Water Witch

Cover design by Michelle M. Welch. Artistic elements by Dundanim and Lftan | Dreamstime.com.
Cover design by Michelle M. Welch. Artistic elements by Dundanim and Lftan | Dreamstime.com.

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I wasn’t really expecting him to shoot me.

Yes, yes, I dared him to shoot, but I didn’t think the scurvy rat would actually do it. But none of us do, do we? None of us really thinks we might be shot, and we certainly don’t imagine we’ll die. Even here, in a profession where we could wake any morning not to see the sun set, cut down by an enemy gun or washed overboard in a terrifying gale, we never think that we could actually be killed. But suddenly I was there, falling backward, as if some blunt thing had struck me in the stomach and pushed me. It took me some time to figure out that it wasn’t a beam or a belaying pin or anything blunt at all. He’d shot me. Bloody hell – I couldn’t believe it.

Imagine the great Admiral Nilsson, the hero of our kingdom, getting dressed on the morning of his final battle, pinning all his medals on his jacket though his officers begged him not to, not to make himself a target – do you think he believed there was a chance under the sun that it could really happen? And when that Norland sniper shot him and he fell to the deck, speaking so calmly and bravely of how he had served his nation, I suppose he was really thinking, “Well, bugger all!”

But I should relate the story of how I met him, the man who shot me.


It was more than two years ago, when my father was still alive and I was still sailing on his ship. I was on Crescent Island, the first major piece of land between our contentious continent, shared by Surland and Norland, and the New Kingdom, three weeks’ journey away under full sail and fair weather. It is a strange little island, site of a curious truce between warships from north and south, pirates and privateers, and those merchant vessels brave or battered enough to risk coming into port. There are dockyards dotting the shore, ready to repair leaks or supply new wood and rope at exorbitant prices. There are inns and taverns offering rest and entertainment to weary sailors, and in the common rooms you can find naval officers playing cards with the most notorious pirates, a thrilling event in those establishments where the proprietors don’t require the men to give up their pistols and cutlasses at the door. There are booths where the native women of the island tell fortunes and sell charms that vary in purpose and effectiveness. And there are miles and miles of beaches, broad and pure white and untouched, tucked inside coves and nooks along the shores, almost ignored by captains who have serious business to mind and sailors who have serious drinking to do.

I was standing on the beach in one of those coves, dressed as usual in my boyish clothes: canvas trousers and clean white shirt and neat vest. My father made sure his crew was well dressed, thank you – he was a navy man years ago and he ran his ship navy style, decks cleaned every morning, none of that slovenliness among the crew that you see on merchants and other private vessels. I could see our ship at the edge of my vision, her stern just peeking out where she was docked at the far end of the harbor on the other side of the cove. The Broadsword – my father always had a taste for those dramatic old stories from history, when kings actually did something like take up arms rather than signing papers and letting other people do it for them – a trim little frigate of twenty-two guns, a private man-of-war.

We were privateers, my father and I. No small proportion of the navy thought we were nothing better than pirates, of course, but my father was a king’s man, and at any instant he would show you his letter of marque with the king’s signature on it; he wore it in his vest next to his heart. He did the king’s business and let no one forget it. But in truth, he wouldn’t have needed the king’s signature to go out to sea, even if he had to become a fisherman. He was born on the water and couldn’t imagine any other life.

Neither could I. And what the navy thinks of a woman at sea, I won’t say. Better to dress like a boy, not the least because it’s impossible to climb the rigging in a skirt, but it takes people a second glance to see that that vest fits a bit oddly, doesn’t it, and what on earth does that sailor have under it?

So here I was on the beach at Crescent Island, letting my father and his first mate and his bosun go on about their business of buying provisions, fresh bread and fruit for a change, a new spar for the fore topmast that snapped in a bad storm last week. Tedious work, shopping. Sometimes my father makes me go with him, telling me that I might have to manage things myself one day. But in the big port cities of Surland I always get distracted by the shops selling dresses, bright colorful things hanging in the windows, layers of gauzy silk fringed with lace, pretty stuff I rarely get to wear. And in Portstown on Crescent Island they’ve started enforcing the law, of all things, trying to reform pirates, and a government post has set up to issue pardons to anyone who’ll turn in their treasure and renounce their devilish thievery. As I walked to the shipyard with my father and Stephin and Jimson, we passed a booth laid out with some pirate’s abjured booty: lengths of fine cloth, whole jewels plucked from the earth, nuggets of pure gold. I hung back to stare at these sparkling things, and my father rolled his eyes and sent me away, to my usual haunt in the tiny cove.

