Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  General

Featherwall

Featherwall

by

Thomas Rudolf Eggenberger

 

Shakespir Edition

 

Published by[*:*] Thomas Rudolf Eggenberger on Shakespir

 

Copyright © 2016 by Thomas Rudolf Eggenberger

 

Shakespir Edition License Notes

Thank you for downloading this free ebook. You are welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form. If you enjoyed this book, please return to Shakespir.com to leave a review and discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Featherwall

 

by

 

Thomas Rudolf Eggenberger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part I

 

Longbrook

Weaver’s Nest

Nilston

Longspike

Hole

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

Tad jumped out of bed like a cat out of water, suddenly awake and aware of the bustle in the next room. He rubbed his eyes and waited for the pounding in his head to subside to a dull ache before padding over to the door. His brain felt thick as a three day-old biscuit. Opening the door just wide enough to poke his head out, he winced at a blast of hot air from the kitchen as his eyes found Mircella.

“Mumma, why didn’t you wake me!?”

Busy arranging the contents of a large trunk, she didn’t look up. “I tried, lazybones. You weren’t having none of it.”

“I’m not a lazybones! I can’t help it how I sleep!”

“Now then, no pouting. ‘Twaren’t a lazy boy, get out yer jammies and help me.”

“But I’m hungry, Mumma.”

“Brekkie’s on the table. No doubt cold by now. But first things first, get some clothes on.”

Tad pulled the door shut, pajamas already stuck to his skin with sweat. It was that rotten stove, as horrible in summer as it was wonderful in winter, a big nasty iron bug that spit hot air at everything and everyone—worse than anything. He looked over to the basin, contemplating braving the mucky green film on the filthy, brackish water for a splash of relief, but couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. Sighing, Tad pulled his nightclothes over his head and grabbed the first thing at hand: his clothes from yesterday.

His mother caught him out with a whiff not two steps from his door, crinkling her nose. “Whew! Like an ass in a swamp! Get your bottom back in there and change!”

“But it’s all I’ve got! Everything else is packed,” protested the boy.

Mircella eyeballed him. “You really want ta start lyin’ to yer mother so early in the mornin’? What’ve I told you about a man who’ll lie ‘fore sun-top?”

“But it’s true,” mumbled Tad sullenly.

Mircella tsked. “Think o’ yer poor father, havin’ to smell you all day! An’ ye’ll smell twice as rotten ‘fore sunset. He’ll be lucky ta keep ‘is food down, he will.”

Tad hung his head and wordlessly slinked back through the door to his room.

“And wash up a bit ‘fore you put on somethin’ new, at least yer face and under yer arms!” shouted his mother through the door.

“I can’t!” Tad shouted back. “The water’s mucky!”

“And whose fault is that! I told you to swap it out a week ago!”

“I was busy, Mumma!”

“An’ I hain’t been?! I’m yer mother, not yer maid!”

Tad had no good answer, so gave none. Left to his own devices, he decided on a compromise—a rather generous one, he thought—wherein he changed his clothes and washed up not at all, but gathered a small palmful of clean-ish water and used it to wet the front of his hair so that his mother would think he had. When he emerged again he passed the sniff test and was granted access to the cold sausage, stale flatbread and sweetroot tea awaiting him on the table.

She laid into him again, in her matter-of-fact way, as he laid into his breakfast. While packing household essentials into grassweave sacks: “I’ve already fed your father this morning, if you want to know. Didn’t think it fair to keep ‘im waiting on you, with the princely sleepin’ habits ye’ve developed. Lucky to see you ‘fore mid-morn nowadays. Must be hidin’ away a secret kingdom an’ a stack o’ gold if ye’re fixing to sleep the way you do much longer.”

Tad rebutted with his mouth stuffed, spewing bits of meat and bread. “It’s not my choice, Mumma! I can’t help it, I’m growing!”

“Growin’? That accounts fer the food but not the sleepin’ nor the layaboutin’ ye’ve been up to. I do spoil you, I s’pose.” She sighed. “You know that’ll come to an end on arrivin’. Lord knows yer father hain’t up to it no more, so ye’ll be the one up and at ‘em, pitchin’ and sellin’ at the markets. I’ll be doin’ my part, ‘course, but I can’t do it all alone.”

She stopped packing and moved over behind Tad, affectionately ruffling his hair as he gulped down his lukewarm tea. He set the heavy iron cup down hard and exhaled with satisfaction, letting out a small burp as he leaned back in his chair, a hand on his tiny protruding belly.

“Done already, eh? Well, long’s yer growin’ more up’n out. Now go say hi to yer Daps and then you come an’ help me, alright? I’m sure he missed ya at breakfast.”

“Give me a minute, Mumma. I’m stuffed.”

She ran her hands through his hair a moment longer, then gave him a small slap to the back of his head. “Off with you.”

 

2

Tad ran a hand up over his brow, pushing the sweat into the greasy mop of tangled black that covered his scalp. His father’s room was cooler than the kitchen, but not by much. It stank of humidity, straw mattress, unwashed bodies.

“It’ll be fixin’ ta run off on its own soon, ya don’ send some lye through’t.”

The boy wiped his nose with his sleeve and answered: “What will, Dapper?”

Kellin smiled gently, weakly. “Yer hair, silly boy.”

“Oh.”

“E’en mine hain’t so bad’s that, an’ I hafta wait till yer mother gets struck by ‘the mood’ ta make it shine.”

“Yeah, but Mumma wants you to have clean hair. And you want to.”

“Well, don’ you?”

Tad scratched at his scalp. “I dunno. Feels wrong. Too light, or somethin’.”

His father watched him scratch, wary. “Hain’t got the bugs again, has ya?”

Tad blew out his cheeks and kept scratching, exaggeratedly waving his head back and forth as he considered the question. Finally he shrugged. “I dunno, Dapper. Bugs ‘n’ a coupla’ weeks a’ no lye feel ‘bout the same.”

“’n ya don’ mind it?!” Kellin screwed up his face, eyes bugged out and crossed.

The boy laughed with delight.

“Wha’?” deadpanned his Dad. “Wha’s so funny?” He stuck his tongue out and played frog, pretending to snatch flies out of the air with his tongue with crisp thwips and swallow them down with gusto, licking his lips and going for more, keeping his eyes crossed.

Tad laughed harder, nearly doubling over, gasping for air. He turned away to try to stop, but the thwips and swallows and mmmms kept coming, driving away any bit of creeping seriousness.

Suddenly they stopped. Tad wiped at his eyes, laughter slowing.

There was a new sound, a thumping and bumping and rustling of covers, and the boy was instantly dead serious. He turned back, watching his father’s body flail wildly, uncontrolled in bed, his head jerking back against the wall at irregular intervals. Eyes rolled up, fluttering.

Tad jumped up, looking to the nightstand for the wooden spoon. It wasn’t there. He checked the far side of the bed, the top of the dresser, frantically turning every which way to find something, anything to keep his father from biting his tongue off. Nothing–the room had been picked clean for packing.

“Mumma!”

He listened, heart pounding, watching his father gnash his teeth.

“Mumma!”

Tongue swirling pink below the storm of teeth.

“Mummaaaaaaaaa!”

Still no answer. Tad turned halfway toward the dresser to double-check it but stopped, staring at his left arm. Gritting his teeth and wincing in anticipation of the pain, he leaned down and jammed his forearm lengthwise between his father’s teeth.

For a moment, all he felt was the tongue darting up and around, warm and wet and tickling. The teeth appeared to have sunk deep into the flesh, but there was only a dim pressure. He blinked.

The pain surged up in a single bolt, and Tad sucked in a sharp breath. Another bolt, then another, pulsed lightning, and then his arm was on fire and time began to creep. His forearm was bloody. Dizziness washed in.

“Mummaaaaaa!”

An arm slapped against him out of nowhere, came back up harder with a punch to the gut. Tad gasped, struggling to hold his position. Another strike, to the chin. He leaned forward and down, trying to muffle the arm.

Suddenly the door was open, heavy footsteps, no more pressure on his forearm, a final slap catching the end of his nose, and then Tad was resting warm and soft against his mother’s bosom, room swimming and arm burning with every beat of his heart.

“Dapper’s tongue?”

“Hush now, there’s the spoon in. He’ll stop ‘is kickin’ soon enough.”

Tad closed his eyes, suddenly sleepy, the warmth of his mother’s body pleasant in the newly cold room. In the blackness he heard only the thumping and rustling of Dapper’s fit.

 

3

The world was black and not-so-gently rumbled.

4

The end result of a thousand tiny jolts, Tad woke with neck screaming and cheek raw, squinting up at the bright end of dusk. He pulled away the wool blanket and pushed himself up, finding himself next to his mother at the front of their wagon.

“Good to see ya up. I was—“

The road swam before his eyes and Tad retched, heaving up nothing on the first go from an empty gut, but depositing a small puddle of vomit—what and from where, exactly, being unclear—directly at his feet on his stomach’s second somersault.

Mircella brought the cart to a halt with a deep sigh, and hugged the boy against her breast. “’Twas to be expected, I suppose. Hain’t got the wherewithal in yer state to lean o’er the side.” She sniffed the air. “Whew! A terror on the nose, that. Comes o’ havin’ nothin’ in ya, sure as sun.”

Muffled against her: “Dapper all right?”

She sighed. “He’s ‘s well’s could be expected. Sleepin’ off his fit in the back atop the clothes. The shakin’s come back bad, but no other harm. Still got his tongue.” A stern note entered her voice. “You nearly kicked off, Taddil. Your father clipped a wrist worm with ‘is teeth and you lost a right bucket o’ blood. I bandaged it best I could, but I weren’t sure till now you were goin’ to wake in this world. So you promise me, Taddil, you promise me ye’ll never do such foolishness ag’in.”

Tad wanted to look her in the eye, but couldn’t bring himself to leave the comfort of the embrace. He spoke once more into her breast: “But Dapper can’t be a mute! What if Dapper became a mute?”

“A what?”

“A mute!”

Mumma’s reply was tart. “What good’s his tongue to do ‘im, then? So ‘e can yap while he lay in bed like a lump? You think punts’ll pay fer bits a’ wisdom that dribble out? You think ‘e can move boxes ‘r run a smithy with ‘is magical words? Get everythin’ up and jumpin’ about with no more’n a workin’ tongue? ‘Oh, yes sir,’ ‘ll say the tongs, ‘n’ the hammer’ll go ‘right away, master!’, ‘n’ we’ll all sit back ‘n’ have some punch?”

The boy was silent, resting against her.

“Tad, I need your arm more’n I need your Dapper’s tongue. And your Dapper needs your arm more’n he needs his tongue, too, else there’ll be no food for ‘is mouth to chew. So I wants ya to promise me ye’ll never make that trade ag’in. Your health must come ‘fore your Dapper’s.”

Tad gave no reply. Mumma gently pulled his head away from her bosom. He looked up at her with round, sad eyes.

“Do ya promise?” she asked softly.

His eyes watered, and he re-buried his head in her breast. Muffled: “I promise!”

She stroked his hair gently. “Nae, Taddy, might’s be as I did say. Might’s be tha highman o’ Featherwall can cure yer Dapper o’ this lowness grippin’ ‘im by ‘is head. I want no’ make no shapes in th’ dust, but I’s do owe that such’s been said o’ the whiterobes there. So do keep’s to yer Mumma’s word for the journey, an’ maybe such’ll do yer Dapper good as well.” Mircella wrinkled her nose, looking down past him to the vomit on the flooring. “Now be a goodlin’ an’ find a tree’s branch to swipe out this nightmare o’ the nose ye’ve left us.”

 

5

As they rumbled along, day by day Tad grew sorer and sorer. He ached everywhere from head to toe, but especially in his rump and lower back. He took clothes from the trunks in the back to sit on. At first his mother chastised him for exposing their clothes to the dust of the road, the elements, the splinters and roughness of the wood; in her no-nonsense way she replaced the clothes in their trunks and lashed her cub with a barbed tongue. Only to have the same clothes reappear the next morning bundled inside Tad’s comically ballooned pants. She could not help but laugh, and make a joke or two about her “growing boy,” before exhorting Tad to at least remove the treasured clothes from the immediate vicinity of his dirty bits.

After that she said nothing, even as the pile grew day by day, even as Tad mauled the knits and wrinkled the fabrics with his squirming, even as he added her enormous padded brassieres to try to shield his back from the merciless wood. Soon he was king of a cloth mountain, nearly tumbling with each bump, but still he felt the road. Mumma had a pile of her own before long, but it did not grow. She held the reins fast, and only grimaced now and then.

Tad tried lying in the back with his father, but it was an experiment soon abandoned. Daps looked on his boy with kind eyes, but still could not speak despite valiant efforts. He tried to play Mad Ox, but his hands shook too fiercely to hold the cards. Tad played a few games with Dapper’s hand showing, and Daps only pointing to the cards to play, but it was too easy for Tad to win with the other hand showing. Dapper tried to twist up his face and amuse his son with odd noises; grunts and a frighteningly twisted expression were the result—he looked an angry Mud-man, come to suck out the stomachs of the unwary.

Tad tried simply cuddling up against his father and napping, but the bumps and the jolts and the ruts of the road made sleep impossible. The final straw was the smell. Every night Mumma did her best to clean Dapper, wiping away the sweat and the grime and the piss and the shit, but every day it soon returned. Tad soon discovered that Dapper had no control of his bowels, and that Mumma had set too strict a schedule to stop and clean him during the day.

She was strict with the food as well as the schedule. Nothing but two small meals each day, near sun-top and after sundown. Nothing but rock-hard flatbread that made Tad’s jaw ache, pickled cabbage that made his tongue burn, and dried and salted oxmeat that made his mouth a desert. Water was up and down. Mumma knew every stream and pond along the way, and dragged out the big boiling pots and filled the bladders at every opportunity. She then measured out daily allowances into individual bladders using her favorite rough wooden cup, setting aside a small amount for “bathing.” Much of the water supply, unfortunately, had to go to the oxen.

If there was another source of water near at hand, the amount would be generous; if not, it would range from not-quite-enough to gone-well-before-sun-top. Mumma continually reminded Tad to drink small amounts at regular intervals, no matter his thirst, and Tad continually ignored her and gulped down the warm leathery water until his belly was full and his thirst fully slaked. She got angry every time he ran off to hose down a tree but forgave him the moment he complained of thirst, letting him drink from her bladder even if it meant she went without.

Tad’s stomach rumbled without end. Mumma was sympathetic, and when she boiled water she would add in leaves and grass, and keep it for her son to munch on. Tad did not think much of this solution; after a single bite, he denounced it as “skimbug jump-up” and refused to touch it again. Despite his mother’s continual admonitions, he would sneak off whenever he saw something that looked even slightly edible, and fill his belly for as long as he could stand the taste. Mumma warned him it would end badly, and she was right. On more than one occasion he found himself curled up against his father, shivering and retching, adding to the stench that pervaded the wagon.

These sick nights blended together in his memory into a single, fevered imprint. Light from the cookfire washing over the wagon, sacks and pots and Mumma casting flickering shadows. Dapper murmuring guttural sounds. The acrid musk of liquid shit. An unearthly groan, pitching up and down like a Mud Man devouring prey as Mumma moved her arm, glimpses of pus bumps and sores and rough wet knits. Heavy, moist snorts, restless pawing and shifting and creaking. Hints of burning meat climbing over the hill of shit to linger in his nostrils, half tantalizing and half wrong, stomach jumping to pour out small pools of acid, foul acid, to not quite cover the smell. A small orange glow, Mumma grim, Dapper still and silent. Weakness and heaving and pain and wet filth, eternally waiting for sun-up. Mud and dust on everything.

He developed rashes that made the bumps of the road even harder to bear. They were nowhere near as bad as those that ravaged Dapper’s skin, but to him they seemed ten times worse. He took to walking alongside the wagon in spells, until his legs grew tired or his feet ached. Then he would climb back up onto his cloth throne beside Mumma, wiggle his rump down into the fabrics, and stay put until he could no longer take the bumping and bouncing and sliding against his raw skin. It was back to his weary feet, again.

This way of things did not long survive the first rain. The skies opened while they slept. Mumma was quickly up and rumbling about like a storm herself, throwing tar-cloth over everything in sight, but the damage was done—moisture had seeped in. The rain continued through the next morning, Tad and Mumma huddling under tar-cloth in the wagon, braving Dapper’s stench to stay dry. Tad slept in spells, nestled in his mother’s lap, waking occasionally when some part of him ached or cramped or the nerves buzzed; every time he woke he would shift position, watch the water dance in one of the shallow pans set to catch the rain, and soon be asleep once more.

As soon as the rain stopped, his mother rustled him awake. Wordlessly, they set about filling the water skins with the collected rainwater, shaking out and folding up the tar-cloths, checking the oxen (who had eaten all the greenery in their patch of land, and tugged at their restraints to get at more). His mother turned out and spread out everything wet, and they sat on the soaked wood of the driver’s bench and waited.

Mumma sighed, looking glumly from the mud of the road to the grey of the sky. “A good omen, Taddil. ‘Water gived wings when tha sun she do sing.’” She tapped her forehead twice, then once each her eyes, nose, lips, and ears, and sighed again. “World’s hard on a body, as a fact.”

Tad nestled up against her, feeling cold under the clouds. Beneath the thick bandage, his arm throbbed.

 

6

Nothing really dried. Even spread out and turned up and over to the air, the wood and the weeds and the cloth underneath were all soaked through and moist. The sun did not show itself to help that day, or the next.

The roads dried somewhat. Not enough, but Mumma judged they could not wait. The oxen strained, and mud spattered everything and everyone, but they moved forward. Tad tried to rebuild his pile of clothes, but Mumma stopped him, and this time she had no give.

“Not dry,” she grunted. “Pile ‘em now, they’ll get the greenrot quick.”

Tad knew better than to try to cross her now. He took to walking in his squishy shoes along the squishy road, not wanting to subject his bottom to the lurches of the wagon through the sticky mud.

Soon enough, he wished he had. Having pressed on with no regard for the twinges from his raw wet skin, by sun-top (or at least, when Mumma stopped for the sun-top meal—it was too cloudy to really know) he was the proud new owner of blisters on the big toe of each foot.

Having inhaled his unfortunate portion of unfortunate food, Tad thought again of rebuilding his clothing throne. Mircella scowled so fiercely at the first finger laid on the first bit of linen, though, that he immediately gave up the idea for the day. The last thing he wanted was a lashing, by tongue or by switch. His bottom stung, his feet burned, his forearm throbbed, his stomach rumbled, his lips were cracked, his throat groaned for water.

The last, at least, he could change. Leaving his pulsing left arm at his side, he took the water skin with his right, wincing as he struggled to grasp the stopper with the fingers of his left hand. They did not want to move, and when they did spikes of pain drove through his arm. Trying to apply enough pressure to grasp the stopper, he whimpered from the pain.

His mother eyed him with concern. “What, littlin’?”

“Nothing, Mumma. Stopper’s too tight, is all.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Taddil,” said with a sharp warning.

Knowing he couldn’t fool her, Tad tried to diffuse her anger instead. He winced a grin: “It’s past sun-top, Mumma, so I thought one lie weren’t so bad.”

She grunted, stepped over and gently took his bandaged forearm in her rough hands, lifting it for inspection. Waves of fire pulsed up through his arm, and Tad gasped in pain, leaning against his mother as he nearly lost his balance.

Grasping his arm firmly above the elbow, she took her “thief knife” from her boot and carefully cut away the bandage. Parts of it stuck to his skin; she quickly ripped them away as he gasped and whimpered. Finished, she wrinkled her nose at the stink that arose from the narrow band of wet, mottled black-green around the punctured skin.

She looked down at Tad. “Ah, my little goodlin’, why didn’ you tell your mumma it hurt?”

Tears stood in his eyes and he gave no answer, trying not to cry.

Mircella ruffled his hair and tapped her forehead twice, hard, with the knife hilt.

 

7

She didn’t stop the oxen as she mixed her salve. “T’was a bit of a blessin’ after all,” she murmured as she poured rainwater into the bowl. A bit slopped over the edge as the wagon hit a pothole. Mircella pinched in a final bit of herbs, mixed it all with a broken bit of tree branch, then added pinchroot flour until it was of the right consistency to stick.

During this sensitive process, Tad shifted restlessly beside her, trying to find some measure of comfort. To escape the blisters on his feet, he sat on the bench; to escape the rash on his bottom, he squatted on the bench; when he could no longer bear either position, he balanced on his knees and held himself upright with his good arm. Before the bumps and jolts of the road had a chance to batter bruises into his knees, his mother forced him to find a new position: “Taddil,” she growled, “your arm is bad a’nuff as ‘tis, don’ you dare forfend the sky as well.” He tried to ignore her, gambling that she was too busy to really pay much heed, but she stopped her measuring and mixing and, balancing the bowl precariously atop a knee with her left hand full of valuable ingredients, reached out with her right to tweak his ear until he howled and submitted. Finally he lay across the seat on his belly, face in her lap, right arm hanging loose, no pressure on his butt or feet. Mostly away from Dapper’s smell, it was the closest to comfort he’d been in days.

She roused him unceremoniously when the salve was finished. He groaned and whined and resisted as best he could, but she positioned him as easily and with as much regard as she might a bladderhead doll. The salve went on thick and cool, immediately numbing his arm where it touched. Mircella was careful to spread it with a single finger, not letting the stuff touch the rest of her hand. She quickly covered his entire forearm with the salve, wrapped and tied it tight in the cleanest wool knit she’d been able to find.

Mircella took his head strongly in her hands, one on each cheek, and looked him in the eyes. Her calluses were rough against his soft skin, her eyes fierce. “Two days, goodlin’. Two days ‘a no touchin’ it, two days a’ no dirt ‘n’ the like, two days ‘way from Dapper. Breakin’ any rule gets ya the switch. I’m serious ‘bout it, Taddil, b’cause ‘tis a serious thing. You don’ heed what I say, mebbe you lose yer arm.” By now, Tad’s entire forearm tingled fierce and hot, a buzzing burn that still throbbed. His head felt warm and light. Mumma seemed to exist in another world entirely. She pressed his cheeks tighter as his eyes wandered; he looked back at her. “Understand, goodlin’?” His tongue ran dry over cracked lips. “Yea or nay, Taddil, do ya understan’ me?” He nodded and came out with a hoarse, “Yea, Mumma.”

With that she let him go, and he promptly slid down along the bench to his former place, resting his head in her lap. The foul odor of warm, intestinal shit filled the air, either from Dapper or one of the oxen. Tad wrinkled his nose. Above, Mumma hardly seemed to notice, stoically watching the oxen rumps sway slowly side to side.

 

8

The first bandits appeared as they approached Longbrook.

The sun had returned, though little broke through the trees. A lean man in tattered, muddy clothes stalked out to the middle of the road, long beard and hair greasy and unkempt, cheeks gaunt. He turned his tired, hungry eyes to Mumma, and grated out, “That’ll do, woman.”

She ignored him. The oxen kept on, slowly bearing down on him.

“I did say stop, cunt.” A growl, but a tired growl.

Mumma looked at him calmly, and spoke with a superior air. “I recommend talkin’ to the oxen, goodman. As for meself, I be perfectly still.”

The man was forced to step aside as the oxen drew close, keeping pace with a spark of anger in his dark eyes. “An’ I recommend not bein’ smart wit’ me, cunt.”

Dull metallic thwacks sounded on either side. Mumma steadfastly ignored the noises, but Tad looked over. Two more gaunt, muddy figures had emerged, occasionally striking tree trunks with the flats of their rusty iron swords as they kept pace with the oxen.

“Goodman,” said Mumma, “if ya see any bandits hereabouts, please let ‘em know we have nothin’ of no value. No coin t’ speak of, an’ in the back is naught but rottin’ sweetroot an’ a sick man.”

The bandit made no reply and no signal. A barefoot, shirtless man appeared from among the trees and approached the back of the wagon, disappearing from Tad’s sight. There was a sudden shout from the back of the wagon. One of the men with swords ran over. As the oxen rumbled on, the men came into sight again on the road behind. The shirtless man was on his knees, retching, while the other looked on uneasily.

“What kind a’ sick?” asked the bandit, watching his man.

“A bad kind, goodman.”

They walked in silence for a bit. The shirtless man recovered and once more melted into the woods, and the swordsman returned to walk alongside the wagon, seeming distracted as he tapped tree trunks and made tired slashes at dry leaves.

The bandit looked up again, watching not Mumma but Tad, something new and dangerous in his eyes. Mumma steadfastly watched the road ahead.

“Careful, goodman,” she said, “tha’s where I do keep me knives.”

He gave no reply, continuing to watch Tad. Tad moved closer to his mother, pressing against her. She looked down at him, then sharply over at the bandit. Understanding lit her eyes.

“First to try gets a blade to th’ belly,” she growled.

The bandit finally took his eyes from Tad, giving her an evaluative look. She stared back with an animal ferocity, jaw clenched tight. He looked again to Tad, taking in the contours of his face. His tongue darted out, quick and red.

Suddenly he stopped walking. The oxen passed him by, then the wagon. Tad looked to the sides for the swordsmen, but they were gone. No noise but that of the rough wood wheels. Tad tried to move away from his mother, wanting to watch the bandit recede behind them, but she hugged him close and would not let go.

“Mummaaaa!” he protested.

She ignored him, staring vacantly at the road ahead. The entire side of her dress, from her arm on down, was soaking wet and stank of fear.

 

9

Mumma had not been lying about the state of the sweetroot. As Tad tied up the oxen, she heaved the bags one by one out of the wagon and onto tar-cloth spread atop the mud. A rich, black syrup leaked from each as she moved them, and she often frowned and sighed as she opened the rough grassweave bags.

Tad had always hated the trading squares. Perpetually foul-smelling “mud” pits, even during the dry season (with a single whiff serving as ample explanation why), nothing interesting was ever sold—foodstuffs, dry goods, fabrics and knits, weaves, clothes, sometimes dried flowers and other such nonsense that girls liked. On occasion there was a merchant peddling weapons, but he had already grown tired of these—they never actually let him touch anything, and one blade looked much the same as another. He liked the odd stink of the leather carts, but his mother took him to task if she found him there; he could expect at least a few swats and an exasperating lecture, if not the switch, because Mumma claimed the vapors from the liquids used in leathermaking would “make ya duller ‘n’ ya already are.” It was something she took absolutely seriously, and she practiced what she preached—there was nary a scrap of leather among their meager possessions, save a single pair of thick work gloves.

The occasional food stall was little more than torture. Mumma always claimed the proprietors were “worse ‘n’ bandits,” and refused to go near them, no matter how enticing the aroma. When he was smaller, Tad had sometimes hung around just to indulge his senses, to drool over the spiced stickmeat and roasted saltbeans and imagine it on his tongue. A skinny man with a scraggly beard and kind eyes had once laughed and given him a stick of fatty, greasy, undersalted chicken after watching him close his eyes and slobber on his chin at the aroma. He remembered the man’s face as clearly as his own father’s. That single act of kindness had prompted him to continue the masochistic habit for several more years, always trying to recreate what he had done when his unintentional begging had succeeded. It never worked again, though, and as he grew older his presence became actively unwanted by the stallkeepers. Loitering now got him nothing but harsh words, and occasionally a few pokes with a muddy stick, so he stayed away and tried to avoid the smell of the food. If it wafted over, he did his best to ignore his rumbling stomach and focus on counting oxen, or playing Pebblestrike, or trying to nap away the miserable day.

At this early hour, the square was largely deserted. Only a few other wagons had straggled in, and most weren’t bothering to set up for the day yet. A squat, balding man with a reddish-brown beard approached, swinging his arms over his potbelly and twisting his hips as he walked. Watching Mumma open a grassweave bag and seeing the sweetroot within, he guffawed, then covered his mouth and tried to pretend that he hadn’t.

Mumma gave him a sour look. “I know, I know. Move ‘long, goodman, if’n you haven’t nothin’ ya wanna buy.”

“You might better try selling mud, madam. It’s like to fetch a better price.” He giggled.

“How glad I am, goodman, ta bring ya mirth with me misfortune.”

“I do apologize, goodwoman.” He stopped nearby, resting his hands on his hips as he continued to twist from side to side. “I merely want to offer you some advice. You’ll get a much better price for your wares in Bluebell or Nilston, and even a bit higher just down the road in Weaver’s Nest. Sweetroot is plentiful here.”

“I know that plenty well, goodman,” Mumma said acidly. “I’ve been plannin’ to sell in Featherwall. But me stock’s in bad shape, ‘n’ not like to make it.”

The merchant took a few steps closer, peering at the sacks. “Well, you’re right about that. They’re already weeping. Go much further in those sacks and they’ll have greenrot long before Featherwall.”

“’Tis what I did say, did I not, goodman?” She returned to inspecting the sweetroot.

He stroked his long, bulbous nose, and scratched the tip. “Why Featherwall? You’ll get a high price there, true enough, but it’s the other side of the Highroad. I’d recommend selling in Nilston, if your wares survive. It’s only half the journey. You’ll get a good enough price, and you’ll be back before the rains start.”

“We’re not comin’ back. Need to sell there fer a good start.” She turned her back to him.

“Hoping to turn it around and sell to the questors?” She didn’t reply. “Use the money for a new business, I mean. Sell items to participants at the festivals.”

She ignored him. He twisted from side to side with a fist to his back, and sighed quietly, and once more rubbed his nose, but did not leave. He tried again: “Have you tried taking it out of the sacks and drying it?”

With that, Mumma had clearly had enough. She rounded on him. “Plain enough ye’ve no head for sweetroot, goodman. Too dry’s bad as too wet. Now leave me be, Mr. High-nose Merchant Man, ‘less ye’ve an int’rest in buyin’ me damn’d weepy roots.”

Seeming startled by her change in mood, he murmured something apologetic, lowered his eyes and touched his bald pate and turned to go.

At that moment, Tad returned from seeing to the oxen. As he rounded the corner of the wagon, the movement caught the merchant’s eye and he turned and looked.

And looked. And looked.

And finally turned and hurried away, with a final furtive glance at Tad.

Mumma rose from her inspection of their final sweetroot bag, dress and hands covered in sticky sap. She sighed. “Help me spread some tar-cloth, goodlin’. There’s nothin’ but ta sell.”

 

10

It was a slow day at the square. Longbrook was only a minor trading post at the best of times, and the unseasonably humid weather kept the locals away. The merchants, perpetually mopping their brows and mumbling curses, could hardly blame them. Even out of the sun, it felt like someone had hidden a giant stove just out of sight. The surrounding woods were still wet from the unexpected rain, and moisture leaked into the air. Nary a breeze stirred the leaves. Sweat simply stood on skin until wiped away.

In the absence of customers, the merchants mingled languorously, sauntering with bored expressions from wagon to wagon, idly browsing one another’s wares without any real interest and making offhand comments that were usually answered with a grunt. Those who knew each other traded stories and jokes, their occasional laughter the only sound among the mud and the hot.

Tad sat with legs crossed among the piles of heaped sweetroot, woozy from hunger and from heat. Throat parched and stomach shriveled and mean, he did not bother with the sweat standing on his face and limbs. Eyes half-lidded as he ostensibly waited for customers, his forearm absently throbbed, far away. Stomach growled and he felt sick. Flies buzzed and crawled neverending. The saccharine perfume of weeping sweetroot mixed with the stench of oxshit from the square.

Mumma emerged from the back of the wagon, dripping with sweat, finished mucking out the mess from Kellin and the sap and the accumulated mud. Finding no relief in the outside air, she surveyed the near-empty trading square. Hints of roasting corn tugged at Tad’s nostrils, and his stomach bellowed as loud as it could with the juices inside. It was nearly sun-top.

Mumma gathered the sweat from her brow with the back of a hand and threw it down into the mud. She sighed.

“Up now, goodlin’. We’re off down the road to the Nest.”

Legs half-numb, Tad pushed himself up with his good arm, a long, thin groan escaping his parted lips. Mumma reached out with a wet hand and gently mussed his hair.

“I know, me Taddy, I know. Jus’ help me a bit wi’ the bags, an’ then ya can sit ag’in.”

Tad gathered his energy and pulled himself up and into the wagon, mumbling a brief and quiet “Hey, Daps,” to the damp, crumpled, nearly naked lump at the back. Dapper lifted a shaking arm in reply, mumbling something incoherent. Tad turned his head at a feminine grunt, and the first bag of root landed hard on the wood at his feet. Each bag weighed half as much as he did. Setting his muddy, sweaty bare feet against the worn wagon bottom, he pulled hard with his good right arm, struggling to gain traction as he strained with his whole body to move the bag toward the back. Every inch was hard-won; mostly he moved, and the bag stayed. When he was finally done, he wanted nothing more than to collapse atop Dapper, hot and winded.

Taking a moment to catch his breath and sweat, staring up at the sky, he heard a male voice. He stared down at Dapper, confused in a haze of heat and exhaustion and hunger. Dapper’s lips didn’t move; of course it wasn’t Dapper. Tad blinked long, listening keenly as his pounding heart subsided and his hard breaths eased. An odd, unplaceable nasally brogue, wheedling but compelling. About every third sentence, the tone dropped a few registers into baritone and almost bass—it reminded Tad of Bretton just before his Passage Year. The merchant, of course, the merchant from before. He listened in, tottering toward the other end of the wagon, his bare feet and light weight conspiring toward stealth even though he was too tired to make any such effort. Another sack of sweetroot blocked him from sight anyway. He peered around the edge at his irritated mother and the bald merchant, who stood closer and seemed much more urgent than before. The merchant leaned forward, staring at Mumma with a strange intensity; Mumma’s face wasn’t visible to Tad, but from the way she placed her meaty hands on her bulwark hips he could well guess what it was.

“There’s no trap to it, goodwoman, I assure you,” said the merchant.

Mumma sighed. “Taddil?”

Tad ducked behind the bag of sweetroot, waiting.

“Taddil, be a goodlin’ ‘n’ take the next bag to the back.”

Knowing better than to let out the plea for rest on the tip of his tongue, Tad stood and began tugging at the bag. Over the sounds of the sliding grassweave, the small thumps of his feet’s attempts at traction, the blood pounding through his ears, he could make out only bare snippets of the merchant’s voice even when he paused to catch a breath: “…yourself. We can go right now. …hard to accept? Call me a Man of the Sky, if you want. I really don’t care. …foolish, foolish! No, no, it’s fine. Your pride is your concern. If you want to consign your…”

Finally he was done; the bag was at the back, next to the first. As he caught his breath, Tad strained to hear the conversation. Nothing. No sound, no voices. And then, Mumma’s voice, oddly thin and uncertain: “Taddil?”

Not yet enough breath to answer, he waited.

“Taddil?”

Usually there would be an order, confirmation that he’d heard or no. Something was wrong. “Mumma?” he forced out, still not enough air in his small lungs.

“Be a goodlin’ ‘n’ bring tha las’ bag back over ta me.”

Tad blinked, not believing his ears. He tottered to the other end of the wagon, peering out with concern. The merchant, an odd half-relieved, half-smug expression playing on his squashed face, was carefully filling an overlarge wooden pipe with a green powder. His mother stood with her back to the wagon, head bowed and shoulders hunched, turned away from the merchant and from Tad’s questioning eyes.

Clearly she felt them, though. “’Tis fine, Taddy,” she said without looking round. “Jus’ a bit a’ good luck.” She tapped her forehead twice, quickly. “This here goodman’s bought our root.”

“All of it?” asked Tad.

“All but one,” said Mumma. “So be a goodlin’ ‘n’ bring that last ‘un back.”

Tad looked over. The merchant was staring at him, pipe in one hand. He inclined his head in greeting, green eyes sparkling and a smile tugging at his lips. Tad ducked back into the wagon.

 

11

The transaction was concluded at an odd intersection of speeds—as fast as Mumma and as slow as the merchant could finish everything necessary. Mostly, Mumma did the physical labor involved—arranging the sweetroot bags in orderly rows, folding the tarcloths and placing them back into the wagon, hurriedly wiping the worst of the mud and excrement from the bags with a spare scrap of knit—while the merchant avoided confirming the contents and count of the bags, pestering her with advice about money and travel and smoking his overlarge pipe. It was odd. Merchants always took time to inspect the goods, quibbling and demanding discounts for every leaf off a branch. When this short redbeard finally did his part, Tad was surprised to see things end with a simple handshake. No coin changed hands. He guessed that the man had paid up front, but merchants usually parted with coin as though it were being torn from their very skin—why would he pay before he had to?

Mumma dragged him with her when she went to buy new grassweave bags. Tad was still exhausted and hungry and his arm throbbed fiercely, but he didn’t object. He had no desire to be left alone with the strange little man. As they left for the grassweaver, the merchant attempted to slip past Mumma and introduce himself to Tad, but she fiercely pushed him away and gave him a tongue-lashing, which he absorbed in silence with an amused forbearance.

When they came back, the sweetroot lay exactly where it had been, but the merchant was nowhere in sight. Mumma was visibly relieved. She immediately untied the oxen and drove them hurriedly out of Longbrook in the direction of Weaver’s Nest, the newly light wagon bouncing and rattling with every bump and rut in the dirt of the road. Just past the first bend, out of sight of the market square, she abruptly halted the oxen and tied them to a nearby tree. She handed Tad a strip of dried oxmeat.

“Twigs ‘n’ brush ‘n’ rooty things, Taddy. Find ‘em ‘n’ bring ‘em ‘n’ be quick about it.”

“But why, Mumma?” Tad’s fatigue had reached the point where he was willing to risk his mother’s sharp tongue if he could avoid moving.

Mumma simply sighed. “Ye’ll see soon enough, goodlin’. Jus’ do it ‘cause ya love yer dear mumma.”

Tad groaned, but complied. As he turned to climb out of the wagon, he saw black smoke rising in the near distance, in the direction of Longbrook.

He pointed. “Mumma, wha’s that from?”

She turned and saw, and a strange fear crept into her eyes. “Nothin’ for you ta mind, goodlin’,” she mumbled. “Nothin’ for you ta mind.”

 

12

It took past sun-down to arrange things to Mircella’s satisfaction. The large grassweave bags were filled to near bursting with branches from trees and bushes. She insisted on using only wood supple enough to pass for real sweetroot around the edges of the bags, which in the dry season meant stripping the tough, prickly needles from needlegreen branches and the leathery leaves from oxhead bush limbs.

Tad did his best to help, but his left arm was useless. The fingers barely moved no matter how hard he tried to force them, and his forearm buzzed with pain whenever his fingers or arm so much as brushed against a leaf. He instinctively hid this from his mother: he wanted to avoid her ministrations, he hoped it would get better on its own, he felt somehow ashamed of his ailment. To hide the problem, he took long breaks to chew his dried oxmeat and whined loudly and often about his fatigue as he tugged halfheartedly at bushes and low tree branches. There was little exaggeration involved; when his mother finally gave up on getting any help from him, he was asleep within minutes of settling down inside the wagon, no matter the scratchy grassweave bag laid as a pillow under his cheek, the smell of Dapper’s urine in his nose, or even the twinges of sharp pain from his left arm as it shifted and bumped with his breathing against the wood.

Atop his gently moving chest lay half a tough, stale piece of flatbread, which was a bit of a wonder in itself. He had asked for something to fill his still-growling belly expecting, as was normal, to be ignored. It was somewhere in-between sun-top and sun-down, and he’d been given something nominal to eat that he’d thought had been his ration until dark. But he tried anyway, as he sometimes did, and got a bit of a pleasant shock—a thrill, really—when Mumma wordlessly went to the driver’s seat and pulled from her bag that magical piece of unleavened bread. At that moment his whole body had tingled, and he felt he could see himself taking the bread from afar, hovering. He had swayed a bit on his feet, blinking, for a long moment after Mircella had patted him on the head and moved away again to work. Tad had worried away at the bread for those short few minutes before sleep.

As her boy and her husband lay in the wagon, Mircella worked into the dark. It was under a hazy moonlight that she finally believed herself satisfied—the bags were the right weight, felt convincingly supple and springy to the touch, and had real sweetroot ends protruding from the drawn and tied tops. She heaved them up into the wagon and arranged them carefully around the slumbering Tad and Kellin.

She wanted to get an immediate start. Even with the new funds, they were under pressure to arrive long enough before the festival, and with enough coin remaining, to get properly set up. The faster they moved, the less deprivation they would suffer. She went as far as untying the oxen and rattling down the dark road for a few minutes before deciding the risk was too high. Mircella pulled off into the grass again where the trees gave way, firmly tied the oxen to a stout tree, and promptly stretched out on the driver’s seat of the wagon and fell asleep.

 

13

Tad came awake with lungs tight, air bound in his aching chest, disoriented in a black world as he rolled onto his side and struggled to work his lungs—a stabbing pain, his left wrist on fire, he grabbed the elbow and rolled atop it, onto his stomach, squeezing the forearm between his body and the floor. He gasped as waves of agony cascaded through his body, darkness swimming in his eyes, head throbbing. Only then did he notice the creak and rattle of the wagon around him, the vibrations pushing through him from the rumbling of the wheels. A gasp escaped his lips, then a groan, but he wanted to scream.

Fire pounded through his veins, radiating out from his left arm. His heart raced, blood sounding an ocean in his ears, and he curled up and levered down on the elbow. The pressure didn’t help—the pulses of pain came slower, but stronger. He shuddered with each one, breathing in whimpering gasps.

Suddenly the wagon was still and silent. He looked up. Dapper’s eyes were on him, glittering in the moonlight, sympathy shining through even as his own cheek twitched unbidden.

“Hey, Dapper,” Tad whispered. He took his weight off his arm. The pain surged, discarding its rhythm for a wild and pounding thrum. Tad retched, heaving up a thin stream of acid, and immediately felt better, better and weak. He pushed himself unsteadily to his feet, clinging to a “sweetroot” bag, and looked Dapper in the eyes. “Sorry,” he whispered, and stumbled past the rows of bags to the back of the wagon, jumping out to avoid using his arm. The impact of the drop radiated up from his feet to his legs to his whole body, and a new wave of pain crashed through. He sat down hard and flopped onto his back, staring up with the bright stars and faint sliver of moon wobbling in his eyes, left arm screaming, barely feeling the scratch of the dry grass against his skin.

Panting, heart racing, he shifted slowly from side to side, movement distracting from the pain. He wanted nothing more than morning, and morning was forever away. Time moved only as slowly as he did, only as fast as the lightning in his arm. The stars pulsed and did nothing, and he groaned at them.

The pain became too much to stay still. Tad staggered to his feet, cradling the rotting arm against his chest, and began pacing, shuffling along back and forth from the back of the wagon to a spot in the clearing by the oxen, moaning with pain between quick, gasping breaths. The night was warm and dry. An insect clamor exploded from the forest around him. He felt no air on his skin, heard none of the rambunctious forest life as he trudged along his repeated trail, staring down at the dry grass. There was only the fire in his arm, the low rumbling groan that somehow made it bearable, the struggling push and pull of air within his chest, the low and careful footsteps through a burned world waiting again for heat, the moving forward, the moving forward. An eternity in balance.

He tried once to change his path, to walk a half-circle around the oxen, seeking to draw from their calm—the soft way they took in the dried grass and weeds without complaint, their slow snorts and placid breaths, the heavy stink that hung about them. He quickly discovered that it only made things worse, in the way that watching a man at leisure while tasked to work makes the labor hard to bear. After a single back-and-forth he returned to his previous path, feeling doubly sorry for himself. The world did not suffer with him.

It was only at the end of his first circuit back, making sure to stop before he reached the oxen, that he finally looked up and saw the legs jutting out past the end of the driver’s bench. It was not as though he had forgotten about his mother. She had occupied the same mental space as his father: a helpless witness to his pain, sleeping somewhere out of sight; if anything, she might offer up a cure that was worse than the illness, and so he did not think to seek her out. Seeing her now, though, slumbering peacefully just a spit-length away, he felt a sharp pang of jealousy and a sense that she had done him wrong. He did not want to shake her on the shoulder, to plead for her help—he wanted her to be woken by his cries, to rush to his side feeling regret for her obliviousness, remorse for her peace, to reproach herself for not realizing sooner that her child was in pain and in need.

He lumbered closer, groaning and whimpering. One of the oxen looked up briefly from grazing, black eyes glinting dully in the weak moonlight. Tad stopped directly beside the driver’s bench, clutching his arm and groaning loudly, whimpering between groans. He could see nothing but his mother’s feet, but she did not seem to stir.

He stayed by those feet for a small eternity, his complaints increasing in volume the longer he stood still, to compensate for the lack of movement. The oxen would occasionally take a break from chewing grass to give him long, unconcerned looks. When his vocal cords reached their limit, he began shifting from foot to foot. Having stopped walking, his legs had grown stiff, and he moved in odd fits and starts, leaning forward and backward as he transferred his weight from one leg to the other, moaning as loudly as he could.

Still his mother did not wake, and Tad could no longer bear not to move. He stepped forward, turned back, stepped forward, turned back, gradually walking a larger and larger path with his odd dragging, humping gait, sucking in air through his teeth and pushing out shuddering moans. Everything was just as dark as when he had first left the wagon. He heard the shrill insect cries all around, saw the calm oxen move, and wished his pain upon them all. He swore at the sky, cursed the winking stars, and wished for the world to end.

He could take no more. Desperate for an escape from the fire eating away at him, his mind fixed on the last moment it had been less: after he had vomited in the wagon. Staggering over toward those damned unmoving feet, he spat in the direction of his mother and shoved his good arm down his throat as far as he could. He retched, his entire body heaving, and fell to his knees. His stomach convulsed, but nothing came up. Once again he thrust his hand down his throat. Another convulsion, and he kept his hand in place. His stomach jumped into his throat and he leaned forward, pushing his forehead into the prickly grass as a thin trickle of vomit finally came up and out, his stomach pulsing again, again, again, and then settling. He gasped, rolling over and collapsing on his back, stars swimming in his eyes, too weak to rouse himself again. His arm throbbed, but it was bearable—compared to the pain before, it was an insect bite to a stab wound. Utterly exhausted, he was carried off by sleep before he knew it.

 

14

Tad awoke to a blinding pain, sun in his sleep-drunk eyes and sky flashing by as he felt himself helpless in the air, bad arm being manhandled. Placed roughly in a sitting position on a hard bench, he recognized the fabric of a dress flowing by as his eyes began to adjust. Sun. Mumma. Dawn. He screamed, screamed and screamed, pouring out the wild frustration left over from the night before, bellowing the air from his lungs again and again and again as tears burned in his eyes, senseless to being gently taken into his mother’s lap and cradled until he had subsided into silent weeping, whimpering quietly and squirming in his mother’s arms as his forearm shot fire up to his shoulder and neck.

He felt Mumma’s palm on his forehead, cool against the hot sun. “Mumma,” he murmured, “why is it so hot today?”

She gently ran her fingers through his hair, and her voice came quiet and low: “Shh, goodlin’. Ye’re soaked right through.”

Tad didn’t know why she was talking such nonsense. He was hot, not wet. His throat and lips were dry. But he didn’t really care what she said, as long as she kept her wonderfully cool hand on his head.

As if reading his thoughts, she took it away. Her arms and lap were warm. Tad squirmed away, trying to remember where he had left his water bladder. Above, Mumma was trying to grab him back, but he slipped worm-like from her grasp, wriggling toward the edge of the bench. The back of the wagon, between two bags far from Dapper—that’s where his water was.

“Stop, Taddy! Stop!” cried Mircella.

Tad mumbled “Getting my water, Mumma,” as best he could with a parched throat, and kept squirming toward the edge. All too soon the edge was there and he was over; he tried to hang his weight on his arms and then drop down, as he had done so many times before, but his left was having none of it. He fell hard onto the road, struggling and failing to rise to his feet as new pain in his left arm pushed against the heat in his body and the heavy spinning in his head.

Mumma was there again, her cool hand again on his forehead. “Don’ ya move, goodlin’.”

He tried to protest, but his strength had abandoned him. He settled back, half on the road and half in the weeds, panting under the sun, his mother’s palm the only spot of cool and calm in his world. It vanished, and then there was only heat and heaviness, and hurt.

After a lifetime and an instant, a sky-blessed trickle of coolness ran down his face, then another and another and finally an entire patch of relief from the heat stopped and hovered on his forehead. A small raincloud had come to help him, thank the sky. He smiled as best he could, eyes fluttering open, but above was only dim light and a strange pattern. What an odd little raincloud. It was saying something now, but he couldn’t make out what it wanted.

Tad closed his eyes, still smiling his little smile, and then the world was gone again.

 

15

For the next few…days?…the world was strange, and Tad was strange in it. He would wake in the dark, no light but an orange glow, nothing to see beyond it but a curtain of rising steam. Would rear his head, rear his eyes in his head, intoxicated with fever and struggling to see. Then something bubbles, cracks, hisses. The orange glow shifts. Glint of an eye above. Tad would try to cry out for his mother, but—his tongue, where was his tongue? How did his throat work? A frail and whimpering “Hhhhmmmmmaaaaaaahhh,” would be pushed out, leaving Tad suddenly out of breath, throat locking. He struggles to pull in air, barely noticing the orange glow as it closes in, throat bulging, eyes roving, trying to roll onto his side kick onto his side flash above orange is gone Black.

…Then rumbling, bumping and rumbling, bumping and rattling and rumbling, conscious but eyes won’t open. Picking crusted matted something away as his back aches, away from his eyelids with only his right hand because his left arm refuses to move, refuses to move but tingles—like the dull bone needles for the knitting, thank the sky. Smell of Dapper’s shit nearby. Right eye pulls open, and his heart skips with fear—everything is still black. A groan from Dapper, Tad turns his head toward the sound and—flash of white, above. He looks back. A star. It’s only night. As he stares, blinking, other stars form around the first. He begins picking the crust from his left eye, awkward and slow. Stomach is tight. He should be hungry, he knows he should be hungry, but he is not. By degrees, his open eye droops closed.

It is always night in this world of days. Is it only one night? He is not awake long enough to wonder. In truth he does come awake at times while the sun is out, over to one side or the other of the wagon’s canyon walls. He squints and groans and tosses and rolls and finally covers his face with an arm and sleeps, never awake enough to make a memory of these moments. He begins to doubt the sun.

By degrees, his head begins to pound. At first it is barely distinguishable from the other aches in his body, barely heard over the roar of sleep in his veins. But it grows more insistent. It begins to make itself heard above the fray. Tad’s eyes begin to swim. He begins to push against his temples. His ears begin to listen inward more than out. A creeping tightness in his head. The pain increases. The light from even the pale stars above stabs through his eyes into the brain. Another step up—tighter, more pain. It throbs insistently with his pulse, waking him more and more. He grips his head, turned to the floor, a low-key groan his only comfort. Not even smelling the stink of Dapper, and dreading the beat of his own heart.

And then, suddenly, it was over. He woke to a strange wooden sky, squinting hard against a low and insistent sun. It was oddly silent. Nothing moved. Somewhere, a door opened. His head pounded, but mild.

A male voice, held low, and in the quiet he could make it out. “He has awoken, goodwoman. Thank the sky. But he will need several weeks to recover.”

Mumma’s husky brogue was unmistakable. “We don’ have such time, highman. Soon’s tha sun do poke ‘er head up, we must move on.”

Tad did not understand. The sun was right over there, shining in his eyes.

“Goodwoman, please. I understand you wish to get underway again in all due speed, but you must allow at least a few days for the milkleaf to leave him.”

There came a long silence. Tad closed his eyes against the sun, and almost immediately began to drift off.

His mother’s reply pulled him back. “One day, highman, no more ‘n’ no less.”

“One day, goodwoman, is…a mere day is not likely to improve his condition in a meaningful way. Surely you can leave more time for the poor boy?”

“If one day do mean nothin’,” came Mumma’s tart reply, “then e’en one day we’ll no’ take. Now le’ me see me boy.”

The loud click of a latch falling into place raised a murmur and a fluttering of eyelids from Tad, but he was well on his way to slumber. The now muted, indistinguishable voices in the next room served only as a lullaby.

 

16

Tad couldn’t keep track of how many times he threw up the next day, but he was convinced it was a new record. He woke up vomiting, and only discovered in the moment of groggy half-clarity that followed that it had been into a bowl placed under his chin, and not all over his own chest. Despite the pounding in his head, he immediately fell back asleep. This happened again and again, beyond his reckoning or his sense of time. Each time the bowl was new and clean, each time the sun was there shining in his eyes, each time the room was empty and all seemed quiet.

Then he woke up sweating, heaving interminable, exhausting heaves for long long moments before producing a thin trickle of sick, and did not fall back into sleep. It was pleasant, floating in this big bed, physically exhausted but mentally alert. He was a mess of bandages from his left shoulder down, extending below the covers. Tad wasn’t sure if he was somehow tied down or if it was simply a product of exhaustion, but he found he could not move. When he tried to lift any part of himself, he soon gave up—it felt as though there were heavy stones on top of him. His left hand was the exception. He found that he could open and close it with relative ease. They must have fixed him up.

The sun still shone full in his face. It was obnoxiously bright and he did his best to ignore it, focusing on the area around the door, but it hung insistently at the edge of his vision. The room was plain. All was quiet. A sudden panic took hold of him. The sun was still in the exact same position. What day was it? Had he been sleeping for minutes? A full day? A full day each time? Had it been weeks, months? And where was everyone? Had Mumma and Dapper and the other man left—left him behind here, in this bed, forever?

He tried to call out, but nothing came. He opened his mouth and lifted his head the inch or two that he could manage and tried to push out sound, but nothing came except a strangling sensation. He tried again, with the same result. Out of breath, he fell back onto the pillow. He was beginning to feel cold. Cold and wet. He suddenly realized how dry his throat was, his mouth. Tongue ran rough over cracked lips. It tasted like something had died in his mouth.

Shivers began to run through him. The nausea came back to hover at the base of his throat. He gagged, but nothing came. Warm, silent tears ran down his cheeks. He turned his head to the side, guiding them to his lips and mouth as welcome moisture. Liquid snot began to trickle and he welcomed that as well, taking the salt and the warmth and the wetness as his only comfort. He had been well and truly abandoned in a place he’d never even seen before, and on top of that he couldn’t move. He was completely helpless and alone.

Tad thought of his mother, beside him on the driver’s bench, silent and solid and secure. It had always felt like she was watching him, even when her eyes were elsewhere. Even when they were staring hard at the road ahead, as though it might leap up and swallow her whole at any moment. Even when they were focused on Dapper, on Dapper and his mess, shifting between pity and impatience, glimmering between love and hate, or simply sitting in her skull as shiny marbles in a stone face, self safely tucked away in some distant cozy nook. She was never more than a cry of pain away, but in his current state even that he could not give. He tried desperately once more to raise a complaint, but all that came out was a strangled half-whimper, a whisper that failed to reach beyond the bed. His sobs, his tears, were frustratingly silent.

He thought of Dapper, when he was able to speak. Though he sometimes turned away, facing the wall and retreating into an anguished silence, he had almost always made an effort to engage his son. Usually this was a wonderful thing. While Mumma tended to a bloodied knee or dealt with a flesh fly egg under the skin with a hot needle, Dapper would twist up his face—and his body, when he could—and pretend to be a jump worm, or a shriek fly, or a claw-wing, and Tad could not help but smile even while some part of him radiated pain.

On occasion, things didn’t work out so well. Once Tad had been laid low with a fever, and was put in his father’s room. He still remembered the terrifying apparition in his fever-addled brain when his father had pretended to be a shag-bear—the dead eyes, the awkward clawing swipes, the strangled growls—and the screams and the thrashing about that had followed.

A few times, Tad had attempted to return the favor, to cheer up his father when he was feeling low. He had soon given up. Though Dapper had turned away from the wall and forced a smile, the hollow sadness in his eyes had not lifted, and he had turned back to face the wall as soon as Tad left. Afterward, Tad had cried every time, and soon could no longer bear to try. But even in his current state, unable to do anything but lie like a lump and shit himself, Tad loved his Dapper fiercely. He longed now just to see those deeply sympathetic eyes watching him from some corner, or even just to smell that earthy stink that told him Dapper was nearby.

Hot tears fell long on Tad’s feverish cheeks in that utterly silent room, light bright in his eyes from the sun in the corner, as he made himself miserable thinking about the parents whom he had loved so well, and who had abandoned him. He made several more attempts to raise his voice, lips wet with tears but throat still dry, and failed anew each time. Utterly exhausted and devoid of hope, he fell once again unconscious.

 

17

He awoke—half-awoke—to a whispered cacophony of sharp sounds that penetrated his floating awareness like staccato knives. Metal-on-metal bite of a door latch, creaking hinges, Tad floated forward. Hardened leather dragged on stone, Tad floated to the side. Silence, bobbing, cold air. Creakjumps creaking far away, bobbing. Stop. Shifting. Stop. Floating away, slow, floating away from everything, unmoored and unmet and unsupported.

Tad flailed his arms, writhing, trying to get back, back, trying to get secure again. Hard to his knuckles, sharp pain. Tad opened his eyes, wide and wild, staring up at white in dark as his back felt the hard of the wood. The arm of a figure in rough-knit wool, Mumma turned away. Murmurs. Tad closed his eyes, pressing his cheek against the cool wood. Mumma angry, man calmly insistent. Suddenly Tad was cold, and turned away from the outdoors and hugged himself, curling tight. Mumma tart, man calmly insistent. Heavy wool over Tad, thick and cold. Mumma harsh, man calmly insistent. Tad sucked in a breath, letting it out in shivering gasps through clenched teeth.

The blanket grew warmer. Tad began to float again. The voices began to move away. Tad hugged himself, fatigue washing over. The voices continued to fade. Tad hugged himself. Voices continued to fade. Tad hugged. Voices. Tad.

 

18

Sweety Roots had been minding her own business when the attack came. One minute the air was clear, the next it was filled with a foul, earthy stench. Rendered speechless and immobile, she sat unmoving but desperate, her long and kinked and curly hair swaying gently.

Tad had to help, he knew. He had to push away the noxious fumes so Sweety could breathe again. Otherwise, she would die. Tad waved his arms frantically. Something was wrong with his left arm, though—it was tight and white and bound up stiff. He could barely move it. On top of that, his right arm was too long. He needed to move it back and forth quickly to fan the odor away, but it was no good—his right arm was far too long and kept knocking painfully into the trees—trees?—on either side, and his left arm was too tightly bound to move much at all. He had to help her another way. He had to find the source of the smell attack, and quaff it out. “Don’t worry, goodwoman Sweety Roots, I’ll help you,” he said in his bravest voice, and wobbled to his feet.

The ground was shaking—what kind of attack was this? His right hand was too far away to see what it was doing, but he could feel it pressed against something hard. He put more weight on it, and it held. He crept forward, the smell growing stronger as he moved. Sweety Roots moved with him, somehow overcoming the affliction of the odor. “Stay back, goodwoman! It’s too dangerous!” he cried, but she didn’t listen. His own nose was full of the acrid stench, and he almost gagged. His right arm failed him, and he fell to the floor. Something pinched his nose shut—ah, his right arm.

Ahead was a lump of dark woolen knit. The source of the smell attack? Tad crawled forward. Forced to un-pinch his nostrils so he could move, the stink grew worse as he progressed. He turned his head, gagging, and there was goodwoman Roots again. “Get back, goodwoman! Please!” he cried, but again she didn’t listen. Her stubbornness may kill her, Tad thought with horror. He needed to end this quickly if she were to be saved.

He tried to regain his feet, but only managed to lurch forward and fall again. Somewhere, an elbow hurt. His back ached. His side throbbed. But he was close to the woolen lump now, the smelly woolen lump. He scrambled forward on his bandaged left and too-long right arms, and suddenly he was atop it. “No more!” he yelled, hitting the thing as best he could, “You’re killing her!”

The lump shifted and groaned and tried to push Tad off, but Tad clung to it, striking again and again with clenched fists. “No more!” he cried. “Stop it!” The woolens were wet and stank of piss and sweat, and all around the smell of shit was stronger than ever, but Tad didn’t care. He was on a mission.

Suddenly Dapper’s face appeared, floating among the dark knits. “Dapper!” exclaimed Tad, continuing to hit the stink-monster, “Do you know what this is? Can you help me kill it?” Dapper’s eyebrows knit together in pain, and an unnatural groan escaped his lips, like a wildcat being crushed by an ox. “What’s the matter, Dapper? We have to save goodwoman Roots!” he said, tongue lolling out with fatigue as he threw his arms and body forward against the lump once more.

He reared back, hot and sweating with effort, and suddenly found himself moving up and away from the lump. His feet touched solid ground somewhere far, far below. The lump below continued its smelly assault, and Tad struggled against the invisible force to free himself and continue the counterattack. A stick was pressed against his tongue, removed just as he started to gag. He tried to talk, but there was a milky bitter taste and his mouth went fuzzy, his tongue numb. He was suddenly light as a feather, and his limbs went miles and miles. “Abhwah,” he said. “Mmmm.” And then he stretched out until he was nothing, nothing at all.

 

19

Dry. Unspeakably rough and cracking dry. Tongue scratched out on crinkled lips. That was the world—dark and dry. Dusty air wheezed down a desiccated pipe, and there was his throat. His? Tad. Taddil. Outlines of a head sensed in the dark, a dull pounding. From the head, miles and miles and miles away, things that felt as if they could move and sense. Eyes scraped open, sticky, crusted around the edges. Grey shapes, indistinct. A snort of air through his nose, and the passage was so dry and chapped he cried out in pain—a hollow “Heeeeeeee” from disused vocal cords. As the hurt washed away in the waves of pounding from behind his eyes, the smell hit him—sharp, acrid, oddly warm, the smell of shit come into the world too soon. With that stink, he knew immediately where he was, who he was. He felt around with a long, long arm. Grassweave. Wood. He tried the other. It resisted, and he remembered—bound up tight.

Hazy moonlight outlined the edge of the wagon, with nothing save mud beyond. It occurred to him for the first time that they weren’t moving. Straining his ears, he thought he heard voices in the distance.

Tad carefully made his way to the end of the wagon, using the grassweave bags along the way for support. His body felt like it belonged to someone else, some giant from another realm, who had limbs hundreds of cartlengths long and so normally floated around instead of trying to coordinate everything with the world around him. His head, however, remained cruelly fixed in this world, pulsing relentlessly—even the dull moonlight shimmered, and he worried that his eyes might burst, or pop out of his head, or, or, or something bad. The pounding inhibited thought.

He clambered over the endboard, hung off and jumped down—as I have a stingbug’s nest of times before, he thought, lying in the mud, staring up at the sliver of moon hanging above. Habit had taken over, ignoring his bandaged arm. He was still for long moments, listening, not bothered in the least by the smell of the animal shit and human piss around him. In the distance—there it was, unmistakable—laughter. He lifted his head. Those were wagons. They were stopped in a trading square, somewhere.

Tad pushed himself up, grabbed the wagon with his good arm and gained his feet. He squinted toward the front of the wagon, spying a pair of feet jutting out past the edge of the driver’s bench. Mumma was asleep again. He trudged over to the front of the wagon, wiping the bulk of the “mud” from the back of his neck. The rest didn’t really bother him. He was intent on finding a water bladder.

He clambered up to the driver’s seat like a turtle climbing a stump, finally flopping down atop his mother’s legs and moving over her like a three-legged cat, finding the tiny gaps around Mumma’s frame. She didn’t even stir. He froze in place just above her head, feeling around in the driver’s box for a water bladder, and was surprised to feel not just one, but two bladders. His heart sank as his fingertips felt along them, however—from their contours and texture, he could tell they were empty. Even so, he pulled them out and held them above his mouth, trying to massage out a drop or two. No such luck. Both were dry as oxmeat.

A tremor of fatigue ran through his legs, and he quickly turned and carefully lowered himself back into the sticky mud, slogging away from the wagon toward the center of the square. It was possible there was a public well, and he was too damned thirsty to heed Mumma’s insistent scare-mongering about them. People and animals drank from them often enough without anything bad happening to them, and he would now too, if he could find one. Before leaving his wagon behind, he scooped up a handful of mud and spattered it against the endboard, spreading it into a rough triangle. He’d learned the hard way in earlier trips about the biting, belly-deep fear of not knowing where to go in a wide, bustling square.

From near the center he peered around in a tired circle, eyes straining in the weak moonlight, trying to work up some spit as he searched the grounds. None came. He felt weak, lightheaded, a bit—feverish? He hoped it was just his imagination. Worse, he couldn’t make out anything resembling a well in any direction.

To his right were distant lights, laughter, the occasional giant shadow crossing faraway walls. Tad began a long journey toward those lights. He didn’t know exactly what he would do when he got there—sneak a sip from a glass? lick up a spill?—but he was sure that he could do something to get a bit of water. Maybe he could work up the energy to do some sort of dance, like when he was younger. That had usually been good for a bit of iron or a tiny sweet. Mumma’s warnings about such places—she called them “drunkey dunks”—ran through his mind as he walked, but weren’t enough to make him turn back or even slow his pace. Rough men they might be, rough men full of piss with more blades than brains and “sense of the sky” put together, but they had water and Mumma had none, and that was all that mattered now. Even as the voices grew louder, the laughter rougher, and the lights wilder, Tad pressed boldly on, mindful only of the dry of his throat and his hot and pounding head.

When it came into view, it was not nearly so daunting a prospect as he had been led to believe. It was a simple log building, not much different from their own now-abandoned house except that it was several times larger and spilled out a steady stream of flickering light, drunk men, and fumbly music. There were no knife fights, no hoary mud-worshippers. There were, however, several men outside doing their best impression of Dapper, lying slumped against the outer wall in varying states of filth, consciousness, comprehensibility. One was naked, another nearly so, and the smell would have been overpowering to someone less well acquainted with human waste. As Tad approached the entrance, one of the more lucid among them scrabbled at the air in his direction and made a noise that had the cadence of language but was just a warbling groan—something like ‘Tub the bar feet piss ground me.’ He ignored the man and passed through the open doorway.

Inside was a close cauldron of sudden light and noise. Tad closed one eye, squinting with the other, and did his best in his weak state to maneuver unseen among the tall legs of the rowdy men. Failure, luckily, didn’t seem to matter much—when he bumped or even ran headlong into a pair of legs, there was no reaction at all from above. The biggest danger seemed to be falling over and getting trampled, so he pushed and grabbed and bumped to keep his feet. An earthy, claustrophobic stench pervaded the air, sour and sharp. Tad was glad to finally reach a bit of open space, next to a low wall and a group of odd tall chairs. Most of the chairs were occupied, but one near the end was empty. He struggled up into the seat, slumping back into it to rest, his eyes and not much else poking above the counter in front of him.

The men next to him, one seemingly asleep on the counter and the other oblivious to all but the contents of his cup, paid him no heed. Tad sat and rested for a moment, letting the sea of noise and flickering torchlight wash over him. A burly man behind the counter handed off a large mug to a customer and turned back to survey the rest of the room, his long, scraggly grey hair and beard at odds with his broad shoulders and easy movements. His eyes almost immediately came to rest on Tad, despite him being essentially a bump on the counter from the barman’s point of view. The bartender made a pretense of wiping the counter with a rag, moving down to where Tad sat. He towered above him.

“Ya need a thing to drink, do ya, boy?” he growled, casting half-curious, half-stern eyes down at Tad.

Tad knew better than to try to speak. He simply pointed at his throat, then opened his mouth and pointed to the dry interior, and finally tapped his forehead twice and looked imploringly up at the ceiling for a moment before meeting the old man’s gaze. The bartender held his eyes for a few moments with a hard, querying look, then grunted and moved away. Tad watched the old man’s smooth, deliberate movements behind the counter, his back to Tad as he worked, and then suddenly the barman turned and there was a sharp bang on the counter that made the boy jump. The barman showed his few remaining teeth in what Tad hoped was a smile.

“Close ta water’s we got here,” he said, aggressively pushing out his Rs.

Tad sat forward, peering up at the counter. There was a large wooden cup set in front of him. He reached up with his good arm and took the cup, sliding it to the edge and doing his best to get a grip on the large cup with his small hand, then moved it off the counter and—unexpectedly heavy, the cup immediately slipped from his hand and crashed to the ground below, splashing the floor.

Tad stared down, shock and disappointment writ plain on his face. The old bartender laughed. “Nex’ ‘ime, use both ‘ands,” he chuckled, and almost immediately set down another cup, smaller than the last. Tad stared at it forlornly.

“Go on, ‘en. ‘Tis smaller ’n’ tha las’, ‘n’ only ha’ full.”

Tad put his right hand on the cup and pulled it to the edge, looking at it doubtfully.

“Do use both ‘ands, boy,” insisted the barman, staring down at him.

Tad looked up at the old man with abject misery in his eyes. The barman was frozen in place, brows furrowed, rough smile held unmoving. Tad’s head pounded, his throat and mouth ached with thirst, his body screamed for water, and here was water—here was water—but, but…

Hand still on the cup, staring up at the grizzled and perplexed old man, tears began to stream down Tad’s cheeks.

Suddenly, all at once, almost the entire room fell silent. Some conversations around the edges continued, and a guffaw echoed from a corner. A rough voice somewhere behind Tad called out, “Grab ya muddy tongues! Little Big’s gone in!” and the silence became complete, broken only by occasional whispers and the unintelligible mutterings from the drunks outside.

In this silence, the stout, grizzled bartender leaned forward over the bar, momentarily breaking away from Tad’s gaze to view the boy’s body—the bandaged arm, the mud covering his back, the small, thin frame—and when he leaned back and once again found Tad’s eyes with his own, it was with a new and deep sense of pity. Tad stared back through eyes blurred by silent tears. The bartender slowly slid the cup away from Tad’s hand, held up a finger to indicate that he should wait, and disappeared below the counter.

At that moment, Tad heard a cry of feminine pain from upstairs that he would never forget, raw and animal in its need. A wave of uncomfortable titters ran through the assembled men. Tad looked around wide-eyed, momentarily forgetting his pain and thirst and tears. Why did no one think to go and help the poor woman? Something awful must be happening up there! He turned around to try to exhort the man behind him to action, but the thought could not get past his dried-out throat. The man paid him no heed anyway, looking expectantly toward the stairs with a jolly, intoxicated face and straining to hear with all his might. The others around were all the same, every last one, seeming to delight in whatever pain was being caused to the woman upstairs. Aghast, Tad began to cry again, wondering what he had gotten himself into. Mumma had been right after all.

He thought of trying to slip away before the barman came back, but with the very thought of movement exhaustion crept in, stealing into his very bones. The last of his strength left him with his tears, and he could do nothing but sag back in his chair and observe the bizarre spectacle. Shortly the silence was broken by a muffled thump and another high-pitched cry of pain from above. A dull, pounding rhythm set in, followed by a strange, strangled gasping cry; a sharp, excited “There, there!”; a breathless “Don’t muddy stop!”; and a long, fading, high-pitched scream. With each utterance, excited murmurs ran through the crowd, followed by whispered exhortations to “muddy shut it!” Were they beating that poor woman upstairs? And why did she tell them not to stop? None of it made any sense to Tad, and the less sense it made, the more he wished to sky he’d never ventured from the safety of his wagon. Finally there was a fierce male shout from above, the pounding rhythm stopped, and the crowd erupted in cheers.

A man excitedly pushed through the crowd to the sleeping man beside Tad and began tapping him on the shoulder, repeating over and over in slurred speech, “Gellin, it’s six ‘n’ ten! You won, Gellin! Six ‘n’ ten!” Tad sat tiredly watching him, tears finally ending, when movement from the bar caught his eye. The barman popped up, grinning, and thrust a tiny container into Tad’s right hand.

“Ya can hol’ that ‘un, yeah? Drin’kup!”

Tad stared down at it. Sure enough, there was a small amount of what looked like murky water in a tiny tin box. He looked from the water to the barman, the barman to the water, and put the rim to his lips.

Suddenly he felt himself lifted into the air. Arms flailing, the container and water were gone before he knew it, and he was spinning around above the roaring crowd. Leering, ruddy faces milled around below, passing by at dizzying speed, and Tad balanced and clung and scrambled and hung from whatever he could to keep from falling into that seething cauldron of stumbling drunks.

“Er tos!” shouted someone above the din, “Er tos!” Finally the world stopped spinning—that is, Tad’s body told him that it did. His head was still on a pole, going round and round and round and round and—he retched, stomach heaving and throat convulsing, but almost nothing came up. Just a thin trickle of bitter from the back of his throat that he was well used to. The world slowly rolled to a stop, and he looked down. A pair of strong but indifferent hands from two different men appeared to be keeping him up; they seemed secure enough, even as the men looked neither at him nor at each other and slowly swayed this way and that. He looked over at the speaker, sitting on the bar. It was the man who had been sleeping beside him at the bar—at least, he thought it was.

“…n’ all the stone-burnin’ sky-cloudin’ whoopledeedoops been sayin’ ‘tweren’t so, ‘n’, ‘n’…” His eyes met Tad’s. “…’n’ me goo’ looock charmey there, tha lil’ boy up’n there!”

He raised a large wooden cup in Tad’s direction, and there was a halfhearted clunking of cups as the crowd murmured “Sky to mud,” and drank. Suddenly the room seemed listless, enthusiasm petered out. Tad began to hope he might be let go. The low murmur of normal, scattered conversation was returning.

Suddenly there was a sharp bang somewhere above, and the crowd roared back to life. Tad was slowly being rotated away, but he strained back to try to see what was happening. A short, squat, hairy man with a bulbous nose and pimply forehead was frolicking along the second-story landing, skipping back and forth and occasionally pretending to ride an angry ox. The crowd roared and jumped and drank in approval.

The hands below Tad shifted, and he nearly fell. As he twisted around to try to regain his balance, he suddenly found himself being lowered toward the ground in surer hands than he had ever known. The barman’s voice sounded just below him, quiet gravel: “Fer shame, boys, ‘ees jus’ los’ an arm.” For a few moments he was held close, little more than a doll to that strength, and struggled not to gag on the stench from the oily beard brushed close, the underarms of filthy drunks passed by. And then he was set back on his perch, his high seat removed but slightly from the madness behind, watching with vacant eyes and a blurred mind as the thoroughly drunk and formerly sleeping winner of…something…was forced off the bar and away by the hulking grey bartender. A thought stirred within him, a sudden catch of breath. What had the barman said?

A small thunderclap on the bar beside him, and the thought left his head. He looked over, blinking at the flat hand on the rough wood of the bar, up to the anxiously smiling bartender with cautious concern showing in his eyes. The bartender once again shoved a tiny cup of liquid into Tad’s right hand, not bothering to try to say anything above the noise of the raucous crowd. Tad stared down at the cup—it seemed to be little more than a chunk of spongewood with a divot carved out for a tiny pool of murky water. Tad’s limbs once more felt far away from his body. The miniscule cup was miles away. Thirst getting the better of caution, he brought the liquid to his mouth and tipped it in.

He reflexively spat it out, tongue burning, lips cracking painfully as they twisted in disgust at the bitter drink. The barman roared with laughter, only barely audible above the crowd. Tad ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth, trying to rub the taste out, then licked his lips—they stung as the rough, alcohol-coated tongue came into contact, and his tongue quickly retreated. He rubbed his chin, mouth opening and closing of its own accord.

The old bartender refilled Tad’s cup, pushing it into the boy’s hand. Tad stared down at it, bewildered, and offered the barman a questioning look. It seemed to be the same drink as before. The barman leaned forward to make himself heard. “Weakes’ in tha house. Close ta water’s we got here.” He leaned back, shrugging apologetically and showing his rotten teeth.

Tad stared down at it for a moment, then screwed up his face and threw it down his throat, swallowing immediately. It burned like fire going down, and he coughed a few times, but he held out his makeshift cup for more even as the fire ran down into his chest. The barman handed him a refill with a broad, grotesque grin that hardly dimmed as Tad forced down several cupfuls in quick succession, eyes watering and lips and mouth and throat and chest and stomach burning. He belched painfully and held out the cup once more. The more he drank the less awful it seemed to taste, and it was slowly wetting his dried-out parts.

As he continued to drink, his head began to grow light on his neck, and before long it went from bobbing and swaying on its tether to floating well above his body. The pounding headache went away, the dryness in his throat went away, soon even the burning of his cracked lips faded, and he felt himself smiling. Down below, the tiny cup slowly became harder and harder to manipulate, until finally he found nothing in his mouth after tipping the liquid in. Baffled, he peered down at the cup. Yes, it was empty. He realized that the top front of his chest was a bit wet and wondered why, absently rubbing the area with his thumb as he held the cup.

That was how the barman found him when he returned from serving the last of several drinks—grinning at nothing, vacantly staring down, absently rubbing his thumb up and down along his neck and sternum. He gently took the cup from Tad, pressed a piece of flatbread into his hand in its stead, and went back to serving drinks. Tad stared at it. He hadn’t even thought about food, but now that he held some in his hand, his stomach began to gurgle and seethe. He couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten. His stomach seemed on the verge of jumping out of his belly and devouring the food all on its own as Tad doubtfully gauged the level of spit in his mouth against the dry hunk of sustenance in his hand.

When the bartender came to check on him next, only a small remnant of flatbread lay on the bar, and Tad was slumped back in the chair with a hand on his belly, staring vacantly at a spot on the wall and absently working his mouth up, down, and around in an apparent effort to conjure some moisture. The barman waved a hand in front of Tad to get his attention, and gently pressed another cup of “water” into his hand. Tad didn’t hesitate, tossing the drink into his mouth—getting most of it in—and swishing it around a bit before swallowing, then putting the cup down hard on the bar and squinting up with pursed lips at the barman. He looked so much like an obtuse regular that the barman threw back his head and laughed for a good long while. Tad watched his scraggly beard wiggle mirthfully.

Finally calming, the bartender refilled the boy’s cup and leaned in close. “Las’ fer nae. Don’ wan’ ee leavin’ me no jump-up fer a presen’, eh?” He winked large and grinned his ghoulish grin, and Tad grinned back without really knowing why. He had understood that this was the last bit of liquid he was likely to get, but that wasn’t funny.

The bartender turned away to fill a drink order, and Tad gently tipped in and swished around his last cupful of the stuff. He felt quite nice—still too dry, and rather dull, but nice—and pleasantly distant from the tavern and the rowdy, rotten men around him, but an edge of fatigue, a hint of headache were beginning to creep in. If he could get no more to drink, it was time to leave. The thought that maybe he could get a bit more by doing a silly dance or two flitted across his mind, but he immediately dismissed the idea—he didn’t feel up to it. Five minutes before he could have pulled off a rip-roaring jig and been the hero of the night, of that he was sure, but not now. In just the moment it had taken him to consider making the attempt, his eyelids had grown immeasurably heavier. Suddenly all he wanted was to be back in the rumbling wagon, bumping around half-awake to the reassuring smell of Dapper’s shit with hints of rotting sweetroot.

Swallowing, he coughed and slid immediately to the ground, bumping against the bar and stumbling into someone’s piss-stained trousers, over a pair of feet, finally losing his balance entirely and falling hard, ending with a close view on a pair of cracked, fragrant leather boots. He groaned, knees radiating pain, feeling the rough of the wood and the grit of the dry dirt against his palm, waiting for a bit of strength to try to push himself back up.

The next moment he felt himself rising into the air, pressure under his arms, and before he could blink he was on his feet again, a too-strong slap on the back knocking him into those same piss-stained trousers. He tried to hold his breath as he pushed back from them. A drunk voice said above: “T’ere ya go, laddie. Stick an ‘ore fer me, iff’n ya head tat ways.” Laughter boomed out from somewhere over his head. Tad didn’t bother looking up; he just stepped back, took a deep breath, and plunged off into the waiting forest of foul-smelling legs.

By Tad’s reckoning, it took about a week to get outside. His feet stubbornly refused to cooperate with his legs, and his legs refused to cooperate with the rest of his body, so he found himself staggering around in a zig-zag that only eventually led to the exit, bumping and tripping and running headlong into seemingly every drunk in the place along the way. He lost track of the number of times he was lifted to his feet, pushed, prodded, patted on the head or back, laughed at, or asked a question in slurred speech that he wouldn’t have understood from even a skyman’s clear tongue. He thought he would get used to the stink of piss and burnt mellowleaf and old beer and sweat and alcohol breath that pervaded the place, but it only seemed to get worse, and when he stumbled out into the dark the first thing he did was take in deep lungfuls of air. Air that reeked of human filth from the passed-out drunks wallowing in their own waste, now arrayed out front in greater numbers than before, moaning like an army of Mud Men—but Tad was used to that.

The walk back to the wagon took another month or so. At first the slightly cooler night air and quiet had been a welcome change, but without the stimulation of the lights and voices and general rowdiness of the tavern he soon began to flag. Simply the act of walking, of dragging one foot to rest in front of the other, began to put him to sleep with its regularity. As did the sound of his own breathing, the steady cacophony of the creakjumps, the fading monotone of tavern noise. He did what he could within the limits of his fatigue to wake himself up, varying the cadence of his steps and inserting an occasional skip-lurch-hop forward, swinging his arms—Tad halted, letting his right arm fall to his side as he stared down at his heavily bandaged left. Something about it, the barman had said something about it. About an arm, anyway. He squinted down at his right arm. It had seemed suspiciously long lately. Maybe that was the problem. His eyes fell closed from the squint, and he blinked awake a heartbeat later, forcing his eyelids up as far as they would go. It would keep. He would ask Mumma tomorrow, he had to get back now.

Tad pressed on, occasionally stopping to rest even though it was dangerous. Too many times to count he found himself suddenly pushing awake, disoriented. Each time he peered up suspiciously at the tiny sliver of moon, and it seemed to be in roughly the same place as he remembered, but he suspected he was sleeping for hours at a time, or even a full day, despite never feeling very rested. Dapper called a sliver moon a Trickster’s Moon—at least, he did when he could talk—and Tad knew there had to be a reason. He didn’t trust it.

It didn’t help that walking had grown so difficult. Tad began to wonder if he hadn’t been wrong about what the bartender said—maybe he had said something about his legs, that they had grown crooked or one was too long or too short or had two knees or no knee at all. It would explain why he always seemed to be on the verge of falling. It didn’t help that his bladder was full to bursting. He had tried to untie his trousers and make mud, but with one hand bandaged up it had been an impossible task. It certainly made matters worse that his waist was so far below right now, and his fingers were so muddy long. Really, his body was in such a strange way at the moment that the barman could have been referring to just about any damned thing. Tad wanted badly to just wet himself to relieve his bladder, but Mumma had taught him well and painfully to make mud only where and how mud should be made. He held it, and walked, and forced his eyes wide, and staggered onward, staggered onward, with his occasional unintentional naps under a leering moon.

It was a relief to reach the trading square, yet another to spot his own wagon, and still another to reach it and awkwardly clamber up, banging his head roughly against the side. Once more he tried to loosen his trousers and make mud—well, make the mud wetter—and once more he failed. He held his fingers up to the faint moonlight, peering at them. Muddy damn, they were useless tonight. Fatigue hit home, and Tad turned and tottered a few steps into the wagon, sitting down hard against a heavy bag of fake sweetroot. The stink of Dapper’s unstoppered bowels came to his nose. He was finally home. Finally, finally, finally home. Sliding down onto his back, sleep came almost immediately despite the discomfort from his full bladder, already empty stomach, and once again pounding head. I’ll probably piss myself was the last conscious thought held by his mind.

 

20

Unconsciousness peeled away like an onion: pulsing, pounding, pain, noise—scraping, sliding—closeness, sweat, squelch, wet on lips, stinging lips, bitter tongue, bitter tongue, bitter tongue, BITTER TONGUE. Tad turned his head, trying to avoid the patter of bitter drops over and into his mouth, but a firm warm hand forced him back. He opened his eyes and was immediately overwhelmed by brightness, stinging and pushing painfully into his forehead. He squinted hard, groaning, trying to throw his head from side to side to avoid the awful liquid raining down onto his lips. The hand held firm. He tried to roll his entire body to the side, tried to sit up.

“Still now, goodlin’,” came Mumma’s voice from above.

Tad opened his mouth to protest, but more of the bitter draught washed over his tongue and down his throat. He coughed, choking, and finally the hand relented, helping push him up to sit. Tad gagged and hacked, throat raw, until the damned stuff gave up on his lungs and headed for his stomach. The light grew no easier to bear. He squinted over at Mumma, closing one eye. She squatted close, peering down at him, a pulpy mass of green and nettles squeezed in a leather-gloved fist.

“Ahhhh!” he whispered, groaned disappointment.

“No creakmouthin’, now, goodlin’,” she gently chided. “Nothin’ for it, now. Bluebell water’s dear ‘s clouds, ‘n’ no more rain ‘as come. Greensharp’s what’ll save us, we use it right. Jus’ a lil’ a day I’ll gi’e ya, ‘n’ ya tell me if’n ya gets the mud-butt.”

“Mmmmmm…” Tad complained.

Mircella glanced down toward Tad’s trousers, eyes hardening in suspicious puzzlement. “Ye’ve already gone ‘n’ pissed ye’self, though with what I’ll ne’er know. Don’ suppose ye’ve got anythin’ to say ‘bout it?”

Tad merely closed his squinting eye completely, letting his head loll forward onto his chest. It was hot, and his head pounded fiercely.

He felt a hand ruffle his sweaty, dirty, matted hair. “Nae, yeah?”

Tad heard her stand and clamber down out of the wagon. Her voice came again: “Ha’e a res’ ‘n’ I’ll be back a’ sun-top.” He fluttered his good hand up in a brief acknowledgement.

The first rough bumps along in the wagon took him by surprise, and he nearly tumbled over and out the back—only an impulse to stretch out flat saved him, substituting a mild and full-bodied thump against the endboard for what would have been a nasty bruise. Or worse, had Mumma not heard his feeble cries over the roar of the wagon. Tad felt sure he couldn’t walk more than two steps, and the wagon would soon leave him behind even at its slime-slink pace. At least then he wouldn’t have to drink any more of the greensharp sap. He could crawl into the shade and nurse his pounding head.

In the wagon, shade was a precious commodity. The sun poured in from every angle, and most of the day there was no relief to be had aside from small spots around the grassweave bags, large enough only for Tad’s head and constantly on the move. Tad would find a spot, make a pillow of an old linen or sweaty knit shirt, and slowly drowse off despite the bumps and rumbles of the boards below…only to be woken shortly after, sun burning into his face and stealing the moisture from his lips. He knew Mumma wanted to pretend they were still carrying sweetroot to market, and that meant keeping the top open, but couldn’t they at least put up some grassweave, or linen, or, or something, and tell any bandits that the sweetroot was getting too dry? Bandits seemed none too clever, after all.

