The Maiden and the Marrow Witch — Part Five

His head cocked to one side, the hollow bones in his hair clicking. His eyes narrowed. “Oh, now this is unexpected. Yes, indeed. A rare outcome, not often foreseen. The marrow most often showed my child. Tieffem. Grown proud and strong. Sometimes it showed me the Shield.” His lips curled in distaste. “Sometimes an ordinary company of Guards. Even an apprentice Lorekeeper. But not often … you.” His head cocked the other direction. “The least of the Pasithea’s children.”

Speak. Speak! Find your tongue! 

“Yes.” A whisper. She swallowed and forced the word to come out more forcefully. “Yes,” she said again, then again. “Yes. I am the least of the Pasithea’s children. My skirt is pink. Pale pink. It will never be red.” Swallow. Speak! “And yet it is I who found you. The least child, the least likely outcome, and I am here. Not Tieffem, not the Shield or Guards, not even an apprentice Lorekeeper.” She lifted her chin. “Me.”

The child of the Marrow Witch — Jemmien; he had a name, a plain, ordinary name — grinned, showing red-black teeth and darkened gums. So like Teiffem and even Fferrieth, yet so awfully, horribly different. “And you will do what, least of her children?”

Speak. Human-tongue. 


Sinuous-tongue ….

“A good man will die this night.” She slipped a slow, low susurrating hiss at the end of this. “He does[hiss-ss] not des[hiss-iss-s]erve to die. It is you who [hi-ss-ss]slew the bull, the Beloved [hiss-s-s]son of the Maiden.”

“Aye. She has lost her sacrifice, so another must be made.” Another fierce grin. “But will the covenant hold? No! It will not! The marrow has shown me! The Maiden turn her face away from the people, and then the land and the people will belong to the Marrow Witch!”

In the trees beyond the circle of sunlight and green, around the screaming oak, the birds were singing again. The sounds was rising; a few trills at first, then more and more. Louder. Agitated.

“And oh the glories that will grace the land! Temples of bone, altars of skulls! Whole forests to feed the fires! Babes fresh from the womb readied for sacrifice! Kin carving the bones of kin in her honor!”

From the corner of her eye, Ariemme saw the little sparrow alight on a branch over the head of the child of the Marrow Witch. The bird hopped from foot to foot, wings fluttering.

If Jemmien noticed the sparrow, or the cacophony in the trees, he gave no indication. Perhaps he did not care.   

“And I — ah — your mother should have shared her throne with me. Instead, I shall build a throne of her bones.”

Find the words. Use your tongue. “The covenant will hold. I will [hiiss-ssh-ss]see to it mys[his-s-s-s]elf.”

He laughed, his head tilting back. His chest shook and the hollow bones in his hair danced.

There, in the darkness of the grass beneath the trees to the right, a narrow spotted shape moved. Spotted dull green and brownish-purple; colors to hide. Barely the length of her hand, barely the width of her thumb. Ariemme dared not to look at it, her gaze fixed on the child of the Marrow Witch.

You, pink skirt? You will ensure the covenant?” He leapt to his feet and tapped out a strange, rapid pattern on the earth. He lifted his arms, tossed his head. 

With the movement, she caught the first whiff of a rotting stink. His breath, his body. She bit her tongue to hold down a gag.

More taps of his feet and he moved in a twisting, slithery circle counter to the sun.

The ground heaved.

The birds in the trees screamed and took to the air, a mad flapping of greens and blues and blacks. Only the sparrow remained, clinging to the oak. Branches and trunks creaked and groaned terribly, and Ariemme stumbled, tripping to her knees. The golden bees in her hair clicked wildly. Her skirt protected her legs, but her toes scraped badly. She felt the sting of blood against raw skin.

Jemmien was laughing again.

Yes. Use his name. Think of him as Jemmien, ordinary, the son of grange-keepers.

The ground heaved again. Ariemme heard the earth split somewhere behind her, and trees fell, cracking. Sparrow Song was neighing wildly, his panicked whinnies mixing with the screams of the birds and the splintering of the trees.  

Ariemme’s eyes darted to the shadows to the right, hunting for that little spotted brownish-purple and dull green shape.


Back to Jemmien.

He stopped tapping his feet and spinning, and the ground stopped heaving. The trees continued to sway for long moments, leaves and early blossoms fluttering to the ground. They littered the forest floor and the circular, sun-lit space around the oak.

“I am a child of the Marrow Witch. The winds obey me. Fire burns at my command. I cleave the earth with a word and boil water with my breath. Blood answers my summons, and marrow shows me the shape of the world to come.”

Spotted purple and green, sliding beneath leaves and petals, between blades of grass.

“What are you, compared to me and all that I can do?”

Speak. “I am Ariemme. Daughter of the Pasithea. Child of the Maiden. Shield of the Covenant.” She stood, bees jingling, her jaw clenched. “I am the least. And I am your death.”

