Fire Witch

Cover design by Michelle M. Welch. Artistic elements by Yuriyzhuravov and Sergio_ksv |
Cover design by Michelle M. Welch. Artistic elements by Yuriyzhuravov and Sergio_ksv |

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Allow me, if you will, to set this scene: a play upon the stage, a great sea battle, two ships facing each other in the waves. One is the hero’s ship, and the other is the most notorious of pirates, black with black sails, its death’s-head flag black at its highest mast. The two ships move toward each other, gliding as if on water, and they begin to fire. Great guns bristle from their hulls, erupting with an explosion of sound and rolling back on the recoil, smoke bursting from their mouths. On the black ship there are fires everywhere, tongues of real flame cracking and smoldering. Then the pirate ship begins to fall apart, to crumble into the waves, until it is gone.

The audience is beside themselves – they’ve never seen anything like this. There is no dialogue in this scene, as it would never be heard over the cries of wonder and the outbreaks of applause. The lead actors hardly appear at all, but no one misses the hero and the pirate captain. This is what people have come to see: spectacle, and fantasy, and magic.

This is what you must remember, though: nothing is as it seems. If the audience had it from my vantage point, they would have seen a mess of chaos. People dressed in black, their backs bent, clustered in the hollows of those ships to move them across the stage. People behind the backdrop and in the wings beating drums and shaking sheets of metal to make the noise of thunder and explosions. People lighting miniature flares bought from the navy, on the promise that they’d let off a lot of smoke and sparks but wouldn’t, in fact, burn the building down. People running everywhere to make their entrances and exits and grab a prop or a match or something that made noise. Chaos.

Two pigs wrestling in a pot of glue and feathers, with the messiest one the winner, as my mother used to say.

This is the business of the theatre, then, to make the chaos into spectacle, the mess into fantasy. To change a no-name girl from a salty shanty-town in the most remote part of Surland, even, into a queen, and to make everyone believe it. This was the real magic.

The only magic I’d admit to, anyway. My mother used to say some things about witches, too. “As they won’t need a reason to be after you, if they knew. Look at you, child!” She’d tug at a lock of my hair, as brilliant red as hers. “Rare as this is, like finding diamonds in dung. Good thing a half-blood hasn’t any powers.”

If only that were true. But that’s another scene.

As it was, I didn’t play a queen in the pirate play. I had only one scene, in fact, as the hero’s lady love, bidding him a tearful goodbye before he goes off to face the pirate. Madame Brilliana complained bitterly about the lack of female roles we’d had recently. “All this war in the news,” the veteran actress said before the curtain went up, frowning in the backstage mirrors as she applied garish green paint to her broad face. “Men shooting at each other and men sailing ships around and men making speeches.” Madame brandished a makeup brush toward me. “Here you have Aura Fernshire, the finest actress in Surland’s history, and she gives one speech and spends the rest of the play in the fly loft. In the fly loft, like a two-penny boy hired off the street, playing puppeteer.”

A few people backstage applauded this. Madame Brilliana can read the advertisements in the newspaper and make it sound dramatic.

But in the fly loft I was, playing puppeteer. I’m sure it was the safest place to be, watching the flares go off and the little bursts of fire. There were eight of us, handling the bars that operated the wires that moved the waves below: sheets of blue and gray chiffon on delicate frames. Quite magical, I’d have to say.

Of course, there were water witches who could have moved real waves, but it was best not to mention them. Not to stoke the stove with a firecracker, mother would have said. Although after so many years, I wonder if I’m making up some of the madder things I remember her saying.

The pirate ship started coming apart, broken down into its parts and handed through trap doors in the stage. We had to cluster the waves closer to cover this maneuver, no easy task when most of the puppeteers were boys hired for, as Madame Brilliana had said, a couple of pennies. Our Mr. Kent, manager of the Royal Theatre, operated at a fine profit but did it by cutting corners wherever he could. The core company itself was five actors, three actresses, our stage manager and our playwright. Any others that were needed were hired play by play. It was a feat of magic, indeed, that it came off so well. The audience was certainly convinced, overcome with gasps and cries as they watched the demolition of the pirates, even though this was the second night of the run and they’d surely heard about it from friends who had attended the night before.

