The Maiden and the Marrow Witch — Part Three

She would need more than a lunch.

A child of the Marrow Witch.

Ariemme suppressed a shudder as she made the long, back and forth, back and forth climb up from the archives to the Hall of the Pasithea. Rough natural rock and darkness gave way to smooth, polished stone and high windows filled with sunlight. The faint scent of bread and oranges and honey and roasting meat touched her nose.

She had no magic of her own; or, very little, at any rate. She could not commune with the bees and the bulls, summon the rains, or feel the deep down cracking of the earth. She did not even possess lesser abilities, such as curving the wind, dancing with water, or walking with fire. She could talk to snakes (a little) and understood bird song (a little). But not enough to apprentice with the Grandfather of Serpents or join the choir of Gryphon Singers who heralded the changes of the seasons from the mountain peaks.

Her skirt was pale pink, and it would remain pale pink. Never red.

How could she possibly find and defeat a child of the Marrow Witch?

“Sister, what have you been about?”

Ariemme skipped to a stop, gaze refocusing on Tieffem. Her sibling stood in front of her, a head shorter, scowling up at her, their arms crossed. 

“Mother has noted your absence,” the Heir continued. “She is expecting you to attend upon her, and prepare for the Vernaltide rites.”

Ariemme straightened her back, tongue working as she hunted for the right words.

Tieffem was correct. She should report to the Pasithea, tell her what had been discovered in the archives, tell her that soldiers needed to be sent to the Grange of the Cork Tree.

And then there would be questions, and more questions. And the Lorekeeper would be summoned and the records would be analyzed and there would be yet more questions and debate and —

Too much time. Time she did not have.

Time the Caretaker did not have.

(And what if the Maiden rejected the Caretaker’s sacrifice? It was the child of the Marrow Witch who should die this sunset, unwillingly, yes, but a justified sacrifice. Surely the Maiden would understand, and accept, and the second covenant would hold true.)

Tieffem scowled harder, foot tapping against the stone. A gust of wind through the high windows sent their red skirt to dancing around their ankles.

But the Lorekeeper had not told Ariemme to report any of this to the Pasithea. They had just told her to pack a lunch.

“I will explain all to Mother when I return.” Ariemme twisted and stepped around her sibling, continuing down the corridor. “Tell her I will be back for the sunset rites — and that I will bring the true Sacrifice with me.”

Tieffem ran after her. “What do you mean, sister? The Caretaker will assume the Bull’s place.” 

“Nay. He shall not. He is not responsible. It is the murderer who shall die this night.”

Tieffem was silent, their sandals clapping against the stone.

Ariemme hastened her steps, making for the heavy wooden door at the end of the hallway. Down the exterior stairs, and she would find herself in the interior courtyard beside the kitchens. Then across the courtyard, down another corridor, another short flight of stairs, and she would be at the stables in an exterior courtyard on the south side of the Hall of the Pasithea.

“You know the name of the child of the Marrow Witch? You know who has forsaken the covenant and betrayed the Maiden?”

“I — no. But I know how they cursed and murdered the Bull.” Ariemme shoved the door open and blinked painfully. It was brighter out here, at high noon, than it had been in the corridor. Moving by memory, she released the door and made her way down the stairs. Her vision cleared after a few steps and she turned to find Tieffem still following her, their expression changed from one of irritation to one of determination.

“I will accompany you.”

Ariemme gaped at her sibling. Her toes caught and she nearly fell, only saving herself by dragging her hand along the stone wall. Her palm stung and she shook her hand, grimacing. “Absolutely not.”

She ignored Tieffem’s “Absolutely yes” and hastened down to the interior courtyard.

The space was filled with chefs and apprentice chefs and bakers and apprentice bakers and butchers and apprentice butchers, standing still and running around, shouting and whispering and muttering. Some held knives, others great spoons or brushes. Some stood at tables or ovens, others over bubbling vats or beside carcasses half-skinned, the meat and fat glistening in the sun. Some carried trays and platters, others huge amphorae and jugs, still others the skins of rabbits and sheep and goats bound for the furriers and vellum-makers.

The kitchen courtyard was as much a labyrinth as the archives far below.

And Ariemme knew it as well as she knew her own room.

She dove among the tables and ovens and bubbling vats, twisting around harried apprentices and screaming chefs. She grabbed an orange from one table, scooped up a loaf of bread from another. Tieffem disappeared among the crowd, yelling her name. She ignored them and hauled a small packet of dried fish off another table, then a wineskin off the platter of a startled apprentice. A hunk of cheese was last, just before the chef could chop it in half, the cleaver whistling past her fingers.

