Four and Twenty Blackbirds
Beneath her cloak, Marta clutched a bag of pale river stones as she followed Johan through the forest in the dying summer light. Every twelve paces, she dropped one stone. As it fell, she whispered its number.
She had dropped twelve since they’d left the path. She was afraid to count the next stone. Mother had told her to beware that number, twelve and one. It held a terrible power.
So Marta dropped two stones, murmuring, “Twelve and two.”
Stones had long memories, Mother had taught her. They would guide Johan and her back home.
Once it was safe again.
People had gone missing from the village and farms. The Inquisitors had come, blaming Mother and her healing songs, declaring her witchery to be evil. They built a pyre in the village square. Her neighbors gathered like ghosts, pale and staring, afraid to stop the burning. As the Inquisitors bound Mother to the stake, a rising wind whipped her long hair about her like a mane of dark fire. Grief-stricken, not for herself, her eyes searched out her children, mouth shaping one word:
Marta and Johan made their way deeper into the darkening forest. The trees grew thicker and the air still. A blackbird flitted from branch to branch ahead of them, crying out.
“Maybe it’s trying to warn us,” Marta said.
“About what?” Johan said. “The Inquisitors will never find us here. Besides, I’ll protect you.”
As he pushed through a dense thicket, the blackbird gave one final shriek and flew off. They stumbled out into a dim clearing, where a cottage sat hunched among gnarled trees, its windows unlit in the gloaming, like the vacant eyes of a dead thing.
The cottage gave Marta a hollow feeling in her chest, like her whole being was falling inward. She tugged Johan’s sleeve, “Let’s go. I don’t like this place.”
“It is gloomy,” Johan agreed. “I wonder who lives here.”
“Why, you do, of course,” came a low voice from behind them.
They spun about, Marta’s braids whipping around her. A woman stood just behind them, wearing a smile the color and shape of the pale moon rising above the treetops, an empty sack slung over her shoulder. Marta could feel her terrible power.
“You live here, dear children,” the witch said, and she let the sack slip from her shoulder and fall open, yawning wide until its dark mouth filled Marta’s vision.
The Witch’s Cottage
They woke the next morning in a cell. Twelve iron bars formed the cell’s door. Twelve, and one more. Eerie humming and a frying smell like the burning in the village square filtered in through the bars.
The witch flicked into view, holding a loaf of bread. The light of day revealed her white teeth, aquiline nose, and bright eyes flanked by crow’s feet scored in neat lines of flawless symmetry. Her face was perfect, and hideous: her grinning teeth reminded Marta of the bars of their cell.
“Time to eat, dear children,” the witch said, her voice like honey. “Waste not, want not.” With a heavy key she unlocked the cell door, pushed the bread into Johan’s hands, and locked them up again.
Johan sniffed. “Doesn’t seem bad,” he whispered. “I’ll see if it tastes alright,” He tore off a piece and chewed. “It’s fine. Here, Marta.”
Marta shook her head. To her, it smelled of death and ashes and dark magic.
“You’ll eat soon enough,” the witch said in a voice as sweet as rot. “Or you’ll die.”
“Unless,” Marta said, “someone saves us first.”
The witch smiled her broad, half-moon smile. “There are no saviors here, child. Only the law of the forest. The strong eat, the weak are eaten.”
Each morning, the witch brought bread and said, “Time to eat, dear children. Waste not, want not.” Marta told Johan not to touch it, but his hunger overruled her warnings.
Weak as she was with hunger, Marta kept searching for an escape. She clambered up into the rafters of their narrow prison, where light filtered in through a window barely wider than her head. A nest out on the ledge held four speckled eggs. In her hunger, she gobbled them down, shell and all. She climbed back down and curled up on the straw-strewn floor, stomach churning.
Johan put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “You should eat the bread. I feel bigger and stronger already from eating it. If you eat it too, maybe we can overpower her.”
Marta shuddered, and choked out, “No! It’s foul. Foul.”
But Johan just shook his head.
Marta spent most of her time lying at the little window, stretched out on the rafters, her chin resting against the empty nest. Beyond the blight of the witch’s power, the forest was quiet, warm and bright in the day, cool and moonlit at night.
Birds flitted by, and Marta sang them a song her mother had taught her:
“Four and twenty blackbirds,
Keep close their hidden might.
Listen well and learn the spell
The secret of their flight.”
A flutter of wings, and a blackbird perched on the edge of the nest, a grub squirming in its beak. Had her song called it? Did it think she was calling for food?
Her limbs felt heavy with hunger. With resignation, she opened her mouth. The blackbird dropped the wriggling grub onto her tongue. She winced with disgust, but sooner a thousand mushy grubs than a crumb of the witch’s noxious bread.
She swallowed. “Thank you,” she whispered.
