Flames gorged on the woods like locusts on summer grain, and the Hanged Man fled from them. Not for fear, no, but because the smoke wraiths had taken his fire and he needed it back before the grand pyre turned him to ash. If he died empty, momma warned, he'd return as one of them.
"Come back, you bastards!" he yelled. The wraiths laughed with the sound of crashing trees and exploding sap. They had taken from him what was most precious and exposed it for all the world to see, and now the mountain burned with the love once hidden in the Hanged Man's heart. That's what fire was, no? All the poets momma was so fond of seemed to agree, and so the Hanged Man had thought he might one day marry a beautiful girl and have a child of his own despite his uncomeliness. He was so full of love everything he touched burned to cinders.
"Come back! You can't take what is mine!" he screamed. The smoke wraiths mocked him by making a tree come crashing down and break into a swarm of glowing fireflies. They hated him for housing fire, and now that they were free, they dragged it along with their tails and turned it against its master. They made the air blistering and taste of pain, which was contradictory with his state. Hurting and breathing were discomforts of the living, and the Hanged Man was definitely dead. His hands would only cool once he was ready to kiss the dirt, momma used to say, and though the force of his heartbeat after the tree nearly fell on him would've made him want to argue, momma always knew best.
Tears wet his ash-stained cheeks, but he'd cried enough to know crying didn't bring anyone back. So he kept running, and when the smoke wraiths laughed, he screamed louder. Maybe they were taking him home, to where the yellow flowers grew and where the house sat by a mountain lake. The Hanged Man hadn't been there since the last they'd escaped and he needed momma's help, and when he saw the river falling down the mountainside ahead, a little sadness seeped into the fear pulsing in his veins.
The smoke wraiths brought his precious fire to the path, where it waited for him like a bully, but he knew how to deal with those and that was by going around. The Hanged Man scratched his legs and arms climbing the rock face, but he couldn't go any closer to where the worst blaze was when there was none of it left inside him.
Halfway up the crag, there came a voice from above that made the Hanged Man stiffen and stop. Beneath the jeering of the wraiths someone cried for help, and though he was scarcely in any position to give it, the desperation in the voice broke his stupor and made him climb faster. His arms were bloodied by the time he reached level ground, and the sight waiting there made him groan. The blaze was as strong here as below, chewing up firs and licking berry bushes.
The voice cried again, and the Hanged Man ran. His skin had turned a shiny pink and hard as scales long ago and didn't feel much, but the higher he'd climbed, the less scar tissue and deadened nerves guarded him from heat. The thought crossed his mind the weeper didn't have any such boons, and dead or alive, it had to be him or the smoke wraiths to help whoever was trapped in the hellscape. Lord knew those bastards weren't about to help anyone.
The Hanged Man found a young girl hanging onto a rock jutting out of the river. The sight of him made her shriek with fright.
"Don't be scared," the Hanged Man said, but then thought the girl must've never seen a dead man walking before. "It's only me, the boy from the mountains."
The girl kept crying, and he racked his brain for the name momma had given him. He hadn't been a boy for a long time, and she was surely too young to know him by this moniker.
He couldn't recall it, but then thought it probably didn't matter. He wasn't trying to make a friend, but to help someone, and so he waded as far into the water as he dared, reached out a hand and said, "I know a place away from the fire. Let me take you there."
The girl traced a look along the shiny skin of his arm up to his scarred, smiling face, and shook her head with a whimper. "Come, come," the Hanged Man coaxed. "It's not a nice place, but it's nicer than this."
The girl shrieked when a branch broke off and fell in the river with a great splash. It floated past her, cracking and steaming, and she let go of the rock. Her legs reached the bottom of the shallow pass, but the current was strong and swept her off her feet. The Hanged Man jumped in and fished out the girl, who coughed out water when he climbed out cradling her.
"Are you hurt?" he asked, watching the cloth of her skirt touch his palm. It didn't smoulder, to his shared relief and dismay.
The girl shook her head. She shivered, strange though it was, but the Hanged Man couldn't tell how cold the river had been. He pondered whether it'd be safest to wade upstream along it, but the many branches drooping over the stream sold him against it.