The serpent struck. Tiny fangs, not even the width of her fingernail, sank into the soft skin beneath his ankle. An instant. Less than an instant. A flick of its tail and the serpent turned, gliding across the small clearing towards her.

Jemmien stood utterly still, his eyes wide. He stared at her for one heartbeat, two, three.

Ariemme crouched, extending one hand, one finger. She hissed, a soothing, thankful susurration. The serpent responded with a flick of its tongue, just grazing the tip of her finger.

In a few years, it would be as grand as the snake that the Grandfather of Serpents paraded around the Hall of the Pasithea, a vibrant green and purple. But now, it was plain, well-hidden, an infant, barely hatched. And for that, all the more venomous.

Jemmien’s head dropped, his gaze fixing on the two minuscule drips of blood that slid down his ankle.

The serpent flicked its tongue again and then glided away, disappearing into the darkness of the forest.

High in the oak, the sparrow flitted its wings and trilled.

Jemmien fell. He dropped to his knees. The bones in his hair rattled. And then down, his face smashing into the ground.

He was still. Still.

Ariemme pushed herself back to her feet. Her toes ached. Her knees were shaking. Her throat felt tight and dry, like she would never be able to speak again, and her head throbbed.

One cautious step and then another. She bent over slightly, studying the back of the child of — Jemmien’s back. His unmoving back.

The venom had worked even faster than she had expected.

The sparrow trilled again.

“Yes, I see it,” she answered. Human-tongue not wing-tongue.

Bending over further, golden bees brushing over her shoulders, she grimaced and tugged at a clump of matted hair. A flat tooth emerged, not much bigger than her thumbnail, perfect for grinding tough grasses and hay.

A bull’s tooth. A tooth of the deceased twin. A neat hole had been drilled down through the center, the tooth hollowed out.

The marrow and blood and pulp had served Jemmien well. The curse he had crafted had slain the Beloved son of the Maiden, threatened to undermine the covenant with the Maiden, and now threatened her father’s life. 

So little to have wrought such damage and fear.

Ariemme tore a thin strip of fabric from the bottom of her skirt. She placed the tooth in the middle, rolled the fabric tight, and then tied the makeshift necklace around her throat. The bump of the tooth rested just above her collarbone.

A second, wider strip of cloth. One by one she pulled the bones from his matted hair, shivering, nearly gagging at the feel of that hair and those pitted bones until there were none left to mark his devotion to the Marrow Witch. She piled them all into the cloth, twisted it, knotted it, and looped it over her shoulder.

The sparrow trilled.

“Yes, please. That would ….” She paused as the sparrow flitted down and landed on her shoulder. She switched tongues, her answer now soft whirrs and whistles. “Thank you.”

Then she turned and walked away from the corpse.


Fferrieth had retreated from the screaming oak and the elm with the crooked branch, dragging Sparrow Song with him. There was no sight of either grange-keeper or horse. The ground near the elm was split deep and wide. Dozens of trees had fallen into the crevice, allowing a swath of sky to show through from above.

Ariemme glanced up. It was just after the fifth hour now, the sky just beginning to darken as the sun wended its way towards the western ocean.

Finding a place where the crevice was not quite so wide, she took two large steps and leaped across. Another minute of walking brought her to Fferreith and Sparrow Song, the stallion whinnying in delight when she appeared.

She smiled and patted his nose.

Fferrieth cleared his throat. “It’s done?”

“It is.” She slipped around the side of the horse and hoisted herself onto his back. “You may do with the corpse as you wish.”

The grange-keeper huffed. “I will do nothing with it except to toss it down that hole.”

Ariemme smiled grimly. “I thank you for your assistance and for the gift of your food, Fferrieth of the Grange of the Cork Tree.”

“Will the Guards come for me?”

She hesitated. “I cannot say. In some matters, I do not know the Pasithea’s mind well. Vernaltide blessings, grange-keeper. May the Maiden and her covenant hold you safe and grant you prosperity.”

“And you, nymphelle, daughter of the Pasithea.”

She touched her heels to the stallion’s flanks. Sparrow Song whuffed and pranced forward. Faster and faster they wound there way back through the forest, in and out and in among the trees, over roots, beneath branches, the sky growing steadily darker. Golden bees clicked and clacked. The bird flitted from her shoulder, swooped along beside them, then returned to her shoulder again.

When at last they emerged from the woods — the lone cork tree and well and the neat little house to one side, the grazing field and flock and protective hound to the other — it was well after the fifth hour and nearing the sixth.

She leaned forward and pressed a hand to the side of the horse’s thick neck. “Run, Sparrow Song. Fly like a bird.”

And they ran.  


