io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “All Those Guardians of Order and Clarity, None of Them Can Abide a Free Witch” by Benjamin Rosenbaum. You can read the story below. Enjoy!
You don’t know about me, unless you read that fine and fancy text, the one called “A Siege of Cranes, or Reports of the Journey of the Human Peasant Marish-of-Ilmak-Dale and the Keeper Envoy Kadath-Naan, and Their Encounter with the So-Named White Witch, Agent of Unmaking and Despair, and Metaphysical and Xenobiological Observations Thereto.” But that’s all right. That text was written by the Djinni Az Yeshedurran Ra’avar Lakash, who tried to tell the truth, I guess. Djinn don’t like lying much. But it’s still full of lies, because that Djinni trusted Marish, and took his side. I can’t forgive that so easily.
So this time around, you all just listen to me, Maghd of Ilmak Dale.
I mean, not like there’s an Ilmak Dale any more. Ilmak Dale’s gone. And that was my doing, all right, sure enough; but not like how Marish told it.
Now what you read in that text is how poor Marish the peasant was off hunting rabbits, and came back home to find his house all burnt and his village all squashed and his beautiful wife and daughter all gone; and how he took off running on a trail burned straight through the sunflowers, to go find what did it.
Right there I got to ask: So your whole village is burned up, smashed to pieces, anvils melted into twists, and a scorched trail five horses wide, running off to the sky’s bottom . . . and you don’t hear anything? Don’t see any smoke in the sky? Or smell it? How far do you got to go, to hunt rabbits, exactly?
See, I lived in Ilmak Dale myself, and it didn’t have much, but one thing it did have was rabbits. And hedgehogs. Two things. Also, it’s flat as dirt around there. You’d have to go a hell of a long way off not to see your village burning.
Djinn are bound to the House of Mind, supposed to have logic sharp as a blade. I feel like that Djinni who wrote Marish’s tale down ought to have used some of that logic here. Rabbits, my ass.
Anyway, brave little Marish runs along that trail, through the blackened stalks, until he meets Kadath-Naan, who’s a Keeper of the Dead, which, if you never met one, is about two heads taller than a man, and black-furred, with the face of a jackal, no sense of humor, and talks all the time—about death, and burying, and holy terror, and some more burying, and how lucky dead folks are compared to us poor twitchy live folks who got to stick around up here out of the ground, on account of duty—talks until you’re so bored and sorrowful and restless you’re about to hurry up the job, duty or no.
So these two, Marish and Kadath-Naan, get to be boon companions, and tra la la, off they go, down the lane . . . off to kill the White Witch, who sure is a terrible lady, seeing as how she burned up Marish’s village; apparently she’s got a fearsome toad-creature that spits out fire. Marish and Kadath-Naan come upon some towns that she conquered, too, like Nabuz, and in Nabuz, guess what, the White Witch hung folks up on iron crosses, upside down. Couldn’t even bother to hang them right side up; had to hang them with their heads pointing down, so they got a headache on top of being slaves and defeated and nailed to some crosses and she stole all their kids—all that wasn’t enough. Apparently they had to be hung upside down, too.
If you believe how Marish told it, which Az Yeshedurran Ra’avar Lakash sure did.
And, come to find out, not only did that terrible White Witch lady steal all the babies, she filled them full of sand, and now Marish and Kadath-Naan have to fight babies not five summers old; and even if you stick a knife in them, it doesn’t hurt them any; they keep crawling up your knife to nibble on you, which must be a fearsome thing, to hear Marish tell it. So then he and his dog-head friend are about to die from a pile of babies.
But then, right in the middle of being nibbled to death, Marish gets all sorrowful about his baby daughter, and he starts singing a lullaby. And all those sandbag babies fall right to sleep. So there you go. He saves the day with a song. And that’s the tale so far.
Now listen. One thing I want to get straight, and that’s this: I’m not going to make fun of Marish missing his baby daughter. I will mock all his lies, and his boasting: how he solves all the riddles; defeats armored knights with only a tiny little knife; finds his way to the secret city of the Djinn just by being so damned clever. He merits being mocked about all that.
But no one merits losing their child like he did. That’s a terrible sorrowful thing, and it bites into my heart, and if I could do it all over, I don’t know: maybe I’d find a way to not make it be like that. Or maybe I just wouldn’t do any of it at all. Maybe I’d just go on being dirty Maghd, cold Maghd, hungry Maghd, kicked-around Maghd, Bag-Maghd’s-Good-For-One-Thing-Only, doormat for all the dirty boots of Ilmak Dale, fetch-and-carry for all the full bellies of Ilmak Dale, spittoon for all the lying tongues of Ilmak Dale to spit their lies into. Or I’d just hurry up and die; let Marish’s big furry jackal-head friend get to all that burying he craves so much.