As it was, Tad saw little point in trying to move. He was exhausted, his head felt like a three day-old biscuit full of angry stingbugs, and the endboard protected about half his face from the sun. He lay there, weaving in and out of consciousness, head rattling against the floor, nose bumping the endboard, exposed cheek roasting in the sun, feeling hungry and nauseous and utterly spent, still tasting the bitter greensharp sap at the back of his parched throat. For a while he pulled his shirt up over his head to block the sun, but it soon grew too hot to bear, and the boards were rough against his skin.

Finally he awoke and the wagon no longer moved, and he luxuriated in the stillness until remembering what it portended. Sure enough, in all too short a time Mumma was hovering above him, leather gloves full of ugly greensharp, exhorting her son to sit.

As before he tried to turn away, tried to escape the bitter but needed drink, and as before his mother held him so he could not. “I know, Taddil, I know,” she whispered above, her own cracked lips barely moving. After, as Tad rolled onto his side, retching from the foul taste at the back of his throat, she stayed with him, hunching over to force his mouth closed and prevent him from bringing the liquid back up onto the floor. He felt himself choking, stomach determined to force the stuff up no matter his or Mumma’s opinion, and he struggled, swallowed, struggled, swallowed, vomit forcing its way out in little spurts as he tried to gasp against his mother’s palm, vomit burning as it pushed out through his nose, air not coming—air, not, coming—until suddenly it was over and he was coughing on his knees, sucking down the dry air, throat and nostrils on fire but otherwise feeling better than he had all day.

“Jus’ a few more days ta Nil’ton, Taddy, jus’ a few days.” Patting him on the head, Mircella squeezed a bulbous glob of greensharp, carefully catching the liquid on a square of linen below. She silently draped the wet cloth over Tad’s head and moved to the back of the wagon to check on Dapper. Tad rolled over onto his back, shifting the linen to cover his face. It felt heavenly, but he couldn’t bear the smell more than a few moments. On the verge of retching, he quickly moved the cloth away from his nose, folding it in half and placing it over his eyes and forehead. He was soon asleep.

Before long, he was woken by urgent prods and shakes. The linen was already dry, and Tad pulled it off and struggled to sit up. Mumma was whispering something, and he forced himself to focus on her words.

“Dapper’s in a bad way, Taddy, an’ I need ya ta gi’e ‘im some ‘elp. Gots ta put more greenshar’ in ‘im than’s comin’ out tha other end. Me gloves’re here a’hand, ‘n’ there’s a pile o’ greenshar’ next ‘im. Jus’ squeeze on steady inner’is mout’, one af’er ‘nother, till none’s lef’. I’ll stop ev’ry ‘our ‘r so an’ piles up some more, ‘n’ elsewise ‘ll drive fas’ as fas’ can be ta Nilston. Took?”

Tad, dizzy, did what he thought were several nods of his head.

“Say it now, Taddy. Took?”

He opened his mouth and creaked out from his dry and burning throat: “Took.”

She ruffled his hair quick, stood and jumped from the wagon. Tad, head still spinning and nauseous from the greensharp, took the large leather gloves beside him and crawled toward the back, toward the stink of his father. The wagon creaked and began to rumble and shake beneath him.

Getting to Dapper was a journey in itself. Tad had to stop several times, pressing his hot face against the cool wood of the wagon floor, waiting for his senses to grow accustomed to the strengthening smell of unwashed body and uncontrolled waste. The greensharp sap had triggered the mechanisms of his own body to try to push it out, and his senses remained heightened toward that end—normally he could move back and forth about the wagon merely by adjusting the degree of wrinkling of his nose. There were indications that his other end might soon become a problem as well, a rumbling stomach and intermittent wind.

He did eventually come to the end, to the huddled, filthy mass against the wall sometimes known as Dapper. Awkwardly snaking his small right hand—and half his thin forearm—into the large right glove, Tad began dutifully taking up the bulbous, prickly, sticky bits of greensharp and squeezing the sap as best he could into Dapper’s mouth, gagging at the smell. Dapper did his part by throwing up only occasionally, in small amounts, and turning away toward the wall to do so, emitting a strangled groan as he swallowed the foul liquid. It was clear that his body was none too happy with the damned stuff, gurgling and growling like Tad had never heard before, with sporadic eruptions of gas and wet shit that brought the boy to the edge of vomiting—and over, on several occasions, but he caught it in his mouth and swallowed it back down, gasping at the acid.

After what seemed an eternity of squeezing and retching and sweltering as the sun crowned overhead, the wagon came to an abrupt halt that tipped Tad over onto his father’s sweat-soaked belly. He pushed away as quick and as hard as his weak body would allow, tumbling backward and coming to rest a few paces from Dapper, from Dapper’s stink, from Dapper’s haggard, twisted face, from Dapper’s wordless groans and unhappiness. Panting with his tongue out, eyes closed against the parching sun, he slipped his hand free from the glove and ran his rough tongue over the wet salt sweat and the taste of hide. Trying not to think of what his mother’s footsteps meant, he scraped more sweat from his face to his mouth as she drew near, finally ridding himself of all but a lingering touch of the bitter greensharp. For a moment, the rest and the heat felt good.

It was a short moment. An hour of burning sun and dust behind the oxen seemed to have driven away the measure of patience and good humor Mumma had shown before. This time she entered without a word, appropriated her glove from Tad and proceeded to hold him down and force a goodly amount of greensharp sap down his throat, merely holding his mouth shut with an air of impatience when it tried to come back up. She stood, wiped her brow with her forearm, and hopped down from the wagon still wearing the gloves.

Tad tried to relax in her absence, but the greensharp left him newly traumatized. His stomach did somersaults and he found Dapper’s smell made him newly, fiercely sick. He crawled over to the other side of the wagon, all the way to the endboard, and curled up in a ball, clutching his painful belly and letting out long belches that brought up vomit. Naturally enough, he hated Mumma in those moments. Despite having been through it before—he did not remember it well, as it had been at least three years prior, but he had—and knowing exactly why it was necessary, it remained a fact that Mumma was directly responsible for his current awful state. A primal part of him, a part most childish and most adult, formed a knot of solid determination to make her suffer in turn.

When she returned, treading heavily between the grassweave bags with a new mountain of the terrible pulpy plant cradled in the fabric of her dress, Tad eyed her spitefully. Before she could even set down her load, he breathed deep and creaked out: “I want to make sure you drink your part.”

She carried on as if she had not heard, trundling on past him and spilling out the greensharp at the edge of Dapper’s radius of filth. Tad took a deep lungful of air again, to repeat himself, but a mixture of greensharp bitter, heavy sweat, sharp vomit came with it this time, and he turned away with a fit of retching coughs, curling up and hugging his stomach as he fought the sick down and pushed out great belching, gasping gags.

Mircella stepped over him as he shuddered out the last of it, setting the leather gloves down in front of his face with a meaningful pat and briefly catching his eye. As she stamped away, he tried again, pushing out in a strangled gasp: “I’ll give you yours.”

She stopped abruptly and turned back, waiting with a carefully measured patience. Tad coughed, grimacing at the raw pain at the back of his throat, and hoarsely whispered, “I’ll give you yours.”

Mircella merely let out a small sigh, not moving an inch. Tad swallowed without spit and stared up at her. She’d heard him. He knew.

“Ga’e me wha’, Taddy?”

His eyes flicked to the gloves, lying inches from his face.

She sighed again, small, and seemed to sag a bit. For maybe the first time ever, she seemed tired. Tad suddenly noticed long runs of sweat in her linen dress, dark patches among the dust and the greenstreak and the dried greensharp sap. The sun poured in from above, and sweat dripped from her nose.

A long, slow inhale. “Aye, Taddil,” Mumma said, with a fierce look. She immediately crouched down and stretched out on the floor of the wagon, the top of her head resting near Tad’s own. Silent, she briefly held two fingers aloft, and waited.

Tad gathered his strength and pushed himself to sit, snaking his good right hand tiredly into the large leather glove. His leg spasmed as he stood, leaning against a bag of fake sweetroot, but walking was easier than crawling with his bad arm. Holding his breath, he tottered over to the pile of greensharp, tossing two of the stinking lumps over near Mumma’s head and then quickly stepping back. He tripped over his own legs at the last, falling into one of the bags and sliding down, and explosively pushed the stale air from his lungs, panting and heaving and rasping as he regained his breath a safe distance from Dapper’s vomit and Dapper’s shit. Mumma remained unnervingly silent.

Tad slid over next to her head and sat, taking up one of the lumps of greensharp. Mumma opened her mouth, eyeing it and then him with a clear-eyed, aggressive defiance. As he squeezed the bitter liquid into her mouth, her expression never wavered, her eyes never strayed. She never tried to close her mouth or turn aside, never had to stop to hold back vomit. With the second lump, her lips worked slightly, involuntarily, and her tongue darted on occasion up and down; her eyes watered; but she never let fall a tear, and almost never blinked.

As he squeezed the final drops from the greensharp, Mumma finally looked away. She quickly gained her feet, licked her lips and swallowed. “Thank you, Taddil,” she said, as proper as she could, and quickly stalked away, clambered down, disappeared.

Tad sat staring out at the empty mouth of the wagon, aching hand clutched around the spent, prickly green glob. He felt profoundly dissatisfied.

 

21

By sundown, his forearm screamed whenever he moved a finger. Dapper’s response to the greensharp had grown so severe that Tad now wondered if he was helping him or killing him. As he squeezed the last of the last lump’s bitter sap into his father’s mouth, Dapper tried to swallow but gagged, spit it up, let out a horrific, corrugated belch, then splashed vomit against the wall, hugged himself, and went back to his familiar, perpetual groan.

Tad leaned back on numb legs, knees covered in the filth that seemed to flow from every part of Dapper. He was exhausted, nauseous, mouth like dirty knit, stomach making high-pitched whines instead of rumbling. The only reason he wasn’t vomiting himself was because he’d finally thought to pluck off bits of the real sweetroot at the tops of the bags and stuff them up his nose, until he couldn’t smell anything but sickly sweet with an edge of rot. Dropping the greensharp skin onto the discard pile beside him, he slid awkwardly back to lie on the floor, head bumping gently as he stared up at the darkening sky.

Still moving, he thought. Good. When they stopped, there would be more greensharp. If he concentrated, he could smell the pool of shit not a body’s length away. He retched, swallowed, gasped, focused on the sickly rotting sweet and let the rest all fall away. Just the deepening sky, the lurching wagon, the heavy sweet. Staring up. Bump, bump, sweet, sky, bump, bump sweet sky, bump, bump.

 

22

The wagon was flying. That was…alright, that was alright, but—it lurched, suddenly it lurched, and he was falling ou— “Shhhhh, Taddil, shhhh now,” came Mumma’s voice, and Tad cracked an eye. Confused blackness, dangling in the air. His head was heavy, sooooooooo heavy, and eyes, eyelids. It was painful to be awake, it was the worst thing ever. Something dry scraped his leg. Dry rustling, and then he felt more dry, ticklish scraping, along his legs, arms, back. Rustling and cracking. The suspension he had felt was replaced by a scratching, uncomfortable buoyancy. Pressure along his back dissolved into two warm snakes sliding over his skin, and then they were gone. He struggled to open his eyes, but it was impossible. They had been glued shut. More dry rustling, nearby, moving away, and he moved away from it, down into the floating, the buoyancy, the

 

23

Hot. Hot and birds. Damn ravens cawing. Bright. Muddy ravens wouldn’t sew their beaks. He cracked an eye, longer and longer, wider and wider, until he could stand the light long enough for it to form shapes. Long stalks of dry grass, withered weeds. Wind eddied gently through, pleasantly cool against Tad’s sweaty, sunburned face, but only barely rustled the stiff grass.

He pushed himself up. Seated, he could just see over the top of the grass. The dry, cracked dirt road was just a few paces away. A copse of trees ran along the opposite edge of the road, leaves brown and leathery in the heat of the dry season. A sudden movement caught his eye, and Tad turned to his right. Not a jump away was a large web between two thick, dried weeds, and in it a large, wicked-looking spider was at work—black, furry, with orange-and-white bands on the legs and a big red dot at the center of the body. Horrified at how close he had slept to it, imagining its grotesquely hairy legs scrabbling over his face, Tad struggled to his feet and staggered away, pushing through the grass to the road.

It was only after regaining his breath and recovering from the shock of having slept so near the terrifying beast, without harm—or had he? Tad ran his good hand over and around his neck, felt the itchy scalp under his matted, oily hair. Nothing itched, hurt, or was lumpier than usual. And he wasn’t dead, so—he took a deep breath, another, then peered down the road. Down the road, to—. Tad blinked, eyes already wet. To nothing. The wagon wasn’t there.

A suffocating sense of aloneness shuddered through him. Of course he had been away from home before, away from Mumma and Dapper, but he had always known how to get back. Even in that awful room with the never-setting sun, bound and weak and hopelessly lonely, he’d at least had some sense that he was supposed to be there. But now, now, left by the side of the road.

Tears welled in his eyes, mouth hanging open. He trudged down the road in the direction he thought they had been going, already too hot as the sun approached the top of its arc. He tasted warm wet salt, either from tears or sweat, but it only served to accentuate his thirst. Distasteful as it was, he would probably need to force down some greensharp before long. He knew that much about surviving. His stomach seemed to have given up on complaining, which was just as well. He had nothing to put in it. Except—the spider? He tried to imagine crunching down on the legs, taking a big juicy bite out of the body, and nearly gagged. He would try the plants first.

He struck off the road a bit, wandering parallel to it in the skeletal shade provided by the ragged leaves and drying boughs of the copse. It felt pointless, in a way, to move at all. He could never catch up with them, if they had left him on purpose. If they had left him on purpose, there was no point to anything at all. He should lie down and die. And if it hadn’t been on purpose—if, if…if Mumma had forgotten he wasn’t in the wagon, she would come back as soon as she realized it, so there was no point risking effort in the hot sun. On the other side of the road, the field he had woken up in came to an end; the forest reasserted itself, and the road curved away into it.

Tad aimlessly followed the wide curve, weaving and staggering with fatigue, running his unbandaged hand over the rough bark of the trunks as he passed. The shade began to grow less patchwork, gaps filling as the trees slowly grew denser. Maybe Mumma had decided to race ahead to Nilston, get some water, and race back, to save them from the damned greensharp. But why wouldn’t she tell him? And—hmm, why would she leave only him behind? Dapper was heavier, and the wagon and its cargo heavier still.

The road now stretched out straight before him, seeming to go on forever. He couldn’t see the end. Stopping to rub the sweat and tears from his stinging eyes, Tad looked again, out toward the horizon. It seemed impossible, getting there. And for what? Tears blurred his sight once more. He wiped them away, and looked again along the road, peering into the distance for any hint of a wagon shape, staring so hard at the faraway stillness that it took some time for the motion near at hand to register.

But it came again, a movement at his periphery, and he blinked and refocused and looked right. And there, in the near distance, beside the road, Mumma set down a spent blob of greensharp and plucked up another full, pausing just long enough to meet his eye and tartly spit, “Ah, Prince Lazybones ‘s woke.”

 

24

He could only stare and sniffle for a long moment, mind numbed by relief and reeling from the sudden turnabout in circumstance. And would have done so a good deal longer, had Mumma not slipped off her leather gloves and held them out, insistently beckoning for Tad to take them. He trudged over as she stood with a sigh, pushing her free hand against the small of her back, and she slipped the right glove over his good hand. Needing no instructions, he began to squeeze the noxious greensharp sap into Dapper’s mouth. Mumma dropped the left glove into the weeds beside her and began stretching, letting out little sighs and grunts. She farted, and Tad found himself laughing.

“Ya don’ find ‘ee so funny whens yer Dapper do it,” Mumma remarked with a frosty edge, and let out another, louder string of flatulence.

Tad laughed harder still, taking a break from squeezing the greensharp as he doubled over, gasping for air. Dapper added his own belch and oddly high-pitched fart, and Tad, for a change, found that funny as well, tempered only slightly by the groaning and diarrhea that followed. He laughed a good long while, finding new humor in every bit of squeaking and trumpeting that erupted from his father, not even noticing that Mumma had gone until she crashed through the dry undergrowth and half-buried Tad in a new batch of greensharp. He scooted away, laughter and then smile fading as he rubbed his legs where the damned stuff had pricked him.

“Sorry, Taddy,” said Mumma in a flat voice. She sighed. “Not much ta be funnin’ about wi’ tha wagon up’n gone, ‘n’ I s’pose—“

She cut off as Tad looked wildly to and fro, then scrambled to his feet—nearly tumbling into the pile of greensharp with his precarious one-armed balance—and looked wildly hither and yon. In his relief at finding Mumma and Dapper, he had noticed little else. Including, he now saw, that the wagon and everything in it were nowhere to be found.

“But Mumma, what—?” His mouth hung open. He blinked, looking around in disbelief, then turned back to her.

Placid but grim, she gave a throat-clearing grunt and spoke: “Fin’ly some damn roadmen gots up the mud ta take what’s ours. Saw one o’ ‘em comin’ up the fiel’ ya were sleepin’ in ‘s I muck’d ou’ tha wagon. Dapper were still in, ‘s I can’t lift’im. Didn’ wants ‘em ta fin’ja there sleepin’, so’s I hopped up ‘n’ rattled off fast ‘s ‘n ox’ll go—not so fas’, ya know. Made it here ‘fore they was up here ‘side me, ready ta run me through wi’ them damn rusty sticks ‘les I stop ‘n’ out. E’en yer Poppa’s stink h’ain’t slow ‘em much, theys jus’ drug ‘im out quick and dump ‘im on tha road, here. Gaggin’ the while, but paid no min’. Jus’ pinch’d their nose ‘n’ got on right down tha road, wi’ no’ so much’s a word.” She rubbed her throat, swallowing hard. “Thin’s mus’ be muddy tight in Nilston, ors mebbe Bluebell—cloud-high water there. H’ain’t ne’er heard o’ so cold a takin’s that.” She touched her forehead and mumbled, “Nary a word’s fer sure.”

Tad squatted down, blowing out his cheeks, then stood, licking cracked lips with rough tongue. “But—” he crackled hoarsely, and puffed out a small cough. “What can we do?” he asked in a near-whisper.

Fitting the unused glove over her left hand, Mircella took up a lump of greensharp and squeezed a bit of the sap into her mouth, grimacing and promptly arcing the liquid out into the bushes, opening and closing her mouth in distaste. “As fer me, I’ll be walkin’ on ta Nilston. Ye’ll be here keepin’ yer Dapper from kickin’ off. Dapper’ll be hopin’ ta tha sky h’ain’t too far ta get there—as all us’ll be, I suppose.” She took another squeeze of greensharp, swallowing the liquid with a stone face and then sucking on a finger from her ungloved hand.

“Mumma,” said Tad in a faintly protesting tone. “Don’t leave us here. Someone will come along and help us. The next wagon along will take us to Nilston.”

Mircella was silent for a long moment. Finally she removed the finger from her mouth and said, “Aye, someone’ll come. An’ they’ll mebbe help you ‘n’ me. But they’ll not let yer Dapper near ‘em.”

“But that’s not fair!” protested Tad. “Dapper isn’t catching!”

“I know that, ‘n’ you know that, but tha worl’ h’ain’t know that.”

“We’ll tell them!”

“An’ they’ll not b’lieve us.”

“But why not!?” Tad was indignant, eyes moist.

“I wouldn’t, neither. We’re desp’rate muddy road-buggers, now, beggin’ fer scraps.”

“Are not!”

“Nae, but we’ll look it.”

“But then,” said Tad, standing and pointing at her accusingly, “people are horrible.”

Mircella shrugged and stood. Quietly she said, “They h’ain’t, when’s they can afford it. But them times’re few.” She ruffled Tad’s greasy, sweaty mop of hair. “Keeps yer Poppa well ‘n’ wet. Don’ be lazy, or he’s like ta die on ya. An’ don’ forgets ta take some damn sap ye’self, me littl’ goodlin’, bitter’s it be. There’s a bit o’ the flatbread ins tha linen nex’ the red fiver-point.”

“But—” protested Tad, standing with mouth open and wet eyes, left arm bundled tight in dirty bandages and right cocooned in the overlarge leather glove.

Mircella looked him in the eyes. “Ye’re a big boy now, so be one. See to yerself ‘n’ yer Dapper, ‘n’ I’ll be back soon’s I can. Somebody comes, ya hide ‘n’ don’ comes out. I do mean that, Taddil. Don’ ya muddy comes out. No one’s a’tall—not a trav’ller, not a bandit, not a mudman hisself—has no int’rest in a lonely dyin’ man with nothin’, ‘specially as ‘e might be catchin’. But some bad damned man might jus’ takes an int’rest in a fine boy as you. So’s ya promise me, goodlin’, that ye’ll hide ‘n’ not come out.”

Face set stubborn, Tad said nothing.

Mircella sighed. “I needs big boy Taddil, not lil’ baby Taddy.”

Tad sniffled and swallowed and cast his moist eyes down. “Fine, I promise,” he mumbled.

Mircella ruffled his hair once more. “I’ll hol’ja to it.”

Without another word, she picked up a small linen sack and moved off through the woods parallel to the road, still wearing the leather glove on her left hand. Tad stood watching until she was no longer visible through the trees, sniffling and trying not to cry. It was a battle he lost when her distant figure disappeared. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Behind him Dapper groaned, stomach gurgling obscenely.

 

25

There were two improvements over the prior state of things. The first was that Tad could take his doses of greensharp when and in the amounts that he wanted. Simply not having to drink the damned stuff whenever Mumma decided was wonderful, and he quickly learned to break it into smaller doses that didn’t destroy his stomach and kept his mouth and lips from getting so dry. The second was the marginally cooler temperatures afforded by the patchwork shade of the dried-out forest. Everything else was awful.

The flatbread was gone the first day. Tad divided it in half, setting aside Dapper’s part and breaking off a bit of his own, downing a few mouthfuls of greensharp sap and then sucking on the stale, tough bread to try to kill the taste. It didn’t actually work very well, but that sliver of flatbread had the unfortunate side effect of reawakening his stomach. After that, he couldn’t stop eating. Every hour or so he’d break off another chunk and gobble it down, temporarily sating his angry stomach, and every time he promised himself that it was the last for the day—he had to save it, or he’d have nothing left to eat! Well, by sundown, he had nothing left to eat.

He would have started in on Dapper’s half then, but Dapper’s half was gone as well. Having foreseen exactly this temptation, and not wanting to steal food from under his helpless father’s nose, Tad had tried to feed Dapper his half at the same pace. Unsurprisingly, Dapper had vomited most of it right back up. Tad experimented with a number of methods to try to get him to keep it down—dropping small chunks into his mouth with the greensharp sap, smashing it into a dry powder and pouring it into his mouth, giving him larger chunks to suck on and try to swallow—but none of them worked. Dapper’s system was so inflamed by the stream of greensharp sap washing down through it that nothing stayed down for long. More than half of the greensharp came back up immediately as well, and Tad guessed the rest of it came out the other end. But the trick was, as Mumma had said and Tad knew, to keep enough inside him at any one time to keep him alive, until they had proper water again.

So Tad did his best to do his part, relentlessly squeezing lumps of greensharp over Dapper’s mouth until his hand no longer had the power to push out the sap. His forearm was weak and sore from the day before, and he was weak with hunger and fatigue, but he did what he could. Whenever his arm or his hand or his wrist grew too completely exhausted to function, Tad would pat Dapper on the head and trudge off among the trees to find more of the fleshy lumps, plucking them from under the carpet of dried leaves.

When Dapper’s pools of diarrhea and vomit merged, Tad tried to one-handedly drag him through the dry undergrowth to a new location. Naturally enough, even given Dapper’s atrophied, desiccated state, Tad could do no more than pull his father’s filthy knit top up around his neck before abandoning the effort, sitting back in the dry weeds and panting in the heat. He nearly nodded off from sheer exhaustion, and had to take a mouthful of greensharp to wake himself.

Dapper was poor company. He hadn’t regained his ability to speak, though his peculiar vocabulary of bodily fluids and groans was sufficient to communicate the essentials—I’m hot, I feel sick, My body doesn’t like greensharp sap. Even if he hadn’t lost his words, Tad doubted he’d feel up to more than panting and groaning and shitting and throwing up. He could see the pain in his father’s eyes, and had to look away to make himself squeeze the greensharp. Occasionally he would mutter, “It’s for your own good, Dapper,” more for his own sake than his father’s. He kept an assortment of dry sticks nearby, in case Dapper had a fit—he hadn’t since the one back at the house, but they came at irregular intervals and happened without warning. After what had happened last time, Tad was determined to be prepared.

During feeding breaks—Tad sometimes thought of Dapper as a poor wounded animal he was trying to save, and chose his internal words accordingly—Tad took care of the other necessities. One was to make sure he had an adequate place to hide if someone came along the road; mostly he just wanted to keep his promise to Mumma, but deep down something quivered at the thought of being discovered by a stranger on the road. It was possible she was right, so he may as well follow her instructions—anyway, she always seemed to know whether he obeyed or not, and he had no desire to be switched or scolded or slapped on the bottom. Finding the mostly dried-out underbrush to be inadequate, he gathered together a pile of dry leaves that he could bury himself under as soon as he heard voices, or hooves, or wheels. During the dry season the air was remarkably still, so the pile required little maintenance.

Another necessity was trying to find something to put in his stomach. It was normal for rationing to be severe when they were on the road, but there was always at least a bit of flatbread or an oversalted twist of oxmeat to quiet his stomach when it got too obnoxious. With nothing at all and his stomach growling, Tad wondered why Mumma had taken all the rest of the food with her. She might be walking, true, but there were two people on this end, and both had bellies just as sure. Dapper in particular had to be getting toward the end of his tether to this world, as long as he hadn’t been able to keep anything down. Normally when Mumma was a bit too tightfisted with the food, Tad would just range out into the woods and find something on his own. That had always worked out well, as far as he could remember, but out here there was nothing to find. Everything was dry and dead except the damned greensharp and a few other unpleasant-looking growths. In normal years they never ventured beyond the Nest, despite the relatively poor prices for their crop, and now Tad understood why. Too damned hot out this way, hot and dry and dead. He thought back to the spider, to the thought of biting into its fat, bulbously liquid body, and tried to imagine the textures and the tastes. Nothing that came to mind was good, but it seemed the sense of wetness in his mouth would be pleasant—if he could divorce it from the taste. In any case, he no longer retched at the thought. His stomach was too busy being rumbly.

Before long, he was hungry enough to do more than imagine. After making sure that Dapper had had his share of greensharp for the next few hours (or, as Tad measured it, “a while”), he wandered slowly down the road to the dried-out field he’d woken in before. Nothing moved, though he could hear creakjumps creaking away somewhere. Sweat ran from his forehead in rivulets of surprising volume, cascading over his eyebrows and dripping from his nose. He caught as much as he could on his tongue, but it occurred to him that he should have brought some greensharp. He felt weak under the sun.

Trudging over to where he thought he had been, he peered around for the spider. No luck. It had probably moved on, gone somewhere in the shade. A creakjump burped lazily among the long scorched grass. Tad wondered, then, what a creakjump might taste like. Would it be like popping the head of a bladderhead doll? Dapper had told him once that they were always taking in air and farting it out to make their noise, so they had to be a bit like a puffed-up bladder. But then, he’d caught plenty of ‘em and they hadn’t seemed light or puffy or anything. They didn’t make any noise while he held them prisoner, either, though. Hm. Still, even if it wasn’t like eating the oilpot poppers that Mumma sometimes made as a special treat, they looked to be a fair sight better than a goopy, nasty spider. Tad reconsidered his dining choices. He would have, anyway, had his brain not turned to stone. It occurred to him again that he should have brought some greensharp. The torrent of sweat was growing faster. His legs were getting longer, and his head was beginning to puff up and float away. It was a nice feeling, actually, but Tad knew it meant he had to go back.

His feet were light as he tottered back down the road, rough tongue windmilling around his mouth to catch the sweat streaming down. In fact, his entire body was light. Aside from the strange up-and-down and his unfelt feet pushing ground, unthinking, somewhere miles below, Tad would have said that he was floating. Blood thrummed, muting the world. The sun ceased to burn. Head was encased in water, somehow. A dull ache at the center of his forehead. Breaths rippled all the way through him, wind to his ears. The distance to the trees was beyond measure. His bound-up arm felt free. A molar came to life with pain.

Somehow, the trees were suddenly around him, and then he found himself stumbling over Dapper, down into his pile of gathered leaves. Off his feet, he was much heavier. Except his head. The world twisted around him, even as his head bobbed further from the ground. It occurred to Tad that his neck must look strange. He wondered if Mumma would notice when she came back, and then he bent his strange neck to the side and vomited. Knowing he should down some greensharp, he tried to sit up, stand up. His body did not cooperate. He tried again, again, again, and then gave up and sank down into his leaves exhausted, staring past his toes at some unknown part of Dapper. Slowly his head itself began to grow longer and longer, stretching up and growing thin. Tad stared up at the sparse trees with their quiet brown leaves, licked his teeth and gasped through his nose, and then he was out.

 

26

Black was rumbly. Head was rumbly. Ground was rumbly. Mmmph. Tad smelled vomit and struggled to open his eyes. Still tired, so tired. Pushed sandpaper tongue around a sour mouth. Loud, bouncy rumbling. His teeth, they weren’t his. Someone had replaced his teeth. And his arms had been cast in iron as he slept. Some dastardly bastard had done him up funny while he slept. He would…deal with it when he woke. Despite the loud and creaky rumbling, Tad closed his eyes and quickly—rumbling stopped. He waited on the edge of sleep, listening.

Wooden creaks and leather jostling, a wood thump and then an earthen thump. Footsteps. A rumbling bass: “What did you see?”

More footsteps, a slowly nearing crunch and rustle of leaves. Stop. Thin, reedy voice: “A rotter here, somewhere.”

“You know better.”

“Kid nex’tit, maybe still alive.”

“You know better.” Insistent.

Slow footsteps, rustling closer. Heavy wooden thump and a shout, whirl of rustling. Titter of a laugh. The reedy voice: “Serves you. Forfend you lift a finger to save a muddy kid.”

“You muddy know better!” Anger.

Rustling again, drawing nearer and nearer. Tad floated, struggling to stay awake. He didn’t know who these men were or what they were doing, but the plan was to wait for Mumma and he was determined to stay with the plan. What would he do if these men took him somewhere and then Mumma couldn’t find him? He shuddered internally at the thought, recalling the feeling of despair that had overwhelmed him when he’d found himself alone on the road. The rustling grew dangerously close. Somehow, Tad felt that playing dead was the right thing to do.

“You know better!” Fear.

“Is that all you can say?”

“You know that it is!”

The footsteps, the rustling, came to within a greenjump’s hop of where Tad lay among the leaves, and stopped. Tad did his best not to move, but couldn’t be sure if his body was responding. It was iron, it was far away, and it was not of him. Taking shallow, desperately quiet breaths and inhabiting his ears, Tad waited.

For a long moment, there was no sound save Tad’s own breath, thundering in his ears. He wondered if it had always been so loud. He was sure it would give him away, but he felt no panic at the thought. In the dark of his closed eyes, world a red-tint shade of black, his body began to stretch again. A moment of deep panic, and Tad nearly opened his eyes, nearly kicked out his legs to steady himself, but first he sent out a searching impulse and the muscles in the backs of his legs and in his toes tightened ever so slightly. They were where he had left them.

“You know better!” Frustration.

A slight rustle. The reedy voice, sudden and nearly on top of him: “Wake up!”

Tad held steady, slightly tense, making his breaths as shallow as he could. A loud double-clap sounded just next to his ear, so sudden Tad was sure he had twitched, followed by an obnoxiously near and loud, “Hair of a bear! Pick of a wick! Bog of a dog!”

A bead of sweat ran down into Tad’s ear. He waited.

A rustle of leaves, a low chuckle.

Sweat ran down and around the outside of Tad’s ear, out from under his hair to tickle the back of his neck. He ached to move.

An amused sigh from somewhere above. “Where do I get them?” A loud swipe of leaves. “I’m a mad and wordy wordsmith, I am.” Another chuckle, another swipe of leaves, then an ostentatious crunching and rustling that swiftly moved away in the direction of the road.

“Well, you needn’t have worried. The boy’s already a muddy rotter too,” said loudly. “And no, I didn’t touch him.”

“You know better.” Quiet relief.

“Mm. Come on. Swing up.”

“Are you in?”

“The door’s already closed, can’t you see?”

“Is it tied?” asked in bass.

“Yes, yes. Swing up, damn you, or I’ll go and get a rotter just for fun.”

A bump, a scrape, a thump, a curse, a thin laugh, a rustling of leather, and the bouncy rattling rumble resumed.

Tad cracked an eye, which quickly grew wide in wonder. He had heard tales of the variously named Swift-ox, Tall-ox, and Garelly-Gon-Gon, but never put any faith in them. Everyone more than a few years older always seemed to think his head was full of mush, so Tad was sure to listen to their nonsense ‘with only his left ear,’ as Mumma liked to say. But there they were in only the near-distance, coats brown as bark and shiny as new water, throwing about their weird long necks as they high-stepped swiftly down the path. Behind them was the tiniest wagon he had ever seen—Tad had to bite his lip to keep from laughing out loud. The wheels were huuuuuge, and just to carry that light little thing! There could hardly be more than a crate or two inside, or maybe three tall grassweave sacks, if you pushed them together. But then he couldn’t imagine how the man had squeezed inside.

His breath caught in his throat. Carefully, he shut his eyes again and froze. The rumble and rattle slowly receded. Taking small, silent breaths, he listened hard to the dead woods and tried to think. Had the man actually gotten in? The other had clearly been driving the—the—well, he had been driving. And the man had said something about closing the door. But was it true? He hadn’t actually seen him get in, after all. And with a man inside that tiny wagon, there was no real space for goods at all. It rang false. What were they carrying, then? Themselves? He couldn’t help smiling despite the danger, and bit his lip again to keep from bursting out laughing. There were only two possibilities: either the man knew he wasn’t dead and was trying to draw him out with a ruse, or the man had actually also been on the driver’s bench, slumped down so Tad couldn’t see him. But then what he had said about the door didn’t make any sense.

Tad listened with all his might, doing his best not to move a muscle. At first, the world was utterly silent. Not even the slightest breeze shuffled through, and whatever animals and insects survived among the heat-wrecked plants seemed to be hiding or sleeping. There was only the oppressive heat, the edges of the dry leaves below poking through holes in his knit shirt. Then he became aware of a strange, shrill background hum, and other sounds began to intrude—a weak breeze rustled the leaves around him, somewhere above branches shifted and dry leaves shook (a tree-tail, Tad guessed). The sudden greedy caw of a damned rook made him start, a tiny tremor in his pile of leaves that sounded loud as an ox-burp to his sensitized ears. He shut his eyes tight and held his breath, heart pounding. Surely the man had heard that, surely he was going to come and take Tad away somewhere now. He waited with teeth clenched, sweat running cold from his armpit and down his chest. The scratching of the leaves was unbearable.

Suddenly there was a new sound, loud and near at hand: a terrible, otherworldly groan. It took Tad a moment to reorient his thinking, to realize what it was. Dapper. Of course. Tears welled up through his tightly shuttered eyelids, a lump formed in his throat. The man had said Dapper was dead, and he hadn’t given it a second thought. It hadn’t even seemed a strange idea, but the implication—that Dapper had died because Tad had fallen away from his duty, had slept instead of squeezing greensharp—now filled him with interminable sadness. He knew that his tears gave away that he was alive, but he couldn’t stop. He wanted to drink them, but they flowed down into the leaves. The strange man was only an afterthought now, but he still felt frozen, unable to force himself to move his arm to catch the wetness from his eyes. His mouth ached for moisture.

It occurred to him finally, after long minutes, that he should be squeezing greensharp for his father. With Dapper’s groans and his own tears, it would be clear to anyone that neither was, in fact, a rotter. That the man had not appeared must mean that he had indeed left in his strange little wagon. Rising with a sniffle, Tad sought out the leather glove. The world was not steady around him.

 

27

Tad did not count the days. Sometimes, lying in his pile of leaves, he idly tried to figure the number just to focus his mind on something other than heat, thirst, hunger, and the persistent pool of retch-worthy human liquids that surrounded Dapper. He never reached a solid answer.

There was no schedule to keep, so he kept no schedule. Between bouts of gathering greensharp, squeezing it down Dapper’s gullet until his wrist was too exhausted to move, and then squeezing one or two bulbs down his own throat, Tad merely slept, without regard to whether the sun was up or down. He had no energy—and anyway, it passed the time.

His stomach had stopped rumbling, but Tad still felt a ravenous desire for food. A few times—only at dusk, having learned from his first outing—he tottered down the road to the field, which somehow managed to remain somewhat green, and gorged himself on whatever plants looked edible. Mostly it was tiny, innocuous flowers and baby shoots protected from the full brunt of the sun by their larger brethren. He tried to be careful and only eat what the insects and the birds ate, but he couldn’t always be sure about a particular plant. Hunger tended to win out over sense in those cases, and sometimes he paid the price with vomit or mud-butt, but he could never be sure that it wasn’t simply the result of ingesting so much greensharp sap.

His mouth moistened to what small extent it could whenever he spied a crow. The smell of roast birdmeat seemed to linger in his nostrils on those occasions, and he could almost taste it—without salt, but a properly cooked crow didn’t really need salt. Even a two-finger would have tasted wonderful, though they were hardly more than bones. The ants, the occasional caterpillar or stick-bug or scratch-buzz, tiny as they were, flitted through Tad’s mind as potential stomach-fillers. That they never crossed that particular threshold was only due to being entirely too small to do any good—once they were properly squashed, there was really nothing whatsoever left to eat. At least, that’s what Tad told himself. Except in regard to the caterpillars, whose runny insides he would readily admit were entirely too disgusting to consider putting in his mouth. He spent long, languid moments daydreaming about the feel of the enormous spider in his mouth.

He slept more and more, and even when his eyes were open he felt asleep. He began to see movement at the corners of his eyes—the dead forest came to life with flitting insects and darting animals and perhaps a tree-dweller as well. Tad could never turn his head fast enough to see what it was. None of it frightened him, though. He was incapable of being frightened. None of it affected him, exactly. It was all to do with some boy named Tad—Tad and his sluggish walks through the trees, Tad and his naps in the leaves, Tad and his noisy, twisted belly. He would stop and touch the branches and rub the dry and crackly leaves—shatter them to pieces—and wonder why Tad was doing such things. The textures were remembered rather than felt, part of an old world down below with movement and pain and food, an old world he now floated above. Once he saw Tad push his thumb against a thorn, weakly at first but slowly harder and harder, until it seemed near to drawing blood. Pain sang at his edges, he drew a sharp breath, and for one clear heartbeat he and Tad were together, thumb and skin and sharp, before the pressure eased and the pain faded. He did not want that. Tad did not want that. But it was there, for the keeping.

The greensharp became heavier each time. Tad had to take more and more trips to get enough to fill Dapper with what he thought to be an adequate amount of liquid, dragging his weary frame further and further out to find it. Sometimes his legs would simply refuse to work, and he would have to wait, frozen in his tracks, for some small margin of recovery. The first few times it happened he tried to sit down, but it was too much of a struggle to sit—and standing back up was pure torture. He knew now to simply wait as a stone waits, and move as a turtle moves.

He was careful to give himself a part of each harvest, lest he become so dried out that he could do no good for either Dapper or himself. Even so, greensharp did not stay. He could feel the distant roughness of his tongue over his cracked lips, the ache of his bloody gums. The roof of his mouth seemed too low. He could wiggle most of his teeth with his tongue. Sometimes he was wracked by fits of dry coughing in the midst of venturing out for greensharp, fits that found him as a tickle in his throat and left him curled up gasping for air at the foot of a tree, face pushing into the dirt as he tried to find the exact angle where that damned tickle would leave him alone. Tad did not know how long recovery took—usually he slept, usually the sun had not moved much from where he remembered it, sometimes day had become night or night day. In any case, he did not care. He struggled up against the tree, and drew a rough and shuddering breath, and took new steps toward new greensharp. There was nothing else to do, and Tad’s weak and aching body did not figure. Thirst had no worth when there was no alternative.

Or rather, when the alternative was worse. It was an alternative Tad was constantly reminded of, as Dapper groaned and farted and shat his way through the long days. That was too much greensharp, and Tad had listened well enough to Mumma to know that it was the slipperiest of slopes—too much greensharp meant mud-butt, mud-butt meant drying out quick, which meant more greensharp and more mud-butt and more greensharp. Only steady clean water and food and time could break the cycle. So if anything, Tad erred on the side of caution and stayed too dry. He paid, but he paid less.

These days Dapper was largely out of sight when Tad laid on his pile of leaves to rest, blocked from sight by his own mound of dried leaves, twigs, and grass. It had happened by degrees, as Tad tried to avoid wallowing in Dapper’s filth when he squeezed the greensharp—he’d been in his share of mud and didn’t mind the feel, but it stank like a half-gone rotter and he couldn’t bear to carry that stench around. The smell was dulled the longer he stayed by Dapper’s side, but it regained its pungency every time he returned from a greensharp run. Each time he would retch with his empty stomach and try to swallow without spit, moaning with his dried and dusty cords, without end for an eternity beyond counting. Without those breaks from it while looking for greensharp, though, without the ability to escape the stench every now and then, Tad felt sure that he would suffocate. It was one of the few things he could not float above. It was a small happiness for him, then, that he did not actually have a choice.

The need to put a barrier between himself and the pool of filth had been a lesson learned the hard way. Tad had first thought nothing of kneeling in Dapper’s waste as he squeezed the liquid down his throat. He had done it any number of times before with no lasting effects—it was a bit slippery, nothing more. The smell was the same whether it got on his knees or not. It was Mumma’s role in forcing him to clean up that he had neglected to remember—the forced change of clothes, the provision of new and cleaning of old. Only after a full day of being unable to run away from the stench, no matter how far afield he ranged, did his brain finally make the connection. His knit leggings were now somewhere out among the dying trees.

This had brought its own problems. The dry leaves itched and tickled worse than his woolen knits ever had. Sometimes it felt like insects were scurrying up his legs, though he rarely actually saw one make the journey. He scratched till it bled, and then scratched more at the itching from the wounds knitting shut. This did no favors for the angry sunburns covering his thighs and calves. After the first few days, his legs looked a nightmare—raw striped gouges half scabbed and half bleeding, peeling skin mixed in with shards of dry leaf that stuck to the blood, the gaps between an inflamed crimson. As long as he was awake, his legs burned and itched and bled.

Gradually the pool of Dapper’s waste grew wider and thicker, and Tad’s countermeasures grew broader and higher. Directly after losing his leggings he had decided no such measures were needed. He could, after all, simply wipe the shit off his legs—skin was easier than knit. But as he had set down the greensharp and begun to kneel, peering down past the red striations in his thighs, something Mumma had pounded down into him came back up: “High ‘n’ low’s as root ‘n’ snow.” Snow, she had explained, was water that got so cold it turned white and thick and fluffy. Places that had snow were so cold that sweetroot could never grow, so sweetroot and snow would never be together—just like high water and low water should never be. He had stared down at the moist gouges on his legs. Blood was high water and shit was low. But did it really matter? Mumma was strange sometimes, and not always right. She refused to drink well water because it was “low water,” but lots of others did and they were fine. And “snow” sounded a lot like a fairy tale. She always treated him like a little baby.

It was another expression of hers that made up his mind: “Ten o’ dung fer one o’ seed.” It would be a lot easier not to get shit on his legs in the first place than to try to scrape it off after. That was plain enough to see. With a tired inward sigh, he had pushed back up on weary legs and gone to gather leaves.

Now the pile was high enough to block all but Dapper’s legs from view, and Tad no longer pretended to himself that it was undesired. The unearthly moans and intestinal distress could still be heard, and that was more than enough. Tad could not bear Dapper’s sad, mute eyes on top of everything else. At first he had tried to keep his father entertained in the ways that Dapper used to do for him—goofing around with different faces and voices, putting on short fictions with sticks and leaves and dead bugs, pretending to be different animals. His only reward was to see Dapper’s face twisted up painfully in a ghoulish jape of a smile, half his rotting teeth showing to the bloody gums and half showing not at all, nose pulled sideways, eyes flashing with desperate mirth. It was a face that invaded Tad’s dreams. If he was unlucky, it was accompanied by what passed for Dapper’s laugh—a hoarse intermittent yelp that usually ended with a groan, like an ox giving birth while a sow was being slaughtered. As Tad grew fatigued and hungry and thirsty and slept more and more, he gave up on trying to do anything more than keeping his father full of enough greensharp sap to keep him alive. Gave up before it was absolutely necessary. He slept much better now.

 

28

It was near sun-top. A crack of sunlight fell on Tad through the weave of branches above. Sweat that he could ill-afford to lose ran down the back of his neck, trickled down his forehead and along his nose, hanging at the end for a precarious moment before falling to wet the small pile of greensharp nestled in his spread knit shirt. Weak arms trembled from the weight. Exhausted legs were locked still, muscles here and there spasming in islands of unruled motion that threatened to bring him crashing down. Pods of greensharp trying to tumble out pushed against his forearms, needles tensioning painfully against the skin. It was arms against legs, with the damned ray of sun the decider. Tad needed to take a step forward, maybe two.

He closed his eyes, hoping to steady the floating world around him, and tried to gauge the state of his legs with a slight flex here and there. He could get no reading. They felt utterly sore and spent, as they had for as long as he could remember. There was nothing to do but try, before he lost more water to the heat. Eyelids lifted. Not waiting for focus, Tad gritted his teeth and tried to coax his left leg to move. Muscles flexed, but there was not enough power to bring the mass to move. He pushed harder, straining against the edges of his fatigue, holding his breath and releasing it in whimpered bursts as his left leg finally swung forward, toes dragging along the floor of dried and broken leaves and nearly catching on the hard soil underneath.

It came to a rest on something uneven, some damned thick twig hidden by the leaves, pressing up into the soft and tender middle of Tad’s left foot. Staggered by the sudden pain, instinct brought his right foot down quick and hard, bowing an unready, unsteady knee. Greensharp spilled over the side. The right foot hit a hard root and rolled, weight pushing down on the ankle.

Green pods squishing and rolling around him, he tumbled heavily onto his side, sucking in and pushing out air so that he thought his lungs would burst as a tidal wave of pain and fatigue flooded up from his legs. Head pounding, his heart fluttering wildly, a fresh wave of sweat broke out on his forehead. He flung out his arm, grasping with his gloved hand for a bulb of the noxious greensharp.

Tad dripped some of the sap on his hot forehead, forced himself to drink the rest. He retched weakly and his stomach convulsed painfully, but it stayed down. A long release of gas made him feel better; he smiled at the thought that he had startled the ants and the crows. His breathing slowed. He belched. He felt sleepy and blinked long, blinked loooooooo—.

 

29

Tad opened his eyes, squinting in the mid-afternoon sun. Not a breath stirred. He still felt tired. Why had he woken? Lifting his head with an enormous effort and a tiny rustle of leaves, he peered into the distance to where Dapper lay. Straining to tilt his head, his eye rose above the leaves. Lightning surged through his chest, stealing his breath and taking the weight from his body. A figure hovered over Dapper, a figure with something in hand that shone in the sun.

Eyes wide, Tad scrambled to his feet, not caring how noisily the leaves crunched underfoot and not stopping to wonder at how light and responsive his body had become. He started off at a stiff sprint toward the distant figure, but— Stopped behind the nearest tree. After the initial rush of discovery, uncertainty washed in. If Dapper was dead, why didn’t the killer leave? If Dapper wasn’t dead, why just stand there? Why wait?

The only answer that came to Tad was that he was the target. The figure, the knife, had come for him. He peered around the trunk, trying to get a better look, but the sun was slowly falling behind the distant figure. Tad could confirm only three things: he hadn’t moved, he was burly and rather short, and what he held was definitely a knife. It occurred to him that Mumma may have sewed something valuable into Dapper’s clothes. Had she taken it out? He had no idea. Once more he peered around the trunk, squinting. Still no movement. Not searching for anything on Dapper—not with his hands, at least. Just…standing, that dark silhouette. With a knife that shone like the sun.

Heart pounding high, muscles twitched and urged action. The roughness of the bark leapt against his fingertips. Sweat broke between scalp and matted hair, rose across shoulders and down his spine. Calves grew so tight he could barely stand not to move, to run, to leap. He pushed up onto the balls of his feet again and again, shoulder worrying the bark, legs tickling so bad they hurt, screaming at him to move move move MOVE!

Tad sweated and ground his teeth and pushed his forehead into the tree, muffled gasping sobs escaping, pushing his cheek and shoulder hard into the bark, grounding himself in the texture of the treeskin as he fought not to give himself away to that damned armed silhouette. He did not know what was happening to him, and did not have the luxury of thoughts clear enough to even wonder.

Every moment was an agony of Staying Silent Behind the Damned Tree. He wanted to jump out of his own skin, bite his feet off, tear up the tree by its roots and use it to club the distant figure to death. His teeth were going to shoot out of his muddy skull. Nose twitched. Sweat rolled. On his thigh, a muscle pulsed off-beat on its own accord. A strident itch, mid-back. Feeling every molecule of air through his lungs, Tad pushed an eye around the tree to glimpse the silhouette. It was shorter now. The sun, the knife were at different angles and he could see better. Sitting? Was that a dress? The blade turned, sun screamed into his eye again, Tad ducked back and pushed up against the tree.

And just like that, it was over. The desperation for movement was gone, replaced just as suddenly by an overwhelming fatigue. He could not even prop himself against the tree but slid down quick and hard, slamming his tailbone and head against the exposed roots. Eyes filled with tears that he had not the strength to shed. Head pounding, back aching, muscles burning, even breathing a strain, Tad fell asleep before he could remember not to.

 

30

A familiar, creaking bump, bump, bump pushed in at the edges. Head ached, almost to the exclusion of—hm? Tad opened his eyes, hardly noticing the shadows passing above as he worked his mouth, running his tongue along his teeth and then using it to softly poke at his ginger gums, his cracked and swollen lips. Everything was rough and raw and painful, but it seemed suddenly moist. His tongue was not sandpaper.

He blinked up at the darkness, the dim stars poking through. The moving shadows were nothing but shadows. He was moving. He was bumping along. Tad tried to rise, but his muscles ignored him. He gasped, and groaned, and struggled to raise his head. Stutteringly his neck began to push up.

A warm, callused hand pressed gently down on his forehead, forcing him to settle back onto his pillow. “There, there, Taddil. Best ya sleep,” said Mumma.

A rut in the road jostled his sore body. “What about Dapper?” he tried to say, but it came out as “Mh haa pa.”

“Shhh,” said Mumma, and absently stroked his head.

Tad was going to insist about Dapper, but someone had sewn his mouth shut, and taken away his weight, and sent him falling.

 

31

The ornery caw of a damned rook brought him to, staring up at that same hot sky through struggling branches. Dry leaves poked at his knit shirt. It was near sun-top and he squinted against the light, turned his head and his neck screamed at him, turned his body and his sides cried out. The rook cawed again and something awful tugged at his nostrils. He groaned, tightening his throat. It must have brought its—no, they didn’t do that. It must have found someth—panic seized and dragged him up, body burning, eyes hurriedly catching everything near. He blinked in confusion. Dapper was gone, Dapper’s pile of leaves was gone, even Dapper’s shit was gone. A merry cookfire danced in his place. Smoke curled gently up and disappeared, past a pan of—he breathed in through his nose to place the smell and immediately gagged, nearly falling to his knees as he tried to fight down vomit and let out a painful half-belch half-gag, then closed his mouth to stop a stream of acidic sick, swallowing it back down. Careful to take in air through his mouth, Tad sucked in deep, desperate breaths to try to calm his roiling stomach, licking his suddenly rough-textured teeth. He recognized the smell. It was salted oxmeat.

Confused, Tad turned and stopped. Twenty yards away, a tiny wagon sat at the edge of the road—not the large, tall-sided, stalwart conveyance of a sweetroot farmer but a light and useless little thing. It stood utterly alone, with no animal, no driver, no cargo. He couldn’t imagine what it might be used to carry anyway, other than just—his breath caught in his throat. Just people. Had the stranger come back? Had it been him in the forest? Had he killed Dapper and stolen Tad away?

An enormously loud, reverberating string of farts answered the first question. Tad jogged stiff-legged up to the wagon, like a marionette with the runs, and hopped up to peer inside the low walls. He already knew, though, from the stench five yards out, that Dapper was indeed inside. And so he was. Tad worked his exhausted legs until all their spring was gone, popping up again and again to make sure Dapper was moving and then to try to catch his eye. Finally, exhausted beyond exhaustion and too tired even to sit, he leaned back against the wagon and pushed out, barely, as he sucked in breaths, “I’m here, Daps.” Dapper made a grunting groan and tapped the wall of the wagon. Tad assumed it was voluntary, and smiled.

He considered, then, that perhaps his strange moment with Mumma had not been a dream after all. It must be true—she had finally returned, and he should feel relieved. But he didn’t. At first he thought he was simply too worn out to be able to feel much of anything, but as he waited and rested and breathed through his mouth he recognized that only relief was in absence. He felt glad of Dapper’s survival. And he felt a vague but growing resentment that Mumma had taken so long to find them.

By the time he finally heard the plodding steps and heavy breath of a pair of oxen drawing near, he was incensed. Here he and Dapper had been barely surviving, with no food and water for what must have been weeks, and she had taken her sweet time—probably sleeping on feather beds and eating sweetflakes and stick-sausages and playing battlefoot and dice-cups when she wasn’t watching the dog-wrestling! He was fully prepared to give her a piece of his mind.

When she rounded the front of the wagon, yoke in hand, his words died in his throat. Her shoulders were hunched. A long gash ran along her jaw from behind the ear. She turned to look at him, and in the depths of her eyes he saw an incorporeal exhaustion far beyond what the body could feel, far beyond what he could make sense of. It was not pain but a detachment from pain, a piece broken off and separate from the body and the world. It answered to nothing but itself and its desire to persist. He saw that her other cheek was raw and red and scabbed, and when his eyes found hers again they had filled in, become opaque with a tired gladness and patient love that sent a shiver through Tad for their falseness. Here finally was Mumma, and yet Mumma was dead. It was too much, too much, too much, having his salvation ruined like this. The one he had wanted, wanted and waited and hoped for, she was here, but she was not here and never would return. Never. Leaning with stiff legs against that absurdly tiny wagon, Tad’s eyes opened up. Before he realized it his cheeks were wet, and Mumma was holding him close. He could not see her eyes, and was glad. The dark softness of her breast gave a measure of comfort. But he had for the first time truly seen death, seen its eternity of deprivation and absence, and the tears would not stop.

 

32

Mumma ate most of the oxmeat, charred though it was. He watched the bloody line along her jaw move up and down as she chomped, pinching his nose against the smell. She had tried to feed it to him first, chopping it into small bits and pushing it past his resisting lips. The retching, the visibly convulsing stomach, and most of all the vomit had finally convinced her that Tad wasn’t just being difficult. Even so, she had said with a sigh, “Always liked it well ‘nough b’fore, Taddy,” before stomping off on her reliable legs to try her luck with Dapper. From the sounds and her quick return, Tad knew it had not gone any better. He did not understand it either. Dapper and himself had eaten oxmeat plenty of times before, but now just the smell of it made him want to throw up. The same seemed true for Dapper.

For now, he was happy enough with his bladder of water. Real, actual highwater. Full up. He had not the strength to lift it, so instead of sitting he laid on the ground with the bladder beside him, stroking it gently with a smile and red eyes, occasionally bending down the neck and taking a small sip. Each mouthful he swished around for long luxurious moments, enjoying even the pain that trickled from his cracked lips and sensitive gums and swollen tongue. The lack of bitterness, the thinness, the wetness and watery-ness of it! At first he had been greedy and taken too much, almost an entire skin before stopping—most of which he then promptly threw up. Mumma had said nothing, just given him a new, full bladder with the sort of warning look that only mothers know how to give. He had only needed the one lesson. Now he was careful. Now he took it slow. He found that he enjoyed it more this way.

Mumma made no mention of greensharp and no move to collect any. She seemed determined to wean Dapper back onto highwater and real food as soon as possible, despite being limited to the resources at hand in the small wagon. Having hardly any energy himself, Tad found himself amazed by Mumma’s stubborn vigor as she regularly mucked out the wagon, took the oxen offpath to find food, and tended to himself and to Dapper. She plodded, but she plodded without end and without complaint. He wondered about her injuries and about how long she had been gone, but had no courage to give these voice.

Somehow a void had opened between them. It was a void he wasn’t sure how to bridge, but, more than that, he wasn’t sure he wanted to bridge it. Within her eyes he sometimes thought he saw that terrible, hungry lack, and shuddered to think that he might somehow catch it. Had it always been there, hidden, or was it something that had arisen during her time away? There was no way to know. In any case, the answer would not change the outcome: he did not know her. Even as she tended to him, he felt starkly alone. The lump in his throat did not lessen; the tears in his eyes stood and did not dry.

Tad was able to keep some of the flatbread down—only a little at first, but a margin more each hour. It became more a challenge for his bleeding gums and wiggly teeth than for his stomach. He was afraid that his teeth would fall out as he gnawed chunks off the hard thick discs of digestable—but far from delectable—foodstuff. Each time he crunched down on the rock-hard starchy bits, it felt like a molar came free from the impact. When he was finally ready to swallow a mouthful of wet and softened flatbread, he always stopped and ran his tongue—swollen and dull though it was, it was enough for this work—through it to make sure he didn’t inadvertently swallow some of his teeth as well. Even so, after nearly each swallow he sent his tongue to patrol his mouth, just to make sure his teeth weren’t being ground to powder as he chewed. He couldn’t believe he used to eat flatbread without a second thought. It seemed so long ago.

There were two advantages to so consistently ensuring that his teeth were not, in fact, being obliterated as he ate: his mouth had time to recover a bit of moisture between bites, and his stomach had time to accept the food in a slow and steady and relatively peaceful way. And one disadvantage: Mumma’s impatience. She said nothing, but she had no need to. The very spark that she put in the air was enough to make clear her hurry, without the sighs and looks and hands on hips she added on top. Tad tried to ignore the tension. He was exhausted. He hadn’t wanted to be, he didn’t want to be, but he was. It was all he could do to chew his food. Mumma stamping about would do nothing to help. He said nothing to this effect, naturally, and Mumma said nothing in the opposite vein, no matter how thin her veil of patience seemed to Tad.

She circuited here and there and here and there and here and there, watching and preparing and worrying and pushing. It was not a tender reunion. She hovered over Tad in a way that used to make him feel loved and protected, if annoyed, but now he saw only her impatience, her impotent fury. She attacked him throughout the day with remedies of one sort or another—squeezing the sour juice from half a squilchfruit into his mouth, pushing a tiny cube of pink rocksalt onto his tongue, dripping some awful thing into his eyes and onto his forehead, rubbing his feet with some thick green muck. None of it helped get him on his feet any faster, of course.

He wouldn’t have minded if it hadn’t been so damned painful. The squilchfruit juice set his mouth on fire, creeping into every crack of his gums and seeming to wriggle its way into the teeth themselves. Every heartbeat pumped pain down his jaw and into a seemingly random array of molars and incisors and bicuspids. He couldn’t eat for an hour after that particular ‘remedy’ of Mumma’s. The rocksalt was much the same, although it burned mostly his tongue and lips, lasted longer but early faded toward the dull. The drops made his eyes burn and did nothing for his sunburned forehead. And the muck—well, actually the muck felt nice, and didn’t seem to do anything at all.

Tad was sure she was doing the same to Dapper, or worse. His groans and moans and bodily music seemed more painful than Tad could remember ever hearing before. Lying in the tiny shade of the tiny wagon as the sun set to his back, eyes still stinging and unable to move, he wondered if maybe they hadn’t been better off without her.

When dusk was full, Mumma propped Tad up on the driver’s seat beside her and lashed the oxen to move their feet.

 

33

By the next day, Tad was already settling into a routine. He woke up as before, lying in the grass. Beside a merry cookfire, as before. And as before, he spent his day sipping water and slowly working his way through hard, hard pieces of flatbread and putting up with Mumma’s occasional “cures.”

Only the afternoon was not the same. The merry cookfire was no less merry as Mumma thrust an iron cookpole into the embers, the pot above smelled no less heavenly and bubbled no less joyfully. Dapper’s tremendous animal screams changed only the rate at which Tad broke the rough flatbread with his tired jaw and pulsing teeth and bleeding gums and stinging lips. He thought of those nights so long ago when Mumma had done the same, torturing Dapper to save him from something worse, cookpole glowing a merciless orange. The smell and sound and thought of it had turned his stomach sour and kept him from sleep. Now his mouth watered. Tad idly hoped it was only the stew in the cookpot that made his swollen mouth wet. His stomach pinched and growled. He kept at the bread, but it was not enough—it could not be.

Without the energy to move, he pissed himself where he lay. It felt nice. He supposed it would do bad things to the red-bumped, sensitive skin on his bottom. Dapper screamed a strangled animal scream and kicked hard the side of the wagon. Tad’s stomach growled. He wished Mumma would stop for a moment and feed him. He would be able to keep the stew down, he was certain of it. Dapper screamed again, again, again. Tad listened and chewed emptily and stared at the stew and salivated and resented Dapper for the attention he was receiving. He wanted to call to Mumma, but had either no voice or no energy to raise it. Somehow, he fell asleep.

Tad woke to the rumble and dark shadows of a wagon in motion. His stomach was trying to eat the rest of him. He wondered where the stew had gone, curled up and belched and moaned, and eventually fell asleep again beside a silent, stone Mumma.

 

34

They reached Nilston after only their second night of travel, rolling to a stop in the trading square not an hour after sun-up. To Tad, it seemed suspiciously quick. Mumma could walk nearly as fast as an ox, surely, and just as steadfast. Two days each way could not explain the eternity he had been left to fend for himself in the forest. Even with a leg injury—which she showed no signs of—it should not have taken nearly so long. He wondered if something unfortunate had happened in Nilston. Something must have happened, her cuts being what they were. But she showed no sign of unease at being in the town, just parked the wagon, reached behind her with a long arm to wet Dapper’s lips with a sip of water, ruffled Tad’s hair, threw a bit of raggedy knit over her head to block the sun, and was out with barely a sigh, right there on the driver’s seat. Tad pondered for a while longer, splayed out unmoving against her, but soon the regular push of Mumma’s breaths and his own fatigue drew him down into a sleep that even Dapper’s animal snore could not break.

 

35

The sharp rap of wood on wood could, and did. It spoke of violence, and Tad was quickly alert. Mumma was not. As Tad stared down wide-eyed at the portly, beardy, beery lout making a racket by meeting his club to the front of the wagon, Mumma seemed oblivious. Face still covered, she did not move. Tad looked anxiously from the man to her to the man to her to the man to her, and all the while the man continued to beat about the front of the wagon here and there with his rough wooden cudgel.

There was a rough air of patience to his stubby nose and heavy brow and bulging eyes and shabby knits and trousers. It was with an air of resignation that his red armband slumped to the elbow, his red wool cap slipped perpetually toward the left ear. As Mumma continued to resist waking, Tad grew less and less nervous. He could see no malice in those overlarge protruding eyes, only boredom; he realized the cudgel was loud only from proximity and material, not from muscle put behind it—he himself had made more of a racket making music with branches against trunks. The man would not meet Tad’s gaze no matter how hard he stared. Tad began to idly wonder if the armband and hat meant the man was some sort of Important Person, like a town-top or a market enforcer or even a Guild stomper. But he supposed a Guild stomper would wear gold, and look a bit more snappy.

Mumma finally stirred, groaning and sighing and yawning with interrupted sleep beneath the cover of her knit before snatching it off, growling with half-closed eyes, “Enough damn’d noise!”

The fat, shabby man froze his cudgel in mid-swing, licking his lips and eyeing Mumma with apprehension. “Goodwoman,” he said gruffly, and cleared his throat. He kept his cudgel raised halfway, between himself and Mumma.

Mumma rubbed her eyes and squinted down at him. She gave a derisive snort. “Gotch’a’self a new one, ‘en, ‘ey?”

The man said nothing. His left eye twitched.

“What’s doin’, now?” she pressed him.

He licked his lips and puffed out his chest a bit, tilting the tip of the cudgel toward Mumma. “You’s not ‘lowed—,” he said, and suddenly stopped, looking around. The other merchants were all busy setting up, and no one was looking their way except a thin old man with an enormous beard and a selection of iron cookware, sitting on a ratty blanket amidst his wares and staring serenely in their direction. He cleared his throat and started again: “Goodwoman, you’s not ‘lowed to sell here if’n ya hain’t pay the fee.”

Mumma rolled her eyes and looked at him sideways. “Goodman, I hain’t sellin’.”

The man brought his cudgel near, idly running the fingers of his other hand along it. “Goodwoman, that ain’t my meanin’.”

Mumma said nothing, watching him with indifference through tired eyes.

The man twisted the cudgel in his hands to and fro, to and fro, to and fro.

Mumma yawned.

Still the man said nothing, determinedly looking neither Tad nor Mumma in the eye.

“I take yer meaning,” said Mumma, trailing off into another yawn. “Sky, you makes a woman tire’ with yer ways. How much fer a day, ‘en?”

He twisted his cudgel as though to drill a hole through his hand and mumbled, “Don’ work like that. Got’s ta be a member t’ stay.”

“And?” prompted Mumma sourly.

“One a year, Guil’ coin.”

Mumma rose to her feet, stretching and yawning and pushing out her back. “Come now, Taddil. Bett’r we take our chances on th’ road, wheres we might just maybe get ourselves up ‘n’ robb’d.”

“Aw, come now, Mercy—” said the man, finally meeting her eyes. He cut off immediately when he saw the look in them.

Mumma paid him no mind as she clambered down, quickly unblocked the wheels and checked the harnesses, then whirled back up and spurred the oxen to life.

They plodded by Red Cap Man, by stalls and by shops and by houses, until once more only the skeleton trees of a hot and dying landscape met the eye. And that, of a sudden, was Nilston gone.

 

36

Or so Tad assumed, as they rolled out. It was a thought proven wrong before it had a chance to run from one ear to the other. Mumma abruptly drove the oxen off the path and stopped under the failing shade of a dried-up tree. Without a word, she threw the same scrap of dirty knit over her face and leaned back with folded arms. Slumped uncomfortably against the hard bench, Tad strained his neck and pushed his eyes to their edge to get a glimpse of her face. Nothing was visible save patches of rough skin through the ratty knit.

A distant rumble and creak resolved into a wagon coming along the road into Nilston. Tad listened to it pass and forced his stiff neck around to watch it disappear through the ruins of what had once been stone walls, into the town. It was a big flat thing, packed with large barrels and pulled by what seemed to be a team of four oxen. He blinked. He’d only ever seen two-ox teams before.

The rumble faded to nothing. Dapper’s low moan came to his ears. Tad listened and listened and thought about trying to help. He shifted on the bench and tried to pull himself up to have a look behind at Dapper. His sweaty fingers slipped, chin coming down hard on the bench back. His cheek fell against the rough wood and slid down to rest beside Mumma’s hip. It felt like his finger had a splinter. He reached up with a weak and screaming arm to tap Mumma lightly on the thigh. She did not stir. His arm fell down and back and off the bench and dangled, relieved and sore and throbbing.

The sun sat hot atop his back and mocked his sweat, mocked the twisted spindly inadequate leaves above. He heard his father groan and weirdly smack his lips. He heard his mother breathe regular and clean. He heard the blood in his own ears.

 

37

Mumma was gone in body as well as spirit when Tad awoke. His arm, hanging from the bench, swam in half-felt needles, and all the rest of him was fully present and completely sore. The sun was low. Quiet had fallen.

His stomach spoke in a high-pitched gurgle. Tad thought it sounded like an angry cat, and smiled at the thought. His jaw ached as it moved. Dapper’s smell hung in the air. Staring up at the darkening trees, it seemed like he was still on his own, still dying of thirst, still lying in grotesque silence. Only the bench, far less comfortable than the dead leaves, and the newly acrid pungency of Dapper’s stink, now more water than mud, reminded him of his salvation. He shifted, rolling over onto his back; his body groaned with effort and pain, and he decided it was better to avoid moving. Dusk was riding in swift, which meant that Mumma would soon return. They would be underway, and he would need his energy and his tolerance to endure the road. Tad wished he could sleep again. He shut his eyes.

Neither sleep nor Mumma returned. Shadows deepened and grew until they made a world of their own, the slim moon came out to eat its fill of stars, and Tad could do nothing but stare and listen and wait. Sleep came only to dance about his face and tease him from the edges of his mind, but it would not commit to help him pass the time. It had been too familiar of late, and now seemed to hold him in contempt. It left him to wait, to watch the stars, to breathe in the acrid sting of Dapper’s piss and wonder what had become of his mother.

It hit him suddenly, with a twinge in his stomach, that Red Cap Man had known Mumma. He had called her by a name—Mercy. Unless that was just what they called women around here? “Mercy” rather than “Goodwoman?” But he had said “goodwoman” too. And “Mercy” was undeniably similar to Mircella. He couldn’t imagine what business such a man could have with Mumma. Had he scratched her face? Had he cut her? Had they fought?

As he gazed up idly at the stars, Tad thought of the cycle of the living moon. It grew larger night by night, little by little, bit by bit by feasting on the stars, until finally it grew full. But even then its greed did not stop. It continued to eat, to feast, to gobble. And it then paid for its gluttony, rupturing and spilling its pregnant load of stars back out across the sky, shrinking to a mere sliver of itself. It hid from the sun in shame, for it did not learn and could not stop its ways. Tad shivered in the heat. A mother perpetually eating her children. It had never struck him before just how muddy awful that was. The moon was only a small crescent tonight, but it seemed uncomfortably close.

He hoped Mumma would return soon. He was hungry and thirsty and bored, and it hurt to even breathe. Every time sleep drifted in to take him, Dapper would snort or groan or kick or fart or scrape or piss—when he pissed, the stench would perk up a bit and the new liquid would grow the pool enough to make it tide over edges and between cracks and drip, drip, drip in the silence to the dead weeds and hard-packed earth below. Despite the smell, it set off Tad’s thirst every time. He wished he knew where Mumma had put his water bladder.

 

38

He woke squinting and groaning and swaying rhythmically with the wagon. The sun was bright and pained his eyes, he could see nothing and felt only the ache of his sore body and a persistent tugging on his left arm. It brushed against knit. His head swam. He squinted. Something large moved to his right, leaning across toward the left; past it, straight ahead, the trees were stubbornly still. Vertigo grabbed him, he nearly fell from the bench. A strong hand pushed him back. He cracked open only his right eye. Mumma hovered above. She was cast too dark against the sun to do much beyond recognize her, but the cut along her jaw stood out. He was already getting used to it.

“Be still, nae, Taddy,” she said in her warm but glynty voice. “Highman did say ‘is need changin’.”

He realized the wagon wasn’t moving, that the movement was Mumma tugging on his arm, and everything fell into place. His dizziness subsided. A measure of sight returned, though he still couldn’t gaze full into the bright sky. Looking over, he saw Mumma wrapping around his arm as clean a white linen as he had ever laid eyes on. The arm still looked too muddy short, but he could feel the cloth bound tight against his hand, so tight he could not move his fingers.

“Mumma,” he creaked out, and pointed to his mouth with his right hand. He swallowed drily, and pushed out his tongue to roam his scabbed lips. His mouth was thick, pasty.

Above, Mumma grunted and blew a breath down into his face. Tad nearly gagged. Her breath was as bad as any wind Dapper had ever made. “I’ll get yer water in a blink, Taddy,” she said. “Jus’ don’ move till I’m good ‘n’ done here.”

Tad waited. The sun blazed above. Sweat rose on his forehead, and he took it with a finger from his right hand and put it to his mouth. It tasted better than anything he could remember. The sweetness of relief lasted only a moment, though, and then the thick dry wooliness was back even worse than before. “Mumma,” he whispered, and touched his finger to his lips.

No response. She tugged on his arm just as regularly and insistently. “Mumma!” he whispered again.

“I hear ya, Taddil. But ye’ve gots’ta keep clean’inen on ‘is, here. Highman did say.”

So he waited, and did his best to transport the sweat from his face to his mouth, closing his eyes against the sun and enjoying each small moment of relief. He remembered the fat spider from the field where he had been abandoned, and fantasized about crushing that fat moist bulbous body between his teeth. Taste and texture no longer figured, as he was safely distant from any possibility of acting. He thought only of the flood of juicy wetness, running over his tongue and washing the roof of his mouth and tiding restoratively down the back of his parched throat.

Finally there was a long pull on his arm, and it was lowered to rest on the bench. Without a word, Mumma pushed Tad up to sit, fished a water bladder from somewhere in the back of the wagon, and pinched a neckful of water into his mouth. He held it for long moments before swallowing, then took the bladder from her with his right hand and put his left under for support. It promptly slipped from his hands, falling onto his leg and splashing out a puddle before Mumma grabbed it up.

“Taddil!” she said sharply, and he winced in preparation for her hand. It did not come. “Dear ‘s sky, this! Sure’n it need more’n a one hand!”

“I used both!” Tad insisted. “Only you’ve gone ‘n’ wrapped the one too tight!”

Mumma blinked, glancing over at Tad’s right hand, and then her face took on an expression he had not seen in a long while—softness, pity, love with depth. Her hand came, but only to ruffle his hair affectionately. She said nothing, and took the time to gently help him drink the entire contents of the bladder before attending to Dapper.

 

39

They did not move that day, nor the next nor the next nor the next. Mumma returned and slept in the mornings, saw to Dapper and the oxen and Tad in the blazing afternoons, and was gone by sunset. Each morning she brought new supplies: several full water bladders, vegetables, sometimes even meat or salt or fruit or fresh white linen for Tad’s arm. She changed Tad’s bandage while he slept.

She was always up and about before Tad, even though he slept most of the night before settling in for a second bout of shut-eye when Mumma returned. He wondered sometimes if he slept more now than he had in the forest. Purposeful fatigue and deprivation had been replaced with purposeless fatigue and abundance. He could not understand why they stayed near Nilston, but when he asked Mumma simply said that Dapper—and Tad, for that matter—needed time to recover, and that supplies were cheap in Nilston. When he asked why she stayed out all night, Mumma only ran a finger along her deep-cut jaw and then stalked away, going off to feed the oxen or water Dapper or any of the tens of meaningless chores that she occupied herself with.

The bright spot was that Tad was slowly beginning to feel better. Each day he moved a little more and hurt a little less. After a few days he could bear to alternate between sitting and lying on his own power, after a week he would slide off the bench and hobble around the wagon to peer at Dapper and pat the placid oxen, and after two weeks he could go out on short walks. Unfortunately Mumma always insisted on walking with him, which mostly defeated the purpose of going—to stuff his face with whatever he could find that looked edible, naturally. He suspected she did it on purpose, so he wouldn’t cause her trouble by eating the wrong thing, but of course she always pretended only to be worried about bandits or wild animals or Tad falling and injuring himself. Of course he only waited until she was off in the evening, just around the bend to Nilston, before setting off to scavenge what he could from the mostly dry forest.

No matter what he found, it was never enough. He was unceasingly ravenous. Mumma’s stews and flatbread would sate him only for a few hours at a time; he would take a nap and wake up hungry, go for a walk and come back hungry, sit and stare at the oxen’s heads and listen to Dapper’s groans and end up hungry before the sun barely budged. So when Mumma rounded that bend he was off as quick as his weak legs and stumbly feet could carry him, into the barren and darkening woods.

If there were enough embers left in Mumma’s cookfire, that was actually his first stop. He would grab a handful of dried leaves and a few twigs of the kindling Mumma had collected, get on his hands and knees and blow new life into the fire before trundling off into the trees. She had said something about nightfires attracting bandits, but it was a warning that never made it out of the back of his mind, while the front was occupied with his bottomless pit of a stomach.

This fire was the key to filling that pit. He discovered that with just a tiny bit of water and some time to cook, all sorts of tree bark and spiky plants and hard-shelled insects became soft enough to shove down his gullet. The burnt remains of old stews seeped in to flavor the hardscrabble mix. Not that it mattered much—he always swallowed as quickly as he could, and his tongue wasn’t yet up to doing much tasting.

Only after filling his stomach could he hope to sleep. Trying on an empty stomach just led to him rolling side to side on his back, staring vacantly up at the sky as he tried to find an angle to minimize the pinch of his growling stomach. Sleep would not come in such a state, no matter how long he waited—his body was prioritizing food. On nights when he succeeded in building a fire, this was not a problem. He would simply scavenge, wait impatiently as the barely edible plants and insects boiled into a shapeless soft mass that he could ingest, down it as quickly as the heat would allow, then let out a great and satisfying burp and drift off to sleep next to the dying fire. When the embers grew cold he would wake up and move to the wagon, huddling on the hard wood as he waited for the sun’s rise and Mumma’s return. He usually fell asleep again.

When the embers would not rise, he had a hard night. He could not sleep. The spiky plants he collected cut his mouth and tongue. The insects hid in their shells and tried to bite him; when he was able to snatch one out, the texture made him retch. He could not worry the tree bark with his teeth and tongue and spit enough to make it go down. In short, he could not sleep without eating, and he could not eat.

He decided to take on fire-making himself, remembering how Mumma had always started the cookfires at home: striking glynt to stone, showering the sparks onto piles of dried leaves and grass, gently breathing on them to raise the flames and then building up to kindling and sticks and chunks of wood. In his mind’s eye it looked so easy that he wanted to try it right away.

That night he searched for the shiny, heavy glynt rock, combing carefully through all of Mumma’s forbidden things and “secret” hiding places, all the little nooks and crannies that could be found in wagons and ox harnesses and knits and linens and empty food bags. It was nowhere to be found. He expanded his search, dragging his already tired legs out to search the nearby trees and gulleys and mounds of leaves. Nothing but a few edibles, which he tossed into the cookpot before throwing himself down by the ashes to rest.

He looked out at the twilight forest. If it was out there, he would never find it. And it certainly wasn’t anywhere around the wagon. The only conclusions possible were that Mumma had hidden it far out in the woods, or that she carried it with her. In either case, he could not get at it. And knowing this, he looked with dismay at the nearly stone-cold remains of the day’s fire. His priorities had not been in order, and he would suffer for it. He made an iron-bound promise to himself that he would not let it happen a second time.

Tad watched Mumma like a hawk the next day, but only after she had already used the glynt—as he had not been able to sleep prior to Mumma’s triumphant dawn return (with food), he had slept long past her waking and been greeted by an already blazing cookfire. Naturally enough, he learned nothing useful. That night, and all the nights after, he was careful to breathe life back into the embers as soon as Mumma was out of sight. The next several nights he collected and ate and slept as quickly as he could, to try to get all his sleep in before Mumma finished hers. It did not work as intended. Not only could Tad not will himself to sleep at night, he seemed to need much more sleep than his mother. He woke daily to a merry cookfire with a weight in his heart.

Only when he had all but given up did he have any margin of success. A rowdy crow half-roused him well before his normal time, and he saw the angle of the sun and gathered the presence of mind to pull himself mostly awake. Yawning grandly, he scrambled to his feet and turned himself toward the firepit. Mumma was just walking away from a newly successful blaze, flames eating into the bottoms and licking up the sides of the large chunks of wood on top. Tad stretched and yawned again, pretending to have no interest in where she went. It felt good to stretch and yawn with nothing but the normal creaks and twinges from a night’s sleep—well, almost—with only his tightly bundled left arm to keep him from truly enjoying the moment. Still tightly bundled. He frowned down at it.

“Good mornin’ to ya too, Mr. Cloud-nose,” called Mumma tartly. Tad had overplayed his part.

“Good morning, Mummaaaaa,” he called back, trailing off into another yawn.

“Bit’sa bread o’er by tha fire,” she said, eyeing him as she walked closer. “Iff’n ye’re well ‘n’ truly up, ‘at is. Nonsense wastin’ yer brekkie now iff’n ye’ll slep ag’in.”

“I’m up, I’m up,” said Tad, yawning again.

Half to prove it to himself, half to prove it to her, and half to keep from falling asleep, he started on a shambling desultory ramble toward the firepit, marking Mumma’s movement in the corner of his eye. She went straight to Dapper, and spent a long time attending to him. As Tad slowly broke up and swallowed down the old, hard bread she’d left for him, Mumma squatted and kneeled and worked her arms here and there. Over the low walls of the wagon, Tad could not see what she was doing. Next she saw to the oxen, leading them away into the forest to scavenge what they could. He knew from experience that he could not yet keep up so he stayed behind, noting the direction and intending to note the duration. The sun grew hot. His jaw ached. He stopped eating, laid back on the packed earth beside the fire, and closed his heavy eyelids for just a moment. Sweat trickled down across his itchy scalp, beneath his thick and greasy hair.

 

40

He woke to an unpleasant scraping and scratching. When he opened his eyes, there was nothing but the distant, dim and fading light of the set sun, filtered through the forest. Near at hand a few orange embers glowed, a vague shadow flitted about at work in tune with the scratching. The embers went out. Hands shook him.

“Taddy,” said Mumma quiet and close into his ear, “Taddy!”

“Mmmm,” said Tad.

“I’m goin’. Be a goodlin’ an’ slep in tha wag’n, so’s Dapper don’ gets lonesome.”

“Mm.”

He struggled to his feet, eyes not yet ready for the darkness. Staring down at the particular black spot among the blackness where (he guessed) the embers of the fire had glowed hungrily only moments before, he wanted to ask her why she had put them out. Why she had consigned him to a long night of hunger and sleeplessness and tedium.

By the time he could spot her silhouette in the failing light, it was already well ahead of the oxen, halfway down the road to the bend to Nilston. His head listed tiredly to one side as he watched her move away. She would have just said it was because of bandits. It was always because of bandits, or roadmen, or lowmen, or whatever she muddy called them on the muddy day. Safety and misery seemed to go hand-in-hand, he thought.

With the embers dead, the best thing to do was sleep as long as he could. He trudged to the wagon and hoisted himself stiffly onto the driver’s bench, hoping to hold on to the fading sleepiness that still lived in him, to cultivate it into long hours of empty unfelt nothingness.

“G’night, Dapper,” he mumbled, crossing his arms over his chest and closing his eyes. And then his eyes snapped open. They did not see the stars. She had gone directly to Dapper. He had not checked Dapper for the glynt.

Tad scrambled directly over the low barrier into the back of the wagon, into Dapper’s territory. He hardly noticed the stench of piss.

“’Scuse me, Dapper,” he said, and quickly shoved his hand under the dirty wad of knit wool that served as Dapper’s pillow. Almost immediately it closed around a cold, rough lump. He pulled it out and held it up against the pale light of the cruel moon, half-full of her cursed children. It was the glynt.

Tad felt in that moment a sense of triumph that he would never forget. A mad fire beat through his heart. His body was light and unburdened and he himself was not there. His body held the glynt and his body felt the rough and the cold, the moon shone down upon it, but he did not inhabit that body and it was not he who felt the glynt rock but the world—he was the world, the world was him, distinctions fell away because they did not matter. He possessed the power to take what he wanted, and suddenly it seemed not that he existed at the whim of the world but that it existed at his. It was his to take and shape and command. He leapt from the wagon and did not feel the pain of his feet and ankles as he landed, the fatigue of his thighs as he jumped and stood and walked. His eyes gleamed. A mad grin cracked his lips.

It was at the firepit that this new feeling began to fail. He realized, as he tried to set about making a fire, that he had no stone to strike against the glynt. It was not something he had considered. Any rock would do, after all, and surely a rock was not a hard thing to find. But there were none. Everywhere he looked was nothing but packed, dry earth, trees and roots, leaves and grass and flowers and plants that had dried to death and cracked and crackled under heel. He knelt and searched with his hand through the nearby piles of leaves and grass, combed through the low and tough and thickly matted carpet that the sun had made them into. Nothing came to hand but tiny pieces of wood, small live and dead insects—which he briefly tried to make a separate pile for, until remembering Mumma had snuffed the fire out—and the odd pebble that was much too small to use, barely pinchable between his fingers.

He did not know how long he kept at it. The moon took barely a half-step in its journey as he worked. But his stomach rumbled fiercely, and he felt himself grow weak. His fingers trembled, and sweat broke out about his head and neck and back. He gave up kneeling and sat square in the dirt, gritting his teeth to the pins and needles in his legs and waiting for the bout of weakness to pass. Slowing his breathing to a purposeful pace, he picked through the pile of tiny rocks he had collected. The largest was only about half the size of his thumbnail. It would have to do. He leaned back full on the hard dirt, watching the moon and listening to the unnatural quiet. The occasional creakjump, that was all. He didn’t feel sleepy in the least.

After a few minutes, some of the sweat dried. He felt better. When he rose to his feet, his body felt insubstantial. His head was heavier, and it bobbed around. From above, he watched as his body clumsily scattered several handfuls of dried leaves into the firepit and then carefully placed the chosen pebble near the center. He knelt low and fumbled around in his pocket for the glynt rock. When he struck it against the pebble, he saw no sparks. He struck it again, and again there were no sparks. The glynt pushed back painfully into his palm, and his wrist ached from the impact. Raising his hand as high as he could with the cookpot in the way, he smashed it down at the pebble with all his might. It did not connect—he hit dirt, scattered leaves. Again, again, again, and he thought twice he hit the pebble and once he thought he saw a spark. Again, again, again. Nothing but a tired arm and sore wrist and pained hand. He sucked wind and perspired.

He continued for what he thought to be several hours, tracking the movement of the moon in relation to the tallest of the nearby treetops. Nothing ever burned, or even smoked. He was never sure he was even getting sparks—it might have been a simple trick of moonlight and peripheral vision, the way his head moved when he hammered his arm down against that muddy pebble. Even so, he only stopped because he simply could not continue. He laid flat on the ground for a time, thinking nothing and looking at nothing, before gritting his teeth and pushing to his feet. He took the glynt and left the pebble, tiredly clambering up onto the driver’s seat and over into the back. When he reached deep under Dapper’s pillow to replace the glynt rock in its hiding place, his fingers brushed something cold and hard. He felt around, and a smile inhabited his lips even as he swallowed down vomit and a sense of despair. It was a sizable stone. Which, naturally enough, Mumma kept near the glynt rock.

That night, he fell asleep hungry.

41

When he woke, he wished he hadn’t. His good arm was just as useless as his bad, and it shrieked with pain whenever he had to move it—which, with his left bound up, was often. His head pounded as he pushed himself up to sit on the bench, eyes slitted against the blazing sun. Already sweat rose on his skin, but he hardly felt it for the growl of his belly. Today, surely today, it would devour the rest of his insides to sate itself. He belched enormously, but it didn’t help much.

