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Ash's Burning Heart
A magical and romantic fairytale about coming into one's own by CJ Aralore
Eighteen-year-old Ash lived on a small farm in the countryside with his father Cedar, a blacksmith who used no fire. Ash’s whole family line were soiltamers, those born with a magical control over earth that allowed them to reshape any solid object just by concentrating. All his line, that is, except for Ash.
Because of his lack of magic, Ash was expected to complete everything that could be done without being magic, from housework to feeding their cattle to tending to their crops. If he ever tried to take time to rest during the day, their cow or mule would surely find him. Then his father would know, since soiltamers could bond with most land animals and see through their eyes. They could even make the animals do things, as Ash knew well from all the times his father made their mule kick him awake after falling asleep from exhaustion.
Though, he didn’t mind being awakened, since most of his dreams were of fire, the same flames that killed his mother.
One of his chores included making deliveries of objects his father shaped, such as spiles or canteens for skytamers, since those bonded with the element air tended to be wanderers, driven to freedom by the wind above their heads and the birds that flew on it. That day, however, he found himself dragging a heavy anchor several miles to the port for a seatamer who had saved her boat from a storm by using her control over water but lost her anchor in the process. This meant that, instead of the usual excitement that came with leaving home and exploring the world, he felt exhausted when he returned to find a stranger waiting near the gate to their farm.
The figure wore a cloak with a hood, like a poacher, and Ash immediately felt apprehensive since he had no magic to defend himself with. So, he approached cautiously and asked, “Can I help you?”
The stranger turned around so quickly that his hood fell down, revealing a startlingly handsome face. His skin had clearly seen the sun, but it was still fair, like those in the north. His hair was a golden blonde, like summer wheat. His cheeks were flushed bright red, like his lips, contrasting with eyes as green as sunlit leaves. Ash found himself unable to look away as he felt his heart warming inside his chest.
The stranger stared back at Ash just as intensely before saying, “I’m here for a sword.” His voice was deep, but not rough. It flowed like sap from a tree.
Ash blinked, returning to his senses. “We’re soiltamers,” he said firmly. “We won’t help you spill blood upon the earth. I’m sorry, but that’s our oath.” He wasn’t sure why he felt guilty saying this, as it was true.
The stranger frowned, his expression somewhere between anger and despair. Then he raised his hood and left without so much as a goodbye.
Despite the bruskness of their encounter, it haunted Ash’s mind for days afterward. The monotony of his chores couldn’t distract him from those eyes. He found he wanted to see them again almost as much as he longed to leave the farm and travel the world.
It was a letter arriving that finally cleared the haze around his thoughts. His sister Willow was returning to their farm with her new husband Gem. Ash’s father read and reread the letter, going on about how proud he was of her, how Willow and Gem would have soiltamer children and continue their family line that had been tainted by Ash’s lack of magic.
Ash tried his best to ignore the jealousy in his heart as he continued to tend to every aspect of their farm long into the evenings. He wished that his father could be that proud of him, but he pushed that thought aside. His sister was a kind woman who had never judged him harshly for his lack of magic. He often missed the days of playing together as children and how big the world felt before their mother died and their world became the farm.
It was when Ash was tilling the field on the morning his sister was expected to arrive that he smelled the smoke. Before he could even react, his father ran from their home, alerted to danger by the animals.
“It’s the woods into town!” his father called, pointing to the flames rising in the distance. “Willow and Gem are on that road. You must find them before it's too late.”
Despite all he did, Ash knew his own life was worth less than his sister’s to their father, but he still hesitated. That is, until their cow pushed him forward. Then, he ran into the woods. He would save his sister, the only family member who still loved him. Maybe that would make his father proud of him.
The smoke became thicker and the heat stronger the further he journeyed down the road, but there was no sign of a carriage or even anyone traveling on foot. He continued toward the fire until he could no longer make out the path ahead and began coughing uncontrollably.
He had just collapsed to his knees when the smoke cleared as hot breath blew down on him from above. He looked up to see a dragon towering over him, its eyes glowing as bright as its open mouth. It extended its enormous wings and shattered dozens of trees as the wings glowed a luminous green, turning the smoke the color of moss.
He scrambled backward from the giant creature. Was it the same one that had killed his mother with its fire?
