Night Fires – Part 3

by Robert Currer


Part 3 of 4 – 1500 Words


If time is a river, the weeks spend with Harlow were a rapid for the Scrap Knight.  It had been over a year since he had exchanged more than a few sentences with anyone and even then, he had only had Emilia.  She may have been exceptionally worldly for her age, but their conversations were still constrained by her youth.  Harlow was different.  He had lived a soldier’s life of adventure married to misadventure.  He was well read and was generous with the books he had scavenged from the wreck of the tower’s small but respectable library.  In those halcyon days, the Scrap Knight profited mind and soul from his new companion for which he was immensely grateful.

One night when the twilight had only just thickened enough to be called dark, Harlow was busying himself with his evening rituals.  By the humdrum look on his desiccated features, they were of the most mundane sort, but SK had been fascinated by them each night and taken to the practice of sitting himself down on the couch to watch slyly from behind a book.

Harlow had return from the cellar, a collection of aromatic herbs and lackluster minerals in his hands.  With mortar and pestle, he ground each into a fine powder and then mixed them in precise proportions from memory.  The result was an unctuous dust with an aroma like petrichor.  The mix was poured into a leather pouch and before sealing, he tossed a pinch into the translucent flame.  The fire flared, snapping and popping, as a deep aubergine hue permeated the hollow flames.  A pillar of colored light shot into the heavens, piercing the belly of the gathering storm clouds.

Swathed in purple light, Harlow peered over his shoulder at SK with a smile that may as well have creaked like old leather.  The Scrap Knight had given up all pretense of reading his book and was staring with big round eyes and mouth agape in wonder.  He noticed Harlow watching him and straightened his face.  “You do that every night.  What is it for?”  he signed.

Harlow turned back to the column of luminescence; his face tilted toward the sky.  “It’s a signal.  The other watchtowers’ll see it and they’ll know I’m alive and waiting.”  There was a longing in his voice like a dusty wind whistling through a ghost town. 

The Scrap Knight searched for words of comfort but came up short.  He signed, “It is very beautiful.”

“You like magic?” asked Harlow conversationally.  His placid smile looked even thinner than usual.  The melancholy was gone from his voice but had not vacated his eyes.

“I like the color,” corrected SK.  The beam was the most vivid purple he had ever seen.

Harlow’s smile bubbled as he said, “Then let me show you something you’ll really like.”

He stood before SK with an air of showmanship.  Without preamble, he cleared his throat, recited an eldritch word, and rainbow sparks shot from his palm.  He flicked his other wrist.  There was a flash and a flame shaped like a skeleton pranced comically up and down his gauze wrapped forearm.  SK laughed noiselessly and clapped when Harlow took a bow.  Thunder boomed overhead, the first of the night.

“Liked that, did you?  Maybe I could teach you the trick of it sometime,” said Harlow with a gentle gust of pride. 

The Scrap Knight signed that he would like that and then after a pause asked, “Could you also teach me how to make a cloak like yours?”  He pointed to the door where a Harlow’s cloak hung, the one that allowed him to blend so seamlessly into the stubbled hills of the badlands.

Good humor drained from Harlow’s face leaving a taut, grim expression in its place.  “No.”  His voice was a crackling storm.  A tempest raged behind his eyes.  SK jerked back as if burned.  Then Harlow blinked and the storm was gone.  In a summer’s breeze he said, “I didn’t mean to take your head off.  It’s just that those cloaks allow my people to travel these lands unseen.  If their secret was to get out, it would put them all in great danger.  You understand.”  His smile was butter cream that soured at his eyes.

The air hung heavy between them for a long, still moment.  “I understand,” signed the Scrap Knight.  His fingers formed the words slowly as if weighing each gesture.

Harlow beamed garishly and said, “Here let me show you another trick.”  He pinched sand from the stone floor and breathed an incantation onto the grains before blowing them from his palm.  They took flight and whirled as lightning bugs in the electric summer air.  Another dazzling cantrip followed and then another.  Prestidigitation tumbled over charms and tricks until tempers grew tepid and then were forgiven.  But the Scrap Knight never forgot.

Days followed nights each spent pleasantly enough.  Though he never mentioned it again, SK burned to know the secret of the cloak.  Such a thing would be of great use to him.  Yet, even glancing in its direction made Harlow stiffen and the Scrap Knight found he could not shake the feeling that Harlow was withholding more than the cloak.  A spark of suspicion kindled into a tiny flame of resentment and, at last, he understood his days with Harlow were numbered.

It was not too long after that SK once again felt the call of the dawn road.  The thunderstorms had not abated.  Indeed, if anything, they had intensified.  The Scrap Knight could see the dead shuffling in the moonlight for miles around each night when he climbed the ruined stairs to the hole that had been the second story.  Lightning strikes lasted long into the morning and the clouds never cleared leaving only flat, dishwater days to mark the passage of time.

One such night, the Scrap Knight came down out of the gloaming and signed to Harlow, “It’s time I was on my way.”

Harlow laid his book down and sat up on the couch.  His grey skull features knotted in concern.  “Surely you don’t mean tonight,” he said.

“Thank you for everything you’ve done for me,” signed SK.  Guilt panged in the stuffing of his chest at the hurt written on Harlow’s face.  But that pain would only grow if he stayed.  He wanted to leave before his own resentment grew into hate, while he could still call Harlow a friend.  Too many ghosts haunted his steps already.  “Your companionship and hospitality have meant more to me than I can explain but I have to be on my way.  I’ll leave in the morning when the storm quiets.”

“You won’t get far enough in the daylight,” said Harlow his sandstorm voice sounding unusually grim. 

“Then I’ll hide in some burrow or another until the next dawn,” signed SK.

If you’re lucky, but how many nights until your luck runs out?” countered Harlow his voice dripping with derision.  His ghoulish features twisted into a mocking sneer.

Red anger flared in the Scrap Knight’s eyes.  “I wouldn’t need luck if you would show me how to make a cloak like yours.”  His signs were hard and sharp.

Harlow slammed his book shut and bolted to his feet.  His voice was tight and strained like a sail in a gale.  “You ungrateful little shit!  I took you in and this is the thanks I get?  Who the hell do you think you are?”  Harlow stormed across the room.

“Is that a no?  Guess, I don’t have much of a choice then!” signed SK, his fingers shouting.

“Fine!  Get yourself killed for all I care!” Harlow screeched and the storm echoed his howl.  He threw his book hard, slamming it into the sagging shelves and dislodging several of the smaller volumes.  He stomped down the cellar stairs, slamming the door behind him.  SK threw himself down on the couch wishing he had something to smash.

Time passed. The Scrap Knight’s temper cooled, and he found himself feeling foolish.  It was not fair to make demands of the man who had taken him in, who had already shared so much.  Who was he to think Harlow owed him anything?  SK frowned and traced patterns in the sand on the flagstones.  He wasn’t angry at Harlow.  He was angry at himself for leaving his only friend.  Knowing without a shred of doubt that he had to leave did not make it any easier.  A fight just allowed grief to masquerade as rage.

A gauze wrapped hand settled on the Scrap Knight’s shoulder startling him out of his brooding.  “I need to show you something,” said Harlow, his voice low and resigned like morning fog.


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