Suspense R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author SCI FI
T he   first   time   Morgan   saw   the   woman   she   tried   to   crush   his skull   with   a   rock.   He   reached   out   to   the   secretive   female   over the   years   but   she   never   wavered   in   her   distaste   in   having   an ogre   as   a   neighbor.   Beguiled   by   a   creature   who   could   never return    his    love,    he’s    mired    in    affairs    outside    his    world, surrounded    by    forces    preparing    to    clash.    War    and    plague compel    Morgan    from    recluse    to    leader,    protector,    warrior, and    negotiator.    This    is    a    love    story,    a    tale    of    the    arcane, friendship, jealousy, mistrust, and caring.
Urban Fantasy
CHAPTER ONE ~ F laming   thatch   and   cinders   fell   from   the   ceiling.   Smoke   burned   his   eyes,   seared   his throat    and    made    him    cough.    Morgan    flailed    his    arms    at    the    raining    fire    and screamed,   reeled   to   get   out   from   under   the   heavy   quilts   and   furs   pressing   on   him. He   rolled   onto   the   rough-hewed   planks   of   the   floor   striking   an   elbow   hard.   His head bounced good as well. Still   tangled   in   his   bedding,   it   took   Morgan   several   seconds   to   realize   the   air was   breathable.   He   stopped   his   struggle   and   looked   into   the   blackness   overhead. No   fire.   The   only   break   in   the   night   was   the   glow   of   embers   from   the   hearth   twenty feet away. Morgan   sat   up   and   listened,   prying   the   dark.   There   was   no   natural   thing   awry, but   he   didn’t   believe   in   simple   dreams,   not   since   he   was   an   ogreling   and   dreamed the    dream.   If   he   had   heeded   that   nighttime   vision   he   would   still   have   a   brother,   live within the clan, not in exile. The   warlock   pushed   against   the   furs   to   free   himself,   rose   and   sat   on   the   edge   of his   cot.   Throwing   a   blanket   around   his   shoulders,   he   made   his   way   to   the   cabin door, finding one of his two rickety chairs with a knee in the process. Outside   the   cold   nipped   at   his   snout.   Morgan   stepped   off   the   porch   onto   soft pine   needles.   He   concentrated   on   the   cluster   of   trees   his   home   nestled   within.   The forest   disappeared   in   the   shifting   fog,   aglow   from   the   moonlight   making   it   through the thick canopy overhead. Nothing   out   of   place.   Calm.   For   the   moment.   But   Morgan’s   skin   crawled.   The ethereal   intuition   that   cursed   him   turned   him   west.   Tragedy   loomed.   The   only homestead   west   within   miles   belonged   to   a   peculiar   human   who   cared   little   for   his kind. Doesn’t matter she distrusts us ogres. Morgan    strode    inside    to    dress.    His    knee    found    another    chair    before    he managed   it.   Summer   jacket   on,   he   grabbed   his   staff   at   the   side   of   the   door   and plunged   into   the   night.   The   moon   hung   high   in   the   sky   and   nearly   full.   He   ran when   the   trees   were   thin   enough   to   allow   light   to   make   it   to   Earth   and   the   terrain permitted   it.   After   two   miles   of   the   steep   rolling   banks   of   the   watershed   leading   to Black Lake, sweat saturated his shirt. He peeled out of his coat. His   legs   weighed   heavy.   An   hour   into   his   rush   Morgan   paused,   heaving   for breath,   and   looked   down   into   a   glen.   He   worried   he   veered   north   or   south   and passed   unknowingly   by   the   woman’s   shanty.   It   would   have   been   easy   to   err.   Racing through   the   brush   in   the   dark   made   judging   both   direction   and   distance   difficult   at best.   The   far   mountains   he   would   have   used   to   place   his   whereabouts   hid.   One   rise appeared identical to the last. Holding his staff forward as a focus point, Morgan concentrated. The spark has already kindled the first straw. Off   again   at   a   sprint,   Morgan   dove   through   branches   that   tore   at   his   cheeks, snagged   his   clothes   and   wrenched   at   his   heavy   staff.   