The Phoenix Task

Aurea was raised by a dragon, so when the bird left, her first impulse was to burn everything to the ground.

It was supposed to be a simple task. She had apprenticed herself to the master wizard in her village, but because she was only twelve instead of the normal apprenticing age of thirteen, he’d asked her to complete a test before being formally accepted. Every one-hundred years the phoenix would return to the top of Mount Seer from the sun, burn to death, and be reborn in the ashes to begin another one hundred year journey to and from the sun. Aurea’s task was to climb to the top of Mount Seer and pull a feather off a newly hatched phoenix right before it began its flight to the sun.

Brimming with confidence, she climbed the mountain at the traditional time for the phoenix’s return, her bedroll and supplies strapped to her back. She had lived much of her early years in a cave as part of a dragon’s hoard. The idea of living in a cave for a day or two, waiting for the phoenix to come down from the sun and then pulling a feather from a hatchling certainly didn’t sound difficult.

Early in the morning she climbed up the mountain through the leafy poplars and maples to where scraggly pine trees grew in pale shale, and found a cave. In the cave, in the middle of a smoldering pile of ashes, was something round, glowing bright with sun-gold and radiating heat.

This was better luck than she could have dreamed; she’d come up on the exact day the dead phoenix had transformed into an egg. She wouldn’t even need the bed roll—she could take the feather and be an official wizard’s apprentice by the evening.

Barely breathing, Aurea climbed into the cave, sat down her bedroll and supplies and inched closer. Then the red globe unrolled itself, extended a long pliable neck, iridescent and red gold, and cocked a bright black eye at her. She froze. It was already hatched. Her task was reduced from days to a matter of minutes. The phoenix stretched itself and stood on yellow legs. It walked past her and she followed, hand extended towards the two plumes of purple feathers cascading off its head, expecting it to spread its wings and launch itself into the air at any minute.

Instead, the bird walked to her bedroll, inspected it with its head to one side, and then sneezed a fireball. Aurea yelped as her bed lit on fire and scrambled to douse it with water. When she’d put out the fire, she turned around to find the bird resettled in its nest, watching her out of one eye. If it had been any other creature than a bird, she might have thought it looked amused.

After that the bird did nothing she expected it to do. It showed no signs of leaving that day, or the next, or the next. When she was down to a slab of jerky and the final drop of water in her water bottle she faced the fact that this phoenix was not behaving normally and she would have to adjust her plans.

The first hurdle was how to get water without leaving the bird unattended. She made a pouch from an extra shirt and trekked down the mountain with the bird tucked on her back, a hot ember, sweat streaming down her forehead. Then she trekked her way back up, carrying buckets of water. Halfway up the bird started making little irritated grunts and she peered over her shoulder to scowl at it. “Well if you weren’t the most contrary phoenix that ever lived and left like you ought in the first place, maybe I wouldn’t have to drag you up and down the mountain! Ever think of that?”

So it went. Her mornings began with the bird standing on her, hot feet burning acute angles into her chest, as he sang his greeting to the dawn. It was a beautiful song, but she did not appreciate it. “Get OFF!” She’d shout. “GET OFF OF ME! Your feet are like hot irons!”

Then there was water to fetch and food to hunt, all with the burning coal of the bird strapped to her back, radiating heat, and of course, in between cooking and hunting there were hours and hours of boredom, propped up in the shade of the cave, staring out over the shale. The bird liked to sit right next to her, close enough to be uncomfortably warm at all times.

“I guess I could wait to apprentice.” She said to the phoenix one afternoon, flicking a piece of shale down the mountain and hitting a stump. “But everybody else belongs in the village; it’s theirs, they fit in it…I want something of my own, something to keep for me, even if that’s just an apprenticeship.” She edged away from the phoenix’s heat and it edged after her. She sighed. “You need to hurry up and leave! Because you getting on with your job is the only way I get off this mountain before going completely crazy!”

