A/N: Certain aspects of certain religions are portrayed here in a manner with which I may not agree. I am not bad-mouthing anyone's religion, nor are any of the opinions here necessarily my own. They are all merely plot devices, so please, no flames.

Chapter 1: Let The Flames Begin

It was cold and raining and the streets were choked with mud the night Meggie Folchart stumbled half-dead into Joseph's tent. Joseph had been reviewing the accounts for the month, trying to budget enough money to feed everyone in the carnival while still having enough left over for gas and supplies. The new guy helped, his incredible fire-juggling act bringing in the crowds, but money was still tight. He heard a girl gasping, and looked up from his work.

A pretty blonde of no more than sixteen was leaning against the door frame of his tent. Her clothes were ripped and wet, her hair tangled and dirty, and her feet were bleeding and bare. Joseph stood quickly, his papers scattering across the floor. "Dear God!" He rushed over to her, catching the girl as she collapsed. "What happened to you, child?" he asked, his Irish accent lilting.

Tears streaked the dirt covering the girl's face. She looked up at him through cornflower-blue eyes. "Hide me," she said. "Please don't let them... please."

"Hide you from what, child? From who?"

"My father. Don't let him find me!"

*************

It had been a stroke of luck, finding the carnival. When Meggie ran from her father's house, she'd had no idea where she was going, no destination in mind. All she knew was that she had to get away, as fast as her bare feet could go.

The carnival had been there, rising up in brightly colored plumes, in an abandoned field off the highway. She'd seen the banners and the lights, and she'd began to run, as if the place was calling her name. Maybe there would be more people like her there.

Maybe they would save her.

Joseph had asked her no more questions than those first two. He'd fed Meggie, let her take a bath, called an older woman to tend to her bruised, bloody feet, then had set her down in front of a fire and said, "So, child... what is it you can do?"

She knew instantly that this was the place for her, that he was not talking about cooking or needlepoint. He meant what could she do that no one else could, what could she do that was different... special. "I can read people's futures," she said. "By touching them."

"A useful talent." His grey eyes narrowed as he studied her. After a few moments he continued, "You'll need a name."

"Meggie."

"Meggie what?"

Meggie hesitated. She knew her father would send the police after her; they were all like him, everyone in the county. So Folchart was out of the question. She cast about for a name, knowing that the longer it took, the more suspicious she would seem. Finally, she spouted the first thing that came to mind. "Silvertongue! Meggie Silvertongue." The name wasn't known to her, but it had a familiar feeling, and she thought maybe she'd read it in a book once. Probably one of the contraband tomes she bought from the old man at Fenoglio's Bookshop.

Joseph smiled, his sharp teeth glinting in the firelight. Strangely, it didn't scare her. It made her feel... if not safe, then pacified at least for the moment. Like when the pain in an infected tooth subsides. You know it will be back, because that is the way of things, but the few moments where it lets you rest are somehow more sweet and glorious because of the pain you have known. Meggie had never felt anything quite like what she felt then, sitting in the firelight with a wolfish Irishman. Something fluttered in her chest, a nervous butterfly, and she thought maybe, maybe, this thing was hope.

"Is this the life you want, Meggie?" he asked her. "We never stay in one place for more than a week. The tents and trailers leak. Half of us are liars; the other half are thieves. We are gypsies and nomads, and there will never be a place to call home. Did this life call you, Meggie?"

Meggie took a deep breath. Her body shook, but her voice was steady as she replied, "Mr. Joseph, nothing, and I mean nothing, can be as bad as what I came from."

"Oh, it can, child," he said quietly, his eyes on the fire. "It can. All we can hope is that you won't find that badness here."

Meggie squared her shoulders. Her mind was set. "Then I'd like to stay."

*************

"We only have one more space available," Joseph said, leading Meggie through the carnival. "It's with the new guy, a fire-juggler. He showed up about seven months ago. Name of Dustfinger."

"Just... Dustfinger?" Meggie clutched her borrowed coat closer to her, dodging the puddles of thick mud, trying to keep up with Joseph's long strides.

"Aye. One name, no story. Even more mysterious than you, lass." He turned back and gave her smiled. Meggie tried to smile back, but fatigue was setting in. Joseph stopped at on old camper, it's white paint yellowed with age. He rapped softly on the door.

Meggie heard some grumbling from inside. The door opened to reveal a shirtless man, slim and pale, with shaggy ginger waves and scars on his face. "What is it, Joseph?" The man had an accent. It sounded almost English, but there was something off about it.

"We've a new recruit," Joseph said. "Meggie Silvertongue."

"And?" Meggie got the impression that this Dustfinger was a bit of a grouch.

"And you've the last bed in the carnival."

Dustfinger sighed. He cast sharp, dark blue eyes at Meggie, who flinched under his intense gaze. "Bit young, isn't she?"

"Bit of an odd name, Dustfinger, isn't it?" Joseph's voice was pointed, amused.

Dustfinger's eyes held Meggie's, and she felt as if he were sizing her up, and finding her sorely lacking. "Can you cook?" he asked after a moment. "Clean? Stay out of trouble?"

Meggie nodded, her voice failing her under the weight of those abyssal eyes.

"Allergic to cats?"

Meggie shook her head. "You... have a cat?" Her voice shook, the cold and the events of the night catching up to her.

Dustfinger smiled, and his sharp teeth glinted in the moonlight. "Not exactly." A thin streak of brown fur darted up his side, settling on his shoulder. It was like a ferret, but not quite, and Meggie could swear she saw tiny little horns atop it's sleek head. "His name's Gwin."

"A ferret?" Meggie asked.

Gwin hissed at her and darted back inside. Meggie took a step back in fear, but Dustfinger just laughed. His laugh was odd, not friendly, but not quite mean, either. As if he couldn't choose which side he was on. "He's a marten... of sorts." Dustfinger sobered quickly, looking back over at Joseph. "You're sure?"

Joseph nodded once, hands clasped in front of him. He might have been greeting a count, he seemed so noble.

Dustfinger sighed. Taking a step back, he opened the door fully. "Well, come in, then."