Mumma was gone, the oxen were gone. It seemed too early for feeding, with the sun at only a late-morning angle, but Tad didn’t care. He confirmed there was no food in the wagon and shambled over to the cookfire. Nothing in the pot today, but he found some old bread to gnaw on. Normally he pulled off the moldy parts before eating, but his arm was uncooperative and it wasn’t worth the pain anyway. He took to the least furry part of the crust. Lips cracked and gums rubbed open and blood mixed in, but Tad ignored it. This happened daily; everything he ate incorporated the faint copper tang of blood. He didn’t much mind, as it was often an improvement in taste.

There was no imminent sign of Mumma’s return, so he decided to experiment. The first step was to put out the fire: he kicked at it; it ignored him and continued to burn cheerily. He kicked at it again, aiming carefully and kicking with all his energy. It barely scattered, and his foot shot hard against a large branch, smarting fiercely. Off balance, his kicking foot continued forward into nearly the middle of the fire; panicked, he yanked it back desperately and fell backward hard on his bottom.

Setting his hunk of stale bread aside, Tad rubbed the sole of his bare and sooted foot, watching smoke curl up from the bottom of his trousers and gritting his teeth against the echoes of pain from his stubbed toe. Miraculously, he had not caught on fire and had not been burned. He didn’t think so, anyway. Couldn’t be sure until the other pain died out, but surely a burn would out-scream a toe stub. Out of habit, he prodded his tongue here and there against his loose teeth. They wiggled with ease.

How did Mumma do it? He’d only managed to make a few inconsequential sticks fall away and burn out. The fire blazed as before, unabated and undeterred. And that was with all his energy, and courting disaster. He moved his hand from his foot, scraping his overlong fingernails into the hard, dry earth. It gave only the slightest scratch of dust for his efforts. No way to cover it over with dirt, then. As the pain in his toe subsided, Tad recognized a dull throb around his ankle and lower calf. He pulled up his trousers. The skin was a pained red. He had not escaped unscathed. Tad ran his hand along the sole, and found that somehow it was fine. He did not understand why, but it was not something he wanted to question. Looking up for a passing cloud, he saw that there were none, so he simply thanked the Sky instead.

Staring into the fire and massaging his pink lower calf, Tad mentally ticked off the other possibilities for putting out the fire. Water? Greensharp? No, no. He gripped around his ankle and listened to the pain. Not so bad. Time? Sighing, he took up the bread again and worked dispassionately at a hard, fuzzy end. That was the only real option. Come to think of it, he couldn’t remember Mumma actively putting out a fire recently. It mostly died out on its own by nightfall, that was all. Sometimes the embers glowed nice and bright, and she warned Tad about the danger but did nothing to quell it. A fire started was not easily ended, here. Pah. He reconsidered, surveying the ring of dry, cracked dirt around the firepit. It should be large enough for a tiny fire on the side.

He held the bread between his teeth and pushed to his feet, loping across toward the wagon. As he worried the chewy, ungiving sustenance against his weak teeth and aching gums, he idly wondered if it would be possible to starve to death while eating all the while. Surely it took more energy to get a bite of the damned bread down his throat than could be recouped from the stuff. Plus the effort to pop it around in his stomach and poop it out. He guessed he would die if it was all he had to eat, ever.

As he neared the wagon, movement caught the corner of his eye. Mumma was emerging from the trees with the two oxen. Muddy oxen. Tad had come to resent them in the past few days. All they ever did was suck down more than their fair share of the water and food, and stink up the driver’s bench worse than Dapper. On top of that, they were the only things that received Mumma’s undivided attention anymore. Sometimes Tad fantasized about slitting their throats at night, carving them up and greeting Mumma in the morning with a feast of well-roasted oxmeat. He salivated at the thought, and chuckled endlessly over the expression that would find its way to Mumma’s normally stoic face—he couldn’t decide between pride and delight and hunger or despair and horror, but either seemed an equally fine thing.

Now, his belly sank into his groin as he caught sight of her. He was no longer free for the afternoon, and knew he would suffer for it in the evening. Mumma did not wave, and Tad made no sign that he had seen her. At a distance, the oxen looked thin and were silent.

 

42

The afternoon was a perfect agony of sleeplessness and forced inaction. Tad could not quell his itching to try a proper fire on his own, and it drove him to a wakeful state. Eventually he gave up on closing his eyes altogether and simply watched Mumma go about her chores. When she disappeared into the woods, he struggled to his feet and wandered back and forth beside the wagon, rapping the side with his good hand as he passed to draw the occasional grunt or cough from Dapper. The movement pained his sore arm, but the contact seemed more meaningful than anything that passed between himself and Mumma now.

As he paced and thought and sweated he ran his tongue over the cracks in his lips, appreciating the slight burn from his minimal saliva. It distracted from his caved-in belly and empty water bladder. He was sorely tempted to try the glynt and stone and tinder and see what he could do. Even just to strike the stone home once and watch the sparks fly—surely a rock that size and texture would make a magnificent burst, and his problem would be over. Mud, he ached to try it! Tad knew, though, that as soon as he had them out and in hand and too far away to hide quick again Mumma would burst from between the nearest trees and grab him by the wrist. He could stand whatever bitching might come, but not what would happen next: the unsolvable distance to the glynt rock and stone as Mumma hung them round her neck, or kept them in her butt, or swallowed them and spit them up just when it was time to make a fire. Whatever she did, he knew he would never touch them again, and he could not bear the thought. This gave him patience, agonized though it was, as he paced and sweated and scowled away the day.

Mumma returned as always, without explanation, near sundown, with somewhat green and somewhat edible stuff to eat. She threw it in the pot with a pitiful splash of water and a tiny chunk of salted meat—Tad could not identify the animal it came from. It tasted like roughage with a hint of salt, and Tad gobbled it down with a look in his eye that could kill a stone. He had to admit that it was better than his own midnight feasts, if only because of the salt.

After he finished he sat and stared at the quickly cooling fire. The flames were at least an hour dead, and the embers barely gave off heat, fading far too quickly for his liking. As they always did. He hoped Mumma would leave damned quick, or it would be another long and hungry night for him. Not that she cared.

He would have jumped, had he the energy, as a bolt of feeling shocked down from the top of his head. He blinked, freezing for a long moment before recognizing that it was Mumma ruffling his hair. “Wha’tis’it, Taddy?” she said low from behind.

Tad tried to make his eyes neutral, though she could not see them. “Nothing,” he said, “just tired.”

“Aye,” said Mumma, “all’s tire. All’s wan’ta be in Feat’erwall a-ready, ors least Bluebell, but all’s nee’ a lit’le patience.”

“I’m tired of here, tired of not moving,” said Tad.

“Tills we go an’ move, ‘n’ then ye’ll be tire o’ movin’.”

“At least if we’re moving, we’re getting closer. I promise I won’t complain.”

“Don’ make a smallsnake a piglog, nae, Taddy. Ye’ve jus’ get well. Movin’ll come soons’nuff.”

She patted his head and was gone. He stared holes into the firepit, and did not turn around until he was sure she was well gone. The embers were near ash. It was time to take up the glynt rock, finally, but his heart was not glad. He pushed slow and weakly to his feet.

 

43

Tad frowned. Pain radiated all down his arm, up from his palm to his elbow to his shoulder and pushing through deep to the bone. But this was expected; it did not concern him. It was what lay under his palm—the jaggy stone pressed to glynt and rough to skin, the pile of dry leaves sat stubbornly cold, the unseen specks of sparks died soon—that troubled him.

This had been his second strike. The first had failed as a glancing blow that nearly took off the end of a finger. That was how it had felt, anyway. He had lost precious time to that pain; now he had a purple, swelling finger and held the stone with greater care. There had been no sparks the first time around, which he attributed to the intervention of his finger. Stone against glynt made sparks, finger against glynt made pain. Fortunately and unfortunately, he now knew the intimate truth of both these equations. The former, however, he now realized as he frowned, was but a part of a larger math. There had been sparks this time around, true enough, but far fewer than expected. And, more importantly, they had led to nothing. They had hit the dry leaves and died.

Gritting his teeth, he raised his arm and struck again, again, again. Each time a few new sparks jumped from the glynt rock, but each disappeared without so much as a momentary smolder. Arm numb, shoulder sore, palm raw, Tad slipped back off his haunches and sat in the dirt, then lowered his back to the ground. He stared up at the greedy and growing moon, thinking nothing of it. Tears welled in his eyes, washing dust from his face as they rolled down the sides of his cheeks.

The world was against him. Nothing worked for him the way it should, and he had no help but the diffident attentions of an uncaring mother. All he wanted was food. Not even that—he would get the food himself, no matter his stupid unworking arm, he just wanted a fire to cook it. And he didn’t even want the fire, he just wanted the muddy world to work the way it was muddy supposed to, so he could make his own stupid muddy fire. He wasn’t asking the moon, or the sun, or the stars, or Mumma or Dapper or anybody muddy else for help, he just wanted the rules to be the same for him as for everybody else. Stone ‘gainst glynt to spark a fire, leave the rope to ‘scape a mire. Everybody knew that. He’d never heard of it not working. He wiped his tears and the tiny stream of runny snot that had escaped his nostril, putting the finger in his mouth and enjoying the salt and moisture. He sniffled. Maybe it was just another lie they taught to kids, like that stuff about Aecil and the First Flame those muddy creakjump-eaters always tried to shove down his throat. Most of the other kids seemed to believe it, so Tad never said anything, but he knew it was a big muddy oxfart. Mumma didn’t want him to use such language, true or not, but he didn’t care. An oxfart was a muddy oxfart, and he’d say it in his own muddy head as much as he muddy liked. He pushed up. His arm felt better. He struck the glynt.

The night continued on in cycles in this fashion—effort until bitterness and fatigue set in, then a short break during which Tad talked himself up from despair to anger, and used the anger to fuel a new round of effort. A handful of times a wisp of smoke rose from where a spark met a leaf. Once a leaf was half curled up and consumed by a whisper of a flame, but it sputtered and smoked and died instead of spreading—at this, he nearly flung the rock away in a despairing rage. He kept at it, though, he kept at it until the sky began to lighten and he feared Mumma might return at any time, ignoring hunger and thirst and exhaustion and the onrushing desire to sleep. By the time he stood, he could barely make it to his feet. The palm that gripped the rock and glynt was rubbed raw and scored with tiny, painful cuts that throbbed with disproportionate pain. Thankfully they had quickly clotted, and not much blood painted the rock. Not enough to be noticeable, he hoped. It was difficult to know without daylight. His legs were stiff and ached and were somehow totally exhausted—they shook near as much as his arm when he tried to walk.

It took a lifetime to make it to the wagon, stumbling several times along the way. Each time he feared he would not be able to stand again, and each time, screaming through gritted teeth with the pain of exhausted flesh pushed a margin too far, he was. At the wagon, the true work began. He tried any number of times to pull himself up onto the driver’s bench the normal way, gripping the side white-knuckled as he did to make sure he wouldn’t fall over backward when he failed. He was sure he wouldn’t be able to move again if he fell, so he clutched to the wood as if it were life itself despite it feeling like it was made of razors. Or maybe stingbugs. He failed and he failed and he failed, getting halfway and then unable to finish, legs kicking in a way he knew would look funny if he could see himself. Finally, as the sun peeked over the edge of the world, afraid Mumma was going to come around the bend the next second, he decided he needed to start with his legs. So Tad backed up, hesitated, backed up some more, and then launched himself creakily forward with all the effort he could pour into his stiff, spindly, trembling legs.

Afterward, he couldn’t really remember what had happened. He knew that he had leapt magnificently into the air, arm stretching out to grab the top of the bench and pull himself the rest of the way up. He was actually amazed at how high up he was. It had to have been two piglogs high, maybe more. Maybe he was actually part hirriter or part creakjump. But then there had been a flurry of movement and contact too sudden for him to absorb, and somehow he had wound up staring at dusty ox poop and ox legs, bewildered and numb. After a few startled moments he regained his breath, and with his second breath he crawled back along the wagon and flopped over onto his back beside it. Pain had burst bright just under his shoulders in the front, and pounded dully from his butt up along his spine in the back.

A ray of sunshine snuck over the trees to stab into his eye. Mumma could be on the road already, he’d never see her coming. He clenched his shifting teeth against the pain and the involuntary tremors in his arm. It was impossible. He couldn’t move. She would catch him with the glynt and the rock, and he would lose forever the chance to make his own fire. The sun rose, and his heart sank. As his breath returned, a bare scraping of energy came back. He drew the rock and glynt from his trouser pocket.

“A little help, Dapper!” he called out as loudly as he could muster.

There was no response above, no sound or movement of any sort. Tad hesitated, but—what choice did he have? He heaved the two small orbs up together as hard as he could, trying to arc them over into the back of the wagon. They clattered against the side, bounced off and rolled away into the parched weeds somewhere beyond his feet. He groaned and laid back, angling his eyes away from the sun, utterly spent. Despair gripped his heart and leeched away the last touch of power in his muscles. The prospect of long, hungry, sleepless nights loomed. Muddy damn was all he could think to think. Muddy damn. Eyelids fluttered, eyes rolled. Sleep was coming, unstoppable sleep, like…the biggest wagon ever, bigger than the moon.

From above came an awful animal snarl, a hard thump against the side of the wagon, and something sailed over him and landed halfway to the firepit. Barely a whisper on impact. What was that? wondered Tad, without interest.

 

44

He did not know why he woke. The fire burned in its usual place, straight off to his right, and all else was silent. He was too tired to move, too sore to turn his neck, but he could tell by listening that the oxen were not there. Which meant that Mumma was not there. Remembering, he grimaced and forced himself to roll onto his side, scouring the space to the fire. There was nothing in the weeds, nothing on the dusty hard-packed earth. Remembering more, a shot of panic buzzed through him. He forgot his stiffness and weakness and pain and sat up, pushed up, struggled to his feet, eyes hunting for rocks as he did. He saw none. Pulling himself around on his stiff bowlegs, Tad glued his eyes to the weeds and covered the area around where the glynt and stone had rolled. Any tuft of dried longrass or clump of weeds that looked suspicious got stepped on and thoroughly scuffed and scraped. Nothing but a shriveled rocktree nut came of this. Tad shoved it into a pocket for later. Well, then, Mumma had found them and tucked them away, never to be seen again. He licked his lips, realizing how thirsty he was, and stared at the ground.

Before chasing down some water—if there was any to be had, anyway—he wanted to make sure. He hobbled slowly over to the wagon. Dapper was silent within. The sharp smell of piss hung in the air. Tad did his usual half-jump, half-pull to get his belly and hips over the side of the driver’s bench and then wormed his way completely on, closing his eyes against the sun as he caught his breath. He was still weak and stiff and sore, but the proportions were different than last night—much less weak, much more stiff and sore. Tad waited a long, long moment before moving. He knew that Mumma might return at any moment, preventing him from knowing the fate of the precious glynt until she was gone again at sundown, but he dreaded confirmation of its absence.

It was only when he grew bored of waiting that Tad struggled to a sitting position, turned over onto his knees, gripped the back of the bench and slowly rose to his feet to survey the back of the wagon. Dapper lay still. His raggedy makeshift pillow was in its proper place, tucked into a rough rectangle. Tad glanced around to make sure that Mumma had not yet emerged from the woods with the oxen. She was nowhere to be seen. Everywhere was empty and hot and silent. Leaning forward, leveraging his weight into his thighs and his thighs into the back of the bench, Tad reached long with his good arm and felt underneath Dapper’s pillow.

He nearly fell back from shock when his fingers pushed against cold, hard stone. Tad wrapped his fingers around it, blinking in surprise as the single lump of stone became two, side by side. He did not need to risk drawing them out to know what they were. He quickly withdrew his hand, gripping the top of the bench to steady himself as he considered what this might mean. Did she not care if he used them? But then…why put them back under the pillow? Was she trying to hide them from thieves, not from him? Had that been it all along? But then—no, none of it made any sense.

He glanced sharply down out of reflex. Dapper stared at him with bright eyes, head twisted round at an unnatural angle so he could look at Tad without much moving his uncooperative body. Tad had hardly paid any attention to Dapper since Mumma’s reappearance, had not helped or spoken or tried to entertain him—in short, he had not looked on his face for a week or more. Now, it shocked him. Dapper’s eyes sparkled playfully, but they shone out of sunken hollows above gaunt and shriveled cheeks, one of which was spotted by an angry red rash. A ghoulish rictus lit his face, littered with blackened and missing teeth. His beard was eating him alive. Even across the urine-soaked gap, Tad caught a hint of his fetid breath, like rotting meat on a hill of shit, and retched. He moved his head to the side and breathed through his mouth to avoid throwing up. It amazed him how far Dapper had deteriorated just since Mumma had plucked them from the forest. They had been in the woods an eternity and back with Mumma little more than a week, yet Dapper’s body had failed him more in the week than the eternity. Tad wondered again if they weren’t better off without Mumma. What was she doing to Dapper?

Tad did not have long to mull the issue. Dapper was making grunts at him and stomping the heel of his right foot against the floor of the wagon. From the look in his eyes, Tad guessed these were expressions of happiness, though his appearance made it hard to believe. Dapper would bang his heel against the wood, look from Tad down to his pillow with his bright and mirthful eyes, then bark out a short burst of twisted animal sounds.

Tad watched him repeat this pattern a few times, then shrugged his shoulders. “What is it, Dapper?”

At this, Dapper spat out a mouthful of chewy sounds, grimaced with effort as he twisted his body, slammed his right foot against the side of the wagon, and jerked his head and moved his eyes as far as he could toward that same side.

Tad shrugged again. “Sorry, Daps, I don’t get it.”

Dapper repeated everything, and again Tad shrugged his shoulders, giving a helpless look. Disappointment writ large in his eyes, Dapper made a conciliatory noise and settled back onto his pillow. Tad twisted and slid down onto the bench. A layer of sweat slicked his skin. The sun was high and hot. He could not help but think of Dapper, and a tear rolled down his cheek. More came as he put himself in Dapper’s feet—the lack of control, the lack of communication, the unclosable distance with his own kin. Tad sobbed and sweated, scavenging tears to moisten his cracked lips and parched tongue. He sucked his fingers for comfort.

 

45

Hard knocks reverberated through his consciousness, hard knocks that he felt as much as heard. He cracked an eye and immediately shut it again, sun stinging into his brain. More knocks.

“Come nae, Taddy. Ye’re takin’ tha whole swingup, an’ I hain’t energy ta moves ya lazy bones.” She poked him in the side, and he winced and curled up to protect himself from her finger, groaning.

“Taddil!” Hands came again, poking and prodding and pushing insistently. Stubbornly keeping his eyes closed, Tad felt around for the back of the bench and pulled himself up, sliding over to the end. He stretched out vertically, feeling every inch of discomfort as his aching muscles settled against the unforgiving wood. The bench dipped and shook as Mumma climbed up and plopped down, sighing as she stretched out.

“Yer Dapper been havin’ fits o’ late?” she asked, yawning.

Tad made a vaguely negative noise, a cross between a groan and “Mmm.”

“Must’a been sleepin’ a-ready las’ night, ‘en. He went ‘n’ chucked everythin’ out tha wag’n. Must’a been a fit, eh? No reason t’do’t oth-wise.” She yawned loudly. “He do somethin’ stranger’n ‘is usual strange, tells me, eh?”

“Mmm,” said Tad in the affirmative, working his mouth to try to draw out some saliva. It struck him, then: the pillow over the side. Dapper knew what Mumma would think when she saw it, when she saw the glynt and the stone and the pillow all out and Tad fast asleep. Clever. A sly grin swallowed his face, and he drifted off to sleep filled with the warmth of love for Dapper.

 

46

When he awoke, it was dark and Mumma was gone. He took a moment to stare up at the stars, try—unsuccessfully—to cough the dryness from his throat, and sullenly resent her for leaving without waking him. His stomach rumbled and he was fully awake. On top of not making sure he was fed, she had let him sleep so long that he wouldn’t be sleepy anytime soon. Tad sighed a bitter sigh. Well, it cut down the stakes for starting a fire—even if he could fill his belly, he’d never get to sleep before dawn.

Feeling a deep-seated ache in his muscles, he stood up on the driver’s bench and peered over at a still and silent Dapper. “Thanks, Daps. I get it now,” he said, reaching down to pat his father’s mass of greasy, unkempt hair. Dapper grunted and flailed an arm wildly. Tad gave his head an affectionate pat and took the stones from under his pillow, only barely able to close his small fist around them. Afraid to let the glynt and rock leave his hand for even an instant, he jumped down from the bench and rolled, sprawling hard on the packed and barren earth.

The fire was unrecoverable. He didn’t see any hint of a glow in the grey ash, and didn’t see the point in poking around to make sure. Tonight, come mud or high rain, he would make his own damned fire.

First was the dried leaves. It was much slower going than the previous night because Tad would not even let the glynt and rock leave his hand to pick them up. Which he knew was probably irrational, but he’d had things disappear on him before for no clear reason, and the stones were too important to take risks. Tad pinched each leaf between his thumb and middle finger, carrying them back one-by-one until he had a small pile. It was a tedium he could bear.

Deciding to start small, he plucked only a few tiny branches from Mumma’s pile, mixing them in with the leaves. Once it was burning nicely he would throw on some larger sticks, so…he was ready. Plopping down onto the ground next to his pile of leaves and twigs, he finally let the stones fall from his sweaty fist. Looking at them under the dull moonlight, it occurred to him to try the reverse of the previous night’s efforts—striking the rock with the glynt instead of the glynt with the rock. He set the rock carefully in the middle of the leaves, with what he judged to be the flattest side facing up, and raised the glynt high overhead. The muscles along the back of his arm cried out in pain.

The first strike shuddered agony through his arm and produced no visible results. Had there been sparks? He had no idea. He dropped the glynt between his legs and hugged his arm against his body, instinctively trying to squeeze it with the opposite hand to lessen the pain.

The bandage bluntly poked against his wrist, and he looked down at it in bewilderment. He had felt the fingers of that hand flex open and close around the wrist. The wrist had felt the fingers around it, the pressure and sensation and warmth. Tad’s mouth hung open. Tears stood in his eyes. He looked over at the firepit, at the wagon and slow oxen, at the dark forest and sick moon and poor stars, and none of it made sense to him. What he saw with his eyes and what he felt with his body did not match, and this extended outward to encompass all things. The forest was suddenly flat and false, a two-dimensional shadow on the canvas of the night sky. The moon hung still, the stars did not wink. Dapper made no sound whatsoever and the oxen moved only in small, repetitive neck bobs and weight shifts. The wagon was a game piece in a game he did not know.

Panic gripped him. With the forest a flat wall and the sky close at hand, Tad was trapped. The wagon was menacing and he dared not go near, closing off the small clearing on the other side of the road and limiting his space to the area around the firepit. Even as he surveyed the strip of land between the road and the darkness of the trees, it seemed to shrink. This was a box, a tiny shrinking box he was being kept in. It was a struggle to breathe. Something bound his chest tight.

The bandage once more bumped his arm, and he looked down at it with furrowed brows. A furor seized him—he HAD to see what was under the bandage. The thought of Mumma’s displeasure flitted through his mind, but he barely paused. Muddy Mumma was part of the damned problem, and he didn’t give an oxfart what she thought. The damned bandage was coming off NOW. Now now NOW!

It was not as easy as he had thought it would be, but he persevered. A sharp edge of the glynt eventually made enough of a tear for Tad to start ripping it away. The material was tough and did not come off neatly. The strips he tore away would suddenly end, leaving no remnant to tug away more. But Tad was ferocious and persistent, each time using the glynt to rip a new fingerhold and continue the work. He tried using his teeth, but they were loose and moved dangerously when he tugged the bandage; besides, his jaw was too weak to grip the material tightly enough.

So he tore and he tore and he cut and he tore, with an obstinacy and grim mania that lit his eyes with fever. His sandpaper tongue lolled out over cracked lips. His sore and dwindled body objected at every turn to the work, but Tad pressed on. The initial panic had transformed into a burning determination to know, to change, to break out of whatever box he was in. He would take off this damned awkward bandage, he would start a fire and fill his belly, and then he would climb up into the wagon and start down the road. If Mumma wouldn’t move, then damn her—he would do it himself.

It took a long while for Tad to realize that he had reached the end of the bandage, that it was all torn off and lay ribboned on the ground. He kept turning his arm this way and that, looking for another fingerhold, another bit of once-pristine white cloth to rip away. But there was nothing more. The bandage had ended long before it reached his hand, but yet—it had covered his hand, and—there was nothing more. There was nothing more, and his arm… Tad turned it this way and that. Somehow the moonlight was playing tricks on him. It appeared to end not far after the elbow.

He stood, dazed, trying to work up some saliva. None came. He stared around at the scraps of bandage that littered the earth and felt the numbness in his legs, the blunt pins and needles as blood creepingly returned to them. His plans fled. His ardor crumbled. He wanted nothing more than to be held by Mumma, to bury his face in her and cry an endless river. Tad retched and swallowed drily back. His throat burned, a burning that crept up into his mouth. Saliva came. Stomach twisted up. He took a slow, halting step toward the wagon, feeling only that he could not stay still.

As he trudged uncertainly forward, a mumbled whisper of something not words spilled out. Tad was not aware of it as anything but a low rumble in his chest, the soft and comforting sound of someone there, someone who understood, in his ears. When he reached the wagon he put his hand on it, put his hand on it and waited, waited staring at the ground, staring at the ground breathing nonsense syllables to himself. At the edges of his sight he saw the oxen shift and clumsily paw the ground, snorting wetly. He stood for an eternity, feeling the wood against his hand, his hand against the wood, the sweat between, the pulsing fatigue growing in his tired arm. In the gaps between his hoarse utterances, blood rushed a river through his ears.

Hand slipped down from fatigue and sweat, Tad stumbled off along the road, back away from the damned oxen and toward the hateful town. Night was hot but less hot, and he shivered from the sweat that lined his clothes. He hugged himself and hunched himself and tried to grip the arm that wasn’t there. He felt the arm and then he felt his clothes, and looked down to see himself clutching his only whole arm against his chest, the half arm falling woefully short and hanging awkwardly. Tad hunched himself harder against the breeze and hugged himself hard across the chest, shoving his hand into his wet, warm armpit.

It was a long, long night. He wandered endlessly up and down the road between the back of the wagon and the meaningless always-open gate to Nilston, outside himself. Tad was somewhere inside, struggling for breath, and meanwhile his body occupied itself in a frozen world. Nothing stirred inside the town or out. There was only the breeze, his footsteps, the obscure quiet mutterings that slipped through his parched lips. At some point he sought out a water bladder and drank it down, at some point he methodically shoveled down the cold and lumpy remnants of whatever Mumma had cooked up hours and hours before, scooping it up with his fingers from the iron cookpot. He remembered neither.

The first thoughts that he could remember, as the sun readied to shatter the dark of the world, were these: I have been betrayed. Mumma has betrayed me.

 

47

Tad did not remember sleeping, but he woke. Surrounded by withered tallgrass. It was nearly sun-top. His body ached, his mouth was a desert, his stomach clutched at itself and groaned. The perpetual tightness was absent from his left shoulder, and he remembered that the bandage was gone. He did not look. He did not want to look. He could see nothing familiar through the grass, and struggled to his feet.

He was off to the side of the road, halfway to the trees and halfway between the wagon and the Nilston gate. From inside the town he heard the ends of angry voices, a man and woman shouting at each other. Down the road, Mumma’s head rose above the back of the driver’s bench, turned in profile. If she saw him, she did not show it. He could not see if her eyes were open.

In Tad’s weak and stumbly state, the tallgrass was a hardship. He pushed straight to the road to minimize the time spent walking through it, catching his legs and nearly falling with every second step. It was difficult to bend his knees, difficult to raise his heavy legs more than a few inches from the ground. The resulting stiff-legged foot-dragging gait did not work well in the grass. Had he not been so entirely fixated on Mumma, he would have felt relief at breaking free onto the road.

Tad shuffled down the bare dirt, covering the ten cartlengths to the wagon by rotating rightward in an arc, then leftward, then rightward, raising his feet just enough to clear the ground and then rotating his body. His toes grew numb from dragging.

As he slowly drew nearer he could see that Mumma was awake, watching him with a single stony eye. She made no move to help, and Tad made no movement to request it. It was a long, hard walk for him. By the time he reached the back of the wagon, he was covered in sweat and shook from fatigue and hunger. The length of the wagon seemed another ox-day. Here the wagon cast a small shadow; he could escape the sun and Mumma’s equally difficult eye. Tad set his back against the wagon and slid down to sit by the rear right wheel, taking in a shuddering breath and feeling his good arm tremble against the carpet of short, dry, beaten-down grass next to the road. He felt awful. His heart seemed to shake his whole body.

Long moments later came sounds of weight on wood, felt more with his body through the wagon than heard with his ears from the air. Mumma set down with heavy feet. He could feel her eyes on him, heavier still, but did not turn to look. She was not worth the energy. Footsteps rattled the rough grass, and he felt her standing over him. He looked not at her, but at the long long shadow she cast upon the earth.

“‘Tweren’t Dapper, eh?” said loud above.

Tad winced at the volume. He did not know whether she had noticed that the bandage was off. Part of him was stonily indifferent, and part of him was dying for her to pick him up and hold him close.

The wagon creaked and shifted. From the edge of his eye, he saw her leaning heavily against it. Something smelled bad. He wrinkled his nose. She sighed.

“Out it, nae, Taddil,” said Mumma in a voice that quivered between fatigue and exasperated anger.

“What?” said Tad, hunching his shoulders and drawing his feet up out of the sun. His voice was rough and phlegmy.

She sighed. Fatigue won out: “Don’ makes me rough-house ya ta fin’ it,” said Mumma tiredly. “I won’ lay no hand on ya fers takin’ it, iff’n ya just gives it me nae.”

Tad felt tears welling in his eyes. Leaning forward and staring down into the dirt of the road between his feet, he blinked them away as best he could. One fell, smudging the perfect dust. “I don’t know where it is,” he said, trying to keep his voice low and quiet and dry.

He succeeded in one of the three: “Hm?” said Mumma.

Tad wiped his cheeks, feigning—well, half-feigning—tiredness as an excuse to rub his eyes and face. He looked up, bravely meeting her eye. “I don’t know where it is,” he said again.

With hardly a pause and not one word, Mumma gripped his hair and swiveled him around with his butt as the pivot, throwing his back down against the road. Tad rolled onto his side, drawing his legs up, and then Mumma was upon him. He did not struggle because he could not win, and Mumma’s strong and nimble hands first emptied his ratty pockets and then, then— Then nothing. Tad cracked an eye. Mumma sat on the ground in front of him, laughing grotesquely, mouth yawning open to expose her crimson gums and garden of brown teeth.

It was too much. Tad wept, openly and silently and without end. And sat opposite, Mumma laughed until tears came to her eyes, laughed long and hard and quiet—until she could gasp a breath, and then she laughed long and hard and loud.

He sniffled and sobbed. She screeched with laughter. He hated her, hated her with the righteous fury of a child, and wanted her desperately to stop laughing and hug him to her, murmuring sympathetically about his arm.

Mumma did nothing of the sort. She calmed down only enough to wipe her eyes, lean back on her palms, face the sky, and push out between new fits of giggling: “Ye’ll hafta…tries a bit, bit har-der…thens ya trouser—trouser pockey, eh?” She burst out laughing again, pointed to her head and rolled her eyes while gasping out unintelligible words, then collapsed on her back and serenaded the sun with guffaws. Tad licked away the tears that came near enough, letting the rest fall to the road. He needed the moisture, he wanted the moisture, but he was too preoccupied with the horrific display before him to manage. Such cruelty, such indifference he had never known.

She calmed down first, pushing up to sit and wipe her eyes. Tad, still slowly shedding tears, looked at her with all the hatred he could muster. “I told you, I didn’t know where it was,” he said thickly. “I forgot it was in there.”

Mumma smiled a crooked, gentle smile, pushed to her feet and gave Tad a derisively consoling pat on the head. “Nae, nae, Taddy, lyin’ af’er sun-top’s no good neither.” She reached into the wagon and pulled out a water bladder, taking a deep draught. Tad stared up at her, open-mouthed and lonely.

“I’m not—” he started, but she gave him such a dire warning with her eyes that he cut off.

She finished her drink and put the bladder away, eyeing Tad critically. “No good takin’ off tha linen, neither,” she said. “Hafta bind ‘er ag’in whens I’m good ‘n’ done wi’tha ox.”

With that, she turned and went to the oxen.

 

48

Tad was silent the rest of the day. Silent as Mumma saw to the oxen, silent as she tended Dapper and the cookfire, silent as she bound Tad’s indecent arm tight with dirty, ripped linen. There was no need to explain, and she didn’t—it was the best they had, now that he’d torn up the old bandage.

Tad did not sleep that afternoon. While Mumma took her usual nap, he struggled up into the wagon to sit with Dapper for the first time in a long while. At first Dapper winked and smiled, waved his arms wildly and made incomprehensible noises; Tad only watched him with sad, kind eyes and patted him on the head, so Dapper soon gave up on trying to entertain. They merely sat together, listening to the oxen and quietly bearing the heat of the sun, sweating buckets. The smell was tolerable. Mumma had left her water bladder to the side of the wagon, and Tad poured most of it down Dapper’s throat and the remainder down his own. He fondly remembered his time with Dapper in the forest, how they had enjoyed lazing around in the leaves together.

Dapper eventually fell asleep. Tad searched around and found a scrap of knit that didn’t seem to smell of piss—though he couldn’t be completely sure, seeing as how the smell of piss hung in the air all around. He placed it over Dapper’s face to try to protect it from the sun; nearly everywhere un-bearded had turned a thick, angry red. For a moment his breath caught in his throat. Dapper looked a rotter in that state, save the minor stirring of his chest. He nearly removed the cloth, but stayed his hand—Dapper clearly needed it. Instead, set his back against the driver’s bench, creating a view of Dapper’s greasy mop of hair and his gently moving belly. Asleep or awake, Dapper was much the same anyway, these days. But his presence was a comfort, and Tad stayed and sweated and indulged in it. He steeled himself for his dealings with Mumma to come.

Dinner was, as always, eaten in silence. Tonight it was a half-boiled green mass seeded with strips of tough and hideously oversalted oxmeat. Much like every other night. Tad ate it all and wanted more; there was no more, he knew. As Mumma patiently forced the small remainder into Dapper’s uncooperative mouth, Tad paced up and down the length of the wagon, occasionally patting the flanks of the nearest ox to reassure himself.

Mumma passed by as the sun began its reluctant farewell, stopping a step to ruffle his hair as a silent goodbye. This time, he followed her, unable to keep up with his weak and limping gait but persisting all the same. His eyes bored into her back. His breathing grew hard. He swallowed spitless down a rough, dry throat. He did not turn back. He would not turn back.

It was not until halfway to the Nilston gate that Mumma realized she had an escort. Finally feeling his eyes on her, she glanced over her shoulder and then stopped and turned, squinting against the sun. It took her a moment. She tilted her head this way and that, shading her eyes with her hands. Tad slogged on toward her, foot pinching and leg twinging with every step.

“Taddil! I’s back at suns-up, same’s always!” She called out.

Tad plowed forward.

“Taddil!”

He ignored her.

With a visible sigh, she began to walk back down the road toward him. Tad did not stop, did not slow, merely pushed on grimly toward her with a rock-hard stubbornness hardening his eyes. With Mumma’s long strides closing the gap, she was quickly at him. He tried to step around her, but she grabbed him by the hair and did not let go.

“Where’s ya goin’, eh? Where’s ya goin’?”

Tad did not answer, and tried unsuccessfully to squirm away. His eyes were locked on the gate to Nilston.

“Taddil!” she exhorted.

He ignored her and squirmed. She reached down, pulled him back and hoisted him up in her arms, easy as anything. He marveled at her strength but tried not to show it, instead ostentatiously avoiding her eyes and making showy but ineffective thrusts with his neck, as if trying to see over her shoulder.

“Taddil!” she screeched in his ear. “Where’s ya goin’!?”

Tad made no answer in word or deed. Mumma’s face grew anxious.

“You hain’t gots yer Dapper’s sick, nae, ha’e ‘e?”

Tad remained mute and silently persisted. He struck Mumma’s jaw with his head as he tried to look over her shoulder. The anxiety did not disappear, but now Mumma’s face darkened with anger, eyes sparking dangerously.

“Says somethin’ diff’rent nae, Taddy, else I’ll tie ya up back in tha wagon fer havin’ yer Dapper’s disease.”

He tried to lunge over her shoulder, tongue hanging out, groaning. Mumma shook his whole body, bouncing it up and down and up and down.

“Says somethin’ diff’rent, ya damned muddy brat!” Panic edged her voice.

Tad stopped moving, settling into her arms, and looked up clear-eyed full into her face. “If you go to Nilston, I go to Nilston.”

Her eyes turned stone hard, no measure of warmth or worry. Without a further word she marched to the wagon and deposited Tad ungently on the driver’s bench, poking his nose with every word as she growled: “Ye’ll stay here, ya knows what’s good for ya. Nilston’s no place fer a boy’s yerself.”

Tad said nothing, only watched with a patient diffidence that had at its heart an iron-bound rock of resolve. This would end. The nightly abandonment, the meaningless waiting, the long hungry sleepless nights with only a mute Dapper and snorty-borty oxen for company. This. Would. End. If she went to Nilston, he would follow as long as he had legs and those legs could walk.

Mumma took ten paces down the road, and Tad pushed himself upright and slid down from the swing-up, hobbling after her on his blistered feet and weak legs. She looked back, face a thundercloud, but he wobbled on undeterred, not stopping until he deliberately bumped into her. Her hands were on her hips, her mouth was tight set. He stared up defiantly.

She grabbed him by the whole arm and dragged him back to the wagon. This time she did not bother to hoist him up, simply forced his back up against the wood and stabbed her finger just short of his nose. He stared at it cross-eyed. It was enormous.

“Las’ chance, eh, Taddy! Ye’ll muddy well stays’ere, or I’ll muddy makes ya stay!” She glared at him and flared her eyelids wide. Tad noted only, in the dead calm of his heart, that she looked a bit like an ox when she did that.

Mumma slowly turned away again, holding eye contact for as long as she could. She turned back at ten paces, twenty, thirty, fifty, and then Tad pushed off and started on his way. He knew she would definitely look back again and see him, probably drag him back to the wagon, maybe do something unpleasant as punishment, but he didn’t care. He would force her to move on toward Featherwall, no matter what she did to him. This would end.

She did look back. She did stop. Tad thought he could hear her growl from nearly a hundred paces off. Mumma strode swiftly back and Tad continued stubbornly to meet her. Again she dragged him by his arm, this time walking so fast that he nearly had to run to keep from tripping.

At the wagon, she hesitated only the barest of moments at the swing-up before pushing on to the back. Tad was roughly, awkwardly raised into the back of the wagon. By the time he rolled over and got his bearings, Mumma was up there with him, standing over him. She grabbed his whole arm and dragged him backward, bumping and sliding and catching on the rough wood, until he was atop something soft and lumpy and uncomfortably warm. It squirmed awkwardly beneath him. Dapper.

“Didn’ wants ta, Taddy, really didn’ wants ta, but ye’ve gones ‘n’ leaved me no choices. No choices a’tall.”

Tad felt his good arm being roughly pulled and prodded into an exact position. A strip of linen rubbed soft against his bare upper arm, just below the shoulder, then bit in tight. He checked a gasp and only grunted, determined not to give her more. Her long skirts brushed his cheek, tickling, and then she moved past and grabbed a leg. Tad shifted uncomfortably and found he could not move his arm. What in muddy damn oxfart hell was she doing?

He looked down and saw. From one of her myriad pockets, Mumma withdraw a strip of linen—a very recognizable strip of linen—and wrapped it around his leg and Dapper’s, just below the knee. She tied it tight and moved to the other leg. Tad could not believe it. She was going to leave him here all night, strapped to Dapper, helpless to thirst and hunger and all those awful bandits she was always otherwise so damned worried about. And to Dapper’s untamed bladder on top of it all. Already his arm was getting numb from the restricted bloodflow.

Mumma finished tying off his second leg and stood, looking down at the incapacitated Tad. He tried to put on a brave face, but he was sure his eyes gave him away. Mumma’s face softened.

“I’s didn’ wants ta, Taddy, but ye’ve leaved me no choices. No choices a’tall. I didn’ wants ta.”

She looked away, twinges of guilt showing.

“Ansyways, ye’ll be safer here wheres none can sees ya then ye’d be trampin’ roun’ tha’ damned town.” She climbed down, reached back and squeezed his foot. “Safer here, Taddy, believes me that. Jus’ a shame ye’ve gone ‘n’ put yer Dapper out’s too.” She sighed and tapped her forehead, eyes glancing to the heavens. “Mebbe ye’ll no’ test yer Mumma so hard nex’ time.”

Then she was gone, and only Dapper and the long, hot, hungry night were there.

 

49

He did not first try to free himself. The sun bent rays over the horizon directly into his eyes, and so he closed his eyes and bent his head back, nestling into Dapper’s shoulder. Despite the warmth and the smell and the lumpy ribs poking into his back, it was pleasant. Tad enjoyed the nearness, and was well accustomed to deprivation of water, food, shelter.

He considered his confrontation with Mumma. Had he accomplished anything? She understood now that he was determined to follow her into Nilston, but she might think it was a temporary obsession. Would she strap him to Dapper every night to prevent him from following her? She seemed to think it somewhat cruel to both of them, and somewhat dangerous as well. But did she understand why he did it? Did she know what he was trying to accomplish? Tad thought on it. He reconsidered his plans. He determined a new course of action for the next night.

This was all finished before the last of the sun’s violet hues faded to black. Tad stared up at the rising stars, feeling one of Dapper’s ribs burrowing into the small of his back. His invisible left arm reached up and pushed down on Dapper’s shoulder, leveraging his body upward into a more comfortable position—but he didn’t move, of course. He closed his eyes and pushed again. It felt nice, unreal as it was. A tear slipped from the corner of his eye.

Beneath him, Dapper mumbled and groaned and tried to shift, to roll onto his side. Tad slid a bit, into a more comfortable spot, but that was all Dapper could manage. A moment later, Dapper’s uncomfortable mumblings rattling in his ear, Tad felt a warm and spreading wetness growing on the back of his thigh. He was startled beyond breath for a long moment—Was he bleeding? Was Dapper bleeding?—before common sense and his nose informed him of what was actually happening. By comparison, he was relieved, and the initial warmth was pleasant. Unlike Mumma, he’d never had anything in particular against a bit of piss. As long as he didn’t have to drink it, he wasn’t too bothered.

It didn’t take long for gaps to grow in this cavalier attitude. As the urine cooled, the moisture gave him toadskin on his legs; the knit of his wet trousers pressed uncomfortably against the skin when he was still and rubbed uncomfortably when he shifted. Tad tried to separate the wet knit from the back of his thighs by bending the leg at the knee, but his bindings made it impossible to hold the position for long—he had to pull Dapper’s leg up to do it. After a few times, Dapper seemed to grasp what Tad was trying to do, and folded his leg up at the knee to help. This made things easier for a while, but Tad’s leg fell asleep rather painfully and he instructed Daps to stretch his leg out flat again. As blood flowed to the leg and he recovered feeling, Tad realized that the knit had sloughed back just to the side of his crotch, and now pushed with an insistent, uncomfortably rough wetness in a cuff around the whole area. No position in his limited range offered any relief.

He closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but it was utterly hopeless. At first, for what seemed an entire night in itself, his mind would not stop. He ran through his confrontation with Mumma innumerable times, each time feeling fresh anger and offense and injustice. He rethought his plan of action almost as many times, though he never changed it in the end. He thought of the delights of home and the delights to come in Featherwall. He remembered, as best he could, Dapper when he was healthy, Dapper at home, Dapper keeping him company in the forest while Mumma lived it up in Nilston. He imagined the happy times to come when Dapper recovered in Featherwall. Slowly these thoughts grew softer, softer and dreamy, dreamy and incoherent, incoherent and gone. But every time slumber’s dark curtain began to lower over his mind, something from outside would push in and Tad would groan and push up again to wake, tasting the thickness of his rotten saliva and the dull, horrible sting of consciousness. Every small sound was razor-sharp in his ears—the snort of an ox, the buzz of a fly, the small wet sounds of Dapper’s restlessly uncontrolled mouth. Every sensation was a small murder—a fly on his face, Dapper shifting below, his own false arm pretending to move or to startle or to pinch.

The flies were something he truly noticed for the first time in his young life. They were an occasional irritation when he was trying to sleep or when he had his hands full, but always dealt with in stride—they could be smashed, shaken off, snorted away with a strong and well-placed venting of the nose. Now, incapacitated, they drove him to fits of murderous rage. No matter how many times he blew at them, shook his head, wiped at them awkwardly with his half-arm, they always returned just the same, buzzing in to tickle his face with brutal persistence. Out of frustration he tried to swallow them, and succeeded a few times. He was angry enough to overcome his aversion to their squirming in his mouth and bite down. When he calmed, the texture of the remaining bits made him gag and nearly retch, but a few deep breaths and a scraping of his tongue with his front teeth got him through it. They actually didn’t taste half bad, a bit like a roasted rocktree nut, once he rid himself of the grotesquely meaty texture.

They seemed to love the piss around his crotch, but he couldn’t feel them through the knit and wasn’t bothered. It was the ones around his feet that made him want to howl like a grollor—he would have gladly ripped Dapper’s arm off to be able to smash them. They would swarm in—always a swarm at once, never a lone bandit—and run along the tickly ridges of his feet to his toes, dance around on the sensitive skin of his ankles, flit from toe to toe and buzz languorously about his heels. It was the fat ones that seemed to love his heels the most, and they were the biting kind. Tad would have gladly sucked them in and chewed them up had he the lungs for it, no matter how disgusting they were likely to taste.

What was truly maddening though, what drove him so far beyond frustration that he wept and arched up against his bonds and growled at the moon, was that they would not stay away. He would wiggle his feet as best he could, and a few of the smaller ones would jump off; he would pull up his feet tight against the binds and then push out the other way as quick as he could while wiggling awkwardly, and all but the fat biters at his heels would leap away; he would lurch his whole body up and down, slamming back into Dapper repeatedly and forcing all his energy into undulating his calves and pulling Dapper’s legs up and down and left and right, colliding hard into the wagon’s rough wood with a grim fervor until his lungs were bursting, his legs ached, his feet were scratched and numb from all the abuse. For about ten seconds, sometimes a luxurious twenty, his face and feet and hand and even his piss-covered trousers would be free and clear, a blue sky without sensation. The fire in Tad’s brain would cool as he sucked down the warm night air, pulling through his mouth to avoid the close and acrid smell of Dapper. Dapper would shift and mumble incoherently. And then the flies would swarm back home, and Tad would rear his head and blow fiercely and try to pretend his legs did not exist.

On one of these endless, exhausting rounds, Tad’s left foot slipped free of its binding. He raised his head and raised his leg and watched the bare foot quiver in the air, blinking in surprise. It was impossible. Was it a figment of his imagination, like his arm? Did he not actually have a leg, either? The leg felt very very tired, in any case, so he plopped it back down hard on Dapper’s shin and laid his head back in the crook of Dapper’s neck. Daps groaned. Tad shifted his head to spy on the mysterious leg. It twitched slightly and still felt exhausted. Around the foot he saw a strip of grey, and remembered the fabric that had formed his bindings, remembered where Mumma had taken them from. She was practical; she wouldn’t have bound up an imaginary leg, just as she hadn’t bound up his half-arm. Hm. He decided to test it. Pushing through his exhaustion, he popped his head up again and raised the leg and swung it over to the side, angling it so that the foot of it collided with the foot on his right leg with as much force as he could muster. Oh. He definitely felt it ram into his right foot and, much more importantly, he felt the flies lift off. His foot might imagine an impact—as he knew all too well—but the flies wouldn’t. They were far too stubborn for that.

He experimented with the foot. For a while he simply used it to rest his weary body—it was infinitely easier to smack his right foot with his left to knock the flies off. As he became more successful at keeping the flies off his feet, however, other irritations crept in. Clammy, rash-ridden skin pressing up against the piss-wet knit. Dapper’s sharp ribs poking up into his back. His numb, fatigued and blood-dry limbs. It suddenly occurred to him that the binding for the other leg might be loose enough to pull free, and that his left foot was available to help.

Tad placed his foot on Dapper’s leg just above the binding and tried to wiggle his big toe under the cloth. It didn’t work—the space was too small and there was no give to the binding. He struggled to push his bound leg over the edge of Dapper’s, so that it was positioned to the inside of Dapper’s leg rather than above it. This created a tiny chasm where the legs curved away downward and the cloth went straight across in a tight line. Sweating and blowing and shaking his head to ward off the damned flies, Tad maneuvered his left leg over his right and set the heel hard against the binding. He pushed with all his might with the left leg and pulled with all his might with the right. The leg slid upward about an inch, but only on the side against Dapper’s leg; the other side didn’t budge, and he could feel the thin line of the binding cutting in against his leg.

The flies were holding races on his right foot again, and Tad gritted his teeth against the tickling and dispatched his left foot to help, backing it up and then ramming it hard into his right. The flies scattered and Tad recreated the experiment in his head. He was so thirsty that it was getting hard to think—his throat ached and it was difficult and painful to swallow. The only moisture in his mouth came from the blood he scraped from his cracked lips with his swollen tongue, and this tiny amount disappeared every time he foolishly tried to blow away flies with his mouth; when he remembered, he snorted the air hard from his nose instead, but it was getting to the point where that wasn’t a much better option—his nostrils were raw deserts of dried mucus that burned fiercely when he pushed air through them. He was starting to float above his body, which made it easier to withstand the various sensations bearing down on him but harder to diagnose the problem with his effort at getting free.

After a long struggle to think it through, punctuated by several head-shaking and foot-crashing sessions, he concluded that the angle had been wrong. So Tad pushed hard with his ox-days-away leg and brought it over the top of Dapper’s own, to the outer side, and set his left foot again against the tight strip of rolled cloth. This felt more natural. He strained and pushed and pulled and groaned, and then let out a cat-like growl of frustration as the attempt turned out no better than the last. He stopped and panted and sweated and inadvertently sucked in a fly, coughing and choking and heaving in response until he was thoroughly exhausted, lying curled awkwardly on his right side atop Dapper’s hollow body, leg and arm pulled straight above and below by the cruel bindings. He shivered with fatigue and felt the flies land again on his feet and cursed Mumma and the moon and the oxen and the flies and the night and his own short life.

As utterly exhausted as he was, as high above his own body as he floated, as much as he desired the escape, Tad still could not drift asleep—the flies on his feet brought him back every time with the wild and unpredictable sensations they sent spidering across his feet. Tad tried to move his left leg up so it could gather momentum for a collision. It did not cooperate. He swung it down from inches away, desperate to chase away the flies, and rested the left foot against the right. The tiny collision had almost no effect, but the foot-on-foot contact did. Gently rubbing his soles together, he discovered, was just as effective—or more, gratingly enough—as the exhausting and sometimes painful collisions he had been putting all his energy into.

Tad focused on the simple up-and-down motion, covering the side of his face with his half-arm to keep the flies off. They then landed on his arm, naturally, but this bothered him infinitely less. He wondered why he hadn’t considered it before—though he basically knew: he’d been thinking of the entire limb as Gone, when in fact it was Half There, and still had its uses. He would have to get used to it. Now interrupted only by the small keening of his own effort and the occasional groan from Dapper, Tad drifted further and further and further from the dimming and ever-stranger world. He was bewildered, he was angry, he was confused, and then he was no longer there.

 

50

He woke with a start in the sun in the grass, itchy and aching and sweating. A small square of fabric atop his chest, for some reason. No smoke rose in the sky. He heard the wet snort of an ox nearby.

Fighting his stiff and painful body to push up onto his elbows, Tad confirmed that no cookfire burned. He struggled to his feet and pushed through the dried longgrass to the swing-up, and there was Mumma slumped against the wood with a square of knit draped over her face. Tad squinted up to gauge the sun—late morning, seemed like. Not far from sun-top. Mumma must be tired. He looked again, working his cracked lips. A water bladder was wedged to the side and just behind her rump.

In his state, it might just as well have been floating an ox-day overhead. Tad stared at it longingly, sweat cresting his eyebrow and stinging down in. He raised his arm to the back of the bench and tried to pull himself up, testing grip and balance and power, but it was clearly not going to work. He lacked the strength. Even standing was difficult—he wobbled this way and that, staggering drunkenly now and then as a calf or thigh or heel was slow to respond to a shift in balance and his ankle paid the price, suddenly buckling and rolling his foot onto its outside edge.

He kept his hand on the bench to steady himself, and creaked out a feeble call to Mumma. Barely loud enough to trouble his own ears, he was unsurprised when it failed to wake her. He tried again, and then again, and then coughed roughly and painfully and tried yet again. Each time seemed quieter than the last, and the cough came out as little more than a dry, nearly silent and shockingly stinging rasp.

He gave up on using his voice and tried to angle his arm to grab her leg, twisting his shoulder until it hurt. No chance. It wasn’t even close. Tad eyed the space between the oxen and the wagon and took a half-step forward, but couldn’t bring himself to push on. No matter how often Mumma had been wrong of late, he believed her warnings about getting close in behind an ox. He had seen the ugly consequences with his own eyes, years ago, and the half-remembered, half-imagined scene made him shudder even now. He stepped back and gave the oxen a wide berth, slowly tramping around the other side of the wagon. Again he twisted and reached and struggled to grab her leg or arm or dress or any damned thing that might wake her, but again he fell well short. She was aggravatingly centered on the bench.

He glanced around for a rock before remembering that there weren’t any, in this stupid oxfart of a place. He would have to throw something else, but there wasn’t anything else. Tad could barely think, his throat was so agonizingly dry; it felt like it was going to close up at the base, somewhere above his belly, if his enormously swollen tongue didn’t stop the flow of air first. He struggled out of his ragged excuse for a shirt, which took far far longer than expected due to having one half-arm and one blazingly painful and stiff arm, twirled the shirt around and around and around until it took on a general rope-like shape, and then did his best to lash Mumma with the end of it.

It did not work as expected. It took several tries for Tad just to get it to properly rotate up and over his shoulder instead of hitting the back of his head, each time taking a step back from the wagon to give space for a broader motion. When he finally pulled it off, then, it did not reach, and his aim was off as well—the roll of knit flopped softly against the back of the driver’s bench a full foot from Mumma and withered down to the bottom. Already tired, he dragged it back and stepped closer and tried again. Again, he was unable to complete the overhead motion, pulling up short as he stepped forward and nearly slammed his hand into the wagon. Out of sheer stubbornness he tried a few more times, alternately falling short of hitting Mumma and falling short of even getting the damned shirt over his head.

Finally he gave up, abruptly dropping the useless jumble of dirty knit at his feet and stumbling off toward the firepit, mind blank. He had no idea what to do next, no idea why he was heading toward the firepit—except that it seemed preferable to the wagon—and no idea if he would even survive to carry out his plan at nightfall. Surely this thirst would kill him soon. He hoped it would, anyway. He felt a hard and painful knot above his stomach, his mouth was full of Firebug’s Kiss, his throat was a nettle, his entire body was uncooperative and even his phantom arm was sore to the point of fire. Damn Mumma, damn her and her damn laziness. Had he felt well enough to dwell on it, he was sure her inattention would have brought tears to his eyes. It was profoundly sad, he thought wearily from far away.

Tad reached the firepit and plopped down wearily on the hard earth, suffering the sun and gingerly licking sweat from around his mouth with his prickly, enormous tongue. He stared down at his mottled torso, wondering in a roundabout way about the strange splotches and patterns and variations of brown and white. Maybe he was getting sick, like Dapper? Maybe Mumma was painting him while he slept? Maybe the Swillums were coming out at night to play Nine-head Jacks on his stomach those nights when he drifted off? Or the stars were shooting twinkle-light at him behind his back? He realized in the end that it was just from the large-spaced knit of his shirt, and the holes in it, making weird layers and patterns of suntan and sunburn. It was both a disappointment and a relief.

He started, realizing that he had been staring down vacantly at the cookstick for empty minutes. Was that why he had come over here? He didn’t know. He was far away from his own mind. His arms were roads leading off somewhere into the distance. Tad felt his fingers close around the stick, and he closed his eyes for a moment and thought, stretching out his mind to communicate with the rest of himself. It was his right hand. Good. It was real.

Not wanting to try standing, he swung awkwardly at the cookpot a few times. It made a dull metallic thunk, and swayed. He noticed, now, the flies crawling on it. They buzzed up momentarily when he connected with the iron kettle. This was the only satisfaction he got from hitting it. It hurt his arm, and was nowhere near loud enough to wake Mumma. Even had she been right under it, he doubted it would have waked her—Dapper’s snoring sure didn’t, and that was a wagonload louder.

He tried to stand but the world spun, and he staggered and bowed back down onto his side, world still tilting wildly. He felt sick. He closed his eyes. He still felt sick. He retched, throat convulsing painfully for minutes and hours and days beyond counting. Sweat stood on his forehead. Nothing came out. He gasped and breathed through his gut, and suddenly felt well—better than he could remember ever feeling before, actually. He pushed to his feet. The world still murmured around him, but it didn’t matter. Tad had his stick, and he was off to the wagon.

It was not as quick as he wanted, nor as simple nor as easy nor as clean, but it worked. Tad slammed the thick wood rod against whatever part of the wagon was at hand, a dogged and panting smile playing on his lips as he smacked the sides and the back and the under, beat loudly against the jump-up, and even lightly struck the haunches of the damned ox nearest him—which didn’t make a worthwhile sound but made the ox paw and snort and stamp, which was just as good to Tad. He was, in fact, so completely wrapped up in the process of waking Mumma that he didn’t actually realize he had woken Mumma until her warm and calloused hand stayed his forearm with a gentle strength. He looked up.

“Nae, then, wha’s’it nae, Taddy?” whispered Mumma hoarsely. A thick red line ran the length of her cheek.

“Th— ha——,” said Tad, in the dry raspy whisper of the immeasurably thirsty. He then pointed to his throat, but Mumma was already turned away and reaching for her bladder of water. She ministered a few judicious drops to her own blasted mouth, then washed the rest down his throat. He gulped and gulped and then it was gone, much too soon.

“Thanks, Mumma,” like a good boy he said, and already he was thirsty again.

She patted his head and sighed and squatted to his level. “I’s didn’ wants ta do it, Taddy, but ye left ‘e no choice-es, no choices a’tall, true’s day.” Her tone turned. She wagged a fat finger at his big eyes. “But skies above, Taddy, skies above I’ll do’t ag’in ‘out a moment’s wait iff’n ye does somethin’ like ‘at ag’in. Ye don’ know the dangers awaitin’ ya ins town, there.” She massaged his dirty cheek roughly with her sweaty palm. “I’s fer yer own damn good, truly,” she growled.

Tad reflexively clenched his teeth. He hated it when she said that, hated it more than anything.

She stood, patting his head again. He looked off to the side, watching the oxtails swish around, and sucked the inside of his cheek. “So no mores, eh? Taddy?” she said. “No mores, ‘n’ tha’s a promise, yeah?”

He ignored her. She waited a short moment, then gripped his hair and tilted his head back, angling his eyes to meet hers. He could see her face looming large in his periphery but avoided looking at it, focused on the oxtails.

“Tha’s a promise, yeah?” she growled.

“Yeah,” said Tad reluctantly.

“Looks at’cha Mumma whens ya speaks ta ‘er,” she graveled.

He sullenly met her eyes. “Yeah, Mumma,” he chewed out.

She eyed him suspiciously. “Not lyin’ ta yer mumma ‘fore sun-top, yeah?”

“No, Mumma,” he averred with all the tiny slinking portion of obsequious unforthrightness in him, forcefully shunting down a fierce desire to howl at her and bite her nose.

“Well, ‘en,” she said with a final tousle of his greasy hair, and moved to take the oxen.

 

51

The day persisted because Tad wanted it to end. Every time he glanced up at the sun it slowed a bit, the damned spiteful thing. The problem was that he had nothing to do but watch it pass across the sky—except for trying to stay in the shade and munching on Mumma’s latest abominable cookpot creation, without water to ease it down. (Mumma claimed that first bladder of the day had been her one and only.) As ways to pass the time these were not engaging, and Tad spent the day either tracking the sun’s agonizingly slow progress or trying to force himself not to look up at it.

He wanted to be awake when Mumma got back after he carried out his plan tonight, so he reasoned that he should sleep as much as he could now. That only served to make him more alert, naturally enough. He tried stretching out in the shade, in the sun, with knit over his head and without, but none of it mattered. He was too hot, too nervous, too excited. His body was tired—well, his body was always tired—but his mind could not slow to latch onto the veil of sleep. What would Mumma do in response? Would she realize her utter defeat at his hands, take switch to the oxen and move past this damned town? Would she call his bluff and simply ignore it? Or would she tie him up nightly and otherwise keep on as before? The last possibility made his stomach dance with such fear that he nearly decided not to do it.

But he steeled himself to the task. Things could not continue in this way. He did not know what Featherwall held, but he knew that Nilston was misery and boredom—endless waiting for a what he did not know and a when that never came. They clung to survival by a thin edge for no reason that he could discern, and by the bright sky above he swore to himself he would change things. Damn what damned Mumma said or wanted or thought or did. He didn’t give a load of oxfarts. She ignored his needs, ignored Dapper’s needs, because she thought they had no power and she was in charge. Tad smiled a grim and wincing smile, scraping along the hard earth on his butt to try to stay in the shade. He would prove her wrong. He would speak up for himself and for Dapper. He would show her what power they had.

 

52

When nightfall did come, Tad was asleep. He came to life confused and alone, startled awake by an unremembered dream, and struggled to close the gap between the remembered and the new. He did not remember falling asleep. Throat painfully dry, he spasmed with raw coughs, taking the blurred sliver of moon to mean that Mumma had gone and left him in the grass. He paused to suck down a lungful of air, using the moment of stillness to confirm the low embers of the cookfire. Almost dead. Coughing again, he stumbled up and at the wagon.

When next he took air, Tad held his breath to try to quell the coughing fit. In the weak moonlight, he spied a plump water bladder atop the driver’s bench. He exploded with coughs again, unable to hold them back. His arm, his body still ached and his stomach growled with an angry hunger. He hoped he had the strength to pull himself onto the swing-up, remembering with irritation that the old wagon had had a step. This one, out of cheapness or rough design or a complete disinterest in children, did not. Leaning hard against a wheel, he coughed until he had no more air to cough. A bitter metal tang sparked on his tongue. His throat burned. He heaved and coughed, heaved and coughed, heaved and coughed.

It occurred to him while he wildly sucked air into his lungs that the swing-up was actually higher than the back of the wagon, when the gate was dropped. Fighting a losing battle against the deep-seated tickle in his throat, Tad groped his way along the side of the wagon, occasionally doubling over for a cough-induced retch. He appreciated these—they gave his throat and lungs a momentary rest, induced some slight trace of moisture to come into his mouth, and made him feel considerably better after it was done and gone. Nothing came up and out, or the acid would likely have changed his mind about them.

When he came to the back of the wagon, the gate was down—as it had been since they’d stopped. He guessed Mumma must not give a damn if somebody took Dapper or killed Dapper or robbed Dapper of…whatever it was that Dapper had. Maybe he shouldn’t stop once he got going. Maybe it would be better with just him and Daps, flying along down the road without a care all the way to Featherwall. It was worth a bit of thought.

Holding his breath with puffed out cheeks, he grabbed hold of the wagon just next to where the back fence fell away, and pulled with all his might as he leaned his top half over the flat fence and tried to shift the bulk of his weight up and over with an awkward little hop. He bumped the fence just above his bellybutton and slid down again until the edge of the fence pressed into his armpits. It wasn’t going to work; pull as he might, the angle was unhelpful. He needed to pull forward into the wagon instead of up. Tad released his grip and gave his fatigued hand and muscles a moment to recover, peering into the wagon for something he could grab onto.

The answer struck him just as he gave up and turned away: Dapper’s legs, pushing out nearly to the edge of this tiny wagon like two hairy, knobby branches of a fallen human tree. No matter his deteriorated state, he was surely heavier than Tad. Tad immediately reached over the fence and stretched, stretched until it hurt, and finally grasped the top of Dapper’s left foot. He pulled hard and jumped up with all the spring in his weak legs, looking like an enormous and enormously drunk creakjump as he struggled to lever up his legs and swing them over onto the flat fence. Suddenly he was up and in and rolling over onto his stomach to get his right leg inside the wagon, coming to a stop with his shoulder pressed against the soles of Dapper’s feet. The tickle in his throat was momentarily forgotten as he filled his lungs to the bottom with the wagon’s urine-scented air.

Dapper groaned and mumbled something incomprehensible, sliding his head and angling his neck so he could meet Tad’s eyes. There was a spark in them. He grinned his frightening black-toothed grin. Tad forced himself to smile back. His breaths slowed. The tickle in his throat returned. A coughing fit exploded from his chest. Knowing it would not stop until he could drink, Tad sat up and staggered to his feet, straddle-walking over Dapper and twisting to perch atop the back of the driver’s bench and swiveling over and sliding down onto the bench itself and carefully taking up and opening the water bladder, all the while managing his coughs not by fighting them but by co-opting them, pushing out air as hard and thoroughly as he could and then moving while his lungs reinflated. He nearly choked on his first mouthful of water, but managed to just get it down before his throat convulsed. Slowly, slowly, mouthful by tiny mouthful, he washed away the hateful itch at the back of his throat, leaving only the painful rawness and the bloody tang in his mouth.

Tad gazed up at the quiet sky. The moon had vomited up her children and hung as a slim, gaping mouth. The stars could not make up the difference. It was a dark night. Before him, the ox on the right snorted and turned its head, glassy eye looking off into the distance and ignoring the boy. To Tad it seemed a challenge. Taking deep, slow breaths to avoid upsetting his throat, he reached up and behind him, slipping the driving stick from its notch between the driver’s bench and the wagon proper. It was time.

“On’now!” he tried to shout, but immediately his throat closed around the words. Only an awkward “Awnnnn” squeaked out. He tried again, but this time his throat was clenched from the start. Not a sound came. Frustrated, he lashed out with the stick, striking the right ox as hard as he could in the rump. It barely registered. The ox didn’t move, didn’t even look around, merely shook its hind leg as if shushing away a fly. Tad licked his teeth with a fat tongue and rested his arm. The caw of a rook called his eyes, and he could see just enough to watch it hop boldly toward the wagon from the treeline. He glanced at the water bladder but did not take it up. When he looked back, the crow was gone—or waiting still in the shadows, too dark for a night like this. He shivered at the feel of his unreal arm, the tingle of spiders running scared. His arm still felt tired, but no more than it ever did. He raised the stick and aimed it carefully for the spot just above the tail that Mumma seemed to aim at, the midpoint of the rump. A fly buzzed in and landed on his hair, another on his lip. Tad ignored the first and blew the second off, fought down a cough, and struck hard at the ox with all the added impetus of his flare of irritation. The thump was soft and dry and glancing, and he nearly let the stick fall from his awkward grasp. The oxtail swished faster, and the enormous head made a ponderous turn, the large eye this time focused clearly on Tad. The ox was annoyed as well.

But it had not moved, and Tad did not know what else he could do. He tried again to call a hearty, “On’now!” but it came out a rasping whisper. Moisture sprang to his eyes. This was not working out how he’d imagined it, not in the least. More flies buzzed in. He thought of returning the driving stick to its notch, but instead used his half-arm to shoo the pests away. It was harder than he expected—the part that normally did the shooing was gone and at the same time didn’t feel gone, so to get the true end of his arm, at about the elbow, to brush his face, he had to steel himself and push his phantom hand and forearm into his face and then through his entire head. By the time he actually succeeded in contacting his cheek with his elbow, sweat dripped from his nose and he trembled with exhaustion. It took three tries to return the driving stick to its notch with a light and shaking arm.

Tad turned face down into the crook of the bench, leaving the damned flies to buzz around his hair. He licked up the sweat from around his mouth, tilting his face to catch the rivulets from his nose. Hunger was biting. His head pounded. He was weak, shaking, ravenous with nothing to eat. He needed a new plan, and his mind would not move. All he could do was shudder and moan and listen to the flies buzzing around. He wanted to die. All he could do was wait and hug himself and tap his forehead against the wood to distract from the dull pain in his stomach and the agonizing, sucking weakness that seemed to run through his blood. Maybe he was dying. From the other side of the bench came a mournful groan, and Tad could not help but let a smile twitch at the corners of his mouth. Dapper was offering sympathy, in his wounded-animal way. He listened to Daps and breathed deep, rocking ever so slightly against the bench. Breathed deep.

 

53

Tad awoke slow to a lightening sky, head pounding. He groaned and brushed away flies and struggled to sit up on the driver’s bench. His eyes widened, taking in the pre-dawn sky and the unmoved oxen and remembering his own failed plan. Suddenly he realized what to do, and grabbed the driving stick from its notch. Hunger and fatigue were forgotten in a rush of excitement. He launched himself from the bench and landed hard, paining the soles of his feet and nearly pitching forward onto his face. Gritting his teeth and letting out a fierce snort of breath, he raised himself and strode purposefully over to stare down the oxen. They regarded him with a momentary, placid indifference, then turned to stare off in their favorite directions.

He tapped each on the nose in turn, getting them to turn their heads back toward the center, then stuck the driving stick through the iron nose ring of one and pushed and angled and thrust until he was finally able to maneuver it through the center of the other. It was hard going and his arm shook so severely that it took what must have been several minutes to run it through the second ring, but he did it. He did it. Arm dropping to his side for a short rest, he kept a wary eye on the oxen. There was not much leeway at the ends of the driving stick, and it might fall out if either ox decided to pull its head away. They had a penchant for staring off into the woods on either side, so Tad stood between them and shuffled around in a little dance to keep their attention, waiting for his arm to recover a measure of strength as he twirled around in slow circles, twitching his half-arm and swinging his head front to back and side to side in an emphatic yes-no, yes-no, circle-de-de-dum. He imagined the crow was hidden back in the shadows somewhere, cocking its stupid little head and greedy eyes at Tad’s crazy dance. A smile spread across his mouth, lips once more cracking open. On an impulse, he stopped and then dizzily twirled the other way.

The moment passed. It was growing lighter, the sun would crest over the horizon at any moment. His smile faded. He had no time. Ready or not, here he went. He stopped, tottered a step or two as he got his bearings, then thrust his arm up like a shot and pulled hard on the stick. The oxen made strange, quiet lowing noises. They breathed hard and worked their mouths. Tad stared into their empty eyes with a predatory fierceness. One pawed the ground and drooled, the other snorted and whined. And then finally, miraculously and finally, one took a hesitant step forward and the other followed suit.

The wagon tugged gently forward, the oxen took another step and then another, the wagon took on a slow but steady crawl with Tad triumphantly stumbling along at its head. As the wheels rumbled to life, a loud “Yeeeeeeeee!” erupted from the back, followed by a few coughs and then “Ki shaw phoooo!” Tad smiled. He hadn’t an oxfart of an idea what Daps was trying to say, but it seemed that he approved.

Already Tad’s arm was unpleasantly numb, painful and tired, but Tad was not about to risk his momentum to take a rest. Looking back over his shoulder, he glowered at his arm. Shut up, you, he thought at it, and rubbed his face into his raised shoulder to get the flies off. He was targeting the next bend in the road, a distance he guessed was about a hundred cartlengths. With his arm paining him and the oxen slow as sweetroot in a jar, it took a year just to get halfway. He felt the sun’s rays on his sweaty back, and turned briefly to have it blaze in his eye as it poked up over Nilston’s ugly makeshift houses and slanted over the wagon. Not much time left.

Pushing out a low moan to help with the pain, Tad tried to pull the oxen on faster. He was roundly ignored. They continued at their own plodding, Tad-be-damned pace. He let out a low growl from his raw throat and shifted his grip on the driving stick, giving it an angry tug. He’d pull out their damned noses, if he could. Sweat trickled down his spine from the nape of his neck. He peered ahead down the dusty road. About fifty cartlengths to go, if his sense of distance could be trusted.

Suddenly he felt eyes on him. Tad instinctively turned his head. Mumma was walking alongside the oxen, eyes glued to him and face hard. She said nothing, and Tad said nothing, and Tad kept on. He looked back to the road, and the oxen plodded. There were about thirty cartlengths to the bend when Mumma finally spoke.

“Somewheres ta be, ‘en, Taddy?” she said with a frosty edge.

He did not look at her. “Featherwall,” he replied, grimacing at the pins and needles in his arm.

The wagon rolled on.

“Ye wouldn’ go an’ stop fer ya dear ol’ Mumma, nae, would ya?”

Sweat rolled down Tad’s sides from his armpits. “The Mumma I know,” he replied, “said we’re going to Featherwall. I’m helping her out.”

Somehow she heard his ragged whisper of a voice over the rumble of the wagon wheels. “A boy’s place’s by ‘is mumma, Taddy,” she said tightly.

He gave no answer.

“An’ yer mumma hain’t movin’ on to Feath’rwall jus’ yet,” she added.

Tad still did not look at her. “She should,” he said as loudly as he could. “She should.”

She didn’t speak for a few cartlengths. Tad wasn’t sure whether she had heard. Suddenly her voice came, loud and insistent: “That’s enough, Taddil!”

He ignored her.

A flash of movement at his periphery was all the warning he had before being heaved unceremoniously to the side of the road, stumbling back and falling hard on his bottom, where he skidded and rolled to a stop well clear of the oxen. Dazed, he blinked and looked up at Mumma. She had taken command of the driving stick and stopped the oxen.

“That’s enough, Taddil! Thin’s hain’t so simple’s that!”

He took a few slow breaths through his nose, eyes never leaving Mumma’s face, then said, “I’ll do it again tomorrow night, and every night after.”

Mumma leaned toward him, squinting and wrinkling her nose. “What?” she asked.

Tad coughed painfully and took a deep breath, then repeated himself in the loudest voice he could muster.

Mumma leaned a bit further in his direction, cupping a hand to her ear. “WHAT??” she repeated.

Eyes fixed hard on Mumma’s, Tad struggled to his feet and straggled over to her. He stood on his tiptoes, cupped his hand around his mouth and said as loudly as he could, straight into her ear: “I will do this every damn night, until we get away or you change your damn mind.”

He immediately found himself tumbling along the ground again, coming to a stop with Mumma standing above. He thought lightning would shoot from her eyes. “Then, Taddil, ye know what’s I mus’ be doin’,” she said, voice shot with ice.

Tad did, and he quailed at the thought, but tried not to let it show. It seemed an unsuccessful effort, judging from Mumma’s response. Her eyes gradually softened into what was almost a look of pity before she turned on her heel, once more took hold of the driving stick, and began to circle the wagon around.

 

54

Tad worked the stick methodically, joylessly, twitching it again and again hard against the jump-up. He had been here before, had done this before. There was nothing to do but be patient, avoid looking at the enticing water bladder, and focus on something other than the pangs in his throat. The sun, from the side. The mercilessly clear sky. The wafting smell of oxshit. The buzzing flies.

He was beginning to think she was being purposely cruel. Already he had worked his hand raw flailing away, making what to him sounded like an awful racket, but she sat unperturbed on her perch. Deciding to give it a rest, he dropped the cookstick and plopped down in the dusty road, scooting back on his behind until Mumma’s head came into view above.

As if on cue, her head tilted toward him such that the scrap of knit over her face nearly fell. She reached up and removed it, blinking sleepily at the day. Tad stared and waited. Mumma tasted the sleep in her mouth, rubbed her face, leaned back and closed her eyes long, long, looooong, then shook her head and blinked rapidly, grabbed the water bladder and weightily swung down out of sight on the other side of the driver’s bench. Tad closed his eyes and sighed a dry, rattling sigh. This day, this day was a wagonload of piss. He didn’t really understand the expression—piss would leak out in a hurry, right?—but enjoyed using it anyway. Today, today was TEN wagonloads of piss.

Drawing in his next breath, a tickle seized the back of his throat and set him to coughing. It did not stop for a long while. Tad prostrated himself on his elbows and knees, butt in the air, balancing precariously on his good arm as he rocked back and forth and tried to hold the air in his lungs. He tasted blood. Finally strong, sweaty hands pulled him back to sit and then pushed up from under his chin until his mouth faced the sky. Understanding, he opened, reflexively gulping air just before the water came trickling down.

His throat was not ready, he was not ready; against all that he desired, the water fountained out and was lost. He coughed the remnants of the moisture from the deep places in his lungs, resisting Mumma’s pressure on his chin to indicate that he was not yet ready for more water. He took a deep, halting breath, expelled it out slowly with only a few coughs at the end, then closed his eyes and put his mouth ready. The hated moisture trickled down and he swallowed, swallowed again, reached up and gripped Mumma’s arm to make her stop. Then more air, more coughing, preparation and water, repeated again and again and again until finally he could breathe without feeling like a spider lived in his throat. Mumma handed him what remained of the bladder, and Tad nursed the small amount sip by grateful sip until no hint of wet remained. He sat exhausted, hunched into himself, Mumma casting a small but wonderful shadow as she stood watch above.

“Ya knows what’s ahead for ye, come sunsdown?” she said quietly.

Tad watched the oxen swish their inadequate tails against the flies for a long moment. He felt oddly peaceful. “Yeah,” was all he said in reply.

“An’ ya won’ thin’ka’ changin’ yer min’?”

He wiped sweat from his forehead and sucked it from his fingers, tasting the grit of the dust of the road as it mixed in. “Nnnnnnnnnnhhhh,” he replied in the negative, with a brief shake of his head.

Mumma absently ran her hands along his greasy, itchy mop of hair. Tad expected her to turn and leave, but suddenly she plopped down on the road beside him. Blinking in surprise, he turned. Tears ran down her cheeks.

Tad was bewildered. He could not remember ever seeing Mumma cry. It was like Dapper suddenly jumping up and doing a song and dance, or a creakjump creaking out the tune to ‘Filston’s Bully Three-Head Ox,’ or one of the flies landing on his shoulder and asking the recipe for sweetroot syrup. For a long while, he could do nothing but look on open-mouthed as silent sobs coursed through her and tears streamed from her eyes. He was taken with an initial, instinctive pity, but too paralyzed by the novelty of the situation to act. By the time he was finally able to reach out, hesitantly, to lay his light hand on Mumma’s leg, he was already moving on to self-pity. Here she wept, fully in control. Here she sobbed, having put him through pain. Here she demanded comfort, when he got none from her. He kept his hand on her outstretched leg, and made no move to more. But he did not pull back—could not pull back, having offered it—and she did not stop for years. The sun stayed unmoved to taunt him, hot with her shadow gone, and the last bit of food in his belly sustained him with a magic unknown. His throat, as ever, remained parched. The hand on her leg was clammy with sweat.

Finally, slowly and surely but finally, her tears slowed and stopped and gave way to moist sniffles and snorts and an intermittent rubbing of the eyes. Tad did not speak and did not remove his hand. He had no idea what he should do, and had a headache from the stress.

Mumma sucked the snot up into her nose, and spoke: “Thin’s hain’t so simple’s ya think. We mights be stayin’ ‘n Nils’on, like ’s not.”

Tad stared, blinking. He wanted water again. He felt weak and tired.

“Ye hears me, Taddy?” asked Mumma.

He nodded vaguely, drily washing cracked lips with sandpaper tongue. “Featherwall,” he whispered at her, as loud as he could.

A cloud of distress hovered over her face. “Yer place’s with yer Mumma, Taddy.”

My Mumma,” he whispered hard, “did say we’re going to Featherwall. So that’s where I’ll go.”

“Nils’on’s fine a place’s any, Taddil,” she said, wrinkles on her brow. “Yer place’s with yer Mumma.”

Tad scowled, narrowed his eyes, and set all the force he could muster behind his words. “Nilston,” he said, “is a load of piss. You muddy said we’re going to Featherwall to fix up Daps and we muddy well will, ‘cause I’ll be damned if me ‘n’ Daps are staying in Nilston.”

Mumma’s mouth was tight. Her eyes were wet. Suddenly Tad found himself sideways in the dirt of the road, ears ringing and jaw radiating pain. Mumma was above him, arm held high with palm open for another strike. Their eyes met for a long, tense moment. Tad stayed down. Mumma turned on her heel and stalked off.

Tad laid still until she had unhitched the oxen from the wagon and begun to lead them off into the trees. His sweat made mud in the road. He sat up, wiped the wet from his face and licked it from his hand, tasting the alkaline dirt, then struggled to his feet. It took a full four tries to stand.

Tad checked on Dapper, lying silent and still under a hot-looking mass of knit. He checked where Mumma had gone into the trees with the oxen for signs of movement, checked the road from Nilston’s gate to the horizon, checked the position of the sun—just a smidge past sun-top. Lightheaded and tired from the heat, he curled up under the back of the wagon; as usual, the gate had been left down, letting Tad stay a bit further from the oxshit and flies at the other end. Sleep took him quick.

 

55

He awoke being dragged to his feet in the near-dark, unalert but unsurprised. He knew what he was in for, had slept fitfully as he dreamed of it. This was only the first of many nights to come, he thought dully as he was hoisted up into the wagon like a sack of fleshrocks. Mumma bound him quick and silent; Tad watched the risen moon and offered no resistance. Not once did their eyes meet, not even when she wetted his lips with a final kiss from the water bladder, and already she was gone. He was left in silence, only Dapper’s snorting rotten breath below to fill his ears. This was pleasant, this first quiet part. Now he felt close to Daps and comfortably alone with the quiet and the growing dark. As the night grew old it would grow worse and worse, he knew, and tried not to think about it. This was the path he had chosen, and he had to find a way to persevere.

Tad tried as far as his limited energy would allow to free one of his feet, but what had come so easily by accident would not come at all when he set his mind to bringing it about. No matter how he twisted and wiggled and pulled and scraped, both feet stayed stubbornly on the wrong side of their binds. He laid back, relaxing his quivering muscles and sweating all over Dapper—which he would have felt considerably worse about if Dapper hadn’t already pissed himself twice. Tad guessed Mumma had tied him up tighter than before. Either she was mad, had more time today, or thought Tad running off during the night was a scarier prospect than him following her into Nilston. Tad hoped it was the last.

Today was one of the lucky days where his stomach seemed to have given up on trying to digest food. His recent efforts had driven him to thirst, but not of a severity that bothered him; his tolerance for lack of water had grown considerably over the past two months. The flies had not yet arrived in significant numbers. As his heartbeat slowed and his sweat began to cool, Tad was surprised and pleased to find himself growing sleepy. Had the effort tired him out? Whatever the reason, it was the best possible way to pass the time.

He yawned, drifting down into a quiet dark. Dapper shifted and groaned and murmured and blew his smelly breath, drawing him back up. Tad arranged himself in a more comfortable position, trying to forget the pins and needles in his limbs. His head grew light, his body disappeared, he stretched out and up into the night sky. For an eternal instant, he was running panicked from the moon. He was the wind. He was a tree, sick, vomiting up golden streams of sunlight from his roots.

 

56

Tad awoke cold with sweat, moon still riding high above, skin crawling with the tickling legs of an army of flies. He instinctively wriggled against his bonds to throw the damned things off, and they rose in a great and varied cloud for a short buzzing moment before resettling along his body in newly irritating positions. Tad thought with a grim-set smile that they would have done quite well at the games of String-Around they played for coins and prizes at the Merchant’s Fair each season.

He struggled again to try to free a leg, to pull his right hand under the binding, but all this accomplished was a series of forced fly emigrations, each causing a new crop of itches that he could not scratch. He took deep, uncomfortable breaths through his raw dry throat and tried to put them out of his mind, imagining instead the happiness that awaited them all in Featherwall. Dapper would take the highman’s cure and recover, would regain his speech and his body; Mumma would remember her kindness, her sense of humor. They would happily work together during the day making tiny sewing needles and larger knitting needles and huge chopping knives and gigantic swords, and then at night they would play Bobbin’s Run and Spinny Jacks and Dapper would teach him more words and figures and maybe even buy a new book or two, while Mumma knitted contentedly by the fire and made the occasional bawdy joke.

While pleasant, this was not sufficiently distracting. It was a world half lived, inhabited only during the brief and pulsating interstices woven into the neverending itch that burned his skin. He could not lose himself in it. It could not lessen the agony of the unrelenting itching. Shortly he gave it up.

As he had done before, Tad tried to use his free half-arm to shoo away the flies from his face, and as before it was exhausting. His face shone with sweat by the time he was able to wipe across it the dirty bandages that covered his stump. A spasm of relief shuddered through his neck and shoulders as the flies buzzed away to a quieter roost. He rubbed his face again and again to drive the itch out and reveled in the sensation. It was, for a short ecstatic moment, enough to overcome the awful signals being fed to his brain from his feet and his whole right hand.

The next moment he retched, and the next he drove a thin stream of acidic vomit up his throat and down over his chin, gasping for air—which then set off a long and exhausting coughing fit, prolonged by the acid misting and jumping and being sucked down into his lungs. As he coughed he strained against his bonds, pulling futilely against Dapper’s weight as he instinctively tried to sit up. His throat burned. His dulled tongue tasted bitter acid. When he finally calmed down, he felt better. Better and utterly spent. The flies returned almost instantly, but this time they felt distant—which was lucky, because he had no strength to shake them loose.

For a time, he merely was. He breathed through his mouth to avoid the stench of Dapper’s mouth below, riding in silence atop the tiny waves of Dapper’s breaths. The occasional uninvited fly was swallowed without hesitation. He watched the stars without purpose and heard little but his own breath. Everything was muted, everything was fine. Even the crawling flies, even the burning in his throat, even the rough wet cloth of his trousers rubbing the toadskin on his leg seemed only a curiosity at the margin. Nothing touched the core of him.

Tired as his body was, sleep did not come. His mind was too well and recently rested. As he floated down from the comfortable distance brought on by vomiting, the intensity of the itching from those damned restless flies ratcheted up. They feasted and scampered across his chin, drawn in greater numbers by the vein of sick deposited there. Tad tried to exhale at an angle from his mouth, to snort air hard enough through his nose, to wiggle his chin with speed and vigor in his various efforts to drive them off. The small ones only jumped off briefly and landed again nearby; the large ones didn’t care at all.