She lay under her blankets and watched him in the evening, his feathers glowing purple and orange like hot coals in the darkness. Didn’t he used to be brighter? Was he fading? Was he sick? Maybe this bird wouldn’t fly to the sun at all. Would she be able to apprentice if her phoenix gave up on the sun journey? Uneasy, she edged her bed around so she could see his glow even through her closed eyelids.

The next morning she woke without hot feet on her chest and immediately jumped to her feet, feeling sick. He’d gone! Seconds later her mind registered the sound of the phoenix’s song and she relaxed. The relief that swept through her should have told her something about herself, but she did not pay attention because the phoenix’s song had changed; it was charged, like musical lightning, and the phoenix stood at the edge of the cave with massive wings outstretched, glinting in the morning sunlight.

Aurea stared, her mouth open, eyes squinty with sleep, her hair in an untidy curly mess. The bird raised his wings, and they caught fire in the dawn. She reached forward slowly, almost unconsciously, and snagged a single feather from the bird’s wing—then there was a rush of heat and wind, a single, beautiful note, and he was gone.

The cave was silent. The wind hissed in the pines outside. Aurea let the feather fall from her numb fingers. It drifted down to settle on the bag, unnoticed, forgotten.

If she had known how much she was attached to the bird, the rage would not have gripped her so completely. But she hadn’t understood herself. The loss of the phoenix felt like having a limb ripped out of her chest. All the memories burned like coals in her stomach. She had been raised by a dragon, and had learned more of its hoarding ways than she realized. And, like a dragon, she reacted to the loss of her treasure.

The rage took her, a wild flame kindled from the inside and burning out through her, smoke sizzling off her skin. She just wanted to smash something, to burn it, to destroy it because that was her bird and she wanted it back. She hadn’t fed it, she hadn’t loved it, she had just put up with it, and somehow and she was bereft without it.

Aurea stood up, her fists clenching, eyes blazing. “You can’t leave!” She threw her head back and howled it towards the sky, “You can’t just leave! You were mine!”

She grabbed a torch leaning against the wall and shoved it into the embers of the phoenix’s nest. The torch burst into flames and she swung it around, scattering coals from the nest all over the cave, storming out into the sunlight, wanting to burn.

The torch blazed, searing the side of her face and for a moment she paused, burning inside and out. Why am I angry? Her own voice said inside her head. It was fading and losing heat. It might have died if it stayed, and would it be reborn if it hadn’t gone to the sun? Then a louder voice in her mind simply roared, BUT IT WAS BEAUTIFUL AND IT WAS MINE! And she plunged the torch into a drift of pine needles and sticks that had been blown up against the mouth of the cave. They roared up in a crackling, towering blaze of flame and smoke.

She bounded forward, her eyes fixed on the forest beyond the shale. If I can’t have what I want, let it all burn! She leapt up on a stump and looked into the sky to shake her fist at the bird that dared leave when she wanted it to stay.

And stopped.

It was spiraling upward towards the sun, a comet tail so bright it blazed hot red even against the blue depths of the sky. And it was singing. It was a triumphant song, the song of creature doing exactly as it was created to do, a thing fitted perfectly into nature.

Aurea, still staring upward, carefully sat down on the stump, tears running down her face. She plunged the torch into the shale and let it fizzle out, smoking quietly beside her. Behind her, the drift of leaves and needles burned out and black smoke twisted into the sky. She sat there and cried for the loss of the bird and for the beauty of it.

She went back to town and to her master later that day. The old wizard opened his door and smiled down at the smoke-smudged, tear stained face framed with pale curls.

“I don’t have the feather.” Aurea said, staring straight ahead. “It got burned.”

He didn’t seem at all surprised. “But what did you learn, child?”

She looked up at him, eyes swimming with tears. “It wouldn’t have been beautiful anymore if it had stayed.”

The wizard smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. “Come in, child. We’ll begin your apprenticeship today.”