This episode is part of our 2019 Summer Spotlight, showcasing the work of the year’s major award finalists.
Peadar’s YA novel The Invasion is a finalist for the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book.
by Peadar Ó Guilín
“No one asks for death.” This was the proud boast of the city of Kalegwyn. “No one ever asks for it.” Until Malern did. A bad move for her, as it turned out. She awoke on Castellan Garvinger’s operating table with his favourite surgeon elbow-deep in her chest.
“This is going to hurt,” said Garvinger from somewhere in the background. “Scream all you want.”
And she did. She couldn’t help herself, although she knew her cries were being conveyed magically to the people in the plaza beyond. She screamed until something seemed to snap in her throat, and after that the best she could manage was a wheezing, bubbling sound that carried no hint of her former insolence.
The surgeon kept working, ripping and tearing. He made sure she could see everything. They had pointed a mirror at her chest and had pinned her eyes open.
Swinging from the roof hung a cage with Garvinger’s window witch inside. The creature babbled spells to keep Malern alive and conscious throughout the whole operation. Malern could not see its mad, warty little face, but now and again, cool drops of its sweat fell onto her fevered skin.
“Remember,” Garvinger told her, “you don’t have to die. You can be a witch instead.”
If anyone else had asked, she would have caved at once, told them what they wanted to hear to end the agony. “No…” she gasped. Where did she find the strength? But she had always been the rebel, hadn’t she? Torturing her father with her lack of respect? “No…” she said again, and Garvinger nodded his perfect face, and already she wanted to call him back.
The surgeon completed his work by sewing her smashed torso back together and giving the window witch further instructions. The creature had once been a young woman, one of Garvinger’s own great-grandchildren. It gibbered in its cage and banged its mad little face against the bars — smack, smack, smack. It didn’t stop hurting itself until Garvinger cursed at it and sent it cringing with a clatter of his cane.
Finally, Garvinger’s surgeon smiled at his victim. “Consider yourself executed, dear.”
Malern sat up. Enough of her own blood stained her torso that she should have been dead five times over. A tube protruded from under her left breast and curled away out of sight.
“I’m… I’m still alive.”
“Alive!” crowed the surgeon. “Oh yes! Garvinger was most specific, were you not, sir?” The castellan nodded. “Alive, but executed. That’s what you are, dear. My triumph, my absolute triumph!”
Garvinger shook glossy hair from his young face so that it rippled in the light of the witch’s window. He had never bothered to rejuvenate his voice, however, and each syllable emerged as though scraping over a rock. “You will be our example, Malern. Nobody who sees you will ever ask for death. We cannot afford it. The city always needs witches.” He held a small leather bag in his left hand and squeezed it every few seconds, causing the tube attached to Malern’s chest to jerk. “Greet your new heart, citizen,” he said.
He gave the bag to Malern and pressed her unresisting fingers around it. “Don’t fall asleep, girl. If you forget to squeeze for more than a minute, you will be… at rest.” He smirked. Malern wanted to pound the smugness out of him, but all she could do was sit up. She felt dizzy and sick until Garvinger’s fingers squeezed hers again, causing the blood to surge around her body.
“I asked for death,” she said.
“You hold it in your hands,” replied Garvinger. “You are free to stop squeezing at any time. I have had my fill of you and your prophesies of doom. Now go.”
In a way, Malern had started digging her own grave a fortnight earlier. Her father was out of the house again, campaigning to unseat Garvinger as castellan and head of the council. Her younger brother, Rodrig, the house witch, had been left at home to gibber quietly in his cage in the special window above the front door. It was a bad sign for a man of father’s station to leave the source of his power behind him, but he had little choice. Rodrig’s skin had turned green by now. His eyes had shrunk to glowing red pin-pricks. Sanity had long since departed, and his spells were growing ever more unpredictable.
The sight of him filled Malern with dread. “We’ll both be dead within the year,” she told her younger sister. “Or in the witch’s cage.”
Alysa pretended not to hear. Her curly hair floated above her head, threaded with impossible jewels, while a tiny harp played music from the Old Empire. The instrument would increase in volume when necessary to drown out the cries of their brother from his swaying prison at the window.
Malern slapped the harp onto the floor and grabbed her sister by the ear. “Did you hear what I said? Rodrig won’t last the month. What do you think will happen then?”
“Let go, you dirty vagabond!” cried Alysa. “Why must you always strike?”
“Rodrig will need replacing, you fool, and who’s the next youngest after he’s gone?”
