Of Fire and Stars

By: Audrey Coulthurst



WHEN I WAS SEVEN WINTERS OF AGE, MY MOTHER caught me in the hearth stacking red-hot coals with my bare hands.

That evening had found Spire City chilled to the core with the kind of cold that only Havemont knows, when early sunsets leave the afternoon dark as midnight and the sky swirls with relentless snow. My sister, Alisendi, and I knelt in the High Adytum, the most sacred temple in the four Northern Kingdoms, the two of us small beneath the cavernous apse depicting the aspects of the fire god. Flames dancing in the hearth brought the walls to life, from the forge and cookfires painted at the bottom clear up to the ceiling, where sunbeams gave way to a dusky sky streaked with falling stars. We were supposed to be spending a few minutes at prayer after our studies until our mother, the queen, came to fetch us.

Instead, we flicked wooden offering chips as far as we could over the warm stones, giggling as the temple cat pounced on the skittering pieces. But then the fire settled, and one of the burning logs toppled out of the hearth in a shower of sparks. Alisendi screamed and leaped back. Yet something held me in place as a tingle raced through my fingertips. When I grasped the log and shoved it back into the fire, the flames felt like no more than a whisper against my skin even as the ends of my woolen sleeves smoldered.

“Look, Ali,” I said, picking up one of the cinders that had tumbled out. In my still-tingling palm it lit again, glowing bright as the heart of the fire. A thrill hummed through me as I watched it burn. I had no idea it was possible to hold fire in one’s hand, but it answered a question in me to which I had never been able to put words.

“You shouldn’t do that,” Alisendi said, tracing the symbol of the fire god in the air before her.

“But it’s like the tales about the great mages,” I said. “What if people still have those powers? And what if the other stories are real, too? The dragons and the fae? And the people who take on the shapes of animals?” It made me giddy to imagine that the world could truly be filled with such incredible things—and exhilarated to think that I might be one of them.

“Those tales are made up to put us to sleep,” Alisendi said. “We’re nearly too old for that nonsense.”

I scowled and held out the ember in my palm. “So this isn’t real?”

“I don’t know,” she said, and stepped back. Her uncertainty was strange to see. One day she would be queen of Havemont, and she already carried herself as though she knew everything. I had always wanted to be like my perfect older sister but always seemed to fall short—too shy, too bookish, too impulsive to be a true leader. But finally I could do something that she could not.

“It’s real,” I insisted, and stuck both hands into the fire, showing her that the flames did not harm me. I pushed a log aside, built a tower of coals, and drew the crest of our kingdom beside it in the ashes.

That was when our mother arrived.

She shrieked and pulled me out of the flames, her panic turning to fear when she brushed away the cinders and found unblemished skin beneath the soot.

“Princesses don’t play with fire,” she scolded me.

Frightened by the tears in her eyes, I promised never to do it again—a promise that would prove impossible to keep.

Later that night, my mother told me that the fire god must have bestowed a gift upon me because our kingdom held the fire god closest to our hearts. She said perhaps my prayers in the High Adytum had been answered with magic because the temple was so high on the mountain that the Six Gods barely had to bow their heads to hear us pray. By then it was too late to rescind my betrothal to the prince of Mynaria, even though the people of his kingdom believed the use of magic was heresy. Mother insisted that ignored and untrained, my Affinity for fire would fade away as many people’s small gifts did. She forbade Alisendi and me to tell another soul.

In the years that followed, I tried to ignore the lure of flame. But the desire to indulge the tingles that danced through my hands or cheeks was more insistent than a nagging itch. Between my lessons in history, etiquette, and politics, I brought out the magic when alone and played with it like a parlor trick. By age ten I could make a fire burn more brightly or a few sparks dance across the floor. My magic was small and quiet, like the rest of me, and easy to keep hidden.

My daily life remained a rehearsal for the moment I met my betrothed, and my secret seemed like a trivial thing. I believed that as long as I followed my training, nothing could go wrong.

But some things are stronger than years of lessons.

The draw of fire.

A longing for freedom.

Or a girl on a red horse.