#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "Crane's Fire" by Karen Eisenbrey

During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the nine (nine!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE.

Can't get enough of Karen Eisenbrey's Daughter of Magic? Me neither! In this story we get to see Crane, Luskell's father, in his youth in Deep River. Eisenbrey continues to prove her ability to craft memorable characters and stories. "Crane's Fire" has the same spirit of youthful curiosity and fun that makes Daughter of Magic so enjoyable.  -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor

Crane's Fire

by Karen Eisenbrey


Crane was bursting to tell, but he couldn’t. Not while Soorhi watched. The teacher might have been old as dirt, but he didn’t miss much. Crane fidgeted. A breeze blew through the open windows. It smelled like apple blossoms. Like spring. Why were they inside on such a day? The eastern window framed a view of open country—grassland and rippling green wheat fields, broken here and there by splotches of purple or yellow where wildflowers bloomed. To the west lay the village of Deep River, though Crane could see only one house and part of another, built of gray river rock like the schoolhouse. Between them, he caught glimpses of a distant snow-capped mountain, and the dry gully that gave Deep River its name.

That was his whole world. Even on a beautiful day, it could not distract from what Crane had to tell. The first chance he got, he would prove himself, and the others would have to accept him. Finally, he would belong. He drummed his fingers on the desk, waiting ...

The previous day, the big boys had lingered after school. They were old enough to have some responsibility now—chores and apprenticeships—but it was the first really warm day that spring. There had to be a better way to spend it. Rovhi, seventeen and done with school, had come on horseback to collect his younger brother, Huvro. They had farm work to do at home, but got drawn into the huddle outside the school. Crane was part of the circle, yet outside it. At twelve, he was the youngest of this group, but already near in height to Rovhi.

“Let’s do something!” Elic exclaimed. He raked his fingers through his curly brown hair, standing it up.

“Like what?” Breff asked. He was fourteen, a year older than Elic, but still deferred to him, as they all did—even Rovhi. They would do whatever he said. Even tolerate Crane.

“I don’t know,” Elic said. “No, wait, I do, too. Dares.” He grinned.

The others welcomed this suggestion, but Crane almost left the group. He hated dares. On the rare occasion when he accepted a challenge, he failed, but he usually took the cowardly way out and refused the dare. Humiliating, either way.

Elic met his gaze and gave him a little smile that said, “Don’t worry.” It was always like that. Elic protected him and tried to build his confidence. Maybe someday, it would work.

“Who’s first?” Elic asked, but he’d already chosen. “Rovhi, you’re oldest—show us how it’s done.” Rovhi nodded his assent. He stood tall and straightened his muscular shoulders. “Climb to the roof of the Village Hall and walk the length of the ridge.”

“What, now?” Rovhi’s face paled and his eyes darted nervously. He smoothed back his dark blond hair. For a moment, he looked like a young boy, in spite of his broad shoulders and sprouting beard.

“When I’ve finished all the challenges, we’ll watch you,” Elic replied. “Huvro, is there a bull in your pasture this spring?”

“Yes, a real snorter.”

“Your challenge is to cross the bull’s pasture … and he has to be in it.”

Huvro swallowed visibly, but nodded. He resembled his older brother, but managed to respond more bravely to the dare. By this time, Rovhi had recovered himself. He laid a hand on Huvro’s shoulder and grinned at Elic. “I’ll make sure he does it.”

“What about me?” Breff asked. He was a stocky, pale-haired farm boy, not a talker like Elic, but good-natured and up for anything.

“Yes, what about you?” Elic studied him. “I know. You will walk a girl home after school. Not a little girl; it has to be one our age, and she has to know you’re walking her home. No following.”

Breff blushed and grinned. “How—how will you know I did it?” he asked. Crane wondered about that, too. The girls attended school in the afternoon, when the boys would be with their masters or at work in the fields.

“Believe me, I’ll know,” Elic replied. They all laughed. Elic was close to Sunnea, a girl their age. If he asked, she would pass along news of anything that happened to any other girl in Deep River.

“Fine, I accept,” Breff said. “But I get to give you yours: go inside the haunted house!”

“But that’s not—” Crane began.

“I accept.” Elic shot Crane a look that kept him quiet. “So, Rovhi?”

Crane couldn’t believe his luck. Maybe he would get away without taking a challenge this time ...

“What about Crane?” Huvro asked.

Elic looked at Crane and shrugged. Crane stared back, only hoping that his friend would give him something that wasn’t too humiliating. “I haven’t forgotten,” he said. “Crane gets the hardest one.”

“What?” Crane protested.