He   stumbled   often   as   the ground   fell   sharply   for   the   dell   below.   He   smelled   the   smoke.   The   orange   glare   of flames knifed through the dark. Reaching    the    clearing    the    warlock    froze,    shocked    at    the    speed    the    inferno engulfed   the   shack.   The   flames   leaped   ten   feet   above   the   thatch   roof.   Through   the shutters   of   the   one   window   he   made   out   flames   within.   If   the   woman   remained inside,   she   was   done   for.   Morgan   stared   at   the   door   waiting   for   it   to   fling   open.   The flames worked down the walls. I must try. He   dropped   his   staff,   held   his   jacket   over   his   head   and   ran   to   the   door.   The   top of   the   frame   only   reached   his   shoulders,   the   flames   mere   inches   away.   The   heat pierced   his   exposed   flesh.   He   kicked   the   heavy   plank   door,   but   the   whole   wall rocked,   shaking   burning   thatch   upon   him.   He   whipped   the   jacket   about   to   get   the fire off. A barred door—an occupied home. He   needed   another   way   inside.   Morgan   ran   to   the   window,   leaned   back,   and kicked   at   its   shutters.   The   two   halves   crashed   inward.   Morgan’s   leg   caught   on   the sill,    momentarily    throwing    him    in    a    panic.    He    fell    backward,    his    leg    painfully dragging across the splintered opening. The    air    broiled    thick    with    smoke,    the    searing    heat    unbearable.    Morgan considered   the   wisdom   of   backing   away.   He   could   die,   trying   to   save   a   human surely   past   saving.   Nevertheless,   he   climbed   in,   holding   his   jacket   over   his   head   for protection. His eyes watered. He squinted against the smoke. The   human   stood   before   him,   flinging   a   quilt   about   as   though   fighting   hornets. Flames   climbed   the   hem   of   her   nightgown.   The   stink   of   burning   hair   broke   through Morgan’s raging senses. He   flung   his   coat   around   the   woman’s   legs   to   smother   those   flames,   and   pulled her   onto   his   shoulder.   He   couldn’t   stand   erect   in   the   human   cabin.   He   struggled   in a   crouch   toward   the   door,   the   smoke   so   thick   he   couldn’t   breathe,   much   less   see. Amazing   the   woman   still   survived.   He   dragged   his   hand   across   the   rough   wood searching   for   what   barricaded   the   door.   His   wrist   slammed   into   the   heavy   plank. He heaved it to the side. He    groped    for    the    latch.    His    lungs    ached    for    oxygen.    The    form    across    his shoulder   wrenched   back   and   forth.   He   was   ready   to   collapse   when   his   hand   found what   he   sought.   He   yanked   the   door   open   as   a   crashing   noise   provided   the   last energy he could manage to stagger forward. The   cold   night   air   immediately   refreshed,   but   the   fire   followed   them.   Flames flicked   from   their   garments.   As   soon   as   he   had   them   safely   away   from   the   raging bonfire   Morgan   whipped   the   human   off   his   back,   hard   onto   the   ground.   Even   his jacket   snapped   with   flames.   He   threw   it   away   and   used   his   own   body   to   smother the   fire   incinerating   the   human’s   nightgown.   She   screamed   in   agony   as   he   flopped across her. The heat spiked through his shirt, burning his stomach. Those    flames    out,    Morgan    struggled    at    those    flicking    at    his    own    trousers. Knifing   pain   plunged   into   his   back   and   he   rolled   to   put   out   fire   he   knew   dug   into his   flesh   there.   Flames   sprung   back   up   from   his   legs,   and   he   raked   pine   needles together to quench those. The    collapse    of    the    human’s    hut    interrupted    her    screaming    and    coughing. Sparks   and   smoke   deluged   them   anew.   