I Will Tell You Seven
It was a dark and stormy night. The moon was up there somewhere, full and round like a silver shilling, but it couldn’t be seen through all the ragged rifts of cloud that glided down the great sky river towards a still-distant dawn.
All these things had to be true, by the way. None of it was accidental, or unlooked-for. If it hadn’t been dark, Unsung Jill would have been blind. If it hadn’t been wet, Peter couldn’t have come up out of the lake. If there had been no moon, Kel would have had no claws and Anna could not have danced.
We would none of us have been ready for the great fight that was to come.
Let us say, for the sake of argument, that we were seven. Seven would have been a goodly number, after all. Seven small figures (for Kel was not in his furry coat yet, and Unsung Jill can be any size she wishes) running up the hill toward the castle wall.
Toward Errencester, where twice times one hundred men at arms waited for us. And one mage. And one monster.
I’m lying, though. There were only six that came to the castle that night, and six were not enough.
It seems I’ve no more wit for tales than I have for tallies. We must go back a little, to get the sense of this. Then we’ll push on.
“…and come to our village?” Dam Alice said. “And help us? Fight for us?”
“What, now?” I muttered. I was only halfway through my supper, and tired from a long day’s hunting. I hadn’t been listening properly to what the two men and the one woman had been saying to me. I didn’t know why they were here, standing at the mouth of my hole in the queasy twilight that was neither one thing nor another. Out of the three, it was only the woman I recognised, as a friend of my mother’s in times long gone. They bothered me somewhat, but not enough to make me want to kill them and eat them.
“We asked if you would come,” the big man said. Tall. Tall man. Not big like Kel is big, for he had little heft to him. His body was gaunt, and his skin pocked with old sores. His silver hair was sparse. “We’re in desperate need.”
“Are you, then?” I said, and bit into the bird again. It was a moorhen, I think. I had plucked out most of the feathers, but left the bones in to give it some crunch. I chewed the spiky mouthful hard. I don’t really taste things any more, but the jagged ends of the bones stuck into my cheeks and the roof of my mouth, which was almost the same as eating something with spice to it. The wounds healed over as soon as they were made. I don’t ever hurt for long.
“The new lord has done terrible things to us,” the other man said. He was small, even shorter than the woman, and very wide in the body. His limbs were short and his head was large. His red hair and beard were so full it looked like someone had set his head on fire. There’s a name for the kind of man he was, but I don’t remember it. “He takes everything we’ve got, and anyone who protests is cut down by his soldiers.”
“The old lord rode us hard,” Dam Alice declared, “but he was careful not to kill the chicken because he wanted to keep having eggs to eat. Ebberlin is different. He’s married a lady from across the water, a magician’s get, and she brought him a dower of spell-found gold richer than dreams. He doesn’t need us any more. And I think he means to end us.”
“What’s that to me?” I asked. And then, because it seemed like a question they were better able to answer, “What can you offer me?”
“A home,” the big man said. “You left Cosham because you didn’t feel welcome there.”
“True, yes. Very true. Pitchforks were stuck in me. Mattocks were swung at my head. Was I wrong, pock-marked man? Was I welcome after all?”
His blotched skin grew flushed. He looked away.
“We treated you badly,” Dam Alice said. “We’re very sorry. But you can come back now, as Bertram said. And anyone else you bring to help us, they’ll be welcome too. Cosham will open its doors, and its granaries. You’ll be fed. Sheltered.”
“Loved,” the short man said. Dwarf. The dwarf. That is the word I was looking for.
“Loved,” Dam Alice agreed.
“Interesting,” I said. “You want me to find others, then? Other champions to fight for you?”
“Well,” the big man said. “You can’t lay siege to a castle all by yourself.” He laughed, a little nervously.
I thought about that. As I was thinking, I ate what was left of the dead bird, gulping it down my throat in one go. It took a long time to go down. When I was first alive, I would have choked to death before I swallowed it all. I’m stronger now, though, and while breathing is a comfort to me sometimes, it doesn’t feel as important as it used to.
“No,” I said. “You’re right. I can’t do that alone. There’ll need to be more of us.”
“Then you’ll help!” Dam Alice brought her hands together and squeezed them tight, her face twisted and crumpled by a hope so unexpected it came close to pain.
“I think I remember Ebberlin, when he was a boy,” I said. “He killed Garian’s dog with an arrow, and laughed about it.”