I heard the man’s presence before I heard his step or his voice. There is a tide pool in the cove, a depression of land where the water lingers when the tide rushes out, and suddenly the water in it came to life and sang. What could cause that, I wondered, and turned to look at it. Then I saw the man’s shadow at the edge of my vision, and I forgot the song of the water. For years if I remembered it at all, I only thought that it had been a vibration on the pool’s surface echoing the weight of the man’s stride.

“This is a lonely stretch of beach for a young woman to be on.”

My back was to him, remember. I wore my vest long and loose over my waist and my hair braided in a sailor’s queue. He must have been watching me for some time to know I was female. And if he had been watching me for some time… I dropped my hands and knotted them together. My heart was beginning to jump, as in the moments before a sea battle, but I had no guns to command and no orders to give. I was alone on the beach. But what was I thinking? I was at the edge of the water. No one could harm me while I was at the edge of the water. I let out a little laugh. “It’s hardly lonely anymore, with strangers intruding.”

The man laughed in return. That was when I heard what I had missed before: a certain artifice in his voice, too much carefulness, a bit of hollowness. His laugh was measured as if he were timing it. He spoke exactly like an actor. “Strangers!” he exclaimed. “My dear, you are a fortune teller, to read a man’s soul so clearly. For I am the strangest man you will ever meet.”

I turned my head a little farther and he stepped closer into view. He didn’t look like an actor, face splotchy from stage paint and hair cropped close to wear an endless array of wigs. No, this man’s face was burnished by the sun, from long years on the deck of a ship. His clothes were not unlike mine, though a little too rich – lace edging on his cuffs and brocade panels on the front of his vest – and he had not bothered to braid back his dark hair, obviously not expecting to do any work soon. As he stepped even closer I caught sight of his eyes: an astonishing blue, bright as cut sapphires, and I nearly fell speechless. “You’re hardly strange,” I replied hastily, trying not to lose my voice. “I can tell exactly what you are.”

He grinned broadly, perfectly. “Can you?” Then he dropped his voice to a dramatic whisper. “What a coincidence. Because I know exactly what you are, as well.”

What am I? Marra Wend, the daughter of a privateer captain and a native woman of the Island. One of those women who used to tell fortunes and sell charms, who left her family to marry the captain and gave him a child. Crescent Island is only a name found on maps and charts. Its other, older name is Witches’ Island. And magic is passed on the mother’s side.

Every time I came to that isolated cove, the reason I went there whenever I could, was to raise my hands and make the waves in the cove dance. It was the only time I could do any work of magic so blatant. My father told me my whole life that I must not let it be known that I am a witch, because sailors are superstitious folk, and though they’ll pay any price to a witch for a divination or a charm, they would regard one on board their ships as the worst kind of bad luck.

So I understood the man’s threat, as he stood there fixing me with his remarkable eyes. But I raised one hand and rubbed the fingers together lightly, letting the sand at my feet ripple as the dampness in it was drawn by my movement. “Really? Are you going to reveal me, then? Pull me up in front of the crowd on the dock and tell them all what I am and let them throw rotten fruit? You should be careful, stranger. I might curse you.”

From the rise behind us another voice rang out. “Marra!” It was my father. I looked over my shoulder, not yet able to see his head crest the rocks above. I turned back toward the man as he was beginning to draw away.

His eyes – I knew what it was about his eyes that was so captivating. Not only their brilliant blue and their brightness, but within a face still set in an actor’s mask, they were the only things that were clear and true. They reflected now a wistful expression, some unfathomable sorrow, though his mouth still was painted with a smile. “Ah,” he said, his voice fading as he distanced himself. “But it is no good, my dear. For I am already cursed.” Then he stepped behind the rocks that enclosed the tide pool and vanished from sight.



