Disclaimer: All conversations between Mouse and Sparrow are taken directly from Dragonwitch with written permission from Anne Elisabeth Stengl.
“What are these? Wilted flowers?”
Sparrow lowered her head. “I thought you might like them.” She didn’t dare glance up at her aunt.
“Why in the world would I like wilted flowers?” She tossed them on the floor and snapped, “Get them out of here. And go play in the streets or something—I must relax my nerves.”
Sparrow snatched up the flowers from the ground and slipped outside, gritting her teeth—refusing to cry. “Stupid.” She muttered. “Don’t know why I even tried.”
She threw them vehemently to the ground and stomped away, leaving the little hut to melt into the crowded streets. Maybe she could go to her rock and stare at the Citadel.
She felt a pebble bounce off her arm. Spinning around, she grabbed the little urchin’s arm and tossed him to the ground. “Will you never leave me alone?”
He grinned at her and then scurried away. Sparrow heard him and a bunch of other children burst into fits of giggles.
She broke into a run, darting past people and little vendors. Her callused feet didn’t hurt as she scampered over the rocky dirt streets. In no time, she reached the edge of the town, climbing up the grassy slope to a single bolder lodged into the side of the hill.
She climbed onto it, laying her cheek against its warm surface. Her eyes rested on the beautiful Citadel shining in the sunlight. The house of her goddess.
She would give anything for the life of a temple priestess. Anything to get away from her aunt who’s heart was only wrought for pumping blood and not for loving. Anything to flee the constant harassment of the village children, and the reputation of a cast-off.
Sparrow lowered her eyes from the Citadel. Why would they want her when her own parents refused to raise her? They didn’t want her—they wanted a boy. And her aunt didn’t want her either.
She bite back the tears. She wouldn’t cry. What was the use of crying? It just reminded her of how weak she was.
Maybe, had she been stronger, her parents would have wanted to keep her.
The day had come. The day the priestesses of the Citadel came and claimed the temple tax from Sparrow’s village.
She cleaned herself as best as possible, brushing her scraggly dark brown hair. She straightened her ragged clothes and washed her face—the only part of her that was not repulsive.
Sparrow ran out into the streets, her heart pounding. She remembered the time, four years ago, that they had come.
And they had passed over her.
She couldn’t bear to have that happen again.
It wasn’t long before she caught sight of the three women—tall and elegantly regal. They were adorned in robes of deep red, a woven belt of gold and rubies snaking around their waists. Hair like midnight sparkling with stars of rare, uncut jewels and gold waved down the length of their backs.
Their beauty was unrivaled.
Sparrow gaped at them, their painted faces set straight ahead, followed by muscular bodyguards.
So this is what strength looks like.
She followed them to the village square where everyone had gathered. She swallowed her anger when the urchins threw pebbles at her and whispered so that the temple women wouldn’t hear.
“No one wants you, outcast!”
“You’re not worth anything!”
Says the street urchins! Sparrow thought bitterly. But she knew the difference—their parents were either poor or dead. Their parents didn’t beg someone else to raise their child.
The women looked out over the residents of the small village. Sparrow watched as one looked her direction.
And passed over her.
Her heart dropped into the earth and her shoulders sagged.
Finally, one of them whispered something to another and then pointed at Sparrow. “See the one with the fair eyes?”
Sparrow almost gasped as they swarmed to her.
One of them spoke, “Child, your eyes are the color of the sea at morn. How is this so?”
Sparrow looked to the ground. “My father was of the North Country.”
Another whispered, “There are no other girls here who would impress the Speaker.”
The first one said, “Would you like to journey to the Citadel of the Living Fire as your village’s tax?”
Sparrow’s eyes widened. She couldn’t resist the grin that broke out over her face, not even knowing how it made her blue eyes sparkle. “Oh yes!”
They placed their hands—their strong hands, thought Sparrow—on her head and shoulders and chanted.
“Fire burn. Fire purify.”
Sparrow felt her voice soft in her throat as she whispered.
“Fire burn. Fire purify.”
She stood trembling with the other villages’ taxes as the Speaker herself approached. How she wanted to be the Speaker’s personal assistant! But she couldn’t hope for that.
