Fire and Shadow

Fire and Shadow

by Imogen Howson

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Overview

On Fern's 18th birthday, she discovers she's a fire-starter. To learn to control it, Fern travels to a place where other young people have gathered to learn how to manage their gifts. And that's where she meets Nik, the enigmatic magician who seems to understand her and her gift better than she does herself. But can Nik be trusted? Or is he hiding dangerous secrets of his own?

From the award-winning author of "Linked" and "Unravel" comes this enchanting collection of stories and novellas, spanning centuries and cultures, from the underworld of the ancient Greece to the dystopian future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781940076249
Publisher: Dragonwell Publishing
Publication date: 04/30/2016
Pages: 252
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.57(d)
Age Range: 14 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Every evening, when the mist began to rise, mothers came out to call their children home. When it started, years ago, sometimes a child had lingered, unwilling to abandon a game--"Just let me finish this!"--and a ripple of panic had spread from woman to woman. The mother nearest the child yanked it up by its arm, sent it scooting homeward. "You do as your mother says!" And to her own children, "Don't you ever make me wait when I've called you in, do you understand?"

Standing by the hencoop near the trees, calling the hens to come for their evening grain, Fern felt her skin begin to prickle. It was only dusk, not properly night yet, but under the trees darkness had begun already to gather. Not enough, not yet, but she still found herself looking round, checking, watching in case something started to move.

Every summer day of her childhood she had played out until lamp-lighting time. Not in the forest, of course, but in the village and around the lake, in and out of her friends' houses until the first stars showed. Even then, if she had been around the far side of the lake and was late getting home, her mother might have been irritated, but never frightened.

But that had been before the Shadows came.

Thank goodness. The last hen had come up inside the coop, pecking greedily at the grain. She latched the door and pulled the bolts across, then lit the lantern and hung it on its hook so that its light fell over and around the coop. She picked up the grain pail and walked to the big farmhouse where the windows already glowed, splashing light out onto the path. She wouldn't let herself run--that was the way to allow the panic in--but hersteps quickened until she reached the door.

The kitchen was full of light and people. Fern stepped inside, the hairs on the back of her neck smoothing back down. Light everywhere, every gas mantle turned up high. The doors of the big oak linen press by the wall stood open: the only shadows that could lurk in there were the ones in corners and folds of fabric, too small for danger. Even the coalscuttle, which was scarcely half Fern's height, had been pulled away from the wall so that it stood a handspan away from the growing dark outside.

Siege preparations, and none too many.

Fern's older sister, Jewel, thin and grey-eyed, looked up from the stove, spoon in hand and hair--dark brown, like Fern's--falling in squiggles around her face.

"Fern, would you just check on the children? They're upstairs, but I've not heard a noise for ten minutes."

Fern stepped out of her clogs and kicked them into place by the door. Jewel couldn't help it--these last seven years every parent had learned to live their lives on edge--but this constant checking, even in broad daylight or when the children were safe indoors...

"I know," said Jewel, her gaze on Fern's face. "Please, just humour me, all right? When you have children, believe me, you'll understand."

Upstairs, Fern's two nieces and nephew were sitting on the floor in her brother Tam's brightly lit bedroom, playing with marbles. They didn't even look up to see her as she stood in the doorway.

"Supper soon," she said. They continued to ignore her, so she stuck out her tongue at the backs of their oblivious heads, turned to go--and froze.

A few years ago, Tam had turned an alcove in the wall into a wardrobe, with a clothes rail and a pair of doors. Usually, once it got dark, the doors were latched back, left standing open. But right now, they were shut.

"Get away from the wardrobe!"

All three of them jumped. Marbles went rolling everywhere as they ran to her, thudding into her outstretched arms. Carli began to sob.

"Move. Move. Out into the hall. Don't cry, Carli, you're safe now."

The room was full of light, a barrier and a safeguard. Even if something had got into the wardrobe, through the wall from the dark outside, it was all right, it couldn't hurt them--the light blocked it from getting any farther.

Fern checked that her own shadow fell away from the wardrobe, leaned forward and jerked the door open.

The light raced in. Thin folds of shadow hid between clothes, patches of it lay under shoes and hats. But nothing else.

Fern sank onto Tam's bed, only now aware of how hard her heart was pounding.

"Fern?"

Tam stood in the doorway. Beside him, his wife, Sofia, knelt, the children clinging to her.

"It's all right," said Fern. "They'd pushed the wardrobe door shut, that's all."

Sofia went white. "That's all? How often have we told you? At night the doors stay open." She stood up, heaving Carli onto her hip, and strode across the room to smack a hand against the wall by the wardrobe. "Look. Look. It's dark outside. The Shadows can move from darkness to darkness. If you leave a patch of darkness in here then the Shadows can get inside the house."

The children stared up at her, speechless. Tyr's lip quivered, but eight-year-old Meg's face had set, like someone who's been hit when she didn't expect it.

"Sofia," said Tam.

"They have to know. They have to remember. It only takes one time and that's it, that's it." She stopped, shaking.

