Bearing the Flame

by C.A. Barrett

Christ’s newest Chandlers stood facing the congregation, their five young heads bent demurely for anointing oil and their cupped hands extended for incense to burn in the flames cradled against their bare palms. Three boys were already familiar to everyone: they had been brought to the Church of Holy Fire as apprentices when their talent kindled. They were joined by a barbarian girl with startling yellow braids beneath her headscarf and a boy with skin dark as incorruptible altar-wood, both living proof that priests had searched to the very ends of the empire for those most skilled at kindling and brought them here to serve God.

Basil was not standing with them.

Basil was still planted where he had taken a step out from the gathered people, standing alone. He wore the same plain red tunic as the Chandler initiates. His feet and legs were also bare, he was also twelve years old, and he held the same slip of golden flame. But the Bishop had not taken Basil’s hand to pull him farther forward. Now Basil felt very hot, although he was aware of the empty space behind him as a great cold gulf. His eyes were watering even though the flame in his hand was smokeless. He shook with small fast breaths. It was a mercy that he did not face the crowd, because the uncontrolled tempest on his face would shame him. Basil had not wanted to be a Chandler. Basil had known that he would be a Chandler with the same certainty with which he knew his own name. Ever since the day that flames first kissed his fingertips during a service, perfecting his fire had consumed him.

And now Basil was the only one who had been passed over. The flame in his hands had no flaw that he could see. He looked at it from every angle before closing his palms and then taking them apart, extinguished. He stared numbly into the mosaics on the walls, seeing only the points of reflected candlelight in each glass tile and not the images formed by their pattern.

When the evening prayers ended, the crowd spilled out of the church onto the street and their chatter echoed back into the sacred spaces. Families with elderly or infants were going home to sleep. The Week of Lights was so crowded with services that it took stamina. The young would keep vigil in the streets tonight, watching for the arrival of pilgrim flames. They would have more fun waiting than those chanting in the darkened church. But the church was where Basil stayed. He had often waited after services to make conversation with the Chandlers. Now he had to know if their encouragement had been insincere mockery. As the final congregants left, those who served them came out to bustle around the edges of the church. The five Chandler initiates appeared from a side door, struggling with one of the golden monstrances that would receive the seventy pilgrim flames. They turned away from Basil’s accusatory stare. He already knew the tricks that they did not for assembling the pieces, because he had helped last year.

Justinian was walking briskly down one side of the church, pinching out flames with his unburnable fingers. Basil drifted to his side.

“Why wasn’t I chosen tonight?” Basil asked quietly.

Justinian was not much older than Basil. He had no beard to hide the disquiet on his face.

“Why?” Basil repeated.

“You know that the Church only takes the best.”

“Then what was wrong with my flame?”

Justinian looked down and fussily straightened the strap of brocade cloth that belted his robes, which were red and embroidered all over with teardrop-shaped flames in gold thread.

“Did you see anything wrong with my flame? Why didn’t the Bishop elevate me?” Basil pressed.

“Maybe he saw your pride,” Justinian replied.

“It was good enough.” Basil’s voice was rising with his anger. “The Bishop made a mistake.”

“Life is shaped by mistakes as well as by plans. God uses it all, just the same.”

Basil looked away from Justinian’s splendid clothing and balled his fists against his plain red cloth. “So you think it was a mistake, too. I deserve it.”

“I’m sorry, Basil,” Justinian said, “I know you’re disappointed, but remember that you serve God, not the flame.”

“Why did He light fire in me if He won’t use it?” Basil shouted. His anger reverberated against walls angled to amplify singing voices. The five initiates looked up from their tangled monstrances and the droning reader looked up from his prayers.

Basil fled.

He stopped in the candle room to retrieve his blue striped coat and his sandals. He also took a thick beeswax candle as long as his outstretched arm. As he left the church he dug his fingernails into the wax, scoring it with deep grooves. He loitered on the steps before the church doors, waiting for Justinian or some other messenger to come running out and beg him to return.

