils for the Fire Children.
In a few hours, Sister Moon would begin her visit with Mother Sun, and the Scorching Days would begin. A hush rippled through the gathered crowd as the priests said a final prayer. Yulla looked around at the city, at the festival lanterns strung up over the streets like stars, at the banners fluttering in the evening breeze, at everyone dressed in their feast-day finery. The priests and priestesses stood on the steps of the Worship Hall, repeating the blessings for those who couldn’t fit inside. Yulla took it all in; it was one of the last things any of them would see for days.
On their way home, Yulla spied a trio of witch-women huddled near the feast. Two of them seemed to be arguing in hushed, urgent voices. The third’s eyes glittered in the scant moonlight as she looked up and down the table. Maybe she’s admiring it, Yulla told herself. But the woman looked… eager, somehow, greedy.
The witch-woman caught her looking, and spread her lips in a grin. It was probably supposed to be welcoming, but Yulla was sure the woman could open her mouth so wide she could swallow their family whole. She hurried to catch up to Aunt Mouse, and didn’t look behind them until they were home.
Even though Yulla had thought she wouldn’t be able to eat another bite for at least a week, she found room when Amma brought out the last of the milk, and a plate of the flat, thin anise cookies she’d made. These were the broken pieces—she left the perfect ones out for the Fire Children—but they tasted just as wonderful.
Kell and Yulla sat on cushions on the great room floor, painting a few last pictures to leave for the Fire Children while Amma and Abba and Aunt Mouse laid out offerings of their own. Amma brought her earrings and the necklace of shimmering gold down from her dresser and laid them on the hearth; Abba set a recorder beside it—he’d carved it himself, and had it inlaid with silver.
Aunt Mouse draped a quilt over a chair. She’d spent nearly a year making it, finding the perfect bits and pieces and piecing them together. Now she laughed self-consciously and said, “Foolish of me to think they’d ever be chilly. I should have made a fan!” But they all told her how beautiful it was, with its cool river-blues and the green of the leaves that bloomed after a rain, and Aunt Mouse blushed, pleased.
Near midnight, the bells began to toll. They rang out across the city from the top of the Worship Hall, echoing off the stone walls of the buildings before they faded out into the desert. Amma herded the girls down the cellar stairs, to where Aunt Mouse had gone to doze in their makeshift great room. On the upstairs side of the door, Abba painted the symbol that would tell the Fire Children ‘do not enter.’ Kell had said it was a ward taught to the people of Kaladim by the witch-women, but that had never been enough to set Yulla at ease about them. As Abba put the last bright white touches on the mark, she thought of the glittering eyes of the witch-woman from earlier, and shuddered.
No, being protected by their magic didn’t make her feel any better at all.
Aunt Mouse had lit a few lamps when she’d tottered downstairs for her nap, but Amma suggested they light a few more. It felt like noonday in the room, then, the shadows banished for just a little longer. Yulla and Kell settled in on either side of Abba as he opened a huge book across his lap. The letters stamped on the cover had been worn smooth from years of handling. It was the only book Amma had kept out of storage—these few hours would be the last time there’d be light enough to read by until the Darktimes ended, and they gathered around him in a way they hadn’t for a few years. Not since Kell had declared herself too old for stories when she was twelve, and Yulla—eager to copy her elder sister—had insisted the same.
Yulla had always regretted that, but never knew how to ask Abba to start reading to her again.
Tonight, he read whichever stories the girls called for: “The Wind-Dancers,” “Emir and the Silver Shoes,” “How Inkspot Escaped the Wolves,” and, of course, “The Brigand Queen vs. The Scourge of the Seven Sands.” But soon, even the excitement of the Darktimes’ imminent beginning couldn’t keep the yawn from stretching Yulla’s jaw. Amma had had them out of bed before Mother Sun herself this morning.
She dozed in and out of sleep, her dreams shifting with the tales Abba read aloud. Sometimes she heard other voices, as neighbors shuffled down the tunnels to make sure everyone was prepared or to leave a basket of sundries. At some point, Aunt Mouse went visiting as well, and Kell went with her. Yulla tried to rouse herself, but it was so comfortable there beside Abba.
Then Amma was shaking her gently, and Yulla opened her eyes to see everyone staring at the trio of oil lamps on the sideboard. From above, muffled by the door that led to the kitchen, came the last peals of the Worship Hall bells. “It’s starting,” said Amma.
At first, when the ringing died away, nothing happened. The flames stood tall and bright, the wicks turned up all the way. Yulla was about to ask if something was wrong when she realized that all three were… tilting. They leaned—no, they yearned—toward the cellar’s eastern wall. The flames grew longer, until they licked the insides of the glass globes. Abba reached out, his hands wrapped in a towel, and removed the globes.
One by one, the flames extricated themselves from the wicks that had anchored them. They hovered for a heartbeat, two…
… then streaked across the cellar, up the stairs, and slipped away beneath the door.
For a moment, the ghosts of their passage floated before Yulla’s eyes, bright blue blurs where before there had been light. Then even those faded, and all was darkness. She waved a hand in front of her face and saw nothing. For all she knew, her eyes weren’t even open. She held her palm up close and blinked a few times, feeling the whisper-kiss of her lashes on her skin.
She reached to her left and found Kell, who squeaked at the touch.
Kell’s squeak made Aunt Mouse squeak, and that set Amma and Abba to laughing. The sound rolled through the pitch black of the cellar, banishing any tremors of fear that might have been sidling into Yulla’s mind. She’d be all right, down here in the dark. It was where she’d been born, after all.
Still, she wondered what it might be like, up above with the Fire Children.
The Fire Children
by Lauren Roy
Out June 2015
Fifteen years have passed since Mother Sun last sent her children to walk the world. When the eclipse comes, the people retreat to the caverns beneath the Ramala, passing the days in total darkness while the Fire Children explore their world. It’s death to even look upon them, the stories say.
Despite the warnings, Yulla gives in to her curiosity and ventures to the surface. There she witnesses the Witch Women — who rumors say worship dead Father Sea, rather than Mother Sun — capturing one of the Children and hauling her away. Yulla isn’t the only one who saw the kidnapping; Ember, the last of the Fire Children, reveals himself to Yulla and implores her to help.
Trapped up above and hunted by the witches and the desert wind, Yulla and Ember must find a way free his siblings and put a stop to the Witch Womens’ plans, before they can use the Fire Children to bind Mother Sun herself.