Alysa could be stubborn too and kept her mouth shut until Malern wrung a yelp out of her with a twist of her fingers.
“You’re afraid, Alysa. Well, so am I. I’m sick with it. Things are getting worse. We’re near the end now, that’s what I think. And not just our family.”
“Let me go!”
Instead, Malern pulled her out onto the balcony overlooking the plaza that had once been the courtyard of the Last Emperor when all of Kalegwyn had been an enormous palace and the desert beyond, its capital city.
A hundred people filled the square below or swooped, laughing, through the air on cushions. Others rode about the edges on the backs of unicorns. The crowd had caught themselves a vagabond and families fought to get at the poor man and claim him for themselves.
Malern knew most of them down there in the scrum. Red-faced Ortular kept screaming, “He owes me a debt! I have papers!”
On other balconies around the plaza, or perching on beanstalks they had just grown, the city’s saner children yelled, “Witch! Witch! Witch!” While caged prisoners gibbered in madness behind the windows at the front of every house.
The people always needed more witches.
Outside, the vagabond was weeping and begging for his freedom. “He should ask for death instead,” Malern said. “It’s the law.”
“Nobody asks,” Alysa said. “Will you release my ear?”
Malern obeyed at once. “I’m sorry I always hurt you, I’m sorry. But it’s getting worse out there, Aysa. Am I the only one who can see it?”
Alysa shrugged uncomfortably, her jewelled hair swaying above her like a cloud. She said not a word, but Malern knew she was thinking that Father would never put Alysa in the cage, not while he still had another daughter: a daughter famed in the town for defiance and complaint. No, Father would never cage Alysa.
“You’re right,” said Malern, feeling sick.
“I didn’t say anything.”
Down below, Garvinger’s militia was beating its way through the crowd with sticks. The vagabond was to be auctioned off for votes. Assuming he failed to ask for death, the winner would bathe him in the old Emperor’s sacred spring and hang him in a cage in front of their house.
As her sister went back to her harp, Malern whispered, “I’ll never let them cage me.”
But Rodrig’s spells continued to grow ever more unpredictable. The last straw came only a few days later. Their poor father needed a spectacular entrance to the council chamber as part of his campaign. He got what he had asked for, finding himself trussed up and naked on the table in front of his peers with an apple in his mouth.
The rumours of his humiliation reached home before he did. There was laughter in the streets and bawdy jokes shouted up to where Malern waited on the balcony. Some drunkard spent enough of his witch’s magic to cause a rain of perfect red apples to fall on the house. Malern’s heart turned cold, and again, she found herself pleading with Alysa for help.
“What do you want me to say, Malern? Father will do what’s best for the household.”
“What if it’s you he picks, Alysa? To bathe in the Emperor’s Spring? What’ll you say then?”
“Why is it only now you complain, big sister? We had three other brothers before Rodrig, did we not? We had feasts every night when porridge would have sufficed. We had ghosts to tell us stories and mirrors to show us the stupid people of faraway lands. Three brothers! All spent!”
Nor had it just been family members who became witches. For years the citizens of Kalegwyn had kidnapped foreigners who wandered into the desert in search of the Emperor’s fabled treasure. But these vagabonds had grown increasingly rare as none returned home.
“This is the last time I’m going to ask you, Alysa. Please help me talk to father. Please.”
Alysa turned away. Malern’s heart ached to see it, because her sister was the one thing in the world she loved. Even a few months before, they had been the closest of friends, tumbling through the air on wings conjured up by the family’s witch. They had shared secrets over this boy or that and had allied against their stronger brothers until, one by one, father had chosen them for the cage. Now, Alysa was his favourite and that was that. Malern saw a tear trickle down Alysa’s cheek and even heard a stifled sob as she closed the door behind her. Oh, Emperor! She’s already mourning me.
Malern leaned panting against the wall, although she hadn’t run so much as a step. Father was coming home. Naked, angry. In need of great power. Father was coming to replace Rodrig in the cage.
She took a golden candlestick and waited for him behind the door. She brought it down on his skull when he walked in. Her brother, suspended at the special witch window just above the entrance, cackled and spat down upon the scene of patricide in the hallway.
Afterwards, Malern wept over the corpse. Then, she raised her eyes. “Rodrig?” she whispered. “Rodrig? I swear I will use you no further after this night. I swear it. But I am the new head of the house-hold. I need… I need you to make this look like a suicide. Fix his skull and hang him by the neck.” Nobody would be surprised if father had killed himself after his humiliation today at the council. “Can you do that, Rodrig? This one last thing?”