The ladder to the catwalk vibrated and Quin climbed into the fly loft, grinning widely in his pirate’s costume. I passed my puppet strings to the boy next to me so I could help Quin get into his harness. “You should see who’s out there,” he whispered in my ear, smearing my cheek with the blue paint he wore on his face. The pirate who had made the news this week went by the name Nat Blue, although I doubt he wore anything more than blue clothing. But the actor who usually played our villains had objected to this final bit of stage machinery, giving the role to our resident comedian and tumbler instead, and if Quin was going to play the part, he’d decided he was going to give it all he had.

I think he liked rubbing blue on people’s faces, too. “Who is it?” I asked. “The king surely isn’t here?”

Quin laughed as I tightened the straps around his chest. “Chasing after some new girl, is he? Never thought I’d see you lovesick.”

I elbowed him as hard as I could without risking knocking him from the catwalk.

“I think I’ve got just the girl for him, too,” Quin went on. “Look for her in the dumb-show. In with the groundlings, back of the pit, dead center.”

That was a joke. It had been scandal enough three years ago when Irvinn the Third publicly announced me as his mistress, a twenty-five-year-old woman of no known family or fortune, perhaps the illegitimate daughter of a penniless landholder from the border regions, at best. A bit of magic itself, that was. I was sure not to repeat my mother’s shanty-town aphorisms where the court gossips could hear them. But it was unlikely that His Majesty would do the same thing twice by casting his royal eye at a girl who couldn’t even pay for a ticket in one of the boxes, and had to sit in a chair on the house floor.

I handed Quin his prop blunderbuss. “A countess in disguise, is she?”

Quin grinned. “No. Looks like your twin. Hair just as red.” Then he jumped from the catwalk and swung out over the audience on his wires, firing red silk squares over the astonished crowd.

My feet felt glued to the catwalk, though I was so dizzy I might have lost my balance and fallen from it. The boy with my puppet strings had to press them into my hand, then tug at my sleeve, before I took hold of them and maneuvered my wave offstage, and I hardly trusted myself to climb down the ladder safely. Rare as diamonds in dung.

I hadn’t seen my mother since I was eight years old. And here, now – a sister?

I was glad that the boys rushed down the ladder as quickly as they did, in their youth and excitement. I could feel myself growing hot, and if anyone had tried to climb down that ladder after me, they would have burned themselves where my hands had touched the metal rungs.

I shook my hands to cool them as I ran backstage to the dressing room. As it was the second night of the run, there would be no rush outside to buy newspapers. I didn’t understand the agreement that Mr. Kent had with the printers to ensure that the juiciest news would break on the stage, and the newspapers would go on sale after the curtain fell, but I’m sure it involved a lot of money, which would explain our manager’s otherwise frugal soul. For the rest of the run, with no newspapers, we had to substitute some other form of entertainment while the crowd exited more slowly. Tonight it was a dumb-show featuring the queen of the mermaids.

I changed into my costume, diaphanous blue and green over a body stocking, which would surely give the courtiers something new to gasp about. It only scorched a little as I pulled it on, and the flow of the over-garment would cover most of that. I tiptoed into my place behind Madame Brilliana, painted green and blue herself and seated upon her plaster throne, ready for my cue to dance out and tempt all the mermen away from her. The curtain went up, the pantomime began, and I had a few moments to peer out into the audience, squinting against the stage lights.

Then I saw the girl Quin had mentioned, and I almost missed my cue.

Enough that she did, indeed, have hair as blazing red as mine, and looked to be eight or nine years younger than me, the right age to have been born just after my mother left. Enough that she watched the stage with an eagerness that was visible even at a distance, lingering while the house emptied, as if she were looking for me. My heart was already in my throat, and then I saw the man seated at her side.

“Gaven,” I breathed.