Seeing only one remedy, he once more fought his senses to bring the stump of his half-arm close enough to rub against his face. It was far too slow to have the satisfaction of smashing any of the flies, but it did finally run them off. He scraped the bandage back and forth along his chin, healing the awful itch and soaking up some of the vomit. Almost immediately his stomach twisted, and he strained and heaved and finally brought up another trickle of acid that slid down onto his neck and chest. Breathing hard but feeling once more the pleasant distance from his outer self, he moved his damaged arm out to the side. Clearly, he didn’t have the stomach to keep his forearm steady in the middle of his skull—that’s what his arm and his brain were telling him, anyway, so that’s what it felt like. On the plus side, he floatily conjectured, staring up at the stars as they twinkled in and out, he knew how to make himself vomit. And that might be the only thing that would allow him to endure these nights and not give in to Mumma.

When the effects faded again, though, Tad decided to try to find some other way to cope. The post-vomit haze was pleasant enough, but the process of getting there was rather decidedly not. And the return to the world, the push-by-push strengthening of every feeling in and on his body, was difficult to bear. Maybe more difficult, he guessed, gritting his teeth against the itch of the flies, than not going away at all.

First, he directed sensation in ways he could control: biting his tongue, banging the back of his head against Dapper’s chest (which was not terribly effective), trying (and failing) to ram his damned stump of an arm against the floor of the wagon. Biting his tongue did help for a time, but soon grew too painful to be effective—the repeated bites made his tongue tender to the point where biting caused a sharp pang that instinctively drove his jaw open before he could bring about the deep-seated, throbbing pain capable of overcoming the screams from his other nerves.

Next he tried manipulating his breath. First he held it in, focusing on the tightness in his lungs and the pain that followed until the air exploded involuntarily from him. This was effective a few times—easy enough to do, and sufficiently distracting—but soon became too much to bear. The problem was the second half, the deep breaths that his lungs instinctively pulled in. The dry air drove any last remnants of moisture from his airways, which led to coughing fits, which led to a raw throat and the strange feeling that he was drowning. It was all very distracting, but the pain in his throat was the wrong kind and the deprivation of air was far worse than the flies on his feet.

When he recovered from his final coughing fit, Tad tried the opposite—slow, gentle breaths, as slow as he could manage without pain welling in his chest. There was no effect for a time. It was all he could do to persist, ignoring the scrabbling of flies across flesh, tickle of air drawn over rough throat, wet friction of toadskin and urine-soaked wool, deep chafes of tight bonds. He did not know why he persisted, except that he could think of nothing else to do. Had he a next step to pursue, a next attempt, a better method in mind, he would surely have moved on, because the effect was creeping and did not creep in. It did not alter his perception, it altered his perception of his perception. The nerves that stabbed at him, the skin that burned, the ache in his teeth and the skittish flies grew no less. They did not grow more distant. They were not overcome. They simply…didn’t matter. Tad observed them without remark. They danced within him. He saw and he felt and his flesh screamed, but there was a layer between. Withdrawn to the core, he knew no cares.

He was together with eternity. The moon never moved as it fled from him across the sky. Beneath, Dapper was a warm and moist and rolling land, unswerving but for his errant fountain. Light flooded in, but it had been there before. Flies buzzed lazily and the occasional raven flapped and they were dead, they were gone, they were smoke and air and the heavens that he took into his lungs. The oxen snorts and breaths and stamps were of the warm firmament, unchanging. His body complained unjustly, an interloper without rights.

 

57

The days were bad. Tad hid as best he could from the sun, no more sweat to give, but there was no respite from the heat. He played a dusty symphony of avoidance with Mumma, stationing himself out of her way in steps as she went about her chores. While she cooked he slept, while she slept he ate, and when she took the oxen on their ever-longer foraging trips he slept still more. She left him bladders of water, left him fair portions in the cookpot, and left him alone.

With plenty of time, Tad managed to take in water and food without losing any to spills. He got faster as the days wore on. An occasional crow would steal from his cookpot feasts; at first he did his best to scare it away, threatening with sudden gestures and movements and the loudest whispers he could manage, but it did little good. The crow would figure out soon enough that Tad was all bark and no bite, take his fill anyway, and Tad would drop food or spill water and exhaust himself in the process. Now he simply watched, staring at the bird’s beady eyes as they both ate. The crows were greedy but he did not begrudge them their part. Flies would sometimes migrate over from the wagon, but he paid them no heed. Either they leapt away when he took his bite, or they became part of it. It made no matter to him either way.

Mumma did not look at him. She bound and unbound him with the blind efficiency of a jailor. The binds grew no looser over time. Tad could never again free a foot, and soon stopped wasting the effort. The nights passed with sleep and slow breaths, each a new life. Every time the light returned and Mumma unbound his limbs, he was a year older. As she stubbornly refused to meet his eyes, he stared instead at her cheeks. Sometimes there were scratches. Once there was an angry gash; when that healed, it was replaced by a yellow bruise.

Beneath him, Dapper seemed to be improving. He still wet himself regularly, still groaned and shifted and stank. But now only rarely did he shit himself, and he no longer moaned an unending complaint. Even his breath seemed to smell a bit better. Each night and each morn, when Tad was dragged roughly on and off the wagon, Daps grinned and wagged his tongue and jerked an arm into awkward poses. Once Tad realized that Dapper was trying to make him smile, he did his best to oblige.

His grin had gaps, now. The looseness had continued, the pain grown worse, and he had lost three teeth—two in the bottom middle and one from the side of the top. All had come out with tough chunks of meat. One he had accidentally swallowed, the other two he had bit hard against and spit out with a stinging jaw. Now he was careful with meat and with undercooked roots, swallowing without chewing when he could and taking ginger, fleeting bites with his molars when he could not. He still counted himself lucky, though, having seen Mumma’s and Dapper’s rotting mouths.

Every day he tried to pull himself into the wagon to pass time with Dapper. One day in three he succeeded, and they would spend hours making funny faces, poking each other, trading funny grunts and farts and belches, and napping under the burning sun. Both had been sunburnt and peeled so many times that their skin was the color of cheap tanned oxhide. Tad called Dapper “Stink-face Ox-Leather” and “Potato-man Daps,” and Dapper jabbed him with a wildly waving finger and grinned his brown, gap-ridden grin.

Sometimes Tad would wake from a nap with Mumma staring at him, squatting in the dusty road. He would yawn and rub his eyes and creakily push himself to sit, and then stare back. Eyes unreadable and brow furrowed, she would blink more and more and then suddenly push up and stride off to the cookpot, where she grabbed up the cookstick and thrust it in the pot and set her back to Tad. She did not stir; she never stirred. He did not try to follow. He would watch her back until sleep took him again.

 

58

Once, it rained. The sun fell and winds rose. Mumma did not stay. Tad, bound, watched the thin moon disappear, at first sporadically and then altogether. The stars died. Wind howled in angry gusts that made his ears ache. Beneath, Dapper shifted uneasily. Still, when the first drops fell, Tad did not believe them—he thought Dapper was spitting, and twisted as best he could to spy whether his father was having a fit. The skies opened a few heartbeats later, telling him the truth of it in a deluge he would long remember.

It fell as a single sheet, shocking him with cold, a blanket of water with no breaths or gaps or mercy that soaked him and smothered him and left him gasping. Water forced itself down his throat, and as he pushed against his binds to cough it out, more water flooded in. He could not open his mouth for fear of drowning, and could not keep it shut for certainty of same. Beneath, Dapper heaved and pulled with a strength Tad never knew he had, managing despite the bonds to roll up on his side, leaving Tad perched with his spine grinding against Dapper’s bony hip.

Tad coughed until he vomited. His chest ached for air. Dapper made an abrupt heave to one side, and Tad squirmed and struggled toward the other, torso finally rotating around and sliding down against the wet linen that bound him. Legs twisted up on the other side, he was caught with his pelvis stretched awkwardly across Dapper’s hip; his chest angled diagonally downward from his right shoulder, set hard against his father’s. His upper body was held in place by the binding at his right wrist, taut against Dapper’s forearm, a dull and insistent pain radiating from there, from his awkwardly positioned right shoulder, from the small of his twisted back and his tangled legs and from knees that were not allowed to bend. Head hanging down, water fell in a torrent on the back of his head and ran down over his chin and nose.

Hacking violently, he forced the moisture from his screaming lungs. He threw up again, sick running down and off his chin with the stream of water. The water had no end. When he raised his head and tried to refill his lungs, water washed over and into his mouth on its way to his chin. When he forced the top of his head down as far as he could, so the rain would slick off his hair and forehead and leave his face alone, water somehow found its way into his nose, and he coughed and spluttered and heaved his head back up.

Tad could not count the number of times he vomited from rain violating his lungs. Unlike dry nights, the sick brought no relief with it—the rain was too insistent, too unrelenting, too cold and wet. It hammered his nerves and forced his presence. It could not be escaped, with slow breaths or liquid sick or imagined futures or any other damned thing, and time was sweetroot tar as it congealed and slid over him thick, threatening just as sure as its quicker cousin to drown him.

He wept. The tears were barely out before they were swept away by torrents of rainwater, left no time to salt his cheeks and warm his skin. His sobs were muffled by the pounding of drops against the wagon. The world wept through him, clouds drawing out his own sadness and casting it violently back down at him. He cried cold rain, ached the thrum of battered wood, sobbed distant thunder. There was no bitterness, only want.

Dapper jabbed him awkwardly in the side, elbow sharpened by things deprived, and he heard snatches of Dap’s sickened cadence, grunts and yowls and guttural things. Tad poked back. Dap jabbed again, again, and Tad returned the jabs harder and then harder still. His father lay quiet once more.

Though glad at first to be left alone, Tad soon felt a twinge, then a shiver then a tremor, then quaked with guilt at his impatient violence. He had opened a gulf between them, forced distance where there was no need, and the gap shot him through with despair. He opened his mouth in a silent wail, rain spilling over and down, and shook as though the world were breaking. Dapper pressed his arm tight against him, still. Unheard murmurs vibrated through the flesh in a calming hum. The rain thrashed him, the wind chilled.

His agony subsided, spent. Fatigue crept in, numbing his mind and dulling the sparks of the hard rain on his skin. Toadskin went flat. The cold went out. Tears no longer added to the wet. Despite the aches from his contortions, he began to enjoy the storm, recalling the heat and the sweat and the dust of the days. Here was a respite, brisk and wet and new, here was a washing away of things. He felt Dap’s arm against him, breathed easy and drank the streams from high that flowed to his lips.

Somehow he slept. He woke once sputtering and gasping for breath, and then a second time to silence. When he turned his head, the stars winked. Dapper snored monstrously beside him. His back and right shoulder throbbed painfully; his knees screamed. Tad tried to pull himself up and back over Dapper, back to the straight of his binds, but found he had no strength to do it. He could not raise his torso, he could not push it up; he could not kick, or even muster the vim to untangle his legs—the friction of moist skin against moist skin was too much for him.

So that was how he stayed, and how he slept, and how Mumma found them. It took hours of pacing in the bare hot sun to rid himself of all the needles in his limbs, and even then the aches remained.

 

59

There was nothing of interest beyond the storm. The few carts that passed them on the way into or out of Nilston each day were dull things driven by dull men, filled with sweetroot or rough lumber or edible roots on the way out, blocks of glass or rough woven baskets or black dusty piles of burnrock on the way in, and presided over both ways by sun-beaten men with suspicious eyes and closed mouths. The ones that spied Dapper always gave a wide berth. They were the sort that never gave help no matter how dire the need, always suspecting a trap. Burn the world, so long as they could keep their wares. When Tad was feeling bored, he would sometimes stumble out toward them as they passed, putting on his best cough and squeezing out whatever farts he could. The coughing fits often had a life of their own after he got started, but it was worth it to see them shy away, covering themselves and lashing haphazardly at the oxen to plod faster.

The oxen of Tad’s own wagon were growing thin, and sometimes their noses were dry when he touched them. Foraging used to take an hour or two, then half the afternoon, and now Mumma was gone with the oxen from soon after sun-top to near on sunset. By looking at their bony flanks, Tad could see even that was not enough. The day after the storm, tiny green shoots poked up among the sere ground by the road, and when he ventured out to the cookpot Tad could see more popping up between the dried-out forest trees. That day, Mumma simply let the oxen loose and slumbered loudly on the swing-up, a scrap of dirty knit keeping the sun from her sweaty face. Every bit of green that Tad could see was in an ox before she woke.

Even that long nap was not enough to restore her mood. With it taking so long each day to fill the bellies of their withering oxen, Mumma no longer had time to sleep in the afternoon. Her only rest was from sun-up to mid-morn, and then she went about the cooking and the chores, gathering wood for the fire and washing up Dapper and Tad and herself. Tad once tried to help with the firewood, but fell in the forest and then fell asleep. It was near sundown when he had finally returned with his tiny bundle of sticks, and Mumma had glowered and walloped his rump and told him never to wander off again.

There was no pretense of modesty during washings. They saw every bit of one another. Tad wondered at the bright red splotches and rotten-brown bruises and sand-white scar lines that spattered Mumma’s belly and legs and back. He was horrified by the welts of angry puckered flesh that clustered on Dapper’s back, the back of his thighs and his butt, round and wrinkled and crimson in a sea of dark hair, remembering those nightmare fever nights of glowing orange heat and primal groans and the stink of watery shit. He didn’t know who was hitting Mumma, or why, but he damn well knew who had done up Dapper in that awful way. He didn’t know if he kept his mouth shut about Mumma’s wounds from fear or spite, but he kept it shut nonetheless.

If someone was hurting Mumma, that was just another reason not to stay; he was puzzled by her reticence. When she hit him, he just wanted to get away from her, as fast and as far as he could. And the healing highman awaited Daps in Featherwall, as she’d said herself a lifetime ago. He reminded her of it several times, in case she had somehow forgotten, and each time got nothing but a silent grimace in reply. Nothing she was doing made any sense to him. She had every reason to continue to Featherwall, and no reason at all to stay here. But he had said all he dared to try to bring her to her senses, and could do nothing now but continue to act. He hoped she would soon quail at the nightly torture she inflicted on her own son and on Daps, thin as that hope grew over the days.

Though he could never let on to Mumma that such were true, for Tad it was the days that were the true torture, while the nights were his peace and his salvation, periods of a calm and dark and transcendental peace. He was one with Daps below, with the moist and heavy and itchy ragged knits between them, with the fetid breath of rotted eggs that pushed up toward his nose, with the grunts and the groans and the ever-present smell of unformed shit. He was a friend to the bitch moon above, to her poor children who quivered and twinkled in fear of her insatiable mouth, and most of all to the darkness in between. The flies he felt, but he had learned not to let them in; the layer between being aware of them and being aggrieved by them thickened nightly. They became, bit by bit and smidgen by smidgen, not irritants but acolytes. Tad’s body was a temple, and they swarmed it in prayer. They were his keepers, second only to Daps below, massaging away the loneliness of his skin. When they landed on his cheeks, he watched them rub their hands and peer around at his incomprehensible mass. When they swarmed over his toes and his sensitive mid-foot, he smiled at their play. And when they crawled over his lips he ate them, and honored their sacrifice. The nights became shorter and shorter, the days longer and longer.

Provisions grew scarce as the heat persisted and the days passed. Cuts of meat turned to chunks and then to salted shreds and slivers and stringy bits. Onions and carrots and greenstalk grew withered and tiny and then largely disappeared, replaced by nothing. Even the roots, which Tad hated anyway for their taste and texture and toughness, grew smaller and harder. Tad stopped eating them. Mumma at first insisted that he swallow them down, but then found that she herself and Dapper too had problems mashing them up with their brown, rotting teeth. For a time, she had ground them down into a paste with the cookstick, adding it to the watery stew in the cookpot as a nutritious thickener. Tad no longer saw her do it. For a while, he had wondered if she found it too exhausting, if the ceaseless heat and the lack of food had won out. An offer of help rested furtively on his tongue, though his own body betrayed him daily. Soon he realized the roots had not reappeared in the cookpot. There were no more coming.

Water, once luxuriously sufficient, dried up. Tad remembered when they had first arrived, when Mumma had first begun her nightly escapes. When he had wanted water, he had drunk it. When Dapper had grown dry, Mumma had given nearly half a bladder, as much over his face and chest as down his throat, and had spoken no sharp words at the loss. Now it was doled out with miserly eyes and a pinched face. Half a bladder a day if lucky, half again half if not. Thrice daily mouthfuls. Tad wheedled a scrap of linen from Mumma, and used it to soak up the sweat from his head and chest and under his arms. When it was passingly wet, he popped it in his mouth. It was not a good solution; the dry, scratchy texture on his tongue nearly made him vomit. He persisted, from need.

The stars were free again, the moon ravenous. This was the second time she had vomited up her children since they had arrived in Nilston. Or the third. The first? The fourth. Tad could not fix on a number. It was an entirely new life anyway, one that could not be measured by lunar appetites. Two or ten or ninety made no difference. He persisted, Mumma persisted, Dapper persisted. Things persisted. The oxen always had been, always would be, and the heat suffused his bones with the eternal fire of lethargy. Breaths were not taken; air flowed in and out as one thing, one thing in love with its own dry and dusty self. His heart did not beat; the world shuddered into his back, his chest, his shoulders. A shrill keening competed with the flies for his ears, and he would lie and listen for hours beyond remembering.

Changes around the edges alternated panic and torpor within him. The cookpot stew turned a thin and watery soup, with little else but stringy meat, and he knew that things must change. The oxen thinned till he could see their bones, dry noses snuffling weak, and he knew that things could not. It was Mumma, Mumma alone who could send things one way or the other, and she was less concerned than the stars, less present than the sun. Beside her the oxen were a banquet of companionship, Dapper a merry god. Something sinister was worrying at the edges, and she had her back turned.

So Tad watched her back. As she sat at the cookpot, still as a fat biting fly, he watched. As he laid in the shade, siren in his ears as she went about her chores, he watched. As she took the oxen to and fro, between the forest and the road, he watched. And when she was gone, when she was gone and he could not follow, he closed his eyes and tongued the gaps between his teeth, and even then he watched. And like every watcher, eventually he slept.

 

60

Waking to movement, he did not believe his own body. Rumbling thrummed and bumped, vibrated through him. Above was the night, unchanged. His worshipful flies had left him, mostly, only a few fat supplicants grazing insensate on his feet. Daps was squishy below. A slight breeze stirred, balm to sweaty skin. He tried to turn, to raise himself and look to the swing-up, but could not. He was still bound.

Parched, he felt the dryness and the weakness in his own throat. He made no try to call. It must be Mumma there, driving on the oxen, Mumma pushing forward through the dark. Mumma who had had no time to loose him. He did not care, as long as she had come to her senses and went now swiftly on to Featherwall. He would stay tied the whole time, were it needful, to get Daps fixed and leave this oxfart town behind.

It was a brave thing to be driving under this moon, just started on its feast. Tad could see nothing but the back and sides of the wagon, but he had known his share of nights like this. The world would be nothing but shadows, a darker here a lighter there, only the deep black of the forest around giving lie to the general shape of the road. Deep ruts, pits, junk in the road would not be visible until they were upon it, if even then. Mumma was betting on the surefooted oxen and the lightness of the cart, the strength of the new wood. And, of course, the absence of bandits. Tad had asked her once about them, seeing as they’d been wiped out before, but she had merely grunted and wiggled her fingers at the dry, severe forest. “Nothin’ livin’ out there. No man, leastwise. ‘Less he’s livin’ on greensharp, an’ then he’s gots no time but fer drinkin’ an’ findin’ an’ shittin’. As ye well know.” She had smiled a little smile at that, with her tiny brown teeth. An obscenely self-satisfied smile, Tad had thought. It was one of those moments when he had truly wanted an escape from her. And despite her assurances, he was not sold on the idea that the woods were empty. Bandits were hard men by reputation, and could live even here. They relied on popping up when least expected, after all, so it seemed to him the opposite was true: there should definitely be bandits in these unwelcoming woods.

He tried to think of the towns up ahead, the distances. Ahead were Longspike, Hole, Bluebell—or was that behind? Well, there were Longspike and Hole, anyway. Mumma had said once that it was two ox-days from Nilston to Longspike, and three from…somewhere…to Featherwall. Or so he thought. It had been a time since she had spoken on the matter. Tad himself had never been past Weaver’s Nest before. He suddenly wondered how Mumma knew where things were. She had never been past Weaver’s Nest, either. She couldn’t have read it, because only Dapper could read—and Tad, a bit. He didn’t think they had any sort of book about such things, anyway. Tad shifted his head to escape Dapper’s breath. He supposed that Mumma must have asked the other travelers, the ones going the other way. It made sense.

He yawned, sleepy and tired but unable to go to that calm place for the rumbling that bit through him. Daps was insufficiently squishy to take the edge off it, bony as he was. Tad yawned again, then again, blinking up at the thin moon. It began to fuzz around the edges.

 

61

Hot. Hot so that his head pounded, hot drenched in sweat, foul taste on rough tongue. Teeth were dead blocks in his mouth. Tad squinted hard against the sun, working his mouth as eyes ached and pupils shrank. He heard nothing but the faint rustle of slow wind on dead leaves. Not even a fly buzzed. It was hard to move his lungs, as much from the silence as the heat.

He found himself still tied to Dapper, skin at his binds chafed raw and red and painful from interminable unconscious hours of jolting, rumbling wagon-riding. Daps was silent below, breathing slow. Tad’s belly was trying to eat itself again. He wished it would give up.

Suddenly Mumma loomed, blotting out the sun. She clambered up and in, casting him in shadow. “Open up, eh, Taddy,” she said, hand to his hot, browned forehead, and Taddy did. Warm water flowed in, and he quickly moved up to find the mouth of the bladder, sucking at it like a teat until Mumma roughly pushed him away. He guessed she’d let him have half, which was generous. He burped. His mouth was already dry again.

“Can I trust ya, Taddy?” she asked.

He stared up at her, feeling the warm liquid drain in his empty gut.

“Ye’ll nae run off, I means. Yeah? Ye’ll stays ‘round here an’ do as yer tol’?”

His stomach gurgled. Lightheaded, he nodded, eyes swimming.

She patted his head. “Tha’s a goodlin’, Taddil.”

Levering herself to the side, she tugged and tugged and finally pulled open the binding from his arm, then turned and undid those on his legs. With her hovering above, he felt less free than before. He raised his shaking arm, turned his head to look. There was an angry red band near the elbow, but the skin was still whole.

Mumma slid down to the dust of the road. “Out, then, goodlin’,” she said. “I mus’ needs see ta yer Dapper.”

Tad raised his head with effort to look at her. His stomach gurgled. He tried to rise, but it was no good. Dapper was too soft to push off from, especially with only one good arm. He tried three times before giving up, panting as he lolled back against Dapper’s chest. Below, Daps murmured hoarsely. He heard Mumma pull herself back into the wagon, barely a moment’s glimpse as warning before he found himself hoisted up—at first like a sack of ‘root, but brought up and forward into Mumma’s soft bosom, where she softly stroked his head. It was a shock, this sudden gentleness. It did not linger. She lifted him from under his armpits and set him on the ground.

“Finds anythin’ greens ya can, goodlin’, an’ takes it up fer the ox’n,” she said. He found a strip of dried oxmeat thrust into his hand, and then she was gone, attention turned to Dapper. Tad stumbled on stiff legs over toward the front of the wagon, pins and needles stinging. He tried to tear pieces off the oxmeat but found himself too weak, so he stuck it in his mouth and sucked on it. It hung out like a giant, floppy tongue, so salty it burned his lips. He kept it in anyway, though it made his mouth once more a desert. He knew from experience that it had to be softened before trying to chew.

At the front of the wagon, the oxen were in a dire state. Ribs and shoulder bones jabbed out at the world through skin that had no luster. Their heads were angled low. They did not snort or paw the ground. Eyes had a dazed look. When Tad got close to peer at them, to look them in the eye and touch their dry noses, they tried to bite the oxmeat hanging from his mouth. For once, Tad was too quick for them. He understood why Mumma had recruited him to help.

The forest, though, was just as dry as it had been by Nilston—drier, if that were possible. Peering into the dappled light with hazy eyes, he saw no hint of green. The trees had given up and shriveled into themselves, leaving half their leaves abranch to crackle and scrape in the sighing breeze. The other half lay below, a skittering carpet of sickly brown. That’s all there was like to be, the damned dry leaves, aside from the greensharp hiding underneath.

Tad took up a handful of the nearest leaves. They crumbled in his hand as he trudged back to the oxen. Presented with them, the oxen snaked around to try to nick his oxmeat tongue instead. Tad backed out of reach and threw the leaves at their stupid faces. He couldn’t fathom why they wanted meat. Oxen ate plants, everybody knew that.

He dragged himself over to the edge of the trees, plopping down among the useless drifts of leaves. “Oy!” came Mumma’s voice from behind, and he turned. “Greens, goodlin’,” she said. “Greens!” Standing tall in the wagon, she jabbed a finger insistently at the woods. Tad groaned, but Mumma was watching. He struggled to his feet and forced himself forward among the trees, crunching leaves with every low and dragging step. His muscles were keenly felt, strings taut and fraying as they worked. When he glanced back, Mumma was once more away, bent nearly out of sight over Dapper. The oxen stared incuriously at the road. Tad moved on, feeling hard every pointless step.

There was green to be found after all, though it was little and far between. Tufts of fat grass poked up between leaves in patches of shade; little tree-like things covered in furry prickles grew in clefts between large tree roots; the occasional creeper, most in the process of drying out but still green enough, he supposed. And there was, of course, greensharp, kicked into and stumbled over and uncovered every time he cleared away the leaves. Tad left them. He knew from lessons past that greensharp and oxen didn’t mix.

When he went back, Mumma was feeding her own meager pile of plants to the oxen. He dumped his small addition into her pile, watching her alternate between the slowly crunching mouths as she distributed the minor chlorophyllic riches. “Woulds but give’t all ta one, had I me druthers,” she mumbled at him. “But an ox’s a dumb loyal beast, ‘tis. Both’ll move ‘r both’ll starve, but twill be dones one wit’ ta oth’r.” Looking at the tiny pile at her feet, she sighed and shook her head.

They sat in the wagon when the feeding was done, silent, staring at the still oxen. Tad had pulled the rest of the oxmeat into his mouth, and chewed it like a cud. Mumma gripped the driving stick, flexing her hands against it. A faraway rumble grew near, coming up behind them. Mumma’s jaw tightened. Her knuckles were bleach white against the stick. As the rumbling grew louder, expanded to include squeaks and jolts and oxen hooves, she shrank into herself by degrees, hunching down. She used a trembling hand to cover her head with a scrap of knit, ran the clammy palm over Tad’s forehead, then clutched once more the stick. Her eyes were wide with fear. Tad was frozen, staring, fascinated.

As the wagon passed, she strained at the corners of her eyes and did not turn her head. Beyond her petrified frame, Tad saw the oxen power past, stout and steady. And then the driver, a wisp of a shirtless white-haired man with skin like saggy leather. Mumma seemed to spot him too: her grip on the stick all at once relaxed, the tightness left her, she straightened and loosened and slumped back, letting the knit atop her head fall. The driver of the other cart gave them no look as he passed, high-sided sweetroot wagon following behind. Tad stared at those high sides with twinges of yearning nostalgia. It seemed a marker of a better life, a life long past that would not return. Despite the dry heat and lack of water, his eyes grew moist.

As soon as the other wagon was a few yards beyond them, Mumma shouted, “On’now!” at the oxen, and struck hard at their hindquarters with her driving stick. They ignored her. “On’now! On’now!” she repeated, and cracked the stick as hard as she could against each ox’s spine. The one on the right ignored her still, the one on the left looked back at her with murky eyes. Neither moved. The left ox glanced at his fellow and then returned to staring at the road. Mumma swatted them about the rump until Tad was tired of the soft thuds it made, shouted “On’now!” till she was hoarse. Neither ox paid her any mind. She slid down out of the wagon, stick clattering on the jump-up, and took hold of the oxen by their nose rings, straining to pull them forward, tugging and pulling both together and each separately until sweat bathed her face and soaked the broad bosom of her dress. One ox tried to bite her, the other snorted once, and that was it.

Tad chewed the thick wad of salty, fibrous oxmeat, luxuriating in every bit of saliva his mouth could make, and watched as Mumma panted in the road. She wiped her forehead and pressed it against that of an ox, staring him close and angry in the eyes. The sweetroot wagon was long gone. In the still air, her hard breaths were the only sound. She reared back, hands on hips, licking the sweat from around her mouth. “Taddy,” she said, “times fer tha greensharp.”

 

62

It was only about an hour before the oxen began weeping shit, a thin brown treacle that ran without announcement or event over their stalwart hinds. They kept the pace. It wet the road, and kept Mumma and Tad supplied with fragrance. For the past half an hour, their farts had done the same. Tad, mouth still full of unswallowable protein that he refused to give up on, had no choice but to breathe it all in through his nose. It took all his concentration not to gag. He had nudged Mumma and pointed to his stuffed mouth and the water bladder beside her and his dry throat enough times that she had finally seemed to understand, but had dismissed his need with a shake of her head and turned back to strike the oxen. His throat would remain too dry to swallow, his food too dry to be downed.

But— A thought. Pressing hand firmly over mouth, he let himself gag, gag again, retch, and then he hurriedly stuffed the food back in and willed it down his burning throat. It was a razor going down, but—Stop. It stopped. He pulled at air with his lungs, but none came. He couldn’t feel it. There was no air in the world. Hand clutched at his throat, mouth working aimlessly. Throat lurched. Tried to inhale. It obstructed the vital flow, locked away deep, a rock-hard bolus that blocked off life. He retched as he never had, every muscle from his stomach up pushing into his throat with all the air-starved strength they could muster.

It came up, vomited in a slick of stomach juices into his hand, and he drew down deep, deep breaths. Even as he ransacked the dry air for oxygen, he mashed up the ball with his thumb, mixing wetness from the outer layer into the hard, stringy center. Separated into smaller pieces, he stoically inserted them into his mouth and, fighting intermittent gags and a burning, bleeding throat, swallowed them hard down between gasping breaths. Finished feeding the oxen their next bunch of greensharp, Mumma swung up beside him and gave the stuff a cockeyed look, mouth twisted in disgust. “Wha’s that?”

Wheezing, Tad whispered, “Ox meat,” and continued to force it down. Mumma merely shrugged, turning to retrieve another lump of greensharp and then setting about shaving the needles from it.

They had found out the long way, nearly two hours before, that the oxen would not eat it with prickles intact, no matter how cajoled or beaten, no matter how it was pressed into their mouths. Mumma had finally thought to shave them with her precious iron knife, and that had proved a stroke of genius. Starved and dry, they had developed a strong affinity after only the first bite—though they still wouldn’t eat them with the needles on. Tad himself was tempted to squeeze some of the noxious white sap down his throat, ravening for water as he was. Only the vivid memory of recent experience stayed his hand.

They had worked as a team to fill the oxen with greensharp, though Tad had grumbled to himself that he was doing most of the work. Head pounding from the heat, throat scorched and belly rumbling and all the while trying to get down the oxmeat, he was nonetheless sent stumbling around the forest to scatter leaves and pull up the greensharp underneath. He didn’t even have his leather glove, which Mumma had kept for herself to use as she shaved the prickles from the squishy green bulbs, but a square of knit to protect his hand. No more than one or two could be taken up before he had to return to the wagon to dump them.

Sweat covered every part of him; he felt faint, and the sound in his ears grew dim. Heartbeats shuddered through his head. All the while, Mumma sat quite comfortably in the road before the oxen, shaving away with her rusty knife and overlarge leather glove, perspiration barely standing on her forehead. It would have been no surprise to see her take leisurely swigs of water as she worked. After a few trips back and forth, Tad raised a whisper of protest, but Mumma merely pointed out that hers was work requiring two hands. Tad frumped a sullen face, but could not deny the truth of it. He had taken a breather, then wobbled off back to the trees.

Toward the end, as the oxen grew full and slowed their intake, Mumma finally got off her rump and helped with the gathering. With her two hands and the use of her skirts as a carrier, she easily outpaced her son and they soon had a hefty pile. Together they had taken them into the wagon, stockpiled around Dapper’s head, and set off at the fastest pace they could manage. The oxen had still not responded to the stick, but when Mumma had grabbed them by the nose and pulled, they had grudgingly followed her lead.

They rode on for the rest of the sunlit hours. Several times an hour, Mumma hopped down with smooth bulbs of greensharp, alternately shoving their mouths full of the stuff and pulling hard on their nose rings to insist they keep the pace. Tad watched with a heavy head, knowing all too well how this worked: what came out the back had to be replaced in the front. Though he had no love for the oxen, he could not help but feel sorry for them. Oxen did not survive greensharp.

Several more wagons passed by as they traveled, in both directions. The air grew thick with dust as they passed. Those coming from the front drew no heed from Mumma, but when they approached from behind she took up the driving stick and hunched down against the bench. After each passed without incident, she immediately leaped down and tried to drag the oxen on at a faster pace. Tad did not know what she ran from, and did not care. They were finally headed in the right direction, finally headed toward Featherwall and Dapper’s salvation.

At sundown, Tad got another drink of water, only half of sun-top’s dose. A hard root was pressed into his hand, and he sucked on it without brushing off the dirt. The sun fell from the sky, and still they traveled on.

 

63

They reached Longspike with the moon leering high overhead. Tad had not slept and still did not feel the need, so he saw the town as they approached and was already bored with it by the time they stopped. Longspike consisted of rough plank shacks clustered just within the edge of the shriveled forest, which grew sparse and ended a stone’s throw from the rocky slope of a small hill. A wide, low opening leered from the side of the hill. There was nothing else. Tad could make out what he thought was a well, set back among the trees, but the moon was thin and showed little.

Mumma drove out into the bare field between the houses and the mine, hill blocking out the moon as they drew near, and stopped the wagon. Paying Tad no heed, she draped her usual scrap of knit over her face, licked her dry lips and was still, arms crossed. Tad stared out ahead at the oxen, eyes gradually adjusting to the dark. Nothing stirred. He was on the verge of pushing out of the wagon to explore when Mumma suddenly returned to life, snorting and shaking her sleep-knit down into waiting hands, eyes blinking open. She took up the driving stick and gave the oxen a hard slap on the butt, with a half-yawned, “On’now.” They ignored her fully. She jumped down and took them by their nose rings, jerking at them mercilessly until they finally lifted their heavy hooves.

Mumma led them back to the road and back down it, twenty cartlengths or so. Peering at the dark bulbs in the pale moonlight, she quickly shaved and judiciously administered four pieces of greensharp from the small pile that remained. And then, without a word, she covered her face and fell asleep, leaving Tad to wonder at her seemingly pointless backtracking. After Nilston, though, he was used to it. Maybe she had some secret here as well. Maybe she would never let him see the town again. He cared nothing about those potentials, but a third gripped his belly tight: maybe she would keep them here as she had at Nilston, in the heat outside the town, thirsting and hungering and, worst of all, stopping, for no good reason at all. He shook his head at the thought in the too-quiet night, nothing but the dark trees to see him say No. She was running from someone, plain enough. The same someone who had caused her those bruises and cuts, no doubt. She would keep going, surely—had to keep going. Surely.

Sleep was long in coming.

 

64

The long pain of being torn from sleep beat within his head, eyelids made of stone and brain of pea-mush. His forehead had fallen forward and collapsed, stretching six feet to the front. He couldn’t fathom why Mumma didn’t bump it as she shook him awake, rattled his jostling jumble of bones. Tad’s butt was the only flesh on him, and he wished it would slide off like the rest because it hurt like a muddy oxfart. No, like muddy oxshit. He rolled his eyes. “Taddil!” The rattling came again. A hot hand mingled sweat upon his forehead, which suddenly reared back and fixed itself into place, throbbing painfully. “Mah-dy ox-sheet,” he informed her. “Taddil!” came her stern answer. There was a pause, a blessed pause, and he drifted away. Cool fingers traced over his cheeks, up along his ears and his painful forehead. Pressure under his armpits. He was flying.

Ground. Ground hard under unready feet, real ground and he was stumbling, a jolt through his body from his knees. He forced his eyes open, head swaying. Mumma’s giant face, in close. Something cold, cold and hard, cold and hard and round was pressed into his hand, and he instinctively closed around it. “Salt, Taddy,” came Mumma’s hard-edged voice. “Salt. Salt rocks, iff’n they’ve got ‘em. Much’s that’ll buy ya. Yeah?”

“Yeah,” said Tad, dragging it out with a yawn.

He felt himself pulled up, turned around by strong arms. “Yeah?” asked Mumma.

“Yeah,” said Tad again, mouth working sleepily. He didn’t move.

A gentle push forced a staggering start, a swat to his sore butt kept him moving. He forced his eyes open again, again, again, each time lasting only a moment, but he could feel the sting of consciousness creeping in. First light was breaking bare over the road ahead. He walked.

No matter his bumbly legs and sleep-starved head, the walk was a short one. He arrived just as the sun pulled itself over the edge of the world to stare him in the eyes, making his head ache as the light stabbed in, and was glad to turn off and lope up along the edge of the trees. Exposed roots made him stumble, but he kept his feet.

There were few signs of life in the village ahead: lazy smoke drifted from a few firepits, a snatch of quiet conversation, a scrawny teen feeding scraps to a dog. Tad saw no hint of commerce. He turned in among the trees.

The settlement stretched back much further into the woods than he had supposed. He kept dragging himself on, and the town kept stubbornly extending before him, one rickety wood shack after another, each with its own firepit. Some were lit, with some thin woman or child or old man huddled at the cookpot. They paid him no mind. The smells of food sparked an unease in his belly.

Tad had trudged on for about fifteen minutes, no end to the village in sight, when he spotted the well. He went straight for it, scattering leaves and kicking tree roots. His throat was so dry he could barely swallow. Mumma had given him no water.

There was a line. Sunlight rose and began to burn at his neck, at his arms, at the back of his legs as he stood and waited his turn. Thirst urging him on, it was hard to listen to the sloshing ahead without pushing forward to snatch a drink. They would only push him back, he knew, and so he waited, and so he pretended he was one of the trees. A tree that shuffled forward as the line moved. A tree that often peered around to see how many people were left ahead, and always lamented the number.

He noticed that it was always the same sinewy elder who drew up the bucket and cast it down, liver spots on his bald pate, a hunch in his back that made him slow to pull up the rope. It puzzled him. Obviously it wasn’t just the same man taking water again and again, since the line was growing shorter—there was no way he could drink or carry away so much water on his own anyway. But why would such an old man take it on himself to hoist up water for everyone? And why would the thirsty wait on his slow, hunchbacked labor? He scrunched up his face and thought on it, but came to no answers. It did make the waiting quicker, though.

Suddenly the sloshing was right in front of him, muddy water poured into leaky buckets, and then it was shouldered and taken away. Tad found himself at the head of the line. Up close, the old man stank of boiled cabbage. He held out a gnarled hand, palm up to receive, and said something that sounded like “Shit.” His breath was rotten eggs. Tad stared at him unmoving, rough tongue absently scraping the dry inner side of his cheek. The man twitched his hand, leaning down toward him, and said again, in his gummy way, “Shit.” Flecks of spit struck Tad in the face.

Tad had no idea what to say, and in any case his throat was too dry for speech. He could only stare, and tighten his grip on the coin from Mumma. The man seemed to notice the movement, tiny as it was, and he snatched up Tad’s wrist, muttering unintelligible nothings. Tad balled up his fist as hard as he could, but the old man peeled away his fingers with no trouble at all. The rough iron coin lay in his open palm, ugly and heavy and cold. The man bit his lip with the three crooked teeth left to him, looking from Tad to the coin and the coin to Tad and then shaking his head. He motioned roughly to the side, said “Nae o’ Lon’nail, ah?” and something that Tad could not make out. Tad closed his fingers around the coin and pointed his fist at the well, at his throat, at the well. He felt the sting of his cracked lips.

The man repeated himself as though that should end things, but Tad did not move. He pointed again to his throat, again to the well. The old man’s forehead pinched, the space between his eyes puckering, and he leaned in close. Tad held his breath. “Nae shit, nae watsa,” said the wrinkled bastard in a loud voice, and then straightened to the extent he could and motioned over Tad’s head. Tad was pushed from the side, away from the well and out of line, and he stumbled and fell. When he looked up, the old man was once more hoisting up water in his slow way. Those in line stared at Tad, some curious and some hostile, but none with sympathy in their eyes. He rose heavily to his feet, pressing the ridges of the coin hard against his palm, and stumbled on his way.

It took him hours, he supposed, to find the salt. The houses seemed to straggle without rhyme or reason through the trees, kept well away from the road and further and further from one another. Realizing that the village was thinning out, he walked toward his left for a while and then turned back toward the well. As the sun rose higher, strength broken but little by the dead leaves that still hung, more people began to emerge, yawning at the sun in ratty knits or quietly sweating over pit fires and cookpots. There was none of the purposeful bustle of the farm, with its stalwart pattern to the day. Tad thought, pushing forward low and pained by thirst, that they seemed quite lazy.

They did not seem to think of him at all. At the well they had stared, but elsewhere he drew nary an eye, walking in their midst as a ghost. Somehow he blended, with his trudging walk, his desiccated skin and lips and downcast eyes. And his missing hand. He had seen any number with missing arms or feet or hands, men with long scars and deep wounds. What normally made him stand out, here let him fit in. Tad could not help but smile, though his lips cracked when he did. He licked at the seep of blood that came, tongue tingling with the moisture.

Finally the houses began to stand close, then nigh on together, and a large building plainly meant for commerce came into view. It was rickety and bare, rough planks poorly joined that had been a feast for many an insect. When he went around to the front, he was sorely disappointed. There were no merchants within, and the broad, saggy awning that topped it gave no relief at all from the direct morning sun. Tad walked into the open structure anyway, throwing himself down against the wood backing, and propped up an errant broken plank to shield his face from the sun.

It was not long before his eyes grew heavy. Sitting cross-legged and propping the piece of wood against his knee, he leaned his head back against the wall and forced his eyes open to squint against the sun. He was determined not to fall asleep.

 

65

It was the quiet that woke him, a sudden lull in the noise. The lids of his eyes popped open with a start, and he saw that the sun was angled over the awning, out of the way. Blessed as the shade was, it meant late morning or sun-top or even beyond. To both sides he could see the legs of merchants, waiting at their stalls; in both ears, their chatter came to fill his head, overlapping to meaninglessness like a tangle of intergrown bush roots. It was late.

Pushing to stand, he realized with a jolt that the coin was not in his hand. He searched frantically around his legs, fingers scrabbling against the rough wood such that he nearly forced splinters through the skin. There it was, just below where his hand had rested, sat heavy and unstolen upon the floor. He snatched it up with a gasp of relief, thrust it in his pocket and palmed himself up along the wall, shaking. A deep breath constricted his dry throat, he coughed out a sore cough, then another, and he swallowed in pain with but a hint of spit and ventured out among the stalls.

They were selling all sorts of things, metal ore and metal knives and metal figurines, dried roots and berries and fragrant leaves, salted ox and salted hare and even whole salted frogs, sweetroot syrup and bunchberry jam, flatbread and rye bread and raw cotton and wool. The merchants tracked him as he hobbled past, seeming fearful of even a one-armed child among their precious goods. Tad barely noticed, rushing through as best he could and looking only long enough to see what they were selling. He showed no interest even in the sweets, the foods, the cleverly wrought figurines of animals and imagined gods. His eyes were only for salt.

When he finally found the stall, he reared back his head with wide, desperate eyes and thrust out the coin with insistence. The salt-monger looked at him impassively, no flicker of movement in his weather-beaten face, pug nose, large brow or narrow chin. His clear green eyes said nothing. Tad clasped the coin between his fingers and waved it at the man.

“I do sees it, boy,” said the merchant in a quiet tenor, “that Nilston iron o’ your’n.”

Tad got up on his tiptoes, enough to peer into the several boxes on display, and pointed toward the box of rock salt. Once more he proffered the coin. His arm had grown heavy.

“Alrights, ‘en. You wants ‘a rose rock. Hows much o’it?” The man’s piercing eyes stared off at the market, never once seeming to land on Tad.

Unable to speak, Tad scowled and thought of the old man at the well. Just a drink, just a swallow, just a sip or two, and he would have had the wet to speak. He slithered his tongue into the spaces where his teeth had been, testing the looseness of those that remained, and felt like vomiting.

“All it, boy?”

Bone dry, Tad’s swollen tongue stuck in the gap left by his front-left tooth. With twisted mouth and contorted face he made a feeble gesture with his half-arm, then pointed once more to the salt with the coin and dropped the bit of iron on the table. Arm fell to his side, too heavy to hold up. Finally his tongue disengaged, sliding with painful friction back into place.

“Well, ‘en, that’s clear ‘nuff, I s’pose, ah? Clear’s I’ll gets with a dumb one, ah.” He reached into the salt and scooped it as a bird might, pressing the tips of his fingers to the tip of his thumb, dipping the hand up and down in the air and letting little bits fall out until he seemed satisfied. The salt was deposited on a scrap of linen, twisted up and tied tight with a grassweave cord, then placed at the edge of the board in front of Tad. Never once did he seem to look at what he was doing. “A bits light, I know. Can onsly gives you two o’ three, seein’ as it’s Nilston coin. I’s do feel bad’s for you, ah, but…it’s Nilston coin. You’ll do no better.”

He crossed his arms. Tad reached up and took the salt.

 

66

Mumma seemed not to see him as he approached. Tad stumbled along the edge of the forest instead of going by the road, even intermittent shade worth the impediment of the roots, and her eyes never left the patch of dirt at which she stared. A cart rumbled by, but it came from the front and she hardly even blinked at it.

When he finally came parallel to the wagon, though, and paused to gather in his strength before facing the bare sun, she turned to give him a level look. “Problems, aye, Taddy?” He could not speak. He took her implied accusation in silence, and raised the salt to the feeble height that he could. She nodded, and waited, and waited some more. Tad found himself unable to close the gap. Strength flooded from him in a torrent of heat. The world moved. He sat, heavy as iron, on the exposed root of a dusty tree, and winced at the pain from sore buttocks.

Mumma watched him, and he watched her. His heartbeat thudded through every shallow breath, pulled through a dry throat that choked him. In his hand the bulb of linen was lightning, roiling against his fingertips, sensation so fierce that he cried out through a silent mouth and had to fight to hold the salt. He shivered. The linen burned and scraped and popped and froze, itched and scratched at once. The sun was ice. The salt alone was real, a world that had swallowed him whole. Mumma on the road was a picture, nothing but a picture, like the ones Old Tom used to draw with sweetroot tar. He noticed that the oxen had two tails, and—no, not two tails. Mumma had stuffed scraps of knit into their end holes. He smiled, the inside of his lips sticking to his teeth. She was funny sometimes, the odd things she did. Or maybe Dapper had done it, as a joke, got on up and done it. Maybe he was fine, and this had been a big, fine joke. How strange for Daps, really, it wasn’t his sort of humor at all. But he did like to try new things.

The oxen, heads low, did not move. Mumma stared. The air was still and cool. He shivered. Had everything stopped? Was everything frozen? It was getting so cold. The smell of ox dung stuck in the air, a breeze rattled leaves and blew an arctic wind against the backs of his arms, poking through the gaps in his stretched and moth-eaten and ragged knit shirt to needle him. Still Mumma and the oxen did not move. Were they frozen, then? The world was not. He shivered, and she stared. She stared, and he shivered. He tried to speak, and could produce only a painful whisper that barely reached his own ears. He strained to raise again the salt, arm shaking, and bit his cracked lip as the linen roared across his palm and fell to the leaves below. Another breeze stabbed into him, spidering cold through his back and arms and chest and gut. Tad hugged himself with his arm and his half-arm, and toppled over on his side.

Mumma moved then, finally, clambering heavily down from the swing-up and walking sideways across the world. It was a season before she reached him, lost in deepest winter beneath the trees, and it was the salt she touched first, searching short within the tide of dried leaves. When finally she hoisted Tad up against her sweaty chest, his eyes were glazed and he shivered violently against her.

She set him at his father’s feet and patiently nursed a bladder of water into him. He threw it up twice and then again, but Mumma kept pouring it down. As it gurgled like a live thing in his belly, she cut up dried oxmeat and sliced a hard root into small chunks with her rusty knife. The world warmed as he chewed with aching teeth. He shook less, and sweated cold sweat. By the time he got it all down he was still and damp, and winter had thawed to spring.

He closed his eyes to sleep and found himself pulled into the air, head hanging heavy back against Mumma’s arm. She smelled of sweat new and old, of salted oxmeat and dust and cool breath from a rotting mouth. The bright open sky was marred by branches. Crunching leaves poked up into his legs, a hard root bumped painfully into his back, he found his head set light against the rough bark of a tree. Mumma hovered above, waving a water bladder before his eyes. “Bladder’ll be here, Taddy. Keeps yeself wet. Back soon enough, aye?” She was gone without awaiting a reply. Tad turned open-mouthed to watch her go, root digging into his hip. He was hot again, no matter the shade. His body buzzed quietly.

At the road, Mumma fed the salt to the oxen. They showed no interest but she forced it in, clamping shut the mouth so they could not spit it out. She offered a tiny bit of greenery next, found somehow among the dead things and the dust, and they chomped it down and swallowed the bulk of the salt along with it. When every last tiny rock had been carefully extracted from the linen, she went to the wagon and tossed the few remaining greensharp bulbs into the trees on the other side of the road, opposite Tad, and vigorously worked a scrap of knit against the bottom and corners of the cart. The scrap went into the trees as well, and then she stood, hands on hips and dripping sweat, dissatisfied. Mumma climbed into the wagon and went to work on Dapper. Tad could not see what she was doing. After a few moments, she held up his ragged shirt, carefully draping it over one corner of the wagon; another few moments, and his trousers followed, placed diagonally over the opposing side. She shook her head and sighed a sigh that Tad could hear, but nonetheless stepped over to the swing-up and hopped off.

She extracted the knit scraps from the oxen’s ends, wiped the area with the clean end, and dropped the scraps in the dead grass by the road. Tad watched Mumma with a glazed fascination, and Mumma watched the ox holes with a patient eye. All was still but for a subtle breeze, and Tad began to wonder if the world had frozen once more. But then Mumma nodded, and patted the oxen’s rumps, and moved forward between them to take them by their nose rings. She strained hard as she pulled, turning left to right and right to left, face reddening. When she paused for breath, she kicked them in the forelocks, smacked them on the head. She tried to push them forward by the shoulder, tried to lead them on with her last bit of green. Finally she turned and pulled at the nose of only one with the strength of both biceps, screaming a brutal animal scream, and it gave way a single step and then another, enough to pull its partner a lurch toward town, and at that the fight was won. The oxen pulled each other forward, and Mumma fell in by their side, muttering darkly and slapping their bony flanks.

Twenty cartlengths ahead they pulled off into Longspike, and Tad was left alone.

 

67

He did not sleep, of that he was certain. Time was with him as he watched the road, time full and heavy and hot and dry. The sun did not move, so Tad marked the passing of the afternoon by counting swigs from the bladder. He knew well enough to pace himself, though he was parched again the instant after each swallow. His body had gotten a taste of water, and now it howled for it. Even so, his pee-pot filled and ached, and he emptied it where he lay without thinking.

The smell of piss reminded him of Dapper, laid out on display in his filth. Rattled around like a sack of ‘root with his sores and his wounds and his grin. Mumma doesn’t care for him. She tends him only from duty. It was with a jolt that the thought hit, and his heart galloped around. His mouth was drier, his sweat more profuse. Limbs barely strong enough to lift the water fell to utter disuse. Tears came from somewhere. He gasped breaths. Yet he calmed quickly, wiggling his tongue through missing teeth. It was not a great shock, with how things had been. Tad was no longer sure Mumma cared for him either. Her world was herself and the oxen, herself and the road, herself and some damned thing she was determined not to share. Well, damn her too. He puffed up his cheeks and tried to force the air through the gap in his upper teeth. Well and truly muddy damn her.

Carts rattled by, two away from Longspike and one toward. He wondered if that one was what Mumma was running from—scowling bearded jaw, wide-brimmed grassweave hat pulled low, cart bristling with a meager stock of sweetroot and lumber. She must have worked for him nights and stolen from him the night they ran. Now he was out for revenge. Maybe if he’d spotted Tad under the tree, he’d have scooped him up and taken him back and forced him to do his bidding, or tried to ransom him off to Mumma—but he doubted Mumma had much coin, so it would’ve ended the same way. Tad stayed extra quiet and stopped his staring, hardly daring to breathe. The thought of being carried off back to Nilston was too ugly to bear. A tiny bird landed by his feet, making miniscule rapid hops and quorking its head nervously at every sound and sight. “Hi, birdie,” whispered Tad, and it immediately burst away.

 

68

The sun was full in his eyes when Mumma stopped the cart by his tree. Though he could not see her face, the rough way he was handled made it plain she was in a rush. Tad had no strength to lift his head, but the snorts and pawing of the oxen told him it was a new pair. He wondered if she had buried the old or sold them for meat.

Mumma shrugged him down at Dapper’s feet, nudged him just inside the hinges and slammed up the gate. Tad could see nothing but his father and the empty sky. The latches were loud in his ears. Something was pressed into his hand. Half a dried apple, a strip of salted oxmeat. As he watched, his near-empty water bladder was placed by his arm. He looked up, but Mumma was already gone. He heard her at the swing-up, felt the jolt as she plopped down.

“On’now!” came her cry. The thwack of wood on heavy flesh. The wagon groaned and rattled and moved. They were away toward Featherwall.

Shaded by Mumma and Dapper and the back of the swing-up, lying on cool wood, Tad suddenly felt every bit of his fatigue. His half-arm tingled. He yawned, and his eyes teared. He yawned.

 

69

The road to Hole was a thing not seen but felt. There was a bump for every bone in his body, a rattle for each tooth in his head, rocks and ruts and stops and starts and shudders. The new oxen seemed somehow bolder than the last, which he supposed was good but gave him only additional aches as they trundled quick and hard down the road.

When he was hot it was day, when he was cold it was night. Temperatures rose higher and dove lower as they pressed on. Tad would huddle up against Dapper as dark drew down, only to wake up just past sun-up bathed in sweat. Mumma covered them as best she could at nightfall, though she had little more than scraps of knit to offer. The largest was about as large as Tad’s belly. Every night he tried to cover his shoulders with it, and every night it was not enough. He fell asleep shivering.

Mumma sat as she always did, still as a statue at the front, a scrap of knit draped over her head. Tad did not know if it was intended for the sun or the dust, but it failed against both. She was no less dirty and no less a painful reddish bronze than Dapper or himself. He did not know when she slept, either, or when she rested the oxen. During all his waking hours she remained still and silent on the swing-up, and the oxen pushed on.

Tad knew these oxen would die, too. They would be used up, fed and watered little and beaten much, driven until they could no longer move. The thought twinged sadness through him, a rippling echo. These beasts had never tried to kick him or bite him, had never farted in his face or spat on him. They seemed better than the other lot. He wished his mother would use them more gently, so they might survive.

Whenever he raised his head above the side of the wagon, though, all blame fell away. The dry trees had thinned away to scrub and brush and stunted things, to little but hard-packed earth, dirt and dun and sand. There were no birds. The only sounds were the obscene rattle of the wagon and the wind as it whispered sand into his eyes. Grit built underneath him, dirt that dried his hands and grains of sand that scraped wood and flesh when he pushed up to sit or stand. There was no hint of water but that apportioned out by Mumma, in thrice-daily gulps. The skin on his hands cracked at the seams. He tongued for blood and got dirt and scabs.

Tad began to fantasize about greensharp, about blood, about anything with a hint of moisture. He tried to make himself cry to drink the tears, to touch away the wet of his eyes and place it on his tongue, to pick his nose and eat it. Nothing worked. There was no moisture in him, at least any that would keep. His eyes, even, were drying out; it was becoming painful to blink. Tad’s tongue was a fearsome angry size, and pained him even when it scraped against his teeth. When he could keep them open, his eyes bored into Mumma’s back and urged her on.

They began to hide from the sun and travel at night. Mumma would drape the oxen like Spring-Sticks with all the knit and cloth at hand, most tattered and grey but some still laying claim to red or blue, then drag Dapper down under the wagon. Tad hopped down on his own. Sometimes, so hot he felt he was burning and so dry he could no longer sweat, he felt it was pointless. Above or below the world was fire and dust, no different if they hid in the shade or pressed on in the light. All it took, each time, was to emerge a crawled half-step into the sun, feel the road burn into his palm and the heat set fire to his hair. Mumma was right. He ground his wobbly teeth.

Tad slept fitfully under the wagon, perpetually woken after only a few moments by Dapper’s snorts or Mumma’s snores or an errant creak from the harness. It was better to sleep away the cold nights, but there was nothing for it; no one seemed to have the spit for talk or the energy for action, and they were inevitably driven to exhaustion by the rising heat. Days passed in a quick eternity of small wakings.

As soon as the sky began to blush, they would stumble out to take their places. Dapper was heaved up into the wagon, Tad helping by dragging the scruff of his neck. The oxen had their decorations removed. Mumma would putter around—no doubt feeding and watering the oxen, Tad knew, with whatever she could afford. Tad himself paid her no heed. This was the only comfortable hour, and he spent it comfortably with Dapper and his manic balding grin, flung back staring at the purpling sky. No heat, no cold, no half-borne sleep, no jolts or rumbles to inflame their sores, their sunburned skin, their tired joints and aching limbs. Within that lack, there was space to be happy. So Tad would listen to his belly gurgle, smell the acrid musk of Dapper’s piss, and be happy.

Then they would start, out with a hard slap and an “On’now!” and a jerking pull. Night came. Cold came. There was no escape to sleep, as they had slept by day. The moon and Mumma rose above, stoic in equal measure. Tad pushed into Daps at odd angles, seeking warmth under arms and between legs. He shivered to exhaustion, then shivered more. When he could stand it no more he would gnaw at his allotment of dried apple, manage a sip from his water bladder, and chew on oxmeat. He chewed for hours, tongue screaming in pain, chewed till it made him sick, chewed until it was a block of fibrous tissue with no moisture in it, and then he would remove it from his mouth, take a sip of water, and pinch off and swallow small amounts until it was entirely gone. And then, done with eating, Tad would shiver to the dawn.

 

70

Hole lived up to its name.

Arriving in the middle of the night under a faint mid-month moon, they nearly missed it but for the sound: a dull, muffled roar, persistent enough to be heard in the gaps between creaking and rattling and oxen hooves. Stopping every ten cartlengths to get a new bearing on the sound, Mumma led them from the road toward a lone, large rock that towered the height of twin trees above. As they grew near, it blotted out the moon. They stumbled upon a narrow, winding path, knowable only by the faint ruts and grooves that crossed it. Mumma had to hop down from the swing-up and crouch by the ground before she would be satisfied that it was more than something made by wind or snake.

The town was on the other side of this looming chunk of rock, a handful of dusty timber shacks lined up in a meandering curve. The roar filled their ears now. Tad marveled at how anyone could sleep. As they grew near, and he saw how dilapidated everything was—the caked-on dirt, warped timber, small bones picked clean and bleached white and littered throughout—he began to wonder if the town was deserted instead of merely asleep. There were no oxen, no dogs, no washing out to dry.

It was a question answered as soon as they stopped, pulled up facing the houses across cartlengths of cracked, bare earth. As Mumma saw to the oxen, Tad poked his head up, watching, and with a start realized that doors had opened, sound utterly hidden in the background roar. The doorways were swallowed in darkness. Only hands and arms and feet emerged, restless, fingers gripping doorjambs and toes shyly wiggling in the light. An occasional eye glinted. As Tad watched, heads began to emerge, poking out from their black cocoons, shaved and small with the skin pulled taut. Seeming to decide it was safe, a gaunt little boy tottered out, utterly naked, ribs poking the world.

It started a flood. Bone-thin figures emerged, in tattered rags or none at all, some with sun-brittle hair riding wild and some with bare pates, all of age with beards between their legs and many of the men with beards above as well. Those with shaved hair had unnaturally small heads; the wild-haired heads were monstrously large. They stumbled out to surround the wagon in a half-arc, gangly and sharp, staring in silence, hungry moon glinting in their eyes. All were still but that first little boy, who strutted around the wagon in circles belly-first, blowing out his cheeks and flapping his arms. He seemed to be making a noise, but Tad could hear nothing but the roar that surrounded the town.

Mumma took her good time, tending to the oxen without rush or worry, ignoring the figures that loomed behind her. For their part, they were patient as well, seeming indifferent to the cold. Here and there one shivered visibly, but made no corrective. In the wagon, Tad hugged himself and tugged at the insufficient knit on his shoulders. He tucked his feet under Dapper, who shook as he huddled tight into himself.

When Mumma finally did turn and draw her shoulders back and cross the short space to speak, Tad could hear nothing. She spoke to an emaciated woman with a flat chest and bold nipples, skin tight and leather-brown, wrapped in knit that hung scraggly down to mid-thigh from her hips. Mumma shook her head, firm with arms wrapped across her chest, and shortly the woman shook her head as well, slow and sad with a mournful air, and turned to trudge back the way she had come. The others followed her cue.

Mumma took an aggressive step forward, shouting something after, but they paid her no heed. One by one they entered their failing shacks, doors closing silent within the roar. Mumma stood and stared, hands on hips, still as stone. Tad could not see her face. Finally only the boy remained, scratching around the wagon like a human chicken, button of a penis pushing out from under his protruding belly. He came to Tad, then, staring up at him for a long moment with a cockeyed look. Sticking his tongue out, he screamed, “Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” and strutted away off toward the town.

 

71

They did not sleep. Mumma restlessly tended the oxen, far beyond what was needful. Dapper stared, unmoving as always, but his eyes were wide open; when Tad peered down to see if he was still awake, he grinned his tight-faced grin. Tad alternated between trying to sleep, staring listlessly at Mumma, and staring listlessly at Dapper. Fatigued to his toes, he could get no rest with the endless roar of Hole.

The sun rose, but did not bring the townspeople with it. Mumma paced, jaw working, cords standing on her neck. Tad watched her until he was bored, and then he stared at the oxtails as they flicked, seemingly random twitches called by no fly that he could see. The oxen kept their heads down, hardly live but for their tails. Already they had narrowed, ridges of ribs beginning to show. Dapper clung to life with cheer, every part dry and thin and tight.

When the sun poked up over the shacks, Mumma set her shoulders and strode up to the house at the end of the row, knocking without sound and then pushing in. She was out again in the space of a long breath, taking long steps toward the next house, face hard set in a stubborn cast that Tad knew well. In and out as quick as before, she went to the next and the next and the next, all down the curved line of ragged, tightly packed houses, then disappeared around the corner. It was clear there was another row behind, with a gap between that grew wider as the shacks wended their way toward the enormous rock. Tad was sure she would visit every house in that line as well. He waited.

Mumma returned past sun-top, with no joy on her face but no disappointment either. Jaw tight, lips pressed, eyes hard, pace unbowed, at first glance Tad took it merely for determination. But something was off—the task was over. What was she determined to do? Reach Featherwall? Dry as a dustcake, he didn’t see how that was possible. Water was down to little more than two mouthfuls a day. Unless their destination was just the other side of the rock, he didn’t see how they could make it. Just raising his head above the low side of the cart made him dizzy, and Dapper was no better off. He didn’t know how Mumma soldiered on, unless she was sneaking water while he slept—which was possible. It was the beginning of the end for the oxen, and leaving now would be a gamble that they would not die before Featherwall.

It was a gamble she seemed like to take, yanking the oxen ungently by the nose as she turned the cart and headed back around the corner of the massive rock, back to the empty dusty world of seared earth and silence. “Stop,” whispered Tad, and coughed painfully, both sounds lost in the dimming roar such that she never turned her head. He wondered if he were like the oxen, now, on a hard course set for death. Maybe only Mumma and Dapper would make it to Featherwall; or Mumma alone. Maybe it was what she deserved.

They stopped barely two cartlengths around the bend from Hole, just out of sight. Angled in deep shade, Tad went quick from hot to cold. Mumma was still for a long while, sat watching the oxtails flick. Tired of it all, eyes swimming and heart shaking his limbs, Tad curled up next to Dapper. Dapper grinned at him, breathing out breath that made him gag. He did not grin back and turned away. The roar of Hole echoing muffled in their ears, they shivered together until consciousness lost its grip.

 

72

Tad found himself looking up at Mumma, looking up at Mumma and he did not understand her face. He burned. He gasped for air, and nothing came. Mouth open, a dying fish, in pain he pulled again and it came now, rattling down a throat that ached with an ache forgot. He spluttered, liquid cold, and then his lungs did not hurt and the rest of him did. Teeth chattered painfully, and unthinking he tried to stop them with a hand that no longer was; he bit down hard tooth to tooth and then clamped his jaw, swelled tongue darting and seeking to calm a pain it could not reach. He shivered violently, turning on his side to huddle in a ball against the piss-soaked scent of Dapper.

Mumma’s mouth moved, but he heard nothing but the unending roar of the place, a monster that would not quiet. There was something wrong with her face. Above, her hair was shrunken and heavy. Her mouth moved again, finishing with a pained smile that turned quick to tight-pressed lips. Tad could not understand what she was doing. She looked to be crying, but the water streamed from her forehead instead of her eyes. She looked to be sweating, but in volumes that Tad had never seen. She looked somehow pleased, but her lip quivered and her eyes were wet. Mumma reached down and ran a hand through his own heavy, limp hair, and then turned and started away.

Tad realized with a start what had happened, a heartbeat before he saw the bucket in her hand, and reached with his shivering hand to feel the cold and wet of his own drenched hair. He spied the color variation of the wood, the water dripping from his own meager knits. He propped himself up on his whole arm to watch Mumma walk the road back toward Hole, and saw the empty water bladders tied tight against her waist. When she was out of sight, he set his back against Dapper and sucked the moisture from the knit of his sleeve, though the fuzzy wool sent needles through his tongue. His throat felt odd.

He tried hard not to be ungrateful for the water, so long kept from his skin, but it came when it was least wanted, in the morning and in the shade, and he could not help feeling that it was a punishment. For what, he did not know. Dapper’s own wet and shaking body provided no ounce of warmth, so Tad tried other avenues. He wormed away to the strip of dry wood at the edge. He struggled free from his wet wool knits. The wind cut into him, knifing down from the rock above, and he huddled up against the low dry side in a naked ball and waited until it dried him. It was better then, though still cold. He gazed out into the long flat nothing and watched the creeping line of the sun. Sun-top was still years away.

Mumma gave him an odd look or two but tried no conversation, and for his part Tad kept quiet. She made more trips than he cared to count, bringing back full water bladders, buckets of water for the oxen until they could no longer drink, an odd box filled with rusty tools and bulbs of linen-wrapped salt and spices, dried meat and bizarre metal trinkets. Finally she shoved into the back the buckets themselves, old warped things more tar than wood, filled near to the brim with water, ruffled Tad’s now nearly dry hair, swung up onto the swing-up and switched the oxen to move. They were done with Hole, though Tad never did know how.

 

73

Again, Mumma grew anxious about the road behind, driving the oxen on with an insistent fierceness and taking long, searching looks back. When the pace flagged, she beat the poor beasts and screamed “On’now!” till she was hoarse, and when that then failed to keep up speed she took the extraordinary measure of letting each ox slurp up half a bucketful of water. That was well past sun-top, and afterward they kept a good clip. By the time night fell and the moon came out to gorge, she no longer checked behind her.

For his part, Tad stayed bare but for his eyes, lying naked on his back with the sleeve of his shirt draped across his face. Sand ground into his bottom with every shake of the wagon. The rough wood rubbed his back. The odd dapples and striations that had once marked a resistance to the sun had faded away, a measure of his clothing’s decay and the sun’s power. He was a bronze boy now, hair light and thin but given volume by grease and sweat. It itched, and he scratched it. Blood appeared, on and under overlong fingernails. He discovered—first with a probing tongue, then with a dusty finger—that he had lost another tooth, on top on the other side, somewhere around Hole. The appropriateness of the loss made him smile, and off to the side Dapper grinned madly back. Tad had used to wonder where the teeth went, but no more.

Mumma had been generous, laying a full bladder of water and two whole strips of meat beside him, but he took in none of it yet. He had learned his lessons well; how long this road ran and when the next bladder would appear were things he could not know. His belly fell to civil war and his throat narrowed and choked and burned, but he took nothing from his store. He had endured worse. The scratch of the sand and the rough of the wood and the feel of the knit on his face would do for now.

Daps was full of water and full of pep. He tapped out a rhythmless barrage with a restless right hand against the far side of the cart, swaying his shrunken head in cadence to an unheard tune. Mumma had let his beard and hair grow, and it only served to make his head look smaller still, a tiny scrap of tight brown skin between forests of dry, bushy blackness. The eyes were still bright, stubborn and mirthful when not shaded by pain. Half his browning teeth were gone. He hummed and grunted and coughed at Tad as the sun burned over them, and Tad did his best to smile genially now and then even as he squirmed away. Dapper’s breath smelled like shit, and Tad wasn’t in the mood for play.

No flies had followed. Tad covered his face with his arm. The wagon rattled on.

 

74

They traveled half the night as well before Mumma stopped the oxen, not bothering to pull off the road as she settled into her usual stoic pose at the swing-up, sleeping cross-armed with her head tilted up at the moon and her mouth wide open. Tad had slept his fill from dusk to dark, waking halfway to shrug on his ragged now-dry clothes, and was well and truly restless. Beside him, Dapper snored.

He wetted his mouth with a sip from the bladder. He reduced one strip of oxmeat to pliant fibers in the cauldron of his mouth, then swallowed them in tufts as was his custom. He allowed himself two more tiny sips of water. Dapper shifted in his sleep, coughed and stopped snoring. He heard the dry, soft impact of ox shit on the road.

Tad sat up and swung his legs up and levered his weight over the low siding of the cart, hitting the elbow of his half-arm as he dropped down and landing hard on the shoulder of his full arm. He ignored the pain and pushed to his feet, surveying the pale moonlit land. Flatbush spread out in eerie, spindly shapes on flat cracked earth. It reached the horizon. There was nothing else.

He wandered to the front, glancing up only briefly at the statuesque, eternally devouring silhouette of his sleeping mother before sagging into the flanks of an immovable ox, pushing back until he could feel the ribs against his butt and spine. Reaching back, he ran his hand over the stiff dry hair. He poked at the bones with his fingers. Warmth seeped in. The ox ignored him. Tad turned and tried a halfhearted hop, grabbing vaguely at the spine of the beast. He had no real hope that he would be able to climb on, and his doubts were quickly confirmed. He was too short, too weak. And he had only one muddy hand.

Tad pressed back into the ox again to ward off the cold, shivering into it. It still paid him no mind. He pressed back as hard as he could, pushing then poking then punching back hard into the spaces between the ribs. He wiggled back and forth and jerked his elbows back into the warm flank. Finally the neck moved and the head came about, staring for only a moment with its dumb, glassy eye before settling back. Tad pounded back into it again, wiggling for all he was worth, but he could not make it respond again. He took a heavy breath, tapping his toe against the dirt and looking up at the boring sky from one boring star to another boring star to the muddy damned oxfart moon. He hoped it would eat the whole muddy sky, and then come down for him, for him and Mumma and Daps and the stupid, stupid rock-ox behind him, for Nilston and Bluebell and Hole and the muddy highman that Mumma’d sworn would bring Daps back to life in Featherwall.

Pushing off, he stumbled around to the front, butting his forehead up into the ox’s moist nose and looking it in its side-set eyes. He tried, anyway, but could see nothing but dark and shine. The ox-breath smelled like an ox-fart, and he coughed and wrinkled up his nose and moved his head to the side to stare deep into one ox eye. He sighed. There was nothing in it, nothing but the same relentlessly plodding near-consciousness he had always seen, only barely aware of its own existence but stubbornly dedicated to keeping it up one heavy, swaying hoofbeat at a time. Tad tapped it on its stupid nose and slapped it gently on its stupid muzzle and turned his back to the beast.

The road stretched out before him, discernable only by its lack of flatbush. The land on the other side of the wagon was precisely the same, save another large rock like the one at Hole. At first he thought it was the rock at Hole and his heart fell to his gut, but a long hard stare at it relieved him; the features were clearly not the same, especially the weird jagged spire that jutted from the side. His eyes wandered over the landscape, stopping on odd formations of flatbush here and there. Nothing moved. He looked again to the moon, the stars, the oxen. The restlessness remained, a wind-up box at his core that could not spring open. There was no release. Tad tapped his teeth together and bit the inside of his cheek and let his painful, unsensing tongue run the cracked wasteland of his lips.

Despite the cold he was dry again, and he realized now that he had cut himself off from his water. With the state of his throat he was as well as a mute. The back of the wagon was up, he had no chance to clamber in. These days, Mumma clutched the driving stick as she slept, and there were no branches or rocks or anything else whatsoever out here. Weak and one-handed, he put his chances of pulling up a flatbush or pulling off a thorny limb at just under nil.

He went back to the ox. It transferred a margin of warmth as he pressed back into it, and took his flailing kicks and punches and pokes and jabs without complaint. Tad was sorry it would die.

 

75

They went back to traveling at night, spending their days in the shade under the wagon with their entire store of water. Now, though, Tad found it hard to sleep. Mumma and Daps would sweat and snore away, and he would restlessly squeeze the wagon wheels and kick at the bottom of the cart and pound his fist into the dirt and clench his aching teeth. He could not shake the tightness at the center of him. Sleep came only in shivering jags at night and half-aware drowses atop the burning face of the desert.

Mumma, seeming to grasp the instinct to conserve that had taken root within him, soon allotted him more. When Tad was given three bladders of water he drank one within a day, and when he was given four strips of meat he downed one while it was dark and one in mid-afternoon. Even so, he was concerned about their overall stores. He obsessed over their dwindling stock of water, surveying and calculating as his parents slept, trying to gauge how many days more they could last. Mumma seemed unconcerned, but it did nothing to mollify his fears.

He felt like he was going to jump out of his skin. They had been on the road for his entire life, getting hotter and drier and weaker by the day, and now they were so close—he could feel it, he knew in the pit of his stomach that they were so muddy close—and once more everything had slowed to a crawl. Had he not known better, he would have said it was unbearable. Everything could be borne. Everything. Even this impotence, though it drove him to a raving fury. Even this heat, though it took his voice and made him a shadow. Even the road, though it took his hand and his strength and his worth.

Tad imagined a time when he had played Ring-the-Tree and rested in the shade, eaten thrice a day and snacks and had all the water he could down, when bringing food for Daps and wood for the stove had been the worst asked of him. When Daps could speak and move and walk, worked the land with his spindly legs and lean arms and made Tad learn his letters by the evening fire. When he had happily helped out for as long as his strength would last, hacking at furrows and weeds and stubborn ox flanks. None of it seemed real. Life could be none of those things.

Featherwall could fix Dapper, that alone he knew. Featherwall could fix Dapper, and for that he would bear the road.

Hole had been the last mark on his mental checklist, the final item standing between them and stopping and relief. Joy and plenty and rebirth. Water and people and food. He thought of clapping crowds and glad faces. Only a little more now, only a little more, and he could hardly bear to stop and wait out the sun. Mumma seemed no different, no gladder and no more in a hurry, but he did not take it to heart. Mumma would stare a gold ox level and eat flatbread at a feast. They had to be close. They had to be.

Days piled up and he cursed them. He growled and glared when Mumma stopped at sun-up, tromping back and forth beside the wagon for as long as he could stand the heat to make clear his displeasure. Stocks were dwindling. He lost another tooth. It became a simple thing to count the ribs of the oxen, and their heads hung lower and lower. Whatever their water, whatever their food, it was not enough. It could never be enough, here where the road went forever and the sun murdered men. The flatbush stayed with them, and he hated it for its ease and its life. Dapper still grinned and Mumma kept her workaday silence, and he hated them for that, too. It was hard-bit and false.

Not a single cart passed, either way.

He bit the insides of his cheeks raw and bloody, worried a splinter into his foot kicking the rough wood of the cart. The heat gave him headaches. At the worst of times, when he thought his heart or his head or his guts would burst, he would force his false arm through his face to make himself sick. A trickle of vomit is all he would allow—and even then he mostly swallowed it back down—but it was enough to calm him down. Sometimes it let him sleep.

 

76

Tad did not dare to trust his eyes that dawn, when the sun flashed off something white as it rose. He stopped his pacing and shaded his eyes as best he could, staring nearly full into the sun until he could bear no more. When the black spots faded, he set his eyes that way again. He could see nothing but light. Heat forced him below the wagon, and he lay tense on his belly, staring at the horizon. As time passed and sun-top loomed, the horizon grew clear. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. He allowed himself a handful of tears, and slept a sleep of disappointment, waking to the dream of a spider eating Daps as Mumma raised him into the wagon. He said nothing to her. She said nothing to him.

Not even a Mud-man could have made him look over the sides of the wagon that night. Throat stuck and eyes wet, he nursed at a bladder of water and listened sullenly to Dapper’s snores. When his father turned his tiny hair-swollen face toward Tad and blew out his awful breath, Tad wrinkled his nose but did not move out of the way. He picked at the loose splinters of the wood, pulling them out and poking them into the corners of his fingernails. They bled, and the blood mixed with the dirt on his fingertips, and he sucked it all clean as long as he had the spit for it. He did not sleep and could not sleep and would not cry. The wagon would lurch and the moon would leer and Mumma would sit on her damned perch, and he was a fool for thinking there could be more. It was over. It was all over.

He emptied his bladder of water down his throat, and he wept.

 

77

Tad found himself staring at a wooden sky, throat dry and sweat slicked across his forehead. He turned his head and gazed out blinking at the hot land. It was nearly sun-top, he supposed. Sleep had found him, and had its revenge—for the better. He surveyed their ever-dwindling stock of water with a sour twist to his mouth. Barely more than half a bucket and seven full bladders. It might last a week, at miserly rations. Before that, though, the oxen would dry out and stop and die, and they as well. There was no greensharp here.

Dapper snored like a creakbug nest, and Mumma—Tad froze, eyes pulled past her to the distance, over oxshit and under ox and between oxlegs. Clear under the sun, arcing up against the pale blue sky, was a single white wing. Radiant against the dirt of the world. Just a short jaunt down the road.

His throat closed up. Staring at it, he struggled to breathe. He shivered in the heat.

Mumma sat propped against the edge of a wheel, eyes closed and mouth open, taken by the peaceful indifference of slumber. Tad crawled close, throat opening by degrees, staring her close in the face as he sucked down ragged breaths. The air from her mouth smelled like death, run over tiny brown teeth that looked like bits of rotting corn.

Tad set his knees into her leg and punched her in the gut. “Muddy wake up,” he said in a growling whisper, “Damn muddy oxshit get up.” He punched her again with all the strength in his weak arm, heaving down air, and she stirred and worked her mouth and squinted open her eyes. He drove his fist into her breast, slapped her on the cheek. She grabbed him by the wrist, licking her lips and looking him groggily in the eyes.

“Go,” he growled. “Muddy damn go. GO!”

Mumma gave him a confused look. He jerked his head toward the ox, the road, Featherwall. “Oxfart oxshit muddy damn GO!” he yelled hoarsely, sweating and struggling against her grasp.

Understanding dawned in her eyes, then amusement—and finally patience and pity, which Tad never saw. The look of amusement turned him to a blind rage, and he thrashed against her, wailed an animal wail from deep in his throat, twisted and bit and screamed and shed hot tears.

She gathered him in even as he fought her, smoothing his greasy hair and patting his aching back as he flailed at her side and her guts and her legs and her breasts until he grew tired and lost his breath and stopped, slumping defeated into her lap. She seemed thin, suddenly.

“Go,” he gasped out between deep breaths, and she put her cool hands on his head and said nothing in return.

 

78

When they did go, it was little better. Tad stared at the wing as they rattled on, chin bouncing painfully on the wood, and it grew no larger. It was the size of the moon as the moon stretched toward full, and he reckoned the distance at half a night’s travel. Half as celebration and half as distraction, he downed a full bladder of water within that span, luxuriating in the wetness of his mouth and throat. In Featherwall, he told himself, they would not know thirst. In Featherwall, they would not be hungry.

When the sky grew light before them with the shades of dawn, Tad despaired. Though the wing had never grown as he watched it, now it filled the horizon from end to end, a monstrous thing of a size he had never seen and could never have imagined. Pure white under the moon, now it reflected the pinks and purples of the rising sun. And, achingly close as they were, he knew Mumma would stop at first true light and hide under the wagon. Even this close, she would take no chances. He jabbed at the side of the cart with an open palm, frustration pulsing through him. The pain helped. He did it again, then stuck a full strip of salted oxmeat in his mouth and chewed at it angrily, enjoying the ache of his jaw and the sting of his gums.

As expected, Mumma soon stopped the wagon. Tad slumped down and turned his back to Featherwall, focusing on chewing and trying to think of nothing else, trying to resign himself to waiting another damned day. But Mumma did not come for him, did not come for Dapper. He heard water. He heard the noisy, greedy gulps of the oxen. He heard the empty rattle of a bucket tossed onto the swing-up. And then he heard Mumma growl “On’now!” and crack the driving stick against a bony flank.

Scrambling, Tad turned. The sun shot into his eyes over the rim of the world, and the wagon jolted ahead. Mumma turned and winked and reached back to ruffle his hair.

 

79

He remembered that day for the rest of his life, riding triumphant to the city that would change his life and set his fate.

As they grew near and the sun rose up, the namesake of Featherwall blocked it out. They rode in cool shade through the morning, spirits high. There was no more need to play the miser. Tad squeezed a whole water bladder down Dapper’s throat, tugging playfully at his woolly beard and tickling under his arms. Daps lost half the water to spills and laughter, and neither of them cared. When his father grinned like a madman, Tad grinned back, poking his tongue through the gaps in his teeth and rolling his eyes as best he could. Dapper thumped and smacked the wagon and widened his own corpse-like smile. Even Mumma looked back from time to time, eyes and teeth flashing with good humor, and the oxen plodded steadily on.

The closer they grew, the more ragged the wing became. What had been a solid, pristine white turned duller by degrees, into a uniform grey and then, as they grew closer still, into a spotty mix of shades, white layered with grey and flung full of ash; blue sky and sun poked through rents and tears and missing feathers. The feathers! When they were close enough to separate them out, Tad marveled at their size. He reckoned most were taller than he was, and he could wrap them twice or thrice around him if they would bend. And the height! The wing towered above like nothing he had ever seen, at least two hundred cartlengths high. Even grey and tattered and full of holes it was a wonder, arching up in poise for flight. Did it move? Could it move? What did it belong to?

As they rumbled closer still, his eyes turned to the odd wood towers of the town, spiraling madly up and up and widening as they rose. They seemed to jostle even as they stood still, butting up against each other. The freshest wood was at the top, and stacks of new planks rested here and there at the very top—they were still being built, up and up and up toward the wing that cast its shadow strong over the town.

Tad grinned. Here were people, people doing mad, fun things, and somehow even here they had water and they had food and they had each other. After the emptiness of the road, it was overwhelming. A warmth spread through his chest and guts and head, a giddy lightness, and the smile could not be extinguished from his face. He poked at Dapper and he poked at Mumma and he grinned and bit his inner cheek.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part II

 

High Wail

Low Wail

Burnock

Crookback

Rattle

Tumbleton

Nedil

Hors

Thirs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

Tad was reborn on the dry packed flats of the east inner streets, wind whipping the dust from his hair and his skin and his raggedy clothes as it knifed away from the Wing down the rickety shacks of the tight twisting alleys near the Twinhill, sun greeting him with a shot to the eyes as he wound his way back to the Watgon and it shouted from the horizon and slanted into the cracks of the planks of the mess called Rattle.

They called him Snay-Ump at the Watgon and he bore it with the easy good grace of the uninformed, grinning his exuberant gap-filled grin as they took his empties and handed off one full and hooked another to his strap and then slapped his ass to send him on his ungainly left-right way, compensating for the swing of the small hooked cask with the thrust of his hip and the swing of his leg and the shot back of his crooked arm like a bolt.

The streets were awake even at this early hour, the only cold light of the morn. Soon the blaze of the sun would heat the ground, and the ground the air, and the air the men who would sweat and grumble and no longer deign to move until sun-top came and went and the heat moved overwing to the west. Tad took care to avoid the hunched figures he met, even if it meant slowing to a walk or a stop, as he had more than once been subjected to spills or cuffs or a thorough knockabout simply for a simple bump.

Being forced to slow did make him grind his teeth and bite the inside of his cheek. He struggled to keep the pace of the other boys, who could spin and duck and juke and jive and laugh away the beatings. Waterboss already had several runners from Longspike with missing fingers or hands or arms, but they were not allowed to work more than one per Watgon and thus were forced to keep the pace. Maimed was one thing and slow another.

But Tad was thankful for the chance. He had gone from tower to tower to tower to tower with naught but raw feet to show before stumbling over to the ramshackle monstrosity known in Eastwing as the Waterbutt Dick. Waterboss had just grinned his filthy grin, tied the leather to the shoulder of his lesser arm, and shoved him off toward a Watgon.

That was his Watgon until the world would end, the fourth of Waterboss’ four, distinguished clear from the others by slapdash tar in the shape of a stick man pissing as opposed to shitting, running or stabbing. This made them, naturally enough to those who ran them, the Pissgon, the Shitgon, the Rungon and the Stagon. And again: the Pigon, the Shigon, the Rigon and, inexplicably, Ol’ Stabsy. They were stout, wide conveyances with a weighty water load that trundled along under the power of three-ox teams—three not four either because “Wats’oss” was cheap or the roads were narrow, depending on who you asked.

The Pigon was driven by the quiet, unruffled Traff; ladled by the dour, miserly Kal; and guarded by the big men Ah and Beh. Beh would poke and fart on and belch at and make jokes about the mother of Ah, and Ah would bear these things with a quiet scowl. There were bets among the other men whether Ah would actually support Beh in a fight or if he would take the chance to bash in his skull.

There had been no way to settle the bets one way or the other. None were foolish enough to try to steal water from Waterboss. He was a small player and they did call him Waterbutt where his ears could not reach, but all had heard the stories of the revenge of Waterboss on the men and the wives of the men and the children of the men and the mothers of the men who had dared to take liquid at force. They were the same stories told about every man with a tower to call his own, from Rain Giant to Cloudgrabber to Wet God, ugly every one. But Tad believed the ones about Waterboss, and apparently so did everyone else, because there were hijacks of other Watgons but not those that belonged to him.

If you did not cross him, though, you were fine, and Tad did not worry much about it. It was the team of the Pigon that mattered most, and among them mostly Traff and the other boys. Tad learned early on that Kal and Ah had no interest in the runners, and that getting friendly with Beh was a bad idea—his friends were rewarded only with shoves and pokes and practical jokes, with hindrance instead of help. Traff could, at least in theory, moderate the pace for the boys he liked, and was friendly enough in his quiet way.