The blackbird flew away, and returned with a shiny brown beetle, its legs waggling in the air. The thought of eating it revolted her, but she accepted it, and crunched, and swallowed.
So Marta spent her days eating caterpillars and spiders and grasshoppers, along with the more welcome offerings of nuts and berries. All the while, she rolled her mother’s lessons over in her mind and on her tongue, puzzling a way to weave magic for their escape with the song of the blackbirds. It was all in the numbers, the meter and the scale of notes, Mother had taught her. She was careful not to let the witch overhear.
She told Johan about the blackbirds, but he didn’t understand.
“Catch one and eat it, if you won’t eat the bread,” he told her. His brow furrowed. “You’re wasting away.”
Sometimes the witch went out at dusk with an empty sack over one shoulder. Then Marta would join the birds in their evening chorus, singing softly as the sun sank. At dawn, she sang with the birds again, until she spotted the witch returning through the trees. Often the sack was still empty. But some horrible mornings, it bulged so huge it should have flattened the witch, yet it sat lightly on her shoulder, lifted by the witch’s humming incantations. Inside the sack, indistinct shapes clawed for escape.
At night Marta climbed down from the rafters to curl up beside Johan. But after a week the smell of the witch’s bread on his breath became too much, and she slept in the rafters.
She scratched lines in the wooden beam with a ragged fingernail to count the days. For the twelfth plus one day, she left a blank space. She was sure the witch used the power of that profane number to work her magic. She sang a verse to ward against it:
“Four and twenty blackbirds,
Hold mute this number vile.
Bind it up in silence,
So that it can’t beguile.”
A blackbird’s fare was hardly enough to sustain a girl of eleven, and Marta grew thin, her bones sharp beneath her skin, even as Johan’s form broadened, and thickened. He stared up into the rafters at her, his familiar features grown strange.
“You should come down, and eat the bread. The strong eat, the weak are eaten,” he said, lungs working like slow bellows stoking the fire of the witchery working inside him. Something that wasn’t Johan gazed out through his eyes. He blinked, and shook his head, but it lingered, appraising her skeletal form, licking Johan’s lips. Marta stayed above, dizzy with horror for her brother, for herself.
Their time was running out.
On the twenty-fourth night, she dreamed that Mother sat at her bedside at home, hair shining long and dark, like Marta’s. The Inquisitors had said Mother’s hair was a mark of her evil, that no peasant woman could have such beautiful hair except through vile sorcery.
She caressed Marta’s cheek, and sang, her smile warm and reassuring but her words urgent:
“Four and twenty blackbirds,
Awake, take flight, and flee!
Fox is in the henhouse;
The pantry holds the key.”
Marta woke abruptly. Below, Johan snored. From the kitchen came the witch’s nightmarish humming, and the grinding of a mortar and pestle.
Marta sang the dream verse, and it took hold within her. The magic was complete. She could feel it, a strength and lightness in her bones.
Soundlessly, she slipped down from the rafters to the cell door. Her body felt nearly weightless — not from starvation, but from the power of her song. She slid between the bars, hardly needing to inhale, and alighted featherlike in the corridor. Her feet guided her, toes barely touching the rough wood floor.
In the kitchen, lit by the glow of the half-closed oven, the witch bent over her mortar, feeding in fragments of bone. The crunch and grind set Marta’s teeth on edge. She continued on into the pantry. She bit her lip, stifling a scream. A window poured cold moonlight across piles of human limbs, heads, and miscellaneous parts, stacked on tables. Organs floating in jars lined the shelves. The stench of rot set her shaking.
This was what the witch brought back from her nighttime excursions. The prime ingredients for her bread.
And Johan had eaten it, every day.
Disgust, and pity for her brother rose inside her like floodwaters.
Why had the witch not butchered Marta and Johan too? Would the witch’s blood that flowed in their veins grant her greater power if fed on human flesh?
Marta stared at the half-moon shining through the window. Her hands clenched and unclenched with dread as she counted back the days since the moon last hung dark in the sky. Twelve nights.
Twelve, and one more.
The witch would come for Johan tonight.
The moonlight glinted off a skeleton key, hanging from a nail high up on the pantry wall. Marta sprang for it. Her body left the ground, floating gently up — arm stretched, fingers closing on the key — and drifted back down again.
Heart pounding, she glided silently back into the dark kitchen. The witch’s harsh humming filled the room, her shadowy shape silhouetted in the dim glow from the oven. With a creek of rusty hinges, the witch opened the oven, and the kitchen flooded with light. .
Marta darted into the dark hallway and brushed along the wall, tracing her way back to Johan.
“What’s that?” the witch snapped, momentarily blinded by the oven’s flame.
Marta ran to the cell door.
The witch’s dark shadow filled the mouth of the corridor. “Sprite or spirit, show yourself!”