The dwarf looked uncertain. “Aren’t you Garian?” he asked me.
That’s a mistake a lot of people make. I shook my head. “I’m what Garian became after he lay in the ground for a year. Let me think on it. I don’t like Ebberlin much, and I did like living in a house. Perhaps I’ll help you.”
The big man drew himself up, and looked at the other two each in turn, as if to say he spoke for all of them. “We need more than a perhaps,” he said.
“But that’s what you’re getting,” I told him.
They went away, then. I saw that the dwarf was lame.
I went to the river, and called out to Peter.
“Ho, hey, harum,” I called. “Boy of rainfall, boy of tears. River’s son and flood’s favourite, come at my beseeching.”
Who needs to cross these waters? Peter answered. He had not yet shown himself.
“Nobody yet,” I said. “It’s me, that used to be Garian. I came to talk, is what.”
The water of the lake rose up in a great spume, that shaped itself into a boy. He skimmed across the surface the way a ripple does, breaking apart and coming together ever and again, until he stood before me.
Ho, Once-Was-Garian, and hey, he said. What is it you’d talk about?
“An offer was put to me,” I said, and I told him what it was.
Well, Peter said, whelming Errencester is a fine idea. I hate them all, in that castle, because of what they did to Magrete in the time when I was alive. But your siege will fail. Those gates won’t open to you, and Uther’s walls can’t be made to fall.
“It’s not Uther any more, it’s Ebberlin. And as for the walls, I have a plan. Will you come with me, and help me?”
I cannot. I stand in the torrent and take its toll. I can’t come on dry land again.
“I know it. How if the land were not dry, though?”
“How if there was a great storm, with sheets of rain coming down? Could you not run from drop to drop to drop, and so come out of the water and onto the earth without taking hurt?”
Peter was silent for a long while. He let himself fall back into the spate, and came back a moment later in a new shape, thinner and taller. I have no idea if that would work, he said.
“Would you like to try?”
With all my heart, if it means vengeance on Uther’s kin. But will we go together?
“That’s my plan.”
And breach the keep that never yet was broken?
But… must we wait for a storm, then? There are not many in the dead Winter.
“Leave that to me. I know a way to bring one.”
Morjune was twelve years old when she was taken as a witch and burned.
It was all done very properly, and according to the law. The villagers of Cosham put her in Fra Nuggle’s barn, tied to a metal stake that they had hammered into the floor there. They waited for the circuit magistrate to come through, and set her before him, charging that she had blighted Fra Nuggle’s crops and caused his wife to deliver a welter of blood instead of a live baby.
The evidence was strong. Did Morjune not live alone in her dead mother’s house? And had she not missed going to church three Sundays out of every month? And did she not mutter to herself when she walked, as if she were talking to a devil nobody else could see?
The circuit magistrate, a man who had learned his law in far-off Oxford, put Morjune to very thorough question. After her thumbs and fingers were crushed with a screw and half her teeth were drawn out with a pliers, the girl admitted that she was indeed a witch and had done all the things that were alleged against her.
She was burned in the village square, and since it was a market day a good crowd came to watch her die.
Her coming back was a great deal quieter. Nobody realised she was there at all until Dam Alice noticed there was a lamp burning in old Mother Jessop’s house, which with Morjune’s death should by rights be empty. After she reported this three nights in a row, some men went to the house to see for themselves what was what.
There was no lamp. Morjune was there, and she was still on fire. It was not a blameful fire, though. It ran across the floor of the old house, and climbed the walls, and licked at the table and chairs, but none of those things were consumed. Morjune sat in the kitchen corner, with her knees drawn up to her chest, and offered no harm to anyone.
The village priest, Father Hasting, exorcised her with prayers and holy water, but she only came back. He tried again, with bell and book and candle, to no better effect. After that, the villagers left Morjune alone and she did them the same courtesy. She wanted no further argument with them.
She wanted none with me, either, and wouldn’t come out at first when I went to her house and sat down at her table. After a while, though, when I didn’t speak or move, she toppled a pot off the kitchen stove, and then a trencher off the bench, and then a chair.
“Go away,” she whispered. Her voice was like the skittering of small beasts in dry leaves.
“I will, soon,” I said. “Morjune, the people of the village have asked me to whelm the castle of Errencester and kill Duke Ebberlin. They say they’ll give me, and everyone that goes with me, a home and a welcome thereafter.”
