My short story ‘The City of Osman’ is included in Andromeda Spaceways Magazine’s anthology 2016’s Best Stories, along with 10 other damn fine scifi, fantasy and horror stories. Click here to pre-order!
The following story placed 3rd in the 2012 KSP Speculative Fiction Awards.
By McKinley Valentine
The dying sow crawled closer. Her belly was being raked open by rocks, but she didn’t have the strength to lift herself higher. I looked around for something to kill her with, but there really wasn’t anything. I couldn’t see myself trying to beat her brains out with a rock. She dragged herself another painful inch. Her flesh snagged and split, spilling a loop of viscera. “Lily…” she wheezed.
She’d been following me for six days.
* * *
Being a miller’s daughter was much like being anyone else’s daughter, except you got more crude jokes. Not as many as a tailor’s daughter (“What kind of slit can’t never be mended?”) but enough to be annoying. The village churls would come by to gawk at me as I weighed sacks of flour, and they got in my way when I was feeding the pigs. My father had begun muttering about how much trouble a daughter was, so when Auren the Magician came visiting, I fully expected to be sold off within the hour. He was young and eager, and quite handsome in a milkbread sort of way. He stood beside the village boys, a good foot taller than most of them, bouncing on the balls of his feet. His eyes were shining.
“Miss Lily!” He called. I pretended not to hear him. “Miss Lily!”
I bobbed him a reluctant curtsey, which made the other boys glower, then hurried inside the cottage. My father was tallying up accounts with the help of a pile of pebbles.
“Four-and-ten from Barlow makes eight-and-forty…”
I busied myself in the scullery, wondering how long it would take the magician to get bored and leave. Of course, he didn’t. Why should he? He came striding right into the cottage with barely a knock for courtesy. There was a long silence.
“I paid your man last month,” my father said eventually. “I got my token right here.” I heard the sound of rummaging and took the chance to peer around the corner.
Auren was too tall for our little cottage – too tall and too ridiculous in his long yellow robes, swaying like an ear of barley.
“Oh no!” he said. “I’m not here about tithes.” He fluttered his hands, as though trying to shake the topic of tithes off them like water. “I want to marry your daughter.”
Papa turned, the token held loose in his palm. “Lily? But when did you meet her?”
“Oh, everybody talks of her beauty, and I saw her just a moment ago, so I know they speak true. I assure you I’m more than satisfied with her.” His cheeks were cherub-pink with pleasure. “A pretty wife to sit by the window and smile at me while I’m about my work–” he broke off with a sigh. “Yes. Just the thing.”
I leaned back out of sight. I’d run away. I’d marry him and make him teach me magic. Then run away. But where would I go, and what would I do? I liked mill-work. Would some other miller take me on, though I wasn’t his own daughter? What would Papa do without me? I’d have to show him how to work the scullery pump; it stuck if you didn’t hold it at just the right angle. Or – better – stay in the scullery forever and never come out.
“Well!” Auren continued. “I’ve had my man of business draw up some bills of exchange, and of course you’ll need time to find a maidservant. He tells me thirty days ought to be long enough?”
Thirty days. And then, what? A life in Auren’s tower – I’d never seen it, but I knew what it looked like. Everyone did. Ivory and gold, smooth-walled and gleaming. I pictured myself at an elegant window, watching my callouses soften into uselessness. Papa still hadn’t answered Auren. When he finally did, his voice was rough.
“A daughter’s not a goat.”
He cleared his throat. “A daughter’s not a goat. What are you thinking of, ‘bills of exchange’? If she was a yeoman’s daughter would you say a thing like that? There has to be courtship and flowers and…” that would be the limit of my father’s knowledge of romance. “And suchlike.”
Auren made a small choking sound. I risked another look. His face had gone red, deep crimson as only the very pale can go – all except his bottom lip, which was chalk white where he bit down on it. I ran forward and pressed my hand to his chest.
“Please don’t magic him! He didn’t mean disrespect, he’s an old man…”
Auren pushed my arm away. His chest rose and fell heavily. I watched his hands, waiting for the twitch that would become the gesture that would become the end of my father.
