It was the wildfire that finally forced the truth from him.
Graeme just seemed to know things that others didn’t. Sometimes he had a bad feeling about things. Like the time when he led all the horses to the cowshed when he was just a stripling. His father had tanned his hide for it, too. But then the tornado came just as they were fetching the horses back and took the stables away like a blast from a giant locomotive. From then on, his parents had trusted what they called his “flashes.”
It was one of his “flashes” that woke him. He saw fire racing over the plains, driven before the wind like buffalo before Cree riders. He threw the covers from his bed and set about waking the household. By the time that was done they could already smell the smoke. The approaching fire was a sinister glow on the horizon.
“Help Henry with the horses!” their mother had commanded, and Graeme obeyed. But as they started leading the nickering, nervous steeds out of their stalls, ashes began to rain down on the farmyard. Some of the hay bales were burning in minutes. By the time they put them out with well-water, the whole horizon was red. The air was coagulating like a blood clot into thick, dark smoke.
“We have to hurry, kid!” Henry urged with his thinning hair askew. His face and shirt were streaked with sweat. One shirttail had come untucked and he’d torn the pocket from his trousers somewhere. Sweat was running into Graeme’s own eyes. And Graeme had known that they would not make it. The wind was already searing hot. There simply wasn’t enough time.
He left the horses and went to the well. Henry was shouting at him but it seemed to come from somewhere far away. He seemed to see himself and the ranch from far above with complete clarity, like the piercing gaze of an eagle. That gaze found its focus on the shimmering water in the well. His awareness rushed to the water. He could feel its flow, its coolness, and its mutable nature. Water, he knew from his training, was the mercurial force of change in the alchemical arts. So, he urged it to change.
Suddenly the temperature plunged. Dew formed in an instant on the grass and the earth and Graeme’s clothes and skin. A circular wind rippled out from the well. It tossed Graeme’s hat off his head to rest between his shoulder-blades, taking all the heat and the ashes with it. Mist began to gather over the well. Then, suddenly, it was raining. Graeme looked up to see a disk-shaped cloud hovering directly overhead.
But it wasn’t enough. In just minutes, hungry winds tore the clouds apart, and they were picking up. The air grew hotter and the sky grew brighter.
There was no other choice. He whistled Lightning to his side. Bareback, they were racing towards the fire. Henry made a grab at him, but Lightning knew what he was about and dodged him.
The flames were spreading through the grasses and turning them to ashes almost as soon as the fire became visible. Glowing coals spiraled into the air, carried by the fire's own winds, to settle on new patches of bunchgrass, which then sprang to life like torches. Graeme hadn't considered the heat. Later, he would submit to the soothing ministrations of his mother's healing salve on his red-burnt face, but he didn't even notice at the time. Smoke belched into the sky like a plume from a boiler engine. It trailed the length of the fire-wall as if over an enormous train.
He whistled, and Lightning pulled up at the edge of the flames. His eyes showed white at the proximity of the wildfire and his nostrils flared. But he hadn’t faltered. Graeme stared down the raging, inexorable conflagration and saw their death rushing to greet them.
He was never able, after, to say exactly what happened. His will had reached out to the wildfire as though embracing kin, but his command was firm; go around!
And he felt the fire obey. It bent, like a willow branch in a windstorm, and split into a forked tongue that ran right around the ranch and even the Williams’ farm that was due south of them.
As it went, a piercing headache slammed into Graeme’s brain. Soon it was blinding. He felt as if the life were draining out of him just as surely as blood dripping from a vein. A few minutes later, he heard something like the hiss of a thousand snakes, as the fire burnt itself out in the river and lake to the southeast of their land. Within a few more minutes, the air was soupy with the steam. He cried out in relief; and promptly slipped into darkness.
The next thing he knew, he was waking up with his father hovering above the bed. And when he woke, his father seized him in his arms. But then he put him down, awkward with embarrassment.
“That was a mighty brave thing you did, son.”
Graeme smiled uncomfortably. He didn’t think it was terribly brave. He just couldn’t think of anything else he could have done.
Colin Walsh touched his fey son’s red forehead and brushed his hair out of his face. “How long have you known you were a sorcerer?”
“A while now, sir,” Graeme admitted. He met his father’s eyes and braced himself for the confrontation.
But it never came. Colin Walsh smiled even more broadly. “It comes with the fey blood sometimes. Runs in your momma’s family I understand.” His expression hardened into a grim scowl. “You were right to keep it hidden, son. Folks don’t understand. Maybe not since the Cataclysm. Don’t go cryin’ it to the hilltops; but I’m mighty grateful for it today.” He took a breath, and then with eyes as focused as if over a pistol’s sights he asked, “Did you know it was goin’ to work?”
He shook his head.
Graeme’s father met his son’s eyes and reached out to clasp his hand. One of Graeme’s happiest memories was that moment, with his father’s rough hand pressed against his smooth one as his father nodded his thanks. Man to man, for the first time.