Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

An Invitation to a Burning

Merrinvale was a town that needed witches. Most places do—witches, after all, are the ones who make sure the small and large magics work. Things like the rising of bread and the turning of the seasons and safe passage through birth and death, all the work of witches. Some places accept this, and so they welcome their witches the same as they welcome any others and life moves in harmony.

Merrinvale was not one such place.

Merrinvale burned its witches, when it found them.

Most people, if asked, would swear that a witch burning hadn’t happened in years, if it ever had at all; that it was only a story told to frighten people into proper behavior. But when the fog came in, evening thick, it smelled of burning wood and worse things besides. The Merrinvale hills echoed with screams. And they called the fog the Witches’ Breath.

The fact that Merrinvale did not want its witches, much less accept them, did nothing to change the need of the place for them. And there were, as there always are, those who made sure the necessary things were done. But magic, when ignored, when forbidden, twists upon itself and becomes strange. Witches, when forbidden, seek this strangeness, and wrap themselves in its transformations.

• • • •

“They burn witches, you know.” Ronald spat at the ground near where Sage sat.

“So I’ve heard,” she said, not looking up from the rabbit she was untangling from a poorly cast trap of knotted twine. Her hands did not shake as she did so, and her face didn’t tense in fear, and Sage was proud of both things. Ronald was large, and Ronald was always angry, and Sage was not the first woman he had taken against. At least one of the others, Lilah, quiet and lovely, had disappeared, never to be seen again. “It’s a good thing I’m not one, then.”

“You could be,” Ronald said. “And if you did burn, that’s what everyone would think. Just another witch, gone and good riddance.”

Sage lifted her hands from the ground, and watched as the rabbit, now free, hopped away and out of sight. She curved her fingers into claws. “And if I were a witch, and here you were alone with me, with no matches in sight, what do you think would happen then?”

Ronald spat again, his eyes pinched and mean. But he said nothing else and he stepped back, away from the path where Sage walked.

She kept her back straight and her head up, but the taste of fear, bile and slime, coated her mouth.

• • • •

Sage found the note on her front porch. Black letters on a thick white card—one she nearly didn’t see, as a pile of maple leaves, rust-edged red, had heaped itself against her door overnight. But the corner of the paper showed through, and she set the information written on it to memory.

It was an invitation to a burning.

• • • •

Sage arrived at the indicated address at precisely the correct time. She couldn’t remember ever seeing the house before, which would not have been strange had she not lived in Merrinvale her entire life. Even now, the place looked abandoned, the windows all dark. Her hand went to her pocket, to remind herself that she had brought what was required.

The door whispered open. Sage stepped inside.

The cool violet air of the evening followed her into the house. Inside, the house no longer looked decrepit and empty. Soft candles lit floors of elegantly worn wood. The air smelled of the warm sweetness of beeswax and the sharp green of herbs. And something else, underneath. Something that flared her nostrils and raced her heart.

Smoke.

Nothing stopped her, and so Sage walked farther in.

At the first branch of the hall, a woman draped in veils sat on a stormcloud-grey velvet chair. She held her hands out, gloved palms up, and Sage set hers on top of them. The acrid scent of eucalyptus sliced through the warmth of the air, and Sage gasped, yanking her hands up and away.

The woman in the chair did not speak or move. Sage squared her shoulders, and set her hands upon the woman’s again. The hands beneath hers were cold, the deep cold of iron in winter, and her joints ached from the contact. The ache passed into burning. The woman tightened her hands around Sage’s and pulled her down, so close her veils whispered against Sage’s skin.

“Remember what it is the fire burns. Remember why you’ve come. Remember what it is to have power.”

Her voice was familiar. Not so much that Sage could put a name to it, but enough to know they had said their hellos in passing on the sidewalk, or while picking groceries. It could have been a shock, but it was instead a comfort: here was another, like her, quiet and unseen and powerful all the same.

The other woman let go of Sage’s hands, and raised a gloved finger to her lips, silencing any questions. Sage waited a moment, but the woman was so still it was as if she stood next to a statue. Sage continued on.

The house twisted and turned on itself, a labyrinth lined with bookshelves. Sage walked through narrow hallways, warm golden wood sighing under her feet. Through rooms with furniture shrouded in dust cloths, past the sob of an unseen violin. The veiled woman’s words beat along with her pulse: Remember, remember, remember.

As she walked, she saw no one. She heard nothing. It was as if she were the only soul in the house.

Then Sage turned a corner, and the hall opened up before her. Kept opening, really—it looked like a ballroom, where the back wall had been removed to let the night and the forest in.

And she was no longer alone.

In the ballroom were women Sage had seen her whole life, those she had waved to and passed by and traded bowls of soup and baskets of cookies with. Women who taught children and ran businesses and made art. They looked different than they did in their everyday lives. Both wilder and more natural, somehow. Flowers bloomed in their hair, and vines twined their arms. A belt of bones chained a waist. As strange as they would have appeared on the streets of Merrinvale, here they looked like they belonged.

Shadows thickened like piled velvet in the room’s corners. A spiraling pattern had been drawn in salt on the floor, incomplete sections open like the entrance to a labyrinth. Slowly, the other women in the room made their way toward the center. In singles and in groups, they barricaded themselves inside the boundary of the salt. They sat delicately, skirts pooling about them like puddles. They slumped to the ground as if they were wilting flowers. They tucked their legs to the side, leaned shoulder to shoulder, held hands. Connected.

