Mildew

K. Ryan, 2006.

Note: SFF and violent. Not light reading.


"There," snapped Morrachane. "You see? Already it begins!"

Jorality Bacanor knelt on the hard tiles of the Ladradun kitchen, surrounded by overturned pots and pans. Wide open windows let Slyth air collide horribly with what small warmth managed to escape from the iron grate, hampered by lack of fuel. The winds shifted mildew smell, coating Jory's skin with it, and the inside of her nose and throat. She did not look up.

"Insolence!" Jory flinched at the heavy hand on her shoulder; stick thin with grossly swollen joints. Morrachane gripped her narrow shoulder, glaring at the girl's bowed head. "Slattern. Wasting away and working in the slums."

Morrachane's voice was a low growl, slow and hard, and it made Jory shudder. "I…" Jory nearly gagged at the sound of her own voice, faint and thick. "Aunt Morrachane, you don't understa-a—"

Jagged fingernails gouged under her chin, forcing her head up. Pale green eyes fixed hers, and, because the world was blurred by unconscious tears, it seemed to Jory that the woman had no pupils at all.

Morrachane's lip curled, and she dug her fingers in harder, raising her free hand and slapping the girl across the face without preamble. Her smile broadened as she felt the soft, young cheek give under her palm; felt tears spill as her eyes closed to save her eye from a finger. "Filthy," she said. "You live with filth."

Jory's eyes flew open. "I work." she spat the words out even while she trembled.

Morrachane laughed, eyes shinning, and the next slap had Jory's head snap back with an audible click. "You don't like this, do you?" Now, Morrachane stroked her hot, wet face, scoring it lightly with her nails. "You always were too…unruly." She nodded, satisfied, when Jory cried as she took a hank of the girl's kinked hair in her hand and pulled. "You want to fight me? Hit me with that ugly staff of yours?"

Jory stayed mute, whimpering as the old woman dragged on her hair again.

"You're a bad girl, Jorality." Morrachane shook her head, slowly, sadly, her hateful voice turned gentle. "You could have been a nice little cook mage, good to your family, just like my little Kofrinna. Adorable little creature," Morrachane murmured, sounding wistful even while she glared Vrohain's fire at the kneeling girl. "She was very sweet to me. And my dear Nia, too. She is a good girl, Jorality. Family," she said, "is sacred.

"Aunt Morrachane!"

"You are wicked," Morrachane smiled at her, slowly, painfully disentangling her hand from the girl's hair and hooking her fingers, slowly scratching down her furious, disgusted face. The thin skin on her lips, dry and cracked already from days spent trudging to Blackfly Bog in the cold and then bending over steaming cauldrons for the masses, opened up and bled. "Dirty, working in filth every day with no man—only that loathsome Potcracker woman."

Jory felt the words with every scratch on her face. She thought of biting the finger playing with her lip. Biting it hard and fast, like a dog. Anything to stop Morrachane's endless, hushed tirade. Her mouth opened, but then Morrachane's hands had moved, and she was being pulled at, wrenched, and the only way to ease it was to do what she said—get her feet. Stand up, girl. Stand up. Stand up.

She got to her feet. Closed her mouth; there was blood there.

Both of Morrachane's hands gripped her shoulders. "You're ruined," she whispered. "Ruined like my Bennat, by that upstart trader whore. How Matazi can look you in the face, I don't know…"

On and on she went, and Jory struggled. The woman was ancient, they were of a height and Jory knew she should be able to break her like a twig, but there was something so bewildering, so strange and sick and terrifying about the whole encounter that she could only go limp and stare. This was Aunt Morrachane, the witch who used to turn into a creaky sort of nice around her family, who would give them years-old boiled sweets covered in dust and think she was being the most generous of benefactors. Now the world had thickened around her, and her heartbeat chimed, Nia is sweet, Nia is sweet, over and over again, and she remembered that Morrachane whipped her servants.

She was jerked back to now with another slap.

"Answer me when I'm talking to you! Was it Potcracker?"

Jory blinked, slowly. Teeth had loosened in her mouth. "Olennika?" she managed, dazed.

"Did Olennika," Morrachane hissed, high now, with wide, staring eyes. "Ruin you?"

Jory tried to speak, but the words died when she felt a hand move down her body, scratching all the while, and slide under her skirts and stays. Morrachane was breathing hard, shaking and shuddering just as she had been, and her hand moved—like sticks, like a spider, something that shocked and burned."

"Did she?" Morrachane's voice cracked, though her expression didn't change a bit. "Did she?"

Jory shrieked when she felt the pinch, and the harsh, tearing invasion of it let her move, and push at her, hard. She sobbing when she felt the thin, bloody, terrible fingers leave her as Morrachane fell back, eyes gleaming and triumphant.

She fell into the grate, where the small fire bloomed up around her, and she was laughing. Screaming and laughing, and Jory was on her knees, retching and hacking in the smoke, thick and black and choking, pouring into her through every gap there was, poisoning and filling and….

Jory Bacanor still woke up sobbing after the Yorgiry Hospital fire sometimes, even when she was a woman grown and there were years between her and it. She never could remember her dreams in full, and for that she was glad.

Even if it did mean she never knew why she woke up with scratches on her face, tasting mildew along with the smoke.