PodCastle 500: Maiden, Mother, Crone

Maiden, Mother, Crone

By Ann Leckie and Rachel Swirsky

The mule nipped at Marjan’s hand as she burdened it with her packs. She pushed its nose away, careful not to hurt it. She needed the mule to be well. Her life — and her unborn child’s — depended on it.

She led the mule outside the stable and carefully latched the door behind them. She didn’t want the other animals to suffer from the cold. Bad enough she was stealing the mule. She didn’t want Iresna and Gavek to lose anything else.

She mounted and kicked the lazy mule into motion. Its hooves crunched slowly across the snow, step after step, into the endless night. Marjan could have walked faster, but didn’t have enough endurance for the long descent through the icy mountains.

Her whole body felt tight and tense. Her belly cramped. Relax, she told herself. She couldn’t allow herself to start the ride so weak and weary.

She stared into the dark, wishing for a thicker moon to strengthen the light. Dense clouds obscured the needle-pricks of the stars. The air smelled crisp and vacant. New, wet flakes tumbled across Marjan’s cheeks, and she realized it was snowing. She pulled her hands into the sleeves of the too-large furs she’d stolen from Iresna’s chests.

The snow came faster and harder, whipping little pains of ice. Wind hissed and howled. This wasn’t just winter’s cold, she realized with increasing dread. It was a storm, a powerful one.

Her stomach cramped with fear. She twisted to look behind, but she couldn’t tell how far they’d come through the cold and the dark. She thought about turning back to the stables and sheltering there, but she couldn’t. Gavek and Iresna would find her. They’d want to know why she’d fled. Afterward, they’d watch her. She’d never find another occasion to slip away — not before the baby was born.

Her stomach cramped again. Cold and fear and pain — she moaned. The sound came back to her on the driving wind. As she heard it, she realized that just as this wind was not an ordinary winter wind, her pain was not an ordinary winter pain.

She cursed. It was too early.

The mule plodded onward, step after heavy step. Marjan trembled against its neck, terrified of the next contraction. What would she do? She was alone. There was no help for her. Ever since her mother abandoned her as an infant, leaving her with a stranger, her life had always been like this — one moment of desperate isolation after another, with no one familiar to turn to. The Mark burned on Marjan’s hip like the brand it was, the only spot of heat in the cold.

Marked on the
arm, a witch can cast harm.

Marked on the face, she’s a healing embrace.
Marked on the heart, and love is her art.
Marked on the thigh, and let out a sigh —
She may do it all, but it all goes awry.

The old rhyme was all Marjan had been able to think of the day before as she went with her brother-in-law, Gavek, and her mother-in-law, Iresna, to the mortuary hut and consigned her husband’s body to its eternal rest.

Vatska had died while working with Gavek to fix the roof. Marjan watched them out the window as they labored, two big men with thick beards and thick arms. She felt grateful for them both, but particularly for her enormous, gentle Vatska. She’d just turned back inside when a rope broke from the pulley and Vatska fell. The ice cracked. Vatska’s spine snapped. He lingered, unconscious, for nearly a day before his breath stopped.

If it had been warmer, if the ice had broken, neighbors and relatives would have come to help. But the snows had fallen early, and seemed determined to remain until the last possible day of winter, and so the three of them labored alone.

Gavek stood atop of the ladder that led into the mortuary hut. He levered Vatska’s body while Marjan and her dour mother-in-law steadied the corpse.

“Careful, girl,” Iresna scolded. “Don’t drop my Vatska.”

Iresna had never liked Marjan. Since the moment she came into the house, Iresna had nothing to say to her but criticisms and stinging retorts. No matter how hard Marjan worked, Iresna resented her. She didn’t know why she’d expected Iresna to put aside her anger today, just because they were mourning Vatska.

Marjan’s eyes stung with her own grief. She would not let the old woman goad her into further tears.

“He won’t fall, Mama,” said the good-natured Gavek. “Besides, he’s with the Solitary God now.”

They laid Vatska’s body in the stilted hut, safely beside his father’s. They trudged back to the house in silence. Even the extra warmth of late pregnancy couldn’t protect Marjan from the knife-sharp wind and her own loneliness. She pressed her hand against the concealed Mark on her hip that would mean death for herself and her child as soon as Gavek or Iresna discovered it.

She may do it all, but it all goes awry.

