​​​The Witchcraft Trials: Part 1 by Otti Gurtler

The isle was the perfect place: within the Ahoy borders but far from civilisation’s unwanted eyes and uninvited guests. It had underground caves to protect their skin from the sun, and dark clouds of mist constantly hung around it. The only real issue was that Johnson liked it too, which could be irritating. But that could be fixed. The snivelling fool, Mr Jarker, was actually proving himself to be quite useful in making Johnson uncomfortable, and seeing this happen was a rare and precious form of entertainment. The man was standing with both of them now, looking out to the sea, but his aging vision couldn’t make out anything through the glorious mist and rain. He held out his hand, without looking. “Binoculars, Jarker.”
        “Yes, sir. Of course, sir. I’ve got them, sir, here-I-sir-there-ah!”
        “Jarker!” The fool stopped fumbling and passed him the binoculars. Inside, despite the gloomy wonderfulness of the isle, all three of them were itching to get back to the caverns in Below. They wished they hadn’t been chosen to find the girl. Barely ever did someone come to the surface, and it seemed insulting to be selected, as if they were breaking an unspoken rule. But the new Age of Magic had nearly dawned, and they had to help it onto its feet.
        The man stared through the binoculars. He located the right ship almost immediately, as if he could smell the magic onboard. He smiled as he saw the shadowy outline against the sail post. He said the words aloud, but quietly, so only he could he hear. “Reditus magicae.” He smiled.

Liza sat at the base of the sail post, its sturdy wooden pole against her back. Dark red hair fell over her face. The rain soaked her clothes until they hung heavily about her, but she just sat there, chilled to the bone, the sounds of thunder and lightning ringing in her ears. She heard the stairs creaking over the howl of the wind, and then her father appeared above deck. She stiffened.
        “I’m not going to talk to you.”
Her father found a position at her side.
“When I said what I said… when I said that I would throw myself overboard for your sister, I meant both of you.”
Liza stared straight ahead, refusing to look at him.
“You can only die once, and we both know who you’d do it for. And you can stop pretending to care about me. Did Mira tell you to do that?” She knew she shouldn’t be angry, knew it really shouldn’t upset her, but his talk had brought up memories. Memories of her mother’s screams as waves swallowed her. Liza felt her throat constricting, and tears pricked her eyes. She blinked them back. No. No, she would not cry. Not here, not now, not ever again. If they really were going to find a country to settle down in, like her father had said last night, she had to be strong. For her mother’s sake, although she knew her mother was probably in a place too far away to be caring about a little thing like her daughters and husband ending their lives on the water.
“Liza, please, forgive me. I really didn’t mean…” her father was talking again. Liza felt her anger returning, filling her head with heated thoughts and spiteful desires.
        “Go away. I never want to see you again.”
Her father sighed and stood up. “You’ll change your mind soon. Goodnight, sweetheart.”
Just as he reached the stairs, Liza shouted after him, and he paused to listen over the wind.
“You know what? I agree with you!” her voice was mocking and spiteful.
“Meg should be your favourite! She should be the one you’d save!”
Her father turned and spoke, but his voice could not be heard, probably not even by himself, over the rain. Then he turned away and left her, along with her anger, draining her of all energy.

When the rain calmed, it left huge puddles of water scattered across the ship’s broad deck and the same rainwater covered everything. The hard, knobbly wood beneath Liza. The sturdy rails surrounding the deck.
        Liza sloshed to the dragonhead stern and caressed the scraped, worn painted neck with her finger. The once smooth surface was riddled with small bumps like the wrinkles of a real dragon. She stared at the greens and blues and reds of the painted scales. She peeked around the edge of the neck, and could just make out the fangs in the huge gaping mouth of the wooden dragon. To her, it looked almost like a friendly smile. She sighed.
Turning around, she could see the mast, carved by her mother’s hand out of dark oak. She remembered setting out to find it in an abandoned, forest-covered island when the last one had cracked in a storm. The tree had been tall, and sturdy, and old, just like it was now.
She kicked up the water suddenly, spraying herself with cold liquid, and disturbing the calm puddle with angry ripples. When she looked up, the sails of the ship were waving gently down at her, caught by the slight breeze. Its shiny symbol caught her eye: the skyborne dragon above the howling wolf. The peace above the violence. Below it, the international peace flag to calm the countries they entered and the other ships they came across. Her mind drifted away from the flags.
The smell of old timber that usually hung over the ship mixed itself with the weather’s smell: rainy wetness, discarded snail shells, mud. Spring.
Liza swung her leg over the dragon’s neck and shuffled up it. Then she swung herself into the red mouth, carefully avoiding the fangs. She sat down on the large, wavy tongue and let her head brush the concave, ridged wooden roof of the mouth.
She could now smell the salty tang of the sea, and, as the neck of the dragon curved down to the water, if she lay on her belly and stretched her arm out, lying dangerously close to the lips of the dragon, she could almost touch it.
The dragon head rocked slightly, again and again, forwards and backwards, right to left. She could hear her sisters high, sweet singing drifting up from the levels below, but otherwise, all was quiet. She thought of her father, and felt a rush of anger towards him, a rush of jealousy towards her sister, the feelings automatically connected. If only he could care for them equally. But that could never happen, of course it couldn’t.
She sighed again and stretched out across the tongue, the movement of the ship slowly rocking her to sleep.

