“The world is ending.”
It is a younger boy who says it. Her brother, she assumes. She lived his fear when she was his age.
He hears the world murmur; feels it shake. He can just barely glimpse the town’s longhouse over the hill, banded with arches of golden-gleaming Arkynian bronze. To the boy, it sounds as if the bands are speaking—even if he doesn’t understand what they are saying. Gurgle they say. Gur-giggle. Then they let out a bloody wail that does not stop. The arches ripple and bend and snap back into position. The longhouse behaves like a rocking chair.
“Cinder?” The boy addresses the girl behind him. She is on her knees, weeping over a pile of firewood. “Cinder, what’s happening?”
He is too young to understand, Cinder knows. He’s three, maybe four? Her thoughts are cluttered. She can’t remember. She’s too busy reminding herself that the tears streaking her face are only from the remnants of smoke wafting up from the dead campfire. But she knows the boy is too young to have witnessed a morph before now. But not her. She knows. She’s only seen it once before, but the old man down the road tells her about morphs every day.
She remembers when her Mother took her to see him. She’d held her Mother’s hand by her two tree-bark middle fingers and followed her to his home in the wake of her first morph. She remembers looking up at her Mother, her flesh speckled with patches of leaves and tree bark. She had thought her beautiful. Others, she knew, did not. Cinder knew the story behind her name. How the midwife made her give birth in an empty hearth.
She pushes the memory down when something in her gut rises.
But she needs to tell the boy. He needs to understand. And there’s no one else to explain it to him. Still kneeling, still crying, never bothering to look, she recites what she remembers.
The land is alive. It is an old, old, woman. Every day the old woman wakes up, groaning and yawning and stretching. She can pucker and spit. Crack joints and bones. She bites her lip when she’s in pain. Gains weight. Loses it. Gains it all back. These are the morphs. That’s what the boy seeing. The old woman is waking up, groaning and stretching. It’s been a few years since she’s exercised this part of her body. Her foot’s fallen asleep, and the only way to bring back feeling is to move it. The trouble comes if they can’t get a Wizard to quell her before the feeling comes back and she starts walking around. “But that’s not for a few weeks,” she tells the boy. “At least a month off. Orym will be back with a Wizard by then.” She tries to keep her voice level. It’s the most she can manage as she kneels over the pile of ashes that had once been a fireplace. That had once been—no. She can’t say that part. She can’t even think it.
The Arkynian bronze stops wailing, but it does not stop rippling. Now it is singing whoop-whoop-whoop.
“How do you know we have that much time?” the boy asks.
Cinder gives herself a once-over. Checks the leaves woven through her arms, legs and hair, the three on the vine poking through her budding breasts. They dance while the old woman stretches. “I can sense it,” she says.
“Why can’t I?” the boy asks.
“You take after Father’s side of the family, Myle,” she snaps. “Don’t you remember?” She knows she shouldn’t have said it like that. Not so mean, at least. She doesn’t need to tear her gaze from the fireplace to know her brother’s ready to cry. “I’m sorry, Myle.” she sighs. “I got angry. I shouldn’t do that. I’m sorry.”
“I didn’t choose not to be half a Nymph,” the boy snaps. He stomps his foot and almost loses his balance.
The girl’s fingers sift through the ash of the fireplace. They dig into her palms. There’s no stopping her tears now, but she tells herself that Myle doesn’t know any better. He doesn’t know what it’s like. He doesn’t know what it’s like. He can hardly conceive what this pile of ash and cinders even means. “I didn’t choose either.” Her voice is hoarser than she expects it to be. She wants to say it again, but she’s afraid she may sound worse if she does.
Instead, Myle asks, “How do you know we’ll be safe until Orym’s back with the Wizard?”
Cinder thinks back to old Orym. He has so many stories. So she tells Myle the legend of Arkynian bronze:
Arkyn was the first Kingdom ever made. They were the ones who brought mankind forth from their savagery. They began as a town much like their own. But in Arkyn they built forges and smelted metals together. At first it was simply for weapons of war—to keep the Shamblemucks and Crackstones at bay. But as their metallurgy advanced, they stumbled upon Arkynian bronze: something to fortify their structures during the morphs. Something to absorb the old woman’s movements and direct it away from their longhouses and homes. Their structures got better. Great towers and spires. And they advanced into more land, collecting knowledge and tools and new ways to battle the old woman that is the world.
“What happened to them?” Myle asks.
“A morph in the capital,” Cinder answers. “Just like any other. But their empire was so big that they couldn’t get a Wizard across the empire to quell it. The capital fell, and the empire broke apart like the rest of the land.” Cinder tries to smile. She has to focus to hammer it into place. “That won’t happen here, though. Tull is much smaller. And Orym knows weird ways of contacting our Wizard.” She shrugs. “He shouldn’t be able to summon Thavian that quickly, but I’m not about to complain.”
A long silence passes. Myle sits down next to Cinder; does not speak. Thoughts creep back into Cinder’s mind slowly, like the small stones before an avalanche.
“Please ask more questions.”
“I can’t bear to be alone with my thoughts.”
“So what’s your question?”
Cinder sucks in a breath between her teeth, and then stops breathing. The exact question she did not want to explain to him, and he asked it. Her fingers are digging so hard into her palm that she draws blood. The ashes sting the cuts. She doesn’t care. She bites down on her lip to stifle the cry before it comes out. She stares at the campfire. At the ash and cinders. “They thought—they—they thought she was making the morphs happen. I mean—at least—I mean I think that’s what happened. I can’t be sure.”
“She left last night to speak with Orym. She’s been doing that a lot since Father died.”
“I know!” Softer, now: “I know…”
“When is she coming back?”
Cinder scoops up a handful of ash; watches it sift through her fingers. “She’s not.” She wants to scream, but those words have tightened her throat. So she leaves the shrieking to glittering arches of Arkynian bronze banding the longhouse just over the hill.