Marta jabbed the key into the lock, but it wouldn’t turn. There must be a second lock — a lock of words!
Her mind scrabbled. What did the witch say when she brought the loathsome bread… “Waste not, want not!” The words left a foul taste in her mouth, the innocent phrase twisted to the witch’s evil purpose. The bars burned her fingers, and the door flew open, knocking the wind out of her. The witch sped towards her. Marta forced the little air inside her past shivering lips in a desperate whisper:
“Sleeper in the dark,
Arise and find your mark!”
Johan woke and roiled out of the cell with a howl. The witch stumbled back, fleeing to the kitchen, but his charge pushed her into the oven’s roaring flames. He slammed the oven shut. Thick iron muffled the witch’s dying screams.
He stood panting. “I told you the bread would make me strong.”
Marta couldn’t see his face, but he was so big and… wrong-seeming, moving as if something inside him were trying to get out.
“We can eat her. And take her power.”
Marta’s whole body shook. “No, Johan. Let the fire have her.”
He turned, the dim oven glow lighting a half-moon smile. “Waste not, want not.”
Tears blurred her vision. Too late. She’d freed him too late.
He stalked towards her, hunger in his eyes.
Marta ran from the cottage and across the clearing. She paused at the edge of the moonlit forest. “I’m sorry,” she called, “I’ll come back for you. I’ll save you. I promise.”
Marta hadn’t been in the witch’s woods in ten moons. She sang softly as she slipped between the tall pines and oaks, fallen needles and leaves soft beneath her bare feet. The green smell of spring filled the still air. She’d kept nights in a bower on the far side of the forest, trading songs to distant farms for what she needed, and regained her strength. She practiced Mother’s spell to conjure flame and ward off winter’s chill. And prepared for the day she’d return. To rescue Johan. Today.
Marta had traced the Inquisitors with songs of seeing and with divinations of bone and white river stones cast in grassy rings of toadstools, with a blackbird’s eye view. They were following rumors wrung from woodsmen and farmers, rumors of a monster in the forest. A monster that preyed on livestock and unwary travelers. Johan. Or what had taken Johan’s place.
She crumbled bread on the mossy ground. A blackbird swooped in for the crumbs and flitted to its nest tucked in an old elm. Marta climbed the tree, and the bird watched her silently. When she’d first started collecting the eggs, the blackbirds had been agitated. But now the spell-work was growing in her, and they divined her purpose.
Sitting beside the nest, Marta took a knife from her satchel and cut a lock of her long black hair. Part of herself, of her mother within her. She pricked her thumb and let her blood soak into the hair, whispering:
“Four and twenty blackbirds,
Another boon I beg:
Gifts of silk and sanguine
I’ll trade for one last egg.”
Marta laid the lock beside the nest. The blackbird hopped away, accepting something of Marta for a share of its avian power. She lifted one of the speckled eggs, and placed it, rough-smooth like a pebble, in her mouth, and swallowed it whole.
Her stomach fluttered, lurched. She held the elm until her nausea passed then climbed down and gathered wood. Passing her hand over it, fire flickered to life.
Marta stared into the flames as the sun sank. It had taken nearly a year to work the magic: four eggs at the witch’s cottage, and twenty more, two for each full moon since then. She was twelve now, an auspicious age. Johan was twelve and one. A place of power, but also peril.
The three full moons of Spring had passed, but a fourth was coming, bringing the year one more beyond the allotted twelve. A betrayer moon, Mother had called it. A time of fell magic, that would feed the thing controlling Johan. Time to complete the spell. She sang:
“Four and twenty blackbirds,
Now join me in my song.
All my wealth I give you,
A thousand treasures strong.”
She gathered a lock of hair and cut close to the scalp. Again. And again. Twenty-four cuts and she held all her hair high in one bunched fist, the fire illuminating its raven blackness.
“For Johan,” she said, and laid it onto the fire. As the locks curled, glowed red, and smoked, her insides cramped and pain filled her eyes with tears. She curled up on her side. A dark void closed in around the edges of her vision, the firelight shrinking to a point. The world vanished.
Marta awoke to a cold morning. The fire had burned out and turned to ash. She rose and headed for the witch’s cottage. She didn’t need a blackbird to warn her this time. Their avian sense lived inside her now, the evil of the place burning like a spark in her awareness.
The cottage was much transformed, walls rising up in twisted barricades. Upon the roof were turrets of sweetbread hardened to stone. Bits of bone mingled with the leavened mortar of the stonework. A too-familiar grating of twelve and one iron bars made a window in a massive wooden door darkened with old bloodstains: the floor from the witch’s pantry.
The huge door shuddered and flew open.
An ogre stood in the doorway, wearing Johan’s face like an ill-fitting mask. His skin was waxy and mottled, like a dead thing, and human skins hung about his body.