They passed granges large and small, fields filled with cattle and goats and sheep. Apiaries, too, with alternating rows of fruit trees and thick beds of wildflowers and flowering shrubs and fragrant grasses. And vineyards, ancient vines wrapped round and round trellises that looped back and forth, back and forth.

There were few wagons, even fewer travelers on foot. Most had already reached their destination for celebrating the Vernaltide, or had returned home to their hearths to celebrate with kith and kin. A lone bard watched her with wide eyes, hopping to the edge of the road as she passed, bright hat tumbling from their head. A fortuneteller in a glowing white robe bowed low, head nearly touching the ground.

One hour.

On they ran. Past the crossroads and the well where they had rested only hours earlier. Another crossroads, and then a third. Brightly painted signs pointed in five different directions. Ariemme turned the stallion north-west, towards the City of the Hall of the Pasithea.

On they ran. Sparrow Song’s breath sawed in his lungs. Sweat gathered on his back, beneath her legs. It dampened her skirt, the fabric sticking and grinding painfully against her skin. The bridle tangled, her fingers numb. His hooves clapped loudly against the gravel.

And then they were at the outskirts of the city, the little houses. And then larger buildings. Homes, bakeries, butchers, weavers. More and more buildings, more tightly packed. And there, in the center, the multi-tiered Hall of the Pasithea and, at its height, the Bull’s Throne.

Up a street, turn, up another. Lights filled the windows and burned in torches lining the roads.

Sparrow Song slowed, Ariemme tugging gently on his bridle.

A mass of pilgrims filled the road ahead of them. Some carried jars of honey, others loaves of honey bread, plates of fried bull testicles and slabs of steak, necklaces of horns and teeth.

Ariemme ground her jaw. 

So many people. Too many. They would never —

The sparrow warbled.

“Do you think that will work? Well.” She nibbled at the inside of her lip, then nodded, decision made. “Yes.”

She drew a deep breath and then let out a loud whistle. Whirrs and chirps and chirrups and caws and clicks. It was inelegant, crude. Nothing like the fine wing-tongue of the Gryphon Singers calling the seasons from the heights of the mountains.

Somewhere in the growing darkness, a corvid answered. Then an owl. More sparrows. Wrens.

Ariemme touched her heels to the stallion’s side. He huffed, but pressed forward. They would reach the crowd in only a few steps ….

Then the birds came. A dozen, two dozen, three. White and brown and deep blue and brilliant red, large beaked and small, with fat wings and long wings and narrow wings. They swooped down out of the sky and from between the buildings and up the street behind her. Their wings brushed her hair and their cries filled her ears.

… the bull … the bull … Maiden’s spring … sun follows moon … bones … stinking bones …

People exclaimed in surprise, throwing up their arms. They stumbled and fell and crawled away. More shouts, bodies retreating before Ariemme, before the Maiden’s flock. Sparrow Song shoved through, further up the street, further, closer to the Hall of the Pasithea and the Bull’s Throne.

Shouts ahead now, as people turned at the disturbance. They stepped aside, clearing a path.

Sparrow Song moved into a trot, his neck extended eagerly.

Run. Up the road.

Guards. The Hall. They were at the Hall.

Ariemme raised her hand, waving. The birds winged and whirled around her, swooping high and then returning to wheel in colorful circles. 

The Guards, wide-eyed, dipped their heads, half-knelt. The stallion pushed through the last of the crowd of pilgrims and they were through the gateway, beneath the plinth, and in the courtyard of the stables.

Sparrow Song’s sides heaved. He dropped his head, too exhausted even to cross the courtyard to the drinking trough.

Ariemme leapt from his back, the little bird hopping from her shoulder to tweet in annoyance. The golden bees jingled. Breath short, she motioned a stablehand — maybe the only stablehand — to the horse’s side.

“Walk him. Food. Water. I will return!”

She ran, bare feet slapping against the stones. Up a flight of stairs, down a corridor, up another flight of stairs, around a corner, up and up and up and up. She could hear the pilgrims outside, singing and chanting as the sun sank further west. Up and up and up.

The stairwell opened up above her, showing the dark sky and the first stars of Vernaltide. Her legs burned. Her lungs ached. She pushed on, up and through the opening and onto the platform-roof at the very top of the Hall of the Pasithea.

The Bull’s Throne.

Great sculpted horns at the edges of the roof framed the eastern and western skies, marking the rising and setting of the sun at Vernaltide and Autumnaltide. The circular raised altar in the center, piles of kindling beneath, marked the sun at its height on Aestvaltide and Hibernaltide.

There on that altar lay the corpse of the Beloved son of the Maiden.

The bull had, indeed, been perfect. Spotless, deep black hide. Gracefully curved horns. Wide, velvety snout, sharp hooves, and fringed tail.

A beauty worthy of the Maiden.