She still coughed, though there was no more water coming out. Even as he started to run, the Hanged Man made a choice. Whether or not the smoke wraiths were going to momma's house, that's where he'd go. He'd been given the chance to help someone, and of all the many things momma used to say, there was one thing she made sure the Hanged Man never forgot: You could squander a great many chances in your life, but you never, never, let the chance to help someone slip you by.
So, as gently as he could, the Hanged Man pressed the girl against his chest with both hands and said, "Don't you worry. I know where you'll be safe."
It was tough scaling the cliffs with one arm wrapped around the child, but breathing soon got easier. When the Hanged Man finally reached the mountain meadow, the sun burned as red as the woodland, hanging low above the lake behind the charred remains of the house. Smoke rose to cloud the evening as a great pall, but it was only smoke and the wraiths were gone from it. The flowers around the house came abloom with the sunset, and even with the acrid smell clinging to him, their scent was sweet and funereal.
The Hanged Man watched the town burning in the distance, at the foot of the mountain past the woods, when the girl roused him with a sniffle. She, too, watched the town, but not with the Hanged Man's melancholy. Hers was a mask of loss and terror, and the Hanged Man recognised it as one he'd worn long ago. It came to him this girl must've lost her own momma tonight, and through his scorched lids pushed tears of sympathy.
"You may put me down now," the girl said. Her voice was dull with heartbreak, but its tones were soft and deliberate. Her dress was fine, and so must've been her house and heritage.
For a long time, she sat still, arms wrapped around her knees, and wept. The fire never calmed, but she did. When night fell to curtain the flames, as deep and dark as though it had become one with the smoke, she turned from the ruins.
"I feel hollow," she said, a newly-made orphan of eleven at most. "Like all the tears have carved me empty. I feel I should still cry, but more refuse to fall."
"Tears don't bring anyone back," the Hanged Man said. The callousness of his words became apparent only when the girl whimpered.
She was quiet another while, then stood. Moonlight turned her blonde hair silvery when she straightened her dress, took a last deep breath, and faced the Hanged Man with an air of solemnity. She donned a cordial mask in place of the weeper's, the way fine folk did when they were abashed for showing emotion, but her grip was tight, desperate, as though she clung onto him the same way as to the rock in the river. It chilled and saddened the Hanged Man at once; if a child ever needed a reason to show sorrow, those reasons were far lesser than this.
"Thank you," she said. "I would surely have perished without you. My name is Lucy, and I think I know who you are, but only by reputation. May I ask for your name?"
Her sudden calmness sent the chill deeper—until the Hanged Man realised that, though she had survived, she had lost one life and her habits were all she had left of it. He responded to her strain by straightening his back as he searched his memories. Of all the things momma said, hearing his name had never been his fondest. She only used it when she was mad, but there was another one that came to him at once, and it had only ever been spoken lovingly.
"Jacob," he said firmly, claiming as his own the name of momma's favourite of the poets who'd shared her bed for a time. He bowed deep and kissed her hand, the way she'd seen men with silken jackets do when they greeted a lady. "My name is Jacob, and I'm very pleased to meet you, Lucy."
Lucy returned a tight smile that cracked the mask. "If only we'd met under kinder stars. To think I'd planned to surprise my parents only this morning with berries I picked myself, and tonight I would mourn them." She let go of his hand, then held the blackened end of the noose around his neck and furled her brow. "But prithee, Jacob, would you tell me why you wear such a strange necklace?"
The Hanged Man grunted, took the rope from her. Fiddling it between his fingers, he said, "I'm not sure how to put this, but, do you think there's anything odd about me?"
Lucy averted her eyes and sucked on her lip. "I would not want to be rude towards someone who rescued me, but yes, since you ask, I do notice some… unusual features."
"What I mean is I'm dead."
A sound of surprise fled the girl, and her gaze shot up to meet his. "If you are joking, I'm afraid the humour is lost on me."
The Hanged Man shook his head. "I'm not like you. Did it burn, holding my hand just then?"
"Of course not."
"It should, and it don't because the townsfolk hanged me. See, this," he tapped the charred end of the rope, "this is what the smoke wraiths did. They escaped when I died and pulled out my fire with them, and now they want me to burn with the town so they can make me one of them." He turned to scream at the house over his shoulder, startling the girl. "And I know you're in there, so don't think I'm not coming for you!"