No one came. Basil took deep steadying breaths and watched the people. The crowd was colorful, each in their own best clothing. So many held candles that the night was bright as day, and all the candles were moving under the black sky. Children ran along chaotic trails visible only to the very young. Adults laughed and darted around as they hailed loved ones. The news from every mouth was that the first pilgrim flame had been spotted and it was not far outside the city. Everyone was taking great pleasure in telling this news to others who already knew but were taking equal pleasure in listening. Close to the road the crowd pressed shoulder-to-shoulder into compacted stillness, and shouted liturgical songs with tuneless joy.

Basil caught their elation between his fingertips and lit his damaged candle from it. The light was strong and steady. It did not dance or gutter. It sat proudly atop the wick. This was more than the flame of an apprentice kindler: it was a flame that would make a city lamplighter proud. It was better than Justinian’s flame, which was sometimes green at the edges. It should be Basil in the embroidered robes, a small voice said inside. It should be Basil being cheered.

Basil resolved that tomorrow he would go to the Bishop and demand his place as a Chandler. Tonight, he lifted his great liturgical candle high with one hand and rested the other hand lightly on his own stomach, where he would wear his belt soon. The crowd parted for him, and Basil took methodical steps to the side of the road. He stood straight and formal, waiting.

The procession of the Flame of Antioch was led by a boy with an icon of Saint Evodus on a tall pole. He was burdened by a full four layers of embroidered fabric, as if he were assisting at a liturgy instead of traveling the road by night. Sweat made pathways through the dust on his face, but he held his image of Saint Evodus high and danced with the last of his energy. He had a huge grin on his face, and the crowd roared its approval of his capering.

The Chandler of Antioch who followed was older and solemn. His expression was one of distant concentration. His mind was still in Antioch, with the Christians who sent their fervor in the flame he carried. That flame was a giant burning globe, as wide across as his shoulders and balanced on both his hands. The light was overwhelming. People that it passed shaded their faces and turned away. But Basil was a kindler, and his eyes resisted flame just as well as his fingers. He stared into it and saw many feather-like small flames with their points tucked into the whole. Individual flickers surfaced only to submerge again as the interlocking flames rotated in a pattern of beating wings. Basil stared in wonder as the flame passed him and he felt his heart follow it just as the crowd lining the street broke their formations and came together behind the light. The Chandler of Antioch, never looking down, carefully went up the three wide steps and into the church.

When the flame went through the doors and was hidden from sight, Basil’s elation drained from his chest. The first pilgrim flame entering the Church of Holy Fire marked the end of Flame’s Eve. Basil could demand an audience with the Bishop, but next year he would be too old to stand with the applicants. He had not been chosen. He could either sweep and clean the church to which he had been apprenticed without handling its flames again or take his kindling talent home, to a provincial town he left so long ago that he only remembered its dimness, but he would never lift a full church’s flame in his hands. He knew now that nothing else would ever satisfy him. He would rather give up his fire entirely than have it stunted, and use it only to dandle sparks between his fingertips while he stood in the back of a crowd during the Week of Lights. But what would he do with himself? Kindling was the only skill he’d practiced, and he wasn’t good enough at it to earn a place in a city with a heartbeat of light and life.

Basil lowered his candle and pinched the flame at its wick. He retreated from the road and its joy.

“Are you leaving? Aren’t you part of the processions?” a man asked him. He wore a short blue cloak over brown clothing, and he was not long out of boyhood himself. He spoke to Basil as an equal. His teeth were bright in the candlelight.

“I’m not in the procession,” said Basil.

The stranger looked puzzled. “Aren’t you a Chandler? Your candle’s not gone down a notch. You weren’t burning it to feed that flame.”

“I have the kindling magic,” said Basil, “but I wasn’t good enough to be chosen as a Chandler.” Saying it aloud brought a fresh pang of grief. He braced himself for pity, but the man responded with a slowly spreading smile.

“It’s good they didn’t catch you,” he said. “You were made for so much more.”

