From the author: Bretchen yearns to become a witch, but the methods of training to become one are occult and closely-guarded secrets. But Bretchen's grandmother has a few ideas for where Bretchen can start, and with her help--and the disturbing pedigree behind her treasured bone flute--Bretchen goes on a quest to uncover the truth of how witches are made.
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1. The Bone Flute
You have heard all the tales about Myrra Ferrinn, I’m sure—she of the ink-dark skies, she of the high places where men may not follow—and, of course, you have heard the tale of her gruesome end.
Indeed, as a little girl, I myself would beg my Ommama to whisper that forbidden story into my ear. It was inevitable that I’d repeat it to my fellows, and the play-yard would ring with our screams as we played the drawn-and-quartered game. How many thrilling childhood hours I spent as Myrra Ferrinn, spitting and shrieking as my giggling classmates, masquerading as the executioner’s handmaidens, played at slicing my body apart.
It was also inevitable that, when I finished my schooling at eleven years of age, I announced that I would become a witch. Mémé would have none of it, but Ommama was unsurprised. “Of course you shall become a witch,” she said, as she gently cleaned her bone flute. She played it every evening; it was her prized possession. “You’ll become the finest witch the vale has ever seen.”
“She shan’t,” said Mémé, “because she shall not become a witch at all. Or a hag, or a nightrider, or any other ghoul-bound servant of The Things Men Cannot See. My one and only daughter, the treasure of my heart, will enter a respectable profession.”
Ommama rubbed her flute with a cloth, still unperturbed. “Of course, of course. You’re right. We’ll send her to the knittery in Treeswell instead, and I’ll write the Letter of Introduction.”
Alone on the road to Treeswell, furious at Ommama’s betrayal, I tore open the Letter of Introduction myself, itching to know what rookery of lies Ommama had intended to tell the Headmarser there about my professional aspirations. But to my surprise and pleasure, Ommama’s letter read thus:
Dearest Bretchen, Incorrigible Child of Wolves:
You tore open your Letter of Introduction, didn’t you? You naughty girl; you sneaky snake; you cleverest of creatures. Did you really think I’d send you to mildew away your youth in a knittery? Well, don’t fret. Old Headmarser Howplenn is a great friend of mine who will consume his own liver for me if I so much as snap my fingers. I shall make certain he sends your mother many charming letters full of beautiful lies about how your cable stitches are coming along.
In the meantime, instead of depositing yourself at the knittery, please proceed through Treeswell, over the road beyond, and through the town of Bowragon. Past the eastern end of Bowragon, the road forks. Take the left-hand path, then pass through the first door you see. Ask the man inside what to do next.
And remember: I love you more than the mountains love the sky.
With the ferocity of the Immortal Sun,
P.S. If the man refuses to help you, put on your cloak with a swish, tell him to go eat sand, and march out the door. Life’s too short to waste time among cowards.
2. The Second Son
I followed Ommama’s instructions, of course. Why wouldn’t I?
When it came time for me to pass through the first door I saw on the road outside of Bowragon, however, I had my doubts. The first sign of human habitation was but a ruin in the middle of a weedy field, a low and broken foundation with no walls and a toppled chimney, the vacant space crowned absurdly by a still-intact doorjamb in which hung, bizarrely, a still-intact door. Clearly, no man lived on the other side of it. Instead, that distinction doubtless belonged to the sprawling farmhouse the next field over, with its glass windows and cheery firelight leaping within.
However, I knew that the great Myrra Ferrinn, Empress of Vipers, would not run from the oncoming nightfall by begging succor from a cozy farmhouse. Myrra Ferrinn would boldly stride into that weedy ruin instead, and she would find a man there, or maybe his ghost, and bed him in the nearest graveyard besides.
So I kicked through the weeds, opened the still-hanging door, and walked through.
I immediately tripped over someone. “Ow!” he shouted, kicking off a cloak.
“Oh!” I said. “Someone is here. Hello.”