True to her word, Malern scandalised the town by refusing to use magic for her father’s funeral.
“That’s disgusting,” one ancient man told her as she helped Alysa drag their father out into the desert.
“You’re the disgusting one, carried around up there on a bloody elephant! How many years of your witch’s life did that cost? And for what?”
“The castellan has heard of your impertinence, young lady.”
“It’s none of his business.”
When the sisters came home, exhausted and filthy, Rodrig was quiet. “He’s actually sleeping,” said Malern. The cage swung in the breeze. It had to be visible to passers-by — a house had a witch or its inhabitants were vagabonds and property of the town. As Malern was the eldest, Rodrig belonged to her now and would obey no other.
She rested her fingers against the bottom of the cage. “Maybe if we leave him alone, he’ll return to his old self.”
“You’re mad, sister!” said Alysa. She slid down the wall onto her bottom, crying and shaking. “Just do it,” she said. “You’re head of the household. Take me to the Spring.”
“I wouldn’t, Alysa! I love you.”
“You have no choice. Who will magic our rocks into food?”
Malern crouched down beside her. Her arms ached from dragging their father into the desert, from lifting stones with her own strength to cover him. “I have a plan, sister…” And she did.
Once, on her birthday, their father had gifted her with the ability to read. She owned an entire library of children’s books, and one of these had explained how to grow food. It didn’t sound that difficult. There was a ritual that involved putting seeds into the ground. You watered them; added fertilizer, and shortly afterwards the desert would offer up a feast!
Everybody laughed at the girls struggling in the garden amongst toppled, inedible statues of purest gold. Fat Herko rained on them from a magic cloud. “For your plants!” he kept shouting. “You’ll need all you can get!”
Even more humiliating were his repeated attempts the following day to “fertilize” the garden with the help of an incontinent pegasus. The creature’s aim wasn’t very good, but half the town turned out to laugh all the same. Malern’s aim was no better with the pebbles she flung back, and Alysa tried her patience further when she refused to work in the garden any more.
Malern found her sister hunched over and weeping in the corner of her now-filthy room. The singing harp no longer worked. The golden curls hung lank around her shoulders.
“They’ll stop laughing,” Malern said, “when they grow bored. Until then we need to-”
Alysa’s fist came out of nowhere and sent Malern reeling backwards. “Why don’t you just do it already? If I’m going to be in the cage anyway, why do I need to suffer like this first?”
“I’m dying!” shouted Alysa. “I’m… I’m bleeding.”
“You are?” Malern picked herself up. “I don’t see anything.”
“From… from between my legs. Do you understand? I don’t know why. For…” She sobbed. “For three days now. It just… I’ve had to use rags… I…”
“Oh, Emperor! I’m so sorry… I’ll ask Rodrig. For something like this… I’m sorry!”
Alysa accepted a hug, both of them weeping over the horror of it. “I know…” she sobbed, “I know you’re going to bathe me sooner or later. I can’t stand the tension, the fear. I don’t sleep.”
“I told you, I would never do that…”
“You’ll have to, Malern. The town won’t stand for it.”
A little more of Rodrig’s precious energy was used to stop Alysa’s bleeding, although he snapped one of his own fingers in his rage. Even worse, Alysa’s illness proved to be contagious, for no sooner had Malern gone back to her digging than she felt a warm trickle running down her own thigh.
“I know you’re going to bathe me sooner or later,” Alysa had said. Those words seemed like a prophesy the next day when Malern went into the garden and saw no results of any kind for all their hard work. We’re still doing something wrong, but what? Perhaps she needed to wait for the full moon?
Garvinger appeared outside the garden wall as though summoned from a lamp. He looked no older than Malern herself, but everybody knew he’d burned through three great-grandchildren to stay that way. He’d been castellan for over a hundred years, people said, and might even have known the Emperor Himself.
He pointed at where she had been digging and said in his ancient rasp of a voice. “It’s not going to work, you know?”
“What do you care? My father’s gone now, you are unchallenged.”
“Except by you.” He smiled, his teeth glittering in the light of the sun. “Whatever Hroklyn thought of me, we would have agreed on this issue.”
He reached over the wall and grabbed her arm. “You already know.” He cast his eyes towards the house where Alysa was sleeping. “Your sister’s magic could keep you going. For years. Until you can have children of your own.”
She jerked away from him.
“Why must you always be so defiant, girl? You broke your father’s heart. You were his first-born and he loved you most of all, whatever you might think.”
