Outer Flower, 28

Oren’s Confession con’t.

At last the roaring stopped, but still I buried my head. I don’t know what caused me to cower. I don’t know what brought out my tears. I hadn’t cried since I was a lad.

Nor do I know what caused me to raise my head. I had no pride left, so it wasn’t rebellion. Was I curious? Did I hope to look Death in the face and live?

No.

All I knew was that the roaring had ceased and I’d been left with my life.

It was over.

So I thought.

My heart pounded when I heard the cackle of fire, like a dry twig lit. Then another and another until it was the sound of a thousand trees clapping, freed from ice. From somewhere, I heard a laugh.

Inside the cave, a flame was burning. It grew before my eyes until it became the height of a man, but not a man. A semblance. Then, it stepped forward.

And now I knew I faced not only Death, but Life as well.

I would have looked away. I wanted to look away but I was caught, seized with pain and held in stasis as the lick of fire entered my heart and probed.

The process was painful and seemed endless. I writhed and prayed as frantically as any of the worshippers I’d secretly scorned from my place on the Jutting Rock. The flame was speaking to my inner man, and I had no choice but to answer with truth.

At last, the tendril withdrew, leaving me a quivering husk of flesh. I no longer screamed, but sniveled. Shameful, I had no control.

Then the semblance spoke in the language of fire. I heard it as one hears a vibration. You are rash and prideful, and many parts of you are left unknown. You have killed many without remorse, yet carrying that knowledge, prefer life. The voice paused. Not all would make that choice. For that reason, I have use for you.

The pain disappeared, leaving me weak. I wasn’t going to die. But before I could rejoice, the voice chilled me again.

Take this message and deliver it, the voice from the flame continued. Tell those who will listen that the message comes from above the High North Mountains, beyond the Great Sea, deeper than the evil of the Nevers, and upends all who hold themselves high. Give this message to the coastal dwellers, the fens, the swamps, the people of Casoria. Give it even unto . . . Here Oren broke off, clearly embarrassed. Obviously he would have liked to stop, but his resolve held. Give it even unto the dying King William and his foolish court.

The King held steady, too. Emotion showed only in the involuntary twitch in the corner of his mouth.

“What is this message?” asked the King, leaning forward.

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