Liza’s eyes flew open to that ridged concave rook inches away from her nose. Sweat mixed with rainwater and the saltwater spray so familiar to her that it often featured in her dreams – though not in the one she had experienced just now – sloshed with the gentle sway of the ship. It took her a moment to identify exactly where she was, but once she realised she was still in the dragon’s mouth there was nothing to occupy her brain but the dream that had just consumed her. But it hadn’t been a dream, not really. It was as real and as familiar to her as the sea spray, but not consoling at all.
        She still remembered the day it had happened, thanks to the endless unchanging dreams.
The storm had rocked the ship until the whole family was being thrown around like knuckleheads in a pan. Then their father fell down through the trapdoor and must have rolled all the way down the stairs. Liza tried to push Meg down too, thinking she’d be safe from the rain, but she couldn’t see her sister through the fog, let alone shove her through a trapdoor invisible even to their father’s keen eyes. Still, she groped blindly, staggering and slipping over the deck as if drunk, yelling at the top of her voice “Meg! Meg! Meg, get down!” and crying so hard her throat hurt. In her panicky, desperate state all she could think about was thunder cracks, ever closer, the hailstones beating her until she was bruised and bleeding all over, and Meg, her sister, blinded and lost in the rain. Frantically, she turned in a circle, her arms stretched out, searching for the slightest trace of her sister. Suddenly, her hand latched onto another person’s, and she could just make out the silhouette of a petite body. Sighing with relief, Liza squeezed the hand. “Meg, it’s OK. We’re going to be OK. You’re fine. You’re safe. It’s going to be OK.”
And then the body behind the hand tugged Liza away from the spot of light that Liza could now see, that was the trapdoor entrance, still open since their fathers fall. “Meg!” Liza shouted “Meg, NO!  You’re going the wrong way! Meg!
And then the hand released Liza, and she was once again running through the rain. Until she crashed into the railing of the ship, and her hand jetted out to catch hold of a sleeved arm. Her hand instantly dug into the cloth. Dangling from the arm, being thrown around by the wind was not Meg, but Liza’s mother, already so peaceful, as if she had already accepted her fate. But when she saw Liza, her eyes lit up with urgency. Her lips moved, but her words were lost in the wind. She tried again, with the same effect. A single tear trickled down her cheek, and she lifted up her free arm to wave Liza goodbye.
And then her sleeve tore, leaving Liza with a scrap of fabric and a grim emptiness that seemed to overwhelm her every being for a while. Then she finally moved, turned around with one fist clenched and one limp and hopeless and drained. And there stood Meg, silhouetted against the fog. She gave that tiny shake of the head that they had used so many times, when Meg stole sweets from the pantry, when Liza swam in the sea unattended. It meant: I won’t tell on you, but I won’t back you if you get caught, either. And then she turned away to face her own grief.

And since then, Liza had never attempted to forge a close relationship with her father, had tried to stay as distant from him and as independent as she could, for she lived under the constant fear that her father would find out what had happened. If he ever found out the truth, he would understand that she was truly gone forever, and then, not only would he hate Liza, but he would hate himself as well, for not being there for her, and that was something that Liza could not bear even thinking about. And then there was the effect it would have on Meg. Not only to have her mother murdered by the elements, but to have her father locked away inside himself in that endless grief he’d been trapped in for the weeks following his wife’s death. Even then seeing him had brought Meg to tears. Liza’s own grief and guilt was hard to ignore at times, but she had locked it all away so it couldn’t hurt anyone but herself. Which it did frequently, in the form of the nightmares.
        Now, Liza took the torn fabric from her pocket, where she kept it at all times. She had never shown it to anyone, not even Meg. This was a little piece of secret her sister had never seen, not even on the day of the storm. This was a treasure, so unlike the mounds of gold and hidden rusty chests her father told Meg stories about. Its secret was so unknown that Liza felt special, in some morbid way, to possess it. To be able to keep it. But then, that was why it was hers. And with this strange, unusual thought clear in her mind, Liza yet again fell asleep, this time into the dreamless, peaceful black void of uninterrupted sleep,