The man sat up. His scowl made him fierce, and his missing half-ear even fiercer. “Get out of here, you bumbling child. Go find your own ruin to grouse in.”
I refused to be intimidated. “I won’t,” I said. “You know my Ommama, Orrillin Hearthlight, yes? She told me to find you and ask you what to do next. I want to become a witch, you see, instead of dying of boredom in a knittery. Do you know a witch I could apprentice myself to?”
The man rubbed his face. “Orrillin Hearthlight? I... I’ve never heard of her.” He lifted a nearby waterskin and took a long drink. “And how should I know what you ought to do next? I’m a nobody. A second son. My older brother gets the farm—” he pointed to the handsome farmhouse next door— “my younger brother gets the magic—” he pointed straight up in the air, at the lean sliver of moon— “and I get a pile of broken stones in plot of land too rocky to plow. Believe me, you don’t want any advice from Jonn the Younger.”
“I do,” I said, but really, I wasn’t so sure of that. My Ommama’s suspicions seemed correct. He was too much of a coward to help me. “You’ve got one more chance. Tell me what I’m supposed to do to become a witch.”
“One more chance?” Jonn the Younger snorted. “Or else what? You’re not a witch yet. You can’t do anything to me.” He leaned back on his elbows. “Now get out of my field, or I’ll pelt you with stones.”
“Hmph.” So be it, then. As Ommama had told me to do, I knelt, pulled my cloak from my bag, and swept it upon my shoulders with the haughtiest flourish I could muster.
Something clattered to the rocks.
Jonn the Younger grunted. “You dropped something.”
I picked it up. “Oh!” I said, dismayed. My Ommama had snuck her bone flute into my bag, to comfort me with a token of home on my travels. Its loss must have been a great sacrifice to her. “My Ommama’s bone flute!”
Jonn the Younger stiffened. “A bone flute, you say?”
I felt it with my fingers, to be sure it had not broken. “Yes. It’s her favorite.”
In the gathering dark, he leaned in for a careful look at it. “Your Ommama’s, you say? Hearthlight was her name, you say?” He clicked his tongue before I could answer. “Well. I’ll never escape my fate now, will I? I had better tell you a story. Come come; sit with me.”
Both mollified and intrigued, I obeyed.
“Now then. You hope to become a witch, so you know all about the terrible Myrra Ferrinn, don’t you? Well, there’s one tale that nobody, not even the great Orrillin Hearthlight, dares repeat anymore. But I’m Jonn the Younger—I don’t even have my own separate name—so what have I to lose by the telling of it?”
Uncertainly, I fingered Ommama’s flute. Sorry paupers weren’t supposed to know secret stories about Myrra Ferrinn.
“As I was saying. You have heard all the tales of Myrra Ferrinn, I’m sure; and of course, you have heard the tale of her gruesome end. To this day, in fact, a stain remains on the cobbles of Raven Square in the famed city of Millstones, where the executioner squelched Myrra Ferrinn’s torn-out, still-throbbing heart beneath his boot-heel.
“But what many people forget is that, after a tale ends, the story itself goes on. And so it was with Myrra Ferrinn. For while ten-and-one-more handmaidens sliced Myrra Ferrinn’s disemboweled, decapitated, heartless body into four pieces, one for each of the hungry winds, her secret acolytes stood stoically in the jeering crowd and looked on. One of them vowed to her sisters, ‘I’ll watch the left leg.’ Another said, ‘I’ll watch the right leg.’ And another said, ‘I’ll watch the left arm,’ and yet another said, ‘I’ll watch the right arm.’
“And, as Myrra Ferrinn’s remains were each parboiled on the spot in a great cauldron, pierced with iron spears, held aloft, and distributed to four swift chariots, the acolytes remained true to their vows. They followed their chosen body parts, each of which was paraded through its share of the cities and towns of the kingdom. Myrra Ferrinn’s remains putrefied beneath the burning sun and humming flies and crumbled beneath the nibbling teeth of vermin, but still the acolytes followed and never took their eyes away.
