To Walk Across Fire
NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Beryl's Storyline.
“A fortune to anyone who braves the coals! One last chance to claim your fortune for just one coin!”
Beryl noticed that the old firewalker’s voice grew louder as he made what looked likely to be his final pitch. Closing time was near, and vendors around the open-air market were shuttering their stalls and counting the day’s takings as they repacked their unsold wares onto carts. The sun was beginning to set behind jagged mountains on the distant horizon, crowning their peaks red with fire. The market air, still redolent with the smell of spices and perfumes, had cooled as evening fell.
Except for the air above the bed of coals that the firewalker had spread across the packed sand of the market square. The bed covered an area about as wide as the firewalker’s shoulders and twice as long as he was tall. And although the coals were covered with a skin of gray ash, they still glowed red at their centers, and the air above them shimmered with heat.
“Brave the coals and make your fortune!” the firewalker called again, shaking the pouch full of coins he held in one of his gnarled hands, trying to capture the attention of the dwindling crowd of shoppers. “This can be yours for just one coin! I’ll show it can be done!”
With that, the firewalker stepped out onto the hot coals and walked from one end to the other. He did not look down and appeared to be in no hurry; he could have been mistaken for a man on a casual stroll, were it not for the tiny sparks that jumped into the air and flared beneath his feet after each calm step.
Reaching the end of the coal bed, he stepped down and raised a leg to display the smooth, unburnt skin on the bottom of his foot to the gathered spectators.
"You see, it can be done!” he said. “Who will give me just one coin to win a fortune?”
He made eye contact with each of the remaining onlookers, and held the coin pouch out towards them, the money inside jingling as he gave the pouch a final, enticing shake. But no one stepped forward to accept his challenge, and the crowd around him dissolved away as the market’s closing bell sounded.
Beryl stood a few yards away beneath a sandstone arch at the market’s edge, where she had been watching the firewalker with fascination since midday. In all that time, she had seen no one accept the elderly man’s challenge, but she had seen the firewalker himself traverse the bed of coals no fewer than fifty times.
Beryl had not planned to make anything more than a brief stop at the market that day. She had been wandering the desert for nearly two weeks since her last stop in a city, and she preferred to stay clear of settled areas when she could. But she had run low on provisions, and hunger pangs had prompted her to venture out for supplies.
So that morning she had struck her little camp and set out for the nearby market which a passing trade caravan had given her directions to a few days earlier. She left before dawn so as to avoid the worst of the dry, blistering heat which baked the open desert, and had reached the trading town of Ra'Totse just as the market opened.
To blend in with the locals as best she could, she dressed in her white linen blouse and wide-legged trousers, which a friend had given to her before she had ‘walked to Jamuraa. She also wore the broad-soled sandals which she had acquired shortly after her arrival in the desert – hobnail boots, although practical footwear under most conditions, were ill-suited to climbing across dunes – and had wrapped her white linen scarf around her hair and head, where it offered protection from sand and sun and, as an additional benefit, concealed most of the scar around her ruined left eye. Her skin was still too pale for her to pass as native, despite the bronzing effect of several months under the desert sun, but her outfit left little skin exposed for inspection.
Once at the market, she had conducted her business quickly, bartering a few fulgurites she had collected for pomegranates, dried figs, and bread. She haggled just enough to appease local customs without drawing too much attention, and she made an effort to avoid large queues by patronizing smaller stalls.
With her new supplies packed safely away, she had been about to leave the market when the firewalker’s cries had caught her attention. So she had found a relatively secluded spot under the shade of the arch and had stopped to watch the firewalker ply his trade.
Upon seeing the showman himself, she had been amazed by his apparent age. From his thinning white hair and slightly shrunken stature, she assumed he must have been at least sixty, if not older – possibly much older. His skin was so tan as to seem almost russet, and his face had been deeply weathered by a life spent performing outdoors. He was thin with wiry limbs, and he stood just a bit stooped, but his voice was clear and he moved without any apparent difficulty. He wore no shirt, and his short brown trousers fell to just below the knee – a look which initially surprised Beryl, until she realized that longer pants would be a liability in the firewalker’s trade.
Most other shoppers paid little heed to the firewalker, but Beryl had watched the man perform for hours with rapt attention. He was not a wizard – she was sure of that. She had felt acutely connected to the land’s mana since her arrival in the desert, and he was not drawing on any in so far as she could detect. And while she could think of dozens of kinds of warding which would have protected him from the coals, she could not sense any aura of enchantment around the man either.
Yet somehow he walked across fire, and emerged unharmed each time. It wasn’t magic. It was something else. There was something in his relaxed poise and unhurried calm, a kind of self-control which Beryl had seen in others and ached to be able to summon in herself.
So she had watched the firewalker’s seemingly effortless mastery over himself and the coals with an urgent curiosity that was tinged with envy, and she hated herself for it. She recognized that strain of envy and felt a twinge of fear; she had been tempted to leave, to get out of Ra’Totse and away from the man who had sparked her jealousy.