It didn’t come. “Miss Lily. Forgive me – such an admirable creature – I know you will forgive me. I will make the stars sing for you. The birds and beasts of the field will echo my love for you!”
He bowed stiffly from the waist and strode out of the cottage. Papa walked over to the door and latched it.
“Old man, is it?”
“Why did you do it? He could have killed you.” The air seemed too thick to breathe properly. The fear I should have felt earlier was catching up with me.
“Sit down girl. Does Auren eat magic? No, he eats bread, same as everybody else. Who grinds the flour for his bread?” He gripped my shoulder. “We don’t need magic. We need stone and water and our own hands. You respect those things. You obey magicians if you have to, but you don’t respect them ‘less they earn it.” I nodded.
“Stone and water Papa.”
“And your own two hands.”
* * *
It started innocently enough. Sweetly, even. A chaffinch fluttered down while I was at market and perched on an apple I was looking over. “Fair lady!” it chirped. “Roses bloom in your precious cheeks!” I stumbled backward into a stack of copper pots. They went flying – flashes of copper, a deafening clatter and ouch, a hard landing that brought tears to my eyes. At the end of it all the chaffinch was gone and my apple was lying in the dirt. The apple-seller narrowed her eyes.
“You’ll be buying that I expect, love?”
* * *
The noonday sun throbbed overhead. Lime-washed walls glowed blinding white against dark beams. Dandelions grew cheerful and careless at the corners of buildings. Was there anything else I needed to buy? A musical jingling – I looked up. Horse-charms hung outside the tinsmith’s in bunched chains. The smith’s daughter was poking them in a desultory sort of way. She gave me a half-wave. I nodded in return – both my hands were full. I shifted the weight of my basket to my hip and tried once more to fit the battered pot in amongst the leeks, bruised apples, twine and other oddments. It wouldn’t go. The tinsmith’s daughter gave me a sympathetic grimace.
That’s when I noticed the chaffinch was back. “Fairest of flowers!” it twittered. “Be my wife?”
I told it “no”, but gently, and I smiled at it. I noticed the awed look cast at me by the tinsmith’s daughter, and truth be told I smiled at that too. The bruise on my hip hardly bothered me at all on the walk home.
* * *
In the coming days, the chaffinch flitted past often with its sweet words, sometimes joined by a pair of brown sparrows, other times a cheery-faced wren.
Once, though, it was a gallows-bird, and that I didn’t like at all. It whumped down in front of me and spoke in a voice like grinding millstones: “You are far, far too lovely.” It fixed me with one dull eye, then the other. All warmth drained away in spite of the summer sun. “Be mine forever.”
No girls looked at me with jealousy that day. They turned their faces away and hurried home to whisper to their mothers.
And there was something else. The chaffinch seemed to be getting weaker. By the third day, its cries were feeble and there were long gaps between its words. The other birds danced merrily about my head, but the chaffinch only hopped along after me in the dust. Its wings were no longer lustrous; I thought perhaps it had given up preening its feathers. On the fourth day I didn’t see it at all.
From then on the birds were more persistent, pecking at the cottage door before dawn and following me wherever I went, mill to storehouse to buttery, and to the well where I went twice a day to fetch clean water. They were joined there one afternoon by a couple of hares, jostling and thumping into each other like the village boys, shouting praise at the height of their leaps.
The first hare knocked the other out of the air and they tumbled down the hill in a furry, yelping ball. I glared after them, hand on unbruised hip. I think “delicate” bothered me almost as much as the impertinent “thigh”.
Two old women, fat as apples, were standing by the well, unabashedly staring. Not at the hares, at me.
“It’s Auren…” I faltered. One sniffed and turned away.
“Auren, is it?” said the other. “Is it Auren who prances about, flicking his shiny hair in everyone’s face? Is it Auren who thinks he’s too good for a local boy? Auren who teases and flirts and then says he won’t marry? Little whippet.”
I stiffened. “I don’t do any of those things.” I picked up my empty buckets and turned away from the terrible woman. Careful, dignified, straight-backed I walked, ignoring the hot sickness in my belly.
“Don’t you start trouble with that magician, or we’ll all be in it!” she shouted after me.
