Edition 20: The Bone Maiden by Greg Chapman
(Inspired in part by “The Maiden with the Rose on her Forehead” by Consiglieri Pedroso)
In a locked bedroom, Marcella clutched her parents’ bones between shivering fingers, wishing for the day they would return to save her.
The orphan wept into her tangled raven locks, soaking the filthy bedding and nourishing the countless insects that called her bed home. She wanted to be dead, resting deep and cold beneath the earth alongside her mother and father. But her aunts weren’t ready to let her die just yet.
Hearing the key turn in the lock, Marcella sat up in fear. She secreted her parents’ bones beneath a pillow and put on the bravest face she could as her aunts bled into the room. Both were swathed in muck-soaked gowns of tattered lace. Vorrada wore a pointed cone the tint of a winter storm atop her haggard head, while her twin Eseina’s swollen visage was framed by a crooked Elizabethan collar. The pair drifted like smoke across the floor, their sunken eyes and indigo lips wide and wanton. Vorrada held a silver platter in her gnarled hand.
“Here child!” she said. “Here.”
Eseina gripped Marcella by the sleeve and pulled her to the end of the bed where Vorrada stood with the platter extended. Marcella cringed at her weary reflection in the plate and squeezed her eyes closed.
“Open them!” Eseina said, yanking on the girl’s hair.
“No!” Marcella said.
Vorrada knelt close, and Marcella smelled rotten meat on her aunt’s breath. “You don’t need eyes to see, girl.”
Marcella gasped as a wave of images invaded her subconscious. Rats crawled atop one another; countless flies cavorted inside blackened flesh; rivers of blood twisted through a city made of tombstones. A shriek formed in her throat and, despite herself, she wept.
The girl’s shining tears spilled onto the platter as Vorrada continued to paint nightmares into her mind. Minutes passed and Marcella saw people screaming as fires swallowed towns whole; each vision milking more and more tears until a great pool of her essence swirled across the platter’s surface.
“That be more than enough,” Eseina said.
With that uttered, Vorrada’s carousel of horrors spun no more and Eseina cast the girl back onto the bed like trash. The door closed, the lock turned, but these sensations were lost to Marcella; even the painful bites of the hungry lice faded away to nothing. All Marcella felt in the now was the touch of her mother’s rib and her father’s finger, and oh how she wished they were whole.
Marcella’s room was tailored for fear. When her parents lived, she could look out her castle window upon the vast green forest of Alveria and see the sunlight guild the trees in gold. Now there was only darkness. Her aunts had long ago sealed the windows and covered them in heavy black curtains. Above the bedhead hung the head of a great boar, its maw filled with tusks, its eyes bearing the slightest glint of some unidentifiable light. A second trophy—a large black raven—sat on a spider-web draped bedside table.
Marcella was too weak to fight back; her aunts reducing her to skin and bone on the outside and to a husk within. The bed was her prison: a raft floating atop a dead sea of terror.
In the dark, she was left alone with her thoughts. She recreated the past, of times when her parents were alive and well. Marcella remembered the mornings when they would take the horses to the mountains and dine on cheese and grapes beside Diamond River. Her mother’s heart. Her father’s strong hands. She squeezed her mother’s rib bone in one hand and her father’s finger in the other. They felt closer in these moments, yet so far away, and it wasn’t long before memories of when everything changed flooded in.
Vorrada and Eseina had come to the castle in the dead of night. Marcella’s mother had thought her sisters long dead, and in a way, they were. The pair wielded death, and they used that power to usurp their sister’s husband from his throne. Marcella would never forget the screams of her father’s army, roiling in the mud, their insides burning. Within an hour, the foul women were inside the castle, bringing darkness with them.
Marcella’s mother and father hid their daughter in the vault room, but Vorrada and Eseina’s pact with death allowed them to find life no matter where it sought sanctuary. The witches tortured her parents for days, taking her mother’s loving heart and her father’s strong hands, and leaving the rest for the worms. Marcella’s wicked new carers allowed her to farewell the king and queen and it was then that she found the courage to rifle through her parents’ tattered remains to claim the skeletal keepsakes.
Once the life-sustaining essence of her mother’s heart and her father’s hands wore out however, the aunts turned to the princess for sustenance, locking her away in the tower room to keep her pure. Ever since, Marcella’s life had been a never-ending torment of waiting for that moment when the door would once again open as they sought the elixir only she could provide.
With no daylight to discern the time, Marcella spent lengthy periods asleep. The aunts only woke her when there was bread and water to give and tears to take. In between there was the flood of dreams; a tide of precious moments with her loving parents. Such a dream was shattered when the sisters came with another loaf of dried bread and dirty water. The twins’ eyes were oil pits in their skulls.
“Eat, you must,” Vorrada said, a string of spittle snaking down her chin.