Morgan   rolled   upon   his   side   against   her   to protect her from the onslaught. Pain pricked every inch of his flesh. What if the forest catches? Morgan   stood,   struck   with   a   coughing   fit.   His   head   spun.   He   staggered,   only settling    the    vertigo    by    leaning    over,    one    hand    on    the    ground.    He    studied    the clearing.   The   flames   from   the   less-than-humble   shack   didn’t   reach   high   enough   to threaten   the   limbs   of   the   century-old   pines   around   it.   The   forest   floor   was   damp enough   from   the   frequent   summer   showers   to   resist   an   expanding   fire.   Morgan decided there was no immediate danger. The   woman   stopped   crying.   Her   eyes   glared   straight   up,   unseeing.   Her   mouth hung   oddly   agape.   She   shook.   Morgan   wasn’t   sure   if   from   the   cold,   or   agony.   He figured both. “Are ya all right?” Stupid question. Of course she isn’t all right. She   didn’t   answer,   didn’t   look   toward   him.   There   was   little   left   of   her   gown below   the   waist.   It   could   have   been   the   orange   glow   from   the   fire,   but   her   skin looked   aflame,   already   blistering   from   her   stocking   feet   to   her   thighs.   There   were gaps in her long mane which flowed over the pine needles. Morgan struggled to focus on the immediate danger. How do I stop the blistering? “I’ll be back.” He   rose   and   picked   up   his   smoldering   jacket,   realizing   the   extent   of   the   burns on   his   hands.   He   took   the   coat   to   the   nearby   creek   and   soaked   it.   The   icy   water immediately   eased   his   own   pain,   but   touching   anything   felt   like   plunging   needles into   his   flesh.   He   couldn’t   stop   though.   He   carried   the   jacket   back   to   the   human and   dribbled   the   cold   water   over   her   burns.   She   groaned,   but   otherwise   didn’t respond. He    repeated    the    cold    treatment    five    times.    He    felt    the    skin    of    his    hands sloughing   off   as   he   squeezed   the   coat   the   last   time.   He   couldn’t   go   on.   In   the   dim light   of   the   embers   fifty   feet   away   he   made   out   his   blood   mixing   with   the   trickle flowing over her legs. Still she stared straight up. “Oh,    why    didn’t    ya    flee,”    he    asked,    “instead    of    trying    to    fight    the    flames? Couldn’t ya see there was no beating them back?” Her eyes closed. Why did a solitary human, a female, live so far from civilization? He   thought   back   perhaps   ten   years   earlier,   when   he   tried   to   greet   her   the   first time   he   encountered   her   in   the   forest.   She   had   been   digging   about   the   shadows   of the    trees    and    stumps    for    mushrooms    and    grubs,    a    good    diet    for    a    troll,    less appreciated   by   any   human   he   ever   met.   On   seeing   him,   she   pelted   him   with   stones from her sling. Despite   the   insult,   her   unneighborly   manner,   from   time-to-time   he   left   her   a deer-quarter hanging near her cabin where she was sure to find it. A    shudder    shook    him.    Morgan    tried    to    focus    on    the    present.    He    certainly couldn’t   leave   her   there.   She   was   half-way   on   the   trek   to   dying   already.   In   the   shape he   was   in   he   couldn’t   carry   her   the   twenty   miles   to   the   hamlet   on   the   shore   of   the lake. Would they even take her in if he did? Morgan   groaned   and   folded   the   tiny   woman   together.   His   hands   were   so   numb from   the   icy   water   he   couldn’t   be   sure   his   fingers   followed   his   wishes.   He   pulled   her into   his   arms,   finding   more   burns   on   his   forearms.   He   grimaced   from   the   pain   and stood.   He   looked   over   at   his   staff,   reluctant   to   leave   it   behind.   But   he   had   no   choice. Not   like   he   could   grow   a   third   limb   to   carry   it   with.   He   stumbled   forward,   into   the black of the fading moon. Chapter Two ~ T he   eastern   sky   reflected   the   glint   of   a   new   sun   by   the   time   Morgan   staggered   into his    cabin.    