It was the other boys, though, that were the key to staying in the game, and there Tad was in trouble. He knew none of their names. The younger two whispered and laughed together and ignored him when he tried to speak. The final of the four runners was older than the rest by several years, gangly and sullen and hunched, with a face that was perpetually swollen and lumpy and purple and a mouth that had barely half its teeth. He spoke no word to any and ran with a humping, dragging gait worlds older than he could have rightly been. There was a well of pain in his eyes that Tad saw and understood and matched when they slogged opposite back to the wagon and could not escape each other’s sight. If he seemed to be struggling, Tad would slow to give him time. He could not be sure, but the boy seemed to understand and on occasion pass back the favor.

This sort of uneasy alliance gave him little comfort. The rule was that the wagon moved when the third runner was back, and if the fourth could not catch up and hold the pace then he would not be welcomed back. The driver and the ladle-master determined between them how far behind the pace was too far, but it was no secret that they were unforgiving to their runners because Waterboss was unforgiving to them. The result was that runners paired up to protect themselves from an over-demanding pace. But an unreliable partner, one who would telegraph one thing and do another, whether through disinterest or misunderstanding or spite, was worse than none at all. So Tad would try to talk to the sullen boy. And the sullen boy would ignore him.

But it did not matter on good days, and most days were good. Tad would be slow to start, stumbling bleary in the dark and squinting at the stick figures on the wagons, barely able to hop on board before they were away, but by the time he hit his second delivery he was awake and by the third he was bursting with grins. The fourth was a timeless ecstasy of starlight and darkness, breaking sweat and dry streets. Then effort would begin to creep in, rearing its ugly head, and by degrees the high would fade to a workaday rhythm. Each delivery was a shot of good feeling, every trade-in of empties a triumph, and in-between he would doggedly churn his legs to the next and the next and the next, using only small pauses at ends to recover.

When the sun came out, so did the room buckets, splashing dark shadows of low water and high mud onto the spider-cracked dry of the roads. Most took little care where the contents fell, sometimes with unfortunate results. Locks were usually strong enough to keep courtesy from being beaten into them, however, and most of the windows in Featherwall were far too small for a man to climb through. Still, the town was not so large that anonymity could be counted on to avoid payback for such slights. Men came and went by the same roads every day, and could easily mark one house along the route; Tad himself had begun to recognize faces only a few days in. He would see men—and women—along the way now and then, loitering and patiently eyeing a door, bucket near at hand, eyes glinting hard with appetite as they thought on the “brown sun-up” or “wet morn” they were soon to give. When corpses turned up face-down in shit at the side of the road, Tad could not help but wonder if it had been carelessness with a room bucket that had killed them.

Things were not always so dire, though. In one of the side streets of Burnock, two of the houses escaped the caked-on soot and ash of the neighborhood by means of a piss-flinging duel that had continued long into the dotages of the two widowers. Tad had seen it himself. One would fling with a grunt his own morning piss at the house across the street, whereupon the opposite top-floor shutter would creak open and his own would creak shut, and the favor would be returned. They would then lean out and screech hoarsely at each other for several minutes, saying not a word that Tad could understand, and finish with obscene hand gestures. And then they would laugh and wave and retreat into their houses. Really, it made no sense, and Tad was happy not to have to deal with a room bucket of his own. He did his pissing and shitting in the alleys near home, like normal folk.

 

2

It would take them to nearly mid-morn to finish the route, long enough for heat to rise and for all to be soaked with sweat. Even Beh, though unlike Ah he wore no armor; even Traff, though unlike Kal he hardly moved. Every man and boy at one point turned pleading eyes to Kal, but the ladle-master would not be swayed. Had he partaken himself they might have bypassed him for illicit drops and swallows, but he sweated with the best and yet stayed true. And so, then, did the others.

Even when the final casks had gone out and the Watgon was down to dregs, he persisted in enforcing stoicism. The boys would clamor and Beh would whine, but Kal would only take their empties at a measured pace and fill them carefully to the top in turn, one by one by one by one. The pair of bonded runners would pour out noises of animal suffering and wobble around restlessly on tired legs. The spindly mute stared at the ground. Tad would simply bite the inside of his cheek and take it all in, licking up whatever sweat chanced near his lips. He had endured worse want than this.

When all finally had their fair share for the day’s work, Kal would relent, stepping off and keeping his back turned away in ostentatious abandonment of his station. It was not, Tad thought, a fair thing to do. The dregs of the dregs should have been ladled out equally to each in turn, just like with the empty casks. Instead, the ladler threw aside the mantle of his responsibility, listening with a wry smile as the allied runners and the abused mute and Beh pushed and grunted and scrapped to put their mouth to the bleed hole and gulp down the last of the water from the bottom of the barrel as it drooled out onto the ground. The result was bruises and blood and a large wet patch on the cracked earth, which then made its mark on the boys as they fell and rose and fell. That was when Beh was feeling more playful than thirsty; when he was not, he made his mood known by concussing one of the boys against the wagon and glared at the rest with one eye as he greedily suckled at the base of the enormous barrel. If Ah made one of his rare approaches, all deferred to him without a word, and he took his water in respectful silence. No matter who was last with his mouth on the hole, Beh would finish things by pressing his lips hard against it and then shoving home the cork. Early in his career Tad had tried to join to chance an extra bit of water, but had ended with a black eye, an aching jaw and lips drier than before. He sat out now. He crossed his arms and thought of other things and no longer bothered with an accusing eye at the ladler.

Usually he thought of what lay ahead, and could not help but frown. This was the easy part of his day, the part with air and people and light. Mumma did not even seem to regard it as work, and treated him on his return as though he had been sleeping. The rest of the long daylight hours would be spent in suffocating, boiling darkness lit only by the strange orange glow of burnrock and hot iron. There would be no talk but Mumma’s sharp commands and the occasional moan from Dapper, and the repetition would eat at him such that Daps having a shit or needing himself to visit the alley became a most enjoyable sort of holiday. If she even let him go, anyway. She operated by her own unsaid metrics, which seemed to dictate that he keep his bladder full to bursting half the time.

Such thoughts, together with the wasteful and excluding scrum before him, were a bad end to the best part of the day. Tad would fall into aggrieved self-pity that persisted as the Watgon rode off, as the others straggled away, as he walked the long walk home on hot empty streets to the Eastwing part of High Wail. There, steps from the door, he would take his single simple luxury of the day, carefully unstoppering the tiny cask of water taken as payment for his work and filling his mouth to bursting with the amazing liquid wet of brackish water. He took a small eternity to enjoy himself, swallowing in trickles, swishing the water around his cheeks and between his teeth and along his swollen gums. And then, feeling good and cheerily fortified, he would push the sweat into his thickly greasy hair and open the front door.

Sweat immediately stood again with the first blast of air from within, gathering into drops that assaulted his eyebrows and stung down in. Steam would hiss from the quenching pot and the glowing burnrock would glint quietly in Mumma’s feral eyes. She held out a hand without pause, waiting without patience, and Tad immediately crossed the threshold and let the door rattle shut behind, stumbling forward in the new dark to hand over the fruits of the good part of his day. Mumma would pour off a tiny bit into a crude tin cup, letting Tad and herself drink a sip or two, and then upend the tiny barrel into the quenching pot. And Tad would sit wearily cross-legged on the earthen floor, ears perked to the quiet sounds of Daps slurping his own share, dreading the pad of bare feet that would herald Mumma’s return and the start of his own ox-fart day.

She wasted no moment putting him to work. He would be tasked to the fire, keeping the burnrock at proper levels and blowing hard on it as he carefully pushed more pieces in with the twisted iron pushrod. It was homemade and not a proper tool for the task, but it was all he had and he had learned to wield it well, sweeping diagonally back and forth and making sure to gather momentum before contacting the rock. This technique allowed him to maximize his distance from the heat of the furnace, keeping his arm fully extended and holding the rod at the very end with barely more than his fingers. Even so, his hand would redden and itch from the heat; at night, the dry skin would crack and sting and sing to his nerves of the day’s long work and the wear of the hours.

That was not the worst of it, though, only what most of his time was given to. Worse were things with direct ties to the work itself, with direct ties to Mumma. The closer a thing was to her and her work, the harder and more painful it inevitably was. Holding hot metal with tongs as she hammered it, the blows made his shoulder ache without cease and the hard squeezing created a fatigue in his hand that never left. Drawing wire for needles spattered his arm with pain and scars, scars that glittered beautifully after in the orange light of the forge, after until the scarred skin grew and pushed and pushed the metal out. Whetting the blades made his arm tired, which was the worst of all, because Mumma would not let him stop and yet he could not keep on could not keep on and yet she pushed him to keep on and growled and pushed his hand along back and forth, back and forth until he wept hot tears and could not bend his fingers to take the blade. She would then relent, but with a scowl, and would take up the work herself to smash the guilt in.

Outside, all the while, wind would shake the thin wooden planks of the walls and huff in through cracks and crevices carrying dust and sand. A high-pitched wail keened through the narrow overbuilt curves of the ramshackle neighborhood, panicking Tad even now when he drifted half-awake through the land of sleep and knew it was a Wat-witch coming for him—knew it, though it never was. Still, it had to be better than trying to sleep in Low Wail, with its ever-present Mud-man groan.

It still brought a smile to his lips, his naiveté when he had first arrived. He had thought High Wail must be on a hill and Low Wail below, but it took little time to figure out that the entire city was flat as flatbread, with only the occasional gentle slope. Then he thought that High Wail must be a bit of a jumped-up place to live compared with Low Wail, and he enjoyed that for a while, puffing out his tiny chest and imagining himself lording over all those poor sappers in the Low part of town. Finally he took a detour through Low Wail on his way to Burnock, and the moment the sound reached his ears he understood. Secretly, though, in his heart of hearts, he knew that High Wail was the better of the two. He’d take a Wat-witch over a Mud-man any day of the week.

 

3

The best days were when Mumma sent him out for supplies. At first he had been baffled and annoyed, damn muddy tired from his work for Waterboss and not understanding why she didn’t go her own damn self. She never seemed to leave the room.

He had trudged through the hot winds with his head down, eyes mostly shut against the dust, blinkingly watching the road ahead of his feet. Already the wind and the heat had mostly dried the piss and shit from the morning’s room bucket heaves, but for the shit there was a problem: the outside was already dried and coated in a light layer of dust, making it nearly indistinguishable from the older stuff that had dried completely through. Tad had already stepped in enough shit since coming to Featherwall to not be overmuch bothered by it, but the discord of textures could make it difficult to keep his footing, soft and slick where he expected dry and crumbly. So he looked for any slight discoloration, any slightly darker hue, which would indicate the recent splash of a room bucket and the newer leavings around it, as he weaved slowly back and forth along the empty roads and the sun burned ever higher overhead.

Sunlight broke the roofline and stabbed through the cracks and chinks and corners of High Wail’s jumbled, serpentine streets. Wind spilled down in waves from the wing at his back, carrying away the smell of the streets but drying him out, stealing the moisture of Tad’s own sweat from him. The back of him, anyway—when enough moisture collected on his forehead to run down his dusty cheeks or along his dusty nose, he stopped and carefully took it in. If he could, he used his tongue only; if it didn’t reach, he used a finger, though he lost half the moisture to his skin. Salty dirt with hints of old dry shit. But it was worth it for the touch of wet.

He had wandered through neighborhoods for which he didn’t know the name, endless two- and three-story dwellings of moisture-sapped wood that rattled in the wind and stooped this way and that, overhanging the roads that twisted back and forth to north and south and east and west like a drunk snake fleeing from itself. Most were little more than glorified shacks built teeteringly high, nothing like the solid log house they had inhabited before the road. Each alone would fall; only together, leaning this way and that in their haphazard way, did they manage to somehow stand.

Glimpses of Waterboss’s distinctive pissing-man tower let Tad orient himself toward Burnock. He knew Burnock because its pervasive black dust and sulfur odor shouted its name to all. Other than that, he could name the handful of neighborhoods he ran each morning: Crookback, Tumbleton, Rattle, Thirs, Nedil and Hors. The others he had no idea, and the boundaries between those he knew were not clear to him either. He knew them only as one or two streets, names called out to jog a memory of a map in his head of houses and doors and hidey holes for his little casks of liquid life. No one could, or would, answer his questions about the meanings of the names, except Hors—to a man they grinned at the name and made odd movements with their crotch. Which was no answer at all, really, just another mystery. Once he had tried to ask Mumma, but she had only pretended her ears had fallen off. So he wondered at that one, and Thirs and Nedil. The rest he got, more or less.

Tad had been stumbling along one of those times, watching the road for signs of fresh piss, when he had bumped into The Grimthistle. He had stopped, blinking, staring at the wrinkled grey linen directly in front of his nose. It smelled awful, of liquid fire and pungent flowers. He took a step back and looked up into one of the strangest faces he had ever seen: nose large and lumpy, mouth wide and thin, cheeks protruding east and west to a comic degree, eyes small and brown and forehead completely covered by an overhanging shock of tightly coiled blue hair.

Their eyes met, and Tad found himself unable to pull away from the gently searching depths of those placid bean-brown orbs. They seemed at once to belittle and to understand him—him, not his means or his station or his dress or his thirst, but him, with the faraway spark of remembrance. The man held him a long moment with his gaze, exploring his lower lip with his tongue and pinching his capacious cheeks here and there and there. Finally he sniffed his shoulder, still holding on with his eyes, and offered a greasy oiled hand.

Tad took it and followed him inside, as naturally as if it had been his own house.

 

4

The Grimthistle had six daughters, one wailing and one toddling and four old enough to talk. The eldest was near a woman grown and showed no interest in Tad at all, and the next one down pretended same. Marsa, old enough to speak and spin and run, was a bolt of delight as she chattered and revolved around the table. Resla, a smidge younger than Tad, stayed roughly still at the table as her father talked to the boy, eyeing them with bold suspicion, occasionally kicking her legs in a teacup frenzy and steadily devouring the sugared flatbush set out.

Tad and The Grimthistle talked, but they did not talk much. The Grimthistle had politely asked Tad’s name, and Tad waited in dumb thrall without replying. The eldest daughter set sugared flatbush on the table beside them, and Tad eyed it with longing and fear. He hadn’t known what it was, but he could smell the sweetness radiating from it. Nothing sweet had touched his tongue since that last honeystick from—he couldn’t remember. Sweetness was a lifetime ago. The smell made him queasy.

The Grimthistle had motioned to the second of his daughters, and she had pertly delivered water and left with a haughty indifference. Tad would not take the water, staring at the full tin cup with saucer eyes. The Grimthistle had crossed his arms and waited, eyeing the boy with eyes that spoke half pity, half disdain. Resla had had no such patience. She had popped up and skipped over and peered him close in the eyes before pronouncing, “You’re stuuuuuuupid!” And then she had grabbed up the water in two careful hands, pushed the cup roughly against his mouth and poured it down him so fast he choked and spluttered and nearly drowned. Duty done, she had returned with an airy twirl to her seat, grabbed a piece of candy from the table, and noisily devoured it as she slumped down in her seat, only her suspicious gaze peeking over the tabletop at him. Marsa had grabbed Tad’s chair from the back and rocked it as best she could before giggling and squirting away. And the Grimthistle had once more, calmly, asked his name, in a pleasant flat tone that did not match the heavy brogue of the town.

“Tad,” he had whispered, with his newly wetted pipes, and then self-corrected to “Taddil.” Swallowing, he felt the heavy silence and pressed on: “And yours, goodman?”

“Do you live near, goodman Taddil?” asked The Grimthistle, following the winding road of a curled blue hair with his forefinger and thumb.

Tad paused, glancing at the sugared flatbush and then Resla. His stomach rumbled fiercely, but the smell tickled the back of his throat and pushed water up into his gullet. Marsa poked her eyes over the far edge of the table, then squealed and hid when Tad’s eyes found her. Tad coughed and swallowed hard.

“I’m not sure, goodman,” he had finally said. “I live in High Wail.”

Silence again reigned. The table rattled fiercely as Resla pounded her tiny feet into the center support, and the plate of candy slid away from her toward Tad. She quickly stopped, pulled herself up full into the seat and stretched across the tabletop to bring the flatbush back to her. Eyeing Tad with unwarranted suspicion, she snatched up another piece and bit deep in.

The Grimthistle was silent, tongue running a circuit on his lips. He closed one eye and then the other, then turned his head and sniffed at his shoulder. He rubbed his enormously wide cheeks with both hands at once. He tapped a finger on the table. All the while, his gaze never left Tad.

Tad had found himself feeling at ease despite the silence, despite the unknown, despite all eyes being on him. Marsa screamed a wild scream from behind and pushed and pulled at his chair, and he reached behind to grab at her but she was already gone, already whirled away and giggling madly. Resla smacked her lips and crunched loudly on her treat and sipped a slurping sip of water. And The Grimthistle merely watched Tad with his deep brown eyes, with that unreadable mix of contempt and kindness and serenity, sniffing occasionally at his shoulder.

Finally he had stood and patted Tad on the shoulder, and then taken his leave. Tad watched him disappear down the rickety stairs, heard the creak of the first floor and the metal bite of the latch and the slam of the door.

Resla had then dismounted from her chair and stood by it with hands on hips, glaring at Tad. “That,” she announced self-importantly, “was The Grimthistle. You can come as often as you like.”

And then she had abruptly grabbed a piece of sugared flatbush and shoved it in his mouth, and the screaming sweetness overwhelmed him. Tad spit it out and vomited a small puddle of sick on the floor. He licked his lips and felt his burning throat, and reached with a shaking hand for his cup of water. It had not been refilled. His hand fell back.

Resla had pointed at him and loudly announced: “Stuuuuuuupid!”

Marsa was on her knees by the vomit, poking at it and pushing it with the flats of her palms. No one else was in the room; the others had disappeared.

Tad had risen faint and weak and without pain, and stumbled down the stairs and out.

 

5

It had taken some time for Tad to find again the house of Resla and Marsa and The Grimthistle. When Mumma set him free for burnrock or pox ore or whatever cheap food he could find, he would wander the shadows of the twisted streets sweating and panting and looking for that peacock blue door. On his second try he thought he had found it, but the door was locked against him and no one had answered his knocks. There was a long and heartstopping moment of disappointment before he had thought to step back and examine the door. The shade was off, the whorls and grains were wrong, it was not peeling and scuffed in the right places; and, gazing around, what he saw spoke nothing to him. It was not the door of The Grimthistle.

He had kept looking, racking his brains for the mindless wandering turns and straightaways of the day, until he was sure he had seen every bit of every alley in Eastwing at least twice. But still he kept looking, as long as he could each time. Longer than he could rightly get away with, in fact, and he had met Mumma’s ire more than once. The bruises on his bottom made the walking harder.

Finally, on his sixth attempt, he had rounded a corner and spied the door, and rambled sore and stiff-legged to it. He hesitated before it, made wary by previous disappointment, and checked the whorls and grains and paint and surroundings before trying to push in. He needn’t have worried. It was right. So Tad tried the latch and it opened, mounted the stairs and there they were: the six daughters of The Grimthistle, though the man himself was gone.

Marsa had grabbed his leg and shook it like a bough, while Resla had crossed her arms and lectured: “The Grimthistle has been thinking that you’re dead. You should apologize.”

“I cou—” started Tad, and was stopped by a dry cough.

The eldest daughter promptly set a cup of water on the table before him, long braid swaying. Resla reached for it, but Tad blocked her arm and took it up himself, filling his mouth and luxuriating in the sensation of wetness.

“You should apologize,” demanded Resla again, crossing her arms.

Tad swallowed, feeling the familiar constricting pain of water down a bone-dry throat. “I couldn’t—” he started in a hoarse whisper.

“Laddel!” interrupted Resla in a show of cross force, “I do not care for your excuses! I await your apology.”

Tad blinked. At the periphery, the toddler stumbled out gurgling, and sure hands snatched it up and away. “I’m not Laddel,” he said, and coughed gently and took more water and watched Resla react.

There was no surprise, no remorse on her face. She shooed away the idea with a presumptuous wave of her tiny hand. “The Grimthistle has many strays.”

“I’m Taddil,” he whispered, and cleared his throat.

“You’re Taddil,” she said, “and you should apologize. We waited many a day for your return.”

“I’m sorry, I—” he began, and she turned and stalked over and threw herself into her chair. “I couldn’t find the door,” he finished, as she slid down the chair until he could see only her brown eyes and up.

“It’s bluuuuuuue,” said Resla. “It’s the only bluuuuue door in the whole Eastwing.”

Tad took another sip of water and did not contradict her. Resla rumbled the table with mechanical feet. The infant screamed from somewhere, and was quickly quieted.

“No candy?” asked Tad.

Resla squinted at him.

“It’s alright if you want it,” he offered. “I don’t mind the smell.”

She arched an eyebrow and sharply kicked the table. He ignored her tiny sour face and focused on taking in his water. It had been a long time since he’d had his fill, and it tasted sore and rough and strange going down. His stomach gurgled and churned.

Resla ignored him, and Tad could find nothing to say to her. His gaze wandered. For the first time, he realized how smooth the wood was along the walls, how the doors fit smoothly in their jambs, how the table was round and stable and did not stab at him with splinters. There was an enormous flower in the corner in a large tin vase, and wispy waterpaints of that very same flower sang from the deep chestnut of the walls—which was itself odd, as every wall he’d seen in Featherwall to that point had been of knotty light wood.

The flower depicted was definitely the same: large, bright peacock blue, with an odd shape that had a tight neck at the center and billowed out at top and bottom with searching petal umbrellas. At the bottom, they curved back in and wrapped around the stem; at the top, they opened out and up and spread. As Tad looked from one wall to the other, it became clear that one of the flowers was much larger, with a top that had exploded into a bushy plumage. It was a poor depiction, though, crafted with feathery strokes that gave little clarity to the how, and only served to spark his curiosity. Tad had never seen such an oddly shaped thing.

Sliding quietly off his chair, he rounded the table to his left to avoid Resla and squatted beside the flower. It was a large one, even larger than the bushy one depicted on the wall, reaching halfway to the ceiling with a waterfall scaffolding that burst ever upward and folded back on itself for support. It looked heavy, and leaned against the lip of the tall tin vase. Up close, the bright blue petals did not appear to be petals at all but rather vines, all independent but working in concert, and the shocking blaze of blue was much more impressive than the waterpaints could convey, even in the dim interior light. He raised his hand, hesitating.

“Do not touch the Grimthistle,” said Resla suddenly beside him, with quiet authority.

Ignoring her, Tad reached out. The world spun. He found himself on his back, without breath, arm half extended, weight pinning him down, staring at the ceiling—rough dry pine unlike the walls, he noticed as he gasped for air, with wattling to fill the chinks.

“Do not touch the Grimthistle,” said Resla from his left, and he looked to find her head at the end of the expanse of blue linen weight that covered him and made it hard to breathe.

“I—” he gasped.

“Shut up.” Scowling at him, Resla elbowed his arm until he lowered it to the floor. “Shut up and listen.”

Struggling to breathe, Tad tried to wriggle his hand in to make space. Resla pushed back, pinned his arm with a knee and glared down at him. “If you touch the Grimthistle, you’ll die. It’s poisonous. Understand?”

“Yes,” he managed to eke out.

She rolled over onto his legs and sat up, and Tad sucked in a deep breath. “Not just a little poisonous, either,” said Resla, wagging a finger at him. “You’re not going to shit yourself and run crying back to Mumma. If you touch it—well, you will shit yourself, but first you’ll die, and I’ll have to drag your stupid little body out into the street for the furrats and the spids, and your poor little Mumma will think you ran away, and she’ll hate you forever and you’ll be dead. Got it?”

Tears welled in Tad’s eyes at the thought. He tried to wipe them away but Resla still had his arm pinned, and they fell and cut a path through the dust on his cheeks. He turned his head to stare at the forest of chair legs.

“Yes,” he sobbed, and sucked a trickle of snot back up his nose.

“After all,” continued Resla, though Tad fervently wished she would shut up, “why do you think they call such a beautiful flower a Grimthistle?”

Tad didn’t know. He didn’t know what a grim was. He kept quiet and stared at the underside of the table and sucked again at the snot trying to escape his nose.

The weight left his legs. He looked back. Resla stood between him and the flower, and offered him a hand.

 

6

That day he had stayed as long as he had dared, sitting silent across the table from Resla and sipping intermittently at his cup of water. He wanted to try the candy again, just a taste, but did not dare to ask. He wanted more water if it was allowed, cup after cup after cup until he would burst at the seams from it, but more did not seem to be forthcoming. Tad had better manners than to ask for such things—Mumma and Daps had beaten politeness into his very marrow by way of the skin on his behind. So he simply put on his best expression of woe and gazed longingly at the table and sadly into his cup as he swirled the remainder of water.

It was ineffective. Resla kicked incessantly at the table with a bored look on her face, and when Marsa ran in squealing and giggling Resla jumped down and chased her out. She did not return. The eldest crossed the room now and then, cooing to the infant and bouncing him gently up and down, but barely glanced at Tad. The others stayed away. Occasionally he heard a laugh or a cry or a shout from somewhere deep in the bowels of the house, but no one ever came back for him. He eyed the doors to either side, trying to judge the distances of footfalls and giggles, and each time concluded that they were impossibly far away. The largest house he had ever seen had been four square rooms, over at Logman Bouge’s place, and the largest structure he’d ever laid eyes on the inside of was probably the “drunkey dunk” wildhouse at the Nest. This seemingly narrow, outwardly ramshackle place had them both beat if his ears and imagination could be believed. Beyond those doors to either side, it seemed to be amazingly enormous.

At some point during his conjecture, his bladder grew too full to stand. He considered pissing in the corner, but it certainly didn’t seem to be that sort of place—and to be fair, his own Mumma didn’t allow such things. The vase seemed a better possibility, but Resla had scared him off it. He didn’t want something so awfully poisonous near any part of him, and least of all his wobbly worm. There was nothing for it but to leave his low water in an alley.

When he came back and tried the door again, the latch wouldn’t budge. Tad rattled and knocked, knocked and rattled, rattled and kicked and knocked, and finally gave up and went to market. On his return home he found he had dallied too long, and was given the blue rump to prove it.

 

7

Next time, he found the house of The Grimthistle on only his second try. The shacks thereabout, though not discernibly different than those found anywhere else in Featherwall, had now a whiff of familiarity in the aggregate. On his first attempt at a return, Tad actively sought them; on his second try, he shut off his hope and his mind, letting only his eyes and his legs move, and fared much better. The latch opened with a light touch, and inside was dim and cool.

The Grimthistle was at table, chewing roundly with his chipmunk mouth, the blue spill of hair on his forehead swaying gently. His small brown eyes fixed on Taddil. His daughters were not around, nor any of their sounds. Distant creaks and scuffs were the only noise. The acrid sting from cooked saltmeat made Tad cough, and Tad’s throat close up, and Tad’s mouth cry loud for water. The Grimthistle slid his own cup over, and Tad slurped it without thought. He slipped into the adjacent chair unbidden, and watched The Grimthistle slice his meat. It was hard not to retch. His stomach gurgled in pain. The Grimthistle chewed, and Tad belched.

“This is not something you want to eat,” said The Grimthistle matter-of-factly, “because you do not eat enough. For me it is…good. There are better things, but this is good.”

Tad grimaced and burped quietly and tried not to think of the smell.

“Some say the saltmeat here is not ox but furrat, but I make no mind of it. Meat gives a man strength no matter the source. So long as it is well cooked,” he finished, with a quick wink and a smile and a smack of his lips.

Tad did his best to smile back with his swollen gums and rotting teeth, though he was sure it was inadequate. The Grimthistle wore his wood teeth well. But he did not, Tad thought, look strong.

“We will get something better for you. Dolya!”

The eldest soon appeared from the door to the left, gently bobbing as she walked with the infant set quiet against a shoulder. The Grimthistle nodded to her, and she disappeared back the way she had come. He waited, running his vaguely contemptuous eyes over Tad as though in idle appraisal. Tad took another sip of water and bit the inside of his cheek.

“Ulya!” bellowed The Grimthistle, and presently the second-oldest of his daughters emerged from the left and crossed over through the door on the right, ignoring The Grimthistle altogether and giving Tad a sidelong glance through angrily slitted eyes.

The Grimthistle pushed his plate and knife to the side, wiping the glistening grease from his hands with one of the cleanest scraps of linen that Tad had ever seen. Reaching across the table to pull the tin cup back from Tad, The Grimthistle grabbed up a small cask of water and poured it full, downed it, poured it full and downed it again. Tad blinked. Never before had he seen such consumption. The Grimthistle chuckled at his saucer-wide eyes, filled the cup again and pushed it back across the table. “As much as you like, Taddil. As much as you like.”

Tad took a shy sip, and a second. He found himself taking an interest in the source of the cask; he thought he had glimpsed a hint of a sigil that he knew, a giant stickman with his head a weeping cloud. “Rain Giant?” he creaked, and coughed to clear his throat.

The Grimthistle gave a hearty laugh, and for once his eyes seemed to sparkle without any taste of contempt. “A professional through and through.” He hoisted up the cask and rotated the mark so Tad could see. It was, as he had thought, from Rain Giant.

“And so, professional Taddil,” said The Grimthistle, setting the cask down with a clunk, “where have your duties as a runner taken you?”

Tad sipped at his water, considering the question, and then grabbed up the cup and gulped it all greedily down, eyes held unblinking by The Grimthistle’s gaze as he slurped. He set the cup down and ran his tongue around his lips, imparting a painful moisture to the cracked, scabbed, dried out things. He looked at The Grimthistle’s wide face and did not answer.

“I think I have not been clear,” said The Grimthistle, his smirk and sarcastic gleam back now full. “What are the names of the neighborhoods you know?”

Tad thought a bit and listed them slowly in a quiet voice, from Crookback through Hors, and then added Burnock for good measure—which was fair enough, he figured, since anyway he could find it and he knew the name. In the middle of his list Ulya appeared with a small iron crock of what seemed a thin stew, depositing it and a tin spoon on the table before him and then haughtily stalking off through the door to the left. The Grimthistle smiled thinly at the mention of Hors and his eyes gleamed, but he only tongued at his wood teeth and stayed quiet. Tad sniffed at the crock before him.

“Eat,” said The Grimthistle. “It should suit you.”

It did. It was a thin stew that was very lightly salted and had everything cut up small, and Tad devoured it with an awakened hunger. As he licked the spoon his chair wobbled. The bubbly giggle of Marsa sounded behind him, and as he reached back blind and felt around she shot under the table to her father, trilling with delight. The Grimthistle picked her up. She pounded on his shoulders, jumped up and down on his legs, and then abruptly plonked down on his lap and nestled up against him. Tad scraped the iron bowl and licked the spoon, not giving up on the last elusive drops.

“Resla,” said The Grimthistle, “get Taddil more stew.”

And suddenly part of the door broke off to become Resla, Resla crossing the room but only half, only to her father, only to stand by him and try to mumble. Her temperament did not seem to allow her to take a true undertone. Tad heard every word. “Taddil is useless,” she said. “We should save our stew for others.”

The Grimthistle gave her a kind but wincing smile. “Taddil is new here,” he said, and threw his voice and gaze to Tad. “Yes?”

Tad found himself uncomfortable here for the first time. His mouth worked without sound. His molars ached. He did not know which answer was correct. “No,” he finally said. “I’ve been here two whole moons.”

A forbearing, contemptuous look from The Grimthistle was his reward. “You see, Resla? He is new here.”

“You can’t teach him,” said Resla, giving up the pretext of muttering.

“I can’t teach him,” agreed The Grimthistle. “The city can teach him. The wing can teach him. Life can teach him. And as he learns, we will be good friends to goodman Taddil.” He tried to ruffle Resla’s hair, but she pulled away and crossed her arms, scowling. The Grimthistle looked her up and down with a gleam of deprecating mirth. “All the same,” he said, “get our guest his stew.”

 

8

Tad did not always visit The Grimthistle on his brief periods of freedom from Mumma, despite the pull of the water and the shade and the stew and the company. Sometimes he spent his time listening to Ock, his source for burnrock. Sometimes he walked the burning streets looking for novelties, though he found few enough—a squat pyramid of a bizarre green metal mixed right in with the wooden dwellings, an enormous and poorly constructed wood chicken above a shop selling roasted hunks of same, a colored drawing of an enormous bird set in the glass of a high window, an open lot between houses with nothing but straight rows of smooth rocks half-buried in the hard ground.

And sometimes he stopped by the highman of Westwing. At first he had gone to the highman of Eastwing instead, but that one had listened short and asserted long that Daps would never recover, could never recover, and his wrinkled jowls had wobbled and his eyebrows had wriggled like dancing furrats. The one in Westwing was younger, black still mixed with white in his ashen hair, and though he lived far away he was kind. He had listened with patience and gravity when Tad had explained the nuances of Dapper’s illness, and had even broached the bounds of his territory to make a visit.

The visit had not gone well. The highman had not the unforthrightness in him to pretend. He had taken one look at Daps and made one nod to Mumma and then gazed at Tad with such crushing pity that Tad had sat down straight in a heap of despair and let out a week’s worth of wet in wracking sobs. More tellingly, Mumma had left him to it instead of drafting him to help. By the time he had finally worn himself out and napped and woke with a dry mouth on the floor, the highman was gone and Mumma had made a full new row of blades. And even then, she gave him only a hesitant appraising glance and let him decide to help on his own.

Since that visit, there had been no talk of Dapper’s cure. There had been no talk of Dapper at all. Tad could not have stood to meet that look in the highman’s eyes again. He had not given up on curing Daps, but he had given up on the Westwing highman as the source of a cure. And the Eastwing highman had been out long before, which meant that Mumma had lied from the start. It was not something Tad dwelled on. After the road, he was not surprised. Featherwall was better than Nilston, anyway, better than Longspike or the Nest or the other muddy towns along the way. There was shade at the margins here, shade and kindness and life.

The Westwing highman made him feel that in full. He had no impatient bone in his body, no unkind word in his throat. He gave what food and water he could, explained the oil lamp a drugged and bedridden Tad had thought was the sun, taught letters and simple math and logic puzzles and things that Mumma would not have approved of, like how to work leather. Tad went whenever he judged he had the time, or after he had been good about returning home quickly for a spell.

The journey was difficult, and it took time. Tad had to put his head down and churn his legs and grab onto whatever dirt-caked handholds he could find as he approached the towering Twinhill, the grey and ragged wing soaring impressively before him, growing whiter and taller until it blocked out the sky and the sun and the town around and there was nothing but Tad and the wing, Tad and the dimming white wing and the wind that knifed cold and hard through him.

When the wind was too much, he would duck under and crawl on his one-and-a-half arms through the curtain of dirty, greasy feathers that hung down, crawl until it was dark as dusk and the wind howled but tugged only at his feet, and then he would roll over and sit and stare wide-eyed straight up. It really did look like twin hills, rising up and falling gently away as they pushed toward the sky on either side, shifting from grey to luminescent pearl as they rose.

It was its own world, this space between, shaded dark but with bright beauty poured in from above, no sound but the howling wind to either side. Tad could put a hand out at one end and it would near be torn off by the shear of wild air while the rest of him was left alone, and then he could pace across the narrow space and do the same. It was a temple of still air, dark and silence. Sometimes Tad paused long here, staring up at the white wings and the faraway sky and enjoying the forlorn cries of wind that could not touch him. It was hard to leave, every time.

Sometimes he did not leave. He would slumber without knowing, waking up who knows when and straggling away drunk on sleep, sure he’d likely have more bruises on his behind the following day—and Mumma did not often fail her end of that bargain. More, though, he would simply lie on his back and stare up at the bright wings, at the pale sky, listen to the calming howl of the wind. He would think of the flies scrabbling over his flesh and the keening of his missing hand, stomach devouring itself and throat too dry to breathe. Mouth swelled. Dap’s piss in his nose. And the moon. When had he last seen the moon? It had been long. Others would on occasion pass through while he slept or while he lay there, all on foot, and they would leave him unmolested or meet their gaze to his and nod, before continuing peacefully on their way. There was a brotherhood in the Twinhill.

Out on the other side, there was not. Tad would stagger out pushed by the wind into a wave of danger and filth. Jostles and steps into splats of wet shit would send him careening into men and women and children alike, into oxen and oxcarts and stalls and walls and shacks. Men and women would elbow viciously, roundabout, but were still preferable to knocking into other kids—the elbows could usually be avoided and adult bodies were solid enough to stop his weight and carry on, while children would fall immediately in a heap with Tad atop, leaving both at risk of trampling, and when they finally untangled and gained their feet Tad would usually be on the unhappy end of a bloody lip, pained balls or a faceful of “high mud,” if not all three together.

He had thought nothing could smell worse than a trading square, but the streets of Westwing proved him wrong in no uncertain terms. Whether it was the difference in business hours, wider streets that allowed for more ox traffic, more people or simply people of a different sort, Tad could never say. Maybe Eastwing was as bad after the sun moved overwing and bustle spilled into the dirty streets—he couldn’t know, he was kept tight at home from sun-top to sun-up—but it didn’t seem possible. Somehow Eastwing was a different place, a quieter place, and being in Westwing made him glad to call it home.

It took entirely too long to slog and slip and stumble and crash through those deep-shaded streets, and Tad was always exhausted by the time he arrived. The highman lived in a free-standing home that leaned ever so gently out over a tiny field of withered, stunted trees, separated from all the buildings around by nearly a cartlength. Tad marveled every time at the luxury of it, to have such space and such deference here. Here. Even for a highman. The one in Eastwing lived much more cramped.

He would wait with the patience of a stone in the front room as the highman saw to those in need, always at least a handful, and he would marvel at the height of the ceiling, at the calm dustlessness of the room, at the collection of scrolls and bound books and strange knick-knacks and the smells he had never smelt before—pungent mint calm mixing with sharp spiced tangs that made his nose itch and underlying notes of damp and rot that were somehow not unpleasant. When the bench made his butt ache he would stand and walk the margins of the room, idly examining the bleached jawbones and desiccated lizard corpses and dried dead bugs that littered the shelves in their orderly way, the jars of colorful liquids and ointments and powders with labels he could not read, the rusted iron and rattling tin of thin and jagged blades and odd instruments he could not hope to comprehend. One looked like a snake—or a piece of poop!—but had workings on the underside that were far smaller and more complex than anything he had seen before. Sometimes he flipped that one over and tried to work out what it could do, but came to no good answer. He would ask the highman what it was for, but the highman would just pretend his ears had fallen off.

Others waited with him on the bench. Each one, whether man, woman or child, smelled like a cauldron of piss and shit and sweat. Their breath was even worse. Tad would only wrinkle his nose and hold his peace, and the others would do the same. People came to talk to the highman, not to each other. Sometimes the waiting did not go well. There was jostling, sometimes shoving, a few times punching, and once a stabbing. The man did not die—not there and then, at least—but the woman was sternly admonished and barred from coming back. She had spit at the highman’s face and missed, and he had smiled a thin smile and roughly shoved her out the door.

When it was finally his turn, Tad would hurry into the room and shut the door, the highman would scoop a bowlful of sand into a wood box with only the tiniest of holes, and as the sand dribbled through they began.

 

9

Fire burned the town nearly every night. Tad knew this not from seeing, as he was not let outside, but heard of it at the Watgon and smelled it in the morning air. Wood was not burned here, only burnrock, so when that different smoke and smell lingered it could only mean one thing. A few times he had seen empty stretches with nothing but char and ashes and misshapen things, always being mucked out and shoveled away while the embers still glowed hot. In a few days it would be halfway full with a tangle of beams, and in a few more he would already have forgotten about it because the dwellings were done and blended with the rest.

Each time he wondered who lived in those new houses. Was it the same people, the same families, just out the coin for the wood? Or were they scattered to the streets to join the beggars, bumped from their spots by whoever did have the coin to put up four new walls? There were not many beggars, so Tad supposed it must be the first. He wondered if Mumma had the coin to rebuild. Given the rationing of food and her refusal to buy water, he doubted it. But maybe being on the streets would be better than that damned dark sweat-shack anyway.

 

10

The sullen boy fell. He had been strange all morning, limping and grimacing and huffing along, and then, watching Tad as they both struggled back toward the Watgon, he slipped and fell hard. Tad slowed. The sullen boy looked up, face full of pain, and did not get up. Tad stopped. The sullen boy looked up again, met Tad’s gaze with a desperate plea in his eyes. Tad poked at his rough lips with his dry, pebbled tongue and did not move.

They were in view of the Watgon. The other two runners were back, lolling around against the side, jabbing each other with elbows and fingers and fists and whispering and laughing. Traff stared straight ahead as he always did, no heed for anything in his world but the oxen. Kal, though, was on high alert, glancing from Tad to the sullen boy to the rising sun and drumming the cask without rhythm all the while.

Tad’s heart thudded, a drum that thumped his whole body. His legs, kept taut and ready to run, grew tired as he watched the sullen boy flounder and try to get up—he had heard tell of enough tricks that he would not trust blindly. Kal watched him now, watched him, with a sour twist to his mouth, and Tad quailed under that stare and pointed with his eyes to the sullen boy. But Kal did not care for the fourth, only the third, only the one who would get his Watgon moving again. Tad knew that.

He bore up under the pressure. The two fart-head bonded runners, though at first clearly glad for the break, soon ran out of jests and, sweating and pacing around the wagon, threw contemptuous stares his way. Ah gave him a questioning eye as he surveyed the streets for threats, and Beh’s curious face popped up now and then from the other side of the Watgon. Even Traff eventually moved to look at the sullen boy and then slowly turned his eyes to Tad, holding him in a morose and empty gaze for long moments before returning to the oxen.

With each eye on him, Tad only grew more resolute. He looked past the Watgon to the struggling sullen boy—unable to rise from his mire of human shit, anguish eating his face and spit and snot and tears weeping down—and he thought of himself, himself tied to Dapper in the wagon, himself unable to stand in a dead wood, himself whetting blades at Mumma’s push until he wept from the pain in his frail arm. Iron bound his heart. He looked back level at each staring eye, at the oxfart boys and Ah and even the insistent, scowling Kal. He would not be the third back, the muddy damn third to start the Watgon rattling on its way. He would not leave that poor abused, sullen boy to a waterless fate. Tad creaked a slow dry breath and watched the sullen boy slip again and fall.

Time grew heavy as ore. The other runners would not meet his eyes and quieted to a still murmur, staring at the ground or looking off to the left as they stood with their back to the Watgon. Ah stood tense at attention, looking everywhere but at Tad. Beh no longer appeared. Traff had no interests save the idle oxen. Kal chewed air slow, rubbing his cheek and jaw, and Tad found he could not meet those cold, appraising eyes. They grew a tension within him that he could only relieve with the occasional dry, pained swallow. Oxen pawed and creaked and snorted. The sun rose faster than it ever had before.

Finally movement caught his eye beyond the Watgon, and there was the sullen boy at a staggering jog. The boy nearly went down again, but caught himself in time and slowed. Kal craned his neck over the other way to see the approaching runner, and Tad exhaled tension. His legs trembled. Sweat drooped a long shadow down his sides. Air rattled out rough, he pushed down a cough. Ahead Kal tapped Traff and Traff the oxen, and the grinding creak of the harness seemed to come from Tad’s own knees as he bent them and started forward.

 

11

“Dal,” he said, and Tad took it for his name, though he made no move to touch hands.

“Tad.”

The sullen boy grunted to confirm, scratched at his leg and looked away. His whole front was smeared with shit, and he smelled like it. He bobbed his water cask and looked this way and that, avoiding Tad’s eyes. The others had melted away as usual, without a word to either of them.

“Mumma works tin and iron,” said Tad. “Blades and needles and things. Most of the time I help her, too.”

Dal suddenly met his gaze, eyes sharp. “Daps ‘s same. Mebs I ken sees it, ahrm?”

Tad scrunched up his face, thinking, and after a long moment understood what had been said. His eyes shone bright. “Sure! You can come see it. You have time now?”

Dal flinched and looked away again. He did not reply. His leg trembled and his body swayed. Tad thought of Mumma’s reaction were he to bring the boy unbidden and unannounced, and it was not a smile that came to mind. He took a slow deep breath and he also looked away.

“Maybe tomorrow,” murmured Tad, and Dal nodded a bare nod and coughed a dry, wracking cough that seemed to have no end.

 

12

Mumma was impatient for him when he returned. The burnrock furnace was low, but she did not send him out for more. She thrust out the dull end of an iron blade.

“Ons’ly a moon, nae, iff’n’at, b’fore tha fest’val.”

Tad did not know what she meant. He did not ask. He took the blade.

To his great chagrin, it was meant for whetting. All of them were. Piles and piles from near two moons’ work, littered about the dust of the floor in varying shapes and sizes such that there was barely space to walk. Weighty dull iron and sharp wobbly tin, the dull to be sharpened and the sharp made sharper still. His arm ached just looking at it all.

Wet came to his eyes but did not fall. He took his water and then he took the stone and he began the hated work.

 

13

Tad’s wrist ached such that he could hardly hold the casks trusted to his whole arm. The leather strap on the opposite shoulder worked fine and without pain, and he wished he could have another for the right. It took his full grimacing, sweating concentration not to release the casks before their place. He tried pinching them under his armpit and cradling them against his body in various ways, but each new method provided only temporary relief. His entire arm and shoulder had been worked raw, and there was no way around it.

Mumma had not let him stop with the whetting stone even though he wept with pain and screamed in frustration and called her the vilest names he knew in anger. If he stopped without leave she would start toward him with intent in her eyes, and he knew well enough to start again before she reached him. When he put the stone in the wrong place or scraped the blade too lightly to make it sharp, she would come and force his arm, and then there was nothing Tad could do but sob and lick at the tears and the snot on his face and twist his body to try to lessen the pain of muscles pushed too far.

At his infrequent breaks he went to the far wall and turned away from her and Daps, grunting as he squeezed his arm and shoulder between the weight of his body and the hard of the wall. It was a small relief. He bit his dry lower lip with his front teeth until the cracked skin bled, and then he sucked at the blood and bit off the skin, chewing at it with the tiny aching teeth that remained to him. The pace of loss had slowed since arriving at Featherwall, but he still had two or three fewer teeth than he’d had two moons ago—he thought it was three, but couldn’t remember exactly when he had noticed that the gap on the upper left had grown larger.

The best part of his day had been ruined. There was no feeling of freedom today, no tinge of exhilaration as he ran free on the cool empty streets. The pain and weakness in his arm polluted everything, and now his time with Dal and Kal and Ah and the Pigon was just a sunlit extension of Mumma’s dark room. He gritted his teeth, he sweated more than he could afford, and he grew cautious and slow as dizziness crept in and the shit on the streets seemed to grow newer and wetter. Whether it was real or shadows or his unsteady eyes he did not know, but he could take no chances—one slip would be all it took, as he doubted he could gain his feet again.

Tad hoped that Dal was keeping an eye out for him. He could spare no attention to check, but all the same the Watgon never seemed to get too far ahead. He was the last back every time, but it was a manageable last that would not get him cut. It was such a relief to reach the last street that he nearly wept, and took his time to pick his way. By the time he staggered back from his final journey down that final street, Beh was suckling at the base of the barrel and the stupid pair of runners were sulkily nursing aches and scratches and blood.

Tad sat down hard in the road and waited for his dizziness to ebb. It didn’t. His mouth was made of linen and his throat was tight. He leaned back on his palm and stared at Beh’s greedy eye. The only sound was the guard’s obnoxious slurping. Dal was nowhere to be seen.

He let his gaze lose focus. His thirst was bad but could be worse, and Beh would not hear the cracking whisper that he could muster, and would not listen if he could hear. It would be like asking the moon for mercy. Tad let his tongue loll out, panting. The sun slanted in hard, wicking away the slim margin of strength left him. The shuddering thud of his heart and the whine of his nerves and the dry sucking breath through his desert throat drowned out the sounds of Beh’s drinking. His arm tingled and stung and then disappeared. Sweat burned his tongue and shit and saltmeat came carried on the wind. Eyes were slow to blink, and even then the world did not clear to his sight. He felt his lips with his fat cudgel tongue and wondered idly if he were awake or alive.

Pressure came from somewhere at the edge, a single point that blossomed wide and grew warm, and Tad recognized it as his shoulder. Head swaying, he closed his eyes long for moisture and then looked up at the source of the touch.

Dal. Eyes bright. Holding out a small cask. Only one eye was newly blackened, the other faded to yellow-brown.

The cask. Tad looked over to the Pigon and it was gone, looked down the road and there it trundled along.

“Gav’up’n raisin’ ya. Tol’s ‘em I’ll take’sit for ya.” Dal smiled a slant-mouth smile. “I’s hon-est, ahrm? Hain’t runs off wit’ it, ahrm?”

Tad stared at him, levitating in the air. His head was a cartlength tall, and his tongue was dead. He knew his hair must look strange. It itched something awful, but he did not think his arm would reach to scratch. It wouldn’t move anyway, so it was just as well.

Dal set the cask on the ground before his crossed legs, and Tad stared at it there so far below. A drink might be nice.

Seeming to read his mind—could he do that? Tad forgot—Dal carefully removed the spongewood stopper and brought the opening to Tad’s mouth. The wood felt awful, dry and hard and awful to his painful lips. Tad made no move to take the cask, and Dal pushed from the bottom to force Tad’s head back and pour water down in. The wet was nice, but Tad had no idea what to do with it. His throat was locked. His chest began to ache. He opened his mouth and let the water spill out and sucked a gasp of painful air. After a few rough coughs and a few calmer breaths, Dal tried again. This time something crumbled within, and Tad swallowed.

It was a knife going down, a blade with a proper handle judging by the length. Why was he swallowing knives? More came and he swallowed them all. They got duller, but he never ceased to wonder.

“’s all’sight, ahrm?” came a voice, and Dal was hovering before him and the knives were gone. Dal smelled like shit, and his breath smelled like he’d been eating shit.

Tad smiled reflexively and tried to push him away, and Dal grabbed his arm and hoisted him up. The streets were still remarkably cool, no matter the nearness of the sun. Everything was so dry and clean. Except Dal. But he recognized suddenly that Dal was carrying his cask of water, his cask of water that he needed or Mumma would smash him blue. He tried to follow Dal, but Dal smiled his slant-mouth smile and pushed him on ahead.

So he led the way and he made sure Dal followed, Dal with his cask of water.

 

14

Mumma did not seem glad to see them. Dal gave Tad the cask of water and Tad passed it on to Mumma, but she only wobbled it, swishing, with a frown. It was too dark, no matter the sun fighting in and the dull orange glow of the burnrock, too dark to see her clearly. Tad thought she must be staring at him.

She went over and poured out meager water into the usual tin cup, offering it without a word to Dal. In the low light her eyes were jet black, glassy. Like a Wat-Witch, thought Tad. Outside, the high wail of the wind sounded. Wood rattled all around. Sun and shadows flickered through the boards.

Dal drank the water quick and showed his gappy teeth. “Skies ‘atch ya,” he said, gesturing politely as he offered the empty cup back.

She didn’t take it. “Wha’s yer Daps do?” asked Mumma.

“Daps? ‘e’s a saltsmeat scrapper,” said Dal, examining the bottom of the tin cup and scratching his leg with the other hand.

Tad started. “That’s not—” he creaked out, stopped by a cough.

Mumma immediately snatched the empty cup from Dal with one hand and grabbed his arm roughly with the other. She hustled him dragging over to the door and kicked it open against the wind. It came back hard, she pushed out Dal as a stopper and it smashed into his back. He did not stagger. A small, mean smile came to his lips.

Mumma grabbed his chin and pushed his head back into the door. Her voice raged even above the wind and her hair flew driven and wild. “Come back ‘ere an’ I’ll burn yer muddy eye out, ya lit’le shit! I’ll off yer arm an’ smash yer teeths in wit’ it!”

At that, Dal’s eyes wandered to Tad, standing looking on the scene with wide eyes and open mouth, and his gaze sparked with malicious mirth.

Mumma shoved Dal stumbling away into the street, and the door slammed shut. For a long moment, Tad could see nothing but orange burnrock in the new dark. The door rattled at pounding gusts. He finally remembered to shut his mouth to preserve whatever tiny remnants of moisture remained.

In the space of a few heartbeats, he had gone from having a new friend and a partner at the Watgon to being stuck alone again. If anything, from the look in Dal’s eyes, he now had an enemy.

Adjusting to the low light, the shadows by the door resolved into a silhouette of Mumma. Her head moved and the door rattled. Moments later it happened again, and Tad realized she was banging her forehead into the boards. He looked on in horror, swallowing the lump in his throat.

“His Dapper makes blades and needles and stuff, too,” said Tad.

A glint of wetness as Mumma gave him a sidelong glance. “Aye, Taddy,” she whispered, and rammed her forehead hard into the wood of the door.

Tad swallowed and fought tears. Why was she doing this? “I thought—” he coughed and swallowed and sniffled. “I thought he’d be a friend. And I need him at the Watgon.”

Mumma said nothing, forehead pressed to the door.

“What’s wrong?” he said, voice choking as tears flowed. “Why did you kick him out?”

She banged her head once more into the boards, so hard Tad was sure there must be blood. “I’s did tells ya, Taddil,” she pushed out quiet and slow. “Don’ brings ya nobody here.”

“You didn’t,” said Tad, wiping snot and tears and smearing it on his sandpaper tongue. “You never said that.”

“I’s—” Mumma cut off, pushing out a long, heavy sigh. The door rattled as she took away the pressure of her forehead and turned to face Tad, features a warm orange in the burnrock light. “E’en I don’ says it, shoulds be a clear thin’.” Her hand cut the air, fingers spread as knives. “Muddy ‘hit, Taddil, do I’s need tells ya ev’rythin’ at all? Don’ picks no fights wit’ bigger men than ya, don’ mix no high ‘n’ low, don’ eats no muddy shits from th’ muddy groun’? Ye’ve gots a head, hain’t ya? Use it, nows ‘n’ ‘en!”

“You never said that!” sobbed Tad.

“I’s—”

“You never said it!” he screamed, and wiped hot tears into his mouth.

“Taddil!”

With an oppressed animal yell he bolted forward and squirted under her arm, pushing at the door. On his first try it held, either from a gust of air or Mumma’s strong arm. Wailing, he pounded his fist on the boards and churned his legs and emptied his lungs in effort, and suddenly it gave. He spilled out into the white sun, tumbling down into dried shit and dust as wind tore at him and the door slammed shut behind.

 

15

Tad sat in the road and stared back at that door for a good long while, licking the salt and the wet from his face as his tears slowed and stopped. It was mid-morn, and the streets were empty. The sun scalded clean and the wind brought him dust and took it away again in each long breath. The door rattled often and moved never. It did not open.

When the sun grew too much he took to his feet and sought the shade. High overhead, the light burned into nearly every corner and crevice no matter how the streets tried to twist away from it. The alleys had a margin of dark, but the alleys were for shitting and Tad was tired of shit. He headed instead for the Twinhill.

The winds were wild that day and drove to dry his eyes and mouth and nostrils. His entire face seemed to ache and crack. It didn’t matter. The wall of feathers was soon before him, and he ducked down and scrabbled stumbling through.

Coming into that glorious calm had never felt better. Heat and light fell away and the air was still and cool. Lying where he stopped, he watched dust stream away under the feathers, inching his way toward the edge until the wind tickled his nose. Heart shuddered thick blood through his veins. He rubbed at his sore nostrils, and recoiled from the smell of shit on his hands.

It began to grow brighter. By the time he noticed, already there were patches of sun on the opposite end of his sanctuary, which soon grew to an unbroken sheet and the sheet spread to a sea. Above, the wall of feathers opposite glowed a luminous white as though the wing were made of moon.

The winds raged all the harder at first, but as the sunlight came to envelop the entire span it calmed to quiet and fell away. The sun came directly overhead, and Tad could no longer stare up at the temple of glowing feathers above. Warmth came, and then enough heat to make him sweat. With it came a peculiar silence such as he had never heard in his time at Featherwall. The wind only whispered, and there was nothing else. He pushed to his feet and put his arm out into the air’s gentle stream for cool.

An otherworldly clarity suffused the span from one glowing wall to the next. Each feather stood distinct, each tiny crack raised itself to the eye from the spiderwebbed dirt and every single mote of dust floated slow in pocked eternity for his review. Breaths were loud in his ears.

In the distance, where the wings narrowed together and before had been only dark, Tad spied what looked like a small building across the span—and a man stood beside it, with the shine of metal to him. He started toward it without thought, keeping his arm out in the cool currents of air that drafted gently down the wave of feathers. Rest had made his legs light again.

As he walked the light shifted, and as the light shifted the distance fell dark. The sun slanted in from the left, the air cooled and the winds grew strong again. He pulled his arm close. The sun moved away, and he shivered in the afternoon dusk. Moving away from the gnashing howls of air, he stuck to the center of the span and plodded steadily on.

It grew dimmer and cooler and the wind screamed louder as he progressed, and though the wind still only brushed him it filled the air with a cloud of choking dust. Tad took short, shallow breaths, cupped his hand over his mouth and soldiered on, ignoring the smell of dried shit that clung to his palm and his fingers. He was nearly there, he knew, squinting ahead.

And he was. Within the next few steps the outline of a man resolved itself, and then the vague bulk of a wall behind him. He came close, and the man moved, and the glint of metal revealed itself again at his head and at his chest and at the end of the long pole he levered now to block off the length of the wall.

Tad went right up next to him and stared at the man’s short black beard and bronze helmet and chest plate. He peered down along the wood shaft of the spear to its enormous bronze end. It was all so neat and shiny, and the man had a deep black cape and a plume of raven’s feathers atop his helmet that inspired the boy to awe. He looked like something from one of the fire stories, like someone that Treetop Tevil would fight or Slippery Sal would trick or Click-Clack Cav would pretend to help but then shiv in the back.

Tad reached up and put his hand squarely on the man’s belly. The soldier looked down with a mild gaze but kept his weapon out to cover the wall. The bronze plate was cold against Tad’s palm. Tad reached further and grabbed the soldier’s cape, at which the man tensed briefly but seemed to relax once Tad pulled back his hand full of black wool. It was a thick knit, rough and spongy in his fist.

Then Tad dropped the cape and swung out his hand beside the soldier to feel the wall. It touched nothing, stopped short in the air with fingers wiggling as the man pushed him back gently with a single strong arm. Tad looked up at the soldier, and the soldier shook his head. Tad backed away and approached the wall at the edge, reaching out again to touch the dry and dusty ethereal planks—and found his fingertips come up short, wiggling in the air as he was gently but firmly pushed away with the haft of the spear. Tad looked over at the soldier, who carefully tapped Tad’s half-arm and full arm with the wood of the spear, then indicated the wall with his eyes and shook his head.

Tad gave the soldier a long, even look, then moved carefully out of range of the spear and walked around the end of the wall. He nearly bumped into the haft of another spear, held at a rigid diagonal by another soldier in the same uniform. Tad paused, eyeing the soldier. Had he been spotted? The soldier seemed to be staring straight ahead into the mass of feathers, which here on the side ran close overhead to make a cozy cave, but it was too dark to see much. The only light filtered in from the dim sides. The wall here was also short, about the same length as the other. Tad saw his vague shadow on the wall and on the ground. The soldier didn’t move, but Tad couldn’t make out his eyes.

He raised his arm, hand hovering just inches from the wall, touching tongue to lips in concentration as his eyes darted from the man’s face, shrouded in darkness, to the haft of the spear, smooth wood only a foot away, to the old boards of the ancient shack just begging to be touched by his dried-out fingertips.

The soldier did not move, and Tad took his chance. The boards were nothing but rough and dusty old wood, but they set his fingers alight with fire all the same and shivered joy into his being. He grinned a gappy grin and wiggled his butt in antsy joy, working his legs up and down to let out the ecstasy of the forbidden. He found himself patting the wall in his excitement.

And then he realized the soldier had turned his head, and he was looking at the whites of his eyes and the white of a grin. The next instant he was staring up along the curving wall of feathers of the twinhill, trying to suck air with lungs that would not move. A wave of pain crashed through his chest and he hugged himself tight, rolling onto his side.

Air finally came with a hoarse gasp, and pressure and pain sounded again at his thigh. He looked down to see the spear haft poking at him. Pulling in cool dusty air and hacking out hard dry coughs, Tad crawled away from the haft but it followed him, pushed to his feet and it hit him in the back. He huddled in a ball and braced for more, but there was a single loud crack of wood on wood and the spear did not return.

Scrambling to his feet, Tad bolted away as fast as his parched throat and shocked lungs and screaming chest would let him, straight back down the Twinhill until it met the first clear road and then out into Westwing.

 

16

The highman clucked with sympathy and lightly touched Tad’s bare chest. Tad winced and gasped in pain. The highman held up his well-shined sheet of tin, and Tad wondered at the speckled red splotch covering the center of his chest. Already angry mottles of purple and brown were blossoming. He checked his leg as well, and found a small brown patch but nothing more.

Tad pressed cracked lips together, stroked his pinched dry throat, and the highman took the cue and carefully poured a small saucer of water into his mouth.

“No talk of this,” murmured the highman, “or I’ll be keeping half of Westwing wet. And as much as I’d like that, I haven’t the water for it. If you says anything I’ll know, and if you says anything you’ll get no more.”

Tad twisted his mouth in agony as he swallowed and hoarsely said, “I won’t.”

The highman patted him on the head and moved away, bustling about his odds and ends and jars. “I’ve something that will help,” he said over his shoulder. “I don’t think anything in there is broken, but it’s bloody and bruised. It will hurt for a time. Breathing will be hard. I’ll give something to help with the pain, and it should make it easier to take your air. It might even speed your recovery, though I myself would make no wager on that.” He turned and winked. “Nor anything else either, naturally, seeing as I’m a highman with a highman’s sense of sky.”

He grinned and turned and got back to work.

His diagnosis was correct. Tad’s chest already ached, and even as he waited for the highman’s salve it seemed to grow tighter and the ache reached deeper in. Tad found himself taking shallower and shallower breaths, but it did not cure his woe. With each movement of his lungs he winced in pain and shifted in his seat. He tried lying on his back, he tried resting on his side, he tried crossing his legs and drooping forward and leaning back and taking deep breaths instead. None of it was worth a muddy damn. His chest was catching fire from the inside and nothing would put it out.

When the highman finally stopped at his table and wandered back toward Tad, the boy sat up at full attention and coughed a cough that ripped his chest apart. He clutched at himself, but then that hurt too, and he could only lean back and gasp shallow breaths and waver his arm out toward the small jar of pungent, fuzzy-white ointment the highman had made.

The highman pushed his hand away. “Not yet. I know it hurts, but using this now will kill you. There is a final, very important step that must be done.”

Removing the thick salve from the jar with a tiny spatula, he spread it thin along a square wooden plate drilled with as many tiny holes as it could hold. Tad wrinkled his nose at the acrid stench emanating from it. The highman dribbled red liquid from a flask over the ointment, carefully keeping it from the edges.

When a tiny red lake had formed atop the gooey film, he stoppered the flask, crossed his arms in seeming satisfaction and then, with a look of sudden panic, quickly and noisily rousted through half his shelves before coming free with a large tin bowl. He hurriedly lifted the wood plate and shoved the bowl under. For a moment he looked once again satisfied with things, but then he tapped his chin in consternation and sat about searching again.

He came back with a pair of odd pieces of iron and used them to prop up the wood plate, but immediately went back to his shelves and soon swapped them out for wood blocks, and finally changed them for what looked to be four squat pyramids of tin. The highman balanced the wood plate on the tips of the pyramids and stared down long at the apparatus. A drop of pink liquid fell noiselessly into the tin bowl. The highman tapped his chin again for a long while, but this time his look of satisfaction did not change. He finally walked over to Tad and ruffled the boy’s stiff, greasy hair.

“Now we must wait,” he said.

 

17

And wait they did—though it was really only Tad who did the waiting as the highman saw to a beat-down sod with cuts on his palms, a crone bent nearly double who kept pissing everywhere, a quiet woman with a patchwork of bruises and a bloody chunk missing from her side, and a steady stream of others with complaints large and small.

They registered as little more than the odd stench or sound or shape to Tad, who lay fighting for his life on the long wood bench shirtless and curled on his side. The fire had cooled to an iron weight, spiked with needles that jabbed down into his lungs. Every attempt at breath was stopped short with pain and pressure, tightness banding his lungs, and if he pushed past it the coughs would come and shred his chest and rob him of even that tiny bit of air. His mouth worked, his eyes grew glassy and saw nothing. He was drowning in air.

In desperation he sometimes rolled off the bench, and standing would give a few breaths of relief before the weight grew back. Then he would shuffle to the wall and lean against it, prop himself against it, butt his head up against it, worry his chest painfully against it in efforts to find a way to breathe. Nothing worked for more than a moment.

On each journey to the wall, he passed by the tin bowl with its slowly growing lake of pink. When he judged there was enough of it, he jabbed a finger down into the liquid, nearly knocking the wood plate above from its perch, and stood for a moment unsure. Firm footsteps grew near and the white linen of the highman flicked at his periphery and Tad stuck the finger in his mouth.

The highman took him gently but firmly back to lie on the bench, then resettled his apparatus and moved it to the other end of the room. Tad watched it with longing. His finger stung and his mouth burned, and it did not go away.

He wept. He wept and he painted the tears over his cracked lips, and he gasped and coughed and hacked against the weight that pressed down on the current of his life. He thought of Daps, poor Daps, who without Tad would be left in Mumma’s cruel hands alone, lying as an abused lump with no hope—never!—of a cure. Mumma would trade them both for a lump of oxshit, had she any takers. He coughed and groaned low and pressed his cheek to the bench.

Sometimes there would be a touch to his calf or his knee or a hand in his itchy damn hair, and he would look up to find some stranger watching him with sympathetic eyes. They were all beaten-up, wrinkled, scarred or gap-toothed or bald, their clothes stank of old sweat and their breath smelled like shit. Tad would grunt and shift away and cough himself hoarse, and at the coughs they would shy away.

The sun coming in through the small milky windows above began to fade, and he was thankful for the touch of relief. A sheen of sweat covered every inch of skin, and his tongue scraped dry in his mouth. Had he thought it would do any good, he would have begged again for water.

Finally one of the highman’s glances at the apparatus lingered, and he strode over to attend to it long. Tad rolled off the bench and tottered toward him, watching with newly keen eyes as the highman removed the wood plate and set it to the side and carefully lifted the pyramids of tin out of the bowl. Tad stood ready behind him, sucking air with his naked battered chest in a quick rhythm of gasps and snorts. Each snort pained his dried-out nostrils.

The highman peered long into the bowl, and Tad could not see his face. Then the highman’s arm went out to the side, groping, and Tad’s heart leapt in joy. Relief was near. The hand settled on a flat iron plate bristling with thin spikes, and Tad quailed at the promise of pain but held firm. A momentary pain that fixed this this THIS would be worth it a stingbug’s nest of times over.

Tad hobbled over beside the highman, steadying himself against the table, and watched as the highman selected a jar from a high shelf, carefully untied the cover and began to paint the needles with the sweet-smelling orange tincture within. Tad waited patiently, resisting the urge to tug at the highman’s robes. His mouth still burned from his finger-taste of the medicine, and he wondered if it would burn his throat or his chest too. He wheezed and gulped desperately at the air, fighting heaviness and pain. Even fire would be better than this, if it were on the outside.

The highman set the iron spike-rat thing in the bowl, grabbed Tad’s arm in a no-nonsense way and dragged the boy back to the bench. He leaned his face close. Tad shied away from his awful shit-breath.

“Not just now, Taddil, not just now. I know it’s hard, but you must wait a bit longer yet.”

Tad wheezed and grunted and lashed out with his arm at the highman, trying to push him away as much for his breath as for the unpleasantness of his words. The highman did not move, and Tad slid backward along the bench until his back was to the wall.

“Another hour, maybe two,” said the highman, tugging away the boy’s arm. “I know it’s hard.” He ruffled Tad’s hair in his habitual way and left him to call in the next patient.

The necessary time passed in still, dry defeat. As the highman murmured in concerned low tones to his patients, Tad lolled his head from side to side against the wall and laid on his back and his front and his side and propped himself on the floor with the planks digging into his back. He breathed marginal breaths and tasted blood from the back of his raw throat, and coughed so that he keeled over and would have drooled had he the spit. He watched the highman and the spike-rat thing in the bowl with dull fixity and touched the sore skin under his nostrils even though it made the skin sorer still. The shadows in the room grew long and he found himself sleepy in the sonorous warmth and fading light. He ran his sandpaper tongue along the film of sweat on his arm.

 

18

Tad woke with a jolt in a room burnished bronze by the fleeing sun, staring with a dull headache. The room was silent and empty save the highman, who stood by the tin bowl and examined the spike-rat thing in his hand.

Tad’s tongue tasted fuzzy and his mouth was coated in morning filth. He took a breath without memory and gasped in pain wheezed in shock, iron bound lungs and hard dry splutter taste of rust, cough cough cough sucked in air reflexively deep and chest dissolved in fire-bright agony. He rolled off the bench onto his knees and coughed until he vomited, and then he stared down at it trying not to breathe. His throat burned. His lungs burned. His chest was an angry sun of pain.

“It’s ready, Taddil,” the highman said. “Lie down.”

Tad looked to the bench but knew he had no strength to reach it. He flopped back on the packed earth, and it felt cool against his back. His tiny puddle of vomit lay by his feet.

The highman took one of his tiny wooden spatulas and spread the salve thin and sparingly across the bruised and bloody center of his chest. It reeked so that Tad found his mouth watering sickly and that well-remembered, unpleasant fullness came to the top of his throat—the stink of vomit mixed with oxshit mixed with greensharp sap, and topped off with the tang of saltmeat.

It felt cold at first but soon warmed and then did not stop warming. The room had fallen to the dimness of twilight, and Tad began to wonder why his chest did not glow in the deepening darkness. It was burning through his chest from the outside, clear enough, and like burnrock his chest should by rights have glowed orange. Slag of skin and bone and breath and blood. He gasped at the brightness of the pain and moved to feel his chest.

The arm was stopped and there was the highman, eyes invisible above. “Give it time, Taddil,” he said, “and do not touch.”

Tad heaved shallow breaths in effort and his eyes roved wild. There was no moisture in his open mouth, on his protruding tongue. He felt sweat break on his forehead and roll down one cheek and then the other, and he could not catch it for his captive arm. His half-arm struggled to reach and slapped uselessly at his side. The skin on his chest would burn through to meet the skin on his back any moment now, and he would be a Skin Man, walking around thin as linen waving in the wind. Was this how they made Skin Men? He stared up with bulging eyes at the silhouette of the…highman. What was a Skin Man? He couldn’t remember. His tongue ran hard and dry over cracked lips. His skin grew hotter still and he tried to scream and only a dry whimper came, a catch at the back of his throat. He was the catch at the back of his throat.

He felt the skin of his chest melt into the skin on his back, and he arched up and flopped against the highman’s strong hands, letting out an unending bone-dry wail of rattling breath. And then, air spent to its last, he collapsed to the hard ground and it was warm and he was cool.

His lungs were full before he realized it and there was only fluid ease. Breath ran through the roughened bloody landscape of his throat and over his pebbled dry swollen tongue, around his receding gums and failing patchwork of teeth and between his shattered lips, and he inhabited every inch of flesh along the way. He felt the air with the explosive touch he had not known since his first captive nights in the wagon, but there was no fault in it, no catch and no pain. That was a part left out, and without it the experience of life was fuller still. He shivered and gasped in delight, tried to put his hand to his chest but it was still held captive by the highman.

The highman pulled him to his feet. “Don’t touch,” said the highman, pointedly shoving Tad’s arm to his side before letting it go. “It will rub away on your hand, and on your hand it does you no good.”

Tad stood blinking in the quiet room and an ecstasy of life buzzed through him. The fire in his chest had shot to his head and glowed bright in his legs and arm. In the highman’s presence he could do nothing but bite his cheek and curl his toes and shiver his body and flex his fingers. Eyes wide and breath free.

The highman smiled a gentle smile in the amber-lit room, and Tad marveled once again at how many teeth the man still had. “You can go,” he said.

Tad bolted for the door. “Wait!” called the highman, and Tad stopped and turned and waited as the highman tied a scrap of leather with a grassweave cord around the top of the small jar of salve and then placed it in Tad’s palm with the emphasis of both hands. He said nothing.

Tad slipped the jar into his only pocket and fled as quick as he could to the streets.

 

19

Dusk in Westwing was a slow filthy mess of people and oxen and oxcarts and shit and piss and commerce and kids, and Tad danced through this sweetroot sap of humanity with the quick cuts and pulsing energy of a zinging blade. Fatigue did not touch him could not touch him and in the ebbing light he laughed a dry laugh and glowed brighter than the sun.

He bowled over kids and startled stumbling men and rustled playfully at women’s ragged linen skirts, slid along oxflanks and bounced off carts. There was no pain in the world but the pain of not going fast enough. Energy came faster than he could shed it. He skated along on oxshit and skipped over wounded ground, and when he looked up there was the Wing burning glorious orange and purple and red or the madcap water towers clawing up and out for a wet the sky never gave.

Light as a feather he skipped and skidded and breathed and delighted in the nonsensical whimsical wonders of the city and its serpentine streets—sellers flogging roasted spids and oil-fried flatbush, hunched and ancient women scooping oxshit from the streets, men in alleys catching their piss in broken wooden casks. The spindly houses clawed over and ducked under and leaned hard into one another in the slow dance of an eternal scrum.

At the edges the city opened to the flats, but the water towers closed rank against the desert. They were truly amazing monstrosities of planks and tar, thick on bottom with forests of supports and blossoming ever wider at their tops such that they fought for space even with the empty land at their backs. Shacks squeezed in among the supports and silhouettes of guards were outlined by the enormous setting sun.

Tad slowed and paused at the last wall of the last house of Westwing, staring up with a wild grin at the towers and sucking a deep easy breath.

And then there was no air in his lungs, and he found himself staring at the hard earth. Spat syllables and cracked breaths came from above in a jumble and small sharp fists pounded into him. Tad held his face above the dirt and let the tiny beating keep on. It felt nice, in a way, to his aching back, and anyway it didn’t much hurt. He had angered some sort of Puddlewisp or Shinebeam, he supposed, and smiled then laughed, deep and silent, at the thought.

The punches stopped. A small weight lifted from Tad’s back. He pushed up and flopped over, gazing with a tilted grin at the flip of a boy who stood before him with clenched fists the size of dried-up spids. Heaving air so that he could not speak, half his head and his angry face mudded with dark ox shit. There was a well of rage so deep and fierce and primal in those grey eyes and so at odds with the savagely tiny frame that Tad could not help but laugh.

When he did, the kid shouted “Ee plarken aff nee!” and came at him again. Tad had never felt large or powerful before, but now he felt both. He shrugged off the soft little fists and stood and snatched up the kid with a strength he’d never felt before, awkwardly stuffing the shit-smeared ragamuffin under his arm so that his feet came off the ground and then spinning round and round and round and round until he collapsed dizzy with the boy with a laugh.

Beside him, the kid staggered to his feet, stumbled drunkenly here and there, and then fell back down. Tad looked over at him and smiled, but the kid growled and sat up and stood up and raised his miniscule fists.

Tad grinned a goofy gapped grin, struggled up and crouched low. The kid started resolutely toward him. Tad ran low and hard and caught the kid just so in his open palm at the belly, momentum allowing him to raise the small weight and lock his elbow with the tiny boy high above, running in circles and capering and spinning and jumping and skipping with abandon, lost in a cloud of his own raised dust as the sun shot its last orange heat at the world.

When finally he stumbled it was not from fatigue, and as he thudded to the ground beside the smaller child he was already scrambling to his feet and offering a hand. The kid held his side and looked at the outstretched arm with weary suspicion. Tad took it back with a laugh and skipped around him in circles until the world twirled and he collapsed dizzy.

He was up again before it was wise and once more held his hand out toward the tiny angry boy. Once more the boy did not take it, but now when Tad turned madcap whirlwind the boy jumped up and came at him quick and this time he was smart about it—he tripped Tad and stomped him in the balls.

Tad grimaced and grinned and whimpered and rolled back and forth with his knees pulled tight against his body. He groaned loud and often as the boy watched. And then, as the kid turned to walk away, Tad scrambled to his feet with his hand to his crotch and ran stiff, teetering steps around the boy. The boy ignored him, and Tad circuited wildly at a gallop until on one lap he smashed at full speed into the boy’s side and trampled over him.

The kid was down for uncomfortably long, eyes clouded with pain as Tad stood silent watch. Last glimmers of light on the horizon silhouetted the monstrous water towers and the tiny guards beneath, and then the sun slipped under the world. The boy popped up and came at Tad again, ineffectual fists swinging. Tad smiled in delight and fled in snaking arcs.

 

20

Tad withstood the ugly scratch of the warm wet knit because he knew that food would follow. Ulya—or was it Dolya? He always got the older ones mixed—was not kind in her ministrations, and was unfortunately thorough. His stomach gave a long, pinched growl and bit itself such that Tad gasped and clutched at his middle. Ulya only forced his arm out straight again and continued wiping.

The journey back to Eastwing had not been easy. What Tad knew as a jumbled but comprehensive network of streets had turned abruptly to a nonsense map of flickering dots on pitch. His landmarks of odd angles and splashes of color and twisting alleys were of no use and he found himself doubling back again, again, again to peer hard at plank walls or turnings.

Men worked here and there building things, making things, smashing things, lifting things, spilling and shoveling and clanging and sweating in the unearthly constant light of the burnrock. They seemed a rougher sort than the day shift, and there were vanishingly few women about, but Tad felt no menace. They had little attention to spare. Those that did separate him from the shadows only winked at his gawking stare or lightly smacked the top of his head or smeared the grime of their sweaty hands across his comparatively clean cheeks.

The Wing, though blessed by a weak wind, had given him pause. The ache in his chest had returned as he approached, and a flutter twinged his heart. He had never entered in the dark, and the thought quailed him and thrilled him. His belly sang shrill. He thought, as the wind pushed through his greasy hair, of Wat-witches and Mud-men and skin men. At the first brush of feather on skin he recoiled in acute terror—and then pushed on, crawled on, biting his cracked lower lip as the spidery softness of the wing whispered over him and pinged tensed nerves.

Inside was the deep velvet dark of the forest on a clouded, moonless night, and as he stood and took a step and another and the song of the feathers faded from his skin he put his arm out expecting branches, expecting leaves, expecting firefly songs any moment now and a left arm to help him through. He stumbled forward and gazed up, confused and choking, but the window of stars above touched nothing. He staggered around—forward?—and crouched dizzy and stared up again. Barely, there, the ragged edge of one of the humps of the Twinhill, and with a dusty heave a sense of earth returned. Shaking, he touched the ground, felt the cracks from the mean sun and forced himself up and forward at a hunched stumble until he ran headlong into feathers. With relief he dropped and rolled through them, rolled with his shoulders striking hard, rolled until dots of burnrock orange dotted the swaying space of his eyes. No fireflies, those. He drew breath slow and long.

In the Eastwing, fatigue had bent him. Over the space of a few oxcarts, he went from unconquerable hero of the Westwing to a tottering little boy hardly able to keep his eyes open. His chest was getting stuck when he tried to breathe, and his lungs would not expand. Tongue lolled out and he was short on air, stuttering along with his iron body and his stale-biscuit head. He weaved in toward the nearest wall and threw himself against it, reaching into his pocket for the jar of salve.

His fingers met goo, goo and thin glass shards that poked and scraped at his fingers but did not cut. Tad groaned. He had been careless. He scooped a part with his fingertips, reached under the knits of his ragged shirt and haphazardly spread the ointment over his breastbone as the highman had done. Glass bit his skin here and there and the small cuts buzzed. He wiped his fingers across his chest, moisture growing sickly at the back of his throat as the revolting smell of it reached him, and lightly patted his pocket with greasy fingers. Nothing wet could be felt on the inner side of the pocket, and he noted with cautious optimism that the salve seemed thick enough to sit where it was. For now.

Lightning sparked his breast and fire roiled him. Head was a thick bubble stretched along the planks behind and neck sank forward, convulsing just this side of vomit. Hand ran unfelt along the rough wood of the wall and its shaggy edges and then with a gasp his chest exploded and he convulsed and there was nothing nothing nothing in the world but that bright pain for years unbreathed. Hot burnrock sat still, orange and the night was empty.

Tap, tap, tap heard before he felt it, before the wood spoke to his fingers and he knew it was his hand against the wall behind, and then his chest was thickly aching and his neck arched and his lungs inflated. The agony in his chest was gone. He was wide awake and his energy was back, full as before but he held more focus. There was again the urge to run to run or he would burst at the seams, but Tad pushed it down, swallowed dry and stepped full of purpose from the wall.

In the dark and unfamiliar night, the Grimthistle’s blue door had not been easy to find, but find it he had. It had been worth it. Already he had thrown down so much water he had thrown most of it back up, and endured his cleaning now with a newly keening stomach but a wet mouth. The Grimthistle himself sat opposite by a burnrock brazier, silently absorbed in a book, and Resla slumped sullenly in the chair beside him. Marsa was absent and the room was quiet and warm.

Ulya washed far beyond what was needful. Tad worked up a wad of spit atop his tongue and pushed it joyfully around his cheeks and up behind his teeth and through all the gaps, and his gaze wandered the room. In the dim light, the drawings on the wall could not be seen and the enormous deadly flower was only a dark shadow in the corner. The faint orange light of the brazier did not waver, and the Grimthistle and his daughter looked a perfect silent pair.

When Ulya finally put down her damp wool and began to grab and peer at Tad’s long-unwashed mane, he understood the danger and began to shy away. The young woman grabbed more insistently and pulled him near, and Tad grabbed at her wrist and tried to push her off.

“That will do,” said The Grimthistle with a flick of his eyes at Ulya. “If you have doubts on his hair, better to give way than try to fix it.”

Ulya gave The Grimthistle a long, haughty look and roughly shoved Tad’s head away. She stalked around the table toward the interior of the house.

“Remember the stew,” said The Grimthistle to her back.

Ulya did not slow, and was lost from sight. Her footsteps echoed softly in the distance.

“Women,” said Resla with disgust, and kicked the table so that it shuddered and the light from the brazier danced.

“Not women,” said The Grimthistle, “Ulya.” He put out a hand as if to tousle her hair, but stopped with his palm above her head and withdrew, giving her a meaningful look with widened eyes. “I don’t think you would care a spid’s shit about his hair.”

“I’m not a woman,” said Resla with her arms crossed.

“You’ll be one soon enough,” said The Grimthistle.

“Never,” growled the girl. “I’ll kill myself first.”

The Grimthistle carefully turned to the next page in his book. “Just like a woman to be so dramatic,” he muttered without looking at her.

Resla gave an animal snarl and kicked at the table so hard it teetered and the brazier slid halfway to the edge. The Grimthistle nonchalantly slid it back across the table, never looking up from the page. Resla glared at him with narrowed eyes that glowed orange in the light.

Tad’s stomach pinched and let out a long, low, gurgling moan.

“The stew, Resla,” murmured The Grimthistle.

“Ulya!” shouted the girl.

“Will not come back,” said The Grimthistle.

“Dolya!” shouted the girl.

“Will not come now,” said The Grimthistle. “Get the stew, there is no one else.”

“Marsa!” shouted Resla.

“Really, now,” muttered The Grimthistle, poking his nose comically close to the book. His eyes glittered with mirth.

“Onsly!” shouted Resla.

Wrinkles grew around The Grimthistle’s deep brown eyes.

“Karsly!” shouted Resla.

The Grimthistle guffawed, and set down his book to reveal an awkward wood-toothed grin. He slapped Resla lightly on the side of the head. “There is no one else,” he said.

She stuck her tongue out at him and slithered off the chair.

 

21

It was only after his second brimming bowl of stew that Tad felt up to talking. “It is odd for you to visit in the evening,” The Grimthistle had quietly commented as he slurped, but Tad had ignored the prompt and slurped on. He knew here the rules were not the same: rudeness was forgiven where need prevailed.

Temporarily sated, he burped a small burp and rubbed his belly.

The Grimthistle looked up from his book. “It is odd for you to visit in the evening,” he said. Resla, slumped forward with forehead pressed to the edge of the table, cracked an eye at Tad.

“It—Yes,” he replied, not sure how to explain.

The Grimthistle said nothing. Resla worried her forehead against the table.

“There was—I brought a friend home, and—Do you know how the Runners work on a Watgon?”

The Grimthistle nodded sagely but said, “All are not the same, but—”

“You need a pair, a partner, to be safe,” said Tad.

The Grimthistle nodded and gestured for the boy to keep on.

“So I needed him—I need him—for a partner at the Watgon, and I need the Watgon—”

“For the water,” interrupted The Grimthistle, and motioned for more, dark eyes gleaming as he leaned in close over the brazier.

“And she kicked him out, just kicked him out for nothing, without giving him a chance. But she expects me to get the water, that’s my charge. And I need him to get it, but she doesn’t care. She doesn’t ever care.” His cheeks were suddenly wet. “She doesn’t ever—” he sobbed, “She doesn’t care.” His chest heaved and he drew air in stutters, feeling every bit his wounds and letting the pain out in wracking sobs. “She doesn’t care!” he screamed hoarsely, blubbering wetly and letting salty snot tide over his lips. Tears ran down in a hot stream and he hugged himself tight.

All was quiet, and he wept long and bitter and hard. The room was a blur of dark and warm orange. Nothing seemed to move.

When finally his eyes dried and his vision cleared, he found The Grimthistle still watching him calmly over his book. Resla even now pushed her forehead to the cool smooth wood of the table and cast a lone unwavering eye at him. Tad wiped tears from his cheeks and loudly sucked snot back up his nose and tongued at his cracked, salt-stung lips.

“There are other ways to get water,” said Resla quietly.

“Shh,” said The Grimthistle.

“There are!” said Resla.

“No more,” said The Grimthistle, reaching out to take hold of her ear. “You will do only harm.”

Gingerly, she raised both eyes above the table and watched The Grimthistle in wary silence. He released her ear. She stayed quiet.

The Grimthistle leaned forward then, forward and forward so that his head was more than halfway to Tad and his mostly clean knit shirt almost draped onto the burnrock of the brazier. Tad did not shy away; he held his ground and cocked his head in askance.

“What, may I ask, gave you that?” asked The Grimthistle.

“What?” whispered Tad.

“That,” said The Grimthistle, and he pointed squarely at the boy’s chest.

Tad looked down, picking at the ragged, patchy knit that covered his torso. Even in the dim rusty light, the angry splotch that had blossomed on his breast was plain. “I don’t know,” he murmured.