Before he could run, burning trees fell behind him, blocking his escape. The dragon roared and blew flames in the direction the trees had fallen from, causing fire to spread all around him. He covered his face and waited for death to claim him, knowing he would see his mother again soon.
He jumped as he felt arms wrap around him and looked up to see the stranger, his hood blowing as flames circled the two of them. He pulled Ash to his feet, the fire flickering and staying at a distance, like a wall that bent around them.
That was when Ash recognized what he was seeing. The stranger was a suntamer, the most rare and dangerous kind of tamer. He could control fire and bond with creatures of fire. He could bond with dragons.
Ash tried to fight, but the stranger’s grip around him was too strong. Then he no longer felt his feet as the ground heated beneath them and they rose into the air. But this wasn’t like a skytamer’s flight. They were being propelled by heat and flames. He immediately ceased his fighting and instead held onto the stranger as they soared high above the burning trees and even the dragon that watched them go.
They landed at the base of a hill about a mile from Ash’s farm and the stranger released him. He felt wobbly on his legs and had to grab the stranger’s arm to steady himself.
“Are you okay?” the stranger asked.
Ash was too in shock to answer, so he just nodded as he caught his breath.
Then the stranger did something unexpected. He lifted Ash’s face to force their eyes to meet, his fingers hot against Ash’s skin. The burning sensation startled Ash and he jumped back. And, with that, the stranger blinked several times before vanishing into a trail of fire in the sky. Ash watched him go, longing to fly after him.
It was only when Ash returned to the farm that his head cleared and he remembered his sister, but by then the woods were a charred wreckage. He walked through the soot and smoke, but nothing remained except the blackened husks of trees.
He tried to explain what happened to his father, but his father only lectured him about leaving his sister to die and about being a coward. What he didn’t tell his father was how a suntamer had saved him. He wasn’t sure what to make of that, of the young man who had seemed both frightening and kind, who gave Ash’s sister to the dragon but spared Ash’s own life.
As skytamers and seatamers put out the fire and hours became days without any sign of Willow or Gem, his father fell into a deep depression. He refused to leave his bed and Ash had to turn away even their regular customers.
On the sixth day after the fire, Ash was carrying a bowl of stew to his father’s room when he found his father sitting up in bed. He felt relief wash over him until his father spoke. “Why couldn’t it have been you?”
Ash didn’t know how to answer that. Had the stranger flown his sister to safety instead, their father wouldn’t be grieving now.
“I’ve decided that your inferiority was a fluke that won’t pass to your offspring,” his father continued. “Therefore, you must find a soiltamer wife and have soiltamer children with her. I refuse to let our line die with your sister.”
Ash had never told his father that he held no attraction to women, but this was a way to finally make his father proud of him. Plus, with a wife, maybe he could leave the farm for good. So, he headed to town in search of a woman who could change his life.
It was in the town’s market that he ran into the stranger. The young man was still trying to buy a sword and was obviously becoming increasingly frustrated by his failure. However, when he noticed Ash watching him, he abandoned his quest and commented, “You soiltamers are a stubborn lot.”
“We’re not killers.” Ash felt defensive, despite not truly being a soiltamer like his family.
“Sometimes killing is the only option left,” the stranger said with a sad resolve.
“Is that why you let the dragon have my sister?”
The stranger furrowed his brow. “What?”
Ash explained how he had been looking for Willow and Gem that day and how the stranger had rescued him, but left his sister and her husband to die. Now he was forced to find a wife to continue their family line.
The stranger surprised him by saying, “I’m sorry. I only saw you.”
There was something more to those words that warmed Ash’s heart and he felt himself soften. “I’m sorry too. Thank you for saving me.”
The stranger began to reach up, as if he were going to touch Ash’s face again, but he stopped himself. “I hope you and your wife are happy together.” Then he left, blending into the crowds of shoppers.
After spending the day searching for a wife, Ash returned to the farm alone. He resumed his chores and checked on his father, who was still in bed. And, as days passed, there was no sign that his father was improving. He was about to return to town for a doctor when he found the stranger standing at their gate.
“My father’s ill and he wouldn’t make you a sword even if he were able,” Ash said through the gate.
“I came to find out when your wedding is,” the stranger said, his hands fumbling with his cloak for some reason.