“In time, every market square in the whole of Wildwood had been shown a rotting piece of Myrra Ferrinn, and the people became satisfied, and the disgraced remains were thrown into fields and forests, like the bits of a carcass that not even a dog will eat.
“And only now, poor listener, did the acolytes move from watching to doing. Each loyal acolyte retrieved a rotting limb from its unmarked bed of wilderness; each loyal acolyte set to work with a sharp and tiny knife; and each long bone of arm and leg emerged from rancid flesh, like golden ingots from wreckage in the deep. And each treasure became dried and carved and hollowed and polished, until—”
Here, Jonn the Younger laughed.
“Well,” he said. “How your Ommama came to hold one of the bone flutes made from the body of Myrra Ferrinn, I wouldn’t care to guess.”
The story shocked me. Then I realized that it couldn’t be true. I jumped to my feet and thumbed my cheek at him. “I’ve never heard a bigger lie in all my life.”
“So you say,” Jonn the Younger laughed. “But you’ve never heard your Ommama play that flute, now, have you?”
I kicked a nearby rock in my anger. “Of course I have. She plays it every night, and it’s lovely.”
“Oh.” Jonn the Younger sounded disappointed. “Well. It certainly looks like a bone flute from Myrra Ferrinn, anyway.”
I stowed the flute and gathered up my bag to leave, disgusted. “How would you even know what a bone flute from Myrra Ferrinn looks like?”
“I told you.” Jonn the Younger pointed up into the air again, at the deepening night sky. “My younger brother got the magic. Our Mémé gave him the bone flute she inherited from our Ommama. How else do you think he’s able to fly?”
What nonsense was he peddling? My suspicion must’ve shown on my face, for Jonn the Younger said, “Listen. It’s nothing to me if your Ommama’s bone flute isn’t actually from Myrra Ferrinn. But the fact that my lay-about brother Jack definitely has one that is enrages me to no end. You’re going to become a witch, you say? Then here’s a bargain for you: I’ll steal Jack’s bone flute and give it to you, if you promise to come back once you’ve finished your apprenticeship and grant me a wish. A favor from a witch—that would be a fine thing to have, indeed.”
It was nothing to me if his brother Jack’s bone flute wasn’t actually from Myrra Ferrinn, either, but if the flute could grant the power of flight regardless, it seemed like a sensible trade. “All right. But why don’t you want the flute for yourself?”
“Are you a simpleton?” Jonn the Younger stood and brushed the twigs and pebbles from his clothes. “I’ll be the first person Jack accosts, once he finds it missing. But since he won’t find it on me, he and the constable can’t prove anything.”
“Why don’t you just take it and run away?”
“You are a simpleton.” Jonn the Younger bent to gather his meager things and pack them into a bag. “A man can’t feed himself by flying around like a bird. What good is a magic bone flute to me?”
“How do you feed yourself? And how does Jack feed himself, then?”
“Who are you, my mother-in-law? Do you accept the offer or not?”
I shrugged. If the favor he wanted in the future turned out to be too unreasonable, I could always turn him into a toad instead. “I suppose.”
3. The Subsequent Nightmares of the Prince
Jonn the Younger instructed me to wait for him back at the fork in the road to the east of Bowragon, just after dawn, in two days’ time. Somewhat to my surprise, he honored his proposal and appeared. He then passed me a small cloth bundle without a word.
I wanted a bit of privacy to examine it, so I took the right-hand path and continued out from Bowragon a short ways before slipping into the forest at the roadside. Beneath the gloom of the branches, I unwrapped Jonn the Younger’s stolen gift. The bone flute within seemed odd, somehow. I took out my Ommama’s for a comparison. Ah, that’s what it was—High-Flying Jack’s bone flute looked very much like my Ommama’s, simply smaller.