The Grimthistle plopped back in his chair and smiled a pained smile. “How, then, did it happen?”

“There were—at the Twinhill. Do you know the Twinhill?” asked Tad, forgetting his tears in the urge to communicate.

The Grimthistle nodded deeply. “I know the Twinhill.”

“Have you crossed it?”

He showed his wooden teeth. “A time or two, perhaps.”

“Have you been in it at sun-top?” asked Tad.

The Grimthistle shook his head.

“It’s…clear, clear and hot. And quiet. The wind gets slow. And it’s so clear you can…You could see to the end of the world, but—” Tad bit the inside of his cheek.

“But what, Taddil?” asked The Grimthistle. Resla, to the side, stared at him with both eyes.

“Something was there, something in the way. I thought there were no buildings in the Twinhill, but—there was.”

“Ah,” said The Grimthistle, sounding disappointed. He crossed his arms. “You are unfamiliar with the most famous building in Featherwall?”

Tad’s lips parted, and no sound came forth. The Grimthistle observed him in silence.

A loud groan from Resla broke the quiet. She rolled her eyes at Tad. “Your mother is making tools for the festival punters. They come here for that.”

“For what?” asked Tad.

That. That building. That’s what the festival is about.”

Tad blinked and looked to The Grimthistle. “It’s a shack,” said Tad. “Just a shack.”

The Grimthistle chuckled. “A shack under guard, a shack that none may touch from without.”

“I touched it,” said Tad.

Resla sucked in a sharp breath, and The Grimthistle laughed and gestured at Tad’s chest. “And that,” he said, “explains that.”

“And,” said Tad, speaking over The Grimthistle’s fading laughter, “the guards are stupid. They look scary but they wear bronze.”

“So?” shot Resla from the side.

“Anyone with proper iron could cut them down,” said Tad. “Everyone knows that iron cuts through bronze.”

“They’re still tougher than you,” said Resla, and stuck her tongue out at him.

“Taddil,” said The Grimthistle, “does the bronze shine impressively in the sun?”

Tad slowly nodded.

“And would iron do the same?”

Tad gave no answer. The question was rhetorical.

“There you have your answer,” said The Grimthistle. “It is the shine that protects them, not the bronze. A reminder of the gold in the fat purses of the fat men who forbid entry.”

“Entry to what?” asked Tad.

“To—You truly do not know? Your mother has not explained even this to you?” asked The Grimthistle.

Resla rolled her eyes and flapped her ears with her hands and obnoxiously mouthed the word Stuuuuuupid.

Tad stuck his tongue out at her.

“You know where Featherwall gets its name, yes?” said The Grimthistle, passing a hand idly back and forth over the brazier.

“From the Twinhill,” said Tad.

“But it is not called Twinhill,” said The Grimthistle. “What is the Twinhill?”

Tad stared dully at him. “Featherwalls?”

The Grimthistle smiled forbearingly. His blue hair and brown eyes looked black in the dark room. “What is another name for a wall of feathers?”

Tad looked helplessly to Resla. She bugged her eyes out at him.

The Grimthistle carefully centered the brazier on the table and looked with patient but insistent eyes at Tad. “Wings, Taddil, the Twinhill is a pair of enormous wings. And wings must belong to something, must they not?”

Tad gasped. “A bird! And of course they have to protect it!”

A high-pitched squeal came from where Resla had been sitting, and she bumped the table hard as she fell shaking to the floor. Next to her, The Grimthistle grinned broadly and asked “Why do they have to protect the—” He blinked hard and the corners of his mouth quirked up. “…the—it. Protect it?” The man blinked earnestly, but mirth shone like a sun from within.

“Because,” said Tad with a sullen edge, “if it dies, its wings will fall down on everyone.”

A peal of gasping laughter shot up from the floor where Resla lay, and The Grimthistle shook with guffaws. Tad bit at his cheek and rubbed his thumb along the edge of the table. Resla and The Grimthistle roared away. The table wobbled as Resla pounded her feet against the center leg in a fit of uncontained, screaming joy. Tad chewed his lip, enjoying the tang of blood and the sting of torn skin as he waited for the pair to settle.

It took several minutes but they did, finally, wind down. Resla was still and silent below, and The Grimthistle wiped at his eyes and sniffled. “Not a bird, Taddil. The wings belong to a man.”

 

22

Tad bit down on his lip until it throbbed, staring hard at The Grimthistle.

The Grimthistle grinned, looking anything but serious. “It’s true,” he said. “You may ask anyone you like.”

Resla popped up, eyes shining wild and lips quirked in an unsettling smile.

“Except Resla, of course,” said The Grimthistle. “She’s a horrible liar.”

Her smile wavered and broke into giggles. “It’s a pig!” she gasped, and grabbed at the table. “It’s an ox!” She quivered and shook and lost her legs to peals of silent laughter. “It’s a pig-ox!” she screamed breathlessly from below, amid sounds of slapping and rolling and all manner of mirth-making.

“Didn’t your mother teach you even this?” asked The Grimthistle, peering at the boy with that peculiar mix of understanding and disdain in his bean-brown eyes.

Tad did not reply. He felt no need to.

The Grimthistle’s eyes did not change, but his voice grew gentler. “This is the myth of Featherwall, Taddil. If you do not know it, you cannot understand this town.” He licked his lips. “I will tell it to you now.”

 

23

“The myth is simple. It is only this. I have spoken of the man who bears these wings, yes? If he should weep, and you should catch a tear, you will be granted…your any wish? Your heart’s desire? Some say one and some the other. And why not? Some want gold and some want more, and this net will catch them all.”

Tad stared at The Grimthistle, eyes wide as moons. “Any wish?” he breathed. “Anything?”

The Grimthistle chuckled, and his eyes were mean. He flicked a dismissive hand at Tad. “And so we get the punters. And so we have the festivals.”

“But—” said Tad thickly, lips parted and eyes dull with greed.

“But it’s not true,” said The Grimthistle with acid in his voice. “Of course not. It can’t be true.”

Tad numbly moved his tongue in his newly dry mouth and waited.

“Treasures are hoarded. They are not opened to the world.”

Tad said nothing. He could do much with a wish. The room grew fuzzy and slow. Breath moved deep through him. Water—a whole tower of water—could be his. He could dole it out to Mumma one tiny keg at a time and take his leisure in the morning. Or—he blinked. Gold! He could even get Guild coins, a whole big barrel of gold Guild coins, and pay Mumma not to make him work. He could even pay her to work, to make him stupid needles and blades and things, and he could buy water and sit around drinking it and telling her faster faster FASTER and more more MORE and then just throw the junk in big worthless piles, and when she cried he would laugh at her and Dapper would grin his crazy grin.

Or—breath stuck in his throat and his guts danced. He could cure Dapper. He could CURE him. Not just make him talk again. He could make him stand up, and walk, and talk, and dance and sing and laugh a true laugh and eat with his own hands and piss proper and shit proper and work the fields and bring in the crop and fix the oxen and take them all back away to where they belonged. Back to the green and over-wet and slowly rotting mess where the sweetroot and the gumgreen and the brownmeal grew in swampy soil and the chickens had once had their own squawky kingdom of feathers and poop—before Mumma had murdered them all, every last one. She had never liked them, and when Daps got sick she’d had her chance. And then all the grunty pigs and then two of the oxen, till there was nothing left to kill. But if he could cure Dapper…

He felt eyes on him. He blinked. The Grimthistle was absorbed in his book. Tad looked over to find Resla staring with narrow eyes. “You think the winged man will give you what you want?” she asked.

“Resla,” said The Grimthistle, eyes never leaving the page.

She sneered at Tad.

“Let him find out on his own,” murmured The Grimthistle.

“Why?” Resla demanded.

“Shh. All must find out on their own.”

“Not me,” she said. “I already know.”

“Some need to know for themselves,” said The Grimthistle. He carefully turned the page. “Some need more time.”

“You mean,” she said, “he’s stuuuuuupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid!” She grabbed the table and wobbled it with all her might. The brazier skittered.

The Grimthistle looked up from his book and reached out to tap her head, but she dodged him and wiggled down out of the chair and stalked away through the doorway behind.

“Hm,” said The Grimthistle with an amused air, and went back to his book.

 

24

Tad woke with a start, neck aching and bladder full. He had not asked to spend the night, and The Grimthistle had not offered. He had only watched the man read, and stared at the glowing burnrock in the brazier, and thought again and again of the joys of curing Daps. His forehead had grown too thick to think, and then his eyelids had turned to the heaviest stone, and now it was now. He could see faint shapes but not the brazier, which meant that it was sun-up or nearly so.

Panic seized him. The Watgon! He rolled out of his slump on the chair to push to his feet—and gasped and fell on his back, fingers tearing uselessly at the unseen knife in his chest as he worked his mouth and tried desperately to move his lungs. The dull ache for air grew sharp and his lungs inflated through the shock of pain but bounded, bounded as surely as by an iron band so that he could not fill his need. He breathed shallow and quick and even so, even so each time his breastbone cut down in, cut deep like a razor.

Tad pushed his hips into the air and his hand dove deep in his pocket, spidering around every last fold and wrinkle in search of the Highman’s salve. Bits of weak glass in a sticky lump of goo. He scooped away half of the lump with his fingers, reached under the ragged knit of his shirt and smeared the ointment on the skin of his breast.

His chest lit up like burnrock, hot with pain that did not waver and did not fade, breaths filled his ears with sound. Muscles crept tighter and tighter until they cramped and spasmed in agony. Sweat stood on every inch of skin. He gripped at the chair legs and pounded his arm against the floor and thrummed his heels on the wood and clenched his nervy teeth. The light grew brighter and brighter until he could make out every shape in the room, and Tad wormed his way along the floor to the stairs and peered down. The light of sun-up flooded through the cracks around the door. He groaned—he’d never make it to the Watgon on time—and then whined and whimpered as pain bit harder and the flames burned down clean through him.

Pushed himself up to lean on the wall, stumbled brokenly down the steps and flung op—fumbled unfamiliarly with the latch but managed to undo it, flung open the door and stagger-stepped, leaving the door wide open, stagger-stepped into a drunken run.

 

25

Tad made it to the Waterboss Tower on time, somehow, just. The Pissgon was about to leave and was being hounded by the usual group of stick-thin dry-mouths on the hunt for any empty Runner spot. Tad grinned and shooed them away and twirled around them in circles until he was almost too dizzy to stand. Kal gave him a peevish look, Beh grabbed him by the hair to make him still, and the Watgon with a creak got on its rumbling way.

The light was cool and clean that morn, and Tad was an effortless feather blowing down those unstirred streets of Eastwing. He flew. He danced around the unknown souls awake at that damned hour and he hopped and he skipped over shit old and new. A thrill buzzed his spine each time he swapped a full cask for an empty, shooting him back at a sprint to the Pigon. Sometimes he made it back even before the bright and silly pair whose names he would never know. He was far enough ahead of the game that when he realized his bladder ached, and then remembered why, he had the time to stop at the mouth of an alley, unpen his wiggly worm and blast away in intense relief. Tad cut an enormous piece of shit to ribbons with his stream before the well ran dry. He grinned and tucked his nethers and skipped back with his empty keg to the Watgon.

Dal was not so quick, but Tad didn’t mind. If three of them were back and Traff moved to move the reins, Tad pushed off quick after Dal and met him coming up the road. He’d grab the cask and gasp encouragement to Dal and then fly back and hand off to Kal. As long as the cask was back, that was Dal’s turn done, no matter that Dal himself was struggling after. On one street, when Dal got too far behind, Tad ran half of Dal’s casks and Dal sat splat in the road with his miserable eyes, sucked dry by the rising heat. Tad hardly felt it, nor the thirst nor the hunger he knew were there, waiting. He was another boy in another world, and there was nothing but energy and speed and pulsing flows of joy that wetted everything and spat life into his bones. He could do this forever. His grin never fell.

It was over too soon. Tad did not believe, could not believe that it was already time, and blinked in confusion when he came up against the group gathered at the Watgon, gathered around the dregs. He was ready for another round, legs still itching to run, and finding Kal with his back turned and Beh’s mouth on the barrel and the angle of the sun high was a stab to his young red heart. Unready to be still, he turned and dashed a final triumphant lap, bounding in the spaces between the room bucket messes and the dried ox waste, swollen tongue scratching at the corners of his mouth, lightning live in his teeth, and his body was dry and clean, dry and clean, wonderfully dry and clean and cool despite the sun. He breathed dust today, breathed dust and lived on shit, and he was happy.

26

Cask in hand, he grabbed at the departing Dal. Dal turned, and then came the problem again—no voice to call, no voice to speak. He pressed in on Dal and Dal shied away, but he pressed in faster until his lips were almost to the boy’s ear.

“I’m sorry,” whispered Tad. “About yesterday.”

Dal looked at his feet. He seemed less bruised today, more healed. More yellow than black.

“OK? Still partners, yeah?” The strain hurt Tad’s throat.

Dal gave him a slip of a sideways look. “’s al’ight, ahr. Wa’on’s sehr fer ohn, arhm?”

Tad understood enough. His throat had no more speech to give, anyway. He patted Dal on the shoulder and nodded his head, and they went their separate ways.

 

27

Chills hit Tad halfway home, and at a quarter to go he was retching. He stumbled into a plank wall somewhere, a plank wall that stretched forever to the sky and sideways to the end of the world, and he heaved up acid. Throat on fire, but he felt better. It took the keening off the edge of the fatigue that had stabbed down deep.

The ecstasy of the Watgon was long forgot. Tad could not himself believe that he had run for nothing but a piece of the morning before. It was agony to trudge on now, to lift a foot and move it, to heft his body along, to carry the neverending weight of that water with his aching arm. Sometimes he crouched low to steady his head and carefully set down his cask in a clearing between the wastes, but it was hard each time to get back up. Memories of a dried wood and greensharp and helpless Daps flooded in and his eyes stung, and his lungs grew short, and dry sobs moved an aching chest.

With the sun growing high overhead, the streets were mostly empty. He bit hard at the inside of his cheek, and he pressed on.

 

28

Tad did not hesitate at the door. This was his home, he had only been gone a day. And he had water, he had water. He had done what he was charged to do.

He put his hand to the latch and set his shoulder and pulled, straining; sweaty palm slipping, he stumbled away and crumpled in the dust. It had not moved. Crawling back, he pushed his forehead with a groan into the door and tugged again at the latch. It did not move. He groaned again and palmed the splintery wood. It was locked.

He threw his body full against it to draw her attention, rattling the rickety thing on its hinges, again and again and again. Nothing. Was she gone? She was never gone. Tad peered into the cracks between the rough planks, but could see nothing. He slumped back, nearly losing his balance, and stared at the wood as the world spun.

The door opened, and there was Mumma large and silent, blinking at the light. Tad held the small cask of water out to her with the last of his strength, and she took it without pause. Mumma shaded her eyes with a hand and stared across the threshold at Tad. Tad blinked long and swayed, and suddenly he retched and clutched at his stomach and bent to spray acid at her feet.

Her strong warm hands pulled him in, calluses scratching at his dry skin, and they retreated together to that dark room where a lone piece of burnrock lit the day.

 

29

Tad was useless that day, and Mumma let him be. He lay huddled at Dapper’s feet in the only space uncluttered enough to hold him, sick with dizziness and fatigue and nausea. Mumma had set down half a cup of water for him to lap at as she worked, and he awkwardly set his tongue to it as he watched her put whetstone to unyielding iron. He had no thirst, but he also had no choice—the look in her eye had made that plain. He shook and did not sweat; she sweated and did not waver.

The hearth had been allowed to die, but it was no less hot. Muted orange light kissed whispers of metal across every inch of the room. Everything was sharp, everything was danger, everything was being made yet sharper still. Mumma was a slave to that glint in the dark. Tad kept an eye on her as he licked up wet and tried not to vomit. His chest throbbed and his insides were angry. Breath hurt, but it was not the blinding pain of the day before.

Sometimes closing his eyes helped still the room, but usually it only made things worse. There was nothing to focus on in that darkness, nothing but the feel of falling, falllllling, fallllllllllllllling and panic at the utter loss of rightfulness of place.

So he watched Mumma, at work with stone and blade. So he watched Dapper, sunken into his own bony mass of hair and scabs and mottled burnt skin and pale alabaster that took no blood. So he watched himself, blasted limbs and poking ribs, shivering in the heat. Sick came and trickled out beside the water. It took his breath away. He groaned and mewled and coughed face down in the dirt.

He would wake without falling asleep. The room never changed and Mumma never changed, though sometimes she switched hands. It might be the same piece of burnrock, or the third or the fifth or the tenth, Tad could never know. Light was gone from the cracks between the planks, but that could mean anything—it could be night or it could be just past suntop, it would all look the same from here.

Perhaps time could be judged in a different way. It was Two Flies past Second Waking—at least he thought it was his second waking. The two flies floating in his half-cup of water were clear enough, anyway, maybe that was enough. It was Two Flies. He carefully lapped up water between them, watched Mumma work and then he was waking again, and it was Four Flies. No, Five. He levered one out of the cup with his tongue, then another. Three was enough for now. He had no appetite, or he would have swallowed them.

Mumma was sweating from everywhere, but Tad was cold. His veins ached. He shrugged to lift the weight from his chest, but it only turned the dull pain sharp. The weight was his chest.

Wind screamed outside and rattled the walls. He picked at the rags on his breast, long fingernails scraping down as hot knives on his skin. The angry red had turned to black, and as he watched it swirled and danced and formed the center of an endless pit of night. It began to suck him down into himself. Around it, his body tingled and grew weak and long and thin. A shiver took his shoulders and ran up his neck into his mouth, where it roamed without rest and did not end. Wet struck his breastbone. He blinked and touched his nose. Sweat. He licked it from his hand.

Movement flashed at his side, he pushed his eyes in a distant panic. There was Mumma with her eyes sparked full of fire, there was Mumma with her mouth opened wide and dark. She was going to eat him, but she did not, and then he knew that it was Dapper she was after. And without looking he saw Daps behind him, rising calmly from his sunken bed of bones and hair, floating on wings too small to be seen. He smiled with his wooden teeth and radiated understanding and contempt. Mumma shrieked and rattled the rickety planks of the walls of the room, and the burnrock flickered wild.

Tad fell to a fitful sleep of Wat-witches, giant furrats, and a boy with an enormous blue head who chased him around and tried to kick him in the stones.

 

30

A start of panic and it was light, it was—burnrock orange light, and he was sha—being shaken, hands resolved on his shoulder and his side. Chest shrieked and he gave it voice, flailing with his arm to meet soft flesh and the hands went away. Settled still, his breast throbbed and his lungs fluttered.

“Taddil!” came Mumma’s voice in the near-dark. “Up ’n’ face the sun, nae.”

He gasped against the pain that rode him, shot his hand deep into his pocket for the glob of salve. It was drier than yesterday, harder. It took a strong squeeze with his thumb to pinch it in half and a razor of pressure from his fingers to spread it. Glass bit his dry cracked fingers, bit to blood and his hand buzzed. His chest warmed.

“What’s’at, Taddy?”

He could not answer. Fire cleansed his bones and he sweated, wordless, sweated, breathless, staring at a ceiling he could not see. Mumma said something beside him, lost in the roar of his ears. She reached for him, and he swatted at her hand and flopped away, arched up and flopped down and broke on the floor in a torrent of sweat. It was over. He sucked grateful breaths and was still.

“Who done ya up, littlin’?” said Mumma quietly, reaching gingerly toward his chest. He did not stop her this time. She floated her hand above the outer edge of the bruise. “Hain’t no dirt after’sall, aye?”

Tad pushed himself up and looked to his cup of water. It was…Eight Flies? Too many to count. He scooped them out and threw the brackish liquid down his throat, looked up at Mumma.

“I don’t know the man who did it,” he creaked. “But the Westwing highman fixed me up.”

He could feel her frown in the dark. “Don’ be takin’ too much,” said Mumma. “It do comes from those wit’ less’n we.”

Tad only held his hand up in response, and she hauled him to his feet. He picked his way through the piles of blades, grabbed the empty water cask from the workbench, and went out into a cool world of breaking light.

 

31

Dal was faster that day. His bruises had faded to yellow, every last one, and there was no hobble or limp to his step. When Tad tried to help he was shoved away, and Dal’s broke-toothed grin was not kind.

Mindful of the consequences of yesterday’s speed, Tad took things slower and sometimes found himself the last back to the Watgon. It was no hardship, then, to run faster, but Dal should have been matching pace so they arrived back together. Dal was having none of it. When he spotted Tad jogging toward him down the opposite street, Dal burst into a sprint; while Tad waited for his cask to be hooked on, Dal tore off like a Mud-man was after him, without even a glance at his supposed partner.

Dal pushed hard to get his cask first at the end of the route, no matter the risk of violence. He aggressively ignored Tad on his way.

Tad watched him stalk off, wondering what could have changed so swift and sudden in a day.

 

32

There were men outside when Tad reached home, one young and one with ashen hair and a patchy grey beard. The older man had a twisted mouth with craggy teeth, the younger looked out through serious eyes from a pockmarked face. Both wore gray linen bands tied tight to their upper arms, with a rough anvil and hammer sigil inscribed in tar.

They were blocking the door, and they ignored him. Tad cradled his tiny cask of water with his half-arm and considered how he might squeeze between them. Surely Mumma was home.

The older man banged roughly on the door and gestured at his partner. “Goodswoman!” said the young man. “Opens nae, ahrm? No harms’ll come ya, me word’s on’it.”

Tad waited behind the men, shadows short and sweat creeping. Was she asleep?

The older man pounded on the door again. “Goodswoman!” said the young man beside him, “Ye may’s well ah-pen up, arhm? We’ve a promise ta sees ya, ‘n’ we will stays till we’ve seens ya.”

Tad pushed his ear forward between the men and listened intently. The two were quiet as well. They smelled of piss and old sweat. Tad scratched at his scalp, wiped up a drop of sweat as it ran and stuck it to his tongue. The salve on his chest was wearing off, his body ached and the heat rose. He had had enough waiting.

The men moved not an inch as Tad squeezed between them and rapped the door with the end of his cask. “Mumma!” he shouted hoarsely, and coughed with his sore dry throat. He tried to swallow, but that made things worse. He wiped sweat from his round face and licked it from the back of his hand. “Mumma!” he shouted again, and this time it was little more than a whisper. He waited, wavering in the heat, and one of the men behind put a firm hand on his shoulder.

The door creaked and they made way as it swung slowly outward, nothing but blackness beyond with slatted light on the other side. Mumma appeared from nowhere, put her hand on Taddil’s head to guide him past her, and faced the men like stone across the sun-hot gap.

 

33

Mumma was quiet when they left. She lit a lump of burnrock but did not set to work, and after long and aimless shuffling and sorting and picking finally settled still and silent close to Dapper at the edge, staring with unseeing eyes at the metalwork of moons past. Lips moved without sound. She shifted side to side restlessly, rapped her forehead hard with knuckles and worried her palms against her cheeks. Picked at the tattered hem of her wool dress.

Tad’s tiny cask of water sat ignored on the bench as they sweated together in the dark. Mumma had blocked his space at Dapper’s feet and did not know or did not care, so he faced her from under the bench from atop a pile of iron blades. They were not yet sharp and were cool to the touch. Tad’s body screamed for water, and his chest screamed in pain. He had had no water that day. He could lie down only halfway, which was worse than sitting up full, and he had not the space to sit up full.

With the look on Mumma’s face, he dared at nothing. She was not angry, not sad, not disappointed. The hair on the back of his neck pricked up. In the dim light he could not be sure, did not want to be sure, but he felt it fill the air, press down on his lungs and squeeze his heart. That detachment, that separate broken piece of Not Mumma, had taken clear hold of her again, and where before it had driven her to action now it drove her to be still.

The life here, ensconced as it was in dark and heat and violence piled high, had been the work of the Mumma he knew. She was building something. They were building something. But now everything was being reconsidered, reordered, reprioritized in the dark of that self-proud beast. Tad was stilled by fear and could only watch and try to breathe through his dry, tight throat. Iron dug hard lines in his back. Never had he felt so abjectly powerless.

He did not know what the men had said, he did not know what Mumma had answered, he did not know what was wanted and what was wrong. He had tried to listen but first could not understand, and then had been pushed away and crossly told to tend to Dapper. Dapper had jabbered loud and happy to fill his ears. But he could not be cross with Daps. Daps had only been so happy for the rarity of the visit, and that rarity was Tad’s own fault. He slept now, that withered lump, exhausted by his momentary joy.

Mumma sat as the light faded from the cracks in the walls, and she sat as the orange light from the burnrock dimmed. Tad could finally stand his thirst no more, not with water waiting straight above, and he slid out from under the bench and with effort rose to his feet. He added another lump of burnrock to the simple metal tray, pushing it up against the orange glow of the first, then carefully wiggled loose the cork of the water cask. The first tiny swig was heaven, and he swished the water lovingly around his loose teeth and blasted gums. Cracked lips sang in pain in their pleasant way.

Mumma stood, suddenly, and Tad quickly swallowed and began gulping down the water as fast as he could drink. But she merely passed him by with a heavy rustle of knit, threw open the door to the faint afternoon light, and walked out without a word.

Tad swallowed, set down the cask and stared open-mouthed at the door as it slammed shut and rattled in the wind.

 

34

The drowned flies were carefully tracked down and shared, half to Tad and half to Daps, and a shallow dose of water was added to the cup as a lure for more. Mumma had left no food and no coin. Tad briefly considered trying to sell or trade some of the blades piled around, but had no idea who to go to. Ock dealt only in burnrock and Nikop had nothing but pox ore. Some of the blades were sharp, but even Tad’s untrained eye could see they were unfinished—no hilts. He thought briefly of trying to forage, but he knew from experience that it was a waste of time on the blasted streets of Featherwall. So he swallowed his flies and he squeezed his stomach against its grumbling and he cursed Mumma and the town and the winged man for good measure.

When his stomach settled and he got over his complaints, Tad shared a good evening with Daps. His father was cleaner these days. In part it was because Mumma gave him a regular wipedown, but mostly it was because he was off greensharp and had hardly anything in him to piss or shit. Oddly enough, with all the blades around Mumma had given up shaving Dapper. His wooly overgrowth reminded Tad of the wet and rotting forests of home.

While long dim dusk gave its light and lazy heat, they cavorted in their tiny corner of the world. Daps managed to clench a long needle in his fist, and they had epic needle swordfights where Tad alone struck and moved and occasionally narrated but Dapper was a defensive stalwart. Daps grinned incessantly from his gaunt skull and shone out such a light of pride, pride and gratefulness and such revelatory joy at each swipe of his son’s needle that Tad nearly wept from shame. They belched at each other. Tad checked the water trap at regular intervals and shared any flies equally with Daps. They played a modified version of Battlefoot and had makeshift games of Nine-head jacks using needles and lumps of burnrock.

Light fell and wind howled. The boards of the walls rattled disconcertingly, the door flapped against the latch. The burnrock had long ago gone out. Tad had thought nothing of it at the time, but now he longed desperately for its comforting glow and its smidgen of heat. It got cool and then cold and then colder still, and Tad huddled silent with Daps under a too-small pile of knits that left their legs exposed.

 

35

Tad woke in a panic to the scrape of stone on iron, awash in burnrock orange and confusion. He stared wide-eyed at Mumma working at the bench. She paid him no heed. He scrambled up over Daps and stuck his eye to a crack between the boards of the wall. Still dark.

Blinking and breathing, breathing and blinking, he turned and hugged himself in the cold. Mumma was steadfast in her whetting, as though she had never left.

She stopped, eyeing him, and wiped her brow. “Might’s well stay up, littlin’. Sun’ll up soon.”

He hefted to his feet and toddled over yawning, and Mumma ruffled his disheveled hair. Cold stickmeat awaited him, and he tore fiercely into the tough grey breakfast. It was painful to chew, but when it was gone he wanted more. He bit viciously at the insides of his cheeks and peered forlornly from the side of the workbench.

Mumma stopped her sharpening for a moment to say “No more nae, Taddy,” and in that moment he heard a low snore.

At first, he thought nothing of it. Sometimes Dapper snored, after all, a hunty-grunty sort of snarling snore. But—this had been nothing like that. This had been smooth and low, like a popfrog or a saw through wood. Tad wobbled back to Daps and put his head as near as he dared to that rancid mouth. Nothing.

A clang behind him, then silence. Mumma dropping the sharpened blade and picking another dull piece to start. And there it was again, behind him, that smooth low snore. He turned and eyed Mumma with suspicion, but her mouth was closed and set in grim determination as she whetted away once more with the stone.

Confusion gave way to a shock that nearly pitched him over. There was someone else here. Here. In the room. Tad gulped a breath and tried to keep his lungs quiet, fighting the tickle in his throat. He grabbed up the water trap and threw the dregs of water down his throat, drowned flies and all. Blood pounded against its confinement, and he was sure it would burst from his neck or his head or his still-aching chest now. Now. Now. Now? An eye pulsed uncomfortably, and the eyelid twitched.

He moved cautiously to the workbench, trying to look every which way at once. Mumma came to the end of her stroke on the edge of the blade and Tad growled in a dry rasp, “Someone’s here.” She hesitated with stone ready, head cocked and eyes narrow. Tad held up a finger.

The room was silent but for the high wail outside and the faint rattle of the walls. Mumma tensed her shoulder to move the stone, but Tad reached up and put his hand on the blade. He inhabited only his eyes, and pleaded with her to stay her stone a while. Dapper snorted in the corner. The wail keened in the streets outside.

And finally there it rose again, the delicate low serration of air piped gently through, quiet but unmistakably a snore. Tad noticed, then, a rustle of movement at his periphery, and he dared to turn his head and look. He gasped. It was a leg, a lower leg, with a bare foot that stretched out and sought a rest among the heaps of hard iron. Mouth agape, he pointed.

Mumma glanced over and strode over and kicked ungently at something. The leg retreated and the snoring stopped. She returned to the bench. “Name’s Pemsby. He’s’ere nae.” And she went back to her scrapes at the blade.

 

36

He was a shock of wild grey hair on wrinkled limbs, and his name was actually Pensly. He reeked of piss, stale drink and smoked meats. He slept and he snored, he sometimes pissed himself and he always hung around, but never did he lift a finger. He did not speak, and was not spoken to.

Waking at sun-top was his normal way, and every day he would try to leave straight off. Mumma blocked the door and shook her head, and then Pensly would lie back down and laze around until evening. He would try to leave again with dark falling outside, and this time Mumma let him. He would be gone when Tad slept and there when he awoke, snoring his gentle snore and filling up the place with a mixed smell of ale, sweat and sick.

Tad kept to his side of the room, staying between Dapper and this new drunken popfrog of a man. When he left in the morning for the Watgon, he would carefully edge around the perpetually searching limbs of that wretched sleeping lump. He wrinkled his nose against the smell, though the hint of smoked meat made his mouth wet.

The intrusion was not explained by Mumma or by the man himself. Tad whispered once the question to her, and it was answered with a grunt. He knew better than to ask twice.

They were back at whetting from sun-top to sun-down, and Mumma continued even after. Tad’s entire body ached, his chest and shoulder and arm and hand and back and feet and legs, from standing and moving and running and breathing and pressing the rock hard enough against the blade to make it sharp. He was convinced that Mumma knew when he was not using enough pressure, and she would let it pass but not a stoppage. Tad used it to take the breaks of which he was so desperately in need, watching her from his periphery as he guided the rock lightly down the long iron. When she dropped her arm from her work and turned toward him, he gritted his teeth and set his back and levered his arm down to scrape hard with the power from his legs, and she would hesitate and eye him close and then pick up her own work again.

One afternoon, the pair with the armbands came back. They knocked with a ferocity that made even Mumma jump, but this time she did not hide. She threw open the door with no pretense of hospitality, and pointed broadly at the man lounging on the floor. They seemed to recognize him. The elder of the two stayed in the doorway, the younger wrinkled his nose and came close. Pensly eyed them blandly and let the young man feel around his neck, pull up a chain, briefly inspect the medallion at the end. The man stumbled coughing to his partner, nodded to the old man, and they immediately turned and were away.

After that, when Pensly staggered bleary to his feet and headed for the door, Mumma made no move to stop him. Two days he went off into the hot sun and stayed away, but on the third he was back in mere hours. He came in drinking a bladder of something awful—just the smell made Tad retch. Mumma was a thundercloud with an arm outstretched, but Pensly waved her away and retreated to the door, where he gulped it all down and chucked the bladder into the street.

He pushed his crazed ash hair up away from his face, strode clean past Mumma and stuck an open hand out at Tad. “Pensly,” he said in his mealy way, and grinned a grin that had no teeth at all.

 

37

The last of the highman’s salve was used the morn that Mumma came back, and in days after Tad could do naught but suffer. The sun was no less hot for his bruised chest, the pace of the Watgon no less swift. The world had no care for his pain. This Tad knew and could expect, but the cruelty now was the lack of interest from his partner.

Dal would hardly look at him, and seemed if anything to run faster and push the Pigon on ahead. That first day had not been an aberration, but a harbinger of things to come. Even the yellow faded from Dal’s spindly limbs, from his long face, from his forearms and the space around his eyes. He seemed better watered and better fed, and he ran more and easier each day.

Tad struggled to keep up. The fire in his chest had dulled progressively from that first day but had not yet gone away, and the deeper the breath the sharper the sting. Running was an invitation to slat knives between his ribs, walking the simple surety of a duller ache.

He bartered with himself each morning over the balance of pain, knowing that he must keep up. Dal’s betrayal tilted the scales toward the sharp, toward needle gasps and razor sucks and eviscerating deep lungfuls of air, and even so he fell further and further behind.

Dal showed only pleasure at Tad’s struggles and Tad’s pain. He had fallen mute again and would not talk, would not stop, would not meet eyes but for a momentary flickered smile and a flash of haughty triumph. Tad had given up on any semblance of care or camaraderie, but he would have liked to know why. His back ached from the knife.

 

38

Pensly was a delight in the afternoons—at least, when Mumma let him be. He’d stumble out at sun-top and stumble back in a few hours later, breath afire and face flushed and eyes lit up with glee, whooping and spinning around and cackling unknown cackles and exhorting unknown joys.

When Mumma was feeling permissive—or when she was simply too slow to get in the way—the old goat would leap around her and her workbench, grab Tad and swing him round. He’d sway his arms and show his gums, throw Tad over his shoulder and wheel madly around the tiny stretch of room, weee-hooo-ing in delight.

Tad could not help but enjoy himself as well, despite the niggling feeling that he was being somehow disloyal to Daps, despite the frequent bumps and the crashes and falls into heaps of hoarse laughter. It was the only fun he could remember having in a good long time.

Pensly would soon tire, and set aside the boy no matter how much he poked and silently cajoled and entreated with his big round eyes for continued play. The wiry wrinkled storm of grey subsided to a gentle breeze that then moved ever so easy toward the workbench water or toward Mumma’s bottom. Tad could understand the water—he’d like some of that himself—but not the pull of Mumma’s butt. He guessed it must be a sort of joke, since Pensly always dissolved into a heap of giggles after the inevitable, violent rebuff sent him sprawling into unsharpened iron.

The man would not rise again until well past sundown, and would say not a word as he went out. Tad, done for the day and given reprieve, waited each day sleepy and screaming sore by Dapper’s feet to hear the latch work, and the door creak, and the bump and stumble and the curse. Only after would he sleep.

 

39

Before the moon was half-full again, Dal’s victory was gone. The lanky wretch showed with a bruised and bloody face, straining to hide a limp. He threw himself up on the Watgon between Tad and Kal and curled on his side there on the wood. In the near-dark little could be seen, but there was a glimmer of wet around the eyes.

As the sun peeked over the horizon, Tad glanced sidelong at Dal and saw there were no tears. Dal stared at nothing. Tad’s shoulders shivered, his neck buzzed and spids crawled through his hair. He swallowed, painfully dry. Tears rose, and grew the more he tried to push them down.

Thankfully it was a short journey to the start of the route, and the Watgon soon creaked to a halt. Tad sniffled mightily and swung down soft.

Dal was slow. He grimaced as he ran and he ran with a hobble, no weight borne or power given by his left.

Tad took the chance to take it easy. The bruise on his chest was yellowing but even so hurt bad, hurt like an ache that was everywhere at once and had no home—lest he bump his chest directly, or put a testing finger to it, and then it screamed near as strong as before. With Dal hobbling, Tad did not run and did not jog but only walked quick, and took care to keep the kegs far from his chest.

Traff was indifferent as always and held the reins with faraway eyes, but Kal got sour at the pace. He threw glares and wiped his brow ostentatiously and thrummed his fingers louder and louder and louder against the wood of the cask. At one point he started whistling, but abruptly cut off. Tad could not help but smile at that—the rules of the Watgon were tradition-bound, that he knew, and did not vary from Waterboss to Cloudgrabber to Rain Giant to whoever. Kal could get in more trouble insisting on a pace than Tad and Dal could for being laggards—so long as they were laggards together. Whistling was an overstep.

It was clear that Dal had no common cause with Tad. If their eyes chanced to meet at all, it was only a signal for Dal to grit his teeth and narrow his eyes and throw himself forward in a burst of effort. Tad had made the attempt, and he had failed. Dal was, if anything, more of an enemy for it. And Tad felt sure, as he wiped at a stream of sweat and licked it from his hand, that he would never know the reason why.

 

40

On his way home that day, Tad ran into Pensly. He had stopped a few long steps before the door for his traditional mouthful of water, and was enjoying it in silence, eyes closed. Of a sudden the latch opened. Eyes popped in panic, water swallowed too fast, Pensly came stumbling out the door and there was a tussle of movement and pressure and coughs in the dry and empty street.

Silence but for the wheezing and the heat.

“You’s ‘n ‘eavy ‘ead too, boy, ahrm?” came the reedy, gummy voice of Pensly from somewhere north of Tad’s head.

He did not know what to say, and said nothing. Pensly disentangled himself and sat there to the side. The sun was growing high and soon the shade would shrink away.

“Come on, ‘en,” said the old man, and raised his bony frame. He led with the shock of wild grey atop him, loping bent and lean away.

Tad scrambled lopsided to his feet, water cask tucked underarm, and stood looking after with longing in his eyes. He felt the pull of the door behind. He felt the weight of the water. He felt the heat of that dark room closing in and he sweated cold tides down his ribs.

Pensly saved him before Tad even knew what had happened, turning back and coming back and snatching the water from the boy’s arm and setting it down just inside the door. He pushed gently at the small of Tad’s back and went on ahead again.

Tad followed, wobbling along on light legs. After a bit down the road he thought he heard the door creak open behind him, thought he felt eyes on his back, but he steeled himself to ignorance and kept his eyes to front.

 

41

They went to what Pensly called an “owdy ‘ouse,” where no one was rowdy and it was hardly a house. The sun was high overhead when they entered but the interior was nothing but gloom, light shouting through gaps in planks to make a point of all the dust, heavy in the air. Men slept, here and there, unquietly and at odds with comfort. Sour sweat filled the nostrils. The room was hot.

Pensly scratched at his shoulder and sauntered bowlegged to the bar. The smack of hard coin on the bar brought the keep to life, over quick to grab it up. He squinted in the dusk, held it to a shaft of light.

“Reals’un, ahrm?” said Pensly. “’ood fer debts youn’ ‘n’ ol’.”

“Mmmm,” said the keep, “Fer ol’ ‘uns, some.” He tucked the coin away.

“’Nuff ‘a make’ome more?” asked Pensly.

“Ahrm,” said the keep.

“Lil’ bay-be debts,” said Pensly, cradling an invisible baby in his arms.

“Ahrm,” said the keep, with an unmirthful smile.

Pensly smacked his gums. “Mash!” he exclaimed.

“Kind?” asked the keep.

“Poha’er!” said Pensly.

The keep shook his head.

“Ansy o’her veg?” said Pensly.

Again, the keep shook his head.

“Fah-hoos?”

“Wha’?” asked the keep.

“Fah-hroos. Fah-huiss.”

The keep shrugged, blank.

“Ya knoos, eh-hels ‘n’ sich. Hays ‘n’ hai’hies,” said Pensly, contorting his gums and his lips and his wrinkled old face.

The keep pursed his lips and tapped a finger on the bar. “We’ve bush mash, roots mash, ‘n’ bloods mash. An’ spit-shit an’ ox-low b’sides.”

Pensly pursed his lips and glanced down at Tad. “No lahers ‘r ales ‘r mees?”

Shaking his head, the keep said, “Sames ev’ry o’her days, ahrm.”

The old man wagged his head, ash hair waving. “Bloos mash’r, ‘en, ahrm?”

The keep turned away and Pensly spat out, “An’ some’him fers ‘ha boy,” and the keep turned right back around with a crack in his stoic, bearded face. He rubbed at his jaw.

Pensly turned a questioning eye down to Tad, and Tad whispered, loud as he could, “Water.”

“Waher fer ‘ha boy,” passed on Pensly to the keep.

The keep cocked an eye. “This do be an’ ‘owdy ‘ouse, ahrm?”

“Ahrm,” agreed Pensly.

“Well’s ‘en,” and the keep paused, eyeballing the old man.

Pensly stared back, waiting. “’en ‘ut?” he finally asked.

“’en water’s fer tradin’, no more ‘n’ no less. Casks ‘r’ coin, nothin’ else, an’ are no’ open’d.”

“Comes, nae,” said Pensly, “’ee’s bu’ a boy.”

“Ahrm,” agreed the keep. “An’ ye’ve broughts him on yer own ta this ‘ere ‘owdy ‘ouse.”

Pensly sucked in his cheeks and widened his eyes, transforming his face into that of a gaunt, staring corpse. Tad gazed up at him.

Finally the old man let out his cheeks with a sound like a fart, and smacked his lips loudly. “Wells, ‘en! A cas’ o’ wasser i’ is! Ones fer ‘ha boy.”

“Hain’t cheap, ol’ man.”

“Yous is! So I’s won’s be, ahrm?”

“Jus’ ‘bout fulls’up ins ya debt, heresby.”

Pensly pretended to cradle a baby in his arms, rocking it gently back and forth.

“Best not lives ta see yer own age, ahrm?” grumped the keep, and went off back to get the drinks.

42

They sipped in silence. Pensly’s drink left red smears around his mouth and seemed to make his breath reek yet more of decay and death, if that were possible. He downed it with thick aaahhhs and mmmms and smacked his gums and his lips and sucked in his cheeks now and then.

Tad’s was a full-on cask from Wet God, and he drank it slow and steady from a dusty tin cup. It seemed to taste different from Waterboss’ stock in a way he could not put his finger on. There was something—bitter?—that did not agree with his tongue. The Rain Giant water at The Grimthistle’s house had its own odd tang too, but the difference was not unpleasant. In the end, though, it did not matter. It could taste of shit and he would lick the barrel clean.

Pensly made no effort at conversation, nor did Tad. The old man on occasion poked the boy with an elbow and then pretended he had not, and Tad would jab him back in the ribs and hide a smile in his drink.

Flies seemed to prefer Pensly’s decaying draught to Tad’s water, but Pensly was generous with the spoils and gave near half to Tad to devour. Tad returned the favor and evened out his own. None of it made a dent in their hollow guts, but Tad’s stomach at least seemed to have quieted; he prodded and pushed at it and enjoyed the swishing sounds it made. His belly full up with water! Who could have imagined? Even at The Grimthistle’s he did not have such excess—though The Grimthistle did have better food.

His new best friend finished his first blood mash in short order and demanded another, then moved on to bush mash and root mash and in the end to ox-low, which was a nasty mud brown and smelled like nothing Tad had ever smelled before. Even from a distance it seemed to burn his nose, and he shied away from it.

Pensly’s grin grew in direct measure to his drink, in width and length and red, raw gums, and he hung that craggy toothless face nearer and nearer to Tad. Tad breathed through his mouth and bore up.

43

Finally Pensly threw his last down his throat, upended the cup and swooped up Tad in a splutter of surprise that would have cost him a mouth of water had any been left. Strength came from some unknown place in that bony frame, a strength that Tad recognized. He was in sure hands despite the drink, despite the lurching and the spinning and the wee-hoos bounced off the planks.

They were out in the strange diffused twilight of Eastwing past sun-top, barely brighter than the ‘owdy ‘ouse had been, but Tad hardly noticed for the swoops of his stomach and the swimming of his eyes. With more space than in Mumma’s cramped room, Pensly’s play was wild and wide and strange, veering back and forth and up and down and side to side. But for his sure grip, Tad would have thought him out of control and tried to shimmy down and off to safety on the ground, but that grip never wavered and his balance never failed. So he let himself enjoy it, though his stomach tightened involuntarily at certain lurches and his dizziness swelled and swelled.

Finally the old man stopped hard with a hand on a wall, panting, and lowered Tad so he could slide to earth. Tad crouched and groaned and pushed the top of his head against the wall. His heart shook him and the world crowded jumbling into his head. He retched once and swallowed, then everything was bearable then everything was fine.

He looked up at Pensly, hovering over him. Pensly exhibited his gums, and Tad showed back his gappy teeth.

 

44

They walked long through the winding roads of Eastwing, silent in the dimming heat, and were accompanied by a few and then some and then more and then oxen and kids and women until the streets were crowded with life. Cooling winds flew from the Twinhill.

Tad did not know where the old man was going as he waved his arms and grinned with his gums and spun and weaved through the crowd. It was a suspiciously long walk, and, judging by how they went through Burnock twice and weaved this way and that in relation to the Waterbutt Dick, Tad began to suspect that he was strolling without aim. It was not something he minded, though—it was past sun-top and he was not returned, which meant nothing but a hiding and a scolding awaited him in High Wail.

Finally Pensly began to sniff the air. He twirled and waved his arms less and peered at the ramshackle walls to either side. They were in an old part of town, where the wood had long ago turned grey and now cracked and splintered and broke. The dwellings were shorter than elsewhere. Tad did not recognize the place.

They hit a patch of houses with newer wood, rough-hewn but still whole, and the old man snapped his fingers, shook his wild head of hair and beckoned for Tad to squeeze with him around an oxcart full of pox ore and past a stall selling needles and to pick his way not-so-carefully through a tribe of squealing toddlers. He stopped abruptly where the old wood began again, singed and blackened and partly devoured, and Tad bumped into him.

The boy felt himself lifted into the air and there was an awful creak and crack of lumber, opening against its will and then smashing shut.

 

45

It was a fence without a gate, such that it had to levered open each time against its will. Once through, it looked again impassable.

The narrow property was encompassed by the fence and bordered by higher fences on the other three sides. In the middle of its barren yard of dry, packed earth lay a single squat column of stone with a large hearth inset, and several misshapen stone tables sat scattered as though vomited from it. In the far corner of the yard were two poor shacks built up against the fence.

Pensly set Tad down before the stone hearth and fished out the medallion hanging around his neck. It was iron, with a rough etching of a stone furnace burned in deep.

The old man let it fall back down and gestured to the furnace before them. “Me ‘heri’ance, an’ me Da’ers ‘heri’ance, an’ ‘is Da’ers ‘heri’ance ‘e’ore ‘em. Qui’e a ‘hin’, ahrm?” He rested a foot up on it, and made a desultory slap at the stone. “Well, en, wha’s fer i’, ahrm? ‘ee’s me ‘elly ‘ull ‘n’ me ‘ips we’, leas’. More’n ‘ou ‘an says, ahrm?”

He set off for the shacks. Tad followed.

The doors both had large iron locks, rusted through and through. Pensly pulled open one with perfect ease, winking back at Tad, to reveal a privy—the sort of luxury that Tad had once known, long ago, before the ox-fart road. He wondered idly why privies were not used in Featherwall. Light came in from the back, from the gap between the top of the half-height fence and the taller fence a step back.

“Qui’e a ‘hin’, ‘iggin’ ‘his ‘ere hole,” said Pensly. He farted loudly and giggled. “Ahrm, ‘an ‘e use’ ‘hovels ‘oo,” he said, and tittered away as he lifted the board.

There was no stench, no flies. Pensly got down on his belly next to the hole and stuck his arm in, fishing around. Tad blinked. A gentle crunching and grinding came from below, and then the old man hoisted out a bucket and set it on the wood. It was piled high with—Tad peered at it in the dim light.

The smell lit his memory—dusty, earthen, faintly greasy and lightly nitric—and then it all matched, the way it piled in the bucket and the way the wood was smudged.

Pensly, watching his face, laughed. “ha’s righ’, me boy, i’s bur’rock. ‘es ‘lace ta hi’es i’, ahrm?” He rose and wiggled his butt and cracked his back and pushed past Tad and out.

They went back and forth between the furnace and the ‘privy’ again and again and again until the furnace was half-full with black burnrock, Tad tailing after and feeling useless. But then, he figured, there was nothing for it; nothing had been asked of him and he had no way of knowing what Pensly had in mind to do.

Finally the old man chucked the bucket back down the hole, let the board down into place and stepped to the very back of the privy. He reached over the half-height fence and down, grunting from his very guts as he hoisted two buckets up and over the fence, dropping them down hard on the board in front of Tad.

Tad recognized the pox ore even in the half-dark, surface scarred and pitted. Pensly smiled his lightless smile. “Ya sees, ahrm?”

Up went the ore again, barged past Tad and out, and the boy tottered curiously after.

 

46

The fire dimmed everything around, pulsing orange and hot at the center of the stone. Pensly had brought a bellows from the other small shack, and Tad had offered to work it out of a sense of guilt and a desire to be helpful—Mumma always sneered at “Sun-top Snoozies” and Tad never wanted to be accused of being one of them. The old man had been generous beyond belief, and he must be paid back.

Swallowing scalding air and black dust, sweat pouring from his face, Tad regretted that choice now. Pensly had carefully set the pox ore out in a long, narrow row directly before the bellows and then simply sat back, resting against a stone table, tongs forgotten on the ground.

Meanwhile, Tad suffered. He had seen a bellows before but never worked one, and it was not near as easy as it had seemed. The air inside did not want to move, and was heavy as an ox. To push it out, Tad had to lock his arm straight, get right up against the handle and then hop mightily up in the air like a popfrog. Each. And. Every. Damn. Ox-fart. Time. And there was no water.

Pensly did not push him like Mumma did, and hardly seemed to notice when Tad stopped to catch his breath, but that was almost worse—it made the task seem of no importance. The old man only stared into the pox ore as it went yellow and orange and in places even red or white, smiling empty with lips parted and fondling absently the stones of the table.

Tad looked back, and Pensly abruptly stood and waved for him to stop. The tongs came up. The old man advanced as Tad drifted back, stalwart as Tad was shy, and he went right up to the mouth of the furnace and reached deep in with the tongs. Tad could not see what he was doing, but he saw the hair on Pensly’s arm curl, a shriveling forest, and the heat infused Pensly’s skin and lit his eyes.

Only when he finished did he seem to feel it, dropping the tongs as he backed away and rubbing at his reddened arm. Tad rubbed his own dry hand against his half-arm, listening to the cracks sting, and felt the dull throb at his cheek and at his temple of heat sunk down within.

Pensly seemed satisfied, and Tad moved in to see what he had done. The pox ore had been covered over completely with burnrock, with the hottest red and white bits from the center of the pile.

“Wai’in, nae, ‘s all,” said Pensly, stepping over to playfully muss the boy’s hair, and then he abruptly turned away and headed for the fence. Tad took a hesitant step after. The old man did not look back, and Tad stopped and followed only with his eyes as Pensly hefted the fence aside, slipped past and dragged it back into place. Down the street apace and he was gone, gone and Tad was there.

 

47

Burnrock was not bad company from a distance. It pushed back the gloom of deep shade and gave a sheen of warmth to the rapidly cooling Eastwing afternoon.

Tad tried briefly to hop up to sit on one of the stone tables, but he could not shift his weight just so. He scrabbled for a hold with his left arm—that was not going to work. In his attempts, he noticed that the table was not stone throughout: a flat black beckoned at its center. It must be iron, he reckoned, iron like Mumma’s blackblock.

Slumping down to lean against the side of the table, he felt the rock press into his back, he wiped the cooling sweat from his face and licked it up. He stared into the furnace. His belly growled, mean.

When the salt had dried his tongue and his spine ached from the stone, Tad pushed to his feet and wandered among the tables, this way and that, swinging his arms, closer ever closer, bit by bit, to the fire. And when he was close enough to be warm but not close enough to be hot, stood staring at the glow, he noticed again the thing that Pensly had done. The hottest of the burnrock, set careful to surround the pox ore.

It was a curious thing. Mumma was always careful to avoid the burnrock as she used the heat of it, such that Tad had always thought it bad for the ore, or even dangerous to touch them together. The old man embraced it, now. Maybe Mumma didn’t want her ore dirty, and Pensly didn’t care. Maybe the ore was stubborn or the heat too low.

Tad idled over to the shacks, and he thought of going home. Surely he had done his part at the bellows, and the old man had left without a word. There was nothing to say when he would be back. Mumma would be wroth, and would be madder with each added hour.

But his thoughts did not move his feet, and he shrugged and stopped in front of the second shack. This one he had not seen, and he was curious at what lay within. He touched the rusted lock, and then he tugged at the latch and it gave. The door creaked open.

It was dim inside, dimmer than the first shack had been. The gap at the back was smaller. On the left wall he noticed bits of white, and a shelf, and he moved so he could see.

The bits of white resolved into the shape of a hand, into bones in the shape of a hand, with even the ghostly ulna trailing down. Fingers were spread wide as if to grasp, and pointed up at an angle toward a shelf.

On the shelf sat a head of iron such as Tad had never seen, a thick wood handle growing out below. It was as large as his head, he was sure. What man could lift it? It would topple Pensly to the ground.

Edging in close by the ghostly hand, Tad reached up and felt around, running his fingers over the smooth grain of the handle. It spoke of countless use, rubbed clean by calluses. Grabbing it as tight as he could, he dragged at it and tugged at it and finally levered his whole weight on it and let himself fall.

It held him up for a long moment before it began to slide, slowly but surely, toward the edge. Tad labored to bring his feet back under him, to get his legs home because it was sliding faster faster faster toward the edge and his knees were right beneath where it would fall. Finally his foot found hard and launched back and he let go of the hammer stumbling down onto his butt, swung his leg wide and thump came down the iron head where his shin had been, handle stuck up in the air. With a thud and with rumbled earth that spoke of shattered bone.

He looked up and he breathed, breathed, tracing the boltwork that held the bones with eyes that grew accustomed now to dark.

The door flew open, Tad blinked at the comparative bright, and there was Pensly laughing deep and wide and silent with his bloody red gums.

48

The head of iron did not topple Pensly, and he wielded it with a skill and an ease that belied his haggard frame. Muscles corded at impossible junctions and bent this way and that. Beneath the skin he must have been nothing but grassweave cords, grassweave if it were made of iron, if iron could bend. Tad watched him work with an awe never sparked by Mumma, and he squeezed his fingers against the metal in his hand.

Pensly had returned with a full cask of water and scrounged up two dusty tin cups, and now Tad watched with wetness on his cracked lips and a smile in between. He swirled the water in his cup and he drank it like the Grand Highmen drank sweetstalk wine and the muddy Mud-men drank blood. There was enough of this, at least, though his pitiful stomach howled.

Most of the water had been taken for quenching, but this was no surprise. Anyway the cask was more than twice the size of Tad’s sad tiny Pigon thing, and Pensly took only half to make his steam. Atop the iron block in its bed of stones, the old man hammered mercilessly at that dirty lump of pox ore and burnrock. He had carried it over with the burnrock and the burnrock ash still riding high, and had then gone back for more ash.

Tad watched it all in fascinated bemusement. Pensly was terrible at this. He clearly had not watched Mumma’s work at all. Tad tried at first to correct him, but his voice could not top the grunty breaths and the song of iron. There was nothing to do but wait and watch and smile, and let the old man’s end speak for itself. His smile grew when he thought of the monstrosity soon to be, the dirty ash-ridden lump. It would probably look like a piece of poop, and be just as useless.

The afternoon continued to dim. He paid it no mind.

 

49

The monstrosity was not a monstrosity and it did not look like a piece of poop. It was, in fact, the finest blade that Tad had ever seen—so smooth it seemed carved from the earth whole, so well balanced Tad could not tell the sides apart, and so thin at the edges that it would hardly need to be honed.

What really made his eyes pop, though, what drove into him an awe of workmanship that Tad had never felt before, was the metal itself. Midnight black and shivered through with shining silver, it was like nothing he’d ever seen. Even in the shade of the late Eastwing afternoon, those streaks glittered and danced and sang with a light only they could find.

Pensly let it lie on the stones and Tad reached out reverently to touch it. The old man swatted his hand away, and turned a soft face to the boy. “I’s ho’, me boy, s’ill ho’,” he said.

So Tad tried to clamber up onto the table from the other side, and Pensly gave him a hand. Feeling the heat from the blackblock through the soles of his bare feet, he edged around it on the stones and came to stare down at that beautiful blade. He crouched down and peered at it this way and that, gazed along its length and ran a hand above and sniffed so close he felt his nostrils burn. It smelled like other blades freshly born, only more so, of burnt air and nickel tang, of earthy soot and smoke, of acid clean and blood to come.

He had never wanted a blade before, but he wanted this one.

The dark afternoon had dimmed to eve but the burnrock burned bright still, and Pensly seemed to see the longing that gleamed in Tad’s eyes. He beckoned to the boy and turned heel, striding past the furnace into open ground.

Tad stayed by the blade, glancing from it to Pensly, Pensly to it, until the old man was halfway the shacks. He stood from his crouch and hopped down in a sprawl, rose slow and cantered over. Pensly was stopped before the privy with a goofy, grotesque grin, and winked down at Tad. The old man stank of sweat and smoke. He pulled open the door but did not enter.

“How’s ‘bou’s a blade o’ yers own, ahrm?” said Pensly.

Tad stared up at him with mouth open and tongue thick. Pensly winked and laughed and went into the shade of that first shack.

 

50

Pensly worked in dark as evening fell, smashing with a smaller hammer at orange-bright ore. Tad had been frantic at the bellows, boosting himself into the air over and over again like Jumpsy Jav, and now he waited hungry for his reward. The furnace took the edge off the chill in the air.

The street behind grew more and more lively as time passed, laughs and shouts and heavy wheels. Light flickered and long shadows strode in the spaces away from that central beacon of the furnace. Tad paid no heed. His eyes were fixed on that lump of glowing metal as it slowly took shape, heated and battered and quenched and heated and battered and quenched and scoured and ground with ash.

Mumma was waiting but Mumma could wait, and maybe Pensly could help him avoid a hiding. She cared nothing for him anyway, he knew that now, cared nothing for him or for Daps. He could be gone the full day again and the full night too, and she would only let him be because he could not help much with the whetting. Tad thought of the winged man’s tears, of the pile of Guild coins they would bring, and he smiled at the thought of paying her to eat ox shit while he and Dapper had a laugh. His teeth gleamed strong and sharp in the burnrock light, gaps hidden in the shadows.

Pensly took the iron with his tongs to another table, one where the blackblock jutted up from the rock, and carefully set it so half sat atop the block and half stuck out in the air. He raised up the enormous hammer and placed the head on the hot iron, pressed down on that head with one hand and went to work with the small hammer with the other, bending with delicate but insistent blows the metal along the block. Once it was cleanly tamped down along the curve he went at the joint with only power, leaving deftness behind, beating it thinner and thinner and then down so it stretched, down so it stretched and then broke.

The old man grinned his toothless grin, heaving the bellows in his chest, and said, “How’s ‘bou’s hoo blade o’ yers own, ahrm?” He was near a Skin-man with the thick wrinkles that cragged his face, and his eyes twinkled with mirth and fatigue. He sucked in the dark and breathed out same.

Tad only smiled a bit and waited, watched. Cracks in lips sang from salt on tongue. He looked to the iron and he waited, watched.

Pensly shut his eyes and dropped the hammer to the stones. Light ended when he closed his eyes, came back as only pain and core-deep fatigue and blind hunger. Tad recognized him and did not move. The old man raised a wavering finger and held, held, then turned and stumbled and humped away to that stubborn gateless fence.

 

51

Tad saw his first ih-eh that night, gazing out at the lively street as he waited for Pensly to return. As cold fell it was busy as Westwing in the morning, oxen lowing and cart wheels rumbling, men laughing and touting and stumbling around.

Tad was perched on a stone island so he could see over the fence. He stood swallowed in shadow, shivering but transfixed. Occasionally a lantern bobbed sedately among the sea of men, but mostly it was torches with pitch giving off roiling black smoke or long, thin iron pinchers holding glowing burnrock; some of the shops had enormous hanging braziers heavy with orange burnrock, pushing steady light through tin signs. Did they detail what was within? That made sense for some—food, drink, a bed, a pestle and mortar—but not others—a naked woman, a head with transfixing spiral eyes, what looked like two dogs hugging.

Lights danced over him, the dark wobbled around, smells of food and spice mixed with shit and vomit and his mouth watered and his belly growled hard. In the mix of shouts he could make out nothing but an occasional ahrm.

He did not at first believe his eyes when they beheld the ih-eh. At the corner of his sight a tall shadow drew his attention and pulled his head around, a wiry gangle of a man with only a slip of a robe and a hump of a pack, moving slow but sure and careful through the crowd. Behind him, though—Tad’s breath stuck in his throat. Behind him loomed the tallest man that he had ever seen, and—Tad’s mouth hung open to the night air. There was a blade stuck through the man’s head, top to bottom, hilt angled in above the forehead and tip jutting out behind the ear. He wore a similar robe to the first, and was weighed by a much larger pack, hunched forward by the burden. This terrifying apparition followed the man in front at a measured pace, serene in the bustle, in the dark and the cold. Tad watched him until he was lost from sight around the bend.

When Pensly was back, a bit less steady but a good deal merrier—and with a small cask of water and a stick of saltmeat, to boot—Tad described the monster he had seen.

Pensly grunted and turned a bit sour. “’em’s no ‘ood. Canna’ makes ‘em no righ’er ‘n’ canna’ shares ‘em no ‘okes. Eyes on’y fer ih-ah ‘r some such.”

Tad was flabbergasted and his eyes went round as the moon. “You’ve seen him before!?”

Pensly laughed and slapped Tad too hard on the shoulder. “’im? I’s no ifea. Seens pren’y, ‘hough, ins me ‘ay.”

Tad’s eyes nearly crossed at his surprise. “There’s more than one of those things?!”

Pensly showed his gums, black in the dark, put his hands on his hips and quirked his head. “Reary yer firs’ fes’bal, ‘en, ahrm? Ye’ll sees pren’y o’ ‘em soons ‘nough.”

Tad did not believe him. From his face it must have been clear, because Pensly laughed again and started for the furnace, nudging the boy with an elbow along the way.

 

52

Tad pulled the greasy meat off the stick and arranged it in two piles atop the sooty stones, but Pensly begged off and went hard back at the hammer. “Alsrea’y ha’s me sup,” he said, winking, with a drinking motion from his hand.

The old man worked with a new fervor, his sweat-soaked shock of grey hair flopping around in limp tendrils. He did not ask Tad to take another turn at the bellows but did it himself, and smashed ashes into the iron, and folded and cooled and folded and cooled and finally went to work with a yet smaller hammer.

Tad gnawed at the tough meat as he watched, chewing as long as he could before swallowing the mashed fibers with a slurp of lukewarm water, then licking from his fingers the soot and the salt and the grease. He strayed closer to the furnace as the dark wore on and the cold grew, finding angles here and there where he could watch Pensly work from the edge of the circle of heat. Wind stabbed in and the fire dimmed, driving him nearer and nearer to the orange glow. In the end he gave up trying to watch the crafting of his blades, huddling beside the mouth of the furnace.

If anything, the streets grew even more lively as the half-moon rose and frigid winds knifed down from the Twinhill. New vendors set up directly in front selling saltmeat and hot wine and things Tad had never seen nor smelt before—something wafted in that was acid and bitter but somehow wonderful, mingling with hot spices that made him sneeze and a sappy sweetness that reminded him of The Grimthistle’s candies and brought water rising in his throat. His eyes watered and his throat burned. He took a deep draught straight from the cask and rattled it around. Not much left now.

Hunched long over his labor, Pensly finally turned, pride and gladness and a mischievous glint in his eyes, hair dripping sweat and blades dripping oil, and carried the two small daggers over to Tad. He set them before the steady orange light of the burnrock.

Tad marveled at them, at the deep black and the gleaming silver that broke through it, at the perfect symmetry and the fine edges. He touched a finger to the point of each and felt the heat sear in. Put his finger to his mouth and enjoyed the richness of the oil.

Pensly raked over ash and rolled the blades in it, took them back to the table and gave them a final rinse in the quenching bath to remove the oil. Tad stretched the stiffness from his legs and toddled over to take ownership.

Though they were small—no longer than his palm—they were double-bladed and heavy, and Tad could hold only one in his hand at a time. The handle was easy to grip, fat and round, and the boy looked askance at it.

Above, Pensly smiled his gummy smile. “Ahrm. No’ ma’e fer no hirt.”

Tad frowned and looked askance at the old man.

Pensly chuckled and took up one of the small blades, stabbing and slicing the air. “’em’s ma’e fer stabbin’ ‘n’ cuttin’, no fer no bra’e ‘a bra’e figh’in. Quick ‘n’ in, quick ‘n’ broo’, quick ‘n’ ‘one. Ahrm?”

Tad eyed the blade in hand and slowly nodded. It was not meant for a proper fight, clear enough.

Pensly set the blade down and winked at Tad. “’sides, a bra’e wi’ a hirt’s a bra’e quick see’.” He held up a square of something; from the way it moved in the wind, from the color, Tad guessed it to be leather, and a moment later the pungent chemical stench made him sure.

The old man leaned in close. Tad held his breath. Pensly wrapped the leather around the upper part of Tad’s half-arm, made careful marks with his finger, with sweat and soot, and removed the leather and himself to the other side of the wide furnace mouth. “A proher bra’e do nee’s a scabbar’,” he said, and, producing a knife, began to cut into the leather.

As he worked and Tad watched, separated by the dimming burnrock light, Pensly continued: “Wha’s I hoo mea’s by ‘proher’ hissers by hneeh’. Pu’s ‘his here scabbar’ ons yer hihs an’ ye’s a prohlem—no’ bu’ ones arm, no’ bu’ a boy, bu’ a bra’e ons ya likes a man’s bra’e an’ fer alls tha worl’s ta see, ahrm?”

Tad listened only half, watching Pensly’s bony hands slice through the leather and feeling the heft of warm iron in his hand. He nodded absently because the old man seemed to expect it. The aura of warmth from the furnace was fading fast.

Pensly went on: “Bu’ yer arm cans be a goo’ thin’ hoo—e’en a man growed hoo be scared a boy wi’h no’ bu’ ones arm. Mebbe ‘scared’ haim’t righ’, bu’ mos’ll ‘ook off ‘n’ away ‘n’ won’ mows wha’ssa hoo.”

Taking a break from cutting, the old man bent the leather into a circle in the air. “Ye gots a scabbar’ like ‘his, is don’ looks ‘ike no scabbar’.” He pinched the dagger so it wouldn’t cut him, and pushed the handle at Tad. “Ye gots hoo bra’es ‘ike ‘his wit’ no hirt, ‘n’ onsry ‘ha grabsy bit hoo show—wewl, ‘ha’s tha’? Haim’t noesboby mows!”

Eyes lit and lively, he snatched up the other dagger and wrapped it in his hand opposite the first, so that only the handles showed. “’ha’s tha’?” He laughed, maw drinking in the light, skin winkling fiercely around the eyes, hair fanned out wild as it dried. “’ha’s tha’?” he asked again to no one, and giggled with abandon as he wiped at tears. “’ha’s tha’?” he asked one final time, quieting, and then answered himself: “Haim’t noesboby mows!” He winked and grinned and placed the blades down carefully at the edge of the light, patting them as he repeated, comfortingly, “Haim’t noesboby mows.”

Tad, bewildered, hungry and glad, smiled as well as he was able and poured good faith into his eyes until his head ached, pleading silently for the old man to finish the damned job. It had grown cold. He was weary of the place.

 

53

The pageantry and tumult of the streets drew little notice from Tad as he stumbled along behind Pensly, arm across his body and hand bridged over leather to touch both dagger grips. Or so he tried—he could nearly do it. The iron still felt warm to his fingers, warm against his arm.

He would have gladly taken the old man’s hand, but it was not offered, nor did Pensly seem aware of the trouble Tad had in keeping up. With his easy wiry strength, Pensly melted around or between or over each obstacle in the way, be it man or ox, cart or stall, mud high or low, and he did not look back.

Tad could imagine nothing more terrifying than being lost in that fray at that time, cold and alone among the fires of strangers. Wondrous lights and colors and scents tugged at his periphery, but it only added to his terror as he plunged recklessly after Pensly’s gangly limbs and shock of grey. Nothing could be better, nothing ever in the history of the world, than to calm his shivers against Daps under that well-known ragged wool, to hear the Watwitch keening of the wind as soft burnrock orange licked the planks, to see Mumma stolid above whetting her blades.

He slipped on oxshit and banged his head into a cart, was knocked about this way and that every time he inadvertently approached a coin purse or a hilt, was shoved roughly away from every vendor he strayed near, but still he managed to keep Pensly in sight and catch up from time to time. Gradually the crowds thinned, the streets fell dark and the sliver moon sat perched ahead as they rounded a corner.

Finally Tad felt at ease. He recognized the shapes of the houses and the meander of the road. He felt the looming curve of the wing and the shadows that flitted behind the plank walls. He knew the low groan of the wind as it slipped through it all.

 

54

Dark. Dark with edges of dim orange light above, mouth open and tongue scraping and his lungs dead. Curled up and rolled over to check Daps, Daps in the weak light looked his normal scraggly lump, and then from his chest a heave and from his mouth a gasp and weight and pain smashed at his thigh. He exhaled but could not scream, sucked down air and the weight and pain came again, hard and clear this time, and he yelled and grabbed unthinking at it.

A heavy thud zinged his babyfinger, another came quick above the knuckles and he pulled his hand back quick, bellowing, thrusting the finger into the comforting warmth of his mouth as hurt lit it bright and sizzled up into his wrist, his arm, blows landing again and again on his leg as he elbowed desperately forward, wormed and snaked and slid and willed his body forward, forward, forward by bits until his butt was under and he struggled to pull his slow legs up and curled into a ball of aching fire.

It was not the worst he had known, not the worst by far, but the source drove him to tears. Mumma stalked around the table, legs coming between him and Daps, and he hunkered his head down against the packed earth of the floor.

It was Mumma’s face that came, scrunched and snarling, and then iron plonked to the dirt and her arm came too, dragging him with ease by his arm to his feet. His leg buckled from pain, he fell back hard and banged his head on the table. Mumma screeched something above. The lightning bottled in his babyfinger and the throbbing anger of his thigh were forgot as his skull split open at the back. Tad rocked himself to comfort side-to-side. Mumma still went on above.

Suddenly her face was down to his, her hand on his half-arm. Her breath smelled like shit and he could not understand a word she said. His head had a gaping hole and his babyfinger was shattered and he could not stand, he didn’t give an ox-fart what she was going on about.

Mumma yanked at his half-arm, yanked again and pulled, and Tad’s eyes heaved themselves to look. It was his scabbard, tugging his entire shirt awkwardly across his body as Mumma pulled off the tightly fitted leather. The rough wool scratched against his arm. He looked away as the scabbard slipped off at the elbow, free where it should not have been free; he still felt his forearm.

A profound dizziness washed over him, a vertigo that made him gasp and grab at the table leg, and as Mumma held the scabbard before his face and shouted, angry, something, it coalesced into nausea that bored through his stomach and stabbed his bladder and drove deep into his bowels. He was floating there, floating bound by all constraints, and it was intolerable. Vomit came, some part of the water consumed that night, and tears stung his eyes.

Mumma did not care. Through the blurry veil of tears the leather came closer, he felt it right under his nose and there was the telltale chemical stink. She was even louder now, and he understood without wanting to.

“Ya wants ta ends up like yer Daps, do ya?! Er mebbe like ol’ Softhead Keely, ya ‘members HIM, yeah?! Keeps bringin’ home leather, Taddy, keeps muddy on at it, an’ ye’ll muddy see wha’ it gets ya!”

She smacked him hard on the side of the head then, hard with the leather and the iron inside, and was gone. Tad ducked his head under the table to watch her go, wriggling so he could see more than just her legs.

Mumma tossed his scabbard into the fire.

Tad launched himself at her, diving out and wrapping his arm around her shins, hardly noticing as his head struck the stone hearth. She had no right, she had no right. He growled and pushed with all his weight at her ankles, prepared for a heel to the face or a kick to the chest or being stomped on the bruise on his thigh.

Mumma stepped easy away from his grasp, and turned and lifted him up. With a stoic face but not ungently she carried him over and set him at the feet of his father. Tad pushed tears into his mouth; they did not stop.

He watched as she turned. There was Pensly, beyond, at the fire, and Mumma was off in stride toward him when Tad rose up and made his lunge. He tried to push to his feet but one leg would not support weight and had no power; only his torso rose up and fell, arm stretched, fingers brushing the back of Mumma’s boot. Tad wept in bitter silence for a moment and then he screamed in complaint, sobbing and gasping and dragging himself forward along the ground.

Again he was lifted and again he was returned, to lie at the feet of Dapper. He thrashed and Mumma held him down, he yelled and spat and she let him, he battered her arms and her breast and her legs and she was implacable above.

A strange chemical smell, the smell of curing leather, flooded the room, and finally Tad gasped and slowed and gave up. Spent, he laid quiet and looked out with unfocused eyes at the cluttered room. He hugged himself and sucked in snot and licked the tears from his face and hands.

Mumma went at Pensly. He was crouched before the fire, hands in his pockets and eyes on the flames, and she strode up and shoved him over.

The old man did not fight back. When he tried to crawl she kicked him, when he tried to stand she pushed him down, until he merely sat and watched her with a sober face, head wobbling ever so slightly around.

Mumma leaned over, put her face close and pushed a finger hard into Pensly’s chest. “This’s yer fault,” she grated out. “Ye’ve taked him ‘way, ye’ve keeped ‘im alls the damn’d day ans into night. Ye’ve gived ‘im muddy ox-shit leather whens I waren’t have nones in tha house. Ye’ve done poisoned me Taddy ins ‘is heart an’ ins ‘is body. Ye’re not welcomes ‘ere no more.”

Silent, Pensly fished out the medallion from around his neck, showing it without joy to Mumma.

Mumma shrugged. “What’s o’ it, old man? ‘ems no likely ta be back, nae, ares ‘ey? An’ iff’n they is, what’s o’ it? Fes’val hain’t bu’ a ten-days ‘way, soons tha moon do end. An’ after tha’, I’ll haves ‘nuff coin ta easy—easy, mind you—takes on a proper shop.”

Straightening tall, she grabbed a sharpened blade from near at hand. “So’s ya can gets out nae ons yer own, full, ors I can keep yer spir’t here ta keeps me ‘mused an’ thows yer body ta tha spids.”

Pensly rose slow, with an elegance and a dignity that Tad had never seen in him before. He held the boy’s eyes with a long, sad look, nodded one grave nod, and took himself to the door and out.

 

55

Tad, robbed of comfort, could not sleep. Tears ended, he faced the wall and listened to the rattling planks and the high wail of the wind, watching the orange light slowly fade to shadow. When the wind was quiet he heard Mumma behind, scraping at her iron. It would never be sharp enough, it would never be sharp enough for her. Daps was silent and still but his chest moved.

There was no water, and his mouth was soon dry. The only sign left of the day’s happy excess was his bladder, full; Tad did not dare to stand and move, and pissed himself where he lay. It seemed there was no split in his head, nothing broken in his fingers or his hand—there was no blood, and time took the pain. What remained was a deep-seated ache in his thigh, the same thigh and the same spot where the spear’s haft had driven home. The leg would move but little, and only with excruciating pain. Tad lifted it and tested moving it from side to side, but even then it was agony. He did not know what he would do come morning, with none of the highman’s salve.

Mumma seemed to be avoiding sleep. There would be long pauses, quiet but for an errant bump or scrape, and Tad could feel her gaze on the back of his neck. He froze every time, breath slowing to a trickle and ears straining, and after a moment the light would flicker and rise as she added more burnrock to the fire. She must have been working a good deal longer than normal. It must have been halfway through the night.

Tad’s leg quivered and shook with bouts of thumping pain that fluttered in and out as capriciously as any colorfly. Underneath it lay an ominous ache that did not flag, did not waver and did not let him move. Tensing the muscles in his thigh made him grit his teeth in agony.

 

56

He woke to a gentle shake and the whisper of Mumma’s voice in his ear: “Taddy! Taddy! Up ‘n’ face tha sun, nae!”

Tad groaned. He’d always hated that expression. Most times he was up well before that damned layabout of a sun.

Wet touched his lips and he licked at it, a trickle filled his mouth and he drank it greedily down. It was warm like the room, which would have been stifling without the drafts coming in between the planks. He pushed up on his elbow, and his leg was stiff—his thigh was tight. Mumma looked him in the eyes with concern, patted his cheek, grabbed him up under his armpits and hoisted him to his feet.

He crumpled to the ground gasping at the pain, clutching uselessly at Mumma, at the air, at the leg that sat stubbornly far away with the knee barely bent, refusing to move for the fire that gripped it.

Mumma crouched down close, peering into his eyes as she reached over and rested a hand on his thigh. The pain had burned down to an ember, a deep and sullen ache at the core of his leg. Again it was tight—not the normal sort of tightness that pulled at his knee or his hip, which he knew well from a history of twists and strains and spills, but a tightness that pushed outward from within, hard against the top of his thigh, and robbed the muscles of movement and strength.

Tad arched his back, bellowing at the top of his lungs, bright new agony sparked and crackling, reaching out to grab his leg and finding Mumma in the way. Gasping with eyes popped wide, he heaved himself up and saw a hand not his own clamped tight over his thigh, undulating open and shut with an insistence and regularity that matched his own experience of the pain—now that he saw it. He tried to pull back, pull away, but that damned hand would not let him. Wild and desperate, he struck at the arm, at the hand, at Mumma.

Suddenly the pain fell away and he collapsed; his thigh throbbed still, but was distant. At the edge of his vision was Mumma, Mumma and her pretended concern, and he wanted to bite her damned nose off.

“Gots ta push tha pains ou’, Taddy,” she said.

He growled and tried to shield his leg from her, but any movement brought fresh waves of pain crashing in. There was nothing he could do but wait, wait and watch the gaps between the planks for signs of light.

The torment came again as he knew it must, and he arched his back and whimpered and gasped, and when it was over his body shivered. Again and then again it came, and each time the leg floated higher and higher and did not settle back. The top of his head buzzed. His tongue was large in his mouth. The room shimmered and he was gone, gone down into his lungs, where he lived in fits and starts, fits and starts and thought of nothing.

Finally it died away, that world with nothing but peaks of agony and valleys of pain, and he found himself buzzing gently, tongue held throbbing dry between his teeth, legs dangling awkward down as he stared at the fire. Tad wiggled his butt in discomfort and found the iron digging uncomfortably into his bottom and the back of his thighs; he was atop one of the piles of blades—sharpened or not, he did not know. His thigh still felt likely to explode, but the tightness at that moment brought no pain.

He slid off the pile of blades to the hard-packed earth and his leg held, he took a step toward the door and it was weak and small but steady. There was a gentle push at the small of his back, and a light pat to his bottom, propelling him to the latch.

“Face tha sun, nae, Taddy,” said Mumma with unusually good humor. “At ‘em!”

Lifting the latch and pulling open the door, he hobbled out into the dark.

 

57

Using his leg as he might a driving stick or a sword tied to his hip, Tad moved slowly along under a lightening sky. He slipped once on fresh shit in the street and nearly fell, but for the most part it was too early for room buckets. The lucky janks were all still in bed.

At the first turn, his temporary truce with pain came to an end. He dragged his leg around and it twinged and gave way, gave agonizing way with a bolt of pain that took his breath away. Hardly realizing he was on the ground, he struggled for air and watched the sky with unseeing eyes. Leg pulsed, ready to explode. The dry packed earth was hard against his elbow and the stink of high mud filled his nose.

Struggling to get out of Mumma’s line of sight, Tad crawled and wormed and wriggled painfully along in the dust until the last of the ends of the bottoms of his feet were safely around the bend. There, next to a small mountain of dried ox dung, gasping as his leg threatened to burst, he thought on his plight.

Water was his charge, water at least to fill one of the pitiful tiny casks given out to the Pigon’s crew, and he did not know what he could do. Even if he could hobble his way to the Waterbutt Dick in time, he could not hold his place at the Watgon. Traff would not slow the pace, and Dal was no friend. But the rules were not forgiving, and the rules he knew: miss a day and you missed forever. Runners were not allowed back if they slipped up even once.

So if he could not meet his charge today, he could never again meet it. And today… Straightening his bad leg and planting the foot on the ground, he pushed up and scrabbled up along the worn wood of the dwelling next to him, pushing off with his palm and then straightening, rising again and again by margins until he was back up, pivoting on his stiff leg, back up with both feet on the ground.

He took a step, using the power from his good leg to rotate his hips and put his stiff leg forward, but no sooner did that sole touch the ground than he felt the familiar twinge, the leg roared with lightning and he found himself down again, gasping, gasping, gasping for air beside the same small mountain of ox dung.

Today was impossible.

Tad considered the highman—the Westwing highman, as the Eastwing one was no use—and he considered Ock, and he considered going to The Grimthistle. The highman was out—too far. Ock was fair but not the sort to take pity, and anyway he did not seem rich enough to hand out casks of water to low and high and all between. That left only The Grimthistle—not close but not far, with a history of generosity.

The sky had turned a neat grey above, and the wind off the Twinhill was still low. Tad began to drag himself forward, as walking was clearly not going to work. Where possible he avoided the shit stretched out before him in the dusty road, but he usually had little choice. It was everywhere. The leg pulsed with pain and thrummed with needles, but compared with walking it was tolerable.

Two men passed by as he wormed his way nearly to the next turn, one soft-footed but clanking, one thunking along in heavy boots. He could feel their eyes on the nape of his neck, but did not dare to meet their gaze. Tad knew from experience not to trust men of the early morn, off and away before honest eyes could judge them.

By the time he paused, the sky was a swollen purple and he was moist with sweat. At this rate, it would take hours to reach The Grimthistle’s blue door. Tad took himself to lean against a bare plank wall.

His entire front was a mess of shit, smeared over the ragged knit and smashed into each tear and gap. He felt it on his skin, and the stench filled his nostrils. Lying on his side was more tolerable. The wind was picking up, and gave a measure of relief.

Time was not of the essence. He would not run the Watgon route, which meant he had that time to reach The Grimthistle. Mumma seemed in a better mood today, so even were he late he would be alright, as long as he had his charge in hand. He could afford to take a short rest here and there—and he should, really, lest he exhaust himself along the way. He would stop here for a moment, just a moment, before pressing on.

He yawned.

 

58

Tad woke with a start to the rumble of wagon wheels, loose axles rattling in iron bonds. Neck was screaming sore and light blazed into unready eyes, he squeezed them shut in pain and licked at his dusty lips with a tongue that was sand dry, sand dry and peeled away from the roof of his mouth with a sharp sting and the taste of blood. He tried to swallow and found himself gasping, throat stuck.

Eyes cracked open against the onslaught of sun, and he gauged the angle. A groan, which in his dehydration came as a whispered cluck and a rattle in his neck. It was nearly sun-top. He had lost the morn to sleep.

Pushing up to sit, the road swam in his eyes and his pulse thudded through him, thick and heavy and violent. A few men, an occasional woman, passed by as he watched, but no more carts. It was still too early for most, too hot to leave the shade of houses until the sun passed overwing to the west, and even then it took some time to cool. Wind roared in great gusts down from the Twinhill and through the twisting streets.

The shit covering his chest had mostly dried, and what stink was left was carried away by the winds. Tad straightened his bad leg and slowly rose with his good, back propped against the wall. Holding his breath, he shifted weight onto his tight and swollen thigh.

He would remember that jolt of agony for the rest of his life—a barbed blade an ox-cart long, shoved in mid-thigh along the bone up through his hip, winding around his lower spine and then bending around to pierce his shoulder and stab into his jaw, lined with vicious acid spids that bit him deep and bled their poison in, lit with fire that scalded and charred and burned at every boiling, crackling inch along the way.

When next his senses could perceive anything but pain, he found himself back on the hard dry dirt of the road, shuddering with his head back and his mouth open to the sky. And he knew, coughing hard and bloody as his throat narrowed he knew, wheezing for air in the shit-strewn desert of High Wail he knew, that The Grimthistle was out of reach. He was defeated.

Nothing was left but to turn around and drag himself home.

 

59

Mumma had no expression at all when she opened the door, opened the door and saw her boy Taddy there. He might have been a bucket of pox ore. There was a moment, Tad staring up at her from the threshold, smeared with high mud and stinking worse than a swamp, lying in Eastwing’s afternoon shade, buffeted by winds from the Twinhill carrying sand from the streets, a moment where Mumma’s eyes grew deep and he could see, as down a well at sun-top, a flash of rage far within. It was only a moment—when he blinked it was gone, eyes flat and steady now again—but it made him gasp with joy, chest buzzing warm and heart thumping. She was in there still, she was not dead. Mumma was not dead.

She lifted him up matter-of-factly as he grinned with his failing teeth, turning his back to her breast for practicality. He was lain as ever at his father’s feet, and the shit-smeared knit was pulled up over his head, slid off his arms, and tossed with haste into the fire.

Into the fire? Tad squinted and leaned as best he could to get a better angle. Yes, there it was, smoking and shriveling at the edges, his home for more moons than he could remember—a shrine to time spent sore and bumping along the road, to his time with Daps, to restraints and new freedom, to desperate struggle and waiting and weakness and need, to strength and to death. He found his cheeks wet and his nose full, and he breathed thick through phlegm.

Mumma roughly wiped away the shit on his chest with a dry piece of linen that scratched and scraped. She said nothing but he could see the anger in her face, no matter the still, hard mask she tried to wear. He could feel it in the air like a living thing, inhabiting the silence. There was no water; he had failed his charge. She was right to be angry, and he soaked in the quiet rage and the brusque cleaning as the only signs of life and care he had seen in some time. It took him back, like he had only just made a bit of mischief and Daps was cleaning up after him outside.

 

60

Mumma did not seem to understand how these things worked. She woke him at the same early hour each morn with her damned “Up ‘n’ face tha sun, nae!”, went at his legs with her excruciating squeezes and stretches, and promptly bundled him out the door as soon as he could manage to keep his feet. He told her each day that he could bring no more water home, but she only ruffled his head, muttered something about “dark-moon talk,” and paid no heed.

