“The good witch, Mariah, comely and wise…” The bard stood in front of the fire with his arms wide, like he wasn’t in front of a mere seven people, two of them slaves who didn’t have a choice. It was the first line of a Mariah story, and Mariah herself was going to have to sit through the gods-be-damned thing.
The first line is always the same (and always two-thirds wrong), so you had to listen for the second one to know which story you were hearing. She didn’t know all of them, but she recognized “Challenged the cliffs, hungry and fierce” or “Banished the sprites from chilly waters.” They’d even added a couple since she’d met Sophus, to his in-fucking-tolerable delight: “Slayed the stone man, ancient and strong,” and “Slew the sorcerer, foreign and pale.” (She did wonder when they’d give it up and just start saying “killed.” That would be honest at least. But bards don’t give a shit fot honesty.) Sophus said he’d even heard they were putting him into the old ones, from before she became her apprentice. He said it with the tiniest smile on the edge of his lips but was smart enough to not let it show too much. She couldn’t hurt him—stupid fucking curse of Zeus—but she could still reduce him to tears if she wanted. At least, she would have before. Now she probably wouldn’t bother.
They had just killed a flaming goat or something. She was having trouble keeping track. Could have been a scorpion with three human faces. Or a corrupt priest of Hades. There were a lot of monsters. Sophus found them all, and so she had to kill them. But her heart wasn’t in it. Well, her heart had never been in it, but at least she used to try to outsmart the curse, this gods-be-damned thing that made her run around doing “justice,” which always seemed to mean killing something. It made her wonder what Zeus’ idea of justice really was.
Anyway, the locals were grateful that she killed whatever it was. A rich man—the only rich man, which probably meant he treated everyone else like shit and was desperate for their adoration—decided to have a great big party. There was food. There was wine. And there was, of course, a damned bard. Mariah was very happy with the first two, and spitting mad about the last one. The bard was reciting a Mariah story because these simpletons thought she would enjoy having her own life told back to her. Shittily. Sophus had one if his biggest, stupidest grins. It made the scars on his cheek pucker—dark circles of gnarled skin, the remains of a mystical pox. He’d died to save her from it, and then she’d raised him from the dead, and now she was stuck with the little turd.
So she listened to the bard begin to recite yet another of her glorious adventures, and when she heard that second line, she knew it was what she needed, an excuse to pity herself. “The good witch, Mariah, comely and wise,” came the first line, and then, “Was but a girl when she met her witch mistress.” So. They’d finally got around to fucking up her childhood.
Mariah grew up in a tiny village, really just the meeting place for a handful of goatherds. Once a season, the traders came, and overnight, there were suddenly people. They wore weird clothes, said their words all wrong. They brought goods to trade for goats, skins, milk, and cheese.
She knew that she couldn’t go to the trading days alone. Even when she was with her father or brother, the men leered at her. She didn’t know why that made her feel bad, but she wanted to see the people anyway, so she peered at them from behind her father’s legs or through her brother’s arms.
She met her mistress at one of those trading days. Between seasons, she’d “flowered,” which was just cramps and bleeding as far as she could tell, so she thought that was a stupid name, but her mother kept saying she was a “woman” now, and her father started talking about finding her a husband. She had started thinking about boys, about being near them. But she didn’t want a husband. She just wanted to be near their boyness.
So there she was, the village full of people, men leering at her, as usual, but this time, very occasionally, she stared back at some man’s hands, or his jaw line, or his eyes.
“What are you doing?” Her father’s face was suddenly in front of her own.
“You were looking at them men. You stop that! My daughter ain’t no whore.”
Mariah felt tears pierce her eyes. Her stomach clenched. “I’m sorry!” she whimpered, put her head down, stared at the dust between her feet.
He pulled his hand back to slap her, but it didn’t come down.
“That is no way to treat a child,” came a woman’s voice. She talked funny. She was from somewhere else. Mariah kept staring at the dirt. “Put your hand down. That’s good. Good man.” She saw her father’s big, right hand fall to his side, limp. “Now, you got trading to do, yeah?” He seemed to nod. Mariah was still looking at the ground. “Good, go do it. I’ll watch your girl.” She watched his legs walk away. Mariah couldn’t breath.
“Look up, child.”
She lifted her head and saw this woman who had actually told her actual father to go away. And he had. She had a massive head of the messiest hair, all streaked with grey, and she had a smirk on her face that didn’t go away. She held her chin high, peering down at Mariah with squinted eyes.
