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The Forgotten Treaties of Wildfire and Feathers

Mountain fires are bound by ancient promises, sealed in ash and snowpack tears. But each fire is born before the ashes, before the snowmelt bears its memories down the mountain slopes, and so each fire must be reminded. At just the right time.
I watched the newborn fire from my tree-branch perch outside the perimeter. Sentinel and guardian of treaties whose words even I no longer understood in full. The colors changed as the fire grew; the center flared with intense heat and then began to cool. Tendrils of smoke curled up and fell back into the glowing mass of cooling energy. I had to wait. Too soon, and the monster would envelope me in its mass along with everything else.
A cry of pain told of some animal that failed to outrun the fire's edge. I cringed without leaving my perch.
The ash formed shapes that fell back again to powder. Ghostly tentacles, ephemeral limbs waving angrily.
Still too soon.
The perimeter lapped at my tree, and still the monster hadn't coalesced sufficiently. When the flames began climbing my trunk, I was left with no choice. I launched into the air. Perhaps I could circle while monitoring the monster's growing corporeality.
I tried. The air above the fire was wild with instability. My circling was erratic, tiring, and the monster still hadn't solidified enough.
I rose higher and searched for a tree on the mountain slopes surrounding us. It had to be close enough to observe the fire's center. But it couldn't be so near that it would burn while I sat there. The smoke and my tiring wings left me little choice. I squinted and made for a tree on the far side of the fire. The flames were headed the other direction, blown by the same wind that slowed my weary flight.
By the time I alighted and turned to face the monster, it had taken shape.
No! A silent cry I had no energy to shout. How had it grown so quickly from too formless to too solid? I should already be there, meeting it, heading off its hunger with the power of my species. But my wings... I couldn't fly yet, no matter how much I knew I should. Silently, I urged the monster to wait a moment, to take satisfaction in the flames it had already ignited.
The fire monster rose to its full height in the center of the flames. When it stretched, sparks flew far, spreading the fire beyond its edge. One hit me and singed my feathers. It roared, and all the flames stilled for a moment as if to listen. As if the sound robbed them of their fuel.
For only a moment.
When its roar ended, the fire raced outward far faster than before, spreading into the forest, far beyond its allotted boundaries.
Finally I took flight. Too late, but what choice did I have left? I'd missed my ideal chance, but maybe it wasn't too late to slow the fire down somewhat, to rein it back in with the ancient warnings and half remembered agreements.
"Fiery one!" I called out when I flew close enough. "Listen."
The monster swatted at me, and I was too slow to avoid it entirely. My head feathers burned and fell away. I refused to retreat.
"Hear me. We have an ancient treaty."
The fire roared at me to drown me out. I am small and seemingly weak, but I have a voice to pierce the loudest fire, and no inferno can silence it. "You are not to grow beyond your bounds," I cried. "You may burn within these limits, may destroy all that you wish, but you must not spread. You must call back the errant flames. Hear again the words of--"
The monster ran from my voice. It sparked new fires across the mountains. Trees burst with flame, sending sparks and burning needles into the undergrowth, ripe for kindling.
I had to be faster, but my wings couldn't keep up, and my burned head made me dizzy. I needed rest. I needed help.
I drifted to a mountain lake, like an ash on the air currents settling harmlessly down.
The lake powers had their own treaties with us, but they fled at my descent, unwilling or unable to stop the fire. I caught watery echoes of their complaints. Who was I to demand any assistance? If I couldn't keep the fire monster to its treaty, why should they bother either? I plunged into their coolness, anyway, and let the water restore me of my injuries and weariness.
When I rose, more clear-headed, I sought out an ancient ally, a spirit of trees and woodland. I flew to its crown and called out remembrances of our agreements. It gave me no answer.
As I flew away in despair, it held out a single pinecone for me to take.
I flew as fast as I could toward the monster. Surely the gift was a powerful talisman to destroy it in its tracks. I imagined it snuffing out the fire with a sudden wind. I imagined snow falling so deep it buried the monster. Or a tree so tempting that the fire would never leave it, a tree like a lodestone to draw all the flames to it until they flickered out.
Was that the power of the trees? Our treaties with such allies were ancient, so old that I knew nothing of their span, nor what promises lay behind them.
The fire had grown since I lost the monster's path. It spread to cover vast stretches of the mountains, laying bare ash-covered soil and fire-blasted rock. Its destruction sickened me so that the pinecone grew heavy in my grasp.
I clung to it and sped toward the monster, and when I was in range I flew straight at its terrible chest.
I threw the talisman when there was no possibility of an errant throw, when even the weakest toss would have struck.
And it did.
And it exploded into flame.
Fire? How would that slow such a being? The fire monster ambled onward, ignoring me. Its powered undiminished.
I fluttered awkwardly down to the charred skeleton of a dead tree and tucked my bare head beneath my wing in despair. Betrayed by the spirit of the trees. Ignored by the fire creature. I was no longer worthy of my ancestors, no longer the equal of our long-shepherded agreements. How low I had fallen, to let down so many, both ancestors and allies.
A smell of fresh pine needles made me look around. A new tree grew from the ashes. Not only one. A cluster of trees stood where I'd thrown the pinecone. And a trail of trees marked the path the fire monster had taken.
I took flight to follow, still slow with weariness.
Yet I caught up to the monster, which was going slower with every step as well. Each time it strode forward, it left another pine in its wake, and the tree pulled at it. The monster's footsteps grew sticky as if with sap.
I flew to its head, and it raised confused eyes to me. Its heat was nearly out, though the mountains smoldered low all around.
"Do you acknowledge our ancient treaties, oh Fire?" I asked.
It nodded once, then toppled slowly forward as its fire banked to embers.
From the ground it opened its eyes a last time and reached a tentacle toward me, holding something. The pinecone? No, a chunk of blackened charcoal that had once been a much larger log.
"I had forgotten. Forgotten how regret burns, how flames break free. Take this." Its voice was cool and emptying, dissipating like smoke as it spoke. "Back to the beginning, to the spark-place. So that next time I remember."
I grabbed the charred fragment as the tentacle dissolved into smoke and flew away.
Now I guard it still, for I do not know where the beginning is, where the next spark will be born. But I know that when the next fire attempts to rise, I will bring that remembrance to the new monster. And it will see my fire-bald head and hear my words of reminding and feel the charcoal of its predecessor.
And it will honor the treaties that I failed to enforce this time.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 14th, 2022
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