Sparrow lowered her eyes as the Speaker came to a halt before them. Sparrow dared only look at the glowing white robe that was splattered as with blood the deep colors of fire—scarlet, sapphire, saffron.
The Speaker gazed intently at the girls for several long, torturous moments. Then she pointed at one of them. “I suppose that one will do.”
Sparrow’s eyes shot up and disappointment clouded her vision.
The Speaker glanced at her, and then surprise seemed to seal her gaze on Sparrow. Sparrow beheld a harshly beautiful face, and a glory of black hair crowned in red starflowers. And she couldn’t look away.
The Speaker held up a hand as the priestesses began to take the girls away.
“Your eyes, child, are blue fire.” She said, and Sparrow was stunned at the look of almost…almost awe.
The Speaker motioned to the other girls. “Send them to the acolytes’ house.” Then her eyes returned to lock Sparrow’s gaze. “Train this one for my personal service.”
There wasn’t another acolyte who was as dedicated to her work as Sparrow. Determined to prove herself worthy of being the Speaker’s assistant, she went beyond what was asked of her and she was diligent in her studies to learn the rites of the priestesses and the glories to be paid to the Flame.
For three years, Sparrow never once made a mistake. She learned quickly and silently, learning from other’s mistakes.
And yet, the Speaker still didn’t call her into her service yet. Sparrow waited, waited for the day when the Speaker would come to her and announce that she was ready.
She never came.
It was the day that the priestesses journeyed into the mountains for the villages’ taxes. Sparrow thought for sure that now, at last, she would be accepted into the Speaker’s service.
After all, she had tried her very best to be what the Speaker was.
And then, several days later, they returned, bringing girls from all over the Land Behind the Mountain.
The Speaker came forth to look at the girls. Sparrow stood on the edge of the throng, watching. Waiting for her to remember Sparrow.
She pointed at a girl, a very small girl, with a lovely face and hair long and sweeping—black and shining. Sparrow’s breath caught. She was far lovelier than Sparrow could ever be considered—even with her black wig and iridescent blue eyes.
The Speaker’s voice cut deep into Sparrow’s heart. “This girl will do. Send the others to the acolytes’ house to be fitted out. I’ll take this one into my personal service.”
Sparrow turned away, but didn’t dare cry. She didn’t even put a hand to her face. She would be strong.
Fire burn! Fire purify!
The Speaker had forgotten her.
Sparrow watched as Mouse, the Speaker’s chosen, began to light the braziers early one morning. She slipped along the open passage, huddled inside her black acolyte robe. She lowered the brazier, lit the coals, and poured incense over the flames. Mouse’s soft voice wafted through the pillars to Sparrow’s ears.
“Fire burn. Fire purify.”
A whip sounded, startling Mouse. She jumped and almost dropped her lighting stick.
The Speaker had wanted this clumsy thing?
Mouse scurried to the edge of the hall and peered down. Sparrow watched as she heard another whip crack and a cry. Mouse trembled.
Sparrow strode silently to her side as she craned her neck to better see the long line of eunuchs seeming to disappear into the red rock beneath Mouse’s feet.
Mouse, without noticing Sparrow’s presence, set aside her tools, got on her hands and knees, and strained to get a better look.
“They’ve gone to the Diggings.” Sparrow said.
Mouse jumped to her feet, shamefaced. She was much shorter than Sparrow, and when Mouse glanced up at her, Sparrow saw fear in her eyes.
“They’ve gone to the Diggings.” Sparrow said again. “To be lost.”
Sparrow reached down and picked up the lighting stick that had flickered out. “They are men from the mountains who have rebelled against the Flame. Their fate is to labor in her Diggings until they are lost.”
“You mean dead?” Mouse’s voice had a hint of tremor.
Sparrow shook her head. “I mean lost. Those who enter the Diggings beneath the temple without protection never come out again. In time all Diggers are lost.” Sparrow held out the stick to Mouse. “You shouldn’t let your fire go out, you know.”
Sparrow watched, annoyed, as Mouse took it and relit it in the brazier. “What is in the Diggings?”