“Who are you?” Mariah, said.
“Tisiphone, but you call me ‘mistress.’” she said. “He does that a lot, yeah?”
“Hits you. Slaps you,” She leaned in closer, “when you’ve done nothing wrong?”
“I— I was looking,” Mariah stammered.
Tisiphone smiled, “Yes, you were!” Then she laughed, loud. It was almost an animal noise. “Come with me. We’ll do some more looking.”
They walked through the village, two women on their own. She saw men leer at them, but “mistress” mostly ignored them. When she saw one she liked, she did her own leering. They turned away, every time. “You see, these men, they know that they can’t hurt me, that I’m not for them, yeah?”
Mariah nodded even though she did not understand.
“This is freedom. This is what it’s like for men all the time, y’see? You can’t go anywhere without your father—”
“Or my brother,” Mariah said.
Tisiphone smiled wide, “Yeah, or your big, strong brother who is, what, three years older?”
“Two,” Mariah said.
She snorted, “Two years older is so old that he’s safe here?” Tisiphone gestured to all the people, all the bodies that filled the village. Looking back, Mariah knew it was the smallest of gatherings, but at the time, it was the whole world. “No!” mistress said, “He thinks he’s safe because of the thing between his legs.”
“How would that—?” Mariah asked.
Tisiphone rolled her eyes. “I don’t mean actually. I mean… You feel unsafe because you are a girl alone. Well, I’m alone, and I feel safe!”
“You’re different than me. You’re old,” Mariah said.
“Yeah,” she admitted, “but that is not why I’m safe.” She paused for a moment, closed her eyes, and moved her lips silently. The noise of the village faded, the footsteps, the talking, the animals. To Mariah, it felt like they were suddenly and entirely alone. She looked around her, and then up at Tisiphone, who said, “Didn’t you wonder why your father would leave you alone with me?” Mariah shook her head without thinking about the question. “I made him do it!”
This was not the question Tisiphone expected. “Because I don’t like to watch men beat little girls, especially their own daughters.”
They spent the better part of a day walking around the village. There wasn’t much village to walk around, so they went slowly and in circles, seeing the same things over and over again. They talked to everyone, freely and unafraid. Tisiphone talked to men, really talked right to them, grinned at them. Or scowled if she felt like scowling.
One of them shouted at her. It lasted three words before his voice disappeared. He clutched at his neck, face turning red, without making any sound at all. She leaned in and whispered, just loud enough for Mariah to hear, “Be nice. I am showing this little girl around. I could do worse things to a man’s throat.” And then she smiled like a jackal.
“Mistress,” Mariah asked, “my mother told me when my shadow is long, I have to go home. Can I go home?”
Tisiphone turned away from the man. He fell to his knees and started gasping for air. She paid him no attention. “Of course!” She said. “But you should be free to go anywhere you want and stay anywhere you want. Would you like that, to be free?”
Mariah understood now. She said yes.
“Good! I must go. You will not see me tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after. But! You pack up your things, and next season—”
“I haven’t got any things,” Mariah said.
“Fine. You bring yourself to the village next season, and I will take you away, make you free.”
“Where will you take me?”
Tisiphone looked around, shrugged, and said “Away from here?”
Mariah thought about it every day. Sometimes leaving was unthinkable. Sometimes staying was intolerable. Sometimes she thought she’d miss her mum and dad too much. Sometimes she was certain that if she left, she’d never think about them again. She’d decided that if she saw Tisiphone, she would go, but if she wasn’t at the trading days, she would stay. She told herself the gods would decide.
A season later, she had found a way to come to each trading day. By the fourth day, there weren’t many people left, mostly locals trying to flog their worst wares.
Her father loomed over her. “I wanted to bring your brother,” he said, and stared at her.
She said nothing.
“Don’t look at any of the men, you hear me?” He stared at her again.
She was about to lower her eyes, when she saw the wild hair and upturned chin. Her mistress had finally come for her. Mariah spent a long moment staring, just staring, without a thought in her head. Her father’s mouth fell open when he recognized Tisiphone. His hand clenched the spot where his daughter’s shoulder had been, but Mariah was already across the bazaar, standing in front of Tisiphone, with a dry throat and sweaty hands.
“Good girl,” her mistress said. She threw one arm around her, and they disappeared into the crowd.
Her father never saw her again. Her mother hated him for it for the rest of her life. Her brother blamed himself. Mariah never looked back.