As I stood there in thought, a bone flute in each hand, a restless gathered within my body. I felt a peculiar curiosity about what lay to the south, as though I were a migratory bird under the pull of an oncoming winter.
I put away Ommama’s flute. The instant I held but a single flute in my hands, my curiosity ebbed. Well, it had been a foolish desire, anyway. Instead, I should go—
I couldn’t go back to Bowragon, what with everyone in town surely searching for the missing flute. I certainly couldn’t go home, not with Mémé assuming my presence at the knittery. Proceeding to the knittery itself was unthinkable. And I was no closer to knowing how to become a witch.
Until I devised a better plan, south did seem a fine direction to go.
Experimentally, I played a few notes on the bone flute from High-Flying Jack.
Gently, the sky gathered me up into its cool arms.
And in no time at all, I was flying south over fields and forest, as true as an assassin’s arrow.
I flew with the speed of a good horse, but unlike a horse, the winds themselves never tire. By sunset, I had traveled an astonishing distance, and I landed on a hill overlooking a magnificent city, where soaring arches flanked slender towers and fruit-heavy trees lined stone-paved avenues. A lean, swift-flowing river cut its way through the center, and as I counted the mills on its banks, I realized that I beheld Millstones, the famed city of Myrra Ferrinn’s execution. I shivered to think of those iron spears upon which her remains had been paraded (or so Jonn the Younger had claimed), and I shivered to regard the city’s many piercing spires, altogether monstrous imitations of those dreadful instruments.
The highest spire’s roots spread into the White Palace, the royal quarters of Prince Hallegim, who administered Millstones in the King’s stead. Above, the spire’s tip shone wetly with the blood of the setting sun.
I felt compelled to fly to it—that same strange compulsion that had pulled me southward.
So I did.
Close up, I saw that the crown of the spire was in fact a narrow room encircled by many shuttered windows. I landed on a sill and let myself inside.
In the center of the room stood a small table, upon which lay a glass case.
Within the case lay a bone flute.
The thing was nearly identical to High-Flying Jack’s, and I had no doubt as to what it was or how it had come to be here. Certainly some long-dead, long-forgotten royal had put this forbidden bone flute on the very highest floor of the White Palace, above iron doors and chained-up gates, armed guardsmen and angry dogs. A more foolish decision I couldn’t imagine. Plenty of witches can fly—what were they thinking?
Then again, a witch would have to know about the bone flutes of Myrra Ferrinn. And that witch would have to know that one of them rested here.
As I picked up the glass case and held it above the stone floor, I wondered how I myself had known where to find this bone flute. It couldn’t have been mere chance—could it? And whether or not it was, why had the need to retrieve it felt so natural to me?
I dropped the case. It smashed to stardust. It occurred to me also that Prince Hallegim’s ancestors might have forgotten to tell him that a bone flute rested in this tower at all.
Well. He would surely learn, and swiftly too, the cost of his previous ignorance.
I picked up the bone flute, brushed off the glass, and played a few notes.
A crackling energy gathered inside my mouth. I kept playing. Tremendous heat built between my teeth, and a rattling buzz pelted my tongue until I felt as though I had taken a bite of the Sun itself.
It was said that Myrra Ferrinn could spit lightning, when she so chose.
I so chose. White-hot fire smashed into the shutters on the opposite side of the room, and in moments, the tower’s crown roared beneath its burden of flames.
Laughing, thrusting the third bone flute into my bag, I leapt from the tower aflame behind me and flew to the city’s surrounding hills.
4. The Witch
I spent an uneasy night dozing in the lee of an orchard wall, wrapped in sweat and incoherent dreams. In the morning, for a reason I could not explain, I rushed to dump out my bag and clutch all three bones flutes together within my bare hands.
The urge to fly east struck me like a smith’s hammer.
Panting, I repacked my bag and flung myself into the air. A dim understanding formed in my still-half-dreaming mind: the more of Myrra Ferrinn that became gathered in one place, the stronger her will became.
Jonn the Younger had said: just because the tale ends doesn’t mean the story does.