He    placed    the    woman    on    his    cot    and    fell    to    the    floor    to    rest.    The floorboards   knifed   at   the   burns   on   his   back,   making   him   roll   onto   his   side.   His arms   and   hands   cramped   from   carrying   the   human.   He   trembled—not   from   the cold. It took a lot of cold to bother an ogre. He   forced   himself   to   rise   and   walk   to   the   hearth.   He   stirred   the   ashes   with   the poker.   Blood   smeared   the   cold,   iron   handle.   He   groaned   and   chucked   kindling   onto the   live   embers   he   uncovered.   Morgan   inspected   the   raw   flesh   of   his   hand   and shook his head. Using an axe the next week would be more than a chore. He    knelt    and    blew    at    the    coals,    which    renewed    his    hacking    cough.    He swallowed   hard   and   tried   it   again.   The   embers   glowed.   The   smallest   kindling   lit and   he   added   ever-larger   until   a   good   fire   blazed.   The   flickering   light   made   him aware   of   the   human’s   indelicate   way.   What   was   left   of   her   gown   had   ridden   above her waist. Morgan leapt to cover her. She   mumbled.   Her   head   turned   slowly   side   to   side.   Morgan   placed   his   hand   to her forehead. She was hot with fever. How could it take her so fast? “Were ya already sick, little thing?” Am I going to come down with some plague, on top of these burns? ~ M organ   spent   the   day   doing   what   he   could   to   make   the   human   as   comfortable   as possible.   He   refrained   from   calling   himself   a   true   herbalist,   but   he   had   a   knack   for finding   those   remedies   that   grew   in   the   woods   and   the   plains   to   the   east.   He   used them   as   best   he   could.   He   dribbled   tea   into   her   mouth   to   get   fluids   into   her.   He kept   her   forehead   dampened   with   an   aromatic   mint,   and   poulticed   the   worst   of   her burns. That   night   Morgan   lay   near   the   hearth   on   his   hunting   fur.   His   hands   cramped. He   couldn’t   lay   on   his   back   because   of   his   burns.   Sleep   didn’t   come   until   nearly sunrise. ~ T he    human    periodically    startled    him    with    delirious    mumbles.    She    cried    out    a number   of   times,   “I’m   not.   I’m   not.”   The   declaration   kept   his   mind   busy,   guessing what it might mean, since he wasn’t up to doing much of anything else. He   stayed   near   and   watched   over   the   tiny   human,   studied   her   face.   He   found her   gentle   features   boring.   An   attractive   face   required   a   snout.   The   absence   of   tusks gave   her   an   immature   appearance,   though   he   knew   she   was   well   past   adolescence. Humans   weren’t   new   to   him.   He   traded   with   them   in   the   hamlet,   but   certainly found   no   reason   to   ponder   their   looks   before.   They   were   simply   lesser   creatures. Weak things. But   the   soft   curve   of   her   cheeks   and   chin   were   not   unpleasant   to   look   upon. Her   hair,   what   wasn’t   singed   by   fire,   shined   a   glossy   clay-red.   Freckles   flowed across    her    snowy-white    complexion,    as    though    she    didn’t    spend    every    day collecting   in   the   forest.   Her   lips   were   just   a   slip   of   peach.   That   particularly   bothered Morgan. An ogre hen would be ashamed of such miniscule lips. “Why do ya hate being spied in the woods so much, little girl?” Those   thin   lips   trembled.   Morgan   refreshed   the   cloth   with   the   cool   mint   tea and blotted her forehead. “Ya   were   here   long   before   humans   came   to   the   hamlet.   How’d   ya   get   here?   The nearest   human   settlement   must   be   a   ten-day   walk   for   someone   like   ya.   Ya   couldn’t have been more than a child when ya came here.” Morgan shook his head. How’d ya survive? ~ T he   fourth   day   the   warlock   started   making   up   names   for   her.   None   fit.   But   it passed   the   time.   