Sparrow rolled her eyes, but Mouse couldn’t see because her hood covered most of her face. “Diggers. What else?”
“No, I mean, what do they dig for?”
“The chamber of Fireword.”
Mouse continued lighting the braziers, with Sparrow checking her work. “What is Fireword?”
Sparrow frowned at the amount of incense Mouse slopped down on the fire. “The demon sword that twice slew our goddess.”
Mouse’s hand froze as she started to light the next brazier. “I…I don’t believe you.”
“What difference does it make what you believe?” Sparrow snapped, glaring at Mouse. “The goddess was twice slain by Fireword, and she fears to be slain a third time. All this you will learn for yourself as you get older and are brought into deeper knowledge. Until then, know better than to speak back to your elders.”
Mouse seemed to hide behind her hood. Sparrow slid ahead and lowered the next brazier, impatiently waiting for Mouse.
She slowly lit it, sprinkling the incense. Her nose wrinkled with the smell.
“I was to have your place, you know.” Sparrow broke the silence. “I was to be the Speaker’s girl, to walk in her footsteps and care for her needs. I was being trained for it.”
Sparrow didn’t notice Mouse’s slight tremble as she continued. “And then you come along. You come out of some wild jungle mountain, all tattered and smelly.” Like me. But Mouse didn’t need to know that. “And the Speaker looks at you as though she’s been waiting for you for years. All my work was for nothing.” She found herself staring at the brazier, swinging back and forth.
“I…I’m sorry.” Mouse offered in a tiny whisper.
Sparrow pulled down the next brazier for Mouse to light. “Sorry and small and ignorant. You are a mouse. And yet she favors you.” Sparrow closed her eyes. “It is the will of the Flame.” She shrugged, but inside, she found herself burning.
Fire burn. Fire purify.
Sparrow sat on the edge of her pallet, staring out her window at the dull moonlight shining on the scorched ground. She rested her cheek on the marble. It was cool, but beneath it, there was a crouching flame. A deep warmth. She could feel it.
She bit her tongue.
She tried so hard to be strong these past three years. And now, in one day, a little Mouse undid it all.
A birdcall sounded.
What sort of bird was that?
Sparrow started, finding herself staring straight at a wood thrush. He sang again, and then Sparrow was sure she heard words.
“Give me your weakness.”
Sparrow waved her hand. “Shoo, bird. I don’t need to give you anything.” Sparrow took a breath. “I am strong.”
The lie was obvious. Sparrow shifted her gaze to the floor and murmured. “I am strong. Very, very strong.”
“I will give you my strength.”
Sparrow shooed it away. “Go away, little bird. You’re not strong. Not any more than I am.”
With another whistle, it flew away, leaving her alone again.
She clenched her fists.
I am strong!
She rested her head on the cold marble sill, and felt a voice—or something like a voice—breath into her heart. A voice raspy, melting. A voice shrouded in fire.
You are weak.
Sparrow was glad when she was finally initiated as a priestess—but she was disappointed as well, because it meant she would never serve the Speaker. She received the red robe and flaming ruby belt with pride, but also humiliation. All her work, and she never became anything more than one amongst hundreds—maybe thousands—of priestesses. No one different. No one special.
No one strong.
She had finished teaching a group of young acolytes early one morning about the rite of the Breaking of Silence. As she walked into the open hallway, she started as she saw a stranger—a woman in green with a glowing white flower in her hair. At either side was a huge black dog with hungry red eyes.
Sparrow slid behind a pillar, breath coming fast. Who was she? And how had she gotten in?
“Who are you? What are you doing in the halls of the Flame?” Mouse cried. Sparrow hadn’t heard her voice for some time now, but nevertheless, it struck Sparrow as a blow to her face. All her work…
“Fairbird!” Came the woman’s voice—surprised, but earnest.
“Don’t you know me? How long have I been away?”
Sparrow gulped. Who was this woman?
“I don’t know you! You shouldn’t be here! Get out!”
“You’re not Fairbird. I was mistaken. You’re not Fairbird.”
The cold of the marble seeped through Sparrow’s red priestess garments, making her shiver.