I found the fourth bone flute five days of frantic travel later, at the edge of a terrible rocky desert and the limitations of the Wildwood kingdom. It lay in a bed of ashes, in a secret compartment under a hearthstone, in the hovel of a family of mean peasants. When I landed and pushed my way into their wretched hut, they shouted and made threats, but a few spits of lightning put an end to that. While they cowered in a corner, I pried up the hearthstone, snatched my prize, and took once again to the air, deep into the rocky waste.
Utterly alone, save for the distant wheels of circling birds, I landed. I gathered the bone flutes in my hands, eager and ready.
Just as a bird, without knowing architecture or even language, receives the impossibly complex knowledge of how to assemble a nest, I too felt an impossible knowledge drop into me. Knowing without knowing, I arranged the bone flutes in the dust, in the shape of a spread-eagled X. As the ground began to hum, and the tiny shards of rock to quiver and leap, I realized that I hadn’t tested the final flute. What of her powers lay within it, exactly?
But it was too late for that.
Around these bits of Myrra Ferrinn, her bones as hollow as the bones of raptors, her power chained in unbreathed melodies, the dust and rock of the desert began to gather, as water rushes to fill a bucket depressed in a well. A ghostly form took shape, a nimbus of a sandstorm in human proportion.
The wind sang through its bones.
The thing sat up.
I do not know how spoke the ghost of Myrra Ferrinn, but speak she did; and chips of quartz glittered in a tight dance in the orbits of her eyes.
“Oh—I am together again, at last!”
She stretched her arms to the sky; she tipped back her head. Sand trickled down, to suggest the rich tresses of her hair. “And who is it that’s come, now, to open my private backdoor into the world? Who’s there?”
My tongue cleaved to my mouth. But I managed. “I... my name is Bretchen. Mistress Ferrinn.”
“Bretchen.” Myrra Ferrinn cackled, a glorious, full-throated witch’s ululation. “I couldn’t even begin to guess why my triumphant return has been placed in the hands of a child, but regardless, it appears I owe you a boon. What is the blackest desire that slumbers in your heart, my dear?”
I trembled. I couldn’t dare ask Myrra Ferrinn, she of the slavering wolves, she of the feasting crows, to take me as an apprentice; that would be insolent, and too much. But I could at least ask her advice. “I... I would like to become a witch someday, Mistress Ferrinn. But I don’t even know where to begin, exactly, so please—if you can tell me—what should I do next?”
Myrra Ferrinn cackled again. “An excellent question, a clever question. How wise you are to ask me. But it is terribly forbidden knowledge, you know; and even way out here, in the Wronglands, there could be spies.” She dropped her voice. “Come close to me, and I’ll whisper the secret in your ear.”
I shivered in anticipation. Myrra Ferrinn raised a dust-storm hand, her swirling fingers tipped with wicked shards of rock, and beckoned me closer.
I set down my bag and obeyed.
But as I leaned in toward her open mouth, toward her quartz-pool eyes and those wicked, wicked fingers, I thought: if I were Myrra Ferrinn, and I had but the barest toehold in the mortal world, I would revivify myself with a gruesome ritual. I would slit the throat of the first warm body I came across and I would drink its blood, down to the very last drop.
But the problem was, in this arrangement, that person would be me.
And I needed my blood. You can’t become a witch without blood.
So, at the last moment, as Myrra Ferrinn sucked in a desert-parched breath and readied a hand to strike, I snatched up a rock. Then I jumped backwards and rammed it down, as hard as I could, on the bone flute in her right leg.
Oh, how she screamed. A thousand-fold more brightly than all the screams of all my childhood drawn-and-quartered games combined.
The bone flute shattered. The maelstrom of Myrra Ferrinn collapsed into a sloppy dust-devil, the bone flutes in her arms clattering to the desert floor. I rammed the right-hand one with my rock, and it too shattered.