• • • •

Marjan had been living with Gavek, Iresna, and Vatska for five years, ever since Vatska found her working as a maid in an inn on the southern trade route where winter was not quite so bitter. He’d courted her over the course of his annual stays, buying gifts and sitting late after the other customers so he could chat with Marjan alone. He told her that he headed a small family estate in the mountains where he lived with his unmarried brother and aging mother. It was a hard life, he said, but there was food enough and more, and he would like a wife.

Marjan was not a fool. As a Marked woman, she knew that she was lucky to be alive in times when the priests of the Solitary God killed any witches they found. She did not plan to make her mother’s mistake and become pregnant. If she bore a Marked girl, she would be forced to flee with the child until she found someone who cared more for the old ways than they did for their own safety — someone like her own foster mother.

Still, she’d lain with men while working at the inn. She’d always been careful to use the midwife’s herbs to keep their seed from catching. Vatska’s offer woke a stirring in her that she’d thought long buried, the yearning for a hearth and family of her own.

“We’ll never have children,” Marjan told him, leaving him to make his own assumptions.

That was all right, Vatska said. So Marjan packed her meager possessions and followed him into the mountains.

At first when Marjan’s flow didn’t come, she thought it was simply late. She couldn’t be with child. She’d taken the herbs faithfully whether she laid with Vatska or not.

She began feeling sick to her stomach. Her waistband grew tighter. She checked her herbs, and found them safe, dry, and uncompromised by vermin. How could this have happened?

It was deep into autumn when she finally conceded the truth. She could think of nothing else to do except convince her husband that she needed to return to her old village. Once there, she could consult with the midwife. She went to Vatska and pleaded. He frowned; she’d never shown any interest in going back before. Still, he was a good man, and he agreed. Even though it was unseasonably late, they would go next week when he had goods.

But the snows came early that year. They crippled the crops. A girl child went walking the night before a blizzard and was found in the morning, stiff and blue. Vatska promised to take Marjan to the village in springtime. By then it would be too late.

Marjan had no choice but to try trusting the man she’d married.

There was no privacy in the farmhouse during winter, not with four people trapped in two rooms, so Marjan asked Vatska to meet her in the stables. He sobered when he saw her sitting on a bale of straw, her face pale and grief-stricken. “What is it?”

“Vatska,” she said, steeling her voice against her fear. “I am a Marked woman.”

She felt him flinch. She’d never shown herself to him naked except in the dark when shadows concealed her secret. “Show me,” he said.

Marjan bowed her head so she wouldn’t have to meet his eyes. She lifted her skirts. The red and black swirl on her hip wasn’t like the ordinary blotches that sometimes marred other children’s skin. The colors whirled around each other, vivid and entrancing. In the presence of her own mother or daughter, the Mark would glow — in the days before there were kings in Dellosert, people had seen that glow and known they beheld a woman of power. Now the glow attracted priests’ blades.

Sometimes Marjan wondered what it would have been like to live before the Solitary God, when Marked pairs of mothers and daughters sat on three-legged stools in temple rooms, aiding supplicants. Now, only a few Marked women survived, scattered and separated from their kin. Isolated, they posed no threat to the Solitary God’s power — even Marked women could only perform witchcraft when they were united with mothers or daughters of their blood. When their Marks began to glow with power, the Solitary God’s defenders sought them without pity.

Marjan felt Vatska’s fingers, warm and probing. It was strange to be touched there. Strange to be seen.

She wondered for a moment that she wasn’t more fearful. He could slay her now. He might.

His voice was gentle. “Hush, Marjanka. Perhaps it will be a boy.”

Perhaps — but if she was going to bear a boy, why would her Mark have begun to glow like warming embers? She tried to tell him. He stilled her lips with his finger.

“We’ll find a way,” he said, bringing her close into the comfort of his arms. She savored the smell of his skin, fish and smoke and the dusky scent underneath that was nothing else but Vatska.

Now he was gone. Marjan and her daughter were at the mercy of her stern, critical mother-in-law, who prayed to the Solitary God every sunrise and sunset.

Iresna would have killed her if she hadn’t fled. Now the ice would kill her anyway.

She may do it all, but it all goes awry.

The snow fell so heavily that it blanketed Marjan and the mule as they rode. The donkey couldn’t progress against the driving winds. The air had the smell of a worsening storm, an emptiness that filled Marjan’s mouth and nostrils.