I just thought there was a better way, that’s all. My word to the wind.
Where was I? So this White Witch, this awful lady, she steals children. How come? Well, I mean, of course she does. We all know that tale. Strange funny-looking girl with torn-up clothes out by the edge of town; no man, or too many men, depending how you look at it; no kids of her own. Hasn’t had a baby; maybe she can’t have one; her womb’s just a bag, and no garden. Of course she steals kids. Maybe she’s jealous and hateful, or maybe she’s just pitiful—poor pitiful witch.
Now, you’d think the Djinn Az Yeshedurran Ra’avar Lakash ought to know how to look behind a tale like that, wouldn’t you? House of Mind, books on everything ever happened, floating around all silk and jewels, city so big and complicated and fine it makes your head hurt to look at it, all purple mushrooms on top of purple mushrooms and pointy gold towers and shimmery gates. They got any Djinni women around here, that live out by the edge of town, and everybody hates them? I don’t know. I can’t tell the hes from the shes from the whatsits here, and I don’t even know if Djinn got to sweat and grunt and yell to push out kids. Maybe they just blink three times to turn the idea of a little Djinni into one of these smooth blue babies, with a look on its face like it’s figuring how many hairs you got on your head.
So I don’t know if Az Yeshedurran Ra’avar Lakash ever got told you’re not worth shit unless you got a pretty face and a man and garden of a womb to grow babies in, and that you better shut your mouth and listen to your betters. Maybe not. Maybe that’s why Az Yeshedurran Ra’avar Lakash didn’t know any better than to believe Marish.
You know, when I started this—telling this thing to myself, composing this letter in my head, answering back that text with the long name—I figured I’d start with Marish’s version, the whole damned tale that Djinni slurped down like a honey-dipped worm. And then I’d go through it point by point, and tell my side.
But you know what? Hell with that.
Let’s talk about the babies, for that’s the heart of it. Everybody knows the grown folk of Ilmak Dale treated me wrong. Not like they’d say it outright. That prissy Temur—Marish went on and on to the Djinni about that stuck-up wife of his, how pretty she was, tall like a willow, hair like harvest wheat, oh so pretty. Pretty pretty Temur. But if she didn’t have a stone for a heart, I’m not the White Witch of Ilmak Dale.
There, I said it. Not like you didn’t know already.
That prissy Temur liked to pretend that everything was just fine, fine as silk. Thin Deri threw me down in the mud that time, before I sold the stones and crushed the houses and melted up those anvils. All his friends laughing, tossing mud. Mud in my hair, mud in my eyes. Circling around, pushing me from every side, laughing their heads off, what a lark; pig-Maghd so covered in mud you can’t see her ugly skin. It’s an improvement. Oink for us, Maghd, maybe we’ll let you up. Or maybe not yet. Funny as hell.
Marish wasn’t there, but Temur was. She didn’t even look. Walked by like if she saw me she might get the mud of barren little Bag-Maghd on her. Willowy fine Temur, beautiful mother of Asza, proud wife of Marish, done everything right, no mud on her. What happens to Bag-Maghd’s her own fault.
Good for one thing only. Turned out I was good for two things, though, didn’t it? One was what Thin Deri and all them were sore about not getting, or not getting enough of; and the other was digging up the stones.
See, our old priest Pizdar, his job was to watch out that we didn’t make any bad bargains. I don’t know how it is here in the secret city of the Djinn; but out by Ilmak Dale, there’s spirits that crave a bargain. They’ll dole out a little power, or a few favors, for a person’s soul. Folks used to get desperate and sell theirs away. So Pizdar’s job was to take out the soul, soon as a person was bargaining age—five or six years old, maybe. He’d put it in a stone, for safekeeping, and then he’d bury it somewhere, hidden away, so nobody knew where it was.
Of course, Pizdar was a lot less clever then he thought. And that sneaky little Maghd, dirty Maghd, hungry Maghd, angry bitter Maghd; well, she was clever as hell.
Middle of the night, I found all those stones, and dug them up.
Figured out how to call up a Spirit or two.
Turns out you can make a hell of a deal for a whole village worth of souls.
You fine Djinn in your pretty purple-gold city, you can scold all you like, write your damned texts, call me “Agent of Unmaking and Despair.” You’ve never been in the mud, Thin Deri and his friends crowding around, pushing and laughing. Sun at the top of the sky, looking down, like a Djinni on a carpet taking notes. Temur sailing on by like a ship full of silken sails.