Basil stared at him, uncomprehending.

“She told me that we’d have a kindler. I have work for you. Come see.” The man took Basil’s arm. His fingers were rough with calluses.

“Who are you?”

He paused, and a slow smile spread across his face. “Call me Saint Cain, patron of rejected sacrifices. Come on, come on.”

Basil felt that every tie binding him to the happy crowd had been broken. He saw no other path before him, so Basil left his broken candle and followed. No one noticed him going.


Cain led him outside the city walls, far from the crowds spilling out of the gate. This still and quiet road led to a small house. When Basil stepped inside the door he faced a man Cain’s age with a new beard, the hair growing in wild and coarse, who sat facing the entrance and oiling a blade. He leaned forward, the forgotten rag on one knee and the naked steel lifted, until he saw Cain coming in behind Basil. Then he nodded and resumed his cleaning.

Cain clapped the other man’s shoulder as he walked past. “Loom,” he said to Basil, “walked over a thousand miles to join the Emperor’s guard. On his own two feet, guarding himself with his own blade.” Cain’s voice lifted to the edge of laughter. “It took him so long to walk the distance that when he got here, they said he was too old to apprentice to a warrior.”

“And he’s our kindler?” Loom asked gruffly.

“I don’t know what you want me to do,” said Basil.

“Just look,” said Cain, and he pulled Basil again. Around the corner was a dim workbench of thick wood, scorched and gouged deeply in places. It was cluttered with a jeweler’s trade tools: hammers, a small anvil, tongs, and a cold crucible.

In the very center of the workspace sat a dragon made of gold, and she was beautiful.

The dragon had a broad serpent’s face. Her flat and toothless mouth was slightly parted in a hollow smile that revealed her to be a tall oil lamp, with a cavity for fuel and a notch in her forked tongue to hold the wick. All the scales of her head were carefully scratched out in patterns like tiles: a lip of small rectangles, a coin-sized circle at her jowls, and concentric layers around her empty, hollow eyes. A wider hood came off the sides of her head, evoking an aroused cobra. She had four legs and reared up on two of them, sitting with her short arms against her sides. And she had six breasts. This incongruous flesh was sculpted out of small planes and facets that emphasized how the artist’s hands had traced every nipple.

Basil’s throat constricted. “You are worshiping idols.”

“We are worshiping nothing,” said Cain. “We are bartering. Your god is not the only living spirit, churchboy. There are others, and they’ll reward anyone who helps them take form.” He reached out to caress the dragon between its eyes. “She’s brought us the gold to build her, and showed me her shape.”

“You made her a body,” Basil said.

“I built her a trap.” Cain turned his head to Basil, but he did not turn his back on the dragon. “We will have a god beneath us, a god made from our hands, a god that does as we command. We just have to offer her something that she wants enough to crawl all the way inside, and it will close shut behind her.”

Basil stared numbly at the golden dragon. “I still don’t understand what you want me to do.”

“What is your name, boy?” asked Loom behind them.

“Basil.” He regretted giving it before the end of Loom’s brief nod.

“She loves fire, Basil,” Cain said. “You’re a kindler. Don’t you love flames, too? So you share a special understanding with her already. I sculpt gold and I admire the beauty of what I’ve made every time I see it. Show us your flame. Show her your beautiful flame.”

“I was training to be a Chandler of Christ,” Basil said.

The Lord’s name hung heavily in the silence before Cain spoke. “You said they didn’t want you. She brought you to us. She wanted you. She thinks you’re good enough.” He pressed on Basil’s back, pushing him toward the workbench. “Come and feed the dragon, Basil. Our arts were never only for worship.”

Basil had never lit a flame that wasn’t gathered from the faith around him. He did not think it possible, but he could make Cain’s command an experiment. Basil lifted his hand, and he called on the beauty of flames, the lights of amber and orange that he could see more clearly than anyone else and command better than any of his age. What he pulled from the air was a small spark, red as blood, and Cain caught it on a thin chip of wood before it went out.