Juggling her lunch, the wineskin over one shoulder, Ariemme made for one of the doors on the far side of the courtyard. 

Through the door, the sounds and scents of the kitchens mostly lost behind her as she trotted along. 

Then the door opened and Tieffem was at her back again. She could hear the scowl in their voice.

“I am the Heir. If there is a threat to the land and the covenant, I should accompany you.”

Through another door and down a short flight of stairs, right to the stables. Stalls for the horses occupied three sides of the courtyard, while the fourth stood wide open, delicately carved columns and plinth marking the gateway. She could smell the animals, and hay and apples and carrots; hear the neighing and whuffing, and the soothing words of the stablehands. 

“Yes, you are the Heir.” The right words, for once, came easily. “If there is a threat to the land and the covenant, you should be the one to report it to the Pasithea.”

Someone had left a cotton sheet to dry on a bale of hay. Ariemme grabbed it as she went, tossing her food in the middle, twisting and tying it, looping the bundle over her shoulder. 

She tested the weight and balance, wineskin on one side, food on the other.

That would do.

Now, for a mount. She needed a fast horse, one with stamina. Steady, calm, but quick. Not like the usual animals she took for sedate rides around the city, or on tours of the island with the Pasithea.

No, not Sunrise Cloud. Not Seamist, either. Another stall, another.

Tieffem was still arguing.

“You assume too much authority, sister. This is a matter for the Pasithea and her council, not … you.”

Pale pink. Not red.

Jaw tight, Ariemme continued down the line of stalls. She ignored the curious looks of the stablehands, ignored her sibling, ignored the tightness in her belly.

Ah. This one. 

Sparrow Song.

She flipped the latch, taking the bridle that hung to the side and slipping it over the horse’s head. Sparrow Song lipped at her hand and stepped calmly from his stall. 

Ariemme braced her hands, pushed up, and swung onto the horse’s bare back. She shifted into a more comfortable position, wide skirt hiked up around her knees.

“This is a matter for me, Tieffem. It is my home that is threatened, as much as yours. And he is my father.”

A touch of her sandaled heels, a click of her tongue, and Sparrow Song leaped away, through the gate, and down the street. South to the Grange of the Cork Tree and the corpse of the bull.

***

They went slowly at first, so slowly that she was grinding her teeth in frustration, navigating the densely crowded streets of the capital: pilgrims carrying flails made of cow tails and necklaces of cow teeth, merchants hefting beautifully carved horns and amphorae filled with honey, fortunetellers half-drunk on blood-mead, bards starting songs and then demanding coins to finish. Once the masses of celebrants finally cleared, though, and they passed from the city proper and into the agricultural lands, she let Sparrow Song run free, and he did not disappoint. With a delighted whinny, the horse sprinted down the road, kicking up shiny white gravel. Faster and faster. She laughed, hands tight around the bridle, the wineskin and bundle of food banging against her sides.

When they reached the first crossroads, brightly painted signs pointing in five different directions, Ariemme turned south-east. She slowed Sparrow Song to a cooling trot, then a walk. She took a heavy gulp of the wine and tore off some of the bread. The sun was hot against the top of her head and her shoulders and her bare chest and back.

When the horse had recovered, she let him run again. He tossed his head, his mane snapping, his hooves skimming the road.

An hour passed. Merchants’ wagons were a blur on the road, and the small conclave of fortunetellers in their bright white robes, and the troupe of bards in their colorful hats. They passed granges large and small, fields filled with cattle and goats and sheep; carved stone gateways, some grand, some simple, named each grange as they raced past it. Apiaries, too, with alternating rows of fruit trees, just beginning to shed their blooms for delicate green leaves, 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.

A shepherd waved his hat, and a little girl swinging upside down from an apple tree waved her hand. A bard tipped his hand and grinned.

Ariemme waved back.

They stopped at a crossroads well, and she let the horse drink his fill. And then another hour, the sun moving slowly into the west.

And then she found herself at the Grange of the Cork Tree.

She slowed Sparrow Song to a trot, then a walk, finally stopping in the shadow of the gateway.

It was of simple design. The tall stone columns to either side, easily twice her height astride Sparrow Song, had been carved with the image of a cork tree. The plinth that formed the top of the gate had been inscribed with the name of the Grange, branches twisting in and among the words.