You listened plenty to Marish. To hear him tell it, Ilmak Dale was so fine and lovely. Roasting rabbits, and new-cut corn, and his pretty wife, and little Asza hugging a doll, calling it Little Life-Light. And he even recalled the soft rushes of my cottage—he mentioned that as well, didn’t he? How fine and soft they were. Not like Temur was going to be all fine and soft if she knew what you were up to in my cottage, Marish. Hell, she knew. Stiff angry pretty wife wouldn’t touch him, and the strange girl on the edge of town, craving to hold onto him, to feel the bristles of his beard and smell his smell and feel his small bony shoulders.
I’m not ashamed to tell you that. That’s part of the true tale. I was hungry for the feel and the smell of Marish, sure. I was hungry for some of those others, too: I’ve been hungry since the first blood come out of that barren womb of mine. But Marish was kind, and fine. He wasn’t hasty; wasn’t rough; never whined at me to do something I didn’t want to. His eyes, looking at me, they never looked like they saw mud. Fact is, Thin Deri wouldn’t have thrown me down if Marish were there. Marish would have stopped him.
Here’s the other fact, though: that kindness in Marish doesn’t go too deep. Ilmak Dale, it’s real small, or it was before I unmade it. It didn’t take a jackal’s ears to hear what went on there. Some things, you don’t hear them, not for years? You got to be deaf on purpose.
What if I’d told Marish—there on those soft rushes of my floor (and by the by, they weren’t so damned soft if you had to sleep every cold night on them)—Thin Deri threw me down, called me pig-Maghd, did this, did that? I’d get that careful frown, him biting his lip. Well, I’ll talk to him, Marish’d say. That’s not right. He won’t do it again.
But you’d have seen him thinking: It was awful mean, of course, but after all, they didn’t really hurt her. They probably didn’t even intend it like that. And what did she say to them? You got to be careful with Thin Deri, you got to know how to talk to him. You’d have seen those ifs and buts and little lies crowding into his mind, weighing and balancing. Just enough to soothe himself a little longer. Just enough to move it out of his sight.
He wasn’t about to do anything real. I wasn’t the center of his life. Just a little thing on the side, a roll on soft rushes, and those rag dolls I made for his little Asza to hug with all her heart.
Poor Maghd. Edge of town, broken-up cottage for kind Marish to visit, bring by a coin to pay for Asza’s doll. He didn’t want Temur being cruel to me, or Thin Deri, or Fat Deri either. Not where he could see it, anyway.
That kindness in Marish was like a bit of wild onions you find in late winter, when the rabbits and the hedgehogs have all gone scarce. Fry up your turnips with them. All you got left is turnips gone wrinkled and dry, and inside they got air in them, stale and taste like nothing. Those onions give them a little flavor. That’s why I didn’t say anything. Long as I could hold onto Marish and smell him and think: Well, he’s kind, isn’t he? Then I still got onions to go with my turnips.
If I’d have told him? If I’d have had to see him chew his lip and think on how much trouble it’d be to get Thin Deri to stop, and whether Temur was going to get angry at him taking my side, and whether he should mix in at all? Well, there’s my last onion, measured out and eaten up. Could still hold onto his bony shoulders and stick my nose in his neck and scratch an itch or two, but there wouldn’t be any flavor in it.
Ilmak Dale’s no soft sweet lullaby memory for me. Snug cabin and roasting rabbits and sleep-now-my-love. I’ve been to Marish’s cabin. It sure was snug. And little Asza sure was a sparkle of sun. She threw her little arms about me, too, you know, squeezed me tight, when I brought her that doll. I’m not saying I loved her like Marish did, or even like that cold fish Temur, who yanked her out my arms and clear ’cross the room. Sure, Temur loved her girl, like she loved her good dress with the fine needlework, and wouldn’t let any mud get on either.
I’m not saying I loved little Asza even like that. I’m not her mama. Still, I did make that doll for her, not just for anybody; and you make a doll for someone, at least how I do it, you get to know their heart. Had her mama’s pride and spine, but not gone rotten with fear and better-than. Had her papa’s clever wild eyes and grin, but not his selfish too-easy don’t-hear-what-he-don’t-want-to. That girl saw everything in front of her face. She didn’t just love that doll for something to squeeze. She loved that doll because I made it proud and clever and happy like she was.
But I didn’t begrudge Temur her daughter or her man, or her snug cabin. I didn’t begrudge any of them what they had. It wasn’t them having things that made Ilmak Dale a rotten apple, smooth and red outside, gray stinking fuzz you open it up. It’s that I had nothing, and they still couldn’t quit taking from me.
