Artist :Joe Slucher
Author :Shona Kinsella
Black smoke billowed from the ground floor windows of Mab Tenaway’s house. Andar cradled Jenna against his chest, eyes searching the crowd for any sign of the widow. He couldn’t see her anywhere.
‘Mab Tenaway!’ he called, pushing between people who were milling around in the way of neighbours who came carrying buckets. ‘Has anyone seen Mab Tenaway?’
Faces looked back at him with blank expressions. He fought an urge to grab the nearest onlooker and shake some information out of them. He saw a man with a large bucket disappear up the side of the house and remembered the pump out back. Perhaps Mab Tenaway was there, directing operations.
He looked at the path that led to the back of the house doubtfully. He would have to pass close to the walls of the burning building and he really did not want to take Jenna up there with him, but there was nowhere safe to leave her out here on the street, no-one he knew or trusted to keep an eye on her.
‘Papa, I’m scared,’ Jenna said, clutching his shirt.
‘Everything will be alright, my brave girl.’
‘Where is Mab Tenaway?’
‘I’m going to find out.’ Andar started towards the side of the house, angling his body away from the flames as much as he could. ‘Keep your head down, and tuck in tight to me.’
Jenna did as she was told, clinging to him with a panicky tightness.
They walked into a wall of heat, the noise of the flames making it impossible to hear anything. Andar clutched Jenna tighter, coughing as smoke found its way into his lungs. He could see the wooden boards that had not yet been consumed darken and split.
Then he was past the house. The yard at the back was fairly large and he headed straight for the wall that marked the edge of the property. He sat Jenna atop it and told her to stay there then turned and looked towards the pump. Several people had formed a chain and were passing buckets of water along, tossing them on the fire. Andar could have told them it was no use – the fire had to much of a hold on the building. It would be more effective to soak the buildings to either side in an attempt to stop the flames spreading.
There was still no sign of Mab Tenaway.
With another admonition to Jenna to stay exactly where she was, he walked over to the pump.
‘Has anyone seen Mab Tenaway?’ he asked the first person he came to, a young woman in a soot stained dress, hair dishevelled, sticking to the perspiration on her face as she worked the handle of the pump.
She looked up and shook her head, expression grim. ‘We think she might be inside.’
‘Inside!’ Andar looked at the building in horror. The flames were licking up the walls, towards the upper floor of the house.
He sought out the window of Mab Tenaway’s bedroom. The shutters were closed.
‘Ma Frinken spoke to her earlier today,’ the woman nodded towards a man at the front of the line who was throwing water from his bucket towards the fire. ‘She told him she had a headache and was going to lie down if she got a chance.’
Andar looked between the house and Jenna. Mab Tenaway had taken them in when they had nothing. She had given him something even more precious than the food that kept them alive. She had given him hope.
He hurried over to Jenna and cupped her face in his hands, marvelling again at how delicate she was, how precious.
‘I need to do something you’re not going to like,’ he said, having to raise his voice a little to be heard over the dull roar of the fire.
‘Why?’ She clutched at him, fear written all over her face.
‘No-one can find Mab Tenaway,’ he said. ‘They think she might be inside. I’m going to try and get in to help her.’
‘No!’ she wailed, tears filling her eyes.
‘If I was inside the building, wouldn’t you want someone to try and help me?’
‘But why does it have to be you, Papa? Why can’t someone else go?’
Andar looked at his daughter and his heart broke for her. ‘I know the layout of the house,’ he said. ‘It will be smoky and hard to see inside, and I have a better chance of finding my way than someone who hasn’t stayed here. Mab Tenaway may not have much time.’
‘I don’t want you to die.’ Jenna was sobbing now.
Andar pulled her to his chest and crushed her against him, pressing his face to the top of her head.
‘I promise I will be as careful as I can. And if I think I won’t be able to get through I will come straight back out. Mab Tenaway helped us. Now it’s our turn to help her.’
Jenna nodded and reluctantly let go.
‘Now, I need you to stay right here and wait for me. Alright?’
Andar winced at the look of surrender on his daughter’s face. ‘I’m coming back, Jenna. I promise.’
He kissed her forehead and then hurried back to the woman working the pump. He took the bucket that she had just filled and poured it over his head, spluttering as the cold shocked the breath out of him.
‘What are you doing?’ the woman demanded.
‘I’m going in, to look for Mab Tenaway,’ he said, reaching for the handle of the pump and adding his strength to hers to fill the bucket faster. ‘Can you watch my daughter please? Make sure she stays back?’
‘The fire is hot, too high,’ she said. ‘It’s too late.’
Water sloshed up to the rim of the bucket and Andar tipped it over himself again, making sure to work the water through his hair.
‘I have to try.’ Andar stood there, soaking wet, his clothes dripping and turned to wave back at Jenna. ‘Please, can you make sure my daughter stays back?’
The woman looked at him as if he was mad but slowly, nodded.
‘If I don’t make it out, take her to the temple of Sha-Fetuh. They’ll look after her.’ He hoped he was right about that.
Turning towards the house, he closed his eyes and pictured the layout inside. Through the door, into the kitchen. Round the table, and then half a dozen paces to the archway into the dining room. Turn right for the staircase, up fourteen steps then turn right at the top. Along the hallway to the very end.
Sha-Fetuh, if you’re really there, if I was promised to you, I’ll keep that promise, but please, I could use a little divine help right now.
Andar opened his eyes, took a few deep breaths, then pulled the top of his shirt up over his mouth and nose. He was as ready as he ever would be.
I love you, Jenna.
He ran into the flames.
The heat was almost unbearable. Andar scrunched his eyes mostly closed to protect them from the smoke but still they watered. He peered through the narrow slit of his eyelids into a haze, unable to see much further than an arm’s length ahead. Flames licked at his clothing but could not take hold of the soaking fabric. The fire snuffled at him like a hungry beast. He did not have much time.
Andar stumbled around the pillar of flame that had been the kitchen table and ducked through the archway, gasping in the searing air. He turned right, trusting that the staircase was passable on the other side of the wall of smoke that faced him.
Please let her be alive up there. Andar knew that sometimes people died in a house fire long before the flames ever reached them. He couldn’t bear it if he’d put Jenna through so much fear for nothing.
Something crashed behind him, making him jump. He turned to see that the archway between him and the kitchen had collapsed, flaming debris scattered all over the floor. If had passed beneath just a moment later…
He shuddered and ran for the stairs.
The banister was ablaze on one side but bizarrely the other side was clear so far. Coughing into his wet shirt, he slipped up the stairs, back pressed to the safe bannister. The flames lessened as he climbed although the smoke grew thicker. By the time he had turned down the hall towards the widow’s bedroom, he could hardly see and was coughing with each breath.
The water that he had soaked himself with outside was starting to evaporate in the heat; it would not protect him for much longer.
Andar found the door to the bedroom closed. He tried to open it but something heavy had been shoved behind it.
‘Mab Tenaway!’ he shouted, voice disappearing in the roar of the flames. ‘Mab Tenaway, it’s Andar. I’ve come to get you out!’
There was no answer from within the room, or at least not one that he could hear over the crackle and pop of the flames and the sounds of breaking crockery from downstairs. He pressed his shoulder to the door and pushed as hard as he could. There was some give, but not a lot.
He stopped to cough then put his shoulder to the door again. He began to rock back and forth, managing to shove the door open a little more each time until whatever was blocking it toppled with a crash that he felt as much as heard.
Andar climbed over a set of drawers and into the bedroom. Mab Tenaway was on the bed, clothing pressed to her face, unresponsive. He hurried to her side and carefully touched her face. She was breathing, though it sounded like each breath pained her. He shook her shoulder, lightly at first, then with more force, until her head rolled on her neck. She did not wake.
Andar hurried over to the window and pushed the shutters open. Outside, the people were still trying to fight the fire. Jenna sat on the wall, biting her nails, pale as a pumperoot.
‘I’ve got her,’ he called, feeling the strain in his throat when he tried to be heard.
‘You need to get out of there, before the whole building comes down!’ called one of the men below.
Andar thought it was the man identified as Ma Frinken but couldn’t be sure.
‘We’re coming out now.’
He went back to the bed and hoisted Mab Tenaway over his shoulder, muttering an apology for the less-then-dignified position. He shifted about until her weight was as evenly distributed as possible and then made for the door. He carefully clmabered over the drawers that had been behind the door and made for the stairs.
Before he even reached the top of the stairs, he could see that they were now impassable. The other bannister had caught, creating a narrow corridor of fire. His clothing was almost dry, and Mab Tenaway would go up like kindling. Coughing and wheezing, he made his way back into her bedroom and dropped her onto the bed.
His vision swam, and he grabbed the bed post to steady himself. He had to find another way out, and quickly.
He ran to the window and looked out. Too far to jump. His gaze darted about the room, before settling on the patchwork bedspread. He gathered it in his arms and ran back to the window.
‘We have to come out this way,’ he said, just getting the words out before a coughing fit bent him double. While trying to catch his breath, he threw the bedspread out. ‘Try to catch us with this.’
Without waiting to see if they were responding, he hurried back to the bed and lifted Mab Tenaway again. His muscles trembled with the effort and he knew that if this didn’t work, they would both die in here.
He went back to the window and rested Mab Tenaway on the ledge. Below, the people in the yard had gathered up the bedspread and were spread out, holding it to catch them.
‘We’re ready,’ someone shouted from below.
Andar took a couple of gasping breaths. ‘Forgive me if this fails,’ he said softly, then lifted Mab Tenaway and pushed her out of the window.
She fell out in an arc and it seemed she fell for an eternity before landing in the middle of the bedspread.
Andar closed his eyes in relief and another wave of dizziness took him. He clung to the window frame, smoke trying to choke the breath out of him.
He could hear the people below moving Mab Tenaway and preparing to catch him. Something boomed in the house below and flames shot through the bedroom door, licking along the ceiling. Andar climbed onto the window ledge, legs swinging over the side. The wood beneath him was hot to the touch and he could feel the skin of his hands begin to blister.
Andar looked down and judged the angle to the bedspread below then closed his eyes and pushed away from the side of the building.
As he fell he heard Jenna scream.
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