Clothed in a mishmash of hastily assembled old knits, Tad no longer bothered to drag himself around the bend. He slumped just outside the door, first on one side to catch the light and then on the other side to catch the shade.

On one of those hapless morns, he came across his daggers in their leather sheath. The pain in his leg at a low ebb, Tad had slept as the sun sent its comforting light against the cold early air, only to wake sticky with sweat as mid-morning approached. With a spitless groan and the fervor of annoyance, he had heaved himself across the space of the door and down along the opposite wall to the very edge, to the deepest shade, sliding along with such vigor that he unbalanced himself at the end and toppled over, landing with his cheek to the earth.

Only the edge of the scabbard had been visible at first, slightly curled and blackened. It had been wedged in a gap between two uneven planks, and as Tad pulled it out the hilts of the daggers had knocked against the wood with two of the loudest thunks he had ever heard. Hurriedly raising himself to sit, he thrust the blades in their sheath under his bottom and sat there, uncomfortably lopsided, leg throbbing mercilessly, watching and waiting and waiting and watching and waiting for that door to open and for Mumma to come scream at him and thrash him and throw the daggers far, far away where he could never get them.

She did not appear, but Tad did not dare do anything more than hide them away again. The next day, waiting first on the other side in the sun, he could do nothing but stare over and lick his lips in anticipation, waiting anxiously for the air to warm. He could not break his normal routine, lest Mumma find him out.

When finally the time had come, he had trembled in anticipation, sweat sliding cold along his sides as he carefully, oh so carefully, extracted the sheath from its niche and sat back around with it cradled in his lap. The tiny daggers were as beautiful as he remembered, dark as pitch but glimmering with found light. The handles were dusty but had not been damaged, and the scabbard was in better shape than he could have hoped: the black on the edge had rubbed away, and overall it was only a bit curled and rather sooty, with a slightly more snug fit for the blades.

Every day after that, he had looked forward to his time with the daggers, turning them to handsomely catch the light, practicing fitting them in and slipping them out from the scabbard. As days passed and Mumma did not emerge to spoil his fun, he grew bolder and began to wear the sheathe on his half-arm, to cut the air with brave arcs and fine slashes, to chop and hack at imagined Stompers and knavish bandits.

As happy as he was to have his blades back, though, they could not distract him for long, and he hid them away again before an hour passed. The pain in his leg rose with the sun and throbbed mean like the heat, stiff and threatening to burst. Touching it didn’t help, not touching it didn’t help; massaging it sure as sky didn’t help.

Mumma had tried to make a salve but it was a poor thing, nothing but dirt mixed with a bit of yellow powder and a few drops of water. Its only effect had been to briefly cool the skin. “Sorry, Tad, me med’cines box been stole away,” she had murmured as she’d spread it on. “An’ I don’ be no highsman.”

Tad wanted to reach up and squeeze her nose until it burst. Yes, the highman! Why didn’t she go to the ox-fart highman?! He told her, each day and every hour, in no uncertain terms. “Go to the Westwing highman,” he said, loudly when he had the energy and whispered when he did not.

She would disappear now and then toward late afternoon, but never went to the highman—she was not gone long enough for that. Always she was back in short order with bare necessities: a tiny cask of water, a bit of burnrock now and then, and always a scanty margin of food, either stickmeat or bushbread or bloodpie or what they called “yellow mess.” Starved as he was, he did not appreciate all of it; the stickmeat was tough and the bushbread was tasteless and hard. Yellow mess, whatever it was, tasted best to his rough tongue.

Over the slow days his leg began to improve, in bits and drabs. He realized one day he could put weight on it, for a moment, without immediate agony and collapse. Later he could stand on it for a few moments, and then he could hobble instead of crawling, and then he could stand on it for longer and then he hobbled less. The throbbing decreased, and the feeling of pressure from within began to subside. But it had no power, and could not stand the see-saw force for whetting blades or the long standing times for anything else.

Unable to work, he had time to spend with Daps. When his leg screamed in pain he huddled up against his father, burying his head in the stout, scratchy beard and taking comfort in that familiar stink and Dapper’s joyous gibbering. When the pain ebbed, Tad made up games to play; at first it felt awkward to enjoy himself while Mumma scraped so diligently at her iron just behind, but he thought of the joy it would bring to Daps and he pushed on.

One day he twisted Dapper’s beard round and round and round and round in a big mess of a braid, longer and longer and tighter and tighter, until Daps could manage to raise his hand to touch Tad’s; then he let it go, smoothed out the matted hair, and began all over again. Another day he scraped dry dirt from the ground with his overlong fingernails, sprinkling it delicately over Dapper’s nostrils until his father sneezed—and then he did it again and again, and Dapper grinned and made a game of it by trying to blow the dust away and trying to hold in his sneezes. He played Gunny Hack Weeds with dead flies, Bandits ‘n’ Stompers with needles and one of Mumma’s leather gloves, Mad Ox with stray bits from his shirt.

Mumma said nothing. Her stern eye would rest on him from time to time, but when he met that gaze it was only empty, lost in fatigue. He offered once or twice to whet the blades in reply to that cold need, but she only waved the words away and pushed on with her stone.

Dapper filled with new life at the attention. Light shone from his enormous, protruding eyes. Where before he had muttered and whimpered, now he barked and groaned and moaned loud his keening moan. Every time Tad looked, the deep red and ash grey of Dapper’s gums and teeth showed strong through the overgrown bush of his beard. If Tad ignored him too long, Daps would grunt and paw at him until he turned to look and linger and play a game.

 

61

Tad was just getting used to this way of things when Mumma put an end to it. He crawled in, mid-morn, from his daily perch by the front door, and she was past him and off before he was even to the table, her face grim and her eyes hard. Struggling over to Dapper’s side, he discovered that she had left him nothing. He rolled this way and that on his back to distract from the pain of his leg, the growl of his belly, the tickling of a cough that called from his dry throat. It did not work and he soon stopped.

Daps slapped his awkward hand on Tad’s shoulder, and Tad took it in his own and met his tired eyes to Daps’. He huddled up against his father, gripping that sweaty, trembling hand that could not grip back

Tad woke with hand empty and sweat raised, door rattling fierce in the wind. The bright of the morning had fallen to gloom. There was a cough above, which became Mumma crouched beside, and he scratched out his own rough cough in return.

Cold tin at his lips and he spluttered as the wet hit his throat, warm though it was, panicking as his throat convulsed and air came up against the water. He spit and shuddered and hacked and huffed air out to carry the last of the moisture from his lungs.

Mumma was patient and helped him take it next at his own slow pace, and it was not until the cup was dry that her tenderness gave him pause. He rubbed at his eyes, gathering his wits, and cast his gaze about in suspicion.

“Here, Taddil,” said Mumma gently, and lowered a glass jar to hover before his face. He recognized it immediately—the stink that wafted from it, the curves of the thin glass, the pearl pink that glowed from it even in the near dark. “’ve been ta tha Highsman. Westwin’, as ye do be sayin’ alls’is time.”

Tad reached for it, and Mumma slapped his hand away. “Tonigh’, ya res’. Ons tha morrow ye’ll run.”

“The morrow?” Tad croaked, words falling away as his throat clenched. He coughed up a wad of hard phlegm, sucking on it and savoring the tang of iron and hint of salt.

“Morrow’s tha fest’val—firs’ day, ansyhow. Firs’ fi’e days’s bes’. Af’er tha’, we’ll fin’ littl’ purchase fer iron ‘r tin, blades ‘r needles.”

She set the jar carefully on the table and crouched down beside Tad. “I’s do need yer full ‘tention ‘n ‘ees nex’ days, Taddy. ‘ll does whats I can, bu’ in ‘ees crowds a runner’s good as gol’, ‘n’ that’ll be ye. Alls’is har’ work we’s been into fer dunna hows long, nae’s tha time ta makes i’ pay. I’s hads it har’ ‘n’ ye’s hads it har’, ‘n nae we’s gots ta ma’e sure it were for somethin’, arghm?”

Mumma took him gently by the shoulders and looked him in the eyes. “We’s does’t good, Taddy, we’s sell har’ ‘n’ good, ‘fore tha birthin’ moon we’s be well set in a proper shop ‘f ours own. A shop ‘f ours own, Taddy!”

She set out bushbread and yellow mess and stickmeat still warm, with not one but two small casks full of water, and they had such a feast that Tad’s gums stung from the salt and his jaw ached from chewing. There was such water that he soon had to let some go, and Mumma let him spill it out in the near corner since they would soon be leaving for a proper shop—and “Dapper do smells worse’n tha’, an’way.”

This prompted a group cleaning of Dapper, once all the food was in their bellies and more than half the water too. Mumma judiciously wetted bits of linen and dribbled drops of water on Dapper’s chest, and they rubbed away at his ghostly skin. He jabbered and slobbered, happy as they worked, snorting and barking and spraying flecks of spit. Dirt and old sweat balled up and sloughed off as a gummy residue.

When they turned him, Tad winced at the sight of Dapper’s back though he had seen it any number of times before. Angry mottled skin covered larges swathes of his lower back, his shoulders, his lower butt and upper thigh, even down at his heels and the backs of his feet, and Tad remembered the glowing iron and unearthly screams that had been a constant nightly companion early on the road. Daps did not seem bothered by it now; he kept up his nonsense patter as Tad gently and Mumma roughly wiped at the burns and the sores and the grimy skin between.

When they finished, Mumma brought out three more skewers of stickmeat that she’d been secreting away in the low-burning furnace. They were slightly charred, tough and warm, and they tasted wonderful even though they were unsalted. Tad’s belly gurgled and he burped and Mumma laughed and ruffled his hair.

Tad fed Dapper’s skewer to him bit by bit, pulling the meat off with his fingers, grinning as the warm tongue slurped up and around and tickled. When Daps breathed out it smelled like death, but tonight Tad did not care and he did not shy away.

62

Tad’s leg lay stretched in the sun, pleasantly warm as the rest of him shivered in the early morning cold. He scooted down to put more of his body in the light, but somehow it moved with him. His leg was warm and getting warmer, and the rest of him was shivering cold. He looked up at the sky and saw only stars and the birthing moon. His leg was hot now, hot and getting hotter. Sweat stood on his forehead and ran from his chest. He shivered and his teeth chattered. His body shook.

Tad woke staring up at Mumma, shuddering and soaked with sweat. His trousers were off and his leg was on fire. He gasped and he blinked, but he knew what this was. He left his leg alone, wiped the sweat from his face and sucked it from his fingers, biting down into flesh when the pain grew too sharp to bear.

For an eternity he breathed soft and slow so Mumma couldn’t hear, Mumma leering above half in dark, and he held himself still as the flesh melted from his leg, the bone charred and cracked, the packed earth reached up to enrobe in quenching cool. When it was over he shivered a deep breath and pushed weakly up to stand. Mumma offered a hand, but he ignored it. He knew his leg would hold now, would hold full and without pain, and it did.

Tad licked at the sweat on his forearm, and Mumma poured out water for him from the cask.

“Up ‘n’ face tha sun, nae!” she said, smiling with thin lips as she handed him the tin cup.

He drank it down in three short gulps and coughed and said, “Where to?”

Tad was already tensing his shoulders for the load, but Mumma did not take up her blades. What found its way into her hand instead was the old Waterboss cask, tinier still than the small casks she had bought last night.

She crouched and looked him in the eyes. “There’ll be ‘nuff sun ‘fore tha fest’val ta goes fer wat’r. I dids say if’n we sells har’ ‘n’ good ‘en we’ll have no worries comes tha birthin’ moon, ‘en tha’s true. But long’s an if’s an if, we’s needs ta stick ta clouds. Wat’rs dear’s sky, arghm? So le’s turn somes o’ this ‘ere goo ta wat’r ta pays fer it ‘n’ us.”

With that, and without breakfast, Tad found the cask in his hand and himself out the door, facing the dark streets of pre-dawn Eastwing.

 

63

The sun had not yet cracked the edge of the world when Tad arrived at The Grimthistle’s peacock door. The latch gave easy and he pulled it open as he had a stingbug’s nest of times before—and stopped, staring.

A line of ragged young boys and girls, the youngest younger than Tad and the oldest of an age with Dal, stretched from just inside the door all the way up the stairs and out of sight. A boy a head taller covered the last of the steps and pushed past and out with an uneven, unsteady gait, clipping Tad along the way without so much as a look back.

The little girl at the very back, a wisp of a thing hardly bigger than Marsa, scowled at him in the burnrock light, squirted past him to the door and roughly banged it against his backside, again and again, until Tad had moved himself inside and the latch was once more in place.

Licking cracked lips, he surveyed the room, took a step toward the stairs, and suddenly found himself lying on the floor with a deep ache in his crotch, legs reflexively curling up against his chest as he groaned.

The tiny girl was perched over him like a little bird, fists on hips as she stuck her round dirt-smeared face down into his, her greasy, stringy hair chopped uneven and her breath a nightmare stink. “Lin’s ‘r lin’s ‘n’ nawt sa’GES’sons, lit’l Krilly ‘Up. Nah caht-sies, arhm? T’cks i’ OFF nex, aye.” She produced a tiny dagger from somewhere, smaller yet than Tad’s own midnight blades, and waved it around wildly over him.

The ache had spread into his guts, and Tad stayed down, curling and cowering and groaning, doing his best to show submission in the hopes that she would go away before she stabbed him in the eye.

She was abruptly pushed aside, a foot came hard into his knees, wavered, then came back again for a mild kick and the shadow of a body stepped over him. The bite of the latch, frigid air from outside.

The girl stepped back in front, glaring down. The dagger was gone now and she moved along as the line moved, but kept one eye on Tad, arms folded.

Tad pushed himself up to sit, noticed that a new small boy had joined the line behind him, and scooted over behind the girl to keep his place. Clearly, there would be no cuts. He would have to wait his turn.

Sullen boys and girls clomped down the stairs at intervals, and Tad held his breath each time one wafted past. The stench around him was bad enough as it was, old sweat and new piss, and he thought the tiny girl in front might have shit herself. Many were better dressed than he; their rags had greater semblance of form, and fewer holes.

The room was grey with dawn by the time he reached the bottom step, and heat rose and sunlight burned through cracks and chinks by the time he was halfway up the stairs. Still the line stayed constant, filling in at the back as he advanced as though it had been scheduled. Perhaps it had.

The wisp of a girl on the step above gave him sudden, suspicious glances and jabbed back with her elbows now and then. If Tad flinched back, he got a punch to the kidney from the boy behind, and if he swayed forward in response he got another elbow to the gut. Every time the line moved, he got one or the other or both, for being too eager or too slow or simply too unsteady. The salve on his leg made him antsy, but it also made these blows much easier to bear.

Finally he reached the landing of the second floor, where only a short line was left and he could watch The Grimthistle work. He was sat at his usual table, lit by the usual brazier, with Resla standing beside him. She presided over a stack of what looked to be thin grassweave squares, piled high atop her chair.

The Grimthistle would consult a linen scroll, whisper carefully into a child’s ear, match eyes for a brief but intense moment, then take a grassweave square from Resla and hand it over. The square would be carefully rolled or folded and tucked away, and then the child would be off down the stairs. The Grimthistle dipped a finger into a box of melted wax resting on the brazier, smeared a mark onto the linen and motioned for the next child.

In the end, Tad finally did get to cut the line. As his turn drew near The Grimthistle spotted him and paused, giving him a long look. The child at the head of the line started for the table, but The Grimthistle stopped him with a gesture and leaned over to murmur something to Resla. Her face darkened and she shot a scowl at Tad, but promptly stalked over, grabbed his hand and pulled him over to sit opposite her father. Tad could feel eyes burning into his back.

“Goodman Taddil,” said The Grimthistle, dark eyes searching, “why have you come?”

“Wa—” started Tad, hoarsely, stopped by phlegm. He coughed and said again, “Water.”

The Grimthistle motioned away into the dark, and suddenly Ulya was there with a tin cup of water. Tad drank it straight away.

“I am happy to give you water, goodman Taddil, on any other than a festival week. Or stew, or shelter or talk. But you must not come here during a festival week. You should not have come here today, but perhaps you did not know. Now you know. If you come tomorrow, you will be turned away with nothing, even if you are foolish enough to stand the line.”

Ulya refilled the cup and Tad drank it down again before replying. “I…don’t mean this water,” he said. “Not for me. I need a cask. A cask of water for Mumma and Dapper.”

The Grimthistle stroked thoughtfully at his cheek and stared past Tad for a long moment. “Ah, yes. It is too early to be finished. You have committed the sin of being a young boy—late, or ill—and now you are done.”

Tad did not even nod. He did not see the need.

The Grimthistle wrapped him in his big brown eyes, sympathy showing with no spark of contempt. “I will give you what you ask, but only today, because only today shall it incur no debt.”

He motioned to Ulya, and she slid away into shadow.

The Grimthistle continued: “You have taken your morning to come to me, and you have come expecting your charge can be met. So it shall be, today, to keep faith. There shall be no debt. But what I have said holds: if you come again tomorrow, you will be turned away with nothing. Nothing. So be forewarned.”

“I’ll pay you back,” said Tad. “Give me casks on debt and I—”

“You will take no debt from me. Not now.”

Tad’s mouth was open, twitching to speak, but The Grimthistle leaned in with his hand clamped to the edge of the table, unblinking, and Tad could not find his voice.

Motion and a thunk on the table and there was Ulya parting the dark, and a keg of water so large it blocked all before.

Tad looked up dumbly at the teenaged girl, then peered around with wide eyes at Resla, who smirked, and The Grimthistle, who guffawed.

“Can you carry it?” asked The Grimthistle with a mocking smile.

Tad stood and his chair toppled behind him. Leaving his small empty cask on the table, he grasped the keg and twisted it down against his hip. It was heavy and awkward, but it held. His palm was sweaty but the wood was rough. He threw his half-arm out to balance the weight.

The Grimthistle licked his lips, and his eyes were mean. “Good,” he said, “then go. And do not return until the festival is done.”

64

Mumma must have laid the salve on thick. It lasted his journey home, through his meager meal, and did not give out until he hoisted up the heavy, clanking grassweave bag for the larger part of his day.

Strength stuttered and then gave out full, and Tad stumbled down with the blades beside him. It was hard even to breathe, the bones of his chest were so heavy. He pushed down against the world so he could rise, but the world did not hold, it wobbled and spun to his touch, and he could not find an up for standing. His legs were mealy. The walls could not decide where to stand. Even Mumma, stalwart Mumma, was near then far, far then near, and spoke a noise of words without moving her lips. He retched, pressed his forehead to the cool floor, retched and threw up his bushbread and water and groaned.

Hands took him from comfort and stretched him back along the hard earth floor. He tried to curl up into himself but was not allowed, hands and then strength and then weight pushed him flat out on the ground, where the ceiling swirled sickeningly above and it was hard to breathe and his leg squeezed from the inside.

Bottom grew cool and linen pushed oddly smooth along his thigh, slick, and the smell, vomit and oxshit and greensharp and saltmeat as one, the smell mixed in and he knew.

It was no surprise when his leg caught fire.

 

65

When it was over Tad bounded up cool with sweat, burning with energy, eyes roving for direction. Mumma took him by the arm and squatted to meet his gaze. “Ye runs ‘head an’ sells nae, arghm? Any punter wit’ a need’ll do, an’ they’ll be plenty ‘nuff—ye’ll sees. Don’ range too far jus’ nae, arghm? I’s out soon’s well, close ta tha fest’val’s I can get ‘long tha main way Ye’ll knows tha main way easy ‘nuff.”

She slung the large grassweave bag over his shoulder. With the salve, he stood the weight. “Sells ‘ese an’ finds me fer more, arghm? Price’s twennie, bit o’ hagglin’s awright bu’ noes lowr’n fif’een, arghm? Guil’ coin ’r Feath’rwall only.”

He made no reply, panting to go, and she pushed him gently toward the door with “Sells an’ sells an’ tha rains’ll come!” Dapper gibbered an accompanying crescendo.

Tad humped around the table with his awkward load.

 

66

Not sure which way to go and not much caring, Tad ran just to run, ran to vent the intense energy that burned like a sun in his gut, and he found his feet pointing him toward Burnock. The swords swayed heavy and bumped with bruising weight against his butt and thigh; he switched for a while to carrying them as a bundle under his arm, but even with the salve his shoulder and bicep could not keep it up for long.

The path to Burnock ran a gentle diagonal across Eastwing, and as he worked slowly toward the center the streets quickly grew thick with people, so much so that Tad was forced to walk—no matter how he cut and juked and spun and weaved, the spaces were not large enough to shimmy through, especially with his precious unwieldy bag. And though it made him grit his teeth and flex his knees and his insides felt like a coiled snake tensed to strike, he remembered his mission and waded into the crowd, forward ever forward, instead of retreating to the open to run.

The crowd grew thicker and thicker but he pressed on, clutching the bag to his chest, ready to scream from the stifle of bodies and the greasy stink of ancient sweat, ready to push his way out and run free before his blood boiled from the energy in his keening bladder. He panted. He savaged the inside of his cheek. And he moved forward, ever forward, through legs and past jostling hips and around the seats of shit-smeared trousers. There was a funny smell to the air, a smell that reminded him of vomited sweets, and flies buzzed in greater numbers than they should.

A roar erupted and he found himself low in a surging tide, buffeted by giants who lunged to the front into any space that would allow. Tad hugged the blades tight and pushed them aggressively forward, poking hard and sharp to make space so he could breathe. Feet caught him in the legs, knees in the back and elbows to the shoulders and head, and he found himself yelling, unheard, churning desperately ahead into any gap that opened, head lowered and body wrapped small around the precious grassweave bag.

A crack of daylight opened up, forward to the right, and Tad plunged through the bodies toward it, butting behinds and kneeing calves and stepping on feet until finally his head broke through to squint in sun, and he wildly swung his body to and fro to free it from the entangling crowd.

Not ten paces ahead, two men were stripping themselves bare in the middle of the street as spectators raged around. Trousers at ankles, they tugged off knits and leather shirts, leather armbands. They wriggled out of boots, wiggly worms flopping, and stood utterly naked in the hot dust. The one with his back to Tad had the hairiest butt that Tad had ever seen, hairs more numerous and tangled than even the sweetroot crop at its best, with that black forest slowly thinning as it crawled up the spine. He could not help but stare.

Some kind of Stomper in a white knit cap strode out into the gap; no one paid him any heed as he collected the clothes and disappeared back into the crowd. The spectators, barely confined to some invisible line, heaved around and made a deafening noise. The naked men stretched and preened and stared each other down. Sun poured in.

A thin, taller man with some age to his face—no Stomper he—emerged into the circle, a white knit cap on his head, and approached the two men, gesturing for quiet. The crowd grew only more raucous. The thin man shouted something at the waiting nudes, but there was no reaction. He pointed to the ground before each man and at this they were quick, snatching up simple iron swords. He pointed to his eyes, and they offered the base of the flat of the blade for his inspection.

Seeming satisfied, the thin man held up both his hands, palms facing outward. The crowd quieted ever so slightly. Hairs rose on Tad’s neck.

Hands came together in a single soundless clap and the two men reached out to touch blades to a collective roar and a push from behind that nearly knocked Tad to the ground.

The man on the far side stepped back, setting his legs wide, but the nearer pushed forward in a single attacking arc—blade touched blade and pushed past blade and drove deep into the arm.

There was a long, bewildered moment, and then the sword fell noiselessly from the other’s grasp. The nearer man yanked the blade out in a spray of blood and hacked at the neck; it too sprayed blood and then the farther man was down. Hairy Butt was champion.

Stabbing his sword into the ground, the man turned and raised his arms, facing this way and that, waving the crowd into a frenzy. His hairy chest, bearded face, bald pate, all were awash in blood, blood that glistened as it mixed with sweat and drank in sun, and he grinned with jagged teeth, beat-up potato of a nose crinkling.

The crowd could not decide. There had been near-silence at the shock of that quick first strike, scattered cheers at the grim finish, and a roar as the man fell and died. But as Hairy Butt exalted came jeers, and boos, and a strange throaty hewwwww cry that Tad had never heard before. It all mixed into a muted grumble that was uneasy, unfulfilled.

Hairy Butt seemed to feel it; the light in his eyes died, the grin faded, he lowered his arms and stood glancing this way and that, edging over to put one hand on the hilt of his blade.

Finally the older of the men with the white knit cap strode out into the gap, and at his appearance Hairy Butt was reinvigorated and the crowd came to life—half cheering, half jeering, all screaming.

The older man advanced slowly, pausing several times to try to quiet the crowd, to no avail. Hairy Butt waited, triumphant, tiny belly jutting out.

“Rool brekker!” screamed somewhere to Tad’s left, then behind, then scattered all around.

The older man stopped in front of Hairy Butt. He wiped sweat from his cheek and scratched at his white wool cap, and squinted at the naked man before him. Hairy Butt’s smile began to fade.

The Stomper burst from the crowd behind Hairy Butt and wrapped his meaty arms around the neck, twisting the man around and throwing him down into the dust face-first. As he stepped back the older man came in, wrenching the abandoned sword from the earth and striking at the back of the neck.

Hairy Butt pushed up onto his knees, steadying himself with a hand, as the older man stepped around. Blood trickled over his shoulders, down his back.

A weak hand came up to defend, too late, as the sword came driven by both arms—like he was beating the beans from dried podleaf, Tad thought. It cut through the fingers and continued halfway through the neck, where it stuck. Hairy Butt pawed at it for a moment with the palm of his wounded, bloody hand, mouth working and eyes confused.

The Stomper kicked him to the ground, blade stuck in, and the crowd roared louder than anything Tad had ever heard. The older man stepped back, hands clasped behind, watching. The Stomper yanked out the sword and blood sprayed over him and misted through the air.

Paying no heed, he hacked away at the neck, again and again and again, until finally, with a satisfied grin, he speared the head with the sword and raised it high. He shouted something that could not be heard, and the crowd pulsed wild. Tad squatted and hunched forward to avoid the random fists and elbows being thrown around behind him.

“Rool brekker!” they shouted above, “Rool brekker!”

With a strong two-handed swing of the blade, the Stomper sent the head arcing away into the crowd, and the audience roared their approval and then slowly quieted as the Stomper wiped blood from his face and began to drag the corpses out of the circle feet-first. The older man, white cap splattered with red, sun shining bright on him, took the sword from the Stomper and walked away into the crowd.

Tad realized with a start that the Stomper was dragging the bodies directly toward him, pulling one several paces forward and then going back for the other. Was he expected to make way? Glancing hurriedly around, he could see nowhere to go but forward, and that did not seem like a good idea. But—

Elbow bumped and slid across greasy, sweaty hair, and his brain stopped, fixated. It did not fit. Hair that low, and clearly head hair, and clearly the bump of a head, and he was down squatting. It did not fit.

He looked right, and really looked, and squinted and blinked, and blinked again. He could not understand what he was looking at. There was hair—head hair—and legs and arms and naked flesh of all sorts, and red and black and flies and hands and feet, all in a heaping puzzle.

The Stomper, stopped just in front, hoisted the headless Hairy Butt from under the armpits, giving Tad a full view, then spun the body around and flung it at the pile of corpses.

At his periphery, a collective sway, an instinctive recoil. Tad stayed put, on his haunches, watching the body flop limp against the pile and slide slowly down. The Stomper grimaced at it, sweating, chest heaving in the heat. Face and chest were smeared with blood, his cap more red than white.

After a moment’s hesitation, the Stomper dragged the other body forward and dropped it atop Hairy Butt.

Tad stared at the pile of flesh, at the blood slowly dripping here and there, at the open wounds and festering sores and rashes of pimples and hair. His head buzzed, he shivered. He had seen piles of headless chickens before, and once a pile of bled-out hogs.

His attention was pulled by the older man, fresh in a new white cap as he stalked out into the center of the circle at a measured, ceremonial pace, holding high a large wooden box marked on all sides, in tar, with a two-headed, four-armed stickman.

The men around grew as quiet as they were likely to get, scattered whispers and chortles and the occasional shout. Shadows crept away as sun-top neared. Wind fell.

Straddling the box, the man in the white hat dove deep in with both arms, digging around and around, gazing around and around and then closing his eyes, face to the sun, looking how Mumma did when she rapped her forehead with her knuckles. The crowd grew quieter still, until Tad could hear the clink of stones inside the box, stone against stone and stone against wood, a river of stones swirling around as the man milled his arms. Sweat dripped from his nose and he forgot to catch it. Breath loud, heart thudded.

Crinkling his eyes and throwing back his head with a gaping mouth, the man pulled out two large flat stones and showed them wide to a waiting crowd, an expectant crowd, a crowd that to a man leaned forward and poked heads through gaps and squinted through sweat and sun at the symbols writ. Tad waddled a few steps forward, craning his neck, and he saw—a sitting man, a cloud, a bird on one, and a running man, the sun, a furrat on the other.

As the white-cap man slowly turned them around, around, around for all to see, springs of movement welled up within the crowd, men bobbing around and elbowing and moving one way or another even though there was no space to move. Five—no, six—men stumbled out into the ring, eyeing one another appraisingly as they emerged.

“Melee!” came a shout, to approving laughter.

Most of the men carried swords but two did not, and the weight of Tad’s burden tugged at his arm. He dropped it, hastily untied the bag and withdrew a blade.

Across the road, one of the men was already pushing his way back into the crowd, and the white-cap man moved toward the next.

Awkwardly thrusting the sword through and hooking his elbow into the grassweave handle, Tad rushed into the middle of the circle, dumping the bag down and thrusting the iron blade high.

“Swords! Twenty each for swords!” he shouted as best he could with a dry throat, sun full and fierce as he shed sweat and peered around the circle. “Twenty for swords!” he shouted again.

“Ta boy wan’s in!” followed by a wave of laughter.

Tad scanned the men around the circle and waved the sword high. He could feel that it was heavy, but he did not feel fatigue.

Another boy, smaller than Tad, squirted out from the audience, sword in hand, and then another, tall and skinny with a pockmarked face, carrying a leather-bound bundle of iron blades.

“Eigh’een!” shouted the small one.

“Seben’een!” shouted the taller one.

“Fifteen!” screamed Tad, shaking the blade furiously in the air and jumping up and down. “Fifteen!”

One of the men without a blade motioned to Tad, and Tad hurriedly scooped up his bag and humped his way over.

He was too slow for his competitors, who ran over and tried to push their own wares into the man’s hand, shouting “Fif’een!” “Fi’een!” “Four’een!” “Tha’een!” The man shoved the taller boy away and brushed the smaller to the side, holding out a hand to take the sword from Tad as he approached.

“Fif’een’s fair,” he said, hefting the blade in his hand and running the edge of the blade across his palm. It opened the skin, slightly, and he grimaced and spat on the wound. Hand went to his belt, to the leather purse on his belt, and Tad licked his lips and waited, watching at his periphery for the return of his competition.

The hand came back empty. The man was frowning down at the hilt. He turned over the sword to check the other side. “Wher’s tha mark?” he asked.

Tad could only stare up at him, squinting hard as the sun blazed down.

“Wher’s the mark?”

Tad opened his mouth, and breathed a heavy breath, and could find nothing to say.

“Boy sellin’ blades ‘out no mark,” said the man, and Tad looked over to find the white-cap man, standing, palm outstretched.

The white-cap man said nothing, only insistently stuck out his palm once more.

“Boy’s blades hain’t no mark,” said Tad’s customer.

“Then don’t buy,” said the white-cap man, motioning with his hand. “Give over the stone.”

A large, flat rock changed hands, and the customer, black beard dripping sweat, pushed the hilt back at Tad. “E’ve a mind ta keeps it, ta tech ya, bu’ it don’ have no use.”

Tad stared at it, blinking.

“Takes it,” growled the man.

Tad did not.

The blade hit the dirt with a dull thud.

“Clouds don’t match,” said the white-cap man. “Yours a rain cloud.”

Without a word, Tad’s customer turned and pushed back into the crowd. Tad squinted up at the white-cap man, and the man met his look with a professional eye and then gestured above Tad’s head.

A moment of overpowering stench, like having his face shoved in the open neck of a maggoty bled-out sow, and he found himself up in the air with his arm pinned useless at his side. Sucking in air, he gagged.

He was wheeled around and hoisted toward the crowd.

“Wait!” he croaked. “Wait!”

He was stopped and held, feet dangling. “My swords,” he said, “I need my swords.”

“Swor’s hain’t no mark,” said low and hot at his neck. “Bes’ ya learn.”

With that he was driven forward through the tight crowd, chest and belly and legs used as a shield to absorb the angry elbows and the shoving hands and the sweat from heads rubbed against. At the end of the gauntlet he was tossed to the hard earth, and pushed himself over.

It was the Stomper, wearing a fresh white cap. “Ya’ll gets ya-self killt sellin’ ‘em swor’s. An’ no sellin’ i‘side tha circle.”

“The other boys did!” said Tad.

“Onsly ‘cause ya dids firs’. I’s won’ ha’ sich rool-brekkers ins me circle. Tries sellin’ roun’s here ‘gain an’ ya’ll gets worse’n ‘his.”

He turned and was absorbed into the wall of men, leaving Tad alone under the high sun.

 

67

Tad went back for the swords, churning his legs to push through the scrum, dinking through gaps and diving between legs. They were gone, even the dropped blade was gone, with no sign left behind.

The two men that remained at the center were nearly nude, shuffling off the last of their clothes— two skinny, hairy men with beards that swallowed sunken faces, reminding him of Daps with their protruding bones and long, skinny arms. They hardly looked fit to hold a sword.

Tad had seen enough slaughter for the day, and turned back. It was not a sound choice. The match started as he reached the middle of the crowd, clangs and bites of metal calling from behind, and the men pushed ever closer, ever tighter, ever nearer from the outside to catch a glimpse and spy blood spilled.

Caught underfoot, he had to give up on going forward and simply try to keep enough space to breathe. A knee caught him in the gut, a boot in the shin, a foot stomped down on his toes and he fell forward into the sea of seething legs, arm up and waving and wildly grabbing at anything that would hold.

It was that arm, that hand, that saved him, fingers hooking into a stout knit shirt somewhere above, and he hung there, trying to move his feet under him, struggling to breathe and more weight and more weight and more weight pushed in, gasping and kicking as somewhere behind the sounds of iron died and there was a final heaving pressure that squashed his face and his chest, a long and frenzied push of weight and sound that broke his ears and stole the last of the air from his lungs.

And then it let up, and space appeared, and he sucked air and scrambled through the gaps and out.

He took a moment to palm the sweat from his face and lick it up, and it was a balm to his stinging tongue unlessened by the taste of shit and mud. He caught up on hoarse breaths through a rough throat and hung his head low against the sun. There was no shade.

Not two cart-lengths ahead was another scrum, men clustered and pushing, and if he held his breath he could hear the clash of iron wend through the noise of the crowd. A tall pimple-faced boy hung around at the margins, waving water casks in his hands; he was obviously shouting, but seemed to make not a sound—only the raucous noise of the gathered men poured from his lips. Tad knew the tar sigil painted on those casks: Wet God. There were no takers.

With no goods to sell, there was nothing to do but go back. Mumma would be somewhere along the main way, and this was clearly the main way, so he would have liked to head straight down—but it was impassable. Men were backed up all the way to the houses that lined the street, squashed hard into the planks. Going back down the Burnock road was possible, but pointless—he needed to stay as close to the main way as he could.

The side streets, the twisting narrow alleys that mazed the place, were the only escape, and so he headed off down the nearest one, past the cluster of food stalls, past sickly thin women with meager tits bared to the world, past men offering tiny bulbs of linen and thin grassweave envelopes, past heaps of blades for sale and touts trying to yell over the noise.

There was even a Guild table set up, with proper Stompers to either side, coins stacked tantalizingly high. Homes were opened for rest, for a fee, and men showed off wooden cards and proper sets for Gunny Hack Weeds, Mad Ox and games he’d never seen before. Takers were few, no more than a handful compared to the hordes at his back.

There were more in the alleys, doing strange things: sticking needles in their arms, cooking tiny things on tiny dungfires, sucking things up nose and mouth and jabbing their fingers in their ears or on their eyeballs or up their ass. One shook and gibbered on the ground, in a pool of liquid shit. Tad wondered if he had the same sickness as Daps.

The thin women were in the alleys, too, now with their bottoms off as well, doing odd things with men’s wiggly worms—which were grotesquely swollen, no longer wiggly at all. Some men grabbed women’s naked breasts or butts, and grinned or leered with strange faces. Tad was reminded of Pensly’s odd game with Mumma. He hurried on.

A small crowd lay ahead, and Tad poked his head around to see the object of their attention. It was an old man with severed heads on his arms, hands stuck up through the necks and jutting out the mouths, fingers mocking lips as he spoke for each. Blood dripped from his elbows and covered his quivering paunch, stained his long white beard. During a lull in the crowd noise, Tad heard one quick exchange:

“I’s enjoysin’ tha fest’val, yeah, but I’s done caught some melody,” said one head.

“Oy? How’s ‘at?” said the other.

“I’s up ‘n los’ a heap o’ weight, quick’s a mid-summa rain. Oy!”

A handful of men laughed, one clapped, and a couple left. Tad went with them.

The street widened and bent back toward the main way, but as he turned the corner it abruptly reversed and narrowed, leading well away to the left. There was an alley, but it ended at the back of a wood house wall. Tad scratched at his itchy scalp and pressed on.

68

Mumma lit her eager eyes upon him as he stumbled on the blanket and crashed down on her pile of blades. The salve was well and truly gone now, sun several hours past its peak, and he had no voice to give.

She saw it. She saw it, and gave heed. Water came, and then even stickmeat, and then stench and slick against his leg as the ointment was spread again, the ointment though he pushed at her and tried to strike it away. In the end there was nothing to do but reach back and grab at the iron, the blessedly cool iron, until he had been seared clean, and even then she pried his hand away and made his wrist fast at his side.

When it was over he saw, gasping in the dust, that he had cut his hand. After a long look, eye to eye, Mumma let him pull it up to suck at the blood. It stung, but it was not deep. What he saw in her eyes, though, drove a wincing pain: her patience, clearly borne by the expectation of good news. She waited on him as though he would open his mouth and spit gold.

A new sun dawned in his belly and he itched to run, shook to run, quivered as though his flesh would leap from his bones just to MOVE, but Tad instead began to weep, to weep and to shake, to weep and to shake and to sob howling animal sobs, and he threw himself clawing at Mumma, worrying his head against her breast.

She gathered him in, hugging him tight to pin his arm, and he ground his loose teeth and wet her dress with his tears.

“How’s ‘at, nae, Taddy?” she whispered in his ear, barely audible above the street noise. “How’s ‘at?”

“I couldn’t—” he sobbed, “I couldn’t sell anything, and then—”

“Shhhh…” said Mumma, and to Tad it sounded like a hiss. He loudly sucked snot back up his nose.

“Then they stole them.”

“Who’s’tole ‘em?”

Tad paused, breaths shuddering through his chest. “I don’t know. Men in white caps, I think.”

“Tha fest’val Stomp’rs?”

Doubt fringed her every word, and Tad did not bother to reply. Instead he said: “They won’t buy them, not without a mark. They wouldn’t buy mine.”

“A mar’? Wha’ kin’ ‘a mar’?”

“I don’t know,” said Tad, wriggling away and wiping at his tear-stained face, licking up the spoils.

“Whar’s ‘ey lookin’?” asked Mumma, grabbing up a blade and holding it flat before him.

Tad pointed to the top of the hilt, the spot the man had seemed to be inspecting.

“Waits ‘ere,” said Mumma, rising from the field of wool. “Punters come, starts’t twelve, an’ no lowers’n ten.”

 

69

Tad was left to watch the crowd, which this far out was thin. Roars erupted in the distance now and then, beyond the stalls and around the bend, but near them most was calm. He spent long minutes wiggling his toes and running his hand along the wondrous blanket underneath, the likes of which he had never seen before. It was amazingly thick and spongy and itchy and soft. He had never seen it before, and did not know how it had suddenly appeared.

The drive to move only grew worse, the energy bolder, as he waited. He popped up and down, he shook his limbs, he danced from side to side, but it was not enough. He was on the verge of bursting from his skin, or burning to a crisp where he stood, sat, stood, or maybe his head was just going to explode off his neck and fly away like Hairy Butt’s had. The insides of his cheeks were raw and bloody as he gnawed them.

He snatched a blade from the pile and thwacked the wall behind, a bold hit with the flat that set the sword afire with vibration, shivering up his arm. It was all he could do not to drop the blade, and then bolts zinged from his gut and he lashed out in need again at the wall, again at the immovable wall, and the edge struck true but still bounced and his hand slipped rough along the hilt. He dropped the sword, arm pained and hand stinging. When he looked, his palm was smeared with blood, the thin cut seeping with more skin torn.

He licked it up, and wiped the sweat from his brow and licked that too.

A shadow fell over him and he looked up…and up, and up, and started at the sight. It was an ih-eh, towering so that his head blocked out the sun. Tad watched for long moments, the monster striding down the way in his thin robe, before he realized that the ih-ah he followed was not garbed the same. It was a short, hefty fellow up front, balding head fringed with long, straggling locks, wearing tattered wool, shuffling along. Tad stared until they were gone around the bend.

Mumma stormed up just after, as Tad squatted and jumped, squatted and jumped to drain the burning energy that cascaded inside. Her eyes were wild. Wild and fierce.

“Taddy,” she said, “takes me ta wher’t ‘at lousy cheatin’ Pemsby live.”

 

70

Tad did not know, in fact, but he did try. Mumma followed after with all the iron somehow bundled in the spongy wool and somehow hoisted over her shoulder, though it looked heavy as an ox.

He told himself that this was why he zinged ahead, barreling through the dusky streets with an unnatural vigor, darting through lopers, past loafers, under wagons and along stalls, neatly dodging shopkeeps’ sticks and errant blows along the way, searching for some recognizable sign—to save Mumma time and distance with her burden. If it felt clearly wrong, he quickly circled back to the main way and beckoned her along to the next street down.

They all felt wrong. He was left just shy of the Twinhill, panting with an aching side. Sun was blocked by the wing and heat was fading slow, but sweat stood strong and thick at every crevice. Waiting, he scraped it from his face and licked at it. His heart was bigger and bigger, bigger and thumpier, thump-thump-thumpier, with every moment. He was a puppet tethered around the monstrous thing, shuddering and shaking and jumping as it beat. The cut on his palm burned.

Fatigue did not set in, though, fatigue was not a part, and as Mumma neared he gave her a breathless grin and sprinted away parallel to the wing. There was nothing to do but go to the next set of streets and crossings and shit-filled alleys and try to catch a hint again. The wind was picking up, and it blew Mumma’s hair wild and made Tad shudder with bits and sparks of cold.

Back again all the way down to the main way, with men spilling out of circles and lying dead in piles, and again nothing spoke to Tad of Pensly. He stopped for Mumma, who continued plodding forward under her weight, dead-set grim, winding down but doing a shambling jog where he stood, a loose and warbling shake, and then stood for a moment utterly still, hearing the throaty roars and the iron clangs of the doomed.

That was it, that moment. Fatigue crushed him.

Mumma closed in, stood before him reeking of sweat. “Taddil!” she said, barely heard over the crowds.

Tad wanted to look up to meet her gaze, but his eyes were far to heavy to be moved and his head had been replaced with a stone. With an iron tongue he whispered, and even he did not know what he said. His knees were locked. The rest of him had disappeared.

With a weighty rattle Mumma’s blades came to the ground, her face peered down into his. That scar, running down her cheek and along the jaw.

“Taddil!” she said again, and waved a hand before his eyes. He blinked, and his eyelids ached.

She took him by the shoulders, she turned him around, she put a hand to the small of his back and pushed him gently on. Tad tumbled to the ground and was still. “Silhasahaseee,” he whispered, without knowing what it meant. The air in him was not enough. He focused on breathing.

The stench was far away when it traveled up his nose, pulling a tickle, an exhausted tickle he had no strength to follow, from somewhere in his mind. He—something. It made his tongue grow long down his throat, and thick saliva pooled in his mouth. A cool, pleasant slickness chimed in from across the desert somewhere—Hole, he guessed, from the roaring in his ears. It made something cool, something tied to his knees.

When the fire came, he watched himself burn.

71

It was another hour before Tad found the road to Pensly’s forge, head floating cartlengths above and ears ringing. The air was cooler now, with the sun behind the wing, but Mumma’s dress was soaked with sweat; Tad remembered the velvety wet of spit on his tongue with the ache of the long-lost.

His stomach had sunk as he tromped up and down and around the winding streets and the broader ways and tiptoed through the filthy alleys—with Mumma stomping behind, splattering him with piss and shit all the same. He had passed the Grimthistle’s house; the other inexplicably blue, locked door; the Eastwing highman’s place, teeming now with supplicants for aid; Ock in Burnock, with a quick wave; the houses of the men who flung room buckets at one another; and even the small green metal pyramid and the large wood chicken, which he had not seen for a lifetime. But there was no hint of Pensly’s place, no tug in his brain at anything near. He had begun to doubt his memory—perhaps they’d crossed the Twinhill after all, and the place was in Westwing.

Finally, at fully the other end of Eastwing, where the Twinhill began its steep curve down, he found the squat grey buildings of old, splintered wood that marked the passage to Pensly’s odd fence. Pleasure flooded through him at the idea of seeing the old man again, mixing so fiercely with the high from the salve on his legs that he shuddered and tingled and tears stood in his eyes; he took the moisture with his fingers and licked it up.

He stopped at the fence, and Mumma impatiently shoved at his shoulder. “No breks,” she said, breathing hard.

“It’s here,” he said.

She slung down her burden. “Wher’?”

Tad patted the fence.

Mumma shrugged at him.

“It’s the door. Lift and pull,” said Tad, walking to the end and tugging futilely at a plank.

Mumma frowned but followed, grasping the top of the fence with sweaty, strong hands and grunting with effort. The fence rose, creaking as it bent toward them.

“Go on, ‘en,” said Mumma, and Tad slipped through the gap. A few moments later, the bundle of swords came crashing over, and then the fence clicked and groaned and Mumma pushed in, letting it snap back to place.

Tad surveyed the flat, the crumbling stone tables and the cold forge. Pensly was not there.

Mumma gathered the swords together and humped them over to the nearest table, lowering herself to sit cross-legged with her back against the stone.

 

72

Tad awoke shivering, shoulder aching as it bore his weight into the ground. He tried to push himself up but nothing happened, and a knife of fear shot from his stomach to his brain, panic bleeding in, until he blinked and tried again and realized he had been moving the arm that he felt that did not exist. When he tried his right it was weak and tingled with needle stings, but it moved.

There was the scrape of metal on metal, carrying soft through the yard, and a familiar orange light flooded through. Tad struggled to his feet and turned to the forge. The salve had worn off but the leg had improved; it bore his weight, though with complaint.

Mumma was there, hunched and facing the heat, completely still but for her arm. Tad worked his way around the table to get an angle for a view.

She was bent close over one of the swords, scraping away with her knife. The other blades were piled beside her, suckling the light from the forge.

He hobbled over, stiff-legged, aching, to stand beside her at the fire. Phlegm sat thick in his throat, but when he tried to clear it there was pain, and it did not move. Hot air found his lungs, and he plunged his head into Mumma’s side and coughed and coughed and coughed it out in hoarse explosions that scraped flesh to blood to bone to nothing and yet still from nothing came pain.

When finally he gulped a breath that did not burst from him at once, a hand drifted in and pushed him gently back a step, two, three, to the edge of the fire.

“Canst abide no shakin’, Taddy. I’s makin’ lines an’ whirls an’ whorls an’ sq’iggles,” said Mumma, giving him half an eye.

Tad coughed hard onto the stone, and again and again, and from the pain he expected to see blood, spattered. There was none. He rubbed his throat and watched his mother resume her work, scraping away hard, iron against iron.

The heat from the forge scratched at him, inside and out, and Tad edged away until balance was reached—one side too hot, the other too cold. He crouched to sit, to lean against the base of the forge, but his knees once bent could not hold his weight and he crashed back into the stone, head slamming and bouncing back.

Groaning, he slumped onto his side and curled up. The world thumped pain. The air on his legs was ice. Wind stirred and he shivered.

Mumma’s shadow fell across the yard, stalwart as the burnrock orange, only the barest of movements at her arm. Tad heard her iron scratching as though they were underwater, underwater in the biggest river in the world.

 

73

He awoke to unseen bustle, to a lowing ox and a man shouting words he did not know, and his eyes stung when he opened them. The world was blurred. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he rubbed futilely at his eyes and listened hard.

Mumma’s scratching was still there in the background, iron to iron, in the spaces of silence from the street outside. He wiped with his forearm and then the inside of his upper arm and had better luck getting his eyes to stop tearing. Blinking dry, he licked the remnant moisture from his arm.

Tad found himself seated away from the forge, propped against one of the stone tables. He had a view of the furnace and there, indeed, was Mumma, scraping away before a small fire.

It was near sun-top, and the light was merciless. The wing towered above in glorious snowy white, rents and ragged edges and grey burned off by the sun. Wind flew from it to rattle the fences, to eddy dust into Tad’s eyes. It took with it the lingering scents of the street food right outside, and for that he was grateful.

Now that he was awake again, his stomach was trying to eat itself. His throat stung when he swallowed, and though it was bone dry it felt thick with phlegm. A headache throbbed his vision, and the light was hard to bear.

Mumma, too, seemed unwell. She was on her knees before the forge. As before, only her arm moved, but now it quivered. With a gasp and a wobble, she fell back on her behind.

For a long moment she sat, swaying gently side to side, and then her hand went to a fist, went to her forehead. Tad blinked, unsure if Mumma was leaning back and forth or if the knife in his brain only made it seem so. He struck his head with the palm of his hand, and it did nothing.

With a groan audible over the vendors and the touts, Mumma hoisted to her feet and pivoted around, dropping herself beside the mouth of the furnace. She cradled the sword in her lap, gripping the hilt with one hand as she raised the knife with the other.

Her eyes found Tad’s and snapped to focus, gazing intently at her boy. He squinted to dull the razor of the sun. She nodded, so slight he wasn’t sure, but in her look was a respect he had not seen before.

And then she was back to scraping, and he was back to sleep.

 

74

When Pensly came it was heralded by a scraping and a cracking and a snap of wood that roused Tad blinking back to Eastwing’s twilit afternoon. He saw Mumma drop her work with a clatter and grab up a sword with a zing, striding across the yard with sudden energy. Her eyes were dark to him in the poor light.

Losing her to sight behind a table, Tad scrambled around it on his knees. His skull was hammering his brains to pulp.

There was Pensly, stopped just inside the gate. He waited with mouth wide, showing his gums.

Mumma led with the blade, leveling it at Pensly’s chest, and she kept driving forward until he was backed up against the gate. The tip rested uneasy, dimpling the ragged shirt tight against his breast.

“’ll have it nae,” she said, holding forth a presumptive hand.

“’e’ll ‘abe i’, nae?” asked Pensly. He winked at Mumma and held his leering grin, thrusting his hips.

Tad could hear her growl from where he sat. The pair swam in a murky soup, blinking fuzzy to clear to fuzzy to clear, as Tad’s head pounded.

Mumma lowered the sword and threw her arm forward to his neck, reaching down under the shirt, down and around and around, deep.

Pensly stood still with his hands at his sides, grinning his toothless grin. “Bib farber hown,” he said, again thrusting his hips.

Mumma, still fishing, said nothing. Pensly threw back his head and laughed.

She came up with his medallion in hand, and she gave it a hard yank. The slender chain did not break but pulled Pensly stumbling to her. Stepping back she yanked again, and again it did not break but brought Pensly awkwardly forward, head dipping down onto her breasts.

Mumma stepped away as if to pull yet again, but Pensly grabbed her hand and stole it out as simply as a parent taking a suckling stick from a baby. He lowered himself to the dirt, and Tad saw then that he was still laughing, laughing without sound, laughing so that tears stood in his eyes and his impotent mouth could not close.

Taking another step back, Mumma gave him a wary eye and kept her blade between them.

Pensly laughed till he could laugh no more, and then he wiped at his tears and licked them from his hands.

“Haaaaaaaa,” he said, leaning back and looking long up at the wing, and then he gestured toward the forge. “I’s ‘ee ye’ purpoze. Bu’ ‘his here’s no’ wha’ ‘e be wan’in. Lemme show’s ya.”

 

75

Mumma snatched away the iron stamp as soon as it was produced, as soon as Pensly emerged with his gummy grin from the dark of the privy and stretched out his wiry old arm. He chortled and smirked, and pushed on with his hand toward her breasts.

She bashed down his arm with the weighty iron, snarling, eyes narrow. “Why’nt ya gives me b’fore, ya shit-suckin’ ox thief?”

Pensly said nothing and kept on grinning. He made as if to reach for her breasts again, and when she bashed at him again with the iron he danced deftly away, turning a slow swaying spin.

Mumma stalked away toward the forge. Pensly winked at Tad and clapped and followed. Tad tottered after.

Halfway to the furnace, the old man suddenly turned and scooped up Tad high in his corded arms, crying “Wee-heeeeeeeee!” as he weaved and juked and dipped and rose around and around and around and between the cracked stone tables in the yard, at once deft and drunk and secure. Tad closed his eyes to keep nausea at bay, and enjoyed the wind stirred against his face.

A heavy thunk of iron against iron rang clear through the air. It seemed to be a signal to end the fun, as Pensly immediately set Tad back to earth and strode off toward the forge. The old man’s grin, though, the old man’s grin would not die.

It was Mumma, banging away with the hilt of a sword. The iron stamp was set flat against the top of another sword’s hilt, where it intersected the guard and went up into the blade. She pounded on the back of the stamp, holding it in place, and beneath the blade skittered and jumped with each strike.

Pensly, gums bared to the dry wind, put his gnarled hands atop hers and gently pulled her away.

Mumma strained against him. “Ther’s no time,” she said, pushing back toward the forge. “Ther’s no time.”

Pensly reached his long arm forward and pushed the stamp from its place on the blade. Mumma stopped dead, staring at the spot. Tad hobbled forward to see, but he was too short.

“Ya nee’s ta hea’s i’, fis’,” said Pensly.

“I did,” said Mumma.

“No’s ‘nuff,” said Pensly.

“Ther’s no time,” said Mumma.

“Nah time, arghm, if’n ya was’e i’,” said Pensly.

“No time,” groaned Mumma.

For a moment they stood silent, the old man’s arm on hers, staring down into the fire.

“I’s ‘how ya hows ta ma’es it s’i’k,” he said, and moved off into the yard.

 

76

The way to make it stick, it turned out, was a painfully slow process. Chunks of extra iron had to be made white-hot in the forge, thinned out on the blackblock, and then Pensly took his enormous hammer, set the thin disc of iron atop the hilt of the blade and the stamp atop the disc, and smashed the stamp once, twice, three times with such power that it bit the air and made Tad jump with every strike.

After the stamp was pried away, the imprint remained, and the sword could be sold once it cooled. It left an odd halo of iron at the top of the hilt.

The first two were done by Pensly and the third, mostly, by Mumma, but she had not the strength to wield the massive hammer. She brought it over and down alright, and did it even twice, but when she went to pry the stamp away it came off all too easy. There was nothing except a light indent, and it was incomplete—a faint line here and there, a half curve, a shadow of something was all.

She rested a moment and went back to it, but it was for naught: the lines stuck in a bit deeper, but not much, and now they were offset from the first. The disc had to go back to the forge. Wasted time.

Yet she tried again, Mumma did, forgoing Pensly’s hammer for a sword. She bashed the hilt straight down into the stamp with all her strength and weight, again and again and again and even again although her hand bled, finally stopping as she heaved from the effort and she sweated from the heat and tears stood in her eyes.

Pensly had no need to pry, only lifted the stamp from the disc. Mumma growled. She threw the blade to the stone and sucked her hand.

“Ye’re back on,” she said to Pensly, “but no more damn’d outs wit’ tha boy. He’s gots ‘is own work.”

“An’ you,” she turned to Tad, “outs nae an sells ‘em swords.” She pointed to the two marked by Pensly, lying cooling by the fire.

The hilts were red-hot and could not be held, and Tad told her so.

She pointed to the grassweave bag, lying by the spongy wool blanket, lying by the stone table furthest from the forge.

“It’s too hot,” said Tad. “The grassweave will catch fire.”

“I’s ‘ome oil,” said Pensly, and started off, but Mumma reached out quick to grab his arm and drag him back. She went instead, without asking where to go.

The old man pushed a pile of ore deep in the fire, then reared back and squatted down and peered around the side of the forge. He looked back at Tad, eyes sparkling and mouth quirked, and then went back to watching Mumma’s bottom.

As soon as she disappeared into the first of the privies, Pensly leapt up with a joyous spring and kicked his legs as though to shoot them from his hips. Tad thought of Hairy Butt’s head, arcing away into the heat and the crowd, but still he smiled at Pensly’s wild energy. Manic, thunderhead grey riding shocked above, the old man’s legs jumped higher and higher and higher, first to the front and then out to the sides, arms undulating and fingers tickling the air.

The privy door slammed behind and Pensly came to an immediate stop, affecting a casual, loping saunter back and forth before the fire, arms crossed behind his back. He whistled for a moment, and then gasped and breathed deep and laughed and breathed deep and laughed so hard that he could not breathe. He doubled over, throwing a quick wink to Tad, and then he fell to the earth and for a while took long wheezing sucks of air and made the occasional chortle.

He was recovered and sitting still and silent in the heat by the time Mumma was finally there with the oil.

“Strange places ye do be puttin’ ‘ese thin’s,” she said, dropping the cask heavy down at the table above Tad’s head. “Mos’ thin’s ‘r hid away lik’s ya be some no-moon no-good, ‘r a shirk. Ors a thief,” she finished, eyeing him over her shoulder.

Mumma removed the top from the cask. She plucked up the blades at their tips with her bare fingers and dropped them into the oil. They sat poking up at the sky, iron weeds rising from a field of wood.

 

77

Tad was out soon after, given no food or water but only salve. He had not bothered to protest. His insides chewed and bit, snapped at him to move move MOVE as he jogged the streets, but he knew better than to push the pace. The heat was fading but fading slow, late afternoon sun behind the wing. He felt the warmth of the blades through the grassweave bag as it bumped against his hip.

Start at ten and no less than eight, this day.

He could see why, as soon as he rounded on the main way. Crowds had shrunk by a third at least, and the fighters there seemed fewer still—around the edges, men shouted at each other instead of facing the ring, held up fingers and traded coin. It was like a cock fight, and it reminded Tad of home.

Judging by the clangs of iron and the sustained roars of the crowds, fights were taking longer today. Thinking of the pile of corpses he had seen, he realized yesterday had been for pulling weeds.

And as he waded through the men at the first crowd, he came to know it was to the weeds they had been selling. Within the outer circle of bookies and bettors, watching intently the center of the ring, were scarred and seasoned men—skinny but lean, not weak. Some bellies growled as he passed, loud enough to hear even in the noise, and hands and cheeks here and there were bloodied, but Tad guessed for these men it was choice.

There were a hundred wisdoms on the way to fight, and even Tad had heard them all. Had he looked closer, he would have seen ox blood rimming nostrils, needles jammed in ankles and armpits, sweat from balls wiped in beards. Some had strips of linen or knit tied around their heads to cover an eye.

All had swords, gripped steady or shifted restless or planted firmly in the earth before, and all were of the proper type—rough iron, not sharp but sharp enough, bearing a mark at the hilt on a metal halo. These were the men, Tad thought, these must be the men who had survived the day before. Which meant they all had proper swords already, else they could not have even fought the day before.

Closing sticky eyelids over scratchy eyes, he thought of going home. When the salve wore off, when it stopped boiling his innards to make him pump his legs, he could well collapse where he stood. Were Tad not home when that happened, he might not make it back.

But he thought of Mumma, not of her wrath but of that patient, expectant face that she had worn yesterday on his return, and he knew he could not give up. He would sell these damned blades.

When the current fight ended and the roar of the crowd trailed off, Tad coughed to dislodge the hard lump of phlegm in his raw, dry throat. It did not move. He croaked with all his might: “Swords! Ten each for swords!”

No one even looked his way. Having learned his lesson about selling from the center, he instead elbowed his way through the middle of the crowd, crying every few paces, again, “Swords! Ten each for swords!”

For his trouble, going half the way around, he was smacked and bumped and pushed and kneed; the only vocal responses were snickers and snorts.

Pushing out, he jogged to the second circle, and then the third.

At the third he thought he had a taker. A weathered man with a fringe of grey, a lined face and a large patch of mottled skin across his chest met Tad’s eye and beckoned him over. A sword was planted in the dirt before him.

The man motioned with his hand, and Tad dug out a blade and offered it hilt-first. The sword was hoisted up and flashed quick but carefully around, wielded with both arms, tossed from hand to hand, and finally balanced on the man’s palm before being handed back. The man plucked his own sword from the earth and performed the same ritual, then took up Tad’s blade in one hand and his own in the other, frowning thoughtfully.

“How’such, ‘gin?” he growled, barely audible.

“Ten!” shouted Tad.

At that, the man shook his head and offered back the sword hilt-first. “Canno’ trus’ no cheap bla’e wit’ no dear work.”

Tad nodded, and noted, and went on.

At the next circle, there was an ih-eh, towering head and shoulders above the rest at the innermost ring. Tad wasn’t sure if it was the salve or simply that the shock had worn off, but he did not fear it. Curiosity was all he felt, an intense and abiding curiosity, and he pushed his way straight for it through a forest of sweaty legs and farty butts and the occasional idle swordplay—men keeping loose or calming idle hands by spinning or balancing or chopping blades around in the bit of air ahead.

There was space around the ih-eh, enough space to sing and dance, but Tad sidled up close. He gazed up, and then backed up a few steps so he could see the shaved head.

The ih-eh ignored him entirely. It was focused on the fight, watching placidly but intently as the combatants sweated around in a circle, swords banging together now and then in such discord that it made Tad’s ears ache.

The fighters were nondescript, both swarthy and hirsute, with only their body types to distinguish them. One was taller and lean, the other shorter and stout. Both wept blood from cuts that would have toppled lesser men.

Tad watched as they stepped warily and threw out cautious, lazy swings. Neither looked to be an ih-ah. He stepped back and peered around, but there was no one on the other side of the ih-eh, no one to the back or front in matching garb.

From what he had seen, the ih-eh was always fixated on its ih-ah. He remembered yesterday, then, the ih-eh following the squat, bald, seemingly unremarkable festival-goer, and he squinted through the early dusk at the short combatant. Perhaps. He could not tell.

A discordant grating of iron against iron pulled his attention back to the fight. The lean man had spun in and struck at the flank, but the strike had been met and matched and was now being awkwardly thrown aside, the assailant stumbling off balance.

As he regained his footing, the stout man spun quickly the other way, neat and agile in a three-quarter turn, blade extended.

The lean one placed his sword to block, hilt high and blade pointing to the earth, and then tried to spin out of the way as his eyes lit with realization and dismay—he knew the block could not hold.

It didn’t. Hammer to a twig it was pushed aside, and his movement came too late. The sword bit deep into his side, and for a moment clung there, and then the stout man wrenched it free. The crowd roared.

Blood sprayed and then gushed and then tided down to pool around the leg. The lean man, still clutching his blade, pawed at his side with shaking hands. He looked to his opponent, uncomprehending. He slipped to a knee and tumbled forward to the dirt, and there he lay and shivered and moaned, and then only shivered, and then finally lay still.

The victor, grimacing, stepped back from the corpse and plunged his sword into the dirt to stand. The crowd grew quiet. Tad spotted the white-hats, standing at the edge of the audience; they did not move.

Next to him, the ih-eh straightened its stooping back, towering above. Its long arms rose and stretched, taut, toward the dead, as though they longed to touch but the torso and legs would not agree. A weird groan came from the head, and the arms fell and were still.

Cheers and laughter floated in, from one of the circles near.

The ih-eh lurched forward into the fighting ring and in only two steps was there, standing over the body, casting its long shadow on the man who had killed. Tad supposed the dead man must have been the ih-ah.

Thin robe flapping in the wind, the ih-eh crouched low and took the sword from beside the corpse’s hand. The stout man flinched, his sword hand flexed, but he blinked and did not move.

The ih-eh rose half, taking the hilt in both hands. He found the killer with vacant eyes and stared long. And then he turned the blade toward the earth and plunged it down quick and with force through the back of the corpse, down through the left where lay the heart.

Tad’s own heart beat fierce and wild, throbbing his arms and pulsing his legs and shuddering his neck and chest, but still he stood and watched, transfixed.

The ih-eh drew out the blade, wet with blood. It rested the flat of one side of the sword against the top of its forehead, hilt high, and slowly drew it down to scrape the blood onto the skin. The blood ran down over the forehead and over the nose, into and around the ih-eh’s thick eyebrows. It shut its eyes, and the blood came down over the eyelids.

The crowd remained respectfully silent as the ih-eh stood and let the blood thicken and stop its flow. A man behind Tad knocked his sword idly against the soles of his boots, and it carried far—Tad thought the whole circle must have heard it, and wondered why the man didn’t have the good sense to stop—and then he stopped. Only the wind and the shouts of other circles poisoned the quiet.

Finally the ih-eh opened its eyes, and it did not wipe the blood away. It ran its free hand along the congealing blood on the other side of the blade, hilt to tip, scraping it into the palm.

It made three solemn, one-handed strikes to the body, wielding the sword as though it were made of tin: one to the top of the head and one along the center line of each foot, each time slicing through the skin full along the cut. Tad could only see the feet clearly, but there dark lines appeared and slowly grew.

The sword was dropped without regard to the ground, and now the ih-eh stepped up to the stout naked man, who stood wary but firm, and pressed its bloody hand against his, grasping and pushing the palms together.

Stooping down, down, down like a weeper tree, the ih-eh met his bloody forehead to the man’s sweaty brow and they stayed still, silent, joined at hand and head.

And then, abruptly, that was the end of it. The ih-eh straightened; there was a white-cap in the ring, ushering them gently but insistently back into the crowd. The squat man led, bloody hand still clasped tight by that of the ih-eh. He looked positively glum, thought Tad, which he could not understand.

The ih-eh was marvelously frightening, with its height and the blade through its head, and the man now seemed to…own…it. With a monster like that answering his summons, Tad would have been ecstatic.

Not only could it cart him around on its shoulders like a tall-ox—no, better than a tall-ox, it had to be twice as tall at least—but he could simply take whatever food and drink he wanted. Who would stop him?

At the fantasy of gorging on yellow mess and sugared flatbush and stickmeat and even a proper chicken leg, with a full keg of water to wash it down, he managed enough spit to need to swallow—and then wished he hadn’t. His throat screamed at him, and the ball of immovable phlegm had grown enormous. For a moment his tongue stuck to the back of his mouth and he could not breathe, could not breathe, wavered on his feet and gagged and could not breathe.

Tad reached deep into his own mouth and peeled away the swollen tongue, freed it to move, and it spoke agony when he pinched it and bright sparks of pain when he pulled it and then a throbbing pleasure when it was free, a wonder of jangling nerves that pushed into the roots of the teeth left to him and rode there, galloping wild, over mountains of hurt and through valleys of calm.

As it faded he took a breath, and took in sweat. The box was in the center now to draw the next match. He rubbed his throat and turned to push back through the crowd.

 

78

Tad sold the blades, but not to whom he expected.

A roar had erupted as he approached one of the final circles on the road, a roar louder than any he had yet heard. The tone was different: notes of surprise, and in general a tone of loss, but with local peaks of shrieking joy.

One of those shrieks assaulted him directly, attached to a gaunt face with roving, euphoric eyes shining out; below, a stick-thin body waved its limbs around in unchoreographed dance.

“Uff-seh!” shouted the man-thing, which might have been a child or an old man or anything in-between. “Uff-seh!”

He flapped his arms around. “An whos know’tit buts lil’ ol’ Burril?! Whos know’tit buts lil’ ol’ Burril?!” The head burrowed forward through the air, bright eyes holding Tad. He was redolent of onions and shit and sweat, in no particular order.

“No one,” croaked Tad, pushing his own rotten breath. The lump in his throat had cut his air almost completely.

Burril slapped his shaved head with both hands, repeatedly, and then jumped up and down clapping. He licked at his hands, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “’at’s righ’! ‘at’s righ’! An’ on’y lil’ ol’ Burril gone an’ puts alls’is me’al ons tha figh’! Reals good, Guil’ coin, e’en! An’ now? An’ now?”

Again he looked to Tad expectantly, shifting and dancing nervously around, but this time Tad was at a loss. He shrugged, clutching at his grassweave bag.

“An’ now lil’ ol’ Burril’s won i’ BIG!” he screamed, and pranced around in a circle.

Tad tried to walk around him, but found himself accosted, his arm taken by a hand.

Burril was eyeing the grassweave bag. “Wha’sis?” he asked, plucking at it with a restless hand.

Tad hesitated, eyeing the odd bird sideways, but answered true: “Swords.”

Burril nodded knowingly, and seemed to calm. “Ah, swords. Hows much, ‘en, fer one?”

“Ten” sat on the tip of his tongue, but he swallowed it. “Fifteen,” he said.

Burril quirked his head. “Fif’een’s alls’it? Hows’any ya gots?”

“Two,” said Tad.

“’ey gots a prop’r mark?”

Tad nodded.

“I’ll ‘aves’em, ‘en. Needs a goo’ ol’ souvie, eh, “ he said. And added, in a loud whisper: “Ans mebbie som’t’in keepin’ greedy han’s away.”

Tad blinked. “Coin first,” he said, clutching the swords protectively under his arm.

“Sur, sur,” said Burril. He spun around and slapped his head and grinned, then pulled a linen bag from somewhere in his nether bits that clinked and jangled prettily.

 

79

The collapse was not a surprise, but its quickness threw him. One moment he was skirting the crowd around the last circle, main way opening up before him, throat tight and head pounding and tongue sticking in his mouth, and the next he hit the ground, legs buzzing.

There was a tightness in his chest, a darkness and a hurt, and he realized his tongue was stuck again, blocking his air. He reached up with arm heavier then iron, pushed a limp hand against his tongue, and opened—tried to open—could not open his fingers to grip it. He tried again, driving all the power he had into opening at least a smidgen of a claw, flexing his thumb and his index finger with all his might to make just a tiny pincher.

They would not move. Energy struck and struggled and became nothing, waves lapping at that blackest rock. His chest ached and tightened, crushed by an iron band. He convulsed and he gagged.

Vomit poured out, one acid splat and then a trickle, wetting the dust and standing pooled on the hard packed earth below. He felt better. He heaved in air as his tongue had moved, but he did it too soon—acid came back down with it, rattling through his narrowed throat and misting, burning in his lungs.

He coughed and he coughed and he coughed it out, finding himself curled into a ball. The coins—the wonderful jingling, clanking coins—were…in the grassweave bag! Frantically he threw his arm around, with energy from he knew not where. And there it was, just to his right, just where he had carried it before. He brought it in and curled himself around it.

There was a roar, a roar of men, and he looked wide-eyed to his back. The circle, a few paces away, not far but far enough. He was between dried ox shit and a puddle of piss, but atop neither. The scent of his own vomit, near at his elbow, gave him comfort.

Tad glanced above and it meant nothing, the Eastwing twilight that made up half the day. He wondered if he was close enough to the edge of the street so he would not be trampled by ox or man, and his mind could not grasp the question. A yawn came from deep within, years long and wide so as to split the sky.

He shivered, and the teeth he had were rough with acid.

 

80

Tad’s head was being pulled apart. One part was lifted away on an elastic string, assaulted with urgent noise and blood-red light; nerves exploded and his body shook. His brain whimpered and groaned with the pain of being.

The groan vibrated through him, and in him, and he found its source and that source became real. His throat existed, and then his swollen tongue and his cracked lips, and then his bone-dry nose and the hot leathery skin of his forehead. His scalp itched.

Head snapped back together dizzily and there was orange light, there was Mumma above, there were the shadows of the dark before dawn. Dapper’s rambunctious snore sounded beside him. Tad blinked and groaned again.

Water found his lips, painful wondrous water, and he spluttered and spat it out and coughed. Mumma smoothed his hair and he pushed her hand aside to give it a vigorous scratching. So his hand existed, and from there he felt his body, buzzing against the floor. The whole apparatus was weak and jumbled. The vigorous scratching he thought he was giving his scalp turned out to be, when his scalp spoke up, haphazard and unsatisfying.

Again came the water, lighting his pained lips, dancing its way across his tongue and to the furthest reaches of his rotting mouth, but he could find nothing to do with it and his chest began to ache. He turned his head and drooled it out.

Suddenly there was saliva, pooling at the back, and nature took hold: he swallowed.

The pain made him blink and arch his back, struggling to get the moisture through so he could breathe again, gasping, wondering at a throat closed to the size of a pinprick. What had been a rock yesterday was a boulder now, lodged tight in. Air wheezed through.

The tin cup came yet again, but he feebly pushed it away and elbowed himself to sit. Burnrock glimmered bare, no more than two or three tiny stones casting a dim orange light. It was cold and his body shivered somewhere below. He yawned. His throat felt full of phlegm, but it was not there when he tried to get it out, it was not there but the boulder was, blocking his throat. He coughed, hoarse, and sucked a narrow breath.

“Sun-up snoozie’s worse’n a sun-top snoozie, arghm? Up ‘n’ face tha sun, nae!” said Mumma at his ear, and he found himself being lifted by a pressure underneath his armpits, lifted up so he could see the tabletop and beyond, Dapper’s snoring assaulting his ears, legs dangling, right leg tight and throbbing but not bad.

Feet found hard and weight and THERE was his right leg, impossible and screaming, and he was on the ground writhing and groaning, his throat forgot.

The familiar stench, then—vomit mixed with oxshit mixed with greensharp sap, with an acrid tang to finish—and he flailed his arm and even his half-arm to try to push the salve away.

It was no use, as ever. Mumma took his arms in a bundle with one hand, twisting his torso to the side to expose his right leg. Trousers were easily pulled down and the ointment spread on with a tiny bit of wood.

Fire leapt from the burnrock to roar atop his leg, muting the world. He arched his back and looked on it with feverish eyes, and was consumed.

 

81

There was no sympathy once the salve was done, no niceties at all. As soon as he could stand there was a hand on his back and a stick of grey, cold gristly meat pushed into his palm. At the door the tin cup, full, was forced down his unwilling throat, and then, spluttering still, he was out in the cold and the dark.

No task had been spoken; no words were needed. His charge was clear.

Thinking of the rabid little girl at the Grimthistle’s, of the swordfights and the gamblers and the rambunctious men, of the air set thick with violence, Tad took out his black blades from under the planks and took a moment to strap them on.

82

Pensly was not there.

Tad couldn’t manage the fence on his own, but he made a few awkward hops that let his eyes clear the top. There was no sign of him, or of life, within. He thought to call the old man’s name, but one test of his throat culled the idea.

He turned and watched the light flooding over the horizon, sun still blocked by the houses and the water towers stretching high. The streets were nearly empty. At this hour, the watgons would still be on the early part of their runs.

He bit a cracked lip with a wobbly tooth and enjoyed the pain from both ends, staring at the smoke from a nearby stick-meat stall.

A thought struck lightning through his skull, buzzing from the top of his head and shivering all the way down to his soles. He wheezed a constricted breath and blinked, heart galloping around his guts.

The Pigon.

 

83

It was the only way.

He counted them off on his fingers, waiting in the dark among the stench of the open sewer. At the other end, the silhouette of a woman squatting.

The Grimthistle, one. Generous yesterday, but would not be again.

Pensly, two. Always generous but usually gone, no time to track him down.

Ock, three. He knew the answer without the need to check.

Four…the coins from yesterday! Tad patted his lone, holey pocket, and it was quite naturally empty. He had no idea if the coins had been stolen or were in Mumma’s safe hands, but it made no difference now—it was impossible to buy a cask.

Which left him only a fatfinger five—the Pigon. He shook his head at it, bit his cheek at it, snorted the vile air at it, but there it was and there it remained—the Pigon, trundling along heavy with water. He only needed a bit.

For a moment he thought of the end of the route, of the uncorking by Kal, the stupidity and the fights. Maybe they would let him have the dregs?

In the same breath he decided against it—Beh was too mean, the younger boys too callous, Ah and Dal would not step forward on his behalf. And if he begged for water and was denied, and just after casks started disappearing, even an ox-head like Beh would understand.

So it had to be this, and it had to be from Dal. If he were spotted by anyone else, there was not even a chance of mercy. Dal might. Not likely, but he might.

Best was not to be seen at all.

The woman at the other end finished her business and stumbled out into the morning; despite her best efforts to hold them up, her skirts had been soiled.

Tad bit hard at the corner of his mouth, and chewed at the inside of his cheek, and waited.

 

84

He was licking at his sweat again when he heard the telltale noise—oxen with a cart could only be one thing at this hour, especially so heavy as this one. The rumble sang up through his feet. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and stuck his fingers in his mouth, and stayed hidden. Usually delicious, his sweat tasted of shit in this alley.

Only patience was needed. Most of the houses cut a square at the base of the planks and the water casks were shoved in, bowled in, pushed beyond reach. One of Dal’s houses though, for whatever reason, instead had a barrel by the wall, and the back of the barrel was open, and they wanted the water there. It would be easy.

Tad’s stomach flopped around when he thought of pulling out that cask. Stories bubbled up: men waking with the entire family headless around them, heads mounted on the horns of a watgon ox, men bound and upended in barrels of water—after their children and their wife, if married. Then there was boiling oil poured in ears and mouth and even the butthole—Tad giggled at that, though the thought nearly made his knees buckle. There were stakings in the sun, and furrats down the throat, furrats set loose on wiggly worms, on stones, on eyes and fingers and toes. And lots of things about knives he didn’t want to think about.

Sweat broke a cold stream down his side, tiding from armpits fully wet. He caught as much as he could and licked it up—he could not afford to lose so much. Throat was full to breaking, air only just squeezed through.

Dal flashed by at the mouth of the alley, huffing along with a cask gripped in each hand. Tad turned away and hugged himself small against the planks. It was dark but maybe not dark enough, should Dal happen to glance that way. He envied the ease of carrying that second cask.

Throat, dry, convulsed. He hugged himself tighter and took more sweat from his forehead to his mouth, but it didn’t help. His throat tickled and jumped, and Tad breathed slow and regular, regular and slow. He stilled himself, flexing the muscles of his good leg where he stood, biting at his cheek and thinking of the flies from the road, from the wagon, imagining their tiny legs scrabbling tickles over his feet and his legs and his arms and his face, big ones biting and little ones jumping, skittish, around.

It helped but not enough—his throat caught, and then came the coughs, walloping and hoarse and increasingly painful. He hunkered down, trying to contain the noise within his rickety body, absorb it with his bony hand. Hacked and spat and coughed more, took long rattling breaths. The tang of blood. Sick rose in the back of his throat, he shut his mouth firm against it.

He stood, up away from the river of shit, hand to stomach and forehead to planks. Breathing through his nose was not better—he gagged at the stench.

Tad did not know where Dal was; he did not care.

It grew hotter as his body came back to him, and the ground moved. He pushed against his stomach, closed his eyes and wrinkled his nose and focused on the air flowing free and slow and gentle through his narrow throat, filling ragged lungs, holding for a moment’s peace and then moving past the itch and the catch and softly tickling his tongue on its way out.

Still the ground moved, and he cracked an eye and recognized the distant rumble of the watgon.

It was time.

 

85

The water tasted of iron and spread warm and thin through his mouth, seeping into his gums and his cheeks and the cracks between his teeth. Pain and joy in liquid form, as he swished it around.

Already his throat was tickling and threatening a cough, so Tad quick forced it down and gasped at the bubble of pain in his chest, at the sting in his throat. He burped and coughed and felt better. Back on went the lid of the cask, turned and tightened.

Blades were back in their place, hidden so Mumma couldn’t see.

There had been nothing to it. He had stumbled out of the alley, blinking in the blast of light and fresh air. The street had been deserted, no motion anywhere, and he had gone and fetched the cask as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and then taken a different alley back toward home.

And he had made it just in time; only now did his bad leg start to ache, only now did his vigor start to fade. It was about half to sun-top.

Mumma took the water without thanks, as always. She had Pensly stamping blades; he had brought his own hammer and was striking away, that impossibly massive head moved swift and sure by his thin, corded arms. The metal thunks broke the monotony of the Wat-witch wail outside, the endless rattling of the planks, as Mumma handed Tad his water and knelt to Daps with his.

There was a goodly pile of blades already marked, nearly one-third of all they had. Next to it, heaped in a neat stack, were the needles Tad had so laboriously drawn, atop a large square of linen. The burnrock by the fire had been replenished.

Tad, suddenly worn to the bone, lowered himself to sit with his back to a table leg, nearly spilling his water. His leg throbbed, and even the cup felt too heavy to lift to his mouth. The salve had worn off full.

She gave him enough time to finish his drink, only just, before snatching away his cup and squatting down to look him in the eyes. Tad glanced over at the swords, at the needles, with the hopelessness of utter exhaustion; he could not carry even one, he could not even move. He yearned to be somewhere else, anywhere else. Tears wet his eyes.

Mumma gave him a searching gaze, and he left his desperation plain to see. It was met with sympathy, but behind was something harder—iron under wool scraps. She stood and moved away, and when she returned she did not meet his eyes.

“No,” he whispered, when came the telltale stink.

“No,” he whispered, when she pulled away the knit.

“No,” he whispered, when the slick salve spread along his leg.

 

86

“Le’s go ta-gether to tha mains way, an’ ‘en ye runs ahead,” said Mumma, hoisting the blanket with blades and needles as the latch rattled into place behind. Tad gnawed at his stickmeat and said nothing, blinking. His whole body felt twitchy, but behind it the exhaustion remained. His lungs could not take enough air to make him whole.

He followed her through the empty streets with breakfast stuck in his mouth, munching on it as best he could. He blinked too much, and every shadow and every errant gleam tugged his eye. The sun that used to burn his guts and whip him on to MOVE had subsided to a pulsing orb that only whispered.

It was still a while to sun-top, just over half the morning gone, and not a man stirred in High Wail. The lucky janks were still sleeping, or maybe watching the fights.

Mumma set up as close to the first circle as she could get, with only a couple of food stalls, a water cask seller and a betting table in between.

The betting table looked fascinating, from what Tad could glimpse. As Mumma opened the blanket and arranged the wares, he watched the steady stream of customers and runners, the burly guards behind, the painted stones and stamped metal flats clutched tight till traded over. No naked coins were handled, only tiny linen bags that jangled, dirty but whole and in an endless supply.

A poke to his back woke him up. He turned and took the grassweave bag, and it was heavy today.

“Six swor’s an’ twen’y needle,” said Mumma. “No less ‘an eight fer a swor’, one fer fiv’ o’ t’em needles.”

Tad nodded, but had no plans to follow what she said. He had learned the hard way yesterday that higher could be better. Today he would try…fifteen, maybe even twenty. And maybe he’d keep five for himself.

The thought made him smile despite the weight, and Mumma narrowed her eyes at him as he shouldered the bag and strode off.

The crowds were smaller than yesterday, but not by much. The outer layer of betting men seemed to have grown thicker and rowdier, and as he looked down along the curving street he could see at least one ih-eh rising from the center of nearly every circle. He wondered how many would trade hands today.

 

87

Sales were bad. Tad stayed out as long as he could, until his energy flagged and the ointment seemed in danger of losing its effect, but there were no punters looking for blades.

It was harder than ever to get to the fighters near the center of each circle, with rambunctious gamblers packed in a tight scrum around them, jostling and pushing and jumping as they hung on every thrust and slice and parry, markers clutched tight.

Only once was Tad able to scramble through somehow, mostly by scurrying under crotches and between legs, timing tight, reaching the fighters with bootprints on his back and a host of burgeoning bruises along his arms and butt and legs. The fighters had no interest; they too were focused on the match. One showed a flicker of curiosity when Tad, desperate and frustrated, shouted that he was selling swords for fifty each, but gave a soft smile and a hard shake of his head when approached.

He lost a five-pack of needles. A shirtless man with a rolling gait and enormous eyes approached to buy, rearing his head on a long horse neck. Tad dug out the needles, tucked them under his arm and held out his palm for coin, but the man instead reached in close and began to tickle him, first under the empty armpit and then under the full.

When Tad came to his senses, the man was still close—gleefully jabbing the needles, one by one, into the backs of the unsuspecting. Writing it off as a loss and reminding himself to get the coins before opening his bag, Tad melted away in the opposite direction.

There was one sale, and one only: another gambler, drunk on winning and maybe more, took a sword off his hands for twenty.

Sensing a pattern, Tad hung back from the crowds until one or another heaved with excitement, groans and screams, men on the edges dancing, running, whooping, and then he moved quickly between that crowd and the nearest betting table, shouting his wares at the top of his lungs. For the first waves, insane with glee, he called out thirty; the second wave, pleased but mild, he offered at twenty; for the stragglers, who had lost or had not won much, he set the price at ten.

There were no takers. The only sale had been a fluke.

When he returned to Mumma, sinking quick onto the spongy blanket and staring, panting, at the sky, she did not delight but did not harrumph. He realized, wheezing air, that he had neglected to hide away half the coin for himself. It was just as well—aside from the grassweave bag, there was nowhere to keep it but his ragged pocket, still sticky and mined with thin shards of glass, and it was more hole than wool now. A coin in that pocket was a coin lost.

The sun was hidden behind the wing, but only just, and it made little difference to the heat. A long, futile afternoon stretched before him. His eyes wet at the thought, and the wet stung his parched eyes, and the sting brought more moisture to obscure his sight. Everything was blurred; he did not know if the tears were from hopelessness or pain.

He could not go on like this. He could not endure.

Water came but it was slow and gentle, at a pace that his throat could accept. As he swallowed he cried out in pain, and he sobbed his suffering at the sky.

Mumma’s hand came to his forehead, warm and rough, and worked through his tangled hair. “Jus’ this day an’ tha morrow, Taddy, jus’ this day an’ tha morrow. Sells an’ sells an’ tha rain’ll come, Taddy, tha rain’ll come.”

She wiped at his eyes with some linen, and she pulled him up to sit. “I’s nice ‘at ye can sells fer twen’y, bu’ we nees ta sells fer ten. Ats twen’y mebbe ya ge’s a pun’er ‘r two, but we nee’s more’n’at.”

Mumma gestered at the piles of blades around them. “We nee’s more’n’at, Taddy. Jus’ this day an’ tha morrow, Taddy. Jus’ this day an’ tha morrow.