“I don’t know any Fairbird! Get out!”
“I come on another’s behalf. I would speak to the Dragonwitch.”
Dragonwitch! Somehow, Sparrow knew she was talking about the Flame.
The pillar seemed strangely warm now.
The Flame hears!
“I don’t know this Dragonwitch.” Mouse hissed, ignorant child she was. “You are come to the Citadel of the Living Fire, abode of the Great Goddess. And you are unwelcome here!”
“I will not harm you. I know the Dragonwitch is near, and you must take me to her. Tell her I have come on behalf of one she knows: Etanun the Sword-bearer. I bring a message from him. He wishes to tell her where Halisa is buried.”
Mouse’s voice was now a wisp of air. “The goddess searches for Fireword.”
“Poor little thing! Are my people always to live enslaved?”
Sparrow stiffened. Would everyone pity Mouse?
No one had pitied Sparrow.
“Who are you?” Came Mouse’s question.
“I was called Starflower.”
Sparrow’s nails scraped the pillar, eyes growing wide. Mouse formed the words Sparrow’s mind could not.
The Silent Lady was to guide a process of the Speaker, priestesses, and eunuchs down into the Diggings. Stoneye, the Speaker’s personal bodyguard, snatched the Silent Lady by the arm and marched her to the door of the Diggings.
Sparrow was caught off-guard at the cold wall that assailed her as she stepped closer to the seeping darkness of the Diggings. She had never felt so cold since before she was taken from her village, many, many years ago.
She held a blindfold, as did all the priestesses, but she also held an extra one. She had been instructed to give it to Mouse.
Sparrow, who had avoided Mouse as much as possible, spoke. “Here. Take this.” She gave her the blindfold and went on to secure her own. “You must not see the darkness of the Diggings. If you do, you will be lost.” She held out her hand as a eunuch offered his arm and guided her into the doorway.
The darkness was more than the lack of light. It was the presence of darkness. So deep she felt it.
It bled midnight.
Sparrow wanted to run. She wanted to cling to the eunuch, but she straightened her back.
I must be strong!
Fire burn! Fire purify!
But there was no fire in this place. Just cold. Cold and darkness.
“Here. This is the place.” It was the voice of the Silent Lady.
“Impossible. We searched this entire quarter ages ago. There is nothing here. We must proceed.” The Speaker commanded.
“No. This is the place. Etanun’s mark is on the wall.”
Sparrow ripped off her blindfold. There was light from the torches of the eunuchs, but the chill of the darkness still lurked.
“We would have seen it long ere now.” The Speaker replied.
The prophetess said simply, “You could not. No matter how you searched. Etanun said his sword must sleep undisturbed. He did not wish it found until this time.”
As she stepped forward, Stoneye yanked her arm. For the first time, Sparrow saw pain in the Silent Lady’s features.
So she was human.
The Speaker whispered, and Stoneye let go. The Silent Lady, once called Starflower, walked to a dark corner.
In the light of the pure white starflower, an arched doorway emerged from the dim.
“Fire burn.” Hissed the Speaker. She seemed to pounce forward, only to have a hand put out by Stoneye. “Out of my way, man! I must see it!” Then she whispered. “Fireword.”
Stoneye didn’t let her go. He pointed to himself, and then to the doorway.
I must go first, he was saying.
The Speaker hesitated, but then, clamping her eyes shut, she ground between her teeth. “Very well.”
As Stoneye approached the arch, Sparrow noticed that the torch he held trembled slightly. She froze.
Stoneye was never afraid.
As if reading his fear, Starflower touched his arm. He jumped back, and Sparrow again saw a slight quake in his movements.
“I will enter first,” said the prophetess. Her black hair shimmered in the torchlight as she removed the starflower.
Sparrow watched Stoneye closely. He furrowed his brow, as if demanding to know why she should challenge him. But when he stepped aside, Sparrow saw slight tension release in his shoulders.
As the procession entered into the chamber, Sparrow felt as if she were somehow leaving the threatening darkness. The only light came from torches and the Silent Lady’s starflower—but it was bright. And beautiful.
Looking at the walls, Sparrow saw one thing.