“I’ve already got a home. I live here.”
“But nobody speaks to you. Nobody comes.”
“That’s how I like it.”
“God give you grace, then. If you’re never lonely, and never bored, they’ve nothing to give you and nor have I.”
We were both of us quiet a while after that. “What would you want me for?” Morjune asked at last. “I’m only a ghost. And my fire’s only a memory of fire. It doesn’t burn.”
“I don’t want you for that, but for another trick entirely.”
“I’m not a witch, revenant boy. I never was. I only said that so they’d stop hurting me.”
“I know how torture works, Morjune.”
“So did they. What trick would you have me do?”
I told her what was in my mind. The flames came creeping around me as I talked, and climbed the legs of the table, and danced upon its top. When I left, the whole house was burning, the fire roaring like a wild animal as it leapt from floor to beams to thatch and up into the sky as if it were going home to the sun, the fount of all fires.
Just as it did every night, to no end or avail.
The villagers sent the dwarf to tell me that they were not happy with me. His name, I learned, was Thomas. That had been my mother’s father’s name.
“It’s the witch,” he said. “Morjune.” He threw out his arms in a kind of shrug, as if he were casting the words on the ground between us, showing at the same time his empty hands. Showing how far he was from intending harm. “Master Bertram and Dam Alice never meant for you to consort with fiends and damned souls.”
I was sitting on the parapet of the village well, talking with Peter who was down in the water below me. I had gone first to my mother and father’s house, but my father’s brother, Benjemin, was living there now with his children, and they all screamed at the sight of me.
Did they not know me? had they not heard the story? Apparently not.
“Damned souls,” I said. “Is that what she is?”
“She was condemned for black magic. You can’t do such things and go to Heaven.”
“She didn’t go to Heaven, though, did she? Or to Hell, either. She stayed here, in Cosham. I think we can agree that’s in between.”
Thomas frowned, and scratched his elbow. He looked to be working through my words to see if there was any chink or hole in them. “It may be that Master Bertram and Dam Alice are right,” I said, “and angels will get the job done faster. Tell them to send me some. Until then, I’ll work with what I’ve got.”
Unsung Jill should have been the easiest of all to recruit. A corpse-candle is best to summon her with, but an ordinary tallow candle will do, and being a bogyar she delights in mischief for its own sake. But when I called her name and pinched the wick to put out the light, she didn’t come. I was alone in the dark.
I’ll try again later, I thought, and went to talk with Kel and Anna in the Crowfell woods. We were friends of a long time, and comfortable with one another. I found them feeding on a deer they’d brought down together. They invited me to share the meal, but I thanked them kindly and said no. Kel’s appetite is huge, when he’s hairy, and a deer splits two ways more easily than three.
When they had eaten their fill, I told them about the plan to whelm Errencester. They were delighted, and said they would be pleased to come along and help so long as the moon was full. “What about Magrete, though?” Kel said.
“I have a plan for Magrete.”
“I wouldn’t wish to hurt her.”
“No. Nor would I. My plan’s not that.”
“If we come to the keep and can’t breach it, it will go hard with us.”
“I warrant you, we’ll crack the walls of Errencester as if Errencester were a new-laid egg.”
They liked the sound of that, and renewed their promises. There had to be a full moon, which gave me two days yet to finish my preparations. In truth, I was all but done. The main thing now was to treat with Unsung Jill. Without her help I couldn’t do anything. She was like the nail that made the horse throw its shoe in the old story, and caused the king to fall and the battle to be lost. She would bring the storm, and the storm would let Peter rise up out of the river. Or else she wouldn’t, and there was nothing to be done after all.
I thought I could make her join with us, if only she would talk to me. So perhaps words were the nail.
Benjemin’s oldest son, Arran, came looking for me. He found me in the broken barn behind my uncle’s orchard, where I had gone because my being at the well made too many people afraid to come there and fill their buckets.
When he came to the door I stopped what I was doing, which was writing names on pieces of slate, and bid him enter.
“Are you my cousin?” he asked me. That question must have been turning in his mind ever since I came to the house. I could have said yes, or even no, but a lie told to a child is a weightier thing than one told to a grown man or woman. Children haven’t come to an understanding of the world, and they may build your lies into their believing in ways that will come to hurt them.