“A little dancing ruby, so beautiful,” Cain pronounced. He inserted the burning wood chip into the dragon. It slid between her jaws and disappeared down into her belly. The light flared up, its red flashing briefly in the dragon’s empty eyes before it went out. A small line of smoke came out of one side of her mouth.

“She is hungry for more,” said Cain. “Think of all she’ll give us when she is alive!”

Basil reached for his sharp desire for layers of fine cloth, worked with dyes and threads and wrapped around his body. He reached for the gluttony of taking all the charred crust off a piece of smoked meat, all for himself. He felt the crowd cheering for him. This flame lit the room from his fingers.

Cain made no move to take it. “Feed her,” he said.

Basil reached out his hand and held his fire to the dragon’s mouth. The gold tongue flickered, and the skin beneath her jaw swelled as she took the flame and swallowed it. Her hollow eyes were filled again, and this time the red had narrow black pupils in its center. She looked at Basil with a beguiling tilt of her head, and then she left the idol again, leaving behind only smoke.

“She needs more,” said Cain, leaning close over the bench. Loom was behind him, amazement plain on his face.

Basil summoned up wordless heat and agitation and lust. His belly and loins filled with the fire before it came to his hand this time. His skin flushed and he turned his embarrassment to anger before it could take his power. He would choose a life of fire. He would stride across the empire with this flame in his blood and no one would dare to deny him anything again…

The flame that bled into his palm was thick and dark as a smoldering coal, and the golden dragon herself darted her head forward to snatch it from his outstretched hand. She licked both sides of her lips with her horned tongue and then closed them in a smile. Smoke came thickly from her nostrils, filling the room with a smell that was more cloying than any incense Basil had ever burned. Beneath the sweet the smell had a punch of rot. Then the golden jaws parted, stiff and dead again. The light faded in the idol’s eyes.

Basil felt cold, as if all of his heat were handed away. He turned to look at Cain. The man was staring at his dragon, dazzled.

“That is closer than she’s ever been to us,” said Cain. “That was well done.”

“It wasn’t enough,” said Basil. He felt suddenly nauseated. He had failed, once again, to kindle a good enough flame to earn a place. And this time he could not take comfort in looking back at the attempt and seeing work well done. He had betrayed all of his instruction from the Church and fed an idol, and he was ruined.

“I thought she might need more than any one kindler can summon,” said Cain. “And that’s why we meet tonight.”

“The pilgrim flames,” Basil blurted aloud. As he realized their plan, he felt sicker.

“Don’t you want to hold one?” Cain asked.

Basil swallowed. “More than anything,” he said very quietly. He would never lift one now. That duty was reserved for the most dedicated and pure of the Chandlers, not boys who missed being called forward on Flame’s Eve and then gave in to the first temptation ever offered them.

“A pilgrim flame will trap the dragon in our idol. The flames are on the road now, but we need a kindler to carry it.”

“You can’t just pick up a pilgrim flame.”

“Who told you that? Were they right about summoning fire, or were they lying about things they didn’t want you to know?” Cain was smug. “It will only be a few steps that you have to carry it. And then, we three ride a god. Will you come with us?”

Basil looked down at his hands. He was ashamed by his palms now. He belonged with these two wicked souls.

He desperately wanted to belong somewhere.

As his answer to Cain, he picked the dragon up and cradled her under his arm.


The road was darker now. The crowd had lost more of its numbers to the call of home and bed, and flames were now entering the city by every gate, dividing the remainder. The only revelers left were now well inside the city walls, a good distance away from this bend in the road and the pillar of rocks that marked it. Once it passed the pillar, any flame on the road would be clearly visible.

But Cain and Loom were waiting in the darkness, where the flamebearers wouldn’t have the chance to call for help.

Basil was standing by the pillar, still carrying the golden dragon. Cain wanted him to stay in this specific position because Cain was still taking care to not turn his back to the idol. Basil was feeding the dragon small sips of flame, dim and apprehensive sparks pulled from his agony. As she ate, she moved her legs into comfortable positions, sighed, and sank comfortably into his grip. She always became cold and stiff again as her spirit withdrew. Despite this, Basil thought she might be growing larger. She felt heavier.