Marjan halted the mule and hunkered beside it, trying to share enough warmth that they could survive until morning. She dug at the snow to make an impromptu shelter. Another contraction hit. She nearly cried out, but muffled the noise with her mittened hand, afraid she’d spook the animal and make things worse for them both.

“Marjan!” A man’s baritone echoed across the snow, tumbled by the wind. “Marjan! Wait!”

Marjan scrambled to look out. The lantern-lit figures of Gavek and Iresna trudged through the snow. She felt a moment of hope at the prospect of rescue — but she couldn’t let them take her back.

“Go back!” she shouted.

“Stupid girl!” Iresna shouted back. “You married my Vatska for this? To steal from us and run?”

“You don’t understand!”

“What would you have me do? Leave you to freeze with our mule?”

“Vatska’s dead! We don’t owe each other anything! Turn back!”

Gavek swung his lantern toward her. “At least come off the river!”

Marjan looked about, startled. Surely, if the slight glow in the east was sunrise, this couldn’t be the river. She should have crossed long before.

“Stay off the ice, Mama,” came Gavek’s voice. “It’s too close to spring.”

Iresna trudged stolidly onward. She raised her arm into the gloomy dawn, mittened hand pointing at Marjan. “You, who married my Vatska. Get back on the mule and lead us home or we’ll all die here. Do you want to be my death as well as your child’s? This storm hasn’t even started! Stupid, stupid girl.”

“I won’t go home with you! You never wanted me in your house!”

Wind gusted, spattering ice onto Marjan and the mule. Another cramp gripped Marjan’s stomach.

“No!” she said to herself. “Not now!”

“What?” asked Iresna.

“Nothing! Go home — ” The peak of Marjan’s contraction twisted away her words.

“Your baby’s coming? Here? Now?” Iresna shook her head. “I hope you’re happy. Now we’ll all die.”

She moved quickly across the snow to Marjan’s side. Marjan tried to fight her off, but Iresna was not tired from long, futile hours of riding.

“Hold still, girl,” said Iresna. “We’ll argue later.”

Marjan laid back, in too much pain for further struggle. Iresna rooted through the mule’s packs, pulling out furs and blankets to drape around them. Gavek, uneasily watching his footing, came across the ice to help. They constructed something like a small, cramped tent over them, the close air smelling of hot oil and mule flesh.

“Close your eyes, Gavekska. These are women’s secrets,” said Iresna. She felt underneath Marjan’s skirts. “Ah, it won’t be long. Not the next moment, but not long. I don’t suppose you can walk.”

Pain blossomed on Marjan’s hip. Her Mark burned ever hotter, glowing like a candle flame through her clothes. She moaned.

His back to the women, Gavek peered out into the storm. “It’s getting worse.”

“Yes, yes,” said Iresna irritably. “And it will get worse than this, too. We won’t get home before the baby comes.”

Iresna made a cushion of blankets beneath Marjan’s hips. Marjan tried to pull away, to keep the woman’s eyes off her Mark. “Stop,” she said. “Sit with Gavek. I’ll do this alone.”

Iresna ignored her. “My son comes home with a woman he’s found at a village inn. A woman with no family, no money. Not a widow with children, to show she’d give me healthy grandbabies, but an old maid. I think to myself, what does my son want with such a woman? What does such a woman want with my son?”

She pulled Marjan’s skirts up to her knees and set the lantern closer. Marjan recoiled from the light.

“And the herbs,” Iresna continued. “Seasons go by with no children. I know what to think. But.” She settled on her haunches. “The seasons go by, and this woman takes care of my son. I am still suspicious, oh yes. But she cooks and sews and pulls weeds in the garden, and she never complains.”

Marjan’s voice strained. “I never meant this to happen. Irensa — ”

“I’m not such an old fool,” said Iresna. “Am I, Gavekska?”

“That depends,” said Gavek, “on whether we all die in this storm.”

Iresna went on, “You would have done better to refuse when Vatska offered to marry you. Even with herbs, this can happen. But then my Vatska would have been unhappy. And how can I blame you for loving him?”

“Iresna!” Marjan said, urgently. “Please, you and Gavek have to go. Don’t ask me to explain. It’s better you don’t know.”