He sniffed the air, a sound like the snorting of an enraged bull. “I smell witch’s blood.”
“Don’t you recognize me, brother?”
A flash of something familiar in the ogre’s eyes, something almost Johan. “Marta?”
But the rising betrayer moon was stoking the dark magic inside him and he grasped her shoulders and lifted her into the air like a doll.
“Dear sister.” He grinned a half-moon smile, his reeking breath hot upon her face. “Still so small and weak. You should have stayed, and grown big on the witch’s power, like me. Now I’ll devour you too, and drink your witch’s blood.”
“Johan,” Marta said, throat constricting on his name, “the Inquisitors are coming for you.”
“Let them come!”
“You can’t fight their fire and steel! They’ll burn you too.”
“Never. I’m not weak like Mother.”
Dangling from his grip, she tried to reach her brother buried inside the ogre. “They caught Mother by surprise. But I’ve prepared for them. There is a magic the old witch of the wood never knew about.”
The ogre blinked, a slow bat of his not-Johan eyes. Then his head rolled back, and a booming laugh echoed from his lungs.
“Blackbirds?!” he bellowed. “You think you can defeat me with birds?”
“I’m not here to defeat you. I’m here to help you.”
“No one helps anyone. That is the law of the forest. Let the Inquisitors come. Perhaps I’ll bake you into a pie. That would be a dainty dish to set before them.”
He hauled Marta into the cottage. Metal shrieked as he pulled open the oven, the heat hitting her like a wave. Huge hands pinned her arms to her sides and he pushed her towards the fire.
Marta braced her bare feet on either side of the oven mouth. The hot metal seared her skin and she screamed. Her stomach lurched, the stench of burned flesh filling her nostrils.
He twisted her body, pushing her feet into the oven.
She jerked her feet back, but pain lashed up her legs. The fluttering inside her rose to a crescendo, rushed up her throat and out her mouth.
Winged black shapes burst trilling into the air.
They split and divided and rejoined, swirling around the ogre, tearing at him. He dropped Marta and flailed at the dark mass filling the air. The blackbirds attacked the twelve and one bars of the cursed cage door, tore the roof open to the sky, and thundered out over his fortress, shredding the bone and bread mortar of his fortress, blackening the sky and filling the forest with a shrill, growing roar.
The blood-soaked door listed on failing hinges, its barred window framing a sky teeming with blackbirds.
The iron bars! Marta realized Johan had never really left the cage. Those bars still trapped him.
The door crashed to the ground. Feet useless from the fire, Marta dragged herself over and up onto it. She held her hand over the iron bars, singing intensely, summoning fire, focusing heat on the bar that gave the old gate its evil number. Her whole body shook with the effort, but the bar only glowed a dim red.
The huge door bucked as the ogre’s foot slammed into it. Marta took a ragged breath.
“Four and twenty blackbirds,
Lend strength and flame to me.
Burn away this prison,
And set its captive free.”
Dark shapes gathered and dove, narrowing to points, shooting down along her fingers like a stream of obsidian shards, burying themselves in the iron bar. The metal glowed orange, then white, then began melting.
The ogre reached for her, but as the bar sloughed away his face caved in on itself. His body slumped to the ground like an empty sack. The fortress shook, cracked, and crumbled.
Smoke from the melted iron twisted skyward, reforming into twenty-four circling blackbirds. Marta crawled over and dug through the ogre’s rumpled folds of skin. They crumbled to ash, revealing a boy curled upon the ground. His ribs rose and fell in a dreamless sleep.
“Let’s go home, Johan,” Marta whispered, cradling him in her arms. What would he remember, what would he make of himself? Whatever wounds he bore, she would stay by him, and sing him well — as well as his wounds would allow.
The blackbirds gathered around, raising them up, surrounding them with a cloud of wings, and trailing Marta like a mane of black fire, like a living reincarnation of her sacrificed hair. As they rose over the treetops, her feet dangled uselessly. They, too, would get as well as her wounds would allow.
Would the Inquisitors come for them, burn her bower, trample the toadstool circles? She squared her shoulders and held her brother tighter.
Let them come.
She was the witch of the wood now. She would use her songs to heal, as mother had taught her. But she had other powers, and would gather more, and she was finished with hiding.
The pale betrayer moon was rising over the treetops, but its number held no power over them now. She looked back down at the bloodstained pantry floor. With a word, she set it aflame.
“Four and Twenty Blackbirds” © Alexei Collier, this is its first printing, June 30, 2019, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores
Alexei Collier grew up in sunny Southern California, in a house his family moved into on his very first Halloween. Many years later, powerful forces flung him deep into the heart of the Midwest, where he now lives across the street from Chicago with his wife and their cat. His short fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Cicada, and Ideomancer.