“I haven’t found a wife.” Ash’s tone came out sounding far more relieved than he intended. “I’m too busy with the farm to take on a wife right now anyway.” He tried to make that sound like the reason for his relief.
The stranger’s hands returned to his sides. “If your father’s ill, could you use some help?”
Ash hadn’t had help with their farm since his sister left to find a husband, but what could the stranger hope to get in return? “We don’t grow much and, without my father’s blacksmith business, I have no way to repay you.”
“You’re not a blacksmith?”
Ash had no intention of telling a stranger about the shame of being born without magic, so he simply said, “No.”
He expected that to be the end of their conversation, but the stranger continued to stand there, waiting for something.
“What?” he asked.
“Can I please stay and help?” the stranger asked, his green eyes pleading. “I have nowhere else to go.”
Welcoming a suntamer onto a soiltamer’s farm was forbidden. Still, Ash found himself opening the gate and introducing himself. “I’m Ash.”
Those green eyes sparkled like fireflies. “Kiran.”
Ash showed Kiran around the farm and explained all that needed to be done in a day. Afterward, he showed him his room, which would be less flammable than the barn.
Kiran removed his cloak and sat tentatively on Ash’s bed. “You don’t have to sleep in the barn. There’s plenty of room for us both in here.”
Ash found himself nodding. He told himself that it would merely be safer to stay next to Kiran until he knew he could trust him. And, as it would turn out, laying next to Kiran’s hot body kept him warm even on the coldest of nights.
What was once wearying and tedious became something Ash looked forward to. Working alongside Kiran brought an unexpected thrill to his days. Kiran was a hard worker and never once complained. He also had a sense of humor that filled each day with laughter, a first since Ash’s sister left. Ash even found himself opening up to him.
One day, the two were gathering crops when a cat chased a mouse right past them and Ash began telling Kiran about the time his sister bonded with a cat and a mouse at the same time, letting them feel both the desire for the hunt and the fear of being caught. “The cat left the mouse alone after that.”
“Cats still need to kill to eat,” Kiran said as he filled a basket with carrots. He looked up and must have noticed Ash’s expression, because he changed the subject. “It sounds like you and your sister got into as much mischief as my cousin and I.” He and his cousin would warm a frozen lake to swim even in winter and drop leaves from trees on a passing cherufe, causing them to pop into sparkling flames like fireworks above its head. Though, when it came time to take him in, his cousin refused and Kiran remained a nomad.
The weight pulling Ash’s lips downward lifted. “There was a time when Willow and I wandered far from the farm—I always wanted to explore and go on adventures—and we were caught in a rainstorm. She turned the ground and nearby trees into a cave. We told each other stories long into the night.”
“And what did you make?” Kiran asked, adding, “Besides trouble.”
Before Ash could ruin the mood with either the truth that he wasn’t magic or a lie that he was, a small fireball fell from the sky. He hastily filled a bucket with soil to pour on the fire before it could spread, but Kiran stopped him and concentrated. The fire flew through the air before plunging into the water trough with a sizzle and puff of steam.
The two stood over the blackened remains of what had fallen. It looked like a pile of ash, except for a few golden feathers. Kiran picked one up and examined it. “It’s a phoenix.”
No sooner had he said this than a tiny golden head emerged from the pile. He brushed aside the ash and cupped his hands around the baby phoenix, holding it up to the sunlight. Its feathers sparkled like firelight as he held it out to Ash.
Ash was nervous at first, but then gingerly took the bird in one palm, using his free hand to pet it. It was hot against his skin and made a faint trilling sound, almost like a cross between a pigeon and a cat’s purr.
“It likes you,” Kiran said.
Ash began to ask how he knew that, but then he realized the answer. “It’s a creature of fire, so you can hear its thoughts.”
Kiran nodded, reaching out to pet the baby phoenix as well, his hand brushing Ash’s and his skin as hot as the bird in Ash’s palm. “It’s like how you can bond with animals connected to earth.”
Ash felt his hand fall away from Kiran’s. He couldn’t keep lying, not to someone who had become so important to him. “I’m not… I’m not a soiltamer.”
“Oh.” Kiran’s eyes widened. “My grandparents were actually skytamers. They never expected to have a suntamer—”
“I don’t have any magic,” Ash interrupted.
Kiran pulled away from the baby phoenix and Ash looked down at where their hands had touched, unable to look up at the disgust he knew he would find in Kiran’s eyes. He had seen that disgust in his own father’s eyes so many times.
Then he felt hot fingers on his chin as they tilted his head upward and their eyes met. “You don’t have to be ashamed. You took care of this whole farm on your own before I met you. You even ran into a burning forest to try to save your sister. That sounds pretty magical to me.”
Ash’s vision became blurry, but not enough to stop him from noticing how Kiran leaned his head forward. Or, was he leaning forward? He wasn’t sure, as their mouths felt drawn together by gravity. But then the phoenix trilled and he came to his senses and pulled away. He stood quickly and handed Kiran back the baby phoenix. “I’m sorry, but I can’t be with you that way.”
After their near kiss, Ash threw himself into caring for his father and he and Kiran divided the chores between them. The only time they saw each other was when they slept side by side at night.
As the phoenix grew and became more independent and Kiran began to take on more responsibilities, Ash decided it was time to return to town to seek a wife and possibly see if any doctor was willing to check on his father without being paid. But, when he told this to Kiran, Kiran blocked his path to the gate.
“Ash, I know you want to help your father, but you don’t have to find a wife too.”
Ash frowned. “I do.”
Kiran reached out and gripped Ash’s hands in his own burning ones. “I know it’s not just me who feels this fire between us. We can run away together, just the two of us. We can have those adventures you’ve wanted since you were a child.”
At the mention of fire, Ash pulled his hands free. As much as he longed to escape and spend his life exploring the world with Kiran, he knew he couldn’t. “I’m all he has left. He lost his wife and the child he loved. And… he’s all I have too.”
“He’s not all you have,” Kiran said in a shaky voice. “You have me.”
Ash felt the pull again, only this time he didn’t fight it. He let his face be pulled toward the young man who was once a stranger and who ignited something within his heart that he had never felt before, something both frightening and exciting at the same time, something born of fire.
The moment their lips touched, a heat radiated through his chest, as if his heart were burning. He found himself gripping Kiran’s arms to keep from falling, even though he suspected that he would only fall more into Kiran’s embrace.
But then a slam came from the house and they pulled apart to see Ash’s father stumbling out, his face red with anger. As he approached the two, the farm animals began to circle them, preparing to attack. “This is why you haven’t found a wife?” he spat out.
Their mule tried to kick Ash, but Kiran pulled him aside before standing protectively in front of him.
“And you!” His father pointed at Kiran accusingly. “Not only are you a man, but you’re a suntamer.” He concentrated and the ground below Ash and Kiran began climbing up their legs while also pulling them down into the soil.
Kiran concentrated too and the ground became so hot that it turned to a liquid that he jumped out of, pulling Ash with him. He faced off against Ash’s father, his once soothing voice a menacing growl. “Your son was running this farm all by himself until I came here and yet you never once showed him the appreciation he deserves.”
“He deserves—” But Ash’s father’s voice was cut off by a loud roar echoing through the air.
The three looked up to see glowing green wings as the dragon flew directly for their farm. It landed on the field so hard that the ground shook. The animals ran away, but the humans stood there, frozen despite the heat radiating from the giant beast.
Ash’s father’s fury vanished like smoke on a breeze and he hid behind his son.
“Now will you make me a sword?” Kiran asked.
Ash realized that was why Kiran had been seeking a sword all along and why he was there that day in the woods. He intended to kill the dragon. Unfortunately, Ash’s father was too busy cowering in fear and Ash had no power to bend anything to his will, let alone metal.
The dragon tilted its neck down until its head was directly above the three, but it didn’t attack. Just like that day when it shot fire to the side of Ash instead of at him, it didn’t try to burn them.
“It’s focused on you,” Kiran whispered to Ash.
“Dragons are stubborn creatures,” Kiran explained. “When my parents tried to control it, they were burned alive.” He winced before continuing. “But, when I glimpsed its thoughts that morning in the forest, I saw you, your skin lit copper, your hair onyx, and your eyes burning gold. It’s almost as if it sees the same beauty in you that I see.”