You know, it’s not too hard to find a talking hedgehog in the fields around Ilmak Dale, and to feed it some fine plump worms. Rabbits and talking hedgehogs, place was rife with them, once spring came on. Those hedgehogs knew plenty. I had my pick of spirits. I didn’t have to call up the House of Unmaking, you know. I didn’t have to summon the Spirit of Unwinding Things. You know what, if the White Witch of Ilmak Dale was so cruel and fearsome, why didn’t she call up the House of Abomination? I had plenty of juice once I found those stones. If I’d have wanted to make them hurt, the grown folk of Ilmak Dale, I could have done it. Could have made their blood run fire and their hearts burst like bubbles. Imps carving them up from the inside, making drums out of their skin with them still feeling it. I didn’t do any of that. I didn’t crave vengeance. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. Just to unmake. Take that rotten, cruel place and unwind it like a tangled thread.
If you read that Djinni text, I figure you know what Marish found at the end of that burned-up trail. Big old monster made of parts of folks. Arch of spines, wide as a market. Running on a couple hundred legs and rolling heads, waving a thousand arms. Looking around with eyes stuck to elbows, great rope of guts in the middle making it all move. Flag made of tongues. All stitched out of folks from Ilmak Dale and Nabuz and Eckdale and Gravenge.
Made that old jackal-head Kadath-Naan so mad he wanted to jump out of his fur. All those bodies not even buried! That’s what he was so worked up about. Didn’t care much if they were alive, or happy; just wanted them buried right. And, word to the wind and it’s no lie: His boon companion Marish wasn’t that different. Didn’t stop to wonder what it felt like, to be part of that great engine. No, what Marish did—and this part was clever, I’ll give that to him—soon as that big patchwork beast grabbed him up, to pull him to pieces and weave him in, Marish starts telling names. Sees the ring on the finger used to belong to Temur, and knows her. Says her name. Finds he can tell Thin Deri’s hands, and Fat Deri’s, and Silbon’s and Felbon’s and Pilg’s. Hand with flour under the nails, tell it it’s a baker. Blood under the nails, a butcher. Same with potters and tailors and all. Marish calls out to the men and women of Ilmak Dale and Nabuz and Eckdale and Gravenge, and they wake up. They remember just being one little thing, and they forget how to be one big thing all together. And it all falls apart. Hands and feet and knees and shoulders tumbling down, eyeballs rolling and bouncing; the whole thing sags and collapses.
Sure was clever of Marish, naming them like that. Tell me this, though: Who killed all those folks? Who killed Temur and Thin Deri and the potter and the butcher? ’Cause I just stitched them into something whole. No one throwing anybody in the mud, no one starving while the other’s fit to burst on roast goose, no one lonesome and angry, didn’t get to marry the one he favored, going to take it out on the next. I made them whole—breathing one breath, sharing blood, all knit up into one big beast, off on its own adventure.
Maybe it wasn’t right. I’ll admit it wasn’t right. But I didn’t kill them. Didn’t crave killing them. Didn’t crave treating them like they treated me. No, contrariwise. I just wanted to mend it all. Unwind all that anger and loneliness and punishing each other, craving what they can’t ever have, so sore that they got to be alone in the world, can’t suckle mama any more, got to stand in the cold. Kicking and spitting at each other. I just wanted to mend all that. It was Marish that killed them dead.
Tell you a little secret you won’t read in that Djinni text: I asked first. Or, at least, I started out by asking. By the end, I’ll admit, by the time we got to Eckdale and Gravenge, I started losing hold of the reins. The Spirit of Unwinding Things began to get the better of the bargain, and some folks got gobbled up straight away, no asking. And I’m not easy about that. You might say it’s worse than anything Thin Deri and them ever did, and you might be right. I’m not telling you all this to make another hero tale, poor old Maghd the clever peasant this time, swapping out Marish’s lies for my own.
But my word to the wind, I did ask, at the beginning. I asked in Ilmak Dale. I came into their dreams and gave them a little taste of what it would be like, all squished together. And they came running to me—down deep in the swampy parts of their minds—down below the talking.
Now you might think you wouldn’t crave that. You might think it sounds terrible, all squished together, sticky flesh everywhere, guts threaded into guts, all those limbs, never alone. Maybe so. But maybe you’re just scared—scared of being judged, being forced, being sneered at, being used, being overcome—maybe that’s how it went sometime for you, when folks got too near. Maybe you just can’t imagine that taste I gave them: all the fear and loneliness gone, and only the joy left, the doing and the being together, the communion. Not knuckling under to someone else’s cravings, and not struggling to have your cravings come out on top, but just harmony: all wanting together, fully themselves, and fully wanting the same thing.
Temur came quickest of all: husband out hunting, baby at her side, never you mind; had to get herself some of that no-more-lonely.
At Ilmak Dale they all craved it, all the grown folks, deep in their minds. And I gave it to them.
At Nabuz, you know what, some didn’t. And I let them be.