Of course Sophus loved all this. This bard was a show-off. He waved his arms, rolled his eyes, made the whole thing seem glorious. Mariah escapes her cruel father. She runs into the arms of her mistress. Her mistress would be everything to her: mother, father, family, and teacher. He made the old hag sound like half a god, and one of the nice ones too. What a cock.
“Mistress, my shackle is sore.” It was two years later. The iron ring one her ankle was connected by a long, thin chain to Tisiphone’s only real possession: a small wooden chest.
It had taken Mariah quite some time to realize what had happened. When Tisiphone had first put the shackle on Mariah’s ankle, she said it wasn’t a real shackle. It just meant she was an apprentice. But it felt real. It was heavy, and it cut into her skin. Tisiphone told her to stop whining, and when Mariah didn’t stop, she attached the chain. It weighed down the shackle even more. That’s when she had to admit she was a slave, and that she had done it to herself.
Tisiphone looked up from her mortar and pestle. And didn’t say anything.
“The skin is red,” Mariah said.
“And you want me to fix it?” Tisiphone answered.
She looked down at her pestle, sighed, and stood up. She walked to Mariah, mortar still in hand. She stared down at Mariah’s ankle, eyes flicking up to face. “Fine,” she finally said.
Tisiphone moved her lips and passed her hand over the wound. It faded, but there was an ugly scar.
Mariah stared at the scar. “Thank you,” she said, choking back a sob.
Tisiphone stomped back to her spot, eyed the pestle, and dumped it into the sand. “I’ve got to work now, child, so it’s time.” She started mumbling. It was always mumbling. Never understandable words. She finished the incantation, and Mariah slumped to the ground and started snoring.
Tisiphone left her where she lay. The mistress then sat in front of her box and mouthed words so quiet she couldn’t even hear them, herself. The box opened, and she brought out her charms and scrolls.
She studied them every night, which took quite some time, so Mariah had to lie very still and listen very carefully for when Tisiphone had fallen asleep. Mariah had gotten this far several times. She’d sorted out how to resist the sleep charm some time ago. But tonight, she was going to go further.
First, she opened her eyes and waited. Nothing happened. Then, she rolled over. Nothing happened. She slowly raised her head. Mariah was convinced that if her mistress was awake, this would be the moment of her death. She would not see or hear it. She would simply find herself transformed into a shade. But, instead, nothing happened.
So by the starlight, she navigated the packed earth and crept slowly towards the chest. It grew larger with every step. When she was close enough to smell the wood, some foreign tree she could never get used to, she stopped.
There was no reason to be more scared now. She’d die horribly whether Tisiphone caught her now or later, so fuck it, right? But she was scared. This was a threshold, and a dangerous one. But what else was she here for if not this? She sat in front of the box and did her best to repeat the faint words she had just barely heard Tisiphone say every night for weeks. The box opened with a terrifying thunk. It did not result in Tisiphone waking up and killing her, praise Athena, which is how she finally began her first real lesson in witchcraft.
The bard had a hard time working around that bit. Mariah told this story when she was drunk, and she was always drunk, so everyone knew it. But the bards just couldn’t bring themselves to make her mistress the villain, so instead, she was a wise mentor, supportive and kind. It made Mariah want to throw rocks at him. Rocks that turned into scorpions.
A year later, in the fading light of another long day, Mariah’s ankle was sore again, but she new the prayer to Apollo by heart. The red faded, the skin healed. Even the old scar was gone.
Tisophone trudged over to her Mariah’s side of their little camp. “Well, this won’t do any more,” she said.
Mariah watched, willing her face to have no reaction at all, as her mistress passed a hand over the bolts that had been pounded into her shackle. They powdered away into two tiny piles of rust. Tisiphone pulled the ring open just enough for Mariah to scrape her way out of it, and then she turned away.
Mariah knew she should run. But where? They were, as always, in the middle of nowhere. They always slept far away from people. It was a prison made of horizons.
Suddenly, her ankle burned intensely. She shrieked and fell on her side, kicking her leg, trying to throw off the pain. The new shackle pushed its way out of her skin, burning the whole time. No bolts. Just an unbroken ring of bronze with burnt flesh all around it.
“Much better,” Tisiphone said. She had the gaul to smile.
Mariah felt tears run down the side of her face where she lay on the ground. As steady as she could, she said “There’s no chain, this time.”
“There’s always a chain,” she laughed. “What are you going to do about it?”
Mariah kept her head down and stayed quiet. She laid perfectly still and thought about something else, waiting for the pain to fade.