Stories—or were they memories?—were told in multicolored tiles. Whose stories were they? She couldn’t seem to understand them. There were too many, and they were too brilliant. It almost hurt to be in such a place.
Glancing down at her fiery robe and the long black wig which reached to her waist. She remembered the reflection of her painted face in the mirror.
A harsh, fire beauty with piercing blue eyes.
But looking at Starflower, her natural raven hair far lovelier than any wig, and being in this chamber made Sparrow wonder what real beauty was. What real strength was.
She looked down, but then forced her gaze upward.
I am strong!
Silent thunder pounded. Burning cold darkness swept through her. Sparrow trembled. She looked around, but everyone was focused on a rock in the middle of the room with a sword. No one else felt it.
Her vision blurred as she heard the high priestess scream a thousand miles away. More screams joined. They echoed. She vaguely saw Stoneye fall. Death swept through her.
The Speaker was shouting. People fled. A knife flashed. Mouse jumped forward. The Silent Lady was dragged away.
But all Sparrow knew was the breath of Death’s firstborn:
You are weak.
Even when Mouse disappeared, the Speaker didn’t call Sparrow to be her attendant. She called another—Nightingale.
Sparrow carried a pitcher of water to the doorway of the Spire, cold for the Speaker after being in the presence of the Flame.
As a priestess, Sparrow wouldn’t have been called. But she still had to clench her jaw.
Sparrow made the sign of a dancing flame over the water and whispered, “Fire burn. Fire purify.” She touched her forehead to the floor.
The cold floor.
But when she drew away, the lurking heat bit. She was tempted to splash a little water on herself—but no. She must be strong. She must bear the heat and she would not defile the holy water.
A bird whistled in her ear.
“Give me your weakness and I will give you my strength.”
Sparrow growled and shook her head. “Only fire strengthens.”
She felt it creeping beneath the cold floors. She felt it wrap around her heart and squeeze until she had no breath left.
She couldn’t keep listening to it! It was eating her alive! And yet, it burned.
You are weak.
She tore at her wig, her fingers catching on gold and raw jewels.
I am strong!
Then the Dogs came.
Sparrow was, once again, blindfolded and holding the arm of a eunuch, walking into the Diggings. The Black Dogs had fetched Mouse back who brought with her the heir—the only one who could retrieve the sword from the stone. The sword that had twice slain her goddess, and the sword with which her goddess would slay.
Sparrow wouldn’t tremble, though fire and cold pumped through her blood.
Fire burn. Fire purify.
Then, a loud noise erupted the silence as a slave fell. Sparrow tore off her blindfold.
People squirmed and pushed, but Sparrow’s eyes snapped to the heir.
And saw one thing.
Mouse grabbed the heir’s bound hands and sliced them with a knife.
The heir, though a fat dwarf, was instantly gone into the darkness.
Sparrow’s heart burned. Every emotion she had felt—betrayal, denial, weakness—threatened to cause her to explode.
Mouse’s cry raised above the others. “The heir? Where is the heir?”
And this was the one the Speaker favored? This rat—this traitor—was the favorite of the Speaker?
Sparrow never would have betrayed. She was strong.
Mouse was weak.
Sparrow snatched Mouse’s shoulder as she was knocked over by someone. She hauled her to her feet and yanked her blindfold off. “I saw what you did!”
Mouse shook her head, but Sparrow saw the lie in her black eyes. “I did nothing—”
“Silence! I saw what you did, traitor! It’s time the Speaker knew what you really are!” Sparrow dragged Mouse through the throng to the front of the procession where the Speaker stood—silent.
“Speaker!” Sparrow shouted. The Speaker turned to her, and for once Sparrow had hope. She remembered when she had first met eyes with the Speaker. She had said, “Your eyes, child, are blue fire.” Sparrow would prove to her that she was strong. “I saw it! I saw what happened!” She thrust Mouse forward. “This one cut the heir loose! She let him escape into the Diggings!”
Sparrow looked for commendation, for some sort of affirmation from the Speaker.
But there was none.
She raised her arms and shouted, “Stop!” Turning to the priestess next to her as dead silence draped over the procession she asked, “The heir?”