He   told   her   about   himself,   answering   unspoken   questions.   He wasn’t   used   to   speaking.   He   had   lived   his   adult   life   alone.   He   broke   into   his   wine   to sooth   his   throat,   and   battle   his   own   fever   that   brought   sweat   to   his   brow.   The   wine evermore   loosened   his   tongue.   To   make   it   feel   less   like   he   rambled   to   himself,   he got   into   the   habit   of   using   only   one   of   the   many   names   he   tried   out   on   her.   She never complained. She   learned   much   more   about   him   than   Morgan   imagined   willingly   sharing with   anyone.   It   wouldn’t   be   easy   to   start   over   when   she   woke.   If   she   woke.   If   she even   wished   to   speak   to   an   ogre.   His   kind   weren’t   naturally   taken   fondly   to   by humans, after all. ~ T he   sixth   day   Morgan   woke   sick   to   his   stomach,   and   vomited.   He   wished   it   was   the wine   from   the   previous   day,   but   knew   better.   He   shook,   felt   cold   then   hot,   only   to shiver   a   moment   later.   He   struggled   to   brew   what   he   guessed   would   best   fight   the evil coursing within his veins. She   brought   it   upon   him,   but   he   didn’t   blame   her.   He   just   hoped   she   survived. She   had   a   lot   to   overcome.   If   she   lived,   it   gave   more   promise   to   his   own   survival. He   knelt   by   the   bed   and   encouraged   her   to   suckle   as   much   from   the   soaked   cloth   as she   could   manage.   He   might   be   unable   to   care   for   her   in   the   hours   to   come.   He changed   her   poultices,   and   lay   down.   He   slept   fitfully.   Threw   up   once,   but   was unable to rise to clean it from the floorboards. ~ H e   believed   it   was   the   seventh   day.   Perhaps   he   missed   a   day.   He   heard   someone calling   out.   He   mumbled   something,   not   sure   what   he   even   said,   before   his   eyes closed again. He woke in darkness, vomiting. ~ T he   next   time   he   woke   the   sun   shone   through   the   open   shutters.   A   fire   burned   in the   hearth.   He   closed   his   eyes   again   assuming   someone   from   the   hamlet   found them. Had the human woman survived? He felt a hand under his neck, lifting his head. “Up, you stubborn beast.” Morgan   sensed   light   filter   through   his   eyelids.   A   mixed   up,   swirling   world greeted him. His stomach twisted, but he kept from vomiting. “Take   some   broth,   ogre,   or   I’ll   pour   it   in   your   ear.”   The   voice   was   a   cross between an oriole and a spring breeze. Morgan groaned. Never felt so sick in my life. He   forced   his   eyes   open.   They   wouldn’t   focus.   “Be   still.   Why   ya   leaping   about like an antsy frog?” he asked. “I’m sitting still, you silly ogre. Drink.” Morgan   felt   a   cup   at   his   lips   and   he   slurped   from   it.   Thin   broth.   Only   a   hint   of venison.   Hunger   ripped   at   his   gut   equally   as   strong   as   the   revulsion   of   taking anything in. He closed his lips as nausea swept over him again. “It’ll   go   away   after   a   bit.   Gettin’   something   into   my   stomach   did   wonders   for me.” Her words made no sense. Did others from the hamlet come and get sick too? “Did the human live?” he asked. A laugh made the pain in his head thump. “Drink. It won’t do your ear a bit of good.” Morgan   closed   his   eyes   but   accepted   the   broth.   A   cloth   wiped   his   chin   when   he didn’t   keep   up   with   the   stubborn   tilt   of   the   cup.   His   torturer   finally   allowed   him   to rest, pulling his fur up to his chin. He took slow breaths to calm his stomach. ~ H e   woke   to   darkness   only   broken   by   the   flicker   of   flames   from   the   hearth   five   feet away.   The   nausea   was   thankfully   sufferable,   replaced   by   simple   hunger.   His   head ached, but nothing like it did the last time he tried to open his eyes. Morgan   pulled   away   his   blankets   and   tentatively   rose   to   his   knees.   He   was startled   to   find   he   was   stripped   down   to   his   flesh.   He   stood   slowly   and   pulled   his fur   over   his   shoulders.   He   made   his   way   one   careful   step   at   a   time   through   the   back door, to the outhouse. I may live. Why was I sleeping on the floor, before the hearth?   © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