"There's no one there," Lucy said. She'd taken a step closer to the edge, away from him. "Is this your house, Jacob?" she asked. Her voice had lost its softness and become tenser.
"It was momma's. They got out once before here, but she put them back in me. Knew they'd be better inside than out making misery for everyone." His mouth bent into a mournful arch. "But she's not around no more to do it again. Momma burned to trap the smoke, and the wind took her ashes long ago."
Lucy looked as though about to respond, but her unvoiced reply trailed off into an inquisitive hum. The Hanged Man turned to find smoke erupting from the house. It hid away the flowers, fell past them like a grey waterfall, rose to the sky to envelope everything around them. Lucy started to cough, and the Hanged Man picked her up. The open doorway loomed ahead, a portal into the very world from where the smoke flowed.
"Think I'm scared? Think I'm not coming in?" the Hanged Man yelled. A rumbling cackle rolled over them, and stole the verve of his defiance. He advanced with a step as sure as he could muster, but the girl wrapped her arms around his throat and sniffled.
"Please, Jacob. Don't go in there."
The Hanged Man met her frightened look. For a moment, her fancy manners and grown-up way of talking had made him forget how small she was, and remembering it made him feel a little braver, if only for the want to protect her. Maybe he'd never found a wife, but in her he might find a daughter.
"I won't be long. They're cornered now. You can wait here and I'll be out before—"
She gripped him so tight he choked and gagged. "I don't want you going at all."
"I have to." He gently stroked her hair. "It's the only way I get my fire back."
Lucy whimpered, but loosened her grip enough for the Hanged Man to breathe. "I'm not staying here."
"Then I'll take care of you. I promise."
The smoke wraiths laughed at him. The Hanged Man gritted his teeth and stomped into the house.
Lucy began to cough harder as soon as they crossed the threshold. There shouldn't have been anything left to burn, but the house was ablaze like the woods below. Smoke billowed everywhere like upside down ocean waves, and the wraiths were there in multitudes, hanging onto every strand and tendril that wove itself around the Hanged Man's feet.
Now that they were within his reach, he wasn't sure what to do. Momma had bound them with her own flame, but he couldn't touch them. The Hanged Man's attention snapped up from the loose tendrils when a voice spoke out.
"Look at you, boy. You ain't got a lick of sense in that head."
The Hanged Man's mouth fell open. Momma stood before him, at the foot of the stairs right where he'd scooped up her ashes, arms akimbo and as livid as ever. He nearly dropped Lucy from the surprise, and momma tossed up a hand at that. "What're you thinking, chasing smoke with someone like her? I thought I raised you better."
"You did, momma!" cried the Hanged Man. "I had a chance to help her and I did!"
Momma folded her arms and scowled. "Ain't no wonder no nice daughter ever took a shine to a fool like you. Poor girl ain't like us. She can't breathe in here."
The Hanged Man brought a hand to Lucy's mouth, met momma's scowl with a mortified look, and spun on his heels to get the girl out. He found no door behind him, and when he completed his circle to beg for momma's help, found no momma either. Even as he looked, the house collapsed around him, but not on him; he was left in the middle of the smoky plain like before, but now there was nothing but grey emptiness, nowhere for him to take Lucy.
The Hanged Man prodded her, tried to shake her, but the girl's eyes stayed closed. He cried her name, shook her again, but she did not revive.
At his misery, the smoke wraiths laughed.
"That does it, you bastards!" the Hanged Man screamed, so long and loud his lungs ran empty. "You think this is funny? Huh? You think a dead little girl is funny?"
They laughed and laughed at the way his voice cracked, but that only inflamed his rage further. With his lungs empty, the Hanged Man sucked in a deep breath, inhaling so much smoke his head felt dizzy and his stomach sick. He kept sucking it in, until his lungs were too full to breathe in any more, and then he screamed again.
No smoke came out, only went in. The Hanged Man kept at it until he collapsed to his knees. By then, the laughter was gone and so was the smoke. It swirled inside him, made his bones vibrate with its cackling and movement.
When the Hanged Man could again see the sky and the yellow flowers surrounding him, Lucy's dress began to smoulder where he touched it.
