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The Secret Scroll (1520.06.08): The ashes of Itadesh stir up old memories as Birka and Fala figure out what happened to the village.
~ 880 words, Created by: Ellen Million (Writer), Edward Cammarota (Patron), Posted: 11/30/11  

Fala knelt in the ashes, fingering the charred wood of the low wall before them. Burnt timbers filled the shallow impression behind the wall that had once been a house. "I think this was the archives house," she said, voice muffled behind the cloth that hung in front of her face. Though more rain threatened in the clouds above, it had dried enough that steps and breaths of wind raised clouds of gossamer ash that hung in the air and caused black coughs. The air was thick with it, making the tangled ruins of the buildings hard to identify, and it gave a surreal sense to the voices they could barely hear around them, scavenging whatever they could from the cold, burnt ruins of Itadesh.

"There would be plenty to burn there," Birka said, her own voice subdued by more than the incongruously colorful scarf she had tied over her face. She circumnavigated the burnt ground and found the timber-tangled depression and gap in the wall where the entrance must have been, trying to picture the sturdy structure with its sunken door in the black ruins. "It was all paper and birchbark. You couldn't ask for better tinder."

Fala stood, looking out over the skeleton of the village they had just returned to. She was more interested in the 'whys' and 'hows' than in mourning the crumbling structures and lost books. "I think the fire came this way," she said thoughtfully. "From the south."

Birka smiled sadly; this was like Fala - find a mystery to obsess on and put the grief off until it was simply unavoidable. "I thought you said the fire went south, from the north point of the valley." They had ridden in circles around the valley the past several days, stumbling to identify familiar places through its unfamiliar new black shroud, taking stock of remaining wild resources while others did the village salvage.

Fala's eyebrows knit. "I thought so," she said, tapping at one of the blackened beams. "There's more green coming through at the north end of the burn. But I wonder if there wasn't a second fire, something fresh and unexpected." She crouched, and drew a crude map of the valley in the ash. "The first fire came up here. Fire wants to travel uphill, but it was against the primary wind, along here, so it traveled along the river, like this. It probably traveled slowly; there wasn't much left standing in its path, so it wasn't a flash fire. But then a second fire started here - maybe a lightning strike? There were more standing trees left here, so it was moving faster, and with a change in the wind, it could have swept right over the village and joined the first fire to burn down where it met, along here."

"And the rains of this last tenday were enough to put the rest of it out," Birka guessed. She stared at Fala's map, thinking that they ought to draw it out on birchbark for the others.

Fala nodded slowly, looking satisfied. Far from satisfied herself, Birka caressed the cracked column at the entrance to the archives. "I hid a birch bark scroll in here once," she said. "That winter I broke my leg and the Elders put me to work copying archives."

"Why would you hide a scroll in the archives?" Fala asked, distracted. Birka knew that Fala considered writing too domestic to pay much attention to it.

Birka's face quirked into a smile; an unfamiliar shape to her mouth these days. "It was poetry," she said sheepishly. "Remember, I had such a crush on Anler then?"

"No one archives poetry," Fala said with dry humor. "It's supposed to change and grow as you tell it." She considered. "Was it very awful?"

"I suspect so," Birka said honestly. "I was only nine, and I've never been good with poetry. But I tucked in in a space underneath one of the beams, and when I went back to read it again, my hand was too big to get into the space anymore. I've tried to remember how it went, but have never been able to. It's... probably for the best that it's been burnt."

"Anler would never let you live it down," Fala teased. It was a shadow of her usual mirth, but Birka managed a wry smile in return. "Let's head back for the main camp," Fala said, turning away after Birchtail, who had wandered off in search of greener, and therefore more interesting, entertainment.

Birka lingered at the ruins of the archive house a moment longer, wistfully remembering the smell of books and the more temporary birchbark scrolls, the stains of everberry on her fingers from re-writing records, and the quiet peace that the building had always had.

It was all ashes now, all her hours of careful writing. Even that desperate, poetry-spawning crush on Anler had faded, like poor quality ink, leaving only fondness. Birka fingered her necklace; she hadn't ever accepted one of his beads, though she wouldn't object to it and sometimes wondered why they hadn't ever gotten around to it.

Through the swirling ash, Fala's whistle called her back to now, and Birka turned away from the destroyed building with a sign of regret and mourning.

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