But she had resolved not to let fear master her anymore; it was why she had come here. So now, as the last of the spectators drifted away from the old firewalker, Beryl walked cautiously towards him.
The firewalker, who had just been preparing to smother his coals with sand from a nearby bucket, looked surprised to see Beryl approach. But he put down the bucket and bowed to her in greeting.
“Welcome, friend,” he said. “You watched for so long, but I did not think you would come over. Do you wish to claim a fine prize?” He gave his coin purse a quick shake.
Beryl shook her head. “I will pay you, but I’m not interested in your money.”
The old firewalker raised an eyebrow. “Why would you pay me, if not for a chance at my prize?”
“I want you to tell me how you do it. I want you to teach me how to walk across fire.”
The old man shook his head. “The secret of my trade is my livelihood. You would ask me to sell that which I cannot live without. You might as well ask a herder to sell you his cows, or a trader his camels.” He made a small, dismissive gesture as he spoke, but his voice did not match the firmness of his words. He sounded more resigned than resolute.
“I promise, I’m not going to give away your secret,” Beryl said, sensing an opening. “After today, you’ll never see me again. What you teach will be safe with me.”
The firewalker sighed. A wry smile appeared on his face. “Even if you shouted my wisdom at all who passed, I doubt they would stop to listen. You saw how little attention they pay. There are so few people today interested in the firewalker’s art.”
He sounded lonely, Beryl thought, like an artist kept apart from the world by his art. She got the sense that, despite his initial protestations, he wanted to talk, to teach. He had just been waiting for someone to ask.
“I’m interested,” she said. “It sounds like you’re part of a proud tradition, and I want to know about it.”
“Then ask me what you would.”
“How did you learn to walk on fire?”
The old man crossed his legs and sat down on the sandy ground, and the look in his eyes became distant. “My father taught me,” he said, “just as his father taught him, and just as his father taught him. Men in my family have walked across fire for generations. Back when the land was whole, it was a noble art, a respected tradition. People would cross the Great Desert itself to see the masters cross the coals. Now,” he said, nodding to the deserted market square around them, “the land is broken, and I am a living relic, with no son to carry on the old ways after me. As you saw today, people treat firewalking as an amusement, nothing more.”
“But clearly there is more. What you do is like magic, but there’s no magic in it.”
“No,” the old man said. “It takes no magic to walk across the coals.”
“What does it take, then?”
“It takes patience and understanding. It takes understanding to know that the coals are hot, but that they will not burn you if you are patient.” The old man stood up, moved to one end of the bed of coals, and walked across it as he spoke. “The people who try to walk my coals think that there is a trick, and that by discovering this trick, they will unmask me.” He reached the end of the coal bed, turned around, and walked back across it in the opposite direction. “But the trick is that there is no trick. There is nothing you need do, beyond walk. You do not run. You do not walk as you would not otherwise walk. You simply walk. Once you understand that, and have the patience to do it, you can walk on fire.”
It sounded too simple. Beryl felt like the old man had skirted the real heart of the matter – not out of any attempt to deceive her, she thought, but because he did not understand the need to explain that which he knew so completely that he took its knowledge for granted.
“But the first time you stepped on the coals, weren’t you at all nervous? Weren’t you afraid?"
The old man nodded his head.
“So how did you do it? How did you keep your emotions under control? How did you fight those feelings?”
The firewalker laughed. “Fight? Fighting is what burns the feet of my honored customers. Their feet touch the coals, and they discover the coals are hot. So they try to fight the coals, to fight their own senses. They walk faster. They run. And what does this fighting get them?”
To demonstrate, he took a few fast steps across the sand next to the bed of coals. “See how, when I try to go faster, my toes dig into the sand?” He took another couple quick steps as Beryl watched. “Look at the tracks I leave behind. Look at their depth. When my customers run, they only dig deeper into that which they wish to avoid. And that is why their feet burn, and how I make a living from them.”
“So it’s not about controlling what you feel?”
“Just the opposite. It is about being aware that you are not in control, and accepting that. Awareness and acceptance. I put my feet on the coals, and I am aware they are hot. I do not attempt to change that. I accept it.” Again, he walked across the sand, but slowly this time, leaving a series of broad, shallow footprints next to the shorter, deeper ones he had made before. “I am aware of the fire below me. I am aware of the pain it could cause me. But I accept them both. I need not fight that which I am aware of, that which I have accepted. So I do not fight the coals. I simply walk over them.”
“Awareness and acceptance?” Beryl asked.
The firewalker nodded. “Do you understand?”
“I think so.”
“Then you are ready to walk across fire.” He walked to the other end of the coal bed from where Beryl stood, and motioned for her to cross over to his side.
Beryl knew she had to make a choice. She did not have to do this. She could still pay the man for his time and walk away. There was a real part of her that wanted to do just that.
Instead, she kicked off her sandals, bent down, and rolled up her wide trouser legs to above her knees. Then she moved to the edge of the bed of coals and felt the heat which radiated off them. Their red centers seemed to glow even brighter against the dimming evening light.
Patience and understanding, she thought. Awareness and acceptance.
She took a step forward.