The bards didn’t sing about that. Mariah thought it was because they couldn’t find a way to make it sound like anything other than cruelty. Or maybe they knew. Maybe they’d worked out that it was the moment she realized she couldn’t just escape. She’d have to kill the hag.
“I will not trade five skins for a jug! You fucking goat fucker! I’ll give you three fucking skins! And you’ll be be fucking happy with what I fucking give you!” She paused for breath. “Fucker!” Mariah was yelling with as much authority as she could muster, but the big man in front of her didn’t care.
“These are shit skins, small and full of holes. You want the wine?” He held up his fingers. “Five. Five skins.”
Mariah dumped them at his feet, praised Heracles under her breath, and snatched the jug out of his grip. He looked down at his hands, wondering how he was suddenly so weak, but she was already walking away. A moment later, she was taking a long pull from the jug. She needed it. Tisiphone had been an especially huge asshole that day.
She took another pull from the jug, and trudged through the bazaar. “Smash your fucking face with a rock, you fucking Harpy…” Another pull. A weaver wrinkled her nose as Mariah passed. “Gods, I needed this wine.” Another very long pull. A pair of grain farmers’ shook their heads as she passed, to her inward delight. She was tipsy by then, legs wobbling slightly. “And a fuck. Wine and a fuck…” she slurred.
The ring on her ankle was heating up. She’d strayed too far again. It didn’t hurt yet, but it would. She needed to find someone fast. There were men all around. The bazaar was full of them. She looked, stared brazenly—What were they going to do, yell at her?—But none of them had hands she’d want on her body, mouths she could stand the smell of.
She closed her eyes, prayed to Eros, and let the god tell her were to look. When she opened them, she saw a boy surrounded by his friends. He was telling some no doubt hilarious story that she could not hear. He clutched his chest in mock injury, as if he’d been struck by an arrow, then he burst out laughing at his own joke.
She walked towards him, jug in hand. The ring starting to sting. She was not good at this, the flirting, the drawing in of men. She wanted to just say “I want to fuck,” but then they called her whore, so she had to hurt them. It didn’t help her get what she wanted. And she did not want to hurt this boy, so she stood across from him. She drank from the jug and held his gaze, hoping he would hear what she was screaming inside her head: come with me! away from this crowd! I like doing it a lot!
“Mariah! Come back here now!” Tisiphone’s voice carried like no other noise, and the ring started to burn in earnest. She gritted her teeth so hard she heard one crack. Then she dropped the jug, which also cracked and started leaking wine. The men leapt forwards, grabbed at it at, tried to save as much as the could.
She stomped towards her mistress’ voice. She would spend the rest of the day aching for that boy, that boy whose voice she’d never even heard.
The bards were prudes. They never talked about her men, and there had been quite a few. Witchcraft takes all the risk out of fucking. No diseases. No babies. No men thinking they can do what they like. You could take your pick. You could find the ones who knew how to please. Mariah she realized she was getting horny, so she had to deal with that, now, too. Fucking bards.
Two long years later, Mariah and Tisiphone sat around a pathetic little fire, surrounded by a pathetic little camp, just as they always did.
“Mistress, why don’t you conjure a feast? A grand tent? A jug of wine?”
Tisiphone did not look up. She was grinding a fine powder even finer with a mortar and pestle. “You always did think small, child.”
“I think like a mortal woman!”
“Exactly. There’s more to this,” she gestured to their camp, “than food and drink and comfort.”
“What is this?” Mariah didn’t scream, she didn’t yell, but she had raised her voice.
“This is a great war, child, as big as Mount Olympus. Victors drink ambrosia with the gods. Losers eat ash in the underworld.”
“Which am I?” Mariah asked.
Tisiphone looked down at the shackle on Mariah’s ankle and pursed her lips. “You are what you’ve always been, the daughter of goatherd.”
Mariah said nothing. She had learned everything she could from Tisiphone months ago. There were no more scrolls to read, no more charms to study. She was only still there because she hadn’t thought of what to do next. But now she didn’t care about that. She just cared about shutting up that vicious cow forever.
Tisiphone poured her new powder into a leather pouch, put the pouch in her wooden chest, and put the lock on the chest. “Time for sleep, child.” She opened her mouth to say the sleeping prayer, but then didn’t. Just didn’t. She smirked at Mariah for a moment, then she turned around and lay down to sleep.