Tam picked Tyr up, put an arm around Meg's stiff little shoulders. "She is right, children. But you'll remember now, won't you?"

Meg choked suddenly and began to sob, her shoulders shaking, her face hidden against Tam's shirt. Tam looked across Tyr's head at his wife. "Let's get them downstairs, all right?"

Sofia's arms tightened around Carli. "They have to be told, Tam."

"I know. I'm not disagreeing with you. But let's take them downstairs now."

* * * *

By dinnertime, Tyr and Carli were playing again, downstairs in the kitchen in the bright safe light. But Meg still hovered around her mother's skirts. The look on her face struck at Fern. She was too young for this, too young to have to remember all the time that any patch of shadow could hold danger. But the alternative--to not enforce the rules, to risk the danger--no, they couldn't even consider it.

Just before dinner Jewel beckoned Meg into a corner, whispering to her as she took her apron off. Fern saw Meg reply, nod her head, and then a small, slow smile appear on her face. She'd be all right, bless her. And Sofia was right: the children did have to remember what was safe and what wasn't.

Without saying anything, Tam opened a rare bottle of wine, and the mood at the table, a little tense to start with, slowly eased into relaxation. When they'd finished eating Fern stood up, about to start collecting plates, but Jewel stopped her with a hand on her arm.

"Fern, wait a minute."

The children were marching round the table to Fern's place carrying a covered tray between them.

Sofia reached over their shoulders and whisked the cloth off the tray. "Happy Birthday, Fern!"

A perfectly iced cake, smooth and white as snow, decorated with eighteen candles.

Tears came to Fern's eyes. Unbelievably, she'd forgotten. These last few years had been so full of chores, of fear and grief.

"I can't believe you managed to remember. I'd forgotten it completely--"

"Jewel remembered," said Tam. "Here, let me light the candles."

He did so, against a clamour of "How many candles is that? How many, Daddy? How old are you, Aunt Fern?"

The light of the room almost drowned out the soft fuzz of the candle flames, but all the same their heat touched Fern's face as she bent towards them. She drew in her breath, and then blew, intent on extinguishing all the candles at once.

Heat blazed into her eyes. The flames shot up with a crack of expanding air. The smell of smoke filled her nose. A wall of fire rose in front of her, blocking out the room, impossibly hot--

It died, shrinking and disappearing as if it had been nothing but a mirage, leaving her sitting frozen, hands gripping the tablecloth, still leaning forward as if poised to blow.

A scorch mark blackened the tablecloth, right across, side to side. There was a horrible smell of burnt linen. But the cake was as perfect as before, and on top of it all eighteen of the candles still burned.

"What was that?" said Tam.

"No one's burned?" said Jewel, her voice unsteady. The children shook their heads, still staring at the cake.

Fern drew in a careful breath, and found herself shaking. "It was this far from me," she said. "It should have burned me--"

It was Sofia who said, finally, what everyone was thinking. "Not if you're a fire-starter. Fire-starters don't burn themselves."

The words hung in the room with the slowly clearing smoke.

"Here," said Jewel, "let me take the cloth away. That smell..."

The flames had reached through the cloth and onto the table, leaving an ugly black scar across the varnished wood.

Fern stared at it, her hands tight in her lap, her lips bitten together. She was afraid to move, afraid to breathe in case she did it again.

Jewel came back to the table and put her hand on Fern's shoulder.

"It's all right," she said. "We can sand it down. And everyone knows the gifts start out uncontrollable--"

Tam looked up at her. "Wait," he said. "The gifts? They begin at puberty. Fern is eighteen."

Jewel shrugged a shoulder. "I know. But she was twelve when Mother died. She stopped growing for a year then, remember? And you didn't know, but ... other signs of womanhood, they were delayed too."

"I am here," said Fern, flushing, forgetting for a moment to be scared.

"I am married now," said Tam, mocking her slightly. "Women are no longer a complete mystery to me."

"Or so he likes to think," murmured Sofia, and laughter ran around the table, followed by a clamour from Meg: "What's funny? Why are you laughing?"

Sofia hushed her before turning back to Tam. "And anyway," she said, "What else can it be?"

"There are plenty of other gifts--"

"Yes, but don't they all start at puberty? The Sight, controlling the lightning, shape-shifting?"

"All right," he said. "I'll accept it. The real question, though, is what do we do now?"

* * * *

The first dawn light seeped into the sky. Fern, lying sleepless, let her breath out in a sigh and got out of bed to turn out the lights. The room filled with soft dimness, gentle after the glare of the protective, necessary, exhausting lights.

Normally, this was the time when, released from the tension of expecting danger, she could let herself dissolve back into sleep. Not today, though.

In this village, there hadn't been a fire-starter for fifty years. And in other villages they were no more common.

The fair, when it came, sometimes brought performers who mimicked the gift, hiding paraffin-soaked rags in sleeves and boots, seemingly able to walk in, touch, even breathe flames. But everyone knew it was nothing but a clever imitation.

The real fire-starters, they were a people apart. A people touched by magic.