“Come here,” I said. “Sit by me. Do you know your letters?”
“No. I can count up to ten, though.” He sat beside me, though his eyes as he looked at me were big and troubled. It took courage. I smiled at him. Then I remembered what I look like when I smile, and stopped.
“Your cousin Garian died,” I said. “Of a fever. His father, your uncle Hale, buried him in Viglund’s Church, as he might have been expected to do. But when he and his wife, Sarah, went home, their grief did not abate. Instead it grew stronger and stronger. People who are sorrowing do foolish things, sometimes. My mother and father did something very stupid indeed. They went to Southfold. They found a wise man there, a sorcerer named Cain Caradoc, and asked him to bring their son back.
“The sorcerer knew two fools when he saw them. He said he could do it, but asked how they would pay him. They offered eight shillings, which was all they had, but though it was a fortune to them he told them it was not enough. I will bring your son back, he said, but I’ll take a tithing of him for myself. You can have all of his body, and most of his soul. I’ll just keep one small piece. I can use it in my magics.”
Arran looked at me solemnly and fearfully. “What did they say?”
“They said yes. They’d walked all the way to Southfold, and screwed their hopes up higher with each mile they walked. To say no would have been more than they could bear. So the spell was made, and what came up out of the grave was me. So you see, your question is easier to ask than it is to answer. Some of me is, or was, some of your cousin. But I’m not him, and I don’t answer to his name.”
Arran cast his gaze on the ground, and on the pile of slates there. He touched the pile with his foot, and the slates slid sideways. Some of them fell and broke. The boy startled. “I’m sorry!” he said. “I didn’t mean to.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “I need them broken anyway.”
“Were Uncle Hale and Aunt Sarah happy when you came home to them?”
“They were not. They were struck to the heart when they saw me, and withal they were ashamed and sickened by what they’d done. My father took me into the woods a long way and tried to lose me there, but I found my way back. Then he tried to kill me, but that proved impossible. My body doesn’t remember hurts the way a living body does. It finds its way back to the same shape, ever and again.
“So in the end, they gathered a few things and left in the night. I woke to an empty house – the house you live in now. I searched for them a while. And I suppose I could have found them if I’d put my mind to it. But I looked in my heart, or where I thought my heart should be, and I found I didn’t care enough to chase after them. They’d made me out of love and thoughtlessness, which I suppose is how most people are made, and then they’d regretted the bargain. It happens every day.”
“But then the house was yours. You could have carried on living in Cosham.”
“Cosham didn’t want me.”
“But it does now?”
“Yes. It does now. Do you help me to break up these slates, now, and tell me some names to put on them.”
“What kind of names?”
“Men’s names. Any you can think of.”
He came up with several that I hadn’t thought of. Allan and Iain, Luke, Charles, Mark, Geoffrey… I wrote them all down, one by one, on the jagged shards of slate, while the dusk deepened around us, joining up the shadows in the barn.
Her presence came over me like a blanket, making the sounds of wind and birdsong and creaking wood sound dull and far away. “You’d best go home now,” I said to Arran. “It’s getting dark, and your mother will be looking for you.”
He stood, wiping dirt from the back of his breeks. “I’m sorry for what happened to you,” he said.
“It’s kind of you to say so. Thank you for visiting with me, cousin. And go well.”
He nodded and went scampering off, as fast as if he knew what was behind him.
“I didn’t speak your name,” I said to the dark.
“Yes,” Unsung Jill whispered. “You did, last night, and that calling still holds. I choose when I come, and where I come, and what I look like when I come. Will you turn, fragment of a boy, and look me in the eye?”
“I’d rather not,” I said. “I spent long enough in the ground. I don’t wish to be dragged back there by your green eye, Jill.”
“Look in the yellow one, then.”
“I like that even less. Is that why you’ve come? To trick me and tie me up?”
The whisper of her breath went across my neck. “No,” she said. And then, “I heard you talking, with the little one.”
“And I remember.”
“What do you remember?”
“Something. It doesn’t really matter what. You’d like a storm?”
“Oh, I would, Jill. I really would. The biggest storm this land has ever seen.”
“And if I give you such a thing, incomplete child, what have you got to give me in return?”
“I can offer you what was offered to me. A home. A place to live.”
I felt that cold breath again, winding over me and through me. “You know where I live.”
“I know where you live now. Have you no longing for new things and places?”