There was only time for a few more sips of water, a few bites of yellow mess, before the salve was in her hand again.

 

88

It did not end. The sky was forever deepening toward dusk, the gamblers forever screeched, the air rang eternal with angry iron striking fast. Tad hoofed the same circuit again and again and again and again with his bag of unsold blades, croaking out with his closed throat “Ten a sword! Swords for ten! Proper and marked and ready to swing! Ten a sword! Swords for ten!”

Most of the time, his voice did not reach his own ears.

It did not much matter. He had sold quick one, then two, and thought that Mumma had been right, but then sales fell to nil. As before it was the gambling crowd that bought them, so it was the gamblers he beseeched. He tried selling for eight, he tried new rhymes and jingles and yells and even a shambling dance. They paid him no heed.

He could not remember how many times the salve had been reapplied to his leg—whether it was needed or not was no matter. Tad did not want to collapse suddenly, somewhere, so he did not object, but each time the energy seemed to push through him less and less. His bones were dead, his skin and teeth glowed life, his guts and heart and brain were—weight, and no more.

Skin pricked and he shivered at every gust of wind off the wing. He blinked long blinks, and he panted obscenely in the heat.

And then, abruptly, long before the dusk was real, one of the circles broke. Tad humped over to see what was happening.

There was no way to tell. It had suddenly ended and the gathered men were loping off, many toward the nearest gambling table and many toward the nearest circles and some down the alleys or to food. Tad scrambled to get between the circle and the gambling table, waving a sword around with his tired arm and shouting hoarsely, “Swords for ten!” They didn’t even look at him.

As the last of the crowd filtered past, he saw the heap of corpses from the fights, and the mystery was solved. There were no more than twenty bodies piled up, in two neat stacks, while before there had been—well, he didn’t know, because it had been more than he could count, hills of flesh and rivers of blood. Fewer bodies meant fewer fights, fewer fights meant shorter circles.

Shorter circles meant less chance to sell.

The next circle over broke, with a scream and a collective groan and scattered shouts of joy, and Tad was struck with a sudden panic. He had no sense of how much coin was needed, no idea how much each blade had cost, but Mumma’s flagging certainty and rising desperation to sell now burrowed in and nested deep within his brain. His guts floated and tickled, breath came short. He was cold and wanted to vomit.

Tad ran over, blades swinging and banging into his side, and took one out to flash around. Spinning and slicing and jumping with it held high, he kept it up until his arm was like to fall off and he was too dizzy to stand, collapsing in a painful heap atop his bag of iron. From somewhere deep, needles jabbed at him.

When he could see straight again, the crowd had passed him by. He looked as far as he could see down the curving way, and all the circles had now broken but for one.

Pressing the sword hilt against the stitch in his side, Tad sprinted with wobbly legs and torso askew toward that last beacon of hope, weaving through the crowd and ignoring the ih-ehs and the ih-ahs and the gamboling gamblers along the way, legs pumping and lungs burning and heart struggling with the sludge in his veins.

Halfway to it the circle broke, and Tad, chagrined, slowed and took his eyes from the road and flopped his foot into a big wet mess of ox shit. He skidded and flailed and tumbled to the hard earth with blade still tightly clutched.

One more day, then. One more day, and shorter even than this.

He did not dwell on it. He pushed himself up and went to the lines at the nearest gambling table and showed off his wares and danced a shuffling dance and shouted his unheard cries until they reached not even his own ears. His throat ached fierce.

He sold one more that day, for ten, and stayed out selling until the salve was done and he lost his legs and Mumma had to come and find him.

When she picked him up he pushed at her, and mumbled that he would keep on. She hoisted him onto the shoulder opposite her blanket full of blades, but after a few paces he was lowered to the ground.

Out came the ointment, again, to get him home.

 

89

Tad woke to a chill in the dark. Today he needed no prodding; he came to with eyes wide and head full and nerves jangling, for this was the last day and a mountain of iron rose before him.

It was nearly pitch dark, only a few last embers from a few last bits of burnrock, and it took him time to notice Mumma. She sat still beside the furnace, utterly still, as the wind outside shrieked against the planks. Drafts brought in the cold, and he shivered. Daps snored quietly in the corner.

Tad coughed and tongued his loose teeth. “Near on sun-up?” he asked, throat tight and voice hoarse.

Waiting for an answer, he pushed himself to sit. It was harder than it should have been. There were gaps between when and where he wanted to go, and when and where he went. His body stuttered.

He blinked too much and could not stop. His head ached at its root.

“Near on sun-up?” he asked again, and waited, and again there was no reply.

Tad struggled to his feet and stumbled to the table, and foraged there for water. Leg throbbed but did not scream; it was tame enough to stand. There were dregs in the cask, and he carefully poured them into the tin cup. When he put the cup to his lips he saw movement at the edge of the dark, and he looked, and it was a gleam from Mumma’s eyes.

He swallowed his water and he looked her in the eyes and he said, again, “Near on sun-up?”

Slowly taking the rest of the water down his narrowed throat, he waited, and there was no response.

Tad’s stomach bit at him and groaned at him, and he put down the empty cup and looked over the tabletop. He blinked yet more and his eyes widened. There were two—no, three—sticks of stickmeat there to the right, lying there. He put out a hand and yes, it was stickmeat and yes, it was really there.

Taking one of the skewers, Tad held it to his lips, painfully swallowed the drool flooding his mouth, and turned to watch Mumma’s eyes. The gleam was gone, her face cast in darkness; he could see only the silhouette of her arm against the embers, still as she sat.

He bit into the tough meat, bit hard and worried his teeth and then began to chew, and there was a strange sensation in his gums and then his molars crashed into something rock-hard, and he stopped in pain. Out came the stickmeat and back on the table, and he reached in and felt around and pulled out the offending bit. Even in the dim light, from the shape and the color it was clear. A tooth.

Tad put it on the table and picked up the stickmeat again.

Holding the skewer in his mouth, he hobbled painfully to the door, threw the latch, stepped right out. Above there was no moon. The wing towered tall and black, as it had a stingbug’s nest of times before, and he knew that light had touched the sky and the sun was on its way.

Testing his leg nearly dropped him to the dirt, so he paused but went inside.

 

90

For once, Mumma had listened when he told her not to spread the salve, not yet. Were he going to the watgon he would need it now, and as light broke the planks that was clear.

She seemed to pay no heed, and as sun straggled into the room he could see her sitting still. Eyes flat and dark, unmoving. Hair rose at the nape of his neck, lightning shivered through his shoulders and along the backs of his arms.

No more water in the room and his own skewer done, Tad sat propped against a table leg and dreamt of wetness and of food. He pushed his aching tongue into the gaps in his teeth, trying to guess which was new—top right and second down? Likely, but not sure. There were too many gaps these days to know.

Heat rose, and he wiped sweat and licked sweat not only from necessity but because he was restless and bored. Flies came and he indulged in their jittery dance, and he caught and swallowed but a few.

When he judged it was time he called Mumma to salve his leg, called three times, and finally she rustled to life and opened the jar. He did not look into those eyes, he could not.

He was silent as the flesh was melted from his bones.

 

91

The stubby ends of his tiny blades were cool against his forehead. Crouched in the alley to wait, Tad alternated them as his heat made them warm.

Morning was long in tooth. Sweat dripped and ran faster than he could catch it, though he tried valiantly to keep up. Stuck in the miasma of that open sewer, every lick with even his dull tongue tasted of shit, but he kept on.

On occasion a silhouette would appear at one end or the other, straddle the narrow way and begin to waddle in. Almost every time, seeming to spot Tad at the center, they stopped and hesitated and turned to face the entrance, dropping trousers or hiking skirts and only then getting on with their business.

One middle-aged woman kept coming though, kept coming till she was only an arm’s length away. She lifted her skirts and squatted down, staring Tad defiantly in the eyes as she emptied her bladder. Grunting a satisfied mphh-ah, she scratched her button nose and pushed past him, treading carefully down to the other end and out.

He began to wish for more like that, odd and somewhat scary as it had been, just to break the tedium of the wait. From what little he could see of the sun, it was approaching mid-morn. The Pigon was late.

Despair began to sink in, flowing under his skin and pooling beneath his scalp. The later the Pigon, the longer he had to wait; the longer he had to wait, the shorter the time to sell, and time to sell was already short because the circles were shortest today. He chewed at the insides of his cheeks.

Maybe the Pigon wouldn’t come. Maybe it was broken down, or an ox had died, or they had stopped coming here because he had stolen from them yesterday. Or—the thought lit his head to panic and battered at his heart—it had already come, while asleep on his feet, and he was late to reach and take it.

Tad straddled the alley and jogged stiff-legged down, splashing himself with unfortunate liquids as his legs could not quite reach the edges. At the mouth he leaned out, checking first toward the main way and then toward the barrel.

Sun scorched the other half of the street, dry and hard. There was not a soul in sight.

He eyed the barrel, squinting, angling his head this way and that to see if he could glimpse into the hole on the back. It was no good. He couldn’t even see the hole existed from here; it seemed a barrel whole.

Glancing carefully around again, he steeled himself and stepped out light and taut into the street, ears perked.

At that moment, the rumble of the Pigon whispered to his toes. He stopped dead, straining toward the main way, pushed up on the balls of his feet, and after a long tense pause his ears confirmed—the rattle of heavy wheels in loose axles, the thrum of ponderous oxen on march.

Tad darted back to the alley and flattened himself against the wall. He worked his way down slow to the middle, side-stepping, only the sounds of his breath in his ears. Sweat fell unheeded. He trembled.

It took a moon for the Pigon to reach him, and half again for Dal to flash by. He palmed his forehead and licked at the sweat, and Dal flashed by again.

Long-held breath sighed from his chest. Tad slowly, oh so slowly, began to squish his way down, listening for the rumble of the Pigon again.

It did not come. He stopped, sinking in the muck, training his ears on the street. There were footsteps, fast and echoing. There were feather-light thuds of casks on earth, faraway laughter, echoing; he recognized the voice of one of the idiot twins, and then more laughter, and then something gruff from Kal.

And then finally, finally, there came the heavy creak of a harness and the jolt of uncooperative wood, and the ground rumbled as the conveyance shuddered forward into motion.

He waited, and he breathed, and he waited, and he breathed, and then from the rumble and sound it was clear that the Pigon was out of sight, and Tad sloshed down the alley and padded out into the street, blinking at the new light.

“Ons’a fellin’ ‘is ya, ahr, ya sahns’a fikkin’ arx.”

Breath stuck in his chest, guts squirming and heart wild, Tad turned and there was Dal. Head stretched high, blood pounded in his ears.

“Nelly los’ me spo’ ‘cause ya,” said Dal. “Ya fikkin’ teef.”

The right side of Dal’s face had been obliterated. The eye was swelled shut, the cheek was raw. When he spoke half the teeth were splintered and cragged, and his jaw moved weird to the side. His whole face was lopsided.

“Tey ‘ouldn’ ‘lieb ma, I’s did’n tikks’t. Kells meh a fikkin’ teef.”

Already close, he took a step closer, and his fingers wriggled and flexed. His whole face seemed to tighten.

“I’s’ous ‘em.”

Drawn up and eyes burning, he advanced on Tad.

Tad took a half step back and stood frozen for a moment, and then he unsheathed a tiny dagger and held it out; it plunged into Dal’s guts as he came quickly on.

Dal snarled without sound, kept coming and shoved Tad to the earth, dagger still stuck in.

Tad scooted back as best he could, no time to stand and Dal kept coming until he was there and he was over Tad, reaching down, coming closer and lower and closer and lower and—

Tad tore the second blade from his sheath and shoved it blindly up.

Dal stopped, gasping, and Tad saw the dagger was stuck in his chest. Dal dropped to his knees, left arm keeping him off the ground, and he reached with his right for the dagger.

Tad quickly pulled it out and jabbed it in again, again, wild, here and there wherever his arm landed, until Dal caught his wrist and pushed his arm to the ground.

Dal’s arm shook.

“Howa—?” he said, and slumped onto his side.

Dal’s mess of a shirt was wet, the knit soaked and heavy. It pulled up away from his gut, and Tad could see blood leaking from the cut there. He looked to his feet, and the first blade lay by his shins.

Dal groaned and hugged himself, and he heaved dry sobs and began to cry, curling into a ball.

“I’s’ell’s ‘em! I’s’ell’s ‘em all! Papper ans Ah ans Beh ans Kal, alls ‘em! Wat’oss hissel’! I’s’ ell’s ‘em!”

Dal pushed off the ground and tried to stand, blood dripping from the knit and from the wound in his gut. Down he went again to the dirt, body heaving as he sobbed.

Tad palmed sweat from his forehead and licked at it, and it stung with the copper keen of blood. He trembled. He blinked fast in the light.

“I’s ell’s em!” moaned Dal again, curling back into a ball.

Tad pulled his legs to him and pushed with effort to his feet, black dagger still clutched tight. Flecks of silver shone smartly even through the blood, even in the shade.

He went to Dal and he stood above, watching him whimper and moan.

“I’s ell’s em!” whispered Dal, and then he coughed and he belched and he retched.

Tad knelt down and put the point of the dagger to Dal’s throat, and he pushed. It went in a bit, enough to draw a trickle of blood and bring Dal’s hands up to grip his own, but then it stopped and it would not go in more.

Tad pulled the blade out and back and free of Dal’s weak hands, and with momentum he thrust again. The blade buried itself in full.

Dal stopped moaning and reached up again with both hands to tear at Tad’s arm, Tad’s hand, Tad’s dagger in his throat. Those hands had no power. Dal convulsed weakly and made choking sounds.

Tad worked the blade left, sawing and pushing and angling and thrusting within the neck, until a jet of blood sprayed out that wet his neck and face and chest and misted over. It kept jumping, lower and lower at regular time.

Dal was still. Utterly, completely still. His neck was a ruin and his body lay in dark dirt. Blood trickled from his gut and from his sodden knit shirt.

Tad tugged the blade and it came easy. Tucking it away in its sheath, he was acutely aware, suddenly, of the silence. Only the wind made itself heard, and it was quiet. The Pigon should have been rumbling on.

He went and plucked his other blade from where it lay, and set it in its sheath, and hurried as best he could over to the barrel. Inside were the spoils, and he sighed with relief as he hoisted the cask under his arm and stumbled off toward home.

The water weighed an ox, and his legs were made of iron.

He expected shouts behind him, he expected running feet, but only the wind came to his ears, the wind and the rattling planks, the rattling planks and the splashes of his own bare steps through the piss and through the shit.

 

92

The door opened when he threw himself into it and Mumma yanked him in, and he was joyous for the reprieve—every step was a life, every life an agony. He used himself up as he moved.

Tucking his blades back under the planks had been an ordeal, one he almost forgot and then almost did not bother with, but remembrance of Mumma’s rage turned his mind. He would have lost them, sure, if he did not grit it out.

Dark took him when he entered but it did not help, it was hot, still hot, perpetually hot in that room though the burnrock burned few and low. He dropped the cask. He clutched at the table and lowered himself to sit, and the stink of his feet and the legs of his trousers came to his nose.

Mumma knelt before him, and in the pale orange light he could see her wrinkle up her nose. “Whew! Like an ass in a swamp!” she said.

Tad heaved a choking sob and tears came to his eyes. Mumma felt his cheek with a warm, calloused hand, and then she reached down and took up the cask and poured water into tin. She put it gently to his lips.

It was the sweetest water he had ever known. It tasted of shit and iron and the nitric tang of burnrock, it was warm and it stank and it flowed because it was wet, wet, wet and he was alive with pain as it sang from his cracked lips and his swelled gums and his throbbing, rotting teeth, he was alive with fear for the day and for sales and for survival, he was alive with dread for the salve.

He awaited the last as Daps slurped his part with an animal mouth, enjoying the dark and licking the sweat from his arms.

 

93

Mumma never asked about the blood.

Tad knew it stained his shirt and covered his neck and his chin and his cheek, he could taste it when he licked up sweat. She came close to apply the salve, not only in the dark of the room but the light of the street, and she was not blind. She felt along his face and scalp, around the nape of his neck and his limbs and back and guts and chest. But she did not ask, not once, and her eyes would not meet his.

He ran the streets like a mudman howling for coin, and for once his luck was good. He sold three blades for fifteen and two for twenty by only the second circle out, and went back for more.

Mumma gave him six swords next, and hesitated, and then added a seventh and gave him a swallow of water and topped him up with ointment on his calf. Tad did not quite understand—his calf was fine—but he felt sure and wild and free, and ran as though he were afire.

Sales slowed. He ran to the end of the way and back, prancing and dancing and shouting full lungs, but only managed to move two blades. The sun had passed overwing to the west, and it seemed to have taken his luck with it.

The punters were stuck fast to the fights, crowding and pushing and jumping and ignoring all else. Iron rang clear above the din, and now and then a roar or a scream pierced the wall, but for the most part the rings were invisible and impenetrable and unheard. They might as well be nests of stingbugs, clamoring and buzzing for naught.

Tad would gladly have sold to a stingbug, had it the coin. Every other living thing in sight was pressing into the circles, fixated on the fights.

He stopped in the middle of the way and looked up and down along the bend, panting. Hardly a straggler in sight, only those passed out or too drunk to stand still. Tad took the chance to catch his breath and take in sweat. He wondered for a moment, watching the drunks, if they had coin, and if they would notice it gone.

Before his eyes, the circle broke. No—it did not break. It shifted and moved and men were vomited out to clear a path.

At the inner end of the path was a salt-and-pepper white-cap, squat, and he held high a stone marker and advanced, shuffling along. A lanky naked man with a bushy black beard followed, sword in hand, body glistening with gore and sweat, and Tad gawked as not one but TWO ih-ehs fell in behind, looming over every other man in the crowd.

He watched as the procession emerged, noting the tar icons on the marker: a running man, a half-moon, a dog. The white-cap led them toward the center of the way, and Tad realized that other circles had begun to break as well, and here and there white-caps leading naked victors leading stooping ih-ehs advanced toward a central point.

The circles did not disperse. The men all turned to where the combatants converged, and where they blocked a procession they moved, but they stayed rooted like weeper trees, swaying and jostling but stuck in place.

Tad felt a compunction to match them, and he stood where he was and did not move, a tiny island between where the victors gathered and the circle nearest. The weight of the blades tugged at the grassweave strap and his shoulder ached, but he did not set the bag down. He did not try his shuffling dance to draw attention. He did not shout to sell.

The crowds were hushed but far from silent as they waited. Loud whispers and mild shouts carried, echoing off the ramshackle, tightly packed buildings that lined the way. The diffused light of the Eastwing afternoon gave the ceremony an eerie feel. The organizers’ white caps seemed to glow.

As Tad watched, the tenth of ten victors joined the pack, and they stood in a circle waiting, each behind their own white-cap. One or two looked scared, but most seemed otherwise—some haggard and tired, some focused, but most were simply blank. They eyed the others and they eyed the crowds with the same mild disinterest that a man with his belly full might eye a stickmeat vendor.

The man who seemed to be the oldest white-cap, with a scraggly grey beard and a misshapen nose, raised a wood box as high in the air as his bent back would allow. The others held up their stone markers, tar glyphs facing him, and dropped them as one into the box.

The oldbeard wiggled and resettled his body, eyeing the men around him as he set his legs and stiffened his spine. Carefully, oh so slowly and carefully, he lowered the box by half and removed one of the hands holding it up, reaching up with that hand to dip it into the box. He drew out a stone marker and dropped it to the earth, then another, and then with clear relief he brought the hand back to support the box and lowered it slowly to the ground.

What may have been the youngest white-cap, a thin red-haired, pock-faced man, stepped forward and scooped up the markers, holding them high and showing them slow and clear in a half-circle.

“Layin’ man, lightnin’, snake!” he boomed. “Shittin’ man, full sun, furrat!”

With a roar, the circles broke.

94

The crowds closed in as he watched, dumb and waiting, fixed to the spot as the boisterous yells and laughs and screams and shoves, the high and the low, the bettors and thugs came at him, circles multiplied by circles, more men and more rough men than he had ever seen at once.

Tad did not feel threatened nor alarmed, but only alert—alert and small. He filled his lungs as they pushed in around him, shouting his loudest about his blades for sale as he dodged and squeezed and shimmied to avoid being carried along with the crowd.

No one paid heed. He soon shut his mouth and focused on staying upright, keeping the grassweave bag carefully in front as he threw hard elbows and sharp knees.

The crowd grew tighter, louder. It stank like an alley as it pressed in. Legs and hips and unwashed torsos pushed him from all sides and he fought against the buffeting waves, sometimes crouched and sometimes flailing.

Tad stumbled and fell and a heavy foot came down on his bad leg and he screamed, a heavy foot pushed weight on his chest and he gasped, all air gone, lungs still and small and would not move.

He rolled onto his side and curled up and finally a short breath, a longer breath and he pushed onto his knees. A hip bumped him hard, a knee hit him in the face, and Tad did not fall back but growled in rage and surged to his feet, throbbing leg distant, striking at the offenders with a flurry of short punches and elbow jabs as wide and as fast as he could throw them, again and again and again.

They paid no attention, and still more men came, crowding ever closer. He found himself carried backward with the tide, but even so he fought, rearing back and punching and rearing back and shoving and rearing back—

A hand caught his wrist, he tugged but the grip was iron, and suddenly he was not pushed and men flowed around.

Above was Mumma, towering with the swords slung on her back.

He shook his head at her—they had so many left to sell!—but she turned with his arm encaptured and bulled her way back through the crowd.

 

95

She did not release him even when they were clear, tugging him along at a rapid pace that made him skip and jump and jog. His leg ached and his energy flagged as the salve faded slowly away, hip twinging and shoulder zinging and arm falling numb as Mumma pulled him down this street and up that alley and around groups of stalls and men.

Finally she paused at a fork in the road and released his arm, looking carefully around. She did not set down the blades. Tad took the weight off his bad leg and worked the kinks from his shoulder and shook blood into his arm, and then he took in his surrounds.

He did not recognize the street. It stirred his memory, but nothing jumped and nothing settled. The wing towered dark above and dust came at them fierce. From the shape, they were headed toward the rounded end and not the feathered end, and that meant away from home. The wind here did not wail.

A group of women and children came up behind, trudging along with torn sacks and lumpy ragged knits. Mumma eyed them close, and when they passed, sticking slow but sure to the left, she once more grabbed Tad by the arm and plunged forward past them.

“Mummaaaaaa!” he said, “I can walk by myself!”

She did not reply and dragged him on, at the same pace or maybe faster.

“Mummaaaaaaaaaaa!” he cried, arm numb and leg throbbing.

She said nothing as he stumbled along behind.

“Mummmmaaaaaaaaaaaa!”

Nothing.

He stopped—he tried to stop, setting bare feet against the hard earth, but it was a chicken against an ox. She kept pulling and he bounced along behind her, feet scraping and shins scraping and knees scraping, wounds sharp in sensation but dull in pain, until suddenly he was still and his arm fell to the ground, prickly and buzzing and warm.

“I can walk,” he said, swallowing with his painful throat.

“Aye, bu’ ken ye follow?” said Mumma.

Tad looked to the bright red blood that spotted and ribboned the dusty flesh of his knees and shins, and listened to it keen.

He pushed wobbly to kneel and stood with unsteady feet. “I can,” he said, looking her full in the eyes.

Her eyes were flat and dark in the midday dusk, and they stared straight on through him.

Saying nothing, she grabbed his arm again and went ahead, yanking him roughly along. Knowing now that she would not stop and would not relent, Tad did his best to keep his feet.

There was no time to see where they were heading. He caught glimpses of jumbled, nondescript dust-worn shacks, of bedraggled women and children trundling along, of open desert flat forever—and the last drew him to a stop, ever so brief, before Mumma dragged him on again.

Heat and flatbush shimmered there, the cracked earth, and his head buzzed and his mouth worked dry and his lungs forgot their work at the sight. He tried with renewed vigor to shake free, to stop or slow, but Mumma was implacable and the salve was fading.

She forged on as his strength gave way, and it was all he could do to keep his feet. More and more before his eyes fell gaunt kids and thin women, long faces, gazes with misery made hard, and the desert—that horrible, horrible, slow death of a desert—reaching out to the end of the world.

Finally his legs collapsed from under him. They would not move, no matter the pain from being dragged, from the bumps and the scrapes and the hurt shot through his leg. His arm above, pulled along, was a thin pulse on a razor vein.

Shortly Mumma stopped, seeing he could not rise to step, and she let his arm to the earth with the rest. It came alive with agony as Tad groaned and looked flat along the raw, bloody skin of his legs.

He breathed, and he shuddered, and the wind shrieked cold along his limbs.

He saw a sea of legs on forward past Mumma, he saw above the clean curves of the wings. Women and children passed, more and more and ever more, clothed in rags and stinking like an alley, and they looked at him with dazed indifference if they looked at him at all.

Some of the children were hefted up into their mother’s arms, lying limp or clinging huddled against the neck.

He watched them parade above, the lucky janks, as Mumma applied the salve.

 

96

Tad gave her a fair chance.

He stumbled along behind her grip, hopping and quick-stepping as they passed others along the way, losing the sweat on his face to the thirsty ground. There had been no water after the ointment was applied. He panted in the heat, and shivered when wind knifed in from the Twinhill.

Not until the wagons appeared on the horizon, wavering in the afternoon sun, did Tad launch his attack, hopping forward to knee Mumma in the leg.

He stomped her heel, seeing in his mind the cudgels wielded by the stompers, the widows packed into the carts. He tried to wrench his arm free, thinking on the children pushed and shoved to fit. He thought of Dapper, left alone to die, as he kicked Mumma in the back of the knee, snapping his leg out with the strength of outrage and the full power of the salve.

She went down as the knee gave, stumbling to kneel, and as she flailed to take back balance her grip went slack. Tad set his feet and pulled hard, and the arm slipped from her grasp so suddenly that he fell on his behind.

Scrambling up, he backed swiftly out of reach. He turned to run, bumping a young boy to the ground as he did.

“Taddil!” rang out behind as his feet began to churn. “Taddil, yer Dapper’s dead! Yer Dapper’s dead an’ we’s cannae stays ‘ere wi’ ‘is bones!”

He kept on, weaving and dodging through the oncoming crowd, pumping his legs with all the strength in him even as the road swam before his eyes and his lungs wheezed and his throat screamed and the beat of his heart crushed his bones.

“Ee’s dead, Taddil!”

The way opened up before him, wings arcing gracefully above, and he headed for the protective shade of the Twinhill.

“Taddil!”

He paid no heed, looking ahead to the ragged feathers and enjoying the cooling wind.

One last shout came from behind, clear above the wind and animal in its urgency: “Taddiiiiiiiiilllllll!”

He ran on.

 

97

Tad entered the narrow calm of the Twinhill at a full sprint, flying along as the walls closed in. Sun dappled the ground through tears in the wing, and the feathers to his right glowed pure. Wind whipped down with lonely howls, drafts caressing his arm. He was free, free as an arrow loosed upon the world, and his lungs filled to bursting with clean, cool air.

Mumma was lying. She had lied from the start, from before the start, before the road. Her treachery in Nilston had been hard to bear, but it was only one among many. She had lied about his arm; she had kept them waiting, nearly dead, in the forest; she had lied about the Highmen in Featherwall, about Dapper’s cure, about staying here and living here and surviving here, together, and now she lied to leave and it was the worst lie of all.

Dapper was not dead. He knew it in his bones. He knew it in his chest, thumping wild. He knew it in his legs, burning with fatigue. He knew it in his heart, with too much passion to slow his pace. He knew it in his mind, sat like a burning stone, powerless to bring his legs to heel.

Tad flowed with the cool breeze and ran with speed, carried on by lungs that devoured the world. Feet pounded the dirt, toes living every inch of grit as it sanded rough against the skin. Swollen tongue bounced around raw gums and screaming teeth, screaming teeth electric and smashed to pulp. Ecstasy burned him and lit his grin.

The crash was sudden, and he cursed it as he tripped on his own feet and tumbled to the earth, stopping in a heap that could not move. He heaved breaths, and it was all the effort he could bear.

Here in the Twinhill, here in the Twinhill it did not matter. There was patience here. When he moved his eyes he saw the scaffolding of feathers, lit by the sun, and the sworls and the breaks where it failed brought him joy. Feet came on at a steady pace, walked by and let him be.

He exhausted himself blinking his eyelids, and he felt the smooth surface of that great obsidian cliff, gasping with silent exhales as he grasped and failed and fell. There was nothing there. The wind filled his ears, and did not touch him.

98

Amber. Amber and rose and violet, and then his lips cracked apart and his lungs stirred a cough and he was there, on his back looking up at the sky. It was late. He had slept.

His body did not begrudge him as he stirred to sit, and taking heart he tucked his legs beneath and tried to rise. Shrieking throbs of sullen pain, his bad leg would have none of it and he fell back, spent. His leg did not quiet.

He gazed around with the last of the light. The small shack, the one said to hold the Winged Man, was about a hundred cartlengths ahead, where the Twinhill narrowed and shrank and came together as a cave. Beyond that, as well as he could recall, lay three or four hundred cartlengths to home. Behind him, where he had entered the Twinhill, where the wings curved gracefully down, was about a hundred cartlengths back.

The scourge of his leg twisted through his veins, eating him from the inside. He itched and he burned. He ached for the salve, for its ox-shit stench, and his throat closed and grew long and forced shuddering breaths through its razor eyelet.

He wanted to vomit and pressed his half-arm against his belly, but nothing came. Acid fumes. He swallowed and huffed to clear his throat.

He struggled up and fell upon his arms, and tiredly worked his knees, and began the journey home.

 

99

It did not take long for his knees to grow raw from the scrape, scrape, scrape of the earth. His trousers, what remained of the raggedy things, did not help. Tad shifted weight for a while to his elbows, but had not the strength to pull himself along. He tried to hunker low and move forward with his thighs, but mostly he just squiggled side to side—and anyway, it hurt his wiggly worm. It was knees or nothing.

Sometimes it was nothing. He stopped from time to time because he simply could not bear to keep going, knees shrieking with pain. From how they felt, they must have been worn down to the bone, but he had not the strength to check. He had not the strength to roll over, to take weight off them for a while. He simply waited, facing ahead with his chin to the ground, staring down the well of black between the wings.

He imagined the stars above, waiting patiently to be consumed, knowing the inevitable but shining still anew. He imagined feathers rustling as he heard the heartless wind. He imagined the heat of burnrock as cold pulled comfort from his skin.

The guards seemed to pay no heed as Tad began his journey past the shack of the Winged Man. Thinking of old bruises he tried to pass it quick and true, humping along with the fixity of a leafworm, back up and knees push, back up and knees push, back up and knees push, weeping silent, tasting liquid snot as it tided down, turning his head from side to side to lick the tears and pushing, pushing, pushing beyond his stock of strength. He could see almost nothing; the moon was weak and small and did not reach.

Something poked at his shoulder and he drove himself on even faster, growling and groaning and throwing himself forward along the ground, drove himself to get away but it was there insistent, there pushing hard at his flesh, and then it tapped a strong thump to the earth.

Tad froze, saw the darker shadow from the corner of his eye and knew what it must be. A wood haft, the bruising end of a bronze spear. And he spent the effort to turn his head and he saw, with a quail and a squelch and a zing in his heart, that he was only the width of that haft from touching the endless black of the wall. His burst of effort had led him slowly sideways.

The desire to touch that wall flooded itching through his mind. His fingers stretched, tingling; he quivered with more than fatigue. But now he knew what would happen, now he felt the remembered sting in his chest. He slumped down on his half-arm, wriggled around to face toward left, and went along, slowed by care, with the push of the haft to guide him.

When finally he humped away it saw him off, with a gentle push against his bottom and then a tap to his leg and a nudge to the back of his foot. He chewed savagely at the inside of his cheek and crawled as fast as he could, waiting for the strike, but it did not come.

As panic withered, his strength leaked away and he collapsed, cheek to the dirt, a shivering jumble of gasping, freezing flesh, sticky with sweat. He felt fever. His ears pounded. His tongue creaked out to scrape cracked lips, and all he felt was a distant sting that reached in and spread to his tight jaw, his pinched forehead, his dried-out desert of a nose. Eyes filled with dark, he heard winds rage around him but felt only a fitful breeze.

100

Tad could not have said how long it took, that endless narrow calm. The wings rose up beside him, felt but not seen, and he humped and scraped and wiggled and wriggled whatever way would push him on. Strength ebbed at a low tide, and he used every drop to move.

His wrist, his elbows began to bleed; he felt the wet when they slipped and crossed, and at first did not know what it was. Pain was far away. Cold was there as a friend, it had slipped inside his shiver.

He remembered sleeping—remembered waking—but did not know if he had moved. He dreamed dreams forgot, dreamed them with eyes open round, he thought, but it was dark here and dark in sleep. His stomach ached and he did not know why.

Once he tried to see if he was real or he was dreaming and he turned to find the wing, but instead blackness found him and he grew dizzy and retched a spurt of acid up into his mouth. He fell over onto his back, stars above spinning, and swallowed the sick and swallowed some more and then felt better and rolled over and time seemed to pass but he made no headway, he made no headway but now his palm was raw and sore. Made no headway but now his leg ached foul.

It would not do. He groaned a low groan and he pushed on with his iron limbs. Just wait for dawn, he told his back, told his thighs, told his warbling sides. Just wait for dawn, and— Wait for dawn, and—

He didn’t know. He couldn’t wait for dawn. He pushed on, whoever he was. He pushed on, because he was—that. That. He was dead.

It was a revelation, his death, but it did not stop him from pushing on. His head floated on a tether. He must be Daps, then, dead ol’ Daps pushing on. He whispered the words, dead old Daps, and then he knew he couldn’t be because Daps couldn’t whisper. He must be Resla, or The Grimthistle, laughing and eating a brazier, or Ock shitting out burnrock.

Or Mumma. He could be Mumma, and he had left himself behind. Dead ol’ Mumma.

The meaning of the word struck him sudden, blinking, strumming the cracked earth with his fingertips. Oh. Dead. Dead. If he was a dead thing then he must be Tad. Shivers crept from his skin.

Tad was going home, that’s what Tad was doing. Tad was going home.

He mumbled nothing words, and he pushed on.

 

101

Tad woke to a puddle of vomit and the dim webbing of cracked dirt. He blinked and registered the light, looking around to get his bearings. He was in the Twinhill, somewhere. The light, above, was a dim puce.

He went at the wing, working his scabbed elbow and his good leg; the other leg throbbed, too painful to be anything but weight now. Wind pushed him to the ground as his head came up against the feathers. Progress was by worm-lengths. The cold bit at his back. It was a struggle to breathe, tongue stuck as a dead thing

Finally his nose was through, his eyes, and he lay for a long while with his chin to the ground, unable to focus.

The light grew. Walls appeared, and then color, texture, cracks between planks and ox-ruts in the road. Lumps of shit, dried and drying.

He knew this place. The shape of the…The shape of how it came together. It was not home, but it was close.

The wind was hard on him and he knew he could not push through from the start again, so through he went, wriggling and waiting, through by worm-lengths as the sun made the world. The moon had retreated, the stars were no more. It was only him, him and the sun, and he went to it even as it blinded and burned, went to it and took his dusty breaths, until the wind touched only his heels and the cold began to lift.

Tad turned and went along the margin of the wing, where the wind pushed out not down. He dragged himself past the nearest house, past a narrow alley and past another plank-board house that rattled in the wind. Already it had grown warmer; his shiver had gone away.

Finally he turned left toward the town, left into Eastwing, and he was on the stretch of road to home. Utterly spent, with only one leg and one arm to drive him on, he moved to the center of the way and hauled himself forward, chancing an ox cart to avoid the bulk of the shit. There was still some, though, and he had not the energy to be delicate. Straight through it was, straight through and home to Daps.

 

102

Tad stopped to take his midnight blades before progressing to the door, catching his breath and storing his will as he clumsily strapped them to his stump of an arm. They were crusted now with a black that was gummy to the touch, and he gave an experimental tug to the hilt of one.

It stuck fast and seemed to have no give. He tugged again and found the same.

He left it alone and pursued the door, eyes fixed on the crosswise planks as he pawed at the dirt, scraped at the dirt, wriggled and pushed his good leg at it. He knew Daps was alive, he knew it knew it knew it, but his heart galloped and his head was light and he felt on the verge of vomit.

He pulled on the door but of course it was latched, and the latch was an ox-cart above. Setting his back to the planks and getting his good leg under him, he pushed up with a burst and flailed his arm at it. No. Again. No. Again. No.

Tad gasped for air, wheezing, his chest unable to hold enough to satisfy his lungs. The world danced in his eyes, the small street with its haphazard shacks, and its cracked flat dirt, and its room bucket messes dark in the fresh sunlight. The Wat-witch howl of the wind rose clear and mighty from the wing.

He pushed up again, letting out a yelp of pain as he forced his bad leg under to hold his weight, fumbling around behind his back with the latch. There. He yanked it open, the door gave way and he tumbled to the ground inside, the cool dark inside, curling into a ball and rocking himself to fight the pain from the crash from his leg. Back and forth against the agony, back and forth. Back and forth as his brain roared fire, back and forth. Back and forth as his leg shrieked and splintered and exploded—back and forth.

When he was ahold of himself enough to look around, Tad peered through the dim, past the forge and the through the legs of the table, to the spot where Dapper lay. Pale light forced its way between the cracks of the planks to light his still body, sunken as though part of the dirt, only his wooly beard and unkempt hair breaking above the rags of his blanket.

Tad whimpered as he stared, and he whimpered as his body unfurled and went shaking and slow across the room, eyes never leaving the reddish beard and the greasy black hair to see if they would move.

They did not.

He looked at the chest and it did not seem to move, he looked at the lips and the eyes when he drew near, heart pounding, and the lips were open and silent and the eyes were closed and still.

Shaking, he put his hand out to feel for breath but could not balance with his half-arm and his bad leg and he fell, weight on his face, face pressed down on Dapper’s chest.

He broke down in sobs when he felt that chest stir, drowning out Dapper’s gasped exhale and grunt with heaving wails and shuddering tears that did not come easy and burned his eyes as they came. He let them fall.

He could not speak and Daps could not speak. When Daps opened his eyes he made a wild call of joy, a whooping grunt that died in his throat as a hoarse rasp and a spasmed cough.

 

103

Mumma was not there.

Tad used the last of his strength to take an inventory. There was a tin cup, left on its side beside Daps, but there was not a drop of water in the room. There were piles of needles, a small pile of unsharpened iron blades, a handful of sharpened iron blades. Mumma’s knife was gone, her leather gloves were gone, her small pile of linen and knit scraps was gone. There was no hint, in form or in scent, of Tad’s ointment.

Pensly’s enormous hammer rested beside the fireplace, next to Tad’s makeshift burnrock pusher. There was a small pile of burnrock left, but Tad did not see glynt or stone. There was not a bit of food.

Tad crawled back to where Dapper lay. The sun had finally done its work and burned the chill from the air, so he did not need the covers. He stretched out beside Daps, not minding the stink of piss that hovered in the air, and gave him a big, gappy grin. He peeled a part of the dry, cracked skin from his lips, put it in his mouth and chewed at it. The blood that came after was thick and tasted strong of copper, but he enjoyed the wetness all the same. His tongue sparkled and jumped with pain at the touch of it.

With the air growing warm, with his leg throbbing and his half-arm aching and his lips bleeding, lying there beside Dapper, Tad shut his eyes and was gone.

104

Mumma did not come.

Dapper grew harder to take with each passing hour, first flush of exaltation gone. He groaned and smacked his lips and let out little yips from time to time, and when he was not sleeping his eyes roved. He did not piss himself because he had no more piss to give, but that didn’t stop his soiled trousers and blankets from stinking up the room.

Tad would have made some distance if he’d had any strength at all. As it was, all he could do was lie beside his father as the heat ebbed. The light had already died away. The wind rose, and he listened to the Wat-witch outside rattling the planks.

His head was thick as a three day-old biscuit, and squeezed in on his brain so that he thought an eye would pop. Vision pulsed fuzzy and clear, fuzzy and clear, but there was nothing to see anyway as dark closed in.

He thought of taking some needles to play Bandits ‘n’ Stompers with Daps, but they were so far away. Daps probably couldn’t hold a needle now.

Leg tingled and he pressed it against Daps’s, sweating with the effort. Still the tingling did not stop and Tad raised his head, raised his head, raised his head for a thousand hours, sweat dripping down the nape of his neck, and then he saw that it was a spider and he recognized the spider from the forest, fat and juicy and BIG.

It did not clamber, it stayed and rubbed its legs and he said without saying, “Get in my mouth,” and it paused but did not obey. It rubbed its legs until he could not hold his neck up anymore and plonk on the ground and then the ceiling was lit by burnrock fire blink the ceiling was lit by a field of burning burnrock blink the ceiling was lit by a thousand braziers, each bigger than an ox and stretching on forever, and he closed his aching eyes against the light but he could feel it burning, feel it driving the moisture from his pores as his eyelids glowed red with his blood and the Wat-witch pounded noisy on the wall.

But it was the shadows that knew, it was the shadows that knew, and he whispered “Amsgasilehhhh,” and they knew.

They opened up his veins and they fed in the burning light, a flicker to a trickle to a stream to a river to a flood, and he sweated and he wailed and he waited for their answer, he waited to know what they knew.

 

105

He could not count the days. He woke and it was dark, he woke and it was light. He woke freezing and he woke itching with heat. Never was there water and never was there food, and his throat and mouth and belly were frozen in want.

His body burned and his leg pulsed and the phantom of his forearm stung him hard. Sometimes there seemed to be fresh vomit around, tang wafting through the dry air, and he wondered where it could have come from—he had no liquid in him.

The pain in his head grew until it seemed his skull would crack from it, or his eye or his ear or the bridge of his nose would burst open and bleed. It thudded raw with each damned beat of his heart.

Beside him, Daps grew slowly silent and slowly still. His head stopped roving at the end of his neck, leaving only his eyes to flit around in their shrunken sockets. He did not yip or bark. Parts of him trembled now and then, but they did not thrash as they had before.

Tad wished for the flies at first, to distract him from his want, but they did not come and in time he did not need them. He became one with the dirt—not the dust, flittering about, but the dirt, the hard-packed dirt that did not move but cracked and bore the heat.

His lips flattened to nothing, his mouth opened barely to breathe, his throat stayed a narrow razor. His eyelids began to rub and stick painfully to his eyes, so he just kept them closed.

He sank slowly, slowly, slowly down into that dirt until the ceiling was a thousand cartlengths away—no, ten thousand, just a speck far above—and he stretched out to fill the floor and the walls and Daps and the Wat Witch howling at the door, the needles and the sharp iron of the swords, to fill everything but that ceiling so far above, pain eased as it diffused through it all, and he reached up endlessly at that retreating, retreating, retreating ceiling with a speed that made him sick at the pit of his guts.

He had to make Dapper whole, he knew as he felt Dapper and he felt the room. He had to make Dapper whole through the winged man, the winged man, the winged man flying along beside his endless arms, the winged man and his Twinhill tears.

If Mumma came back he would make Dapper whole, and they would dance by the fire and sing heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. And if Mumma never came back he would make Dapper whole, and they would dance by the fire and stick out their wet tongues at where she never stood and sing heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

The ceiling lurched up so fast that Tad’s stomach flipped and he gagged, but even so he went after it, walls shuddering and scraping with pain, went after it until it was nothing but a narrow blackness a narrow black a narrow bla.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part III

 

High Wail

Low Wail

Burnock

Crookback

Rattle

Tumbleton

Nedil

Hors

Thirs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

Tad was on a run for The Grimthistle when he saw the bodies, a shout from where the towers dug their heels. They were dusty bumps on a flat forever, resolving slowly as he walked out from the shadow of the wing.

The sun was low and dying, violet and blood, last heat breaking on the wood of Wet God. Cold rose to make him shiver as Tad passed exactly half between two of the warty, haphazard monsters, exactly half so no guard would mark his way.

He liked the towers. He liked the way they spun up endless and gaped open wider, wider, wider to drink not a drop from the blue. He liked the rivers of tar and the frenzied supports that surrounded the base and grew longer, broader, stouter as they moved to air.

The things looked ripe to topple any minute, and he liked that too.

The bodies had none of the flush of the sunset and none of the wet of the towers. They were sunken as though the air had been let out. Teeth protruded. Eyes were missing. The skin looked leather, but weak. The only shot of color was the blade stuck out behind the ear, rusted red.

Even without it he knew what they were, from the marvelous height and the tattered robes.

The ih-eh were laid in a row, faces blank to the sky, each with crusted brown blood round the heart. Tad peered intently at the yellow faces and the yellow teeth and the eyeless holes, and he touched one of the rusted blades, and then he turned and set himself toward home.

 

2

Home was Pensly’s old furnace and yard and run-down shacks, most nights.

Pensly had been the one to pull up Tad from the thick dry dust and let the air back in. He had done it with one hand as the other gripped his hammer, he had done it as his skin caught fire from Tad’s, and he had burned and heaved and burned and heaved and then he had set Tad down in the shade.

There had been water, and vomit, and water, and vomit, and spiders that burned in his bright heat and he had shivered at the touch of their legs. He had looked at the sky and it was flame, he had looked for the old man and he was gone, he had cried “Daps!” and it did not leave his throat. The shade was a dead thing, dead and useless.

Daps had been beside him then, Daps though he had not asked, and he did not seem to move but his eyes spoke life burned life blinked life. Tad waved with his non-hand, he spoke tall with his non-hand, he grew large and crushed flies and sucked in life with his non-hand, throat watered and wrong and spat sick out.

Pensly was there every moment, every moment even when he was not, ministering sores and dry and hunger with a persistence that drove Tad to frothing wild. He wanted to pour himself out in the dirt, he needed to rest sunk in the dirt, but the old man came and the old man pushed water that brought fire and the old man blew air that brought him to the world. The world hurt, the world was not what was wanted.

He melted back sometimes despite it all, melted back away from the heat to the lamps that were bright but did not feel, to the sky that fell up and made him retch and the retching made him whole, to the Twinhill that burned and the winged man who burned and his own head taken in fire, in fire that sloughed flesh back on and tingled, gently, cool. He asked the grand mysteries of the world to the winged man and the winged man sat silent, but Tad could feel the answers sparking deep inside his head. He licked and tongued them gently with a swelled tongue, to water them to grow.

They did not. But he kept at them.

3

The fire had faded day by day, and with it Pensly’s presence. The heat remained. Dapper was in good spirits, flush with water and jabbering loud. He reeked of piss, and Tad knew enough to know this was a good thing. There was no hint of shit, which was worrying, but he could not remember having any himself since Mumma had left.

Pensly began to disappear completely during the day, returning only after sun-down with a triumphant water cask, three portions of food and a short but lively dance that always ended the same way—Tad grinning, Dapper flailing at the dirt and croaking, Pensly doubled over clutching his sides, laughing too hard to make a sound. It made the food taste better, and helped wash from memory the long dry cracking heat of the waterless afternoon.

Nights were hard. When Pensly had the wherewithal to do it, he hefted Daps over to one of the little shacks at the corner of the yard, threw himself down right next, and made just enough space for Tad to fit snug in. It was still cold but less cold, out of the breeze and with warm bodies at hand, but the walls made the snoring seem thrice as loud. There was not a scrap of knit in the place.

More and more, though, the old man went out like a pinched wick wherever he happened to sit, sending snores light and steady across the open yard. The cold did not seem to bother him, even when the winds were high, and Tad tried everything short of stabbing to raise him, with no luck. A few times he himself tried to drag Daps over to the shacks, a few times he tried sleeping in the shacks alone; neither worked. He resigned himself to sleeping draped atop Dapper, head nestled under his father’s arm. It was not warm enough, but he could sleep and they did not die.

 

4

One day, Pensly had not returned even after sun-down. Tad and Dapper waited parched and waited starved as the long afternoon fell to night, as cold rose and bellies growled and swelled tongues sang sore laments.

For a while, for a while before the wind bit in too hard, Tad went and stood watch by the fence. The festival was over, the streets were dead. There was not a food stall in sight or in smell, and for that he gave a thankful glance to the clear dark sky above. Of the signs only food, drink, woman were lit, and only an occasional torch broke the black. He watched each pass, each for what must have been hours, but he did not grow inured to the disappointment.

Tad found himself looking not just for Pensly but also for Mumma’s face, for the scar on the cheek or the hard-set jaw. When he realized it, when he realized it and remembered, he shivered and blinked away tears but kept his watch, until finally he could not let it go.

He staggered weeping back to Daps and collapsed atop him, taking half the tears for himself and directing the rest onto his father’s lips. He wept for as long as he could remember, he wept for as long as the tears would fall. Daps grunted and bellowed complaints and smacked his lips and beat his palm against the earth.

 

5

Tad awoke hot and itching to sweat, mouth sour and sticky. His tongue ached. He staggered up drunk on sleep and drunk on dry, head pounding. Daps still breathed. It was mid-morn. The sun beat relentless on the yard.

Pensly still was not back.

He checked the shacks to be sure, checked the shacks and they were empty. Tad patted Daps on the head, feeling the stiff, greasy brush gone wild. His father whispered and groaned with rancid breath, stomach complaining with pinched growls. He had made no water; he had made no mud.

Tad’s own stomach gurgled and bit. He felt thin as a Skin-man, chest juddering with each beat of his heart. He had no spit, he had no sweat. His skin itched. What strength he had leeched slowly into the air.

It would not do to wait for Pensly.

The fence Tad had figured out already, when he was bored and had no need. It was not actually heavy but stood stubborn in its divots in the dirt. The trick was to push it up first, just enough at the end, and it would wobble without much trouble to let him out.

6

It was not easy this time to reach The Grimthistle. He had known the way from High Wail, the bends and turns and marks, but from Pensly’s yard all was new again. His leg had healed well enough that he gave it little thought now, wending his way through the dry streets. Now and then it twinged a spasm up into his back, now and then it stabbed a barb into his thigh, but if he avoided sharp pivots and abrupt stops then he was fine.

Pensly lived in a place Tad did not know. It was near the curved front of the Twinhill, it was near the middle arc, but it was not a part of either. Further in were the poor, further out was wealth, and Pensly seemed to straddle the gap. His yard and the structures around him were as ancient as wood could be in this sun-bit land, but parts and pieces and sometimes whole buildings had been rebuilt new.

All was in a style separate from the rest of the town—a style that spoke meaning in its flared roofs and angled walls, function at its open heart and the slow eternal in its stone tables and stout tree-trunk supports. The few that lacked fences seemed to be artisans, and they worked metals or linen or made earthenware pots and bowls and plates.

 

7

The peacock door opened as easily as Tad remembered, latch and hinges well-oiled and smooth, and it swung out to reveal a cool darkness that made his skin shiver in delight. Above was the warm orange of a burnrock brazier, and there was the scrape of a chair and the thump of a foot and a shadow blocked the light.

“Taddil!” thundered a voice above, and quick hands drummed a welcome on the rail. “Come!”

Tad shut the door and carefully climbed the stairs and found himself grinning.

The Grimthistle held out his hand. Tad took it, and was gently led to a seat at the table. There was no food, no water, none of the children, only a thick book opened to figures and markings that he had never seen before. Tad shied away from the heat of the burnrock, and The Grimthistle carefully pushed it opposite.

“How was the festival then, Taddil?” His eyes glistened large, blue hair black in the dark.

“It—” said Tad, but it came as igh, and then his throat stuck fast and he wheezed.

The Grimthistle smiled his contemptuous smile, and he stood and he retrieved water from the next room. Tad drank it greedily down, spluttering and coughing, and when his cup bounced light on the table and he recovered his breath, The Grimthistle pushed a palm toward his face.

“Do not speak, Taddil. I would like to wager that you did not enjoy the festival, but I cannot wager with you.”

“I have nothing you want?” asked Tad.

The Grimthistle showed his teeth and stroked his cheek. He pulled down a lock of his hair and sniffed it.

“I do not trust that you will not lie, Taddil.” He showed his teeth again.

Suddenly he clapped his hands, once and loud. Amusement gleamed in his brown eyes. “My right hand will wager my left. Yes.”

He brought up his right hand and it became a simple mouth. “I wager Taddil did not enjoy the festival,” it said.

The left came up and muttered, “I wager he did.” It did not seem happy about it.

They turned expectantly to Tad, as did The Grimthistle, and waited a long moment. “Did you enjoy the festival, Taddil?” asked The Grimthistle.

“Nnn—” said Tad, tongue sticking so he could not finish the word. He shook his iron head on his tin-pin neck, and slumped hard back in the chair.

The Grimthistle’s right hand devoured his left in brutal silence, gnawing bone and flesh.

 

8

Tad was silent to further inquiry, taken by fatigue. The Grimthistle did not press him and went back to his book.

Tad fought his limbs, tightened his back, coiled his innards to sit up in the chair and voice his need, but his body was nothing but pox ore, his body was nothing but pox ore, his body was nothing but pox ore.

He thought of Dapper waiting in the yard, waiting dry and helpless in the yard, and a lump grew in his throat and tears came to his eyes. But his body was nothing but pox ore, and pox ore did not move.

“Hnngh,” he said and swallowed, and the tears they were still there.

“Hmmmhhh,” he said and whimpered, and the tears began to fall.

The Grimthistle disappeared for a time as Tad sat quiet weeping, and when he returned it was with stew. Tad’s stomach gurgled and lurched at the smell of it, but as for the rest he was pox ore. And pox ore did not move.

9

When finally Tad had shed his last tear, the stew was nearly cold.

Joints loosened and a part of his energy returned, he slurped it down in silence, watching The Grimthistle idle at his book. When the stew was done there was more water, and he slurped that down too.

Finally The Grimthistle did not look up but spoke: “Your…mother…is gone.”

Tad’s mouth worked but no sound came. Tears welled in his eyes. He rubbed them away and found The Grimthistle watching, wolf-sharp and eyes clear.

“But you are not,” said The Grimthistle, leaning in.

Tad blinked away tears and loudly sucked snot back up his nose. He met that probing gaze, blinking and sniffling and snorting but he met it, and he swam a hypnotic swim in the dark depths. Stale sweat tugged at his nostrils, and scented oil and the dusty carbon grease of the burnrock.

“I came for wat—” said Tad, and cracked and broke to tears upon the t. He sobbed and heaved and pulled himself calm, and said again, voice thick: “I need water. Dapper needs water.” And then added, in a whisper, “Just under Mumma is back.”

The Grimthistle held silent, leaning forward and forward and forward and holding Tad’s eyes with a narrowing gaze and he said, “Taddil, your—.” And then he too cracked and broke and sobbed, and tears ran from his eyes.

He reached out and laid a cold and quaking hand on Tad’s shoulder. “You shall have your water, Taddil.”

 

10

It was the first of many trips to The Grimthistle, for water and for food. Pensly was kind but unreliable, and the heat was nearly as bad as it had been in Mumma’s dark, cramped room. The cold was worse, and Tad found it dried him near as surely as the heat.

The Grimthistle made good every time, and asked nothing in return.

Pensly began to make blades, carting home boxes of burnrock and boxes of pox ore with him at sun-down and lighting a sun in the forge. He worked at first with jaunty jigs and swaying hips, with a grin and with an ease, but the night wore him down. He grew sullen, he grew fierce. He drove the hammer with grim brutality, battering and battering and battering the glowing iron until he would stop, he would blink and sway, and Tad would see his need. And then he would drop the hammer and be gone, and when he was back he was Pensly again, crafting along in his merry way.

While he was gone Tad slept, bedding just the right distance from the flames. There was no other way—even in the shacks, the hammer strikes would keep him up.

But it was only a few hours that the old man left, and that was not nearly enough. By degrees he became nocturnal, sleeping in the shacks from just before sun-up until the heat woke him mid-morn. And then again for hours in the afternoon, as fatigue and boredom took him and the sun hid behind the wing.

The hot part of the day went faster, which meant there was less wait for Pensly to return with water and food, but it also meant Tad was hungry again by the time the old man took his nightly break from the forge.

 

11

It was on one such night that Tad decided to visit The Grimthistle, slipping out into the street a few minutes after Pensly. Tad didn’t want the old man to know of his relationship with The Grimthistle—it felt somehow unseemly.

He shared his spoils from The Grimthistle with Daps but not Pensly, and he hid any evidence that they had ever been. He and Daps were making out quite well—he felt better than he had in ages, and Dapper wasn’t nearly so skeletal as he had been, nor his skin so sunken and dry. Pensly continued on as before, but Tad figured he was fine, and he seemed to have the coin to fix things if he were not.

The streets were dead. It was late and the moon had passed to Westwing, leaving nearly a pitch black. After the bright of the forge it took time to adjust, and he bumped into jutting corners and parked carts until he did. It would have been worse had the shit on the streets not all dried.

He hurried, clutching himself in the cold. He met no one, and there were no lights at all. The darkness was so complete that Tad was not even sure he had the right door until he lifted the latch and felt it come easy, saw it swing out to reveal the orange brazier light above.

He took the stairs slow and quiet, blinking at the light, not sure if anyone would be awake at the hour.

“Laddel!” came a sharp whisper, and he stopped.

There was Resla in The Grimthistle’s chair, eyes just clearing the table.

She straightened as he took the final steps to the landing, and briefly checked the chair to her side. On it was a strange, lumpy bundle, and Tad realized it must be the baby.

Resla hissed at him. “Don’t stare, Laddel! You’ll wake it!”

“Taddil,” he said.

“Don’t stare, Taddel!”

“Taddiiiiil,” he whispered at her.

She waved the correction away with a dismissive hand and motioned imperiously for him to sit.

“Why are you up?” asked Tad, leaning close to the brazier to take the warmth.

“The same reason you are, you stupid snay-ump,” she said. “And anyway Karsly wouldn’t sleep.”

“Now she is,” said Tad.

“And now I’m not,” said Resla, and made her eyes wide to stare.

She pushed herself up as tall as she could in the chair and settled her hands on the table. Her chin still barely cleared the edge. Her hands did not seem her hands.

“May I have some water?” asked Tad, and her opened mouth snapped shut.

“Oh,” she said after a long pause, “Would you like some stew as well?”

“Yes, please,” said Tad, and he waited with an obliging smile.

Resla stood, and she walked around the table, and then she grabbed the rags that covered his chest and yanked him roughly to his feet, pulling him after as she headed toward the kitchen. He could feel the knit ripping.

“The Grimthistle is not here, Dolya is not here, Ulya is not here, and I will take no orders from Taddil.” She pulled and pulled and then pushed him into the kitchen. “What you like is yours to have, but take it with your own damn hands.”

And then she was gone, and Tad was left in that wonderland of food.

 

12

He dipped water from an enormous iron cistern, and then he went at what he knew: a skewer of stickmeat; a hunk of stale bread; a bowl of his usual stew, lukewarm, in which to dip the bread; another skewer of stickmeat while he waited for the stew to cool. Tad belched, then, partly full, and took a slower look around.

There were small beige and brown lumps in varying shapes and sizes—mostly round or oblong, but some lumpy and odd—found in a tall tin box covered with linen. He took one carefully and tried to squelch it, but it was hard and did not squelch; he nibbled at it, and when he nibbled it was not so hard. It had a pleasant earthy flavor when he crunched the whole of it in his mouth, but it made his throat scratchy and made him cough. He drank more water.

He took another skewer of stickmeat, because he could, and then he rubbed his protruding belly and he belched and groaned. That had perhaps been too much. He was feeling fuller by the minute, and a bit sick.

But he pressed on. When would he have another chance like this? Usually it was only the water and the stew, plus whatever stickmeat or yellow mess Pensly happened to bring around.

Tad sniffed at the saltmeat, but it still made water rise in his gullet. He cut a bit from a root and it burned his mouth and he spat it out, he took a bite from a white bulb and it was so bitter he retched, he saw a potato—he knew that one—and tried a bite raw, and that bite was enough.

His stomach now ached fierce, like it might explode. He pressed it and patted it and gave it little punches and he belched several times, but still it grew tighter and more painful.

No matter. There was one more thing among the litany left untried that Tad knew he must must MUST try: a piece from the plate of sugared flatbush, left half-uncovered. He pushed in his stomach until it produced a belch, and then he took up the candy and shoved it whole into his mouth.

He chewed. He chewed and he chewed and his tongue went around and he smacked his lips. There was surprise at how tough the core was, interest in the softer, chewy outer bits, and then the sweetness crashed in.

He breathed deep in wonder, head throbbing with the flood of sharpened smells and the pulse of blood and the energy that sang in his limbs, he put his arms up and he spun around and he grinned and spun and grinned and then he stumbled and there was the floor and he laughed silent, dizzy, panting, sitting staring at walls that could not be still.

And then of a sudden came the nausea, and a pain that started in his belly but grew to fill him whole. He retched and he breathed and he retched and he breathed, the vomit would not come so he stuck his hand down his throat until it came and then he sat still, breathing, impressed that he had not died after all.

Looking to the vomit, he seemed to have thrown up most of what he had eaten. His stomach throbbed, but he felt fine.

Tad stood wobbly and downed half a cup of water from the cistern, and then he took a full cup more and he went out to sit next to Resla.

 

13

“I hope you enjoyed yourself,” said Resla as soon as he plopped down, “because it’s the last free meal you’re like to get.” She wrinkled her nose. “And thanks for the present. Ulya will be delighted.”

“I would have cleaned up, but…” Tad gestured to the air. His throat still burned. He took a sip of water, hand shaking.

Resla pulled a piece of burnrock from somewhere under the table, scrambled up onto her knees on the chair and deposited it in the brazier. She turned her gaze to Tad, perched and leaning in at him over the table. She cleared her throat.

“The Grimthistle has excellent eyes, Taddiiiiil, but he has a muddy heart. I am his clear heart. I will tell you what he knows but will not speak, and when you know there will be costs. The free water and the free stew end tonight.”

She leaned closer, palms flat on the table, and her eyes were wide and dark. “Your mother is dead, Taddil. Dead. She will not come back for you, she cannot come back for you, because she is dead.”

Tad blinked. His mouth hung open. There were no tears.

Looking disappointed, Resla licked her lips and retreated to slump in her seat. “The wagons are vultures. The drivers take up all the leftovers, and while the stupid snay-umps sleep, they strap all the food and water to the oxen and they walk off and hide.”

Tad breathed through his nose. “So?” he said.

Sooooo…” said Resla, with a shake of her head and a sigh. She slid down so much that Tad had to lean forward to meet her eyes.

“Soooo…” she began again, “they don’t come back until three, five, eight days later. A few of the women leave, a few even make it back, but then what are they, and what can they do? They die, here instead of there. The kids don’t come back—I’ve never seen one come back.

“Most of them don’t even leave the wagon. They’re too stuuuupid to know the driver’s done them in until it’s too late, until they’re so dry and hungry they can hardly move. And then the driver comes back and stabs them dead, and takes whatever wasn’t already took.”

Resla slid down, down, down until only her head was on the chair, and she stared up at the ceiling. “They don’t even bury them,” she whispered. “They just leave them in the sun, and take a different way next time, and let the birds do their work. The drivers come back, and no one cares, and they do it all again next time.”

14

Tad kept a sharp eye for his mother the next day, and the next and the next and the next. If Resla was right, she might turn up any moment. He did not know how many days had passed, but Mumma was not one to curl up and die. His insides tensed at the thought.

Resla was right about The Grimthistle. Tad was still given stew and water when he went himself, but there was none to take back. When he asked, he was politely refused; when he demanded, he was ignored; when he begged, The Grimthistle grabbed his wrist and forcibly threw him from the house.

This persisted for three days, and Tad could see Dapper wane. He tried a new tack.

“I will work for you,” he said to The Grimthistle, “in exchange for food and water to take back.”

The Grimthistle’s eyes gleamed as he looked up from his book. It was only him, with Resla nowhere to be found, and it was late afternoon. The brazier was the only light.

“What sort of work would that be?” asked The Grimthistle, and his tongue perturbed his lips.

Reflexively, Tad touched the blades wrapped round his stump. The old blood was hard and scabbed. He picked at it, and rearranged his shoulders.

“You killed him, that boy,” said The Grimthistle. “No one knew who did it, but you did it.” He showed his teeth. “No one cared, but you did it.” His hand come out to rest on Tad’s shoulder. “Drink your water, Taddil. Drink your water, and eat your stew.”

Tad drank his water. He ate his stew. He felt better.

“You will take a debt, to sustain you. When there is work you will do it and you will pay me back, and then you will have coin for yourself. If you work for me for long, you will have enough coin—and because you are not accustomed to having coin, it will be far more than enough. It may bring you trouble.”

The Grimthistle put his palms to his cheeks and rubbed and stretched them. His eyes were wet. “You will pay me back, and you will have much coin for yourself, but the debt will remain. You might return the coin a hundred times over, but the debt will remain. The debt will remain.” He leaned forward over the table, curls swaying and eyes glistening. His voice cracked as he said, “Do you understand, Taddil?”

Tad met his gaze, and he slowly nodded. He did not.

 

15

Daps perked up again with food and water twice a day. He was quiet and hairy and deep bronze where he was not hairy, he grinned rotten grins and slapped the earth with good humor, he rocked side-to-side when Tad came near, he sweated and left low water and high mud. He was, in short, as good as he could be.

Tad stayed with him for many days when he did not sleep or go to The Grimthistle, expecting Mumma to make her appearance at any time. There were tickle-fights, there were games, there was feeding and watering, there was teasing and japing and mockery of all sorts, but in the end it ran dry. It was one-sided, and Tad loved Daps but Tad got bored.

Mumma did not appear.

Tad began to go for walks after taking water, wandering further and further in the hot afternoon shade, until one day he crossed the Twinhill into Westwing and remembered the Westwing highman.

He took himself there.

 

16

“Little Taddil,” said the highman with a wan smile as he closed the door, “you have come back to me.”

The wait had been long. Tad was almost last in line.

The highman scooped his usual bowl of sand into his usual wooden box, and time began. “Is there something in particular you want to learn today? If not, I can sug—”

“Grimthistle,” said Tad.

The highman was still, breathing. He opened his mouth in a tight smile, and then his tongue came and poked out and ran side to side along the ridgelines of his teeth.

“That is quite a thing to ask, little Taddil,” he finally said. “Why do you ask it?”

Tad touched his throat and worked his spit and said, when he could, “I have heard of it. I want to know what it is.”

The highman’s tongue moved to his lips and stayed, pensive. His hazel eyes watched long. “Have you seen it? Do you know the color?” he asked.

“I think so,” said Tad. “It’s red, isn’t it?”

The highman smiled a quick sad smile and motioned for Tad to sit. “It’s blue, Taddil. It’s very, very blue, as is the plant it comes from.”

Tad sat straight down on the hard dirt floor, and the highman followed suit.

“The plant is dangerous,” continued the highman. “If you touch it with your bare skin it will make you very sick, and may kill you—it depends on how you touch it, and for how long. For a child like you, it could indeed easily kill you. Thankfully, it does not grow in this part of the desert. You would have to go far to find one.”

He paused, shaking his head. “What some men do, Taddil, is to take this dangerous plant and make it even more dangerous. They extract—they take out the essence of the plant, the poison of it, and they mix it with the essences of other things.

“In this way it can become even stronger as a poison. The smallest of amounts—the dust you can pinch between your fingers—can be enough to kill a man.

“But it is more terrible yet when it is not made into a poison—not a direct poison, anyway. It can be altered to provide pleasure. Pleasure again and again, such pleasure that men come to know nothing else, that they want to know nothing else, and at the same time it is slowly eating their insides and driving them mad. In the end, it turns men into gibbering lunatics. These men die in the streets.

“There are other perversions. It can be used for sexual potency—” The highman laughed and patted Tad on the head. “Well, you’ll learn of such things later.”

“And it can be used to heighten the senses. The world seems very clear, everything is felt very keenly. But again, this ends badly. Men who use this form of the grimthistle eventually catch fire from within, until they are in constant, agonizing pain. Most such men go mad or kill themselves.”

The highman stretched out his legs. “The reason you’ve likely heard of this…essence…now is because of the recent festival. It was your first, no?”

Tad nodded.

“The festival draws desperate men from afar, and casts them into fights to the death—some quite literally, while others use the last of their money, the best of their skill. It is a rich market for all these uses, as I’m sure you can imagine. The poison, mixed with black sugar and water and spread on a blade, kills with a scratch. Men likely to die seek pleasure however they can find it. And the games of acuity, agility, thinking and skill—these are well served by a sharpening of the senses.”

Tad stroked his throat and looked his plea at the highman. The highman shook his head. “No water today, little Taddil. I am sorry.”

Tad nodded and forced out at a whisper: “What games?”

The highman looked him askance. “You don’t know the games?”

“I saw only fights.” His throat burned when he spoke.

The highman rubbed his hands. “Ah, yes. You are from Eastwing. Eastwing is the old town, home to the old traditions. You have seen the bloody mess that started it all. But here in Westwing we have no death, and little blood, and we send more to the House than the East. Champions of thought and skill, and luck.

“Archery, spear games, dice, Mad Ox, Twist’er Straight, Crumble, Gunny Hack Weeds, Shuff’long, Stone House, Arms-a-naught…those are the ones that come to mind. And there is the lottery, of course, for those with money but no skill and—well, no wisdom.”

Tad could only blink.

 

17

“It is true, Taddil,” said The Grimthistle, smacking his lips as he chewed the saltmeat with his fine wooden teeth. “The highman did not lie. He did not tease you,” he said, and smiled with sparkling eyes. “There are many other ways, and most are in the West.” The brazier was bright and hot today.

“The men who made this town, who made this festival, do you know what they want?” asked The Grimthistle.

Tad shrugged and slurped his water. The Grimthistle waited and chewed his meat. “It is not hard to know,” he said.

Resla stuck her tongue out at Tad and mouthed stuuupid.

“Coin, Taddil,” he said. “Coin and more coin, and then more, until it falls from their ears and their nose and when they weep it is only coin.”

“What do you want?” asked Tad.

The Grimthistle spat out a wad of gristle, licked his fingers, cut another slice of saltmeat and chewed and swallowed and took a long draught of water. Only then did he speak: “I want you to pay your debt,” he said quietly. “I want all men to pay their debts.”

“I am ready,” said Tad.

The Grimthistle shook his head. He removed his upper teeth, pulled free an impaled piece of meat, and carefully reseated the wood. “It is not the season.”

 

18

Rain came.

Tad was awake when the first drops fell, watching Pensly work. There were one or two big wet splats to his arm, his leg, and then it was on him, water exploding against his skin, water shocking cold along his shoulders and his back and the back of his neck, water that encased him as liquid ice and forced his body to violent shivers.

He shook so he could hardly move, gasping at the cold and the weight of his clothes, and he pushed with every bit of strength toward the forge. The fire hissed and steamed but stayed strong, and for Tad it was a beacon.

There were hands then, strong gnarled hands that took him through the air to rest by the mouth of the forge, and Pensly pulled off his sodden shirt and trousers. They landed with a heavy squelch beside him.

The old man took the other side of the forge, naked as well, leaning back against the stone. He said something and grinned with his gums, but the rain was too loud for Tad to hear. Tad could not force himself to smile back; he hugged himself and shivered and leaned closer to the intense heat of the forge.

When he had warmed enough to stop the worst of the shivers, he took in the stonework and the yard. It had clearly been made with this in mind: the overhang to the forge, woefully inadequate to block the sun, worked well enough to keep off the rain; some of the water drooled down the front of the overhang, but most leaped from the sides in terrific spouts, well away from the forge; the yard itself was saved by its incline, water rushing straight down against the fence, along the fence to a gap near where it opened, and out.

There was no wind. The rain came straight down in glittering curtains.

With a start Tad thought of Daps and reared his head wild, eyes wide, to and fro—and found him stretched out by Tad’s sopping knits, eyes gleaming as they roved the wet descending, mouth working and legs twitching. He was near the edge of the overhang and the rain reached in to touch his feet, but Daps seemed to enjoy it. Tad thought he heard, faint, a happy jabbering, but with the drum of the rain who could be sure?

He stretched his foot down toward the water where it ran against the stone, just managing to wet the tip of his big toe, and the bite of the cold took his breath. The strength of the flow punched his foot back.

Pensly’s bony old hand clamped firm on Tad’s arm, and the old man jabbed a finger at the torrents and shook his head a sober No. Pensly curled up atop the stone.

Tad followed suit, bending legs carefully around his pile of rags. He watched the Sky give its bounty to the earth, he listened to the Earth thrum applause for the gift. And he thought, for a moment, of Waterboss, and of Cloudgrabber, and of Wet God and Rain Giant and Highwater, and of how those barrels would fill.

 

19

This time, the rain came far more than one night.

When Pensly returned at dusk the second day, he dragged out everything from the shacks that could—or might—hold water: casks whole and broken, tin cups bashed or round, rusted iron cookware filthy with dust and grime. They went up on the stone islands, everywhere but the blackblock so Pensly could still work.

At the end, the old man emerged with tattered grassweave in each hand, and held them up to Tad with a grin. He laughed then, he laughed deep and wide and free, and he flung them to the ground and went back for his hammer and ore.

Sure enough, the rain came as it had before, heavy and swift and colder than anything Tad had known. This time, Daps was in place and Tad was in place and Pensly swung nude at the forge, spotted and wrinkled and scarred and taut, glistening with sweat, pendulum below swaying with each strike. When the rain fell he stopped and rested in it, and then he set down his hammer and he danced and splashed and laughed and drank from the casks all around. He brought water to Daps and to Tad, hardly able to keep his feet for the force of the galloping rain, and the water was crisp and clear and made Tad’s head ache and his teeth scream from the cold.

The next day, only the casks told that water had ever been. The yard was sere, the shacks bone-dry, the stone back to its usual shade. Then sun shot long shadows, but resting in them made no difference to the heat.

At first he did not understand why the air was so moist, as everything in Pensly’s yard had dried complete. From the casks, mostly full and baking in the sun? They seemed too small.

It became clear when he ventured out to The Grimthistle for food. Before ten cartlengths the road was muddy with more than oxshit and room buckets, by twenty it was more mud than road, and by thirty he had reached the edge of an enormous pond. At the intersection of several roads, it ran nearly out of sight in every direction, deep enough that whoever lived in the nearby houses must be up to their knees.

Stomach rumbling, he waded through.

 

20

Aside from the humidity and the tough slog to and from The Grimthistle, those first few days of rain were magical.

Thirst ceased to exist. Tad would drink until his belly hurt, and watered Daps until his was swollen too. It was a pleasant ache, and he stumbled stiff-legged around the yard grinning, rubbing his stomach and feeling the water slosh inside. When he pissed it was with volume and force.

He even vomited it up once, threw it all up simply because he’d had too much all at once to drink—and he didn’t care. A whole bellyful of water sicked right up on the dirt, and he didn’t even have to give a poxy damn. There was plenty more where that came from, and yet more on the way that night.

Pensly began to take him on his back and dance around in the rain, setting him down for short stints on the stone islands around the yard so they could dance their own jigs and laugh their own laughs and then stumble back cold to the forge. The forge fixed their chills in no time.

The old man stripped down Daps, put his knits out in the rain and gently bathed him before the fire, pouring freshwater from the casks over old scars and fresh dirt, scrubbing his body gently with burnrock and then washing the skin clean anew.

Dapper smelled considerably better afterward, and Tad himself felt…fresher. He was steadfast in his disparagement of baths, but he could now say that being naked in the rain was a fine thing. As long as there was no lye involved.

Pensly took a blade to Daps’ hair and beard, cutting both down nearly to the skin. It was a nice change. Daps no longer looked like he was sinking into a field of rotting, matted tallgrass, and he smelled a bit better for it too—though it didn’t help the stink of his rotten breath.

Tad at first refused the knife, but for the next day could think of nothing but how itchy it was, how greasy and tangled and dirty it was, and when Pensly was back he himself asked for it. The rain hit like iced lightning on his scalp.

There were other signs of health returning. Daps’ skin grew less like grassweave and more like leather, with a hint of bounce and moisture to the touch. Tad’s lips now hardly cracked when he woke, and were trying to stitch themselves whole; Tad enjoyed peeling away these bits of new, thin, translucent skin and chewing them, the song of the pain and the tang of the blood, else they might have fixed themselves completely.

 

21

Things got worse. The ponds between Pensly’s yard and The Grimthistle’s blue door grew larger and deeper by the day, the mud deeper and muckier. Tad would reach The Grimthistle filthy up to his hips, hands and arms muddy too if he fell or had to dig out a foot, and The Grimthistle would say nothing but he would grimace ever so slightly and his eyes would read out his contempt.

If Ulya were around she would tsk and wipe him raw, but going back he was slathered in mud again all the same. At Pensly’s it didn’t matter—at Pensly’s the rain wiped everything clean.

Flies grew in quantity with the mud and with the water, and came to buzz and drown in casks. Bumpbugs, which Tad thought had been left behind in the sands, came to torment them at dusk, first a few whining around with their skreees at his ears, then more and then more still, descending to bite as a ravenous black cloud. The rain drove them away, but he woke each morning with more and more bumps, bumps he scratched to blood and scab. Daps was worse off; he could not scratch but only groaned, and twisted his face as his face allowed.

He tried to hide in the shacks but they found him there, they came in easy through the gaps and the hole in the back, and he had not the light to smash them well against the walls. Better to be out in the setting sun, out to commune with Daps and Pensly and make futile swats against the horde.

Pensly began to bring back some sort of large, dried herb fronds, and when the bumpbugs were thick he tossed them in the forge and stood in close as smoke bellowed out. The old man placed Daps near too, and brought Tad over, and they huddled hacking and coughing, hacking and coughing, hacking and coughing but it was better than the bumps.

The alleys were clean. At first Tad was appreciative—he hardly had to mind where he stepped when he made his low water and high mud—but his good feeling evaporated when he realized what was happening. The rain was washing all the piss and all the shit down to where all the other water went, to the ever-growing ponds at the key intersections of Eastwing. The ponds he waded through up to his thighs to get to The Grimthistle.

Even so, they did not smell so bad. Not nearly as bad as an alley. He detected only a slight stink on himself when he was through, dripping in the heat, and it was more sweat than piss or shit. Worse were the flies and the bumpbugs that attended the water: both were biting, and both swarmed.

 

22

Pensly brought less food. At first it was just a bit—yellow mess that didn’t fill the bowl, stickmeat with a piece or three too few—but after a few days it went to half, and half to quarter, and there it stayed.

Tad said nothing. He gave Daps his fill and took his own at The Grimthistle’s, and brought back more for both.

The old man watched him feed Dapper, giving more and more of the meager portion each day, until finally he ambled over when Tad was halfway through.

“Ha’iil,” he said, clutching the boy’s wrist with his ancient claw, “a boy’s go’sa ea’s, ‘oo. Don’ gi’es i’ all ‘a yer Da’s, nae.”

Tad looked at the scrawny stickmeat, and he looked at his skeletal Daps, and he looked up at Pensly.

The old man cast his eyes to the earth. “I’s do me bes’, Ha’iil. Bu’ nae’s ‘ha we’ seas’n, an’ naugh’ bu’ moo’s in ‘ha we’ seas’n.”

It was true. Tad went out at the quietest times, mid-morning and in the middle of the night, but even so…it was not just quiet but silent. He hardly saw a man about. Morning should have been the province of the rumbling watgons, but they were not seen or heard. There were no oxen on the streets.

Even The Grimthistle was soon giving smaller portions to take back, and the thin stew seemed thinner still. One morning he gave Tad a single stick of stickmeat to take back.

Tad felt a sick keening in his belly. His hand shook as he took the meat. Like this, like this—like this he and Daps would starve.

“I need more,” he said. “We have nothing to eat.” It was true enough.

The Grimthistle, for once, did not look him in the eyes. “It is the wet season, Taddil, and in the wet season nothing moves. There is no food here but what moves here, except the furrats and the spids.”

“Do better,” said Tad. The shaking spread to his whole body and became sobs, and tears and snot rolled down his face. “You have to do better,” he said thickly, and he heaved and he wept.

Amber lit him and slowly dried his cheeks, not the heat from the burnrock but the color itself, stretching out to fill his vision, creeping in to tickle his nostrils and steal the phlegm from his throat and leave only salt on his lips. He hiccoughed, sudden and violent, and after a moment it came again and then again, guts lurching. Tad clung to the chair and flexed his stomach and puffed out his chest with air that he held stubbornly still. Staring defiantly up at the Grimthistle, he held his ground.

The Grimthistle looked him in the eyes, then, those bean-brown orbs placid and searching. He said nothing, but there was no contempt in his gaze.

 

23

The next day, The Grimthistle did better. There were potatoes cooked by Dolya, skewers that mixed the usual grey, gristly meat with some sort of stringy, tough but tasty vegetable, and mashed…something…that tasted a bit like yellow mess, only it was red.

The Grimthistle himself was spooning up the red mash, smacking his lips and letting his tongue rove his lips.

“I must thank you, Taddil,” said The Grimthistle. “A man comes to accept the things he believes he must. But a man grows old, and his beliefs grow old with him.”

Taddil slurped his water and waited for Dolya to finish putting the food in tinware and in grassweave wraps. He watched The Grimthistle enjoying his mash. They said nothing.

Finally, when Tad had carefully stacked the food under his arm and pressed it tight against his torso, The Grimthistle released his spoon and sat back deep with a satisfied air.

“Taddil,” he said, “as thanks, this feast shall add no debt. Go today and enjoy. Tomorrow you will come ready to work, ready to begin repayment of your debts. Tomorrow, though it is not the season. Tomorrow.”

He showed his wooden teeth, and pulled down a coil of blue hair and sniffed it.

 

24

Tad stood before the blue door, and the whorls and chipped paint were all wrong.

“You have done us a great service,” The Grimthistle had said. “You have told us of this other door.”

Had he? Tad remembered no such thing.

“Now you begin to repay your debts. You shall take your knives and you shall enter, and you shall tell me what you find,” The Grimthistle had said.

Tad did not know why he had been asked to take his knives, but it did not matter—he took them everywhere now.

He tried the latch. This time it was not locked and opened inward easy, hinges silent. Tad stepped in quiet and pushed the latch shut with a click.

It was dark, but not as dark as The Grimthistle’s. Light came not from a brazier but from holes in the ceiling, blades of mid-morning light stabbing in. They hit nothing but the floor, rough planks of light wood. There was a mildew stink to the air. Flies buzzed. A bumpbug skreeed at his ear.

As his eyes adjusted, shadows resolved. A table sat in the center of the room, large and squat and rectangular, with no chairs and nothing on it. Around the room were large pots and vases, with enormous grimthistles growing from them.

Unlike the one at The Grimthistle’s, these stood straight up. Tad moved closer to the nearest one, until the reason why was clear: black lines in the diffused light, black lines leading up from the bloom—ropes from the ceiling held up the heavy flowers.

A corridor beckoned at the back, and Tad carefully maneuvered around the grimthistles toward it. Flies landed on his arms and legs and neck and face and he let them, bumpbugs buzzed his ears and bit him where they would.

Cautious, he watched for movement in the corridor as he approached from the side. He touched the cold metal of his blades as he sidled up to the wall, leaning to—floor wasn’t there balance was gone arm went out wide and—there.

Handhold secure, he steadied himself and pulled his foot back, glancing down. The floor ended abruptly a bit before the wall. He blinked at it, wondering.

And then he looked over at his hand, and his hand was gripping a thick, leathery pole, smooth and cool to the touch. Above it was an enormous bloom of thorny vines.

Gasping, heart jumping, Tad released the stem of the grimthistle and rubbed his palm against the cold iron vase, back and forth and around, pressing hard, never touching the same spot twice.

Nothing happened. He slowed his hand against the vase, hardly daring to breathe, every nerve in his body tuned and waiting, tuned and waiting, tuned and waiting as his hand came to a stop and felt the cold metal, as his heart thudded in his chest, as sweat tided over and ran long and cold down his side.

It hit like warm nettles in his palm, and then his heart skipped a beat and his lungs came up short and he was lying on the floor, and then his body was on fire and there was a knife in his guts and he screamed loud, loud, loud and without end.

 

25

Wet slicked his fingers. He gasped and sucked air down a raw throat. Opened his eyes to dusky grey, tasted vomit as his nose found it. Drew his hand back through the vomit to push himself to sit.

His body ached and shook. The knife in his belly had not dulled.

“You eat well,” said a deep voice above and away, “else you would not have survived that.”

Tad with squinting eyes, dulled by pain, looked over. There was a tall shadow by the table at the center of the room. He closed his eyes to still a wobbly head.

“You are not one of mine,” said the voice, in a tone that seemed to resonate and buzz the timber floor.

“I came to be one,” said Tad, and coughed. “One of yours,” hoarse.

The floor creaked. The shadow, already tall, seemed taller. “I have none,” it said. “I am not like The—damn the man, I will not call him that. I am not like…the other.”

Tad listened to his guts pump hurt. He was still.

“Did he tell you to bring those knives?” asked the voice.

Tad exhaled a long, shuddering breath as he thought. “No,” he said, “I always wear them.”

“Did he tell you to take them off?” asked the voice.

“Yes,” said Tad.

“Hrmhmmmmmm…” said the voice, in a sing-song snarl that shook the air. And then: “That does not seem likely. I will ask again. Did he tell you to take them off?”

Tad leaned back on his hand, staring up at the shadow. “Yes,” he said, tongue thick in his mouth.

The planks creaked and sounded as the man moved, as he came forward and hoisted Tad to his feet. “There is nothing for it but to trust you,” he said, “so now we shall dine.”

 

26

“Yes,” Sors had said when he introduced himself, “Sors, as in ‘hors’ sors’. Could be worse, as a reputation—always there when you’re wanting fun, always popping up when you least expect it.”

He was too tall for his chairs and table, and he sat far out and leaned close in, craning his splendid neck in over the plate. With his long, hooked nose and his sad eyes, he looked like a deathwing hunched over his meal.

Sors dined on pickled vegetables, and the sour stink of the brine did not help Tad’s stomach. He crunched away for a while in silence, keeping Tad’s cup full with a cask. Tad vomited in the large tin bowl provided, and set an unsteady eye about the room.

It was a simple space with walls of patchy wood, mostly given over to hanging foodstuffs. Aside from the table, there was only a small stand with an iron flat and a rusty knife—no place for a cookfire. A narrow door broke the wall at the back.

“Your man,” Sors finally said, “has no patience.”

Tad sipped his water and said nothing as the tall man chewed.

“He eats better than I because of it, of that I am sure,” said Sors. “But he makes of the grimthistle a business, when the grimthistle is an art.”

Suddenly he decamped from the table, pulling his arms behind his back and stretching with pops and cracks. He scooped up the oil lamp and held it out toward Tad, waiting and waiting until Tad groