Photo: Sue Vincent
Malinda sighed. Her brother needed an inordinate amount of putting up with.
“You’ll be fine,” she forced calmness into her voice. In part because she felt bad for him — Jerrod had always been too sensitive and too-tightly wound — and in part because she did not wish to then have even more of his perceived wounding to bandage.
“I’ve flunked it before.”
He had. Three times.
“You were younger and you were less experienced,” Malinda soothed. “Here, have some tea. It’ll calm your nerves.”
Jerrod folded his legs and lowered himself to the floor, only to spring back up and resume pacing.
“What if I don’t pass this time, either?” the youth fretted. His hair was plastered against his bony cheeks and his gray eyes appeared sunken under the woolen hood of his cloak.
Malinda took a deep breath. It was becoming increasingly difficult to believe that the morose youngster was ever the cherub-faced toddler she’d cuddled to sleep, and whose ringlets were impossible to resist poking a finger through.
Poking. … How odd that this was what her memory conjured. Or perhaps not so odd. Considering.
“Sit, Jerrod,” she repeated, putting an order behind her voice. He was not helping himself by fanning the flames of anxiety. He needed controlled calm in order to tame flame.
He sat and she handed him the wooden cup filled with steaming liquid.
“What’s in it?” his voice rose with a wariness she knew had nothing to do with the contents of the tea.
“Pine and honey. Nothing altering. You know I would not break the rules about such things.”
“Not even for me?”
His vulnerability and neediness grated. She breathed to calm herself. She could not ask of him what she did not require of herself. “Not even to you,” she emphasized. “One cannot poke fire when their own mind is on the flee.”
He blushed. He knew that. Everyone did.
“I’m scared,” he admitted, nose buried in the drink.
“I know,” she said gently. “Let the fear become the center of your gravity, then send it through your arm. Use it to concentrate your force. Fear is energy. Make it work for you.”
“Is that what you did?”
Malinda felt her eyebrows rise. People did not ask others how they’d passed their Poke Test. She was of a mind to remind her brother of the intrusiveness of his query, but she knew it would only further increase Jerrod’s sense of isolation. Perhaps others did not ask because they did not feel the need to. Obviously he did.
“Yes,” she replied, and the word brought back the trepidation she’d felt. The mix of terror and excitement, the flush of fear that became an arrow of determined indignation. She had passed. On the very first try.
She closed her eyes at the revisiting of the panic and the thrill.
She’d just completed her one-digit years and became eligible for attempting the Poke Test. To tame and manipulate fire was to be afforded the respect suitable for one who mastered the life-element they could none of them survive without. Fire was life. To know it, to master it, was a necessity and therefore a right of passage.
Some, like her, passed the Poke Test soon after turning ten. Jerrod had tried, and failed. And tried, and failed. And tried and failed again. Cowering before the flame he was reduced to tears, allowing the tongues of fire to do as they wished. He could not master it. It mastered him.
He was thirteen now. The oldest among those who were yet to conquer fire. Save for Leon, who was almost twenty but soft in the head. Even Sandra, who was blind, had tamed the blaze by twelve.
“Yes,” Malinda repeated. “I was afraid, but I turned that fear into a wand and ordered the flames to bend to my will.”
“A wand?” Jerrod’s eyes met hers, and she hoped that the glimmer she saw in them was of will-power rather than the sheen of anticipated defeat.
She nodded. The sound of bugle resonated. It was time.
“Come, brother,” she grabbed his hand and pulled him up to a stand. “Today, you pass from child to man. Go and tame the fire with your wand.”