* * *
Still – overall I was happy. The hares were joined by squirrels and striped chipmunks; the birds were unrelenting but I’d grown used to them. As I carried a basket of washing out from the scullery I reflected that the Magician’s attentions had accomplished what no amount of my shouting had been able to: the village boys no longer stared or hollered at me while I worked. I put several pegs between my teeth and draped a skirt over the clothesline. A robin landed on either end of the line.
“Thine eyes are like sapphires! Above all earthly treasures!”
“Yes, yes.” A bluejay swooped down and pecked at a peg.
“Thy skin is like Assyrian silk!”
“You’ve never even touched my skin,” I said back, feeling stupid for talking to a bird, and annoyed at feeling stupid.
It was a hot day and the wet clothes were heavy. The usually boisterous hares lay panting and muttering beneath the line.
Four more birds flew down, circling my head and comparing my body parts to various fruits and flowers.
“Alright, that’s enough,” I said, batting one away as I struggled with a sodden pair of breeches. But if Auren could hear me, he wasn’t listening. Bird after bird flew out of the sky. Wings flashed and feathers grazed my cheeks. Their shrieks and whistles filled the air.
“–a summer’s day–”
Two fat, heavy ravens landed on my shoulders. I twisted my body around, slapping at them. Their claws scratched me as I shoved them off. They smelt rotten. I dropped my basket and ran for the cottage door, slammed it behind me. A chorus of tiny thumps echoed through it, followed by two loud ones that made the doorframe shake. The sudden silence was shocking. A single voice croaked on feebly. “Thy flaxen hair… all shining in the… burnished gold …aflame…”
I found excuses to stay indoors for the rest of the day.
* * *
In the morning our nearest neighbour came knocking at the cottage door, neckerchief askew like he’d tied it in a hurry. He was holding a basket and standing back from the heap of broken birds on the doorstep. He looked angry and afraid.
“It ain’t right,” he said, and thrust the basket into my hands. A litter of kittens looked up at me from their swaddling.
“What–?” But he was already halfway down the hill.
The kittens began mewling my name.
I went about my duties like a criminal that day, dashing from one shadow to the next, keeping out of sight of the baleful, bird-filled sky. I was relieved beyond measure to hear the chickens clucking at me in their usual stupid, impatient way, but the pig had a greedy glisten to her eye that I didn’t trust. I threw her slops over the fence and bolted.
By sunset I was exhausted and my back hurt from ducking and stooping. I sunk into a stuffed chair and sighed. Papa had the basket of kittens on his lap. He was letting them suckle on a milk-soaked rag. “I wanted to get you a husband who’d learn the mill-work. But we’re stuck.”
“Are you going to tell me to marry him?”
He shook his head. “Maybe you should, maybe you shouldn’t. I won’t tell you your business. But you can’t stay here. Not with all this…” he gestured at the kittens.
“Where can I run to?” Papa didn’t know what was beyond the next village, and wasn’t much interested. His eyes flicked around the room, landing on a braid of garlic, a tin mug, a canvas pack. “Anyway, I don’t want to run. I still have my two hands.” He shrugged.
“Your smile puts the dawn to shame!” piped a tabby. Papa transferred the rag to its mouth.
Alone in my cot that night, I weighed my choices. I didn’t want to run away. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to be a magician’s wife. If I had to be somebody’s wife, why not Auren’s? Then I remembered the pulped birds on the doorstep. The feathers, the meat, the little bones sticking out everywhere. I shivered and pulled my blanket close. There were no voices now, no sounds at all. “The birds and beasts will echo my love for you,” he’d promised. And, “I will make the stars sing for you.” I listened. Silence. Had he forgotten that part of the spell? Or did Auren’s magic have limits even he didn’t know about?
* * *
Six days since I left home. I crouched down beside the quivering sow – not too close – and looked her in the eye. What was it the priests said to dying men? What could you say? “You were a good pig,” I told her. My father says there is nothing that cannot be made use of, but I didn’t see what good this pathetic death could be turned to. “It’s not right, that this happened to you.” That seemed to be about it, so I stood up and tightened the straps of my pack. A sleek tower pierced the sky ahead. It was pale in colour and curved like a tusk. A yellow flag fluttered from its parapet. I clenched my fists.