The dragon made a sudden aggressive twist in Basil’s arms. He looked up and saw light approaching. The dragon froze in place, but this time she did not grow cold. Her golden sides still shook with quick breathing, and her forked tongue twinkled as it reflected the light she tasted.

Cain and Loom both held uncovered swords, glinting in the dark. Basil thought of trying to summon a flare to his hand and reveal them all, but nothing he could kindle alone would outshine the brightness of a pilgrim flame made by hundreds of souls. It brought its own daylight, but only to a small portion of the road, directly in front of its escort.

The golden dragon leaped down from his arms and sat up on its own, alert as a ferret.

It was a procession of only two. The Flame of Corinth was so large and bright at his back that it was hard to see the iconbearer, but Basil made out a very young boy holding a picture of Saint Silas on a pole. He’d tied blue ribbons beneath it, and they fluttered. The boy’s mouth fell open as Cain and Loom stepped out in front of him, and the icon wavered. He stopped in place, and so did the Flame.

“I am carrying no coin,” said the Chandler. “Let me pass.” He was older than Basil, with a man’s narrow face and a thin beard. Although he spoke with quiet confidence his voice carried clearly to Basil’s hiding place. Both of his hands held the fire. He could not move a finger to defend himself.

“We aren’t common robbers. We need your fire,” Cain replied.

“Let me pass,” the Chandler repeated. “I am a servant of the most high God.”

“We’re both serving our gods, and you’re outnumbered.” Cain beckoned to Basil, then leveled his sword at the Chandler. “If you won’t give it to us, we’ll have to take it.”

Basil felt ashamed and pulled his coat tightly closed over his red robe. He suddenly wished that he were standing beside the Chandler and sharing his perfect confidence, but he went to Cain’s side. He did not know where the golden dragon had gone.

With a sudden clatter, the icon of Saint Silas fell. The small wide-eyed boy ran off into the darkness. Loom stepped over the pole and crushed its ribbons under his foot.

“Give us the flame and you can follow him.” Cain stepped close, turning his head away from the blinding light. He kept his sword raised.

“He won’t let His flame hit the ground,” said the Chandler, looking straight at Basil and his red robe. His gaze was a rebuke, not a challenge to a contest.

“Basil,” Cain commanded.

Basil reached out to possess the Flame of Corinth, but it was a great ball of flickers cresting and diving into the whole and each of those tiny lights fled his hands. The sphere started breaking apart at his touch, and the Chandler’s attention returned wholly to the fire between them. The form knit itself back together as the small lights completed their circuit by crossing his hands. Basil pulled away before he destroyed it, and tried to think. Before tonight, he’d always caught fire by delighting in shared worship. That togetherness formed the pilgrim flame. Basil tried to work out how to seize the flame alone, while feeling a hollow ache inside.

There was a cracking noise, of metal claws striking against paving stone.

“Then we take it,” said Cain, and his sword came down.

“Don’t, he’s not stopping me—” Basil cried, but he was too late.

The Chandler’s two severed hands fell away from the Flame of Corinth like pieces of pale eggshell. The flame itself fell, and Basil lunged forward and fell to his knees with his arms outstretched, trying to save the mass of wisps before they broke apart. When they hit him, he felt everything that went into the making of this Flame. He caught voices both singing and groaning. He caught shouted and whispered prayers. He caught the tears of true repentance in his hands as he felt them stream down his own face, and he caught both roaring joy and the quiet comfort of a babe still at her mother’s breast.

Basil caught the pilgrim flame. And every soul singing in the flame caught Basil, and welcomed him back. His earlier rejection by the Chandlers was the miracle that had brought him to this place, at this time, in this darkness, where he was needed. All of his practice was for this moment. Understanding did not take the pain of losing his art away. Experiencing the greatest that kindling magic could accomplish made his loss sharper. But his suffering was now in service to the community crying out inside the Flame and that gave him something to grab hold of so that he could lift it. It did not hit the ground.