She couldn't stay here. Already, last night, Jewel had spoken of the training house--the mansion a day's journey through the forest where young magicians and seers went to learn how to use their gifts. She'd never heard of them taking fire-starters, but where else could she go? Even lying here she was a danger.

Sometimes, when a house fire had been put out, she'd heard of timbers left smouldering, an invisible danger, prepared to flare once more into furious crackling flames. That's what she was like. Not dangerous this minute, maybe not dangerous tomorrow. But now, all the time, wherever she went, danger would come with her. Here, in her family's house, where her brother and sister and children all lay sleeping in their beds...

She got up and went outside.

The dawn always came as a relief. The damp, cool light sliding over the hills, soaking into the air, dissolving the darkness. Past the garden and over the lane, darkness still waited under the forest trees. Those shadows wouldn't start to thin until the sun rose. But here, in the orchard, the only shadows were too shallow to hold danger.

The grass brushed wet against her bare ankles. Rain had come in the night and now water lay in puddles on the doorstep and showered amongst the falling blossom onto the grass.

She didn't smell smoke as she walked across the lawn to the hencoop. She didn't notice the sizzle of water evaporating from around her feet.

She unlatched the door of the hencoop and watched the hens strut out onto the grass to peck enthusiastically at the slugs and worms the rain had drawn out of hiding. It was not until she looked back towards the house that she saw her footprints, dry patches on the wet lawn, the grass within them shrivelled and scorched as if touched by a hot iron.

Jewel stood in the doorway. She, too, was looking at the footprints. Her eyes lifted to meet Fern's.

Fern left the hencoop and walked back towards her sister. This time her feet cringed from the grass, her toes curling up as if to try to minimise contact.

"It's stopped," said Jewel as she reached her.

Fern let out a breath. "If that had happened in the house..."

The picture rose into her mind, blotting out the damp green garden. In the house, the fire would have sunk into the wooden floorboards, sent sparks eating into the timber, hidden behind the inflammable plaster of the walls. In the sleeping house, with the children curled up, unaware...

"I know," said Jewel. "I couldn't sleep last night. But Fern, it's not your fault."

"I'm going to have to go, aren't I?"

"Oh love--" Jewel's arms came around her. But Fern felt the split-second of hesitation, and knew. Even her sister, her sister who'd brought her up after their mother died, was afraid to touch her. Afraid that the uncontrolled gift would wake under Fern's skin, without her volition, and break through in flames.

She moved away. "It's all right," she said. "I'll go away, learn to control it, and then I'll come back. Tam will take me, won't he? If we set off this morning we can be at the house by dark."

* * * *

Fern had little to pack. Her clothes, a few toilet articles, and two precious books that had belonged to her mother. She'd meant to leave her shoes behind, but Jewel came into her room and picked them up.

"I know we all hope you'll be back before winter," she said. "But what do we know about a gift like fire-starting? You might need to be at the house for a year. And I know they'll take you in, but we can't expect them to clothe you as well."

Fern crammed the heavy shoes down into her backpack, next to her folded dresses and aprons. She'd volunteered to leave, feeling herself to be brave, self-sacrificing, but somehow she hadn't thought she'd be gone longer than the summer. For pride's sake, she couldn't back out now. Even if she wanted to, what good would it do? The training house was the only place for her until she learned to control this unwelcome new ability.

The family gathered in the early morning sunlight to see her and Tam off. The children looked awed--by the momentousness of the occasion, or by this strange new aspect to their aunt? Only Carli came to hug her goodbye; the others hung back, unsure.

Their way lay through the forest to the east. Once past the old swampland and the lake, the track would dwindle--narrow and little-used. They shouldn't need to leave it, go into the depths of the trees where the shadows were thick enough to hold danger. But even on the track, there would be places where branches would overhang it, muting the sunlight to the half-light in which the Shadows could survive.

Sofia looked pale and tense, with heavy smudges under her eyes. She clung to Tam as he kissed her goodbye.

"I'm sorry," said Fern, guilt making it hard to look her sister-in-law in the face.

Sofia put a hand out. "No. You can't go through there alone, and who but your brother should take you? Just--look after each other." She stopped, her teeth coming down hard on her bottom lip.

"Let's go," was all that Tam said, but tension had tightened his jaw and the words came out sounding harsh.

Maybe I should have just gone by myself, without telling them, so he wouldn't feel he had to come with me. How hard can it be to follow a track, after all? But oh, I couldn't, I couldn't go through that forest by myself. Not that part of the forest, not near the swamplands.

Last hugs, and whenever anyone touched her, again Fern felt that edge of not-quite-hidden reluctance, of fear.

"If you're there longer than a few months someone will visit," Jewel said. "Try to send us a letter if anyone comes through that way."

"You too," said Fern, suddenly afraid her voice would disgrace her.

"Of course we will. Take care, Fernlet."

The old baby name made tears come into Fern's eyes, but she managed to hold them back until she and Tam had entered the forest, when she could put an edge of her shawl discreetly up to her face and wipe them away.

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