Elic carried on as if he hadn’t heard. “Crane, your challenge is to sneak into the Village Hall, into Jelf’s library, and read some magic out of a spell-book.”

The other boys gasped and stared at Crane, but he felt strangely calm. That didn’t sound so hard, assuming the spell-books even existed. They were objects of mystery and dread, but Crane had never seen them; none of the boys had. Why there would be spell-books in Deep River—a place where nothing happened, let alone magic—was beyond Crane’s imagining. But everyone knew they were there.

“I’ll do it,” Crane said. “But how will you know I succeeded?”

“Memorize a short spell and tell it to us tomorrow.”

“What’ll that prove?” Breff objected. “He should have to bring the book.”

“I’m not stealing anything,” Crane said.

“And we’re not asking you to,” Elic assured him. “Just tell us the spell. I doubt it will sound like anything we’ve heard before. Or that you could make up.” He grinned at Crane. “Now, Rovhi, you have a challenge to meet.”

They all accompanied Rovhi to the Village Hall, a long, low, building with walls of mortared river rock. Rovhi climbed at the nearest corner, using the many stones as hand- and foot-holds. It was an easier climb than Crane would have predicted. Once on the roof, Rovhi scrabbled on all fours up to the peak. The roof slates clanked and rattled under him. At the top, he stood. Crane held his breath, and suspected he wasn’t the only one. He had climbed the cottonwood tree behind the inn, but he’d never been on a rooftop. It must be like flying. Crane could fly … in his dreams. The dreams had begun recently, the best dreams he’d ever had. He hadn’t shared them with anyone, not even Elic.

Rovhi took one slow, careful step after another, keeping his eyes fixed ahead of him. He never looked down. He wavered once or twice, but didn’t fall. When he reached the other end, he half-climbed, half-slid down the roof, then gripped the edge and swung down. He sank to his knees and rested his hands on the grass, pale and trembling.

At that moment, Jelf emerged from the Hall. He was a small man with thin brown hair going gray. Crane was surprised to see him, and from the look on his face, so was Elic. Jelf kept the village records, but didn’t usually start his work at the Hall until after lunch. It figured he’d have his meal early the one day he might get them into trouble. And it was only the first dare!

Jelf frowned at the boys. “Who’s been on my roof?” he asked. He was not usually an intimidating figure, but today, he looked like a thunderhead. “I heard an awful racket up there just now.”

“We didn’t see anything. It must have been birds,” Elic improvised.

“I didn’t know birds could be that big and clumsy,” Jelf said, eyeing Rovhi, who scrambled to his feet and joined the other boys. “I’m surprised none of you noticed them.”

Crane, like the others, tried his best to look innocent. He wished he didn’t have to lie to Jelf. He liked the old Keeper. It was bad enough that his own dare involved sneaking into the library.

“Well, don’t you young men have anything better to do than stand in the road?” Jelf asked. “Get along!” He returned to the Hall without another word.

That was one dare down, and they weren’t in trouble yet.

“That was close, huh?” Breff muttered to Crane, and grinned. “Good luck with yours.”

Crane supposed it was only because he was closest, but for once, he felt really included. He smiled in agreement. With a wave of his hand, Breff set out on foot for home, a farm not far from town.

“Don’t forget, you have to walk a girl home!” Elic called after him.

“I won’t forget,” he promised.

Rovhi and Huvro returned to the school and mounted the bay horse Rovhi had left tied there. They trotted past Crane and Elic. “I did it! Hoo-hoo!” Rovhi shouted. Huvro did not appear quite so lighthearted.

“That went well,” Elic chuckled.

“What did you mean my dare was the hardest?” Crane asked.

“I thought it might get you some respect.”

“So you lied?”

“Maybe not. You think any of them could do it? They’re afraid of magic, but you’ve got more sense than that.”

“It’s not magic, it’s books,” Crane said. “So, no, I’m not afraid. But I could have done Rovhi’s dare.”

Elic chuckled. “I know. It would have been too easy for you. You’d have done it at a run! Rovhi’s afraid of heights, but he’ll do anything to save face. And Breff’s shy, but he really does like girls, so his dare is just what he needs.”

“Well, what if I like girls?” Crane asked.

“They won’t speak to you,” Elic said. “I can’t change that.”

That was true, though Crane didn’t know why. Was it his freakish height? His dark skin? His straight black hair? All weak reasons, but what else was there? Maybe it was because the sky looked red to him, though he wasn’t sure who knew about that. He hadn’t mentioned it in a long time, since he saw how it upset his mother.

“Who wants to talk to girls, anyway?” he said. “They’re stupid.”

“Right,” Elic agreed. “Stupid.”