Let me set the scene for the last time I saw Gaven Carder. Easton: a rather salty town some distance from South City. There was a shanty-town just outside its border, right on the coast, where I won’t admit having grown up. Easton itself had a college where a dotty old professor taught me to read when classes were over for the day, a church frequented by a knot of pious widows, and a playhouse that was not – shall we say – quite up to the level of the Royal Theatre.

I was sixteen and I wanted to act. Of course I did. My mother had been an actress, “And just the finest actress you ever seen,” as my father would tell me. “Up there on that stage, you’d think she’s the queen herself. Or what’s it?”

“Empress, dad.” I remembered the last play mother had been in. I’d been to Easton to see it when I was eight years old. That was just before she left.

“That’s it! The Empress of the Isles. No one seen nothin’ like it!” He would pause in the cleaning of his saber and lean down toward me. “Tell you what, Aura my girl. You want to act, you should march down to that theatre and tell Mr. Manager to stage The Empress of the Isles again, and you bein’ the empress. Ha!” He brandished his sword as if he were on the stage himself, knocking over the stack of books that the professor had lent me and a bag of apples that went rolling across the floor.

I always had half a mind to hide that sword when dad was home on leave, but he’d been made an army officer through no fault of his own, and an officer had to have his sword. He’d have gotten in trouble if he lost it, which he often came close to doing.

At any rate, I did march from the shanty-town into Easton and to the theatre and up to Mr. Manager, and introduced myself as Sylva Fairweather’s daughter. “I see that,” he mused, looking down his long nose at my hair. In fact, he wasn’t very tall, so he had to tilt his head up before he could look down his nose at anything. “You know, I had her on the stage once, what was the play?”

The Empress of the Isles.” I gave him my brightest, most innocent smile. And so I became an actress. It was rather easy. I’d been pretending to be someone else my whole life.

Playing on the Easton stage wasn’t quite as easy. It was an outdoor theatre, surrounded by a rickety fence and only half covered by a roof that mostly shielded the stage from the elements. Because there was no raised seating and everyone stood on the ground, that stage was raked at a treacherous fifteen degrees so the actors could be seen. “People go sliding right off of that,” my friend Dell said, whispering at me in the wings before I made my entrance. “Don’t they?”

“Trying to curse my debut, are you?” I whispered back. She was the only one I’d tell such jokes to. There was a harbor near Easton and we sometimes saw ships coming in, sailors strolling through our shanty-town on the way to or from the taverns, and we’d heard all sorts of stories about witches on Crescent Island who sold charms for good weather or victorious sea battles. If a ship had faced storms or pirates or fever, it was a curse that had been sold to them instead. Something else I pretended never to have heard of.

“You!” the manager interrupted in a hiss that probably could be heard by the audience. “Sylva – no, Ana, Aura. You. Entrance!”

Dell grinned and hurried to finish pulling my costume over my head: a blue dress that I’d found at the bottom of a chest of my mother’s old things. She’d worn it herself on this same stage, eight years before, or at least I seemed to remember that she had. Then Dell gasped and I was certain. As I spun to shake out the skirt and make it lie flat, I saw that the back of the dress was marred with a large hand-shaped burn, clear through to the white of my chemise, edged in black soot. Bad as frogs with teeth.

Quick thinking, my friend Dell. At once she snatched a length of red cloth that hung on a pole nearby and pinned it at my shoulders like a mantle. She was also the sort of girl who had pins in her pocket, needle and thread, handkerchiefs, all those practical things. We got the mantle smoothed over the hole in the dress just before the manager pushed me out onto the stage, moments before I missed my line.

I don’t remember that line, or any of the speeches I gave. I do remember the knight in the play, dressed haphazardly in a garment that had circles drawn on it to suggest chain mail, giving his line:

Our enemy upon the field draws nigh
So let us raise our standard high

And then he stared at me with a frown that certainly wasn’t in the script. The boy playing the standard bearer shuffled out on the treacherous stage with a bare pole in his hands, turning very red. It took me a moment to realize that the standard in question should have been at the end of that pole, but was instead pinned to the back of my dress.