Even after all that the firewalker had said to prepare her, the initial burst of heat which shot through her nerves as her foot touched the surface of the coals shocked her with its intensity. It felt as though she herself were on fire, and the sensation suddenly brought a series of unwelcome memories flooding back into her mind. She remembered fire and smoke. She remembered pain and death. She remembered fear and panic.
Without even meaning to, she realized that she had started to run. She also realized that she had instinctively called upon her warding magic against fire, which she was channeling into her feet to prevent the burns which she knew the coals would cause if she ran.
She was nearly sprinting by the time she exited the bed of coals, and intricate patterns of white runes had traced themselves across her feet. Her breathing was fast and ragged, and the taste of adrenaline was bitter in her throat. She sank down onto the sandy ground, and held her head between her hands as she allowed her wards to fade.
She closed her eye for a moment, and tried to dispel the memories which had invaded her thoughts with such speed and force.
“That is useful magic indeed, but it is not the way to walk on fire.”
Beryl opened her eye and looked up at the old man, who stood over her with a look of pity on his weathered face.
“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“No apologies are owed to me,” the firewalker said. “This time, you will do better.”
Beryl shook her head. “I can’t,” she said. “You won’t understand, but I can’t.”
“If you understand, then you can.”
Beryl laughed. “I’ve been trying to do that for years.”
“Then today is a good day to start.”
“It’s not as simple as you make it sound.”
“It is as simple as you wish it to be. Be aware of what you feel. Accept it. Accept it for what it is, nothing more and nothing less. Do not attempt to make it other than what it is. Then you will be aware of who you are, and you will accept yourself for what you are, nothing more and nothing less. Do not attempt to make yourself other than what you are. For what else would you be?”
Beryl looked up at the old man. “Who am I, then?” she said.
“A woman who fire will not burn.”
“I have been burned by fire,” Beryl said.
“Perhaps you were. But not today. Today you will walk on coals.”
Beryl heard the old man’s words, and part of her wanted to argue with him. But another part of her wanted to believe him.
In order to trust him, she needed to trust herself. Did she trust herself?
There was one way to find out.
“Okay,” she said.
Beryl stood back up, and walked back to the edge of the coal bed. Feeling its heat again, she felt another surge of anxiety start to well up inside her. But she resisted the urge to fight the feeling, to try to control her emotions. Instead, she tried to become fully aware of them, to discover their shapes and contours, to feel them fully without hiding from them.
She took a step forward onto the coals, and felt the surge of heat underneath her feet. She was aware of the heat, of how it wanted to burn her. She accepted it.
She took a step forward. She felt a pain in the scar around her eye, thought about the fire which had marked her there, thought about the pain and death it had brought with it, the pain and death she had caused. She was aware of what she had done, and how it had marked her. She accepted it.
She took a step forward. She thought about all the violence which had been done to her by herself and others, about wounds which should have killed her, but had not. She was aware that she had survived, had grown stronger not in spite of her pain but because of it. She accepted it.
She took a step forward. She remembered the things she had lost, the things which had been taken from her. Her name. Her family. She was aware of those losses, how they had colored her life, how they had shaped the way she thought of herself for so long. She accepted them.
She accepted herself.
She stopped walking.
She looked down, and saw the bed of coals glowing red-hot beneath her feet, saw the air above it shimmering from the heat, saw the sparks and flames which occasionally licked upwards between her toes. She understood that the coals should be burning her, that she should feel excruciating pain. But she didn’t.
Instead, what she felt was power. She felt as though the power of the fire itself was at her beck and call, as though she could draw all the mana she had ever touched up through the licking flames and into her hands.
“Who are you?”
Beryl looked up to see the old firewalker, who had taken several steps back and was staring at her, gape-mouthed. He held one arm up and slightly in front of his eyes, as though shielding himself from the sight of her.
She looked back down at herself, and saw that she was literally glowing.
“I am a woman who has been burned by fire,” Beryl said. “And I am a woman who fire will not burn.”
She stepped off the bed of coals, and allowed the energy inside her to slowly drain away. Reaching down, she raised her leg and ran her fingertips across the sole of her foot. The skin felt smooth and cool.
Beryl smiled. “I am who I am,” she said.
Kneeling down, she picked up her sandals and slid them back on, then unrolled her trouser legs. Then she reached into her pocket and fished out a gold coin.
“Thank you,” she said, and tossed the coin to the firewalker.
A look of surprise appeared on the firewalker’s face as he caught the coin. He gingerly juggled it back and forth between his hands, as though it were painfully hot to the touch. Eventually, he opened his leather coin purse, and dropped Beryl’s payment inside it. He stared at the purse in his hand for a second. Then he looked up at Beryl with an expression that mixed confusion with curiosity.
“You are leaving Ra’Totse?” he said. “You said I will never see you again?”
“Where will you go?” the old man asked her.
“Far away from here. There’s someone I need to talk to,” Beryl said.
The old man nodded. “Remember that to walk across fire is a noble art,” he said.
The firewalker picked up his nearby bucket of sand, and began to pour it over top of his bed of coals as Beryl 'walked away.
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