Elic didn’t really think that, but it was nice to have his support. “What about yours?” Crane asked. “We both know that house isn’t really haunted.”

Elic shrugged. “Can I help it if Breff isn’t as good at the game? Anyway, that makes it easier for me to help you.”

“What makes you think I need help?”

“Not with your dare,” Elic explained. “I’ll just make sure you get inside.”

“Jelf already suspects something,” Crane said.

“Leave it to me.” Elic grinned. He always relished a good trick. “Meet me at the Hall before sundown.”

They parted at the Blue Heron Inn, Crane’s home. Elic’s family lived across the road, and was like family to Crane. He called Elic’s mother Aunt Sudi and Elic called Crane’s mother Auntie Stell. Elic was his father’s apprentice, though he had no particular aptitude for a blacksmith’s work. Crane helped his mother with the inn, and expected to take it over someday. It wasn’t a future he looked forward to, but it was the only one he had.

“Hello, Crane,” she greeted him, peeking out of the kitchen. “How was school?”

“Same as always.”

Mama was a small, pretty woman. She had wavy golden hair and a ready smile. She and Crane shared the same hazel eye color, but there the resemblance ended. Crane had often wondered about that. Everyone he knew looked like their parents or other relatives. If he didn’t look like his mother, then he must look like his father—whoever that was. Like wings, a father was something he had only in dreams.

They sat down to lunch. Crane ate a few bites of his bean soup, then put down his spoon. “Who was my father?”

Mama stared at him and didn’t answer right away. “Haven’t you learned, there’s nothing to be gained in asking that?” she said at last. “He’s gone far away, and he won’t be back.”

When Crane was younger and asked that question, she told stories. They didn’t answer his question, but he liked hearing them. He waited, but she said no more. They both ate lunch in silence. He’s gone far away, and he won’t be back. Did that mean he was dead? There was no other way to be so sure he wouldn’t return. His father was dead, and Crane would never know any more about him.

Chores filled the afternoon, and Crane soon forgot his question. He pumped water, weeded the vegetable garden, fed the chickens, and cleaned the upstairs rooms. He tried to remember the last time someone had come to stay. He couldn’t, but Mama insisted the rooms be clean, just in case.

Although the sleeping rooms remained empty, they could be sure the common room wouldn’t. Most of the men in Deep River and from the surrounding farms liked to enjoy a mug of ale and a few stories at the Blue Heron at least once of week. The unmarried men took most of their suppers there. Crane ate his own supper early so he could help serve, but kept an eye on the waning daylight.

“I have to meet Elic for a little while,” he said.

“Now? What for?” Mama asked.

“It’s—for school,” he replied. “We have to talk to Jelf at the Hall.”

“Why didn’t you do it right after school?”

“Elic couldn’t stay,” Crane said. “It shouldn’t take long. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He whisked out the door before she could say anything more. He hadn’t quite lied, and if they didn’t get caught, he wouldn’t have to.

With the low sun behind him, Crane’s shadow stretched out in front of him halfway to the Village Hall. The sunset seemed to fill the whole sky. Even the east was tinted purple and dark red. Crane liked the light of sunrise and sunset best, when the sky really was red. Then he didn’t have to work to see the blue beyond the shimmering red net no one else could see.

As Crane approached the Hall, Elic emerged from the shadows at the far end and beckoned to him.

“You wait here, out of sight,” he whispered. “I’ll try to distract Jelf before he locks up. Slip in as soon as you can.”

Crane crouched in the shadows and watched Elic trot up the road toward the school and Soorhi’s house. He circled around and walked back. When the door of the Hall opened, he broke into a run.

“Jelf! I’m glad I caught you,” he called.

The old man turned toward him, the key in his hand. “Elic? What is it?”

“A strange plant sprouted in Soorhi’s garden,” Elic said. “Soorhi says it’s edible, but Mam says it’s poisonous. Soorhi wants your opinion.”

Jelf chuckled. “I don’t know what I can add to their knowledge, but I’ll take a look. Lead on!”

Elic and Jelf headed back toward Soorhi’s. Crane shrank further into the shadows, though Elic’s description of the mystery plant held Jelf’s attention as they passed. As soon as it seemed safe, he darted out of hiding and up to the door. He pushed and it opened—still unlocked. He closed it behind him.

He paused in the dim Hall to let his eyes adjust, then crept past the long meeting table and chairs, toward a smaller room at the end. This door didn’t have a lock. He pushed in and approached the shelves. The upper shelves held logs and registers, in which Jelf kept track of village events. The bottom shelf was in shadow.