Silence fell, and held for a long time. A very long time. I wanted to turn around, but couldn’t. If I looked her in the eye, the best that would come would be disaster. In the end she said “You’ll have your storm. Say my name again, and I’ll come to you. But look you be not foresworn, little piece of a mortal child. You cannot imagine what it means to break your word to me.”
A long time after, when I was sure she was gone, I set down the slate and the sliver of glass I was using to write on it. I covered my eyes with my hands, and thought of nothing. There was great warmth and comfort in nothing, right then.
They came into the barn, in the full light of noon. Perhaps they thought I would be weakest then.
“What is it you mean to do?” Dam Alice asked. Master Bertram and Thomas stood behind her. All three of them looked angry. All three of them looked afraid.
“Why, I mean to march on Errencester,” I told her.
“To march? You talk as if you’ve got an army. You’re no more than a handful!”
“But was ever such a handful scraped together, lady, since the world was made?”
She made an impatient gesture – a shrug of the head that tossed my words away. “You’ve leagued with things we can’t countenance. Cursed things.”
“Is it so? And who did the cursing, then?”
“We thought you might speak to the one that spelled you out of the ground. Borrow a hex from him. Black magic in a righteous cause is no sin. But this…”
I stood. It was not to frighten her, but to keep her from toppling the slates. I had not minded when the boy Arran had done it, because most of the pieces still had to be broken down into smaller pieces anyway. It would be inconvenient now to lose any of the ones I’d made. “We made a bargain,” I said. “It’s yet to play out. Go away now, and leave me be.”
“You’ve broken the bargain. You’re outside the spirit of it.”
“I think not. Go away.”
They went. I thought Thomas looked back at me as if he was sorry to be a part of this. I saw again how his left leg twisted, so his body sank down and rose up again with each step.
And oh, it was such a storm. Such a storm and such a dark! Jill did us proud.
We gathered at the river’s bank, near the Wythen ford, and waited. Anna was there, and Kel. “What’s in your bag?” Kel asked me.
“Slates. For throwing.”
“That’s well. What are we waiting for?”
We were waiting for Peter, but I didn’t need to answer, for just then he reared up out of the water right beside us. He stepped out onto the riverside weeds like Noah’s flood with a face and a name. I like this much, he said. Thank you kindly, Garian.
“Thank Jill,” I said. “She it was that squeezed the clouds, and wreaked this riot.”
Ah, then I like it less. For is she not of Hell?
“What’s Hell, but a warm hearth and a few good companions?” Jill whispered from behind him. A shudder went through Peter, like a wave goes through the clear ocean. He said no more.
“Well, then,” I said. “Let’s to it.”
“Have we no more strategy than that?” Anna asked.
“Our strategy is to force them off the walls and into the keep.”
“And then we’ll see.”
The river and the ford were at the bottom of a steep hill called Sheep Run, and Errencester castle stood at the top of it. As soon as we left the margin of the river we were likely to be seen, so there was little point in creeping and crawling. Instead we ran, out of the trees that had covered us and up the hill.
We were not fired on. From the battlements of Errencester, we must have looked like ragamuffins playing a game. That is, until Jill drew back her arm and let fling, with a fireball like a tiny sun. It took a man off the wall, so quickly that he didn’t even scream as he fell.
These are just sell-swords, Peter said. Their deaths serve no-one.
“When you sell your sword to Ebberlin,” said Kel, “you know full well who’ll be on the other end of it. They get no mercy from me.”
They got none from me, either. I flung my slates, one by one by one. Most of them only fell on the ground, and lay there, but the ones that bore a right name, a name of one of the bowmen and spearmen on the battlements, they went straight and true to that man’s heart. One after another they fell.
The castle’s defenders knew us for a threat, then, and answered us in kind. Their arrows fell like hail, hitting us hard. Jill and I were not troubled by them, so we went before and drew the soldiers’ fire, Jill expanding to her full height to make herself an easier target. Kel and Anna ran in our shadows, and Peter walked apart. What quarrels and bolts hit him passed straight through and went on their way. And ever and anon, as we advanced, Jill spat out hate and heat and hurt in every shape and colour, opening gaps on the walls that did not fill again.
My bag being empty now, I flung it away. I was more than happy to lose the weight. Behind me, Kel changed and Anna began to dance. When the gates loomed in front of us, Jill and I stepped aside and let them pass.