When she woke up, Liza knew she needed food. She wanted to go back to sleep, but her stomach growled loudly, jerking her awake every time she was just on the verge of a wonderful dream. Eventually, sighing, she stood up and walked to the centre of the deck, her feet dragging in toe-stubbing un-enthusiasm. She leaned down and opened the trapdoor with a creak, then froze, almost screaming in surprise. Then she realised how silly she must look, and tried to regain composure. Finally, she looked down and listened to the angry sounds so unusual in the peaceful boat.       
        Liza stood over the trapdoor, staring down at the hand-carved wooden staircase below her. She could hear voices drifting up to her from below, volume rising and falling like the tide of the sea. She could hear Meg, her father, and her grandmother, Mira. She listened, her ears pricked like a fox’s, to the conversation.
“…And wild, I can tell you.” Her father’s voice travelled up to her, unfeeling and flat.
“I know you don’t like her, James, but you can’t forget who she is. Who we could train her to be.” Mira’s voice was like a razor-sharp blade, its intent fierce and violent.
“She’s dangerous, Mother. Truly dangerous. I don’t think we can handle her anymore…. especially after -”
“That? That turned her into a weapon, James. A weapon we could use.”
“A weapon we don’t want!”
“We can’t just… just… disown her!” Liza’s sister’s voice was choked with tears and emotion.
“Oh, Meg. That’s not what I meant. You know it’s not.”
Liza frowned. What did they mean? Who were they talking about? Liza shoved her fabric scrap, which she had still been clutching, into her pocket and dropped down into the stairwell, her feet landing with a soft thump and a heavy sigh. She padded across the wooden floor in the hall, rubbing sleep from her eyes and watching fish swim in the water through the portholes, the conversation between her family all but forgotten. She opened the door at the end of the corridor to be welcomed by an abrupt silence obviously following the previous conversation. “Ah, Elizabeth.” Her father’s voice sounded unnatural and awkward, as if he were reading lines off a script he had forgotten the words on. Liza flinched at the use of her full name “Just… in-in time for… breakfast!”
“Hello, Father.” she said in the same tone. And then, warmly “Mira! You look well.”
“Well? Just well? I wouldn’t say that’s nearly as positive as I would like it to be. But I suppose that’s as good as an old lady like me to hope for.” She laughed. “I have to say, Liza, you look far better than just well. You look positively excellent!”
Liza smiled and gently squeezed her grandmother’s arm. “And I feel positively famished. What’s for breakfast?”
Before anyone could answer, Meg, who had been completely silent until then, leapt out of her chair and ran to a porthole on the opposite side of the room, screaming wildly “Dolphin! Dolphin! I-I see a dolphin!”
Liza ran over to her, and she, too, saw the sleek blue animals rising and falling out of the water like some majestic god. “It’s amazing, Meg. Amazing!”
“Look at it!” Meg breathed. “It’s so beautiful.”
“Let me see it.” James pushed Liza aside roughly, offering a forced, quick “sorry” before saying to Meg, “look at that flipper? Isn’t it so…” he continued, but Liza at least had lost interest. She faintly heard Meg laugh, her father whisper something and the shuffling of feet. Liza realised Mira was staring at her. But not in the usual way, that familiar pointed look of disapproval was replaced by an expression of distress and something that never appeared on Mira’s face: Fear. Pure, undeniable fear, written plainly across the old woman’s wrinkled but energized features, so irregular and foreign to that face that at first Liza believed that she was dreaming, for, as an unspoken rule, her grandmother simply did not get scared. Not by anything. Certainly not by her family. Liza watched her as she rose from the table, shaking, and beckoned to Liza. “Come, child. We need to talk.”
Liza was relieved to see there was nothing but urgency left now in her voice and her body, and that the fear was obviously momentary. Perhaps she had imagined it in the first place. She was sure it would never come again. She followed her grandmother, through the door, down the hall, into Mira’s bed chamber.
Mira’s bed chamber was small and cramped and messy. In one corner was a bed with a crumpled sheet, a blanket and a pillow thrown on top of it. In the centre was a coffee table with an empty pizza box and a half-eaten sandwich on it. Next to the door was an armchair and three high stools next to a bench with a microscope and a mini telescope model on it. Liza sat on one of the stools, breathing in the musty smell of pizza and dirt and metal. Mira sat in front of her, her sharp face grim, her blinding white hair knotty and unkempt. There were bags under her eyes, Liza noticed, dark and wrinkled. But Mira was still Mira, still tough and fearless and sharp. Well, mostly fearless. Liza shivered, but shook the memories off, and focused on Mira. “What is it?”
What is it? My child, don’t you realise? It is how we will survive next week. It is our life saver!”
“Mira, seriously. What is it?”
“Let me explain.” Mira thought for a moment then said, “Give me your hand.”
“My hand?” Liza showed her grandmother the palm of her hand, roughened by years of hard rope-pulling and wooden-dragon-neck-scaling.
“Your other hand.”
Liza hesitated, instinctively putting her left hand behind her back. “Come on.” said Mira gently “We all know about it. I’ve got it too. You can show it to me.”
Reluctantly, Liza showed Mira her hand. On the palm was a patch of skin as black as night, hot to the touch. “The mark of a wizard’s family.” Mira mused “No actual magic involved, just a birthmark signalling that we once had witchcraft in our family. They have them in Ahoy, but people like to cover them up. Make-up, fake skin, surgery, etc. The mark is illegal to have on the island, you see.”
Liza’s head shot up. “What does this have to do with that place?”
“There’s a rumour going around the harbour there, Liza. It’s nothing but hogwash. But the funny thing is, the soldiers believe it. And that means they’ll be too afraid to do us any harm if they see us skirting the Misty Isles next week.”
“What’s the rumour?”
Mira hesitated. “Well… nothing but hogwash, as I said… Liza… the rumour is that your father, James’s eldest daughter, the girl with the largest marking on her palm… she has witchcraft.”
Liza froze, unable to process the information her grandmother revealed. And then she remembered her words from the conversation she’d overheard before breakfast…

