The hot, west wind burned at the face of the brown Pescari youth. He raced atop a sleek mare who frothed with sweat. The beast breathed heavy beneath the light frame of Taros and seemingly flew. He scarcely felt the light stamp of her hooves across the thick grass, pushing her toward home. He knew that she could stand only a few more miles before needing to slow once more. As the sun raised over the boy’s left shoulder the smoke before him grew black against the red glow of morning.
Whispering promises of rest, he coaxed her ever faster as they raced southward. “Get me home, Falia. Get me to Mother.”
Taros had been well north of the village snaring small game during the night. He had already checked most of his traps when he noticed the glow in the direction of home. Leaving the others unchecked he mounted Falia and pointed her nose directly toward the disaster. For the better part of an hour he had raced across the fields while his mind produced visions of his mother burning in agony.
Taros reached his village just as the sun had fully emerged. The smoking pyre wells that gave the Steppes of Cinder their name darkened the western horizon, with the fumaroles emitting a strange orange glow. Fiery plumes were a daily occurrence on the steppes, but seldom had this much of the plain fallen away into the erupting caldera. His village, once bordered on three sides by a raging white river, now stood on the edge of a burning chasm. The elders had not foreseen this disaster, and little could have been done to prevent the fire that rained down from the massive field of hell.
Looking around he tearfully saw that very little remained. Fewer than fifty survivors had gathered on the edge of the southern marshes a few hundred yards away. Taros dismounted Falia and ran to them, searching for his mother. Not finding her he rushed west toward the inferno. By now the village was fully engulfed in red flames and black smoke that filled with such heat and ash that it burned both his eyes and his lungs. Ignoring the pain in his chest he ran onward to his mother’s hut.
Cornin, the village chieftain, shouted. “Leave her, boy! Leave her with the others!” Several of the firesiders lay on the blackened ground, overcome by the smoke and heat and unmoving. “Their fate is the will of the goddess!” His voice rang in competition against the roar of the inferno. Pushing forward, Taros flinched as the flames were made fierce by the westerly winds. “I said leave them!” The voice commanded, but he paid no heed and sprinted toward his mother’s hut.
Large arms grabbed hold of Taros and he screamed against their grip. “Let me go! I must go to her! Let me save Mother!”
“Listen to Cornin,” a faceless warrior whispered in the boy’s ear. “You can’t save Lynette. She died on the day of her shunning, boy! Let her be the sacrifice that the goddess demands!” But Taros could not believe that the voice, who he now recognized as his mother’s brother Teot, could merely watch his own sister burn. The defiance in the boy’s eyes turned to rage as he looked into those of his uncle. The rage grew into fury as he stared deeper into the man’s face.
Screams rang out from Teot, hands burning with sudden pain. His grip on the boy failed and he dropped to the ground, writhing in agony and holding his forearms to his chest.
Ripping free Taros ran headlong into the smoke. As he did, he heard a woman whimpering from the direction of Lynette’s crude shelter. Her cries confirmed his fears that she faced certain doom. Somewhere in the madness of his charge, the boy considered that she had not shed tears since they had buried his father two winters before. Even during the shunning ceremony, she had defied the elders by shamelessly holding up her head. The event was meant to appease their angry goddess by displaying only the weakness of her followers. But on that distant day his mother had looked each man in the eye as she led Taros to the far eastern side of the village toward the eye of Felicima.
In Taros’ culture the eastern side was the fireside, or the part of the community given up to their goddess. She rose daily as a fresh fireball, surveying her people as the winds blew her across the sky, finally cooling in the western smoke of the fumaroles. She would return the next morning and do the same, seeing first the outcasts who lived under her gaze.
While the fireside contained the lame, the sick, and the widows, the last visage Felicima viewed was of the strongest warriors and most honored elders. They remained out of sight until her anger had cooled. Pescari valued tribal humility foremost among all virtues, and as long as they hid their strength from their deity, they could avoid her outburst and eruption. The western section of the village held the wealth and food of the people, and the furthest that tribal members resided from the goddess’ eye was determined by their status.
Taros followed Lynette’s cries into the wretched outlying in which she lived. Ignoring the putrid aroma of burnt hair and flesh that filled the smoke, he stepped through the flames toward her hut. Searing heat roared at the entrance as he peered in, hoping to Felicima that she lived. Something inside caught his eye, and he strained through the smoke at a dark pile of furs in the corner. Is that her? He closed his eyes and began to move forward when a sound caught his attention.
Lynette cried out from behind. “Taros! I’m here!”
He turned and saw the large clay oven where she normally spent her day baking bread. Luckily the eruption occurred early enough that she had not lit the space beneath. Lynette lay huddled within as fire raged outside, the bricks keeping out the worst of the heat. Tears of joy streamed down his face as Taros ran to her, flames licked at his legs as he pulled her free.
He had turned to carry Lynette toward the other survivors when a backdraft exploded around him. In an instant he felt all of the hair on his body singe and curl in the heat, but his skin did not burn. The heat should have been unbearable, but, oddly enough, he only felt a warm sensation throughout his body.
Flame danced around him as he first walked, then trotted. Reaching the wall of inferno, he sprinted through toward the watching villagers, emerging with only wisps of buckskins remaining on his brown body, every strip of clothing having burned off both mother and son. Relief flooded his heart that her naked body did not reveal any serious wounds that he could see. Amazingly, he still did not feel any pain as he jogged across the small stream.
The elders stared in awe as he trotted past. He turned his singed head and drove an icy stare through the old men as he laid her down beside the wounded.
“Place the bitch away from the others!” The angry voice of the chieftain caused him to turn. “Now, boy, or we’ll cast you both into the fumaroles!”
