From the moment we could walk, every child in the village knew what berries were good to eat and which weren’t. Those who didn’t immediately learn the lesson found themselves ill and, we were told, at least one of us had died from eating from the wrong plant – but we took this tale told by our elders as a fable, as likely true as the Blackbeast that wandered the woods around us seeking bad children to eat or the Fire Sprites that were supposed to dance in the flames in winter.
Still, none of us knew what to make of this bush, new to us, sprung up almost overnight. The berries hung from the bushes, shaped like glistening red tears, nearly clear, with a single shimmering seed visible. Susha, a girl I thought to be afraid of nothing and willing to dare almost anything, reached out a tentative hand and nearly touched one of the ruby temptations, but jerked her hand back and put it behind her, as if she feared being burned.
“Are they hot, Susha?” Little Pitar inquired in his gentle voice. Poor Pitar. His elder brother, Martu, was the britad of his father’s pride and could do no wrong. He used his position to make the little one’s life miserable. We had all seen the bruises that were evidence, though strangely, they were invisible to our parents, who feared Martu’s father and his influence with our ground lord.
“Are they hot?” Martu mocked him. “I doubt it.” He elbowed his way through us and snatched a berry off the bush, tossing it down his throat before anyone could stop him. Not that we would, of course.
His head jerked twice, for all the world like a hen pecking at grass seed. Then he coughed, once, twice, three times. The third time, a tongue of flame passed between his lips and singed the stand of sweetstrips in front of him.
There was silence for a moment. Anthe, the great friend of my childhood, looked at me in amazement. “Did you see that, Mak? Did I?” his bright blue eyes wide.
When nothing more happened to Martu, some of the others went ahead and took a single berry each. One after the other, they spouted fire, except for Susha, who merely coughed up a tiny cloud of smoke and then laughed as it spread itself thin on the breeze.
“No more! This is my bush!” Martu stood between us all. “Mine!”
He wasn’t that much bigger than the rest of us, but we all knew where he stood and where we did. No one wanted to bring trouble down on his or her parents, and Martu was trouble. Turning his back on us, the bully grabbed handfuls of the berry from the bush and crammed them down like Long John after the fast.
At first, it was amusing to see him spouting flames from his nose and mouth, and in one memorable spurt, from his nethers. Hands were stuffed in mouths to stifle the giggles Martu would never have forgiven.
“Martu, what’s on your hand?” Anthe’s voice was puzzled.
“What?” But then we all saw it. Martu’s hand – both hands, actually, were slowly turning a strange dark green, a weirdly familiar color, and scaly –
As one, we stepped back. Every one of us knew what he was becoming, even if we didn’t understand how. The skin of the last Fyrbeast to menace the village was wrapped around the chimney of the Broderhall. Every child knew the story of Karne Stronghand and how he brought the fyrbeast down with a well-shot arrow, but only after many sevendays of death and damage to animals and crops. Now, we were about to have another such among us.
Martu’s head snapped back and his face merged together, elongated. His voice changed from the cries of a human child to a frightening alien bellow. Two bumps appeared on his back and began to tear his shirt.
“What do we do?” Suddenly, all were looking to me, as the eldest. It was a responsibility I didn’t want.
“Do it now, Mak, while they can still see it’s him, see how he changed.” Anthe was grappling at my belt, for the hatchet I never went without.
“Do it!” “Yes, you must!” The cries went up from every side. Martu’s eyes, the only truly human part of him left, pleaded with me, whether for saving from the horrible change or for the mercy he had never shown anyone else, least of all his younger brother.
For myself, I thought that the bully might enjoy ravaging our village and any other he came across once he adapted to being a fyrbeast. I took the hatchet from Anthe and swung it twice. The girls turned away and were sick. Some of the boys, too.
It took us an hour to drag what was left of Martu back to the village. His father raved and swore, but in the end it was plain as the Guide Star what had been in the process of happening. It took nearly a sevenday and delayed the harvest, but the men went into the fields and forests in pairs and brought back every one of these new bushes they could find.
We had a bonfire with them the following night. Every sound brought anxious glances to the skies. We had destroyed all we found – but who knew if all were gone? Or who might have found them and eaten?