But it got away from me, that’s true enough. I got drunk on that juice. Had no one by my side, to help me hold back that Spirit of Unwinding Things, tell it slow down, you got to ask them first. Nobody but Vashi, who came along with the bargain; and she wasn’t good for anything except sitting up on top the beast and spitting out a river of fire and melting stuff. I barely understood a word she said, honestly. Figure she was mostly just sitting up there ruing that she got stuck with me.
Now in Marish’s tale, he goes on and on about fighting the mighty Knights of the White Witch—big fellows on horses, waving swords—and how he fought them and tricked them and bested them. To hear Marish tell it, there I was with a whole army at my command; conquering villages, giving out orders, working on being queen of the world.
Stop and ask yourself: Does that sound like the House of Unmaking to you?
Those riders weren’t mine. The chiefs of Nabuz sent them along to escort me, part of our bargain. But not “escort” like “queen’s honor guard”; more like “let me escort you off my property.” They were meant to get us the hell away from Nabuz, sic us on Gravenge and Eckdale.
Those riders hated me. If they’d ever thought they could bring it off, they’d have stuck those swords into me, quick as anything.
Turns out, not too many favor living with a giant beast-chariot stitched up from parts of folks.
So I had to keep pressing on. We had nowhere to rest. I knew they’d all be coming after us, soon enough: Mages and Keeper Legions and Maker armies, and the highborn of the sylvan glades. All the guardians of order and clarity; all those set on imposing their will on the world. None of them could abide a free witch.
And where was I going to run?
Hell, by the time Marish showed up, I was damned glad to see him. Even though he came to fight. Marish and Kadath-Naan and the villagers of the rocky plains, making a last stand against the White Witch and her fire-demon and her beast-chariot and the riders of Nabuz, in the short grass where the wind painted waves around the rocks and, then, the bodies. But I was glad to see him. Even after he unraveled the communion, and that great patchwork beast fell asunder.
You know what, though, he might have asked me. “Hey, Maghd, how’re you doing now? Hey, Maghd, feels like you’ve gone too far though, doesn’t it? Hey, Maghd, you need a hand over there? Hey, Madghd, what we gonna do about this here beast you turned my wife and all them into? Hey, Maghd, what did you do with my little girl?”
Didn’t do much asking though, did he?
I mean he did ask one thing. And I was fool enough to answer.
He smelled so good, is all. Smack in the middle of a battlefield—smoke and blood, folks ripped up and stuck with swords, jackal-head all burned up, Vashi with a sand-baby stuck down her throat, big beast all sad and fallen apart and dead. Oh, and there was this Djinni, who had brought Marish all the way from the secret Djinn city, floating up in the sky on a magic carpet, like watching a fair.
All that, and I still couldn’t keep my hands off him. Sure, I knew he was there to stop me. Missing his daughter, missing his wife, mad as hell. I knew all that. Figured I’d have time to explain a bit, though.
Still the White Witch, wasn’t I? Plenty of juice left. The Spirit of Unwinding Things was still running in my blood, making me crackle and buzz. I could turn myself tall as a stacked-up house, black fangs and snakes for hair and chewing lightning, if I wanted to.
Here’s the funny part: You know how I gathered all those folks, took away all their loneliness, made them all one thing? Sure. But I was the one stuck on the outside, the whole time, running the show, lonely as hell.
I just wanted to smell him. Wanted to feel his beard on my cheek, nestle my nose in his neck.
They were all gone, everyone we ever knew. I knit them up together, and Marish didn’t know any better than to take them apart and kill them. So there were just us two left. I didn’t see any point in quarreling. His choice, I told him. “I got plenty of tricks left,” said I, “if you want to keep fighting. Or we can gather close.”
Tell you this: I could have made it work. If I’d had Marish by my side, holding my hand? Sure as the cut of winter I could have tamed that Spirit of Unwinding Things. Eased it in my blood and mastered it. We could have slipped away, us two. Found ourselves some place.
I knew I wasn’t his first-choice prize. But he never called me Bag-Maghd, either. Back in that broken-down cottage of mine, on those rushes, he wove his fingers in my hair, and tasted my skin. A spirit moves twixt you, times like that. I knew his heart wasn’t all mine. But we were the last of Ilmak Dale. Two lone peasants, at the end of that long bloody trail scorched through flowers and marshes and rocky plains. We fit together like nut and shell. How you going to go throw that away?
Well now, that’s interesting.
Here I’ve been telling this tale all to myself this whole time, just talking in my head, stuck here in this prison of blue glass. I figured I might as well write my own text; just start thinking it out, word by word, as if somebody was going to hear it.
Better than going mad; and plus, I got to wondering: How deep is your craft, here in this secret city, bound to the House of Mind? I figured maybe if I kept on thinking the words, loud enough, long enough, clear enough, even just in my own head . . . pretty soon you Djinn might start overhearing it.