The dust-devil collapsed. The wind blew a thin, keening shriek through the pair of remaining flutes, an eerie wail that rose and fell and would not stop.
I snatched up my poor Ommama’s flute and thrust it into my bag. Then I squeezed the bone flute of High-Flying Jack and played as I had never played before, hard and long and loud. The sky itself rushed to the earth to please me, and before I could say, “Butcher’s choice,” a tight cocoon of cloud gripped me and carried me west and west and west, all the way home.
I landed at sunset. Only then, when my feet hit the ground, did I start sobbing.
That eerie wail of wind had not stopped. Now shrieking myself, I set High-Flying Jack’s bone flute on the ground, raised my boot-heel above it, and stomped it to pieces.
Silence at last.
It was here that my Ommama and Mémé found me: in the front yard, screaming, stomping on fragments of bone. Mémé’s firm hands pulled me away. “Bretchen! What in the name of... why are you... what are you... explain yourself!”
They pulled me inside. Mémé sat me by the fire and wrapped me in a quilt, and while Ommama clucked her tongue and poured me a bowl of stew, I cried and told them everything. When Mémé’s face tightened in anger at how we had deceived her, I only cried all the more.
By the end, my bowl empty of stew, in the midst of my sniffles and hiccups, I mumbled out an apology. But Mémé only sighed and knelt to hold me. “My poor Bretchen. My poor sweet creature. Oh, little bunny, don’t apologize. Blackness knows how hard I’ve tried to fight this day, but to be truthful, I could always see it coming.”
Ommama smiled. “Me too. And how marvelous.”
“Marvelous?” I shouted, from within the fortress of Mémé’s arms. “Marvelous how? I nearly died!” I kicked my bag at her. It fell over, and my Ommama’s precious, ill-storied flute clattered out. “All because of your stupid cursed flute!”
Ommama’s smile grew brighter. “Ah—but you didn’t die, now, did you?”
I felt so furious, I spit at her.
Mémé gasped, but Ommama only laughed. She picked up the bone flute, tapping at its holes with her wizened fingers. “Do you know what power this bone flute contains? It’s the power of long, long life. Wonderfully long. Do you know how old I am? Would you believe—two hundred years?
“I am not truly your Mémé’s Mémé. I am, in fact, your great-great... well, never mind the number. The important part is, I was there at the bloody execution of Myrra Ferrinn, and throughout the gory aftermath. This flute, from the very beginning, was entrusted to me.
“And now. To answer the question that has been vexing you so.” Her eyes sparkled. “What should you do next, if you desire to become a witch? You should find a witch and, instead of asking outright for an apprenticeship, prove yourself worthy of one. How do you do that? She will give you a test in secret, which you must unknowingly pass to her satisfaction. And, seeing as how all I hoped for you to do was convince Jack of Bowragon to let you play his flute, so that you might have a taste of flying—well!”
I looked back and forth between she and Mémé, and Mémé’s face revealed all. My Ommama was not lying. “But... if all of this is true... then Myrra Ferrinn was your mistress. And I killed her, sort of. So aren’t you angry with me?”
“Angry?” Ommama laughed again. “No, dear child! I’m proud; proud as poundcake! Do you have any idea what marvels of witchcraft I’ve learned across two hundred years? And how delicious a witch you shall become, you who are cunning enough to have slain the shade of Myrra Ferrinn as an untrained youth?”
I wiped my nose on my sleeve, too overwhelmed to speak.
Mémé leaned over. She kissed my forehead, gently. “Bretchen,” she said, kindly. “You can still change your mind. You don’t have to employ yourself with something so dangerous as witchery. It’s not too late to go to the knittery instead.”
I said nothing.
Ommama raised her eyebrows.
Then I wriggled an arm free of the quilt and Mémé’s embrace. I held my hand out to Ommama.
Without needing to ask what I wanted, she placed in my palm the last bone flute of Myrra Ferrinn, her smile as hard as rocks, her eyes as ruthless as iron spears.
This story originally appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.