Eseina tossed the plate of food on the bed, causing a flurry of activity from the insects between the sheets. The witch pointed a taloned finger.
The sight of the bread made Marcella want to retch. The same food and the same torture over and over made her want to scream. The girl knocked the plate to the floor and yelled at the women to leave her alone.
“I won’t eat! I’ll die before I let you hurt me again!”
Vorrada released a high-pitched squeal of her own and ascended the bed to slap the girl hard across the face. Marcella fell into the bedhead, the boar trophy shaking on its perch.
She heard Vorrada’s cracked whisper against her ear. “You’ll die when we say you can die.”
Eseina chortled, the collar quivering on her shoulders. She grabbed the stuffed raven from the dresser and tossed it at her distraught niece.
“After we’ve drained you dry, if you’re lucky, we might pull out your gizzards and stuff you—that way you’ll be stuck here with your lovely aunties forever.”
The pair’s raspy laughter grated at the inside of Marcella’s skull and remained in the room like lingering stench until, in the end, she sobbed herself to sleep, her tears soaking into the raven’s glossy black feathers.
Marcella thought she was dreaming.
She could hear a raven gurgling; hear its beak tapping at a piece of metal. In that dreary state between sleep and wakefulness Marcella thought the gurgles formed words.
Through the low gleam of dawn she saw the bird, once dead, now alive and pecking at crumbs on her dinner plate.
Marcella sat bolt upright and the raven flapped its wings madly.
Kel! The raven said.
Marcella stifled a scream. Was this another of her aunts’ torments?
Mark! Mark! Mark-Kel!
“Be quiet,” Marcella said, waving her hands in the bird’s face. The raven avoided her and flew up to rest on the boar’s snout.
“What did you say?” Marcella said, her voice barely a whisper.
“Did you just say my name?”
The bird titled its head at her, the membranes of its eyelids flicking open and closed. Marcella’s heart pounded as the bird unexpectedly flapped across the room to land atop an old cupboard. Marcella tiptoed closer, eager not to alarm it, or her vile aunties.
“How can you be alive?” she said. “You were a statue.”
The raven opened its beak as if to speak, but instead chose to flutter from its perch and land on the girl’s shoulder. She almost let out a squeal. The creature nuzzled its feathery head against her cheek. For the first time in a long time, Marcella felt the warmth of affection from another living creature.
“What a pretty boy you are,” she said, reaching up to stroke its chest. The raven turned its head and gently pecked at her lower eyelid. At first she thought the bird might attack her eye—for she recalled the ravens plucking the eyes from the corpses of her father’s knights—but no, he showed only love towards her.
Marcella pondered how the bird could be alive. Before it was a stiff, lifeless lump the aunts threw at her and now it was on her shoulder, breathing and warbling in her ear. In her state of misery the night before she had cradled it like a doll and shed her tears into it. It was a source of comfort–
“Tears,” Marcella whispered. She touched her cheeks and turned to gaze to the miraculous bird. “Did my tears bring you back?”
Her tears were coveted by her aunts for their life-sustaining power, so of course it made a strange sense that her tears could bring back what was once dead. Marcella grabbed the raven from her shoulder and held it like a babe. “Oh, you are a treasure.”
The trepidation in Marcella’s heart faded and was replaced with hope; the chance of freedom was rising with the sun.
Marcella’s tormentors came at twilight, but this time she chose opportunity over fear.
The donation of tears was almost second nature. The women entered like wraiths, threatened Marcella with their lurid words and mental imagery, accepted her tears on the silver plate, and placed a plate of bread and water on the bedside table. They would have left without another care, if the girl hadn’t called them back.
“May I have something to cut the bread?” she said.
The twins turned and grimaced in unison. Eseina looked at the loaf and watched as Marcella picked it up and banged it on the steel plate.
“It’s like a rock,” the girl told them. “It hurts my teeth.”
Vorrada reached into her filthy sleeve and produced a small dull spoon, conjured no doubt by magic. The smile on her face was thick with condescension. The witch tossed the cutlery on the bed.
“If it be rock, then you need something to dig with!”
Eseina guffawed, her body hunching forward from the exertion. The pair laughed all the way to the door and down the hall. Marcella waited for the turn of the lock before she grabbed the spoon and went to the window. She didn’t know what the women did with her tears; whether they drank the liquid outright or mixed it into a foul brew, but however they consumed it, she prayed they choked. As she began to use the spoon handle to lever at the window, her raven emerged from his hiding place in the cupboard. He flapped to her side and began to tap at the grout around the stained glass.
“You’re a clever boy,” she told him and he warbled in agreement.
Marcella worked patiently at the wooden frame. The crude spoon might not have been good for eating, but it was perfect for the task. The raven turned the grout to dust and one of the small glass panels fell out. Marcella gasped and watched it tumble down, glinting in the moonlight, one hundred feet to the ground. Marcella pressed her nose through the gap, breathing in the sweet night air.