And then, just now: I hear someone’s breath catch in their throat.
So I have a listener, do I? Not only that: sounds like an excited one. Can’t wait to hear what happens, eh? Maybe you don’t already know how this tale turns out. Or maybe you’re just hoping it’ll go different, this time around. Maybe hoping those two dirty peasants on that battlefield are going to gather close this time, after all.
Look at these walls around me: They don’t look so much like blue glass any more. Now they look more like blue mist. And faces in the mist, out there.
So it’s a whole audience then, is it? Quite a few of you, looks like.
Last time I was pulled out of my prison, it was for them to read me that other text, “A Siege of Cranes, or Reports of the Journey of the Human Peasant Marish-of-Ilmak-Dale and the Keeper Envoy Kadath-Naan, and Their Encounter with the So-Named White Witch, Agent of Unmaking and Despair, and Metaphysical and Xenobiological Observations Thereto.” Seems the author wanted my reaction.
Proud as a strutting gander, that Djinni was, that Az Yeshedurran Ra’avar Lakash. Didn’t want to listen to me, unless it was to hear praise. Didn’t want to hear how that text was rotten through with Marish’s lies. Put me right back into that blue glass, damned quick, once I started in.
Faces in the mist. Seen any of you before? Maybe last time, when Az Yeshedurran Ra’avar Lakash pulled me out?
But not that little one over there, with the wide eyes, trying to hide behind that blurry something, pillar, I guess. There weren’t any kids around last time. I definitely haven’t seen her before. If it’s a her—I can’t figure you Djinn for hers and hims. But I’d bet horses to chickens she’s the one that gasped. The one that’s craving to know how it turns out.
Well, little Djinni, I hate to chill your heart, but Marish broke mine. There on that battlefield, he let me gather him close, and he says, “We’re all we have left, ain’t we?” and I say, “That’s so”; and he takes hold of my hands, and says, “Will you be mine, Maghd?” and like a damn fool, like a lovestruck girl without the sense of a newborn mule, I say, “Oh yes.”
See, I didn’t know much about Djinn then. I didn’t know you were so worked up about buying and selling and renting and owning. Djinn are as hot for who’s named what, and who’s from where, and what’s a kind of what, and who belongs to whom, as Keepers are for dying and burying.
So, you see, when that clever boy asked me if I would be his, he didn’t mean it like we were going to cleave together and face these winters coming, holding hands. He meant it like I was his, like his knife or his belt; like I was some land he was taking a deed on.
And the thing is, he’d already sold me, ahead of time. The Djinni floating up above the battle, watching it all, had taken the chance of buying on speculation. Rented Marish some transportation, one magic carpet, in return for one White Witch, pending delivery.
So the moment I said yes, said I was his, well, the deed took, and that Djinni uncorked a little blue bottle, and up I flew into it, and pop: on went the cap.
Now I figure that Spirit I had, the Spirit of Unwinding Things, it could have put up a fight, if I’d told it to. But I was so damned shocked and spooked and heartbroken, I didn’t even think about it until the cap was on. That Spirit didn’t come with me into the bottle; the Djinni sucked it right out of my blood, and shoved it in a different bottle, a little red one, with a copper cap. Labeled both bottles in a neat hand.
So that’s how we ended up, me and that Spirit, prizes on a shelf.
I should have known. It was never that kind of tale, where I get what I want.
Temur can be a dead pile of arms and legs all mixed together. I can be the only maid left in all the lands for a hawk’s flight. He’s still not going to choose me.
Well, the mist is clearing up; I can see you plainer. Seems like there’s more of you now. Squeezing in around the fancy pillars and fountains and pillows and candleholders. Why, look at that, I’m sitting; look at this fine gold chair I’m sitting in, up on this stone slab, with a little moat all round. Hell, I can feel my hands and feet again. I guess you all must favor my tale quite a bit, to pull me all the way out like this.
Wonder how often you pull the other folks out. I mean, I see all the bottles in this room. Shelves and shelves of them. Must be a lot of folks in there.
Do you favor my tale? I can’t tell by looking at you. Never did see a Djinn with tears or a smile. The most I’ve seen you all look is halfway eager, or a little galled. Even that little one, the kid—where is she now?—ah, there she is, at the back. She sure is listening tight. Can’t tell what she’s thinking, though.
I can’t tell if you all still think I’m the cruel witch of this tale. Or if you care how Marish broke my heart.
Of course I did hurt his worse, stealing away his little Asza. I guess I better come to that part, about the babies, before I come to the end. Before you put me back in that little blue bottle.
So those babies . . . the ones that Marish and his jackal-head friend found, with their hearts full of sand? That Djinni called them “Children of Despair.” Called me an “Agent of Unmaking and Despair.”
