“Nay. I am not.”
Ariemme realized that she was moving backwards and stopped. “What?”
“I said that I am not. I did not lie with the Pasithea and seed her.”
One of the goats bleated loudly and the grange-keeper turned away for a moment, checking the herd. The dog trotted out among the animals, head high, but was not growling. The grange-keeper nodded once and turned back to her.
“You say I am Tieffem’s father. I am not. I am brother to their father. I have never laid eyes on the Heir, though I am told there is a resemblance.”
“Aye. A strong one.” Ariemme shifted her skin of wine. “Who told you this?”
The grange-keeper’s jaw tightened. He did not answer, instead turning away again, clicking his tongue. The dog barked twice in response and trotted further out into the field, disappearing among the herd animals.
“Come, “ he said and lifted his hat to wave it towards the little house. “You look as though you could use a cooling rest, and somewhere to spread your food.”
With that, he moved a short distance down the wall. The gate clicked open and closed at his touch and he strode across the yard, towards the grange-home. Ariemme hesitated, then picked up her feet and followed him.
She hesitated again at the door, framed by that painted swarm of bees, pausing on the threshold and allowing her eyes to adjust to the darker interior. The grange-keeper, on the other hand, made no such allowances for the dimness; no doubt he knew his home as well as she knew her own (or at least the kitchen courtyard). She studied the room as it became clear: a single open space with a smooth, hard-packed floor and a hearth built into the far wall. A great bull skull was mounted above the hearth, smaller bones (human and herd) strung on bright blue ribbons dangling from its horns. A table and chairs; shelves for clothes and boots and all the tools a grange-keeper might need; other shelves for scrolls and blankets and candles, bread and hard cheese and jerky. She could even make out hatches in the back corners of the floor, no doubt covering food pits dug into the ground. Colorful paintings of flowers, bulls, bees, dolphins, gryphons, and trees spread across the walls and up to the sleeping loft above the hearth, where high windows let in a bit of light.
Small, yes, but lovingly-maintained. This was a home.
Ariemme finally crossed the threshold. Lifting her wineskin and bundle of food off her shoulders, she set them on the table. “Would you join me? I would thank you for your hospitality by sharing my food with you.”
He pulled off his hat, laying it on one of the shelves, and nodded. The little bells on his staff jingled as he leaned it against the wall and then lifted down some of the bread, cheese, and jerky, and a pair of clay cups.
With their feast spread across the table, he held out his hands, one facing palm up, the other palm down. Ariemme mirrored his gesture, silently echoing the blessing as he spoke it out loud.
“Maiden most gracious, we thank you for these gifts, and for the covenant that holds us safe. May we remain always true and grateful.”
They sat, Ariemme tucking her feet under the chair, and for long minutes they ate in silence. Outside, she could hear the goats bleating, and the occasional rrr-rrr-rree of the pigs, and even Sparrow Song snorting as he loudly slurped from the bucket. The dog barked once and then fell quiet.
The birds were not quiet.
Her gift of wing-tongue was not strong, weaker than her gift of sinuous-tongue. But it was enough to understand a trill here, a warble there.
… stinky … stinking … rot … foul blood … angry trees ….
“Why are the trees angry?”
The grange-keeper choked on his wine. He carefully set aside the clay cup and leaned back in his chair. He swallowed, drawing in a long breath. Finally, he spoke. “I am Fferrieth, son of Dorra and Merri, and keeper of the Grange of the Cork Tree. I am brother of Jemmien, whom you know as the father of the Heir.”
“I am Ariemme, third child of the Pasithea, and elder sister of Tieffem, the Heir of the Pasithea.”
“Do you remember him? Jemmien?”
Ariemme slowly shook her head. “I do not. I was too young, and was still nursery-bound.”
Fferrieth looked around the small room, eyes trailing across the shelves and paintings. “He wanted to leave here. Near as soon as he could walk, he was off down the road. In his sixteenth year, he finally convinced our parents to allow him to travel to the City of the Hall of the Pasithea. To apprentice in a trade. A good trade.” The grange-keeper shrugged. “But nothing held his attention. Cobbler, weaver, bard, courtesan, carpenter, potter.” Another shrug. “He would study, practice, then grow bored and find a new trade. And so it was that he tried his hand at fortunetelling, and came to the attention of the Pasithea.”
“The Autumnaltide rites.” Ariemme took a quick sip of wine, remembering what she had learned of Tieffem’s father from half-heard conversations, gossip, and hurried whispers. “He was among the fortunetellers invited into the Hall to bleed and read the teeth and bones for the coming year.”