We are called elementals. My mother used that term, according to my father. Some of us can move water, can call it to us and bid it to wash where we would have it. Some of us can move air, and fire. There is a young girl in Portstown who sometimes juggles balls of flame in the street, a hat at her feet to collect coins from astonished onlookers. I have heard that there are witches who can move earth, even, though I have never seen it. I always wondered how that would work, if they could only turn soil on the surface or if they could shift whole masses of land beneath them, raise mountains and sink valleys. A hundred miles east-northeast of Crescent Island is a cone of rock standing up from the water, thick with vegetation on the leeward coast and a fine place to provision or cut trees for emergency spars, and there is an old tale that says this island was pushed up from the water by an earth witch. I remember this tale from my earliest childhood; I think my mother told it to me before she died, though I cannot recall her voice. It’s a child’s bedtime story, so I doubt it’s entirely true. We can only do so much, we who work the elements. It’s a tricky game. The elements are stubborn, and they don’t always play along. When that man came up to me while I was making the waves dance, there was one tongue of water that absolutely refused to move with the others.

But it’s mothers who pass the magic, and of course they pass the magic to their daughters. It stands to reason, doesn’t it? It’s women who come out to the town to tell fortunes and sell pirates dark charms that will let them get on the best side of the wind or trouble their enemies with forty-foot waves. No one’s encountered a man on the streets of town, or even in the closely wooded interior of the island, those few who have ventured beneath the twisted branches and blankets of ferns. Sometimes I wonder if there are men at all on the island, or if the witches have found a way to produce offspring without them. It would save some deal of mess and fuss, I hear.

I heard my father’s voice and hurried up the slope to meet him. His heart pained him when he strained himself, even then, and I was afraid to let him climb down to the shore. Giving a last glance behind me I could see a shadow, the skirt of a jacket, a wave of dark hair on the man’s shoulder, just at the edge of the rock he had hidden himself behind. I smiled at the sight of it, not quite knowing why. Then I looked up at my father with alarm. “You didn’t try to carry anything, did you?”

He shook his head, pausing to catch his breath. His first mate, Stephin, took a step forward to steady him with a hand at his elbow, but my father waved him away. “There’s nothing to carry,” he answered at length. “The shops and the shipyards are all closed.”

“Closed?” I held out a hand to steady myself as I clambered up the rock face. I might be able to work water, but no magic has been able to still the feeling, after a long time on the water, that the surface is shifting beneath you even when you’re on dry land. Stephin gave up on my father and reached down to help me. He nodded an answer and did not elaborate. The strong and silent sort, Stephin is.

Jimson, on the other hand, is a chattering magpie. “Closed,” the bosun said. “Every door, every gate, every one of them, the whole town, like it’s some kind of holiday, everyone out and about, all of them swarming to the west end of the island, like the whole island’s going to list to port with all that weight on the one side of it.”

“Port?” Stephin said, clearing his disused throat. “Why wouldn’t it be starboard? Portstown is the front of the vessel, isn’t it, and Portstown is in the south.”

Jimson let out his breath in a blustering huff. “An island can’t face south!” he cried, turning red and looking at me and my father in frantic appeal. I bit my lip to keep from laughing and my father turned his head to the side. Stephin was the only one who could keep a perfectly straight face when he was humoring Jimson. “Ridiculous!” Jimson went on. “Who ever heard of an island facing south? Islands face north. North is the top of the map, ain’t it? Ain’t it?” he demanded, stepping in front of my face.

The bosun is half a head shorter than me and I trained my eyes on the thinning spot on the top of his head. “North certainly is the top of the map,” I said carefully, only laughing a little at the end.

Jimson snorted. “There, you see? The island’s listing to port. All those people gathering on the west side.”

I tugged at my father’s sleeve, and after pausing for an instant to let the grin ease from his face he turned toward me. “So why are they all gathered on the west side?” I asked him.

He grinned again. “Oh, that’s what we’re going to go see.”

As we made our way back to the road, I looked over my shoulder again. The blue-eyed man and his shadow were hidden still, every trace of him erased by the distance, but that disobedient tendril of water, the one that would not dance with the rest, was splashing against the sand where I had stood. Quickly I reached out a hand and made a fist. Every drop of water hanging invisible in the air tautened as my will was thrown through it, and the wave on the sand seized up, curled backward, and twisted in a dancer’s turn. “Ha!” I shouted at it under my breath, dropping it and letting it fall back on itself. “Got you!”