Despair. It’s right in the name of that Djinni text. “White Witch, Agent of Unmaking and Despair.” Right in the name.
Now sure as the wind blows, I unmade all I could. The world’s all knotted up with having and taking and hating and lying—well, yeah, damn right, I untied every thread I could take my fingers to. But despair?
Shows how much that Djinni knows.
Now the Spirit of Unwinding Things, when I summoned it up, it knit that great chariot together out of all the grown folks of Ilmak Dale, and the bigger children, too. But that Spirit wouldn’t touch the little ones, of course. First off, they still had their souls, stuck right in them. Pizdar hadn’t taken them out yet. And second: A kid five years old doesn’t have much yet to unwind, or unmake. Nothing for that Spirit to get ahold of.
So Az Yeshedurran Ra’avar Lakash figured out how there must have been another Spirit: a second Spirit that came nosing around, right behind the first one, looking to make another bargain.
Got that much right.
But for some reason, that Djinni fixed on the idea that the second Spirit belonged to the House of Despair: that I sold those babies to the Shadows.
Right in the name of the text.
Damn fool Djinni.
I mean, I sure could have. I was wronged and furious and sore; I had plenty of call to let the Shadows creep into my heart, make me their maidservant. I heard their whispers, even.
I could have summoned up Despair. Turned Ilmak Dale chill and gray and quiet, folks withered away to a stifled scream, time flowing thick as winter honey, coming back around each breath to the same helpless, bleak dawn.
And let me tell you, there wouldn’t be any Keeper Envoys or Djinni scholars or Maker armies or highborn glade-folk that would have dared challenge that Spirit. No, you know what they would have done? They would have just built a high wall around that cold empty town, locked the gate, and melted the key.
And those babies’ souls would have been taken by Shadows: winter-chill, ash-white.
Now, you all have listened to my tale for a time. You lounging on the pillows, you standing by the fountains, and you little one, over there, nosing around those shelves at the back. You’ve heard enough to judge. You tell me. Maidservant of Despair: Does that sound like Maghd of Ilmak Dale?
Hell, I never let Despair get ahold of my heart. Not on my worst day. And I sure never sold it any babies.
Temur sailing by like a silk-sail ship. And you know what she muttered under her breath, while she was looking away? “Witch.”
Oh, she knew what I did with her man. And she knew I wasn’t ashamed.
And all those folks pressing around, flinging mud? They took it up, calling me witch. Not just Thin Deri and Fazt and them. Chenna and Sethis and Karlis, cursing me to the east wind. You know they never called me cousin, Chenna or Sethis, long as I lived in Ilmak Dale; or Pizdar neither, for all that we shared blood.
But you know what, I was used to it. I was used to Ilmak Dale, cold rushes and hungry belly and mud and being called things. I might have just taken it. I might have.
But see, right then, in the middle of the mud, I looked up. Knees in the cold mud, mud dripping out of my hair, mud grit between my teeth, mud splattered on my thighs, I looked up—past that furious crowd, spitting and calling witch—and guess what I saw?
Little Asza. She wasn’t following her silk-sail mama. Temur was half down the lane, past the crowd, but Asza hung back, still as a tree, like her feet had grown roots. Hugging that little doll I put all her proud and bright and joyful into. Eyes wide, watching me there on my hands and knees.
And I came to thinking, how’s she going to turn out? She going to grow like Temur, cold and jealous to keep mud off her? Or like me, down in the mud?
I’m not saying I did it for her. I’m not her mama.
I just got tired, thinking about how Ilmak Dale was going to go on like that, season after season, folks grabbing and taking, pushing one the other down in the mud, until the rivers ran dry.
You ever feel like that? You ever feel tired, restless, like it’s time to knock the rotten walls down? Maybe not; maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about. Maybe everything here in the city of the Djinn is sunlight and honey.
Then again, you got walls full of bottled-up prisoners.
Anyway, there I was, in the mud, and I saw Azsa. And I thought: They want witching, huh? Guess I’ll give it to them.
You better fix that text, because I’m no agent of Despair. It wasn’t Despair that wormed its way into my heart, that got a hold on me, that came sneaking along with the Spirit of Unwinding Things to whisper me a bargain.
Come on now . . . Djinn like you all, read every book in the world, know how to count the pebbles in a mountain, got shelves full of folks and spirits all bottled up . . . can’t you figure out for yourselves what it was?
Here’s a hint. Those sandbag creatures that chewed on Marish and Kadath-Naan; they weren’t the babies of Ilmak Dale and Nabuz. They were just empty shells. They were what was left behind, after the babies ran off.
Fact is, I told them not to go.