He crouched down. He could discern a row of books—four thick ones with dark covers, along with a few thinner volumes. They were all coated in dust, and in the poor light, Crane couldn’t tell whether or not there were any words on the spines. The last of the sunset light filtered in through the closed shutters. Crane didn’t know how he would manage to read anything, but he didn’t dare light a lamp and give himself away. He would just have to hurry and finish the job before the light failed completely.

He grabbed one of the big books at random. His whole arm tingled as if he’d banged his elbow, and he dropped the book. Dust puffed in his face, and he sneezed twice. He froze, certain the whole village had heard. But the evening quiet went on, undisturbed. He picked up the book. This time, his arm did not tingle, but he had a brief impression of a pale, dark-haired man with a fierce expression. Maybe there was something magical about the book. He carried it to Jelf’s desk, where the light was a little better. The dark red leather binding bore no words or marks of any kind.

Crane let the book fall open and stared at the yellowed page. Disappointment rose like bile in his throat. He couldn’t read it. There were letters and even syllables that looked familiar, but nothing on the page made sense. He was about to close the book and give up, when the letters and syllables flickered like candlelight before his eyes, and rearranged themselves. They still didn’t look like familiar words, but he knew they had meaning.

Crane chose a short, two-word spell—he hoped it was a spell—and committed it to memory. It felt strange to memorize something he didn’t understand. He had to guess at the pronunciation, though he didn’t dare speak aloud in case anyone should hear. But none of the other boys would be able to correct him, so perhaps it didn’t matter how he pronounced the words, as long as he told them something.

As he returned the book to its place on the shelf, he froze at the sound of voices.

“I don’t know what you were thinking, bothering me about a potato plant!” Jelf said.

“I didn’t know that’s what it was,” Elic replied. “I never saw the plant before, just the spud.”

The voices drew nearer, and Crane feared Jelf would come into the Hall. Or what if he locked the door, with Crane still inside?

“Perhaps Soorhi and your mother have played a joke on you, then. It’s no more than you deserve, after all your tricks.”

“That must be it. You’re not angry, are you?”

It sounded like they’d stopped at the corner of the Hall, where the path to Jelf’s house met the road. Crane relaxed. Maybe he wouldn’t get caught, after all.

“Of course not,” Jelf said. “Sometimes doing something foolish is the only way to learn. Good night, Elic.”

Elic’s laughter rang through the village. “Good night, Jelf!”

Crane waited a moment longer to give Jelf time to reach home, then scurried out of the Village Hall and back to the inn. He’d done something right! He’d accepted and fulfilled a dare. But there was no time to celebrate now. It was suppertime at the Blue Heron, and Mama needed his help. He took a deep breath to calm himself and pushed open the door. The common room was bright with lamplight and noisy with supper guests.

“That didn’t take long,” Mama said. She handed him his apron.

“It didn’t?” It seemed an age had passed since he left for the Hall. “No, I guess it didn’t.”

“Did you find what you needed?”

“Um—yes,” he replied, tying the apron. “So, what needs doing?”


Crane hurried to school in the morning, excited to prove his daring. Elic was already there ahead of him, waiting outside.

“Did you do it?” he asked.

“Yes!” Crane exclaimed. “The books are really there. I—”

Rovhi and Huvro arrived then, interrupting Crane. Huvro slid off the horse to join them.

“Huvro’s braver than I thought,” Rovhi called down. “He did exactly what you asked and lived to tell about it.”

“That bull knows me,” Huvro whispered to Elic.

“It doesn’t matter. You fulfilled the dare.”

As Rovhi rode away, Breff joined them, pink in the face from his long walk. “I did it!” he announced. “I waited for the girls to get out of school, and asked Kiat if I could walk her home!”

“And what did she say?” Elic asked.

Breff turned a brighter pink. “She told me to jump in the river.”

They all laughed. Anyone who jumped in that dry gully was more likely to break a leg than drown. Crane had often wondered why they still called it a river, when it had been dry since before he was born, but no one else seemed to give it much thought.

“That doesn’t sound like a very promising conversation,” Elic observed.

“No, not really,” Breff admitted. “Except then, Tiek said I could walk her home.” He grinned. Tiek was Kiat’s twin sister. They looked similar, but they couldn’t have been more different in temperament.

“Well done, Breff! That’s three completed,” Elic said. “I haven’t done mine yet. We should all go to the haunted house right after school.”

“What about Crane?” Breff asked.

Before he could answer, Soorhi came outside. The morning sun lit his white hair like a bright cloud. “I don’t see what’s so amusing out here,” he said, “but it’s time to come inside.”