Kel is a bear, when he changes. Anna is many things, and nothing. She remembers all the flesh she’s ever tasted, and weaves and winds it together in ways that were never seen before. She towered over all of us, even her brother, and where he hit the gates in the middle she hit them high.
The gates went down. The soldiers who had been waiting behind them, to rush out on us, went down too, crushed by a handspan’s thickness of old oak and a stampede of terrible shapes that was all one girl.
We were in the bailey yard now, and in greater danger than before. This space was made to be a killing ground, squeezed as it was between the outer walls and the keep. That was why we had harried the soldiers so hard, as we came. We hoped that they would fall back into the keep rather than hold their posts and fire straight down on us.
Some of them did, but some did not, and now there was no room for quarter. I ran up the walls, into the teeth of the falling arrows, and Peter ran beside me. The caked thicknesses of storm cloud above us made the narrow space between the walls as dark as night, but Jill’s fireballs gave us a trail we could follow. We went among the defenders, and we heaped ruin on them. Seeing us come, a mad boy stuck full of arrows but not faltering and a boy of water whom arrows could not touch, they despaired and fled at last.
All had gone as I had hoped, so far, and I had one trick left for Duke Ebberlin and his thanes. I went ahead, not to kill the fleeing men but to make sure they kept on running until they reached the keep.
One of them did not. A great, slope-shouldered giant strode into my path, his back bent by the weight of a club so big and heavy it looked like an uprooted tree.
As he lifted it up, he raised his head too. I saw his face.
It was a child’s face. And it was weeping.
Morjune had come into Errencester from under the ground, following the ancient stream that fed its well. Peter could have done this too, if we hadn’t needed him for the attack – but he couldn’t have gone where Morjune went next.
Only a ghost could slide between the stones of the keep, and even a ghost could feel the force that lived there, pushing back at her. Morjune shut her eyes and struggled on, blindly, like a traveller lost in a gale. But there was no wind here, and no rain. Not even rats skittered, though she moved through spaces where rats would readily have made their nests. Errencester Keep was inviolate.
Duke Uther, in his day, had taken the nearest way to make it so. And the spell he purchased, the ritual he used, was proof against time. No doubt he thought it proof against anything.
Emerging in one of the corridors behind the great hall, Morjune was immediately lost. But the force that pushed against her gave her a clue to where she should go. It did not push evenly, from every direction, but had a home. An origin. She swam against it, rising foot by foot towards its source.
As, outside, we met our match and were gravelled.
There might have been a moment in which I could have dodged that blow. If there was, I didn’t use it. I stood there on the narrow strip of stone, so astonished that I did not even think to move.
The thing’s face, so innocent and yet so terrible, was split by a grimace of grief and pity.
The club took me in the ribs, and hurled me headlong off the battlements.
Under a stone slab in the great hall, Morjune found that which she sought. There was a hollow space there, about two strides long and a foot deep. In the hollow were laid the bones of a child. She could see, with her ghost-sight, the broken rib that had been sheared through when the sharp, sharp knife had pierced the child’s heart.
“Magrete,” Morjune whispered. “Wake up.”
For a long time, nothing. Then, Go away, Magrete whispered. The same words Morjune had spoken to me, when I asked her to make one in this endeavour. Go away and leave me. I’m asleep.
“You’ve slept long and late. It’s time to wake up.”
“My comrades have come to free you.”
Then they’ve come too late.
And after that, no more words.
I landed in the courtyard with a crash that broke every bone in my body. Robust as I am, it would be some time before I could move.
I was not given that time. The thing that had struck me jumped down after me, with terrible and perfect aim. It landed in the centre of my back. The shattering of my spine, the explosion of my lungs and lights stunned me, and for a little while I ceased to be.
Then my body began to knit itself whole again. The agony of being remade in this way was greater than the blow, the fall and the crushing all together. I lay and suffered, unable to move, unable to think.
When finally my eyes opened again, or knew themselves to be open, the first thing I saw was Jill. She was lying along the ground in twisted skeins, her mouth and eyes open wide in the semblance of a scream. There was no colour in either of her eyes. Whatever power was pressing on her had drained the magics out of them and left her – for the moment – empty.
That sight was so terrible, it was many moments before I saw what lay beyond her. Kel was fighting with a man. One sole man, and yet he did not fall. He was not one of the soldiers, for he wore no armour and carried no weapon. His yellow hair whipped in the wind, untrammelled by any helmet. He seemed to need none of these things. The swipes of Kel’s great, curved claws did not come near him.