When he got his balance, Basil turned his back on the robbers to face his church.

A snap from the dark below him tugged at his coat. Basil ripped free and stumbled forward. Without regaining his balance he ran, tilted and nearly falling, until he cleared the pillar and the road took its sharp turn. Knowing that help could see him now, he untangled his feet and looked back.

“He wants to keep it for himself!” Cain shouted, coming after Basil. He was slower, because the pilgrim flame blinded his eyes. He stumbled over the stones. And while giving chase, Cain had finally turned his back on the golden dragon. She had her body, and she no longer needed him.

Behind Cain, the Chandler of Corinth was still standing up. The cauterizing flames on his lifted arms illuminated Loom beside him and the golden coils twisting between them and Cain. The serpent had indeed stretched her golden body when she entered it. She sat up on her hind legs now, and her flared hood was above Cain’s head. Her tail was a fat serpent itself, rippling behind her. Her small arms opened wide with her mouth, and there were now long black claws on each digit.

She dived at Cain, biting him from above and behind and ripping him open between neck and shoulder. He was dead before he could scream. As she bore him to the ground Basil and Loom both lifted their eyes from the terrible sight and looked at one another. Like the metal shaping, the sword work was done.

Loom sheathed his sword and ran into the darkness.

Basil ran toward the safety of the city. He could not use his hands without abandoning the pilgrim flame that filled them, and even if he had been free to move his only weapon was fire, the dragon’s delicacy. He could see very little in front of him because of the flame he carried, but he heard shouting. He knew that he had been seen and help was near. It spurred him on to greater speed.

But when he reached the walls, Basil found something in front of him as terrible as the dragon behind: the gate of the city had been closed.

He turned and put his back to the wood, thinking that he could knock by jerking his head. But when he turned around, he saw why the gate had been slammed shut. The dragon was faster, and the dragon had caught him. The golden form lifted from the roadbed and raised herself above Basil and the Flame of Corinth, sparkling in the light. She tilted her head at Basil, who had fed her, and flicked her forked tongue out its notch in her lip. Her eyes were deep red pools with flashes of gold swimming behind her black pupils.

Basil stood before her with the flame. He closed his eyes, but he could still see the afterimage of light. And then he opened them. He had learned tonight that he loved this particular golden Flame and each of its people. He would not let her reduce it into mere fire in her belly.

She opened her mouth, and it kept opening wider and wider until the slit stretched to the very edges of her hood. It was endlessly dark inside her. Nothing reflected from the roof of her mouth or her throat. The dragon plunged toward the fire.

Basil turned and curled around the pilgrim flame, ducking his face inside its heat. He felt himself lifted bodily by the jaws and he pulled up his legs, putting his hurt knees into the fire too. The small flames battered him and tried to escape, but Basil gathered and protected them, shepherding them into the sphere even as he fully climbed inside it. The dragon’s metal belly was a furnace, and the heat was suffocating. He felt even his kindler’s skin scalding. He saw only white, even through his eyelids. And then the dragon thrashed, knocking his head against one side of her belly. She thrashed again, and Basil hit his shoulder against metal. At least she would beat him to death before he died of burning.

Then, with a sudden drink of air, the flames surged all around him and leaped tall. Basil lifted his head; Basil could lift his head. He stood cautiously, unable to feel his way with his hands or to balance himself because his hands were full of fire, and he encountered nothing above him.

Basil looked down and saw the shell of the golden dragon scorched and split open. It was hollow and thin as a reptile’s discarded skin, and the foil had melted and curled away from the point where heat burst its belly.

Basil had not fed her this time. She had tried to swallow what was not offered, and the Flame of Corinth was stronger.

He flexed his hands, balancing the flickering pilgrim flame on his palms, and Basil caught the joy of his deliverance in a flame on each fingertip. He stood in the dragon’s wreckage and wrapped the pilgrim flame back together with his own lights, restoring it to a strong and luminous sphere ruled by an inner dance.