“Marjan,” said Iresna, “how could I not know?”

The older woman’s eyes flickered down to the spot of brightness at Marjan’s hip. It was glowing brighter than the lantern now, bathing Marjan in scarlet light.

Marjan could hide no longer. Iresna would call the priests, and they would die, both of them, before the baby even began to live. She began to cry.

“Hush,” said Iresna. “This isn’t important just now.”

Before Marjan could protest, the pain and helplessness became overwhelming. She could hardly speak or even think. Redness, tightening, the reek of blood and exertion — and suddenly, though it seemed impossible, the baby was pushed from her and into Iresna’s outstretched hands.

A wail. The baby was alive. She saw it in Iresna’s arms, its Mark glowing brightly, calling to her like a beacon.

Iresna’s hand cupped the baby’s neck. One flick of her wrist — Marjan shivered from the cold and the fear and wondered if she would ever be warm again.

Iresna held up the child so Marjan could see her. Born prematurely, the girl was small for a newborn, with wrinkled red skin and a shock of black hair like Vatska’s that nearly covered her eyes. “Marked on the heart, and love is her art,” said Iresna, examining the girl’s glowing chest.

“Please,” Marjan begged. “I’ll do anything. You can’t kill her.”

“You think I would do that? Kill my own grandchild?”

It was so cold. Marjan could scarcely feel her lips. “You — you always call on the Solitary God.”

Iresna wrapped the crying child in her shawl. “When you meet a dangerous thing, you keep your eye on it. You don’t do anything threatening. You make sure to keep it calm.”

Gavek had turned back to admire the child. “If it’s dangerous, you should try to get away from it.”

“There is no getting away from the Solitary God. Not these days,” said Iresna bitterly. She shifted to allow Marjan to take the wrapped child. “That should have been a difficult birth, but it went more easily than I thought it would. Nurse your child. It will help you both.”

The baby’s weight felt good in Marjan’s arms. It was a strange sensation, touching someone who shared her blood. The baby quieted, sucked. Marjan flooded with warmth. Dulchenka, she thought, staring into the tiny face. I will name you after sweetness, as my own mother named me after bitterness.

The wind howled outside, but within their little shelter, it was surprisingly warm. Marjan shifted to rid herself of the heaviest blankets. Iresna looked down at mother and child, an old sadness showing in her expression.

“When I was small, I had a sister,” Iresna began. “I never told you this, Gavekska. My sister had the Mark on her cheek. A mark on her face, she’s a healing embrace. If Father had allowed her to live, perhaps she’d have had a daughter. Maybe my Vatska would still be alive.” Iresna’s mouth puckered sourly. “They told everyone the baby was born dead. I knew better.”

She ran her fingers through the baby’s shock of black hair.

“It will be hard for anyone to resist this one,” she said. “With such a mark, everyone will love her.”

“It won’t stop the priests,” said Marjan.

“No,” said Iresna.

Beneath them, the ice began making sharp, popping sounds. Marjan shifted. The water around her skirts had begun to melt. “My clothes are soaked . . .” she said.

Gavek and Iresna looked sharply toward each other.

“I told you we should not be on the river,” said Gavek.

Beneath the wind, they heard the sound of breaking ice.

“Leave the blankets and things,” said Iresna. “We must run.”

“Mama,” said Gavek, “The wind is blowing. Our clothes are wet. We won’t get ten yards before we freeze.”

“We won’t freeze,” said Iresna. “But we may fall through the ice before we reach shore.”

The older woman took Marjan’s hands, urgently.

“Listen to me. You put my family at risk by coming to marry my Vatska. You led us all to this river so we may die. But you can save us now, you and my granddaughter. Do you think all births go so easily? At times like this? And how do you think the river is melting during a storm? You were cold, weren’t you? You wanted to be warm. Your daughter has already helped you work magic. Now you must tell the ice to stay hard.”

“How?” asked Marjan.

“You’d best figure it out, or we’ll all die here, and it won’t matter whether you escape the Solitary God and his knives.”

“But we can’t . . . Dulchenka has love magic.”

“What does that matter? You’re Marked on your thigh. You may do anything. Stop the storm.”

Marjan’s heart pounded. How could she work magic like this? Even if this truly wouldn’t be her first magic, it would still be her first time commanding it. And the rhyme — women like her cast spells that went wrong. This spell couldn’t go awry. They’d die if it did. For once in her life, Marjan had to make things happen as they should.