But his strokes found Kel. He flexed the fingers of his hands, in tiny movements like the caresses of a lover, and Kel staggered, as if great blows battered him. A stroke, and his back was bowed. A pass, and dark blood sprayed from his broken mouth.
Some of the blood landed in a puddle, and the puddle, taking the stain of it, cried aloud in dismay. The puddle was Peter.
“Magrete! Magrete, please! Talk to me.”
But no. Nothing.
“Magrete, you’ve got to help us or my friends will fail. And if they fail you’ll lie here forever!”
Still, nothing at all.
Kel was down, in a spreading pool of his own blood. Fed with the endless, stinging rain, the pool was quickly becoming a lake.
The man who bore no weapons stood over him, and raised both his hands above his head. Since all his gestures so far had been so small, and the effects so wide and terrible, I did not see how Kel would survive the bringing down of those hands.
Into that moment, Anna came. Nothing up to now had touched the man, and Anna did not succeed in touching him either. But she hit so hard, in her massy, churning shape of shapes, that the man was pushed aside ten feet or more. When his arms swept down, with the fingers of both hands spread out wide, it was only grass and mud and a few cobbles that exploded. Kel was left alive.
But now the man turned his attention to Anna, and she fared no better than her brother had. Her stinger descended like a flail, and her body bore on him like a ship’s anchor flung down, but still he stood four-square. We were dying, each and all, and there was nothing we could do. The blond man was proof against the strongest of us. And still the monster with the child’s face tore and pulled at me, rendering what was left of me into smaller and smaller pieces.
It came to me then, as my body surrendered perforce to this dissolution, that I had seen hair of such a bright colour once before. It had been a great many years ago, but the occasion had been memorable. A man like this had stood by when I was raised up out of the earth and made – after a fashion – to live again.
Was it possible that this man and that other were not two, but one? That this was Cain Caradoc, the sorcerer who had taken out a piece of my soul as the price of my second birth?
It was possible, I decided. And if it was possible, other things might be possible too. There was, after all, very little left to lose.
Morjune began to sing.
She sang a song that is sometimes called I Will Tell You One-oh. The Jews sing it, and the Christians likewise, and each believes they invented it. It’s taught to children to make them remember their numbers, and the theme is call and answer.
I will tell you one-oh.
One is God in Heaven-oh.
I will tell you two-oh.
Two is the blameless babes, and one is God in Heaven-oh.
I will tell you three-oh.
Three went in the furnace, two is the blameless babes and one is God in Heaven-oh.
I will tell you four-oh.
Four the gospel creatures, three went in the furnace, two is the blameless babes and one is God in Heaven-oh.
And so on, for as long as you can count. Morjune knew it all the way up to thirteen, and so she sang. Then she began again at one.
Stop it! Magrete wailed at last. Stop singing! I’m trying to sleep.
“Sleep later, lazy girl. For now, you have to listen. I’m Morjune, the witch. Well, that’s what they call me. I was killed before my time, just like you were, though they killed me out of fear and you out of cunning and policy. We should be friends, you and I.”
No. Leave me be. I don’t have any friends.
“You did have, once.”
“When you were alive, I mean.”
“There was the boy, Peter. He loved you well.”
I thought he would come for me. I waited. He never came.
“Oh, but he did. Small as he was, he hammered on the gate of Errencester and defied the lords inside. He called them cowards, and murderers, to seal their castle safe against siege and sundering with a maiden sacrifice. He laid such names on them, it made the men blush and the women weep.”
And then what?
“They scored him with whips, and broke him with cudgels. And afterwards they threw him, weighted with stones, into Kirkul River, where he has bided ever since. But now, this very day, he comes again.”
He is here? Peter is here?
“He’s in the castle, but not in the keep. He can’t come to you, Magrete, because of the spell they made all those long years ago. The spell they wove out of your murder.”
A third silence. But this one was different from the other two.
Tell him, Magrete whispered.
Tell him I’m coming.
I closed my eyes. Actually just one eye, the other having been plucked out of my head.
I closed my ears to Anna’s screams. Even now, they were screams of wrath as much as of pain. Cut and crushed and drawn though she was, she would not fall – because if she fell, she would leave Kel’s body undefended.