Fantasy Dystopian
R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
Ogre Warlock Healer CHAPTER ONE ~ F laming   thatch   and   cinders   fell   from   the ceiling.    Smoke    burned    his    eyes,    seared his   throat   and   made   him   cough.   Morgan flailed    his    arms    at    the    raining    fire    and screamed,   reeled   to   get   out   from   under the   heavy   quilts   and   furs   pressing   on   him. He   rolled   onto   the   rough-hewed   planks   of the   floor   striking   an   elbow   hard.   His   head bounced good as well. Still    tangled    in    his    bedding,    it    took Morgan   several   seconds   to   realize   the   air was   breathable.   He   stopped   his   struggle and   looked   into   the   blackness   overhead. No   fire.   The   only   break   in   the   night   was the     glow     of     embers     from     the     hearth twenty feet away. Morgan    sat    up    and    listened,    prying the    dark.    There    was    no    natural    thing awry,    but    he    didn’t    believe    in    simple dreams,   not   since   he   was   an   ogreling   and dreamed    the     dream.    If    he    had    heeded that   nighttime   vision   he   would   still   have   a brother, live within the clan, not in exile. The   warlock   pushed   against   the   furs to   free   himself,   rose   and   sat   on   the   edge of   his   cot.   Throwing   a   blanket   around   his shoulders,   he   made   his   way   to   the   cabin door,   finding   one   of   his   two   rickety   chairs with a knee in the process. Outside   the   cold   nipped   at   his   snout. Morgan   stepped   off   the   porch   onto   soft pine    needles.    He    concentrated    on    the cluster   of   trees   his   home   nestled   within. The   forest   disappeared   in   the   shifting   fog, aglow     from     the     moonlight     making     it through the thick canopy overhead. Nothing   out   of   place.   Calm.   For   the moment.   But   Morgan’s   skin   crawled.   The ethereal   intuition   that   cursed   him   turned him     west.     Tragedy     loomed.     The     only homestead   west   within   miles   belonged   to a   peculiar   human   who   cared   little   for   his kind. Doesn’t matter she distrusts us ogres. Morgan    strode    inside    to    dress.    His knee     found     another     chair     before     he managed     it.     Summer     jacket     on,     he grabbed   his   staff   at   the   side   of   the   door and    plunged    into    the    night.    The    moon hung   high   in   the   sky   and   nearly   full.   He ran   when   the   trees   were   thin   enough   to allow   light   to   make   it   to   Earth   and   the terrain    permitted    it.    After    two    miles    of the   steep   rolling   banks   of   the   watershed leading   to   Black   Lake,   sweat   saturated   his shirt. He peeled out of his coat. His   legs   weighed   heavy.   An   hour   into his    rush    Morgan    paused,    heaving    for breath,   and   looked   down   into   a   glen.   He worried    he    veered    north    or    south    and passed     unknowingly     by     the     woman’s shanty.   It   would   have   been   easy   to   err. Racing    through    the    brush    in    the    dark made   judging   both   direction   and   distance difficult    at    best.    The    far    mountains    he would   have   used   to   place   his   whereabouts hid.    One    rise    appeared    identical    to    the last. Holding   his   staff   forward   as   a   focus point, Morgan concentrated. The    spark    has    already    kindled    the first straw. Off    again    at    a    sprint,    Morgan    dove through   branches   that   tore   at   his   cheeks, snagged   his   clothes   and   wrenched   at   his heavy    staff.    He    stumbled    often    as    the ground   fell   sharply   for   the   dell   below.   He smelled   the   smoke.   