“We’re almost there, boy,” she said, feeling giddy with hope.
Spurring each other on the window flew open. Marcella was bathed in the moon’s glow and the raven took to the air. The girl panicked and reached for her only friend.
“Wait, boy—come back!”
The raven returned to the ledge and gave her with a quizzical look.
Marcella retrieved her parents’ bones from beneath the cold sheets. She held them in trembling palms, running her gaze over every notch and groove. The tears came freely and fast, for they were tears forged in love, not fear. Marcella hoped love would set her free. She watched the teardrops fall like stars onto her parents’ remains. The bones drank them in. She would have cried over them until they swam in her hands, but she couldn’t afford such a luxury. The girl ran to the raven and placed the bones in his talons.
“Go!” she said. “Find somewhere in the forest to plant them! Quickly!”
The bird took flight, and released a resounding caw of determination. Marcella’s voice soared with him.
“Bring them back to me!”
Days and nights passed. Tears were shed, and with each droplet that was lost, Marcella’s hope was lost along with it. The witches visited her more frequently, sometimes three times a night. The women were little more than wraiths, their gowns loose shrouds barely keeping their dark souls together. Vorrada’s visions were rusty nails in Marcella’s fragile mind, and she knew that soon her sanity would shatter. The crying became an offering, not to the women, but a prayer to her feathered friend, who she hoped kept watch over her parents’ bones.
Her supplications were severed by Eseina’s shriek and Marcella felt her head drawn back and cold steel placed upon her throat.
“We need more! More!” she said.
Voarrada stayed her sister’s hand. They both reeked with rot and Marcella would have retched onto their silver platter if she had food in her belly.
“No, sister! She is our survival!”
Eseina gripped her niece’s hair tighter. “There be more blood than tears in her! I say we fill our cups with it!”
“No—you know blood goes too cold too soon! Blood cannot carry that sorrow we so need; fear, yes, but it not be enough to sustain us!”
Eseina reluctantly released Marcella’s hair and withdrew the blade. “Yet we need more. Another child?”
Vorrada tisked, her tongue whipping out like a snake. “The tears need to be from one of our own! The same essence! There are no more heirs!”
Marcella stayed still, knowing better than to draw attention to herself when her aunts were at each other’s throats. The women hurled further insults at each other, two alley cats finding themselves in each other’s territory. Their gowns ruffled like paper and spittle flew between them. Marcella stared at the lone window, willing her raven to return. The window opened a crack, shifted by an invisible hand. Marcella gasped.
The witches halted their heckling and turned as a breeze flowed in through the now open window. Eseina pointed a crooked digit at the panorama outside. Marcella’s fear erupted in staccato heartbeats.
“The window!” Eseina said, her maw twisted in bewilderment. The witch went to the window and saw the damage to the frame. She flicked her head back to her niece, ice fire in her eyes. “You!” Eseina made to reach for the girl, but Vorrada’s hand clawed her back.
“The bird!” Vorrada said, pointing at the empty bedside table. “It’s gone!”
Eseina grabbed her niece by the hair. “You thought you could escape?”
Marcella’s grimace of pain curled into a smile as a flutter of wings entered the room. The witches squealed in alarm. Marcella was so happy to see her friend again; it could only mean one thing. The girl twisted out of Eseina’s hand and looked beyond the bird to the night sky.
“What do you think you’re trying to do?” Eseina said.
Marcella looked to the door, begging for the King and Queen to barge through reborn to reclaim their daughter and banish the aunts to hell—but there was no such salvation. The tears that had sustained the witches and revived the dead bird had been tears of sorrow. Marcella loved her parents dearly, but she realised in life, she could only ever mourn for them. There was only one way to see them again.
The raven lifted off the windowsill and hovered in the air, flapping wildly out and in again, like a summoning hand.
Mar-Kel-Ar! the bird called.
“Kill it!” Vorrada hissed.
Marcella leapt from the bed and ran for the window. She heard her aunts cry out in terror, heard them give chase. The girl climbed the ledge and jumped into the cool night air, arms outstretched to receive her raven. The crystalline moon held before her for an instant before rising away. Marcella watched the moon and treetops soar into the sky. She saw her parents there, ruling over the stars. Around her she heard her aunts’ screams. They too were falling, but only Marcella would rise anew.
Greg Chapman is a horror author and artist from Rockhampton, Australia. He penned the novellas Torment, The Noctuary, Vaudeville, The Last Night of October and the collection, Vaudeville and Other Nightmares. His comic book illustrations have appeared in Midnight Echo, Decay, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. His most notable illustrative work is the Bram Stoker Award ®-winning graphic novel, Witch-Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times, written by Rocky Wood and Lisa Morton.
Greg’s artwork graced the cover of SQ Mag #4