The Matchgirl and the Magician (The Pippington Tales Book 3) by L. Palmer
Light flared up from the match, the flames curving around each other in a fiery embrace. Adeline cupped her hand around the fire as she sang into it, sending enough magic to expand the flicker of warmth. The flames broadened and spun. Silhouettes of ballerinas danced across the ash-scarred wall, pirouetting and leaping until the match was a nub burning her fingers. The dancers disappeared and she tossed the match away.
Frigid air gusted through the alleyway, blasting through her threadbare dress and shawl. Clouds heavy with snow shadowed the moon. Most of Pippington’s citizens were bundled in their homes, sitting by warm hearths. She huddled against a brick wall, cradling the crate of matches in her slender arms, her legs shaking. Tears threatened to come, but she swallowed and clamped her chattering teeth together.
Too many matches remained unsold. She had done her best, singing to catch the attention of those passing by as she walked main boulevards. A few shouted her away. Others smiled sadly, bought a few matches, and said, “Poor child,” before walking on and forgetting her.
As evening came, she shuffled her way back to Mr. Torvald’s and her bed made of a moth-eaten quilt. He grumbled as he poured the few coins onto the table. She cringed just before he slapped her jaw. His face was red as he grabbed her by the arm and tossed her down the front steps.
“This is no charity house. Come back when you’ve sold enough.”
Hours had passed since and her face and arm still throbbed. She had sold a few more matches, but they wouldn’t be enough.
Rocking, she tried to rub the cold from her legs. She couldn’t go back and so had come here, across the street stood her father’s statue. His bronze eyes watched over her, his metal face strong and heroic. She lit another match and sang into it. Perhaps, with enough magic, she could turn the statue into her father.
He would lift her up and laugh as he called her, “My Adeline.” They would waltz around the square and he would take her home.
The match’s flame disappeared and she lit another.
Only a few months before, she had stood beside her mother as the statue was unveiled. Women in furs and silk handed them a mountain of flowers, pouring out condolences on the hero’s widow and child. She posed as her mother told her, trying to understand the crowd and ribbons. When she asked one of the women, they pinched her cheek and tapped her nose.
“Your father was a brave, brave fire brigade officer and saved many lives.”
Adeline knew why her father was gone. She didn’t understand how flowers and ribbons would stop her mother from weeping every night.
During the ceremony, Adeline’s grandfather stood apart, taking in speeches about his son’s final heroic deeds and thank-you’s for funding the statue. He said nothing to her or her mother. When the ceremony was over, he continued pretending they did not exist and Adeline’s mother said, “We are better off without his help.”
A shudder of cold ran through Adeline, bringing her back to the alleyway. Her hand shook as she lit another match. Monsters rose through the illuminated shadows. Adeline sang, focusing only on the flame and its small warmth. It flickered in the wind. She held her hand over it, the flame biting her skin. The fire spread out with her song, as if carried by the soft notes. Her mother had taught her this trick one night when there was no wood for the fire. They had huddled together as their songs carried magic into the flames, helping them grow.
Horse hooves echoed down the street. Adeline blew out the match and huddled in the darkness.
“Never show anyone your magic,” her mother had said. “They don’t believe in it and won’t understand.”
She waited till the carriage passed and the echoes were far away. Taking in a few breaths, she took another match from the pile and struck it against the wall. She sang and focused on the fire. A feast of goose, potatoes, rolls, yams, pie and everything delicious arose in the flames. Her mother was at one end, her cheeks pink and full as they had once been. Adeline’s father sat at the other end, tall and proud. Her parents smiled at her before disappearing in the smoke of the burnt-out match. She flicked the splinter of wood away. The flakes of ash floated, mingling with the falling snow.
The alleyway seemed darker and emptier. She struck three matches against the wall. Her voice shook as she sang out the melody. She had to recapture her father’s smile. The flame flickered, revealing her parents lying in caskets, their faces pale and stiff. She tried to sing the image away, but her teeth chattered. The flame started to move, flickering with images of her mother and father dancing. Her mother wore a fine dress with feathers and glittering jewelry. Her father was in a suit, his hair smooth, his face handsome.
Her father had promised always to protect her, but had chosen to save others instead. He had gone into the flaming building one last time and it had collapsed in a cloud of sparks and ash. Months passed and winter came and stole her mother away. Adeline shut her eyes, trying to forget waking to her mother’s still face only a few weeks before.
The chill settled deeper into Adeline’s skin as she curled up on the cobblestone, her cheek to the pavement. Her eyelids drooped. If she fell asleep, she would wake in her parents’ arms, wrapped in a warm quilt as they sat by the fire. They would laugh and sing, tell her stories of far-off adventures. She would be far away from the frost stiffening her clothes.
The matches burnt out and the warmth of her dream left. She shut her eyes tightly, trying to grab onto the dream instead of the pain tingling in her fingers. She sang, her voice little more than a whisper. The song would keep her warm as she faded into rest.
Footsteps crunched in the alleyway and Adeline tried to open her eyes. Hands wrapped her threadbare shawl around her quivering frame. The stranger rubbed her hands between his until her fingers uncurled. In the dim starlight, he pulled one of the matches from her crate and struck it against the wall.
Her eyes opened. The stranger’s face was warm-brown, like earthen clay. Snow weighed on his dark hair. His warm eyes reminded her of how her father had looked at her.
“Little one,” he said, his Sandarian accent coloring his words with the warmth of far-off deserts. “What are you doing here alone?”
Her jaw was frozen. The Sandarian pulled off his overcoat, revealing a layer of jackets and scarves beneath. Pulling the crate of matches from her, he wrapped his coat around her.
He pulled her slender body into his arms, cradling her like a bird with a broken wing. He held the crate by its strap and walked. Though he was a stranger, she nestled her face into the warmth of his shoulder.