The   orange   glare   of flames knifed through the dark. Reaching     the     clearing     the     warlock froze,    shocked    at    the    speed    the    inferno engulfed   the   shack.   The   flames   leaped   ten feet   above   the   thatch   roof.   Through   the shutters   of   the   one   window   he   made   out flames    within.    If    the    woman    remained inside,   she   was   done   for.   Morgan   stared at   the   door   waiting   for   it   to   fling   open. The flames worked down the walls. I must try. He   dropped   his   staff,   held   his   jacket over   his   head   and   ran   to   the   door.   The top     of     the     frame     only     reached     his shoulders,   the   flames   mere   inches   away. The    heat    pierced    his    exposed    flesh.    He kicked    the    heavy    plank    door,    but    the whole     wall     rocked,     shaking     burning thatch   upon   him.   He   whipped   the   jacket about to get the fire off. A barred door—an occupied home. He      needed      another      way      inside. Morgan   ran   to   the   window,   leaned   back, and   kicked   at   its   shutters.   The   two   halves crashed   inward.   Morgan’s   leg   caught   on the   sill,   momentarily   throwing   him   in   a panic.   He   fell   backward,   his   leg   painfully dragging across the splintered opening. The   air   broiled   thick   with   smoke,   the searing        heat        unbearable.        Morgan considered   the   wisdom   of   backing   away. He    could    die,    trying    to    save    a    human surely     past     saving.     Nevertheless,     he climbed    in,    holding    his    jacket    over    his head   for   protection.   His   eyes   watered.   He squinted against the smoke. The   human   stood   before   him,   flinging a   quilt   about   as   though   fighting   hornets. Flames       climbed       the       hem       of       her nightgown.    The    stink    of    burning    hair broke through Morgan’s raging senses. He   flung   his   coat   around   the   woman’s legs   to   smother   those   flames,   and   pulled her   onto   his   shoulder.   He   couldn’t   stand erect   in   the   human   cabin.   He   struggled   in a   crouch   toward   the   door,   the   smoke   so thick   he   couldn’t   breathe,   much   less   see. Amazing    the    woman    still    survived.    He dragged   his   hand   across   the   rough   wood searching   for   what   barricaded   the   door. His   wrist   slammed   into   the   heavy   plank. He heaved it to the side. He    groped    for    the    latch.    His    lungs ached    for    oxygen.    The    form    across    his shoulder    wrenched    back    and    forth.    He was    ready    to    collapse    when    his    hand found    what    he    sought.    He    yanked    the door   open   as   a   crashing   noise   provided the     last     energy     he     could     manage     to stagger forward. The      cold      night      air      immediately refreshed,    but    the    fire    followed    them. Flames    flicked    from    their    garments.    As soon   as   he   had   them   safely   away   from   the raging     bonfire     Morgan     whipped     the human     off     his     back,     hard     onto     the ground.    Even    his    jacket    snapped    with flames.    He    threw    it    away    and    used    his own   body   to   smother   the   fire   incinerating the   human’s   nightgown.   She   screamed   in agony   as   he   flopped   across   her.   The   heat spiked    through    his    shirt,    burning    his stomach. Those    flames    out,    Morgan    struggled at    those    flicking    at    his    own    trousers. Knifing   pain   plunged   into   his   back   and   he rolled   to   put   out   fire   he   knew   dug   into   his flesh   there.   Flames   sprung   back   up   from his     legs,     and     he     raked     pine     needles together to quench those. The     collapse     of     the     human’s     hut interrupted   her   screaming   and   coughing. Sparks    and    smoke    deluged    them    anew. Morgan   rolled   upon   his   side   against   her to   protect   her   from   the   onslaught.   Pain pricked every inch of his flesh. What if the forest catches? Morgan   stood,   struck   with   a   coughing fit.    