Crescent Island isn’t very large, and you could walk most of the way from Portstown to the western shore in a day. It’s only when you try to cross the island by some inland route that you lose time, getting lost in the woods and the ferns, turned around until you don’t know which way is north. The witches guard their homes carefully, and no one sees them unless they want to be seen. But the path along the southern shore is fairly straightforward, and on a clear day you can see across the harbor from one end of the crescent to the other. We got a late start, though, it was almost noon already, and to save my father the exertion, we heaved ourselves into one of the many wagons and carriages that were streaming westward, charging a penny or a silver crown to take people to see the sight.

“Straw,” Jimson said, wrinkling his nose as we seated ourselves on a pile of the crackling stuff in the broad bed of a wagon.

“Are you sure it isn’t hay?” murmured Stephin.

The bosun turned pink again, and with a deep breath, started in: “I know hay when I see hay. Hay’s what the goat in the manger eats. She don’t eat straw. Her milk would be no good for tea if she ate straw, and then where would we be? Might as well stir salt water into the tea then, it would be spoilt!”

“Might as well,” the first mate answered blandly. “For all the milk we get from her.”

“Well it’s being between decks that does it!” cried Jimson. “Never seeing the sun, how do you think the poor old goat is to make milk? She won’t give milk when she’s unhappy.”

“We need to bring her above, then?” asked Stephin, all seriousness. “Teach her to climb the rigging, perhaps?”

“And it would be good to have another set of hands above, when it comes on to blow.” Jimson paused for a moment. “Another set of hooves, rather.”

“I can’t take it anymore,” I whispered to my father, who was schooling his face remarkably, and I turned outward and leaned over the side of the wagon and snickered into the wind.

Just as well we weren’t on a naval ship. The bosun is an important officer. He supervises all the work done on the ship, under the command of the officer of the watch: trimming the sails, loading provisions and stowing the hold. He metes out discipline as well, two dozen lashes from his cat-of-nine-tails for those seamen caught disobeying an order or found drunk on their watch. The navy is strong on that sort of thing. On a warm day when the men took their shirts off you could see who came from the navy and who had been sailing with my father for most of his career by the presence or absence of those rows of scars across their backs. A serious post, is the bosun’s. Not to be made fun of. There were a few naval officers in the wagon with us, sweating in their blue woolen jackets and neatly tied neckcloths, and they looked at us with stern disapproval as Jimson ranted on like a fool. But he’s no fool, and we know it. He can track every barrel, every sack of nails and length of rope on board in his head, and he can remember numbers from every voyage we make for months at a time. It’s so amazing that we’d call it magic if we didn’t know better.

Be sure, there was one time that Jimson turned to me after Stephin had talked him into a particularly clever knot, and after glancing over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t noticed, our dim-witted bosun gave me a sly wink.

So with laughter and fine weather we made our way to the western coast, and there we saw what the whole island had come to see. It wasn’t easy, making our way through the crowd. My father’s reputation gained us access to a little rise above the shore, a young Norland captain he’d given a sound thumping to last year stepped aside meekly to let us climb up, and at length we looked down over the sand and the blue seas.

“Eighty-five damned pirates,” Jimson murmured, totaling the numbers at a glance. “Two hundred ordinary seamen, forty-eight officers, thirty lobsters or so, twenty privateersmen, sixty-odd merchantsmen. Twenty-three donkeys. What’s so bleeding remarkable about all that?”

“Not that,” Stephin breathed. He raised his hand and pointed at a distance in the endless blue. “That.”

It was some ten miles off shore, dead in the sea lane that Norland would likely use to sail on for the New Kingdom. If you didn’t look for it you might not have seen it, only a ripple in the vast sea. But that ripple held a whirlpool a mile or more wide and who knew how deep.

“Isn’t that remarkable?” my father was musing, his face bright with wonder like a child. Some sailors go to sea because they need the work, some are rounded up by press gangs when they’re young and stay at sea because they know no other profession, but some go to sea because they have salt water in their veins. My father was one of these. He could tell you which way the wind was blowing by the scent of the air, what kind of weather was coming by the feel of the waves beneath him, and he could guess the speed his ship sailed at just by looking at the water. He would go on deck in a fierce gale only to look at the water sweeping around him, clinging to the lifelines not to be blown overboard while everyone else huddled below decks for shelter, simply in amazement. He stood every dawn watch to see the sun light the surface of the ocean in a new color. And he was mad about whirlpools, fascinated with the swirling eddies of water. If he could have sailed into one without risking his ship, he would have.