Sage felt something inside herself pull as they did, a thread that wound her into their pattern, and so she sat, too.

Flames danced, salamander red, on the edges of her peripheral vision, and the smell of the fire grew stronger. But here, in this room, there was no terror in the scent, in the heat and crackle of the flames.

The air snapped, electric, then settled again. The salt patterns complete, creating a barrier between the women gathered and the world without.

The firelight flickered, shuddered, blinked, and when it settled, a woman with antlers spiking from her head stood in the center of the room. The antlers did not look like a hat—they looked like they had grown, curling up from her skull.

She was shrouded all in tattered tea-colored lace, from her antlers to her feet. Even her face was obscured. A shiver fluttered at the base of Sage’s spine, and traveled along the branches of her nerves. The hair on her arms stood up.

“You have come here,” the antlered woman said, “to burn your past. To scorch from yourself that which you would leave in the ashes. To cast off your old skins and make yourself new. To claim your power, if you are able.

“Bring what you would burn.”

The same words that had been written on the card inviting her here. Sage reached into her pocket. She had hesitated while making it, this small doll that was a copy of herself. She had thought that it might be easier to burn a doll that looked like Ronald, and watch all his hate rise up in smoke. Or an image of Merrinvale, to burn it before it could burn her. And so she took those impulses, the things she disliked in her own self, her fear and panic, and she sewed them into the doll, that the fire would not destroy her, but would clarify her instead.

Salt in the air surrounded the women in the circle like weeping, sticky on skin. The deer woman strode among them, regal. She stopped and brushed a hand over a head, bent to offer a word, a nod. To examine the offerings of those who had come to be witches. She paused before Sage, and the air smelled of the forest, secret and wild. In the woman’s eyes behind her veils, Sage saw only reflected flames. The woman bent her head, an acknowledgement of Sage’s offering, a blessing upon it.

With each interaction, color crept up the hem of her dress, shadows soaking into the fabric, darkening it. Magic shimmered like heat in the air around her. Sage felt that magic, too. Felt it shake the air and quicken her blood. She felt part of herself reach toward it.

The fire was brighter, the air sticky hot. The deer woman stood in their center, her dress red now, red darker than black, and wet, as if it bled.

“And now, the fire.”

Not every woman there was a new witch. Some had already claimed their power, and were there simply in support and community. The new among them brought their offerings to the fire, a private magic between the witch and her gift. Sage felt the flames like a warmth in her core as she tossed in her doll, felt them spark through her body. She felt an unraveling in herself, a calmness, as that which she had given up burned away. Margaretha, who ran the bakery in the center of downtown, held her hands out to Sage: “Welcome.”

When they had finished, when the fire had chosen the new witches and they had accepted its gift, the antlered woman brought a bowl into the center of the circle, carrying it like a blessing. Thick and heavy-looking, a pattern carved into tarnished bronze, full of wine, darker than the night. “Now,” she said, “we drink.”

What they drank didn’t taste like wine. Cold and deep, like iced plums, but also the bright sweetness of summer’s first strawberries. The warm burn of whiskey in the lone hours of the night, the taste of flame. Sage’s head spun.

The room shifted. Sage could feel her heart beat in time with the other women’s, see the breath that moved in and out of their lungs. She could live their memories. Here, now, the fire that the fearful would use to take their lives bringing them their power.

The flames stretched into the night, casting their shadows onto the walls, bending and twisting them until the women looked snake-haired, until they were horned and winged. And then it faded, dying down, making their shadows recognizable again. Until they looked like themselves. Until they looked like witches.

The dawn light replaced the fire’s light, and the women, witches old and new, looked no different from other women that lived in Merrinvale. The house shed its glamour to appear abandoned and forgotten, and ritual returned to ordinary.

Remember, remember, remember Sage’s heart beat, and she did as she walked slowly home. The feeling of connection, of power, of belonging.

And then the feeling of twine, tightening around her feet and ankles, tangling her, as if she were a rabbit.

“Witch.” Ronald’s voice ugly with certainty.

Light flared from a torch held in his hand and the heat of flame crackled, and Sage stood in perfect stillness. “And if I am?”

“Witches are for burning.” The fire thrust closer.

Sage reached inside herself. She remembered the feeling of her fear burning away, the connection with the other women, the witches, their welcome. She remembered her power.

“Are we?”

Fog rose from the ground. Witches’ breath. The twine untied itself from where it had bound her, and slithered away, snaking into the quiet darkness of the forest.

“Witch! Stop that!” Ronald shoved his torch at her, the flames licking at her hems, at her hands, at her hair.

None caught.

But fog, choking thick, surrounded the edges of Ronald’s clothing, his hands, his hair. The more he forced the fire on her, the thicker the fog grew, until the fire was gone and the fog seemed nearly a solid thing.

Sage sighed out a breath. The fog rolled away, and Sage stood alone.

• • • •

Merrinvale was a place that needed witches. Most places are, even if the people who live in them don’t realize it. And even when hidden in secret, witches still hold power.

Kat Howard

Kat Howard by Shane Leonard

Kat Howard is the author of the novels Roses and Rot and the Alex Award-winning An Unkindness of Magicians. Her most recent book is her short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone. Her novella, The End of the Sentence, co-written with Maria Dahvana Headley, was an NPR Best Book of the Year in 2014, and she was the writer for 18 issues of The Books of Magic for DC Comics. She teaches in the genre writing MFA program at Western Colorado University, and currently lives in New Hampshire, where she is working on her next projects.