“Gone. Vanished into the dark.” She said.
Hope surged within Sparrow. “I told you, Speaker! It was this Mouse who let him go!”
The Speaker commanded. “Stand up, Mouse.”
Now Sparrow would get her rightful place. Now Mouse would finally be done away with. Now Sparrow would be strong.
The Speaker reached out and, before Sparrow’s own eyes, drew Mouse to her side, arms wrapped protectively around her shoulders.
Then she glared at Sparrow and pointed. “Seize her.”
Sparrow jumped back and her eyes widened. She cried out, but her voice sounded like another’s. “What? No! Speaker! I am not the traitor! This girl you favor so blindly, it was she who loosed the heir, she who has turned her back on the goddess!”
But the Speaker only gazed hatred at her. “You have always resented Mouse. Mouse, to whom I have shown favor that you believed due yourself. Don’t think I have not noticed. I’ll hear no more of your slander. Take her away.”
Sparrow screamed and thrashed as eunuchs snatched her and dragged her away. Away from the light. Away from the Speaker she had so faithfully served. The one she had tried so hard to please.
After a long trek through the heavy darkness, they deposited her wordlessly and returned, taking their torches with them.
Leaving her to be lost.
What was the use of crying? And yet, tears coursed down over her face covered in the paint of the priestesses.
No one wanted her. No matter how much she tried, her offerings were filthy rags to the receiver. They were wilted flowers.
She was worth nothing.
She bowed her head to the ground.
I am weak.
You are weak.
I am weak.
I am strong.
Sparrow felt terror melt the marrow in her bones. Heat crawled through the rock.
I am lost.
The voice of hearts breaking echoed into every cavern.
You are mine.
The voice of the Dragonwitch.
It would consume her. Floods of grief seeped into her skin—grief that belonged to the Dragonwitch and those lost before her, grief that became hers.
She was sinking. Crying out was no use. This place stole all sound, all hope. Even the tears she wept were taken from her.
You are mine.
She closed her eyes, ready to accept it. Ready to give in. Because she was weak.
“Don’t give in! Give me your weakness, and I will give you my strength!”
The voice of the wood thrush whispered. It was soft, gentle.
It was weak.
Sparrow pushed it away.
Thunder, blood, and shadow screamed at her.
The wood thrust persisted. “Sparrow! Give me your weakness! I will give you my strength! I will tell you your true name!”
Sparrow saw twin beads of fire.
Staring at her.
Her eyes widened. The ground burned. The air roared.
The Dragonwitch was coming.
Sparrow screamed, “Take my weakness! Give me your strength!”
The bird was on her shoulder. “This way, child!”
Turning, she saw a light—but not evil light. She ran to it, hearing the screams of those lost before her and the demand of the Dragonwitch.
You are mine! Come to me!
She picked up the Asha Lantern, undefiled hope filling her senses. The light was pure, and it was sure. The fading voice of the Dragonwitch had no hold on her now, and it somehow made her roar seem frail.
The Dragonwitch wasn’t strong. She had lied to Sparrow and to herself—just as Sparrow had.
She wasn’t strong, and soon, she would drink deep of her own weakness.
Sparrow followed the wood thrush with the light of Asha chasing away hidden things.
Whether it was two minutes or two decades, Sparrow didn’t know. But she did know when she emerged from the Diggings and found herself in a place she somehow knew as the Haven.
Turning, she saw the wood thrust—but he was no longer a wood thrush, but a man.
The Prince of the Farthestshore.
“My Lord.” Sparrow bowed.
He touched the top of her head and said, “My child.”
The words washed over her.
I am home.
She knew that he was her true Lord—not the Dragonwitch. She knew he wanted her, unlike her family. And she knew that, with the Prince, the Song Giver, the One Who Names Them, she would be loved, because it didn’t matter if she was weak or strong. He was her strength.
He whispered. “Your name, my daughter, is Precious.”
Sparrow closed her eyes and song filled her being.
Beyond the Final Water falling,
The Songs of Spheres recalling,
When night breaks to certain light of dawn,
Won’t you follow me?
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