At the head of the corpse stood the Pasithea, crescent moon blade in hand. She wore a grand crown shaped like a bull’s head. Her torso and arms were slathered with honey, and her silken skirt was embroidered with flowers, hives, and gold and black bees. Dozens of the insects buzzed around her, darting in the light of the torches and the fading sunset. The Grandfather of Serpents and the Master of Honey and the Lorekeeper and all of their apprentices were arrayed around the Pasithea, much as they had been in the Hall of the Red Throne. Tieffem stood to her left and, to her right, the Shield and … the Caretaker.

He stood stiff and straight, hands clenched at his back.

Ariemme inhaled, sudden fear and uncertainty making her tongue stick to the top of her mouth. Why had they all turned to stare at her? All except the Caretaker, that is, his expression fixed on the corpse. Had she shouted? Yelled? 

The birds swarmed past her, still chirping and cawing and hooting, a mad cacophony. They angled across the platform, swooping through the sculpted horns on the opposite side, then back down and around again, through the second set of horns. And then away, away into the sky.

“Well, daughter?”

Ariemme’s head jerked. How long had the Pasithea been speaking?

They were all still staring at her. Behind their veil, the Lorekeeper’s expression was … expectant. The Shield looked wary and alert, the Grandfather of Serpents impatient. The Master of Honey was looking back and forth between Ariemme and the Pasithea in confusion, while Tieffem appeared oddly impressed. Even the Caretaker had turned, his expression one of confusion and the slimmest hope. And the guards, too; only now did she notice them arrayed near the corners of the roof, spears planted against the stone.

Ariemme swallowed. She had faced down a child of the Marrow Witch. She could — she would — speak now. 

“He is dead. The child of the Marrow Witch is dead.”

Silence greeted her words.

The Pasithea turned, silken skirts gliding over the stone, and strode towards Ariemme. Tieffem scrambled to keep up, falling into step behind their mother. The Shield followed. The Pasithea stopped a bare arm’s length from Ariemme, the bees still buzzing around her.

More bees joined them, and then more. Ariemme couldn’t count them all. They enveloped the Pasithea, burying her in a writhing mass of gold and black and glittering wings and blood-fizzing buzzing.

A long minute passed.

A tremendous heave, and the bees suddenly parted. In a great wave they lifted away and into the dark sky. The wave narrowed, turned into a current, a stream, and the bees were away, making for the apiaries scattered throughout the city and the farms beyond.

Massive bull crown tilted down, the Pasithea smiled at Ariemme. “Well done, daughter. Shield of the Covenant, indeed.”

Tieffem blinked, eyebrows dancing.

Ariemme’s mouth dropped open, then closed. She drew a deep breath and returned her mother’s smile, a tentative upward curl of her lips that grew more certain when the Pasithea held out her hand. Ariemme took it and together they faced the Caretaker and the Lorekeeper and the Grandfather of Serpents and the Master of Honey and Tieffem and the Shield and all of the apprentices and the guards, their spears still firmly planted against the rooftop.

“The child of the Marrow Witch is dead. Their body lies now deep in the earth, lost, never to be found. Their name will never be spoken, forgotten to time.” 

A short pause, a commanding sideways glance at Ariemme, who understood the hidden meaning in the Pasithea’s words: Tieffem — the Heir — would never learn that it was their father who had threatened to destroy the covenant. 

“She who is my daughter carries with her the bones that the child of the Marrow Witch harvested and corrupted. These shall be added to the sacrifice of the bull who was murdered, the Beloved son — and thus shall the Maiden be satisfied and know that we hold true to the covenant.”

Heads dipped and nodded in approval. The Lorekeeper seemed to be smiling behind their veil; they lifted one wrinkled hand and pressed it to their chest, half-bowing towards Ariemme. Tieffem raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.

The Pasithea released Ariemme’s hand. Lifting the torn length of skirt from around her shoulder, Ariemme unknotted it and carefully deposited the bones next to the bull’s head. The hollowed tooth came next, source of the curse and all that remained of his twin.

Ariemme stepped away, moving to join her mother and Tieffem and the Shield and — yes — her father, the Caretaker, at the head of the bull. 

The Caretaker licked his lips. He unclenched his hands from behind his back and carefully set one on Ariemme’s shoulder. A gentle squeeze, a promise to speak later. To speak at length, she hoped. She curled her fingers through his and held on tight. 

Stars burned high overhead. The sun had fallen beyond the western sea. The kindling was lit, the fire rising, the light like molten gold across the bull’s hide. From the distant mountains, the sonorous chant  of the Gryphon Singers joined the chants and cheers of the pilgrims in the streets.

At her other side, Tieffem aimed a curious expression in her direction, gaze drifting down to take in her ripped and sweaty skirt. When the sparrow returned to her shoulder, trilling and fluttering, their gaze lifted again.

“Perhaps more red than pink, after all,” they whispered.

“No,” Ariemme whispered back. “Still a pale pink. Nothing more. And nothing less.”

[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *