Writing exercise #20 – Lighting up

It was always special when it was Selin’s turn to light the beacons. She was lucky that her group of novices had been so small – and that there had been so many who hadn’t made it this far. Well, she corrected herself, remembering Nalia’s pale face and her limbs splayed at the base of the Magnetic Keep, maybe not lucky exactly. But she was glad all the same that her turn came around relatively often – about every 200 days as far as she could tell. It was hard, sometimes, to keep track of time, especially when they did their long practices which could have them emerging, blinking, into the daylight and marvelling at the brightness of the sky after hours – or possibly days – spent in ritual.

Eventually she’d be able to count better and then she’d know what day it was just like Revered Lyanka, who could count seconds better than an automaton, even when she was performing the complicated ritual dances requiring her to sing a rhythm other than the one her feet were keeping.

Lighting the beacons required an awareness of time, too, but fortunately it only had to coincide with sunset, and that was easy to count. Selin had lived here in the Sacred Fort since she was very small, and she knew what the sunset looked like at every time of the year.

And she always started early too, partly because beacon duty was an acceptable excuse for avoiding anything else scheduled for that day, and partly so she would never be late with the final lighting.

She had some time left, still, she knew. Just the right amount of time to prepare the two beacons in the lake and then make the climb to the top of the Forlorn Tower to perform the lighting ritual. Many of the other novices preferred to take the easy option and light the beacons one by one as they prepared them. But ever since Selin had first seen it done, when she was only just old enough to be out of bed at sunset, she had vowed she would always do it properly, the way Revered Amanda had taught the first novices all those years ago.

So she removed her robes and took the wicks and flints and special oils, in an oiled skin bag tied around her waist, and she swam to the two beacons in the lake. One by one she lifted the heavy glass covers onto their special iron stands, prepared the wicks and replaced the covers, always remembering to seal around them with the special red beacon wax and to mark it with the Order’s seal.

And then she swam back to the shore, her arms and legs shaking slightly from the exertion of keeping herself afloat as she worked – and set off on the long climb up to the Forlorn Tower. The beacon there was easy to light, thankfully and this time she was profiting from someone else’s hard work because the large oil vat was nearly full. The only lighting days she disliked were when she had to fill the vat too.

And now everything was ready. She stood at the top of the tower, hearing the faint sounds of the Order drifting up to her in the blueing air, and she breathed the ritual breaths and spoke the appropriate words and finally lit the holy circle – the apparently magical iron ring that sent the flame to all of the beacons at once. The sun sank behind the hills on the other side of the lake, the sky darkened immediately, and the rest of the Order, all gathered in the main courtyard, all sang a single harmonious note at the same time… and the beacons lit.

From the one by her side to those around the curtain wall, the three huge ones on the roof of the main temple and the row of nine small ones on Revered Lyanka’s house, to the two now submerged in the lake – they all shone with a cool white light, and the dusk was suddenly a greyer, more veiled thing around her. And she held her breath and listened. Because now, she knew, they would come.


The prompt for this one fitted in with a story that I’ve been mulling over for several years (!) about a blacksmith who’s afraid of the sea – and for good reason, as this piece illustrates.

Once again, I’m amazed by what just comes out if I give myself even the tiniest opportunity to write. But I think the strictness of a writing prompt with a 15 minute time scale is really helpful. You can’t do anything but let your subconscious take over.

The sea took his sister first. She was six, he was eight, and they knew of the dangers of the water – or at least they knew the water itself could be dangerous. They didn’t know then – and Elisa would never grow old enough to find out – about the other things the sea held and about its very greatest danger.

It wasn’t even a summer’s day, not the kind of day when the other village children took turns showing off their bravery by jumping from the jetty into the sparkling, cool water. No, when the sea took Elisa it was grey and coolish, only barely into spring, and the water was bitterly cold.

Samuel had always felt fortunate that it had in no way been his fault. He hadn’t been minding his sister that day – hadn’t even been conscious, sick with a fever that had his mother at his bedside, frantic that she might be going to lose one of her children.

And so she had. But not him. Instead, Elisa had sneaked away from their father – not a difficult task when he was intent on forming metal in the smithy – and Samuel’s parents only realised she’d gone when the solemn procession came to a stop outside the house, Elisa’s soaked and lifeless body laid out on the handcart of the shellfish gatherer who’d found her.

Even in his fevered dreams Samuel had heard the screams, and the nightmares generated by the ensuing uproar had almost finished his fever-weakened frame.

But he’d survived. And so had his parents, although they never really spoke to each other again. Samuel’s father, always a taciturn man, had become almost silent, only speaking to give Samuel an instruction as he taught him the business of smithing. And his mother had turned from the village schoolteacher, lively and with always a kind word for everyone, into a grey shadow of a woman who took in mending and rarely left the house at all. Samuel had learned to buy food for what was left of his family, visiting the market every day with his mother’s basket over his arm, and if the other village children made fun of him to begin with, they stopped after he beat two of the bigger boys – older than him by several years – into a bloody mess. Learning to be a smith meant developing a smith’s muscles too, and it was not a profession known for its daintiness.

At 17, Samuel became a smith in his own right, and his masterpiece of an ornate sign to hang above the door of the village doctor had drawn appreciative comments from his father’s colleagues who’d come to assess it. The next day, his father went into the sea. As if he’d only been waiting all these years for Samuel to be able to provide for his wife.

But she didn’t live long either, pining away even further and finally just falling asleep over a pile of mending and never waking up again.

So Samuel found himself alone, with a livelihood and a house to be sure, but no love in his life – not even much companionship, as it was rumoured that he was a jinx and would carry on bringing ill luck to anyone coming to close to him.

Then he met Abigail, and he was sure the bad luck was over.

But the sea hadn’t finished with him yet.