“You just want me to be a monster like you. Feeding on his own descendants.” Garvinger’s face twisted then, as though it were about to split open, to burst. He took control of himself.
“You’ve fed well enough up to now, girl. I remember you and your wild revelries with all the bloody unicorns pissing in the Plaza. Magic is the heart of this place. Entrusted to us by the Great Emperor Himself, who was ancestor to us all. You didn’t know that, did you? He burned through fifty witches to save us. Drove the rebels back a full day’s travel in every direction. So show your gratitude. Take your sister to the Spring.”
“Crops? I doubt you even know what you planted, girl. But no matter. Whatever it is will be months in the growing.”
Months? She allowed nothing to show on her face.
“You must do the right thing, Malern.”
“Or what? Leave?”
“You can’t leave, you idiot!”
Maybe you can’t, Garvinger. A day’s travel from the Spring, all magic stopped working. Carriages became pumpkins; jewels turned to rocks. All of Garvinger’s stolen years would return to him in an instant. Malern however, had never altered her body with magic. She was still too young to have needed it.
She left him at the wall and woke her sister. “The seeds need months to grow. We have to get out of Kalegwyn or we’ll starve. Tonight.”
“Are you mad? We can’t go! It’s against the law! They’ll hunt us down with flying carpets.”
“Only if they suspect something. We’ll leave in the dark. A day’s travel and they can’t touch us.”
“I’ve never walked so far.”
“We can do it, Alysa. Go back to sleep. I’ll wake you when it’s time to go.”
“I don’t want the cage, Malern. They’ll catch us.”
“Go to sleep, pet. We’ll get out of here tonight.”
Enforcers took Malern from her bed and bound her in ropes. They brought her to the Emperor’s Spring. Alysa would bathe her, they said, and make a witch of her. It was Alysa who had reported her attempted escape.
Alysa wept and held their father’s knife up to her sister’s throat. “Do you ask for death, Malern, Hroklyn’s daughter?”
“What? You… you can’t. Nobody-
Malern spat at her. “I choose death. It is my right. I will not be caged.”
Alysa couldn’t bring herself to cut her sister’s throat, and that’s when the castellan had her brought to his operating table and the surgeon swapped her heart for a bag attached to her chest with a tube. “One way or another,” Garvinger stated, “you will take part. You will be one of us.”
It was night-time when they put her outside after her operation. Excited witnesses crowded the square, staring and laughing. What would the madwoman do next? Their voices tumbled around her as she staggered blinking amongst them.
“She’s not so high and mighty now!” one woman said from a floating cushion. “We only use magic because we have to!”
Malern thought about releasing her hold on the bag, but she wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of watching her die in front of them. Instead, she trudged homeward, past the crumbling façades of empty houses where whole families had been turned into magic.
The first thing she noticed, even before opening the front door, was the empty cage in the window. Poor Rodrig had found his rest. Malern paused there, digesting the implications. It was only now that she understood Garvinger’s plan for her.
“Executed, but alive” — those had been his wishes. Nobody chooses death and nobody leaves and nobody ever refuses to take part. She had broken all three of these laws, but the last had hurt the citizens the most for it proved their evil was a matter of choice. If she could live without destroying others, why couldn’t they?
This was why they watched her now, so attentively, so eagerly. They knew she would be forced to bathe her sister in order to have enough magic to replace the bag with a real heart. If she refused, if she stopped pumping and lay down to die, Alysa, who had no witch for her window, would be a vagabond when the sun rose again. Somebody else would claim her if Malern did not.
Malern closed the door behind her. “You will pump my heart, sister,” she said, handing over the bag.
Alysa nodded, already wearing her best clothing for the Spring. The fear that had twisted her was gone, and she spoke of the love she bore Malern and apologised for her betrayal. “I’ll be a good witch for you, sister. As long as I can.”
“I could kill you instead, Alysa, if you want.” She took down their father’s knife from above the fireplace. “What satisfaction for them if they were to find us both dead?”
Instead, an hour before dawn, the sisters emerged to find the entire population of Kalegwyn waiting for them. They were all here, but the Old Ones, the ones who had used the most magic in their lives, had pushed right to the front. Berkram had turned himself into a tiny winged fairy, buzzing about their ears. Erlokel swam through solid cobble and stone or floated lazily on her back as they passed. And Garvinger, who never wasted magic, who would live forever, led the whole procession on foot.
Nobody spoke. They kept pace with the sisters all the way to the Emperor’s Spring — a bubbling pool of water, actually, surrounded on three sides by walls of pure jade.