Taros could see his uncle beside Cornin, his arms somehow burned from his elbow to his hands. Looking closely, he could see that his chest was also blistered.
He no longer cared if he offended the others with his mother’s presence. He hugged her with tears in his eyes until she patted his arm and whispered his name. “Taros,” she said, “your name means brave, my son, and you are the truest named boy in the village. Your father would be proud.” She smiled up at him with eyes full of love and adoration.
He said nothing in return but kissed her gently on her forehead. It was cooler to the touch than he would have thought after walking through the flames. In contrast, his skin seemed to burn from the core of his heart, radiating outward like a fever. Taros gently let go of his mother and looked her over for any burns that she may have received. Both mother and son would live with nothing more than singed baldness all over their bodies. He smiled at her and hugged her once more before rising.
Finally standing he turned to face down an angry Cornin. The chieftain had grabbed his spear and was walking toward them with murder in his eyes.
“Shapalote,” Taros spoke quietly. The athletic man, muscles hard from years of hunting and horsemanship, strode toward the pair as if he had not heard. Tears fell from Taros’ eyes. Instead of cooling his burning skin they turned to steam as they dribbled down his cheeks. Louder he said again, “Shapalote!” Fury now burning within, he turned his full attention on the chieftain. “I demand the right of Shapalote!”
Cornin stopped in his tracks. Realizing that the small boy had meant the words, he spat toward Lynette on the ground. Standing over Taros with spear point at the boy’s throat, he warned, “You are too young for Shapalote, boy.” The older man looked amused. “Move the shunned one to the fireside and I will forgive your insolence.”
“I had my ritual last spring,” the boy shouted at the shappan. “I am a full member of the tribe and I demand the right to challenge your leadership.” Gesturing toward Lynette, he added, “And I will restore my mother to the village.” The audience stared in silence as Cornin’s lips curled up slightly at the edges. Seeing the humor on the man’s face enraged the boy, “I invoke Shapalote, now!” He stared into the eyes of his chieftain with defiance. He had planned for this moment each day over the two years since his father had died. He knew that he would someday challenge Cornin to single combat, but never believed that he would do so this soon.
Teot, still hugging his burned arms to the blistered flesh of his huge chest, stepped between the boy and the chieftain. “He had his ritual on his fifteenth naming day. No one can deny the boy the right of Shapalote. That is, not unless you defy the goddess herself.” Shaking his head at his nephew, he added, “One of you must die for the right of leadership.” The uncle could no longer protect the boy from the world.
Cornin growled, “Fine. Throw the child a spear so that we can get on with our business.” His neck made a cruel cracking sound as he tilted his head back and forth. “You are a fool, boy.”
“I need no spear, Cornin.” Taros walked two steps toward the warrior and stood defiantly.
“Stupid child.” Cornin set his feet in the attack posture, ready to thrust or throw as an expert could easily execute either move from the stance. With a grunt the spear hurled through the air.
A new sensation filled Taros. Sudden knowing rushed in, and he instinctively raised his right arm and planted his feet stubbornly. Refusing to step aside he stared down the charging spear which abruptly exploded in flames, instantly turning to ash before hitting his chest and harmlessly falling to the ground. The bystanders gasped at the intervention by their goddess, and chants of “Felicima” erupted.
Taros stepped forward hand still pointed toward the chieftain. Cornin laughed, standing with his back straight and ready for any pathetic blow that may come from the man-child. Taros stopped one pace from his leader, the source of his hatred. “Felicima damn you, Cornin.” As he spoke, the flames that he had absorbed while rescuing his mother exploded from his palm. Struck in the chest, Cornin fell to the ground and screamed and writhed in pain. Taros stood over him with his hand outstretched while his dark eyes reflected the flaming man at his feet. In mere seconds the former chief fell quiet, his body blackened into charcoal and molded in the exact shape of the former shappan.
Taros dropped his arm and the inferno stopped. The tribe watched in shocked silence, stepping back as women hid their children behind their skirts. Lynette lay on the ground smiling at her son with a knowing look in her eyes. She knew. Somehow his mother had known that her son possessed a gift from the goddess.
Teot turned to the frightened villagers and quietly answered their unspoken question. “The right of Shapalote has been decided and Felicima has chosen our new spiritual leader. She has witnessed our strength and our corruption and is not pleased. Today was a warning that we must leave the Steppes of Cinder.” The least terrified of those looking on nodded in agreement. The others stared blank faced at the boy who had wielded the forbidden power of legends.
Taros heard the words that his uncle had spoken. Looking up from Cornin’s corpse and into the terrified eyes of his people he measured their fear and awe of him. At barely more than a whisper he spoke, “We will first cross the steppes and then the Forbidden Waste. Once past, we will seek refuge with the people of Andolan.” He turned and walked to where Falia calmly drank from the stream. He retrieved the field hares that he had trapped during the night’s hunt, taking them from the saddle and giving the string to a nearby woman. “Skin these,” he commanded, “feed the weak, the old, and the children so that they will have the strength to walk.”
Turning slowly to face Teot with confidence, his voice did not waver as he spoke in a tone unusual for a boy of fifteen summers, “Tell the men to gather up whatever salvage can be found. Search the huts.” Then Taros quietly strode toward the smoldering remains to see what he could find as well.
The boy later returned with a bit of rope and three long tent poles that were seared on each end. He used these to lash together the litter that would drag his mother and their meager belongings behind Falia. He glanced only once at what remained of Cornin but stared often to the west as he worked. Westward he looked, toward the angry caldera that was the bed to the sleeping Felicima, goddess of the Pescari. Are my people damned or blessed? He did not know.