Ash stared up at the dragon. “What do you want?” he asked in an unsteady voice.
He didn’t expect an answer, but suddenly he felt one. It wasn’t words so much as feelings. They overwhelmed him, like a fire consuming his very being, but it didn’t burn him. Instead, he finally understood.
Without needing to be called, their phoenix flew over, landing below the dragon. The dragon roared and the phoenix trilled, but they weren’t about to fight. They were somehow communicating.
“They were looking for each other,” Kiran said, his eyes closed in concentration. “After the phoenix fled from poachers, the dragon burned hundreds of acres, knowing it wouldn’t harm a phoenix, only remove anything blocking them from seeing each other. It never meant to kill my parents…” Tears fell from his closed eyes before he opened them and looked directly at Ash. “You’re able to bond with it.”
“But…” Ash stammered. “I’m not any kind of tamer. I have no magic.”
“I think you do,” Kiran whispered, taking Ash’s hands. For some reason, they didn’t feel as hot, as if Ash’s skin was now the same temperature. “No one ever taught you how to use it because you were raised by soiltamers but you’re not a soiltamer. You’re a suntamer, like me.”
Before Ash could argue, the dragon pulled his attention back to it. It saw his sister and her husband in his mind and it seemed to understand that’s why he ran toward the fire. It then turned its massive body and flew off, their phoenix following it until the glow of burning gold wings and luminous green wings faded into the blue horizon.
“You… you told it to spare us?” his father asked, standing up from his crouch.
“Ash did,” Kiran corrected.
Ash’s father turned to his son and, for the first time, there was no shame there. There wasn’t pride, but Ash found he no longer cared if his father was proud of him. Who he was seemed to be so much bigger than what his father thought of him.
“I’ll teach you how to control fire,” Kiran promised.
And he kept that promise. That very night, he taught Ash how to light a candle. It was such a small thing, but it excited them both. They fell asleep holding each other and smiling.
The next day, the dragon and phoenix returned, but they weren’t alone. The dragon was carrying two humans, which it set down gently near the barn. Although they were dirty and thin, Ash immediately recognized the shorter of the two. It was his sister.
He ran toward her. “Willow, you’re alive! How?”
“There was a fire, so we fled,” she explained, “but we became lost.”
“We saw a dragon circling overhead off and on for weeks,” Gem added, “but then it swooped down and carried us away.”
“We don’t know how it knew to bring us here, but I’m glad it did.” Willow hugged Ash and commented, “You’ve grown.”
“The dragon must have seen their connection to you in your mind,” Kiran said as he caught up to Ash.
Their father tried to make it to his daughter, but he collapsed to his knees a few feet from their home. “Willow?” he cried.
“I’m here,” she said, kneeling over him.
“I’ll travel to town to find a doctor,” Ash volunteered.
“No need,” Willow said. “Gem is a doctor.”
Gem smiled and immediately got to work examining their father.
Willow looked down and Ash realized he was holding Kiran’s hand. He wasn’t sure when it happened, only that the strong grip kept him grounded.
When he started to free his hand, she stopped him. “I’m happy for you, Ash, really.”
Kiran squeezed Ash’s hand and smiled at him.
“Now that I’ve found Gem, this is our home,” Willow continued. “Even when we were kids, you always felt trapped here. I’m setting you free.” She turned to Kiran. “Take good care of my brother.” Then, back to Ash, “And visit often.”
Despite his sister’s words, Ash didn’t leave right away. His father’s health improved thanks to Gem and the farm started to feel more like a home, but Willow took over more and more of Ash’s chores until there was little left for Ash and Kiran to do on the farm. It was obviously intentional.
So, after a month of learning to control fire and better communicate with creatures of fire, Ash and Kiran climbed onto the dragon and said their goodbyes before flying off with their phoenix. Below them, Willow, Gem and even Ash’s father waved, their forms shrinking as Ash and Kiran left the farm behind and set off on the greatest adventure of their lives together.
CJ Aralore (he/him) writes speculative fiction from a queer perspective. He has spent most of his adult life working at libraries and helping people find their own quietly life-saving stories. He lives in California with his longtime partner and their animal children. You can find him on Twitter @CJAralore.
Copyright © 2023 by CJ Aralore
Published by Orion's Beau
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