They filed in and took their places. Crane had the middle seat, with Elic on his right and Breff on his left. Huvro sat behind Breff, while the ten-year-olds Lafa and Alryg sat in the front row. Crane was bursting to tell about his dare, but he couldn’t while Soorhi watched. The first chance he got, he would prove that he’d fulfilled the challenge, and they’d have to accept him fully. He drummed his fingers on the desk, waiting.

As soon as Soorhi’s back was turned, Elic and Breff leaned in. “Tell us!” they whispered. Huvro half stood to get into the conversation.

Crane balled his hands into fists. He couldn’t afford to forget what he’d read. He closed his eyes and the page appeared in memory, flickering like candlelight. He took a deep breath and whispered the words, reading them off the imagined page. There was no question now about pronunciation. His voice sounded strange to him, crackling with a new energy.


Elic yelled, and from the thud, it sounded like Breff had fallen out of his seat. Crane opened his eyes. His right hand was in flames. He stared at it, unable to make a sound. The other boys drew back, horror-stricken. Only Elic stayed close. “It wasn’t supposed to do anything,” he whispered.

Through the flames, Crane saw Soorhi vault over his desk with the energy of a man a quarter his age. The teacher came straight to Crane and smothered the flames with his bare hands.

The whole event took only a moment. Now that the panic was over, Crane expected they would all take their seats again and go on with class as usual. He would never hear the end of this! Then the pain struck him. He thought his hand must have burned off, except that he could feel each finger alive with agony. He didn’t dare look. He fainted.

He had no idea how much time had passed when he came to. Probably not much—it was still daylight. Or had days passed? He lay in his own bed. Someone had bandaged his hand. It rested on a pillow on top of the covers. The pain was a little less, though still enough to bring tears to his eyes. He thought he might faint again—he wished he could—but remained conscious. Several people stood just inside his room, talking together in low tones: his mother, Aunt Sudi, and Soorhi.

“I put a salve on it, but it’s going to scar,” Sudi said.

“Badly?” Mama asked.

“I can’t tell yet,” Sudi said. “It could be pretty bad. From what Soorhi tells me, we’re lucky he didn’t lose his whole hand.”

Mama sobbed once, then controlled herself. “How did it happen?”

“I think he said a fire spell, but how could he have learned such a thing?” Soorhi said.

“A fire spell?” Mama repeated. “You mean, magic?”

“Yes,” Soorhi said. “You have a budding wizard on your hands.”

“He chose a fine way to let us know,” Sudi snapped.

“I don’t think he had any idea,” Soorhi said. “But where did he learn the spell?”

“Doesn’t Jelf have some old spell-books at the Village Hall?” Sudi asked. “You remember, that some old wizard left behind?”

Soorhi was silent a moment. “Lok’s books. Yes. Could Crane have seen them?”

“He said he was meeting Elic at the Hall last night,” Mama said. “I shouldn’t have let him go!”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Soorhi assured her. “I’m going to see if Jelf knows anything about this. It might be best to let Crane study those books openly. Otherwise, he could be a danger to himself or others.”

Crane heard one set of footsteps cross the common room and leave the inn. Had he heard right? A danger? To himself, certainly. But to others? He wouldn’t let that happen. They had nothing to fear from him. But he remembered how the other boys had drawn away from him.

“Will he be able to use that hand?” Mama asked. “Are you sure it won’t heal without scarring?”

“I’m sorry, Stell,” Sudi said. “There’s only so much I can do.”

Mama moved to the bedside. Crane closed his eyes, feigning sleep. “If only his father would come,” she whispered, so low that Crane doubted Sudi had heard. It seemed an odd thing to say. Wasn’t his father dead? Did she think Crane was going to die? But he was more interested in what Soorhi had said. He could be a wizard! He didn’t have to be an innkeeper. He could study the magic in those books, and find something he was actually good at. Was that what the red sky meant? That there was magic in Deep River; in him? If he could make fire, then he could do anything—bring rain, cure sickness, change his own form. Fly. His hand throbbed, but it was worth it. It would be easy. He drifted off to sleep and dreamed he had wings.


Karen Eisenbrey (color).JPG

Karen Eisenbrey is the author of Daughter of Magic (Not a Pipe Publishing, 2018) and The Gospel According to St. Rage (Pankhearst, 2016). She lives in Seattle, WA, where she leads a quiet, orderly life and invents stories to make up for it. Although she intended to be a writer from an early age, until her mid-30s she had nothing to say. A little bit of free time and a vivid dream about a wizard changed all that. Karen writes fantasy and science fiction novels, as well as short fiction in a variety of genres and the occasional song or poem if it insists. She also sings in a church choir and plays drums in a garage band. She shares her life with her husband, two young adult sons, and two mature adult cats.