The Hanged Man watched lifeless smoke rise from the cloth, smelled how her flesh began to cook against his hands. He'd gotten his fire back, but at a cost much too dear. He shuddered with a sob, began to cry. Tears wouldn't bring anyone back, never did, but that was all he could do.
The Hanged Man stood. Fire had died from the woods when he'd eaten the smoke and the wraiths, and he started down the charcoal path to take Lucy back home. He wanted her ashes to rest with her family, and his with hers. Returning to the folds of the living meant nothing if he would be alone.
By the time he reached the village her bones had burned and he carried an armful of ash. He let it scatter on the ground, beneath the tree where they'd tried to hang him. Tears left darker dots on the small mound, as useless as all the way here.
He knelt down, and as he did, crying made him hiccup. A tiny cloud of smoke fled the prison of his lungs, but the Hanged Man caught it in his fist. When he opened it, the smoke had nowhere to go. His touch was fire again, and smoke was ever a slave to flame. It danced and swayed as if on the wind, and as he watched it, a thought formed in the Hanged Man's head.
In the smoke had been a memory of momma, even though she hadn't died empty. It had become her where her ashes had fallen, and ash wasn't so much a slave as something fire didn't want…
"Smoke wraith," the Hanged Man said, trying his hardest not to let it know his eagerness. "You became momma in the house. Could you now become Lucy?"
The smoke wraith laughed in a spectral voice, and when the Hanged Man got so mad he was about to eat it off his palm, the wraith took Lucy's form.
The Hanged Man gasped, and the smoke dispersed. He held his breath until what remained resumed dancing, and said, "If I freed some more of you, would you help me shape her ashes?"
The smoke became Lucy again, and the Hanged Man breathed out more. He brought both his hands to the mound of ash, where the smoke settled in. He feared too much of her had spilled through his fingers, but then a breeze picked up and the smoke clung to it. Whorls of ash filled the air around him and gathered around Lucy's growing grey body.
The figurine of ash and smoke was perfect, but it didn't move. The Hanged Man watched is solemnly, but then realised that even if he could bring her back, she would want her parents to be with her. Now that he knew what to do, he also had a chance to help them. Maybe they weren't all that nice to him, but that didn't mean it was his place to pass the chance to help someone.
He breathed out more smoke, and again they hunted the scattered ash on the breeze. When Lucy's parents rested beside her, the Hanged Man still didn't know how to give them life, but thought they'd want their friends with them if he found a way. The more smoke he eased out, the better he felt, and the clearer was the crackle of fire in his heart when the wraiths weren't laughing inside him. It wasn't long until all the villagers lay side by side on the ground.
The Hanged Man looked at them, and while he thought, he became aware of how loud the crackling was. He pondered upon it for a long while, how much stronger it was than before. Sometimes, when he'd looked at the baker's daughter or the stabler's wife, it had grown nearly as strong.
He went to Lucy's shifting body, and when the crackle became as loud as in the inferno's heart, he knew it was the sound of the love he burned with, the love that had taken their lives and which neither smoke nor ash could return.
"Smoke wraiths," he said, "if I gave you some of the fire you stole, would you try to run again? Only this time, I want you to lift these ashes with you."
The smoke wraiths cried with glee, and the Hanged Man touched each puppet in turn. Each wraith claimed some of his flame, but now reached deeper than before. The more he gave, the greyer his skin became, until ash began to flake off with the breeze. When only Lucy remained without a spark, he said, "Smoke wraith, I will give you everything I have left, on one condition."
The wraith waited with patience he hadn't yet seen.
"You must take Lucy wherever she wants to go. She'll bear far too much love for a place this small. She needs to find someone who cares as fiercely as she will." The girl's lids dotted darker when the Hanged Man leaned over her. "But don't you ever let her burn the one she chooses. You hear me?"
The smoke wraith laughed, but now the Hanged Man liked what he heard. It was how she imagined Lucy would sound, if he ever heard her laughing.
Colour seeped into the girl's ashes as it faded from the Hanged Man's, and when she was whole again, he was ready to crumble. Wind swept through the village and carried off the Hanged Man with it. When the villagers rose and looked around at the ruins of their home, all that remained of him was a blonde girl's hair turned ashen grey from his touch.
This story originally appeared in Shards: A Noblebright Fantasy Anthology (Lucent Anthologies Book 3).