Malern almost fainted when she forgot to pump her heart. Alysa couldn’t help her now, for the girl’s hands had been ritually bound to her torso. The chill crept up their legs as the pair of them waded into the pool together for the second time.
Malern spoke the opening words of the ritual, “Do you ask for death, Alysa, Hroklyn’s daughter?”
“No, sister.” Somebody had used a spell to amplify their voices. Every eye was on them, sparkling, encouraging.
“I wish to speak,” said Malern.
“Just be quick about it!” said Garvinger, but others wanted to hear what she had to say.
“Look at us,” Malern said. “There can’t be more than a few thousand faces here. Has anyone done a count? Half the houses of the city are empty. Families I knew as a child are gone and others, like mine, are running out of pasture.
“What do you think will happen next? Some of you know already, and you are too clever to speak of it openly, but I am not. We still have rules about who may bathe whom, but a time is coming when the strong will raid the weak for witches, when-”
“Enough!” shouted Garvinger. “The sun is rising!”
The other Old Ones agreed loudly. They knew where she was going already with this line of argument. They knew. So, she shrugged and put her arm around Alysa’s trembling shoulders while the crowd edged closer and fairy Berkram clapped his tiny hands.
“I can’t,” said Malern.
“No, Garvinger. With this cursed bag…” She held up the long, awkward tube, “I need a hand.”
“Ah!” he splashed forward to help her, but when he leaned down towards Alysa, he found the knife of Malern’s father at his left eye-ball.
“Should I kill you?” she asked him.
He had refused an honest offer of death, so she kicked the legs from under him, and with Alysa’s help — whose arms had never been properly tied — she shoved him under the freezing, bubbling water of the Emperor’s Spring.
“What have you done?” he cried, when she allowed him back up. The very act of bathing him had made Garvinger her witch. No warts grew on his face yet and it would be months before his wits would desert him and his body would hunch enough to fit comfortably in a cage. The crowd milled about in horror and confusion. But Malern knew that the clever ones would soon marshal their magic to destroy the lawbreakers. She would have time to command one spell of Garvinger and one spell only.
“Obey,” she said to him.
She could see him resisting, but he couldn’t help himself. “I… I obey.” Garvinger the Great started sobbing like a child. Still, when she told him what she wanted, he opened his mouth and sounds of power emerged.
An instant later, the two sisters found themselves a day’s travel from Kalegwyn, with the sun rising above them.
Malern forgot to pump her heart for a moment, such was the strange beauty of the outside world. A single perfect line separated flat desert from rolling, wooded hills. Birds sang beyond the border. Flowers hung over the edge, but no bees would cross to visit them.
Alysa cried out in delight and sprang over the line to drink from a gurgling stream with cupped hands. Her silken dress turned to sack-cloth. Her golden ear-rings were simple stone again, but still, she was beautiful, freed at last from the weight of terror. She looked back. “Won’t you cross, sister? They’ll be flying after us, you know?” And then, she noticed the bag in Malern’s fist. “Why didn’t you get Garvinger to give you a new heart first?”
Malern shook her head. “There was no time, and regardless, the heart he made for me would have disappeared as soon as I crossed the border.”
“Oh, oh! But… I will pump your bag for you as long as I live! I swear it!”
Malern smiled, keeping the sadness out of it. She had never realised what a beautiful place the world could be. “I can manage for now, sister. Listen. Run on ahead and find us a…” what was it called? “a road.”
Alysa didn’t need to be asked twice, springing off among the trees. She hadn’t realised that Malern’s bag was magic too. She would come running back in a panic as soon as she did.
So I’d better be quick!
Malern found it hard to step over the line. Nobody chooses death. Not really. But some lucky few can pick a place to fall and spend eternity. Onto mossy grass. Next to a stand of lavender where ecstatic bees bring life.
About the Author
Irish writer Peadar Ó Guilín is the author of the YA novel, The Call, inspired by the beautiful northwest of Ireland where he grew up. The Invasion, a sequel to The Call and the end of the duology, was published in March 2018. His fantasy and SF short stories have appeared in numerous venues, including PseudoPod and PodCastle.
About the Narrator
Tonia Ransom is the creator and executive producer of NIGHTLIGHT, a horror podcast featuring creepy tales written by Black writers. Tonia has been scaring people since the second grade, when she wrote her first story based on Michael Myers. She’s pretty sure her teacher was concerned, but she thinks she turned out fine(ish). Tonia tells horror stories regularly on Twitter @missdefying, and her debut novella Risen was released early December 2020. She lives in Austin, Texas.