Oh, I opened the gate, all right. That second Spirit came whispering and promising and offering, didn’t even want any souls in the bargain, and I said yes. Said yes, reached where it told me, with the power it lent me, and opened a wide gate, all bright gold and white and purple and smelling like the sweetest music. A gate torn straight through the sky. And through that gate you could see them, the Visions: clear as rain, sharp as joy.
Then I got scared. I told the babies, wait, don’t go, stay put, I made a mistake. I won’t know how to find you again. Your mamas and papas are going to miss you dire.
They didn’t listen. Little Asza and little Chira and little Vargus and all of them. Every kid that hadn’t seen six summers. They raced right through.
Here’s the thing. Every little one that comes into the world, comes bursting with love and need. Craves to hug the whole world, and eat it up, too. And the grown folks all around spend season after season telling them no, you can’t have that, put that down, quit playing now, clean that up, help out here, no time for that yet, we got to save that up, don’t have enough, and we don’t favor them folks over there, so be wary, there’s not enough to go round, hang on to what’s yours, can’t feed everyone, can’t love everyone, don’t act so or people are going to call you a fool, act right, pay heed, listen up.
And it took just one word from those Visions, one look, and those babies all said: Ha, I knew it wasn’t like that. I had it right all along. Now nothing’s going to stop me any more.
Asza and all of them, they flew right out of their bodies, and turned full bright and clear; they crossed that threshold, and took the hands of those Visions, and they became Visions too.
And Asza looked back at me, once, and her look said: It’s all right, don’t worry, we’re going to fix everything, it’s going to all be wonderful now.
Left me alone with their bodies, turning gray. I didn’t have time to bury them, and it didn’t seem right either, with their souls still flying about over these lands. So I stuffed them with sand, started them up crawling, and brought them along.
It’s fierce and terrible and dangerous and uncompromising, that Spirit, the one that stole the babies of Ilmak Dale with its terrible light. It respects no borders. It knows no limits.
It’s not Despair.
It’s the other thing.
Now I’ve told you my tale, true as I could. Maybe you’ll make a text out of it, set it beside the other one. Marish isn’t the only one merits having his tale writ down.
And if you hearkened to my tale, and if it touched your little Djinni heart, and if you ever did feel that restless hunger to start over and make things right; and if, while you were poking around in the back there, you happened to find a red bottle with a copper cap and a certain label, and if now you’re wondering now whether to—
Well now, that was quick decided! My thanks, little Djinni!
Such a fuss in here now, with the candles blown out and the winds tearing around!
No time to linger, friends. I’ll try not to unwind your fine city all too much on my way out. I aim to do a better job holding this here Spirit by the reins, this time. I can feel it bubbling in my blood already. But I don’t crave to unwind this whole place here. I want you to write down my tale.
Hope you don’t mind I broke all those other bottles, though.
My, what a sight.
Look at all those folks you had cooped up in here. They sure are busy, now they’re out.
Yeah, you better run.
Listen, though, while you’re running? Listen up.
Sure, I broke the bottles to keep you busy while I get out. But that’s not the only reason. Me and this Spirit? We don’t favor you bottling up folks.
You best figure out some accommodation with these folks I freed. Why don’t you try listening to that little Djinni that set me free? She’s got a wise heart.
Make things right, friends. Elsewise, the White Witch is going to come pay you another visit.
Maghd the White Witch.
No more of Ilmak Dale. Ilmak Dale’s unwound and scattered, no use looking for it. It wasn’t all bad. Times the laughter in that village was warm and open, times even I was in the circle round the fire, and the crops had come in well, and Fazt had his lyre in his hands, and even Temur smiled easy.
That’s what I undid. Fog in the morning over the grain and hedgehogs waddling in the dew and Asza carried against her papa’s shoulder and berries in the wood and the sun starting to paint the sky for day. That’s what I undid, and I’m not sorry. It had its time, and long enough.
No more Maghd the White Witch of Ilmak Dale.
Maghd the Witch of the Wide World.
Wonder how that tale goes. Better go find out.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Benjamin Rosenbaum lives near Basel, Switzerland. His stories have appeared in Harper’s, F&SF, Asimov’s, McSweeney’s, Strange Horizons, and Nature, been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, World Fantasy, BSFA, and Sturgeon Awards, and been translated into 20+ languages. He’s also a software dev and game designer. His forthcoming novel The Unraveling (Erewhon Books, October 2020) is a far-future tale of revolution and family in a world that upends our norms of gender, class, and the body. Find out more at http://benjaminrosenbaum.com.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the August 2020 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus nonfiction. This issue also contains work by Caroline M. Yoachim, Eden Royce, Matthew Kressel, KT Bryski, Sam J. Miller, Carrie Vaughn, Katherine Crighton, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.