I closed every sense but one. I could not taste my blood. I could not feel my pain, or the chill rain as it fell on me. Nothing was left inside my head but me.
And – I hoped, I prayed – the other me.
If the flax-haired man was truly Cain Caradoc, then his monster might well be the piece he took from me. I would not have known its face. A few glimpses in mirrors and meres, many a year and gone, had left no sense of what I was. I only knew that the beast that assailed me bore a child’s face, and therefore must have had a child, or a part of a child, in its making.
I reached out to it.
And found it.
And knowing it for mine, I drew it into me.
The sorcerer felt the change at once. He forgot his attack on Anna and turned to face me. I mean, he turned with that intention, but I was already too big. He faced my twisted thigh, my splintered leg, the bones of my calf and shin as they folded themselves back into my swelling, towering body.
Cain Caradoc had claimed such a tiny part of me for his use, but the magics he had worked with it had been vast beyond imagining. And now I was opening the rest of myself to those same magics. I burgeoned like a tree, a century’s growth packed into a few wild seconds.
“Per potestatem – – ” the sorcerer bellowed. I swung my fist and he soared, arse over head, across the bailey yard. A wall stopped his flight, and his abominations, forever more, though in truth my mighty hand had already crushed him into ruin.
I’m here, Magrete cried, in all our ears. I’m with you. Oh, I’m with you! Where is Peter?
Peter was spilled on the ground and too weak to answer her, but she saw him there and flung herself on him, into him, greedy for the touch of the one that had ever loved her best.
So now the spell that kept the keep from harm was broken. A maiden’s sacrifice was the recipe, a maiden’s soul the vital, secret thing that bound the stones together stronger than mortar. Until the maiden woke, and knew herself, and left the keep.
I struck the walls with my hands, again and again. When the stones began to crumble, I pushed my fingers in between them and wrenched at them to widen the gap. It was hard work, but by and by Jill came up on my left-hand side and Anna on my right, and the three of us went at it with a will.
Inside the walls, like the meat inside a nut, we found Duke Ebberlin and his thanes, his wife and her serving wenches, a few counsellors, merchants and parasites, a few cooks and vassals, and another score or so of soldiers.
Anna ate the Duke, and Jill despatched his lady. She was a sorceress, too, but she had only journeyman skills and could not command a power as old as our Jilly’s.
The soldiers had lost all heart by this time, and tried to run away. We should have let them go, but we were in a blood rage and killed them to the last man. Kel and Anna ate a great many of them, which is a hard way to die. Others looked Jill in the eye, which is harder still. The ones I squeezed and twisted and broke with my house-sized hands probably had the best of it.
Peter was himself again, by this time, and called us to a halt – berating us, besides, for taking out our anger on those who had no hope of hurting us. The battle being won, he said, what we were doing now was only slaughter.
And much more to the same tune, until we came back to ourselves and submitted again to the reins of reason. We allowed the survivors to go forth unmolested, only enjoining them never again to return to Errencester, or Cosham village, or the demesnes round about, on pain of the death they had escaped that day.
“What now?” Jill asked.
And it says much that she asked it. For she had lived ten thousand years, and a thousand more, and never needed to weigh one course against another until that day.
“Now,” I said, “we take our reward.”
“That’s not what was meant!” the man Bertram protested. He had to shout to bring his words to where my ears were, because I was still as tall as a tower. That was intentional. I wanted there to be no mistaking the seriousness of our purpose.
“It’s what was said,” I told him. “You promised us a home.”
“But Errencester Castle is the strongest keep in the county! It was ever the dwelling of this land’s lord. If you stay in it – – ”
“We’ve no interest in ruling you. But we don’t much care to live with you, either. Some of us have been down that road before, and it didn’t end well for us.”
“Armies will come to hale you out of there,” the woman warned. “As moths come to a flame.”
I smiled. “And they’ll fare as well as moths do, when they come to a flame.”
They made more noise, but nothing to the purpose. They had meant to petition the Lord Howard or the Count Tremegne, or this one or that one, and by offering Errencester up as a kind of bride-price to have a sweeter and a longer honeymoon. But that did not fit with our design, and we gave it no thought. We were a family now. We were a seven, and so we meant to stay, until the waters below and the waters above held congress again and the whole green Earth was whelmed.
Story originally published in Dark And Stormy Nights (2020).