She cradled Dulchenka to her chest. She had a daughter now. She’d never had that before. Her glance flickered toward Iresna’s stern face, and for a moment, she felt as though she were looking at the mother she’d never known.

“Let the ice stay strong,” Marjan whispered.

The creaking stopped.

She tried again. “Let there be no wind.”

The gusts fell silent.

Iresna pulled down the blankets. All around them was a circle of calm. The storm raged around its edges, sleet driven sideways by the wind.

“Can we move?” asked Gavek.

“We must,” said Iresna.

They walked home by lantern-light, in a rosy circle surrounded by storm. Marjan cuddled the baby close, treasuring the moments when Dulchenka woke for a moment to latch on for a suck or two before sleeping again. She pressed her fingers against the warm glow of her daughter’s Marked heart. Of all the loves Dulchenka would inspire in her lifetime, she could never make anyone love her more than her mother already did.

Iresna trudged alongside, a grim set to her jaw. At last, in a voice like creaking ice, she said, “You know you can’t stay.”

Marjan’s world cracked open like the river.

“The priests would discover you,” Iresna said. “As long as Dulchenka is still a baby, you could never fight them.”

It was true, of course. The stories were full of Marked mothers and their infants and how their nascent magic succumbed to blessed blades.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” said Iresna. “I believe we can risk your staying until the end of winter. The storms will protect you until the pass opens.”

“You’ll keep Dulchenka?” asked Marjan.

“My grandchild? Oh, yes.”

“At least she’ll be with family,” said Marjan, her throat caught with tears. It was more than she’d had herself.

They went the rest of the way in silence, their footsteps the only noise apart from the howling wind.

Gavek set aside goods and coins for Marjan. She worried about taking things she had no right to, but Gavek assured her it was fair compensation for the work she’d done.

He sat with Marjan and Dulchenka during the late winter evenings while they recovered from the birth. He rocked Dulchenka on his knee as her father never would, and looked with awe at the Marks that blazed like firelight through their clothes.

Iresna stayed away. Gavek said it was because she did not want Marjan to go. She came out at last on the final day of winter and wrapped Marjan in a tight, painful embrace.

“Keep in touch with Gavek through the trade inns,” said Iresna.

“I will.”

Gently, Iresna took Dulchenka from her mother’s arms. “When she’s old enough, maybe we can find a way for you to meet.”


Marjan packed the mule — this time with Iresna and Gavek’s blessings — and mounted him for the long ride down the peak. Within a mile, her Mark faded so that it no longer showed through her skirts.

Marjan hadn’t told Iresna or Gavek, but she had a plan. She would ride through Dellosert, and beyond if necessary, until her Mark began to glow once more, and then she would finally meet her mother.

She wondered how many people still knew the second verse of the witch’s rhyme, the forbidden one her foster mother had whispered when she was small:

One witch alone is tragic.
Two witches fill their days with magic.
Three witches who together dwell
can fold the world inside their spell.

Marjan spoke the words like a charm. They gave her hope as she descended the mountain.

About the Authors

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky came onboard PodCastle as the founding editor in 2008 and was honored to run many beautiful stories by amazing authors. She would name them all, but would rather point you to the beginning of the PodCastle archive. It’s a Peter Beagle story.

Rachel graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and she’s been nominated for the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award, and several others. She’s won the Nebula Award twice, once for her novella “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window” and once for her short story “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.” She’s been published a number of times in the first three Escape Artists podcasts: EscapePod, PodCastle, and PseudoPod, and narrated a bunch of episodes, too.

Find her website at rachelswirsky.com, visit her on Twitter, and help her write more stories on Patreon where you can get an original story or poem each month for as little as a dollar.

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Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie is the author of the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Award winning novel Ancillary Justice. She has worked as a waitress, a receptionist, a rodman on a land-surveying crew, and a recording engineer. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

Find more by Ann Leckie


About the Narrator

Wilson Fowlie

Wilson Fowlie lives in a suburb of Vancouver, Canada and has been reading aloud since the age of 4. His life has changed recently: he lost his wife to cancer, and he changed jobs, from programming to recording voiceovers for instructional videos, which he loves doing, but not as much as he loved Heather.

Find more by Wilson Fowlie