“She’s a weapon, James. A weapon we could use.”

…and knew Mira spoke only the truth. This rumour would protect them from other sailors next week nothing more. It was believable and more than likely, with all the other rumours, there was bound to eventually be one about them. And besides, what reason did she have to reject this idea? Mira wouldn’t lie to her. Mira was hard working and strong and sharp and conscientious and fearless, and she was not a liar.       
        “Do you believe me?” Mira said softly, as if afraid of the answer.
Liza looked up at her. “I believe you.”

When Mira and Liza moved back into the dining chamber, Liza was ghostly white and cold. She knew she shouldn’t be reacting so frightened, but she was. After all, it was simply a rumour. A rumour. Where had the sailors stumbled across this fake information? Mira kept shooting her sympathetic glances, which she tried to ignore. She didn’t need her sympathy. She knew Mira had given her this information only because she had the right to know, because she knew that it was fair, if not entirely an act to match one of the unsung helt’s. But Liza was thankful, while not quite fully forgiving. She would remember what Mira had done for her, but she would not outwardly praise or encourage such things, especially not from her one of her own family.
        “Lizzy!’ Meg bounded over to them, full of energy and hope and innocence. “Look! Look! It’s still here!’’
Liza and Mira glanced at each other. They simultaneously shrugged and followed Meg to the other side of the room, where they all crowded around the porthole and looked at the dolphin, its blue shape dipping and out of the water elegantly. And then Liza started to think the things that a normal sailor’s daughter about to start a life permanently on land would think, not the ones of a girl that could possibly be a witch, that perhaps this would be the last dolphin she ever saw onboard a ship.

“This is where we are, and this is where Ahoy is.” Liza stared down at her father’s finger on the map. It was a thick sheet of plain blue wool, with little pockets dotting its surface that opened up on the back of the sheet. The only thing visible poking out was a little tab of paper at the top of the documents inside the pocket explaining facts and warnings about the island or other landmark that was located in that area. The tabs themselves simply stated what the place was called and showed a sketched overhead vision of the whole area. Liza reached out, pushed her father’s finger away from the tab it had rested on, earning herself a glare, and pulled the contents of the pocket out. She gasped. On pristine, untouched white paper, only one sheet, was the bold, capital words:        
Liza stared at the four huge words. Avoid at all costs. No other information. Nothing on the plant life, environment, climate, size, animals, or population of the island. Just avoid at all costs. No maps, sketches, diagrams, or information. But that small sentence gave her all the knowledge she wanted to have and more.
‘’We’re going to skirt around the island,” James was saying, his finger back on the wool and moving around the empty pocket “only a small detour as…” his eyes slid to Liza, then back down to the map. ‘’as only small precautions are necessary given the… circumstances.’’
        “Ah, yes,” said Mira. “About that. Liza -’’ her voice was soft and gentle, but Liza tensed anyway.
“We will always have a lookout hidden somewhere above the deck. Whenever this person sees a ship, they will call you.” Mira swallowed, anxious of Liza’s reaction “And you will come up into their full sight and… Simply hold up your left hand.”
        Liza examined her left hand under the table. The large dark patch on her palm. Too large. The mark of a witch’s family. She looked at the map. Avoid at all costs. She looked at her hand. An evil, silent, siren song drifted into her head. Witch, witch, witch. Witch, witch, witch. You are ours.

To be continue