That was when Gaven saved me. I hadn’t even known he was coming to the theatre, he hadn’t told me, and I’d have been more cross about the thought that he wouldn’t come to see me had I not been so worried about remembering my lines. I don’t think he’d been in the audience at all; he must have been watching from the opposite wing, having snuck backstage somehow. But there he was, strolling out from stage left as if he were actually in the play, seizing the standard pole from the boy’s hands and holding it in front of him like one of those old knights you sometimes see in pictures. I couldn’t image where he’d seen such a picture, never having been to the college as I had, and I hadn’t expected him to have a better grasp on rhyme and improvisation than the actor playing the knight, either. But he held the pole and he spoke in a ringing voice I’d never heard from him,

So let me take my lance and hold it high!

Our knight was not amused. He tried to take the pole back, struggling with Gaven for a moment before Gaven released the thing with a shrug. Our knight had an instant to look victorious before the extra weight of the pole, held in front of him like that, did what he wasn’t expecting and pulled him down the steeply raked stage.

His blushing standard-bearer had to lunge and grasp him about the waist to keep him from sliding right off. This he managed, but not before the tip of the so-called lance had lodged itself in the wig of some ostentatious fellow in the audience standing near the stage. People wore wigs at court, not in little towns like Easton, for heaven’s sake. The wig was yanked right off his head, and when the ostentatious fellow threw up his hands and reached back in the attempt to catch it, he lost his footing and fell back on the man behind him, who tripped on the skirt of the woman standing behind. Crowds packed in rather tightly at that little playhouse, and so it went, one person falling onto another, all the way to the back fence, which itself collapsed in a rickety pile of sticks and dust. The dirty street urchins who had a habit of standing on one another’s shoulders to see over the fence, not having the coin to get in, broke out in a thunder of applause.

Dell was laughing so hard she didn’t see me slip out the backstage door. She’d been watching me and Gaven more closely for the last few years, and she wouldn’t have let me go off behind the theatre with him if she’d known.

“You saved the show!” I said breathlessly when I found him.

He was reclining against the sturdier backstage wall, his long legs stretched out on the ground, his hands folded behind his head. His dark hair was tied at the back of his neck but strands of it hung perpetually in his face, and the whole gave him a look of constant carelessness. He spoke in an offhand manner, as if he didn’t care about much, and at the age of sixteen I found this hopelessly alluring. “I suppose I did.”

The show had completely fallen apart after the bit with the lance, but neither of us thought that was worth mentioning. “I didn’t think you’d come to see me!”

Gaven shrugged. “Good thing I did, ain’t it? You should thank me.”

I knelt down next to him. “How can I thank you?”

This wasn’t actually the first time I’d kissed him. We’d done rather a lot of it in my father’s shanty, him gone back to war and Dell off minding some of the other strays in town. It was the first time Dell had caught us at it, though. I had hardly positioned myself near enough to reach his lips, pressing so close that his hands finally came down to slide around my waist, before I felt something tug my hair. I fell backward and the red mantle snapped from my costumed shoulders.

Dell pulled me some distance away before starting in on her lecture. “As your mother left you in my care, and I promised as I’d watch you, not let you get into trouble, babies before you’re twenty!” Dell was five years older than me and considered herself very wise about these things. “And definitely not running with sons of old blind beggars, as never worked a day in their lives! She told me we should leave the shanty-town, did your mother, and now I’m thinking we should!”

She tugged my arm and I had to pick up my heels to follow her. Only a moment, I had, to look back over my shoulder, where Gaven’s careless face was shadowed with just a touch of sorrow, and he’d actually raised his eyes to look straight at me.

Three days later we were gone, playing out a different scene in a different setting entirely. But I never had the chance to say goodbye to Gaven. When I went back to the shanty to gather my things and leave a note for dad in large letters that I hoped he’d be able to read, I stopped by the shack where Gaven usually stayed and found it empty. He was nowhere to be found. That kiss, that uncharacteristic expression of shock and sorrow, were all I had left of him.

©2015 Alison Highland