“Look – look at this,” he said eagerly. “They’ve been sending old boats in, watching them swirl down.”

I looked below, where two women in tattered skirts were pushing a battered rowboat into the water. It would be wonder if the thing stayed afloat long enough to reach the whirlpool, I thought. Then one of the women knelt on the sand and dipped her hand in the water. The boat jerked suddenly, like a puppet on a string, and though the wind blew northerly the little vessel stood out due west, headed obediently toward the whirlpool. “She’s a witch,” I said.

“Hmm? Oh, yes, I suppose so. Look, now! It’s at the edge of the spiral. Watch it get pulled in. There it is, twisting in toward the center, faster now. Watch it carefully – it will be gone soon.”

It was gone, unbelievably soon. The little boat surged through the ten miles of water, faster than if it had been driven by a violent wind, and was caught up in the vortex like the victim of some fearsome sea-creature. We watched it spin in ever-tighter circles and held our breath. It took less than ten minutes to fall into the center. A storm or the barrage of an enemy broadside could destroy a ship in ten minutes, knock down masts and strand her in the water, but still it’s a sobering thing to see a vessel sink, however small. Wizened old sailors standing on that western shore gasped as the little boat went down, and there was silence in the moments after it disappeared.

“Like someone stirred up the sea with an enormous spoon,” Jimson uttered into the quiet.

The murmuring broke out generally then, Norland sailors despairing of their old route, Surland privateers strategizing about where to place their ships to capture the new traffic that would be forced to join them on the east side of Crescent Island. “A good thing the tavern-keepers are all here,” my father mused. “If the men were in the taverns drinking, the fights would have broken out already.”

“Over who bought the charm,” I said.

My father looked at me, raising an eyebrow.

“It was a witch who made it. The whole whirlpool. It has to be. Someone bought it and had it planted there to sink Norland ships.”

“No, no,” my father muttered, reaching for my elbow as he started down the slope where we had stood. “Witches sell charms that promise good weather, good-luck charms, that sort of thing. Curses to throw at an enemy to confuse his sense of direction, balls of smoke to blind men who are shooting at you. Spells to improve a man’s prowess with his sword, or with…” He looked at me sideways. “Well, never mind the ‘or with.’ Once I saw a spell that sent up a large rain cloud. It poured out quite a bit of water, really rather impressive. Slowed that ship down for almost an hour, having to pump the water out. But that’s the biggest thing I’ve ever seen done with a charm.” He waved at the sea with his hand. “This is far beyond any of those things.”

“Of course it is,” I said. “Those charms that the witches sell, those are just parlor tricks. This is real magic.”

We were on flat land now, but rather than letting go of my arm, my father tightened his grip and drove me out of the crowd, toward a wagon that had not yet started to fill with return passengers. He dropped his voice and said, “You know nothing about real magic.”

How old was I then, twenty? Young enough not to watch my mouth. “I do,” I protested stubbornly. “I would, if you’d let me find my mother’s family.”

He stopped then and faced me, nose to nose, glaring into my eyes. “Your mother’s family has nothing for you. They had nothing for her – that’s why she left them. A lot of bitter, greedy, avaricious souls. She wanted nothing to do with them.”

“Because they sold charms.”

My father knotted his mouth. Then he let go of my arm and stomped away toward the wagon, climbing into it with difficulty, gasping for breath. My angry frown melted into a sad gape and I relented, running to help him.

“You never bought any charms,” I murmured to him when we were seated.

He glanced around, making sure that no one but Stephin, who had followed closely, was in range to hear, and he patted the back of my hand with a tenderness that made my eyes dampen. “I never needed to,” he said. “You were always my good-luck charm.”

Then he leaned forward toward the driver and said, “I’ll give you an extra crown if you take us back right away.” The driver snatched the coin and polished it on his sleeve, biting it on the edge and peering at it closely, and my father turned to shout at Jimson, who had fallen behind. “We must be back to town by sunset!” Then he looked at me, lifting his eyebrows apologetically. “My dear, we have been invited to dinner with the governor tonight.”

© 2015 Alison Highland