Mariah waited until she heard the slow, even breaths that meant Tisiphone was deeply asleep, then she rose up like she had done a hundred times before. She stared at Tisiphone, on the ground. Mariah’s heart thudded in her chest. She thought about roots reaching up through the sand to squeeze her neck. She thought about the sand swallowing her whole. Then she smiled and swore an oath to Ares. The tip of a sword thrust out of the dirt, straight through Tisiphone’s neck in one clean stroke. Too clean. There was no blood.
“Oh fuck!” Mariah said, and ducked just before a spear sang through the air where her head had just been.
“So! We’re here at last.” Tisiphone called from behind her, outside the ring of their little camp. “It’s time, isn’t it, to see how much you’ve learned?” A knot of snakes grew next to Mariah’s legs. She leapt into the darkness before any of them could strike.
“No, no, no! Fight back!” This was followed by a vicious laugh.
The shackle started to burn Mariah’s flesh. “Shit shit shit!” She clawed at it uselessly.
“Did you not think to take that off before you tried to kill me, addle-minded child? I taught you better than that!”
Mariah stopped just long enough to remember a prayer to Hephaestus. She spoke it, the shackle cracked in three places and fell away, and then she scrambled to her feet and broke into a run. “You didn’t teach me anything!” she called. Gods be damned, that was stupid! Just run!
“Didn’t I?” Tisiphone yelled. “I thought I did! I thought I taught you to be more careful than that.”
Mariah felt more than saw a great hole open in the packed Earth in front of her. As her front foot was sliding into the rounded edge of the hole, she leapt with both feet, slamming bodily onto the lip on the other side.
“You lying asshole!” She clawed and rolled out of the pit as it slowly closed. On the ground, on her back, in the dark, she squeezed her eyes shut and realized her mistress was right. “I learned it all myself! All of it!” she screamed. Then she prayed to Aeolus and whipped up a sand storm. Mariah got up and kept running.
Tisiphone trudged through the flying sand. “Did you really? Or did I let you?” She mumbled a few words and a scorpion as big as a bull appeared in front of Mariah, waving its barbed tail back and forth.
“Fuck you!” Mariah screamed, mostly at Tisiphone but definitely partly at the giant creature whose stinger would be deep in her belly if she didn’t do something right now.
She begged Ares again, and a fan of swords sliced up from the sand along the length of the scorpion’s armoured body, suspending it in the air. Its legs twitched, but the tail went limp.
Mariah had a long moment to wonder, as she shifted her weight to once again run for her life, if Tisiphone really believed she’d been a good teacher or if she was just a cruel kind of mad. It could have been both, of course. The moment ended, and she pumped her legs. “Just let me go! You’ll be well rid of me!”
“Let’s see if you can get yourself free, yeah? Seems fair to me!” Tisiphone laughed, like she had really amused herself.
The sand storm guttered out, and Mariah kept running in silence. Then, there was a sandy thud the ground in front of her, and then another thud, and then a steady stream of thuds.
She looked straight up, making out the faintest glimmers of a rainstorm of daggers falling from the night sky. It was too big to dodge or outrun. Tisiphone wasn’t playing any more. So Mariah grabbed at the most spiteful, violent prayer she could think of, a song to Nemesis. The daggers turned a great arc like a flock of herons, and then [verb for birds of prey on the attack] like eagles. There was one shriek, and then just the sound of the blades hitting meat.
She was just barely close enough to make out her mistress in the dark, but she could see the dagger handles decorating her body. She watched as the old woman giggled, said one word, “justice,” and then hit the ground, feeding the dirt with her blood.
It didn’t make any sense at the time, and she honestly didn’t think much of it. She just conjured a jug of wine and drank toast after toast to Tisiphone’s dead body. The next day, she tried to leave it to be eaten by crows, but something inside of her was waking up, and wouldn’t allow her to leave.
It was in her chest and in her head. She had to bury the body. She felt she wanted to, even though she truly did not. She wanted to shit on the corpse, but she couldn’t. Only once she had clawed enough dirt up with her fingers and shoved Tisiphone into the hole, and then pushed the thin layer back over her, only then did the thing in her head let her go. It was satisfied, with her and with itself.
The bard didn’t talk about any of that: the fight, the curse, none of it. Instead, a giant scorpion attacked their camp and Tisiphone defended her apprentice with her life. Mariah found that bit especially galling. If anyone got credit for killing that old hag, it should have been her.
But then she looked down at Sophus’ wide eyes. He was marvelling at the bard’s performance. He knew the real story. She’d told him of all people, over and over. But he liked this one better, even chose to believe it. And so she was trapped inside his childish fantasy of her life.