His    head    spun.    He    staggered,    only settling   the   vertigo   by   leaning   over,   one hand    on    the    ground.    He    studied    the clearing.   The   flames   from   the   less-than- humble   shack   didn’t   reach   high   enough to   threaten   the   limbs   of   the   century-old pines    around    it.    The    forest    floor    was damp   enough   from   the   frequent   summer showers     to     resist     an     expanding     fire. Morgan   decided   there   was   no   immediate danger. The   woman   stopped   crying.   Her   eyes glared   straight   up,   unseeing.   Her   mouth hung    oddly    agape.    She    shook.    Morgan wasn’t   sure   if   from   the   cold,   or   agony.   He figured both. “Are ya all right?” Stupid   question.   Of   course   she   isn’t   all right. She   didn’t   answer,   didn’t   look   toward him.    There    was    little    left    of    her    gown below   the   waist.   It   could   have   been   the orange   glow   from   the   fire,   but   her   skin looked    aflame,    already    blistering    from her    stocking    feet    to    her    thighs.    There were   gaps   in   her   long   mane   which   flowed over the pine needles. Morgan    struggled    to    focus    on    the immediate danger. How do I stop the blistering? “I’ll be back.” He   rose   and   picked   up   his   smoldering jacket,   realizing   the   extent   of   the   burns on    his    hands.    He    took    the    coat    to    the nearby   creek   and   soaked   it.   The   icy   water immediately    eased    his    own    pain,    but touching     anything     felt     like     plunging needles    into    his    flesh.    He    couldn’t    stop though.   He   carried   the   jacket   back   to   the human   and   dribbled   the   cold   water   over her    burns.    She    groaned,    but    otherwise didn’t respond. He    repeated    the    cold    treatment    five times.    He    felt    the    skin    of    his    hands sloughing   off   as   he   squeezed   the   coat   the last   time.   He   couldn’t   go   on.   In   the   dim light    of    the    embers    fifty    feet    away    he made    out    his    blood    mixing    with    the trickle    flowing    over    her    legs.    Still    she stared straight up. “Oh,    why    didn’t    ya    flee,”    he    asked, “instead    of    trying    to    fight    the    flames? Couldn’t    ya    see    there    was    no    beating them back?” Her eyes closed. Why   did   a   solitary   human,   a   female, live so far from civilization? He    thought    back    perhaps    ten    years earlier,   when   he   tried   to   greet   her   the   first time    he    encountered    her    in    the    forest. She   had   been   digging   about   the   shadows of   the   trees   and   stumps   for   mushrooms and    grubs,    a    good    diet    for    a    troll,    less appreciated   by   any   human   he   ever   met. On     seeing     him,     she     pelted     him     with stones from her sling. Despite    the    insult,    her    unneighborly manner,   from   time-to-time   he   left   her   a deer-quarter     hanging     near     her     cabin where she was sure to find it. A   shudder   shook   him.   Morgan   tried   to focus      on      the      present.      He      certainly couldn’t   leave   her   there.   She   was   half-way on   the   trek   to   dying   already.   In   the   shape he   was   in   he   couldn’t   carry   her   the   twenty miles   to   the   hamlet   on   the   shore   of   the lake.   Would   they   even   take   her   in   if   he did? Morgan   groaned   and   folded   the   tiny woman     together.     His     hands     were     so numb   from   the   icy   water   he   couldn’t   be sure   his   fingers   followed   his   wishes.   He pulled    her    into    his    arms,    finding    more burns   on   his   forearms.   He   grimaced   from the   pain   and   stood.   He   looked   over   at   his staff,   reluctant   to   leave   it   behind.   But   he had   no   choice.   Not   like   he   could   grow   a third   limb   to   carry   it   with.   He   stumbled forward,    into    the    black    of    the    fading moon. © R. Mac Wheeler 2017