The path from the gate to the grange-home was short. And the house itself was relatively small; only a single level, with what might have been a sleeping loft at the back. Smooth white adobe walls, brightly painted with flowers and gryphons and bulls, and a swarm of bees around the front door. Grass and moss covered the roof, a few wildflowers just beginning to poke out their heads. A low stone wall separated the grange-home from a grazing field off to the right, and small vegetable garden and well to the left.

A single cork tree grew there, partially shading the well.

Here. Here she would find the answers she needed. She would find the corpse of the bull, and that would lead her to the child of the Marrow Witch, and the Caretaker would be saved.

Her father. 

The Pasithea, no matter the leanings of their heart, was allowed no spouse. Others could wed as they chose, but the Pasithea remained unbound, like the Maiden Herself. So it was for Ariemme’s mother, and her grandfather, and all of the Pasitheas who had come before, back to the first, newly-arrived on the island chosen as their sanctuary by the Maiden.

Her mother had never forbidden Ariemme from learning more about her father; from spending time in his company, speaking with him. But such behavior had not been encouraged, either.

There is too much of him in you, and not enough of me.

Ariemme bit the inside of her lip.

No, she did not no him well. But she knew that he did not deserve to die.

She touched her heels to Sparrow Song’s flanks. The horse dutifully moved forward, passing beneath the stone branches of the cork tree.

***

Three hours. It was now the third hour after high sun. Ariemme studied the shadow of the cork tree. Or at least very close to the third hour.

Patting Sparrow Song’s neck, she swung down from his back. Her knees shook with the impact of her feet on the ground, and the sudden stillness of her muscles made her back twinge.

A quick swig from the wineskin. 

Shaking her legs, Ariemme led Sparrow Song over to the well. She filled the bucket and set it in the grass. Leaving the horse to happily drink, she made her way back to the door of the grange-home.

She knocked once, twice, and again.

Somewhere, not far away, a dog barked.

Turning, she peered over the stone wall and across the field. About two dozen cattle wandered through the grasses, pulling at the tender heads or chomping on the scattered piles of hay. There were a few goats, too, and even some pigs; uncommon, but not unheardof.

The dog barked again.

Stepping away from the door, Ariemme moved to the stone wall and set her hands on top of it. Two of the cows peered at her curiously, then went back to eating. The bull of the herd twitched his tail, eyes dark. A goat ran right up to the wall and demanded a head scratch. She obliged, her gaze sliding across the mixture of animals until it finally landed on their human caretaker.

He studied her in return, wide floppy hat with a bright blue band pulled down low to protect his face and neck. His torso was bare and dark, his skirt loose and comfortable in the spring afternoon, his boots laced high around his knees to protect his legs against the grasses and thorns and bugs. The twisted staff in his hand was plain except for the blue ribbon tied near the top, tiny golden bells dangling from its length.

Those bells tingled lightly as he moved across the field towards her. The dog followed, its tail stiff, head down.

The bull continued to watch her, eyes dark, and the goat was still demanding head scratches.

When he was close enough, Ariemme dipped her head and pressed one hand to her heart. “Vernaltide blessings, grange-keeper. May the Maiden and her covenant hold you safe and grant you prosperity.”

“And you, nymphelle. What brings you to the Grange of the Cork Tree.”

Ariemme hid a frown. His voice was familiar. And the way he held his head, the angle of his chin ….

She cleared her throat. “I come seeking information. Twin bulls were born on this grange three years past. One of the twins died. Other was taken to the Hall of the Pasithea and selected to join the herd there. Is that correct?”

The grange-keeper narrowed his eyes and gave a slow nod. “Aye, that is correct. This interests you why?”

This time, Ariemme did frown. The longer he stood before her, the more familiar he seemed. “Can you tell me what became of the corpse of the dead twin?”

His fingers tightened around his staff. The dog growled, long and low.

The goat who had been enjoying the head scratches bleated in alarm and leaped away. The herd of cattle responded by shifting restlessly, sidling further away, and the bull snorted in warning.

“I repeat,” the grange-keeper said, “why does this interest you?”

Ariemme fiddled with the bundle that held her food. “The surviving twin was chosen as the Beloved son of the Maiden. But now he has been slain. He lies dead, as well. A curse. Malefic magic.”

The grange-keeper drew in his chin and glared down at her. Frustrated. Arrogant.

That look. She knew that look.

She saw it almost every day on Tieffem’s face.

The grange-keeper. The grange-keeper was Tieffem’s father. 

[End Part Three. Part Four appears here.]

[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]

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