“Aye.” Ferrieth leaned his elbows on the table. Melancholy and shame pulled at the corners of his mouth. “He caught the Pasithea’s interest. Perhaps it was his face. Perhaps his prediction.”
“That her next child would wear a skirt as red as hers.”
“Hhmm. No lie, that.”
Those half-heard conversations, gossip, and hurried whispers filled her mind. The fortuneteller — Jemmien — had lain with the Pasithea only during the Autumnaltide rites. She had never sought him out again, but he had returned often to the Hall, reading for any who asked, and many who did not ask. He had made a nuisance of himself, but his predictions were so chillingly accurate, so frighteningly precise that no one had dared to send him away, not even the Pasithea. And nine moons later, on the eve of Aestvaltide — the most auspicious of days — the Pasithea had birthed Tieffem.
And Jemmien had dared to lay claim to the Pasithea and her child. He had stormed into the Hall of the Red Throne, proclaiming that it was his prophecy and his seed that had allowed the child to be conceived. And there would be more such children, he had declared, strong in the blessings of the Maiden, worthy of red skirts, if the Pasithea would join her hand with his.
The Shield had nearly killed Jemmien for his blasphemy.
He had fled the Hall, fled the City of the Hall. What had become of him then …?
Ariemme did not learn any of this until many years later. Such gossip would not have been spoken in the nursery. She had picked up bits of the tale here, pieces of it there; but only bits and pieces.
She wondered if Tieffem knew any of this, or if they were ignorant of their father’s madness and pride.
… stinky … stinking … rot … foul blood … angry trees ….
“Did he come back here? Did he return home?”
Fferrieth refilled his cup and took a long swallow. “Not immediately. Word eventually came back to us of what had happened. My father ….” A deep sigh. “He could not bear the shame. Sickness took him within a few moons.” He waved the clay cup towards the great bull skull mounted above the hearth and the bones hanging there on bright blue ribbons. “Six winters ago, Jemmien finally came home. My mother wept at the sight of him, and I nearly set the dog to drive him from the grange.”
Ariemme flinched, already suspecting what Fferrieth would say.
“He wore hollowed-out bones in his hair and his tongue was stained black by marrow blood.”
The flinch turned into a full body shudder.
Fferrieth opened and closed his mouth, again and then again. He took another long swallow of wine, and finally spoke again. “I do not know when he surrendered himself to the Marrow Witch. When he swore himself as her child. I only know that when he came to us, he pledged that he had turned away from Her, that he had found his way back into the grace of the Maiden.”
“And you believed him.”
The grange-keeper’s jaw flexed. “My mother believed him. And, for a time, it seemed that her faith in him was justified. I saw no evidence of malefic magic. He removed the hollow bones from his hair. His tongue turned pink again. He watched the herd, aided in the births of calves and kids, harvested honey from wild hives in the woods.” Fferrieth set down the cup, picked it up again and moved it to the other side of the table, fiddled with a chunk of hard cheese. “And then late in the summer, I left, tracking a kid that had wandered out of the field and into the woods. In hindsight, I know it was deliberate. Jemmien let the kid out of the field himself. By the time I found the goat and returned to the grange, it was done.”
He waved his hand at the bones again, the movement stilted and twitchy.
Ariemme peered closer. Unable to see them clearly, she rose from her chair and crossed the small room to stand before the hearth.
There were a great variety of bones: goat and pig, dog and deer. And, yes, human. A forearm bone; from his father Merri, most likely. And another … oh. A jawbone. But the teeth had been removed, and the bone itself was pitted and pockmarked.
Jemmien had murdered and harvested his own mother.
Ariemme gagged and pressed a hand to her mouth.
Fferrieth’s voice was so low that she could barely hear it.
“He is somewhere out there. Somewhere in the woods. I looked for him. I have been hunting him for years. But I have not been able find him. Only evidence that he still lives, and that he was — is — still a child of the Marrow Witch.”
“Angry trees,” she whispered.
Fortuneteller. Jemmien had been a fortuneteller, one whose predications were chillingly accurate. Had he foreseen the birth of the twin bulls? The selection of one as the Beloved son of the Maiden? Had he waited, watched, plotted? And then acted?
She turned and found Fferrieth slumped forward in his chair, elbows resting on his knees, head down.
“Did you know that he had taken the bones of the bull? The dead twin?”
“There should have been no bones for him to take. The twin lived only a few days. It was small. I burned the corpse. It went quickly.”
“Perhaps not bones, then, but something. There was something left of the twin.”
Her eyes darted to the high narrow windows.
It was the fourth hour past high sun, perhaps even a bit later. She only had until the seventh hour.
“You have failed the covenant. Had you called the Guard when your brother first returned home, your mother would have lived, the bull would have lived, the sacrifice would have been guaranteed. And, again, if you had alerted the Guard after he slew your mother, they would have hunted him down. They would not have left the woods until his head decorated one of their spears. And for that the Maiden will hold you to account.”
With every word, his head dropped further. His shoulders began to shake.
“The angry trees,” she said. “You will take me to them.”
Fferrieth’s head snapped around. “I have not found him, not after all these seasons and years hunting him. Why do you think that you will?”
She tilted her chin up. “Because I am a daughter of the Pasithea. And the birds will show me the way.”
They rode Sparrow Song deep into the forest. Sunlight speared down through the branches in sharp beams, scattering across the leaves and roots of the forest floor. Birds chirruped overhead and squirrels dashed madly up and down tree trunks and through the canopy.
Fferreith was silent behind her, only directing her to steer Sparrow Song towards the northwest. He carried his staff, the ribbons and bells carefully removed and left at the grange-home, and used it to push thick shrubs or prickly thorns aside, allowing the steed safer passage.
She knew that he was leading her true. The birds high above grew increasingly agitated the deeper they rode into the forest. And the trees began to thin out, their trunks becoming narrower and narrower, with fewer buds on their branches. More sunlight poured down through the widening gaps in the canopy, heating her bare head and shoulders and chest and back.
“There.” Ffferieth pointed with his walking stick.
Sparrow Song huffed unhappily and locked his legs, refusing to move any further.
Ariemme stared at the clump of trees. Twisted. Brittle grey-white with bark like ash. Lumpy roots pushed up through the ground, bleeding a blackish-red ooze.
These trees were not angry. They were of the Marrow Witch now, manifestations of her hunger.
No, it was the trees near that were angry. And afraid.
She tilted her head back, studying the canopy. After a moment, a flicker of movement caught her eyes.
A single sparrow peered down at her, eyes curious, head canted to one side.
Perhaps the Maiden had a hand in the bird’s appearance?
Ariemme whistled. Not well, but the bird seemed to understand her question. It responded by hopping back and forth on the branch, trilling a response.
Oak. Yelling oak? No. Shouting oak?
Frowning, frustration building in her chest, Ariemme whistled again. The sparrow hopped more rapidly, wings fluttering. It trilled the same response.
“Do you know of an oak that yells? Or shouts?”
Fferrieth’s brows drew together. “There was an elm that made a strange sound when the wind struck its trunk, but it was felled by a storm a decade ago.” His chin drew back and his eyes widened. “There is an oak. I remember now. We visited it when we were children hunting for honey. The knot in the trunk had the look of an open mouth and eyes, as if it were yelling.”
“Where? Show me.”
He lifted his walking stick, pointing over her shoulder.
Deeper into the forest.
The sparrow followed, chirruping wildly. It was soon joined by more sparrows, and wrens and jays and ravens and even a few owls. A mad, cacophonous congress, all of them singing and flapping their wings.
The disjointed riot of half-understood words gave Ariemme a headache.
… rotting breath … old bones … dance … backwards … shadow … stinking … screaming tree …
Fferrieth’s hand lifted to her shoulder and he leaned forward. His voice was so soft that it was nearly inaudible beneath the trills and hoots and caws of the birds.
“Just there. See that elm with the hooked branch? The oak with the strange knot is but twenty paces further on.”
Ariemme nodded silently, and slid from Sparrow Song’s back. She patted the horse’s neck and he stamped his hooves nervously.
She understood his fear.
A child of the Marrow Witch. Skilled in curses —
“I see you, my child.”
— and fortunetelling.
Ariemme tried to swallow, her mouth suddenly dry. Her heart stuttered in alarm and every bird in the trees overhead went utterly silent and still.
“Come, my child. Come. Our meeting has been many years in the making. But I have foreseen it. Yes, I have foreseen it.”
Her feet were carrying her forward. Hands curled into fists at her sides, Ariemme paced slowly across the ground and around the elm with the hooked branch.
Five paces. Ten. Fifteen.
The oak appeared among the other trees, standing alone in a tiny clearing. Late afternoon sunlight dribbled down through the branches, creating a ring of green and gold around the tree.
And there, at the base of the tree, beneath the knot that looked like eyes and a screaming mouth, sat the child of the Marrow Witch.
[End Part Four. The conclusion appears here.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]