As he finished, two figures walked into the light. The small boy came first. He had taken his icon of Saint Silas back up in one hand, tattered ribbons and all. In the other hand he had Cain’s sword, but he dangled the horrible object limply. He looked back anxiously at his pale and wounded companion.

The Chandler of Corinth’s ascetic thinness was heightened by his terrible pallor, and the single light cast harsh shadows in the hollow of his eyes. The sleeves of his robe were each tied shut in a knot. Yet he still walked with slow dignity, as if nothing unexpected had happened on his procession, and he again regarded Basil.

The boy held his icon straight and tried to lift Cain’s sword with his other hand. “One of the thieves and idolmakers!” he cried, as the heavy sword shook in his grasp.

“And the little boy who ran from them!” Basil replied, but the heavy weight of shame was growing in his gut. His hands suddenly felt the heat of the Flame of Corinth clearly, and he looked down through the light. He felt as if he were holding both palms to a hot pot. The skin there was not blistering, but he had lost part of his magic.

“I came back,” said the boy.

“It is always possible to come back,” said the Chandler, never taking his eyes from Basil. “You hold a pilgrim flame well, Kindler. Have you ever considered serving the Church?”

Basil knew that his red apprentice’s robe was clearly visible beneath his open coat, and the Chandler’s wry tone meant he recognized it. Internal heat reddened Basil’s cheeks. He could go back, and he would go back. In the morning, he would take the place he’d actually earned, cleaning the streets after the festival. “I serve the Church, but I wasn’t needed to tend fires.” He lifted his arms and held out the Flame of Corinth to its true keeper.

“What if I need you to be my hands?” the Chandler replied. He made no move to lift his own injured arms.

Basil’s heart leaped. “I can carry it tonight,” he said.

“I expect to still need hands tomorrow.”

“I wasn’t good enough,” Basil said. He had learned tonight that however clever he was at making flames, a Chandler needed wisdom too. Instead of trusting and obeying, he had stomped off in a tantrum, and brought mortal danger to himself and others. The heat that he felt now would be a reminder every time he kindled flame, although the pain was not great enough to overcome the joy of it.

“You are holding a pilgrim flame together, and there is no better proof that you can keep others’ flames lit. The Church needs your talent, if you will let your temptations burn away. Leave your idol behind and come with me if you still want to be a Chandler.”

Basil stomped and crushed the gold foil underneath his heels as he worked himself free of it all. His chest was about to curl open like the dragon’s skin, unable to hold the swelling of hope in his heart. The little boy stepped past him and rapped on the gate three times with his standard.

The gate was thrown open and many people poured out: soldiers in armor, men with no weapon greater than a lit candle, and women and children woken from their beds, carrying household tools. Suddenly light and noise blossomed. They exclaimed over the dragon, and goggled at the dragon killers. When Cain’s body was discovered on the road a group surrounded it too. People were soon crowded so thickly around the dragon’s corpse that there was no room to move.

But the crowd parted when Basil lifted the Flame of Corinth high and walked into the city between the boy and the Chandler of Corinth.

By the time they reached the Church of Holy Fire, the cheers for their burned and bloodied procession were the loudest of the night.

C.A. Barrett lives in a busy home in Kentucky, and writes fantasy stories while her knightly husband guards her from children and dragons—although their dragon eats insects instead of holy fire. Her short fiction will also appear on Podcastle this year. She blogs about writing at

About the story, she says, “I wanted this to feel like the product of a Byzantine imagination without being strictly historical.”

“Bearing the Flame” by C.A. Barrett. Copyright © 2021 by C.A. Barrett.

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  1. WOW! Kind of weird, but a wonderful story of pride and sin, heroism and redemption. Reminds me a little of the legend of St. Tarcisius, who would not let go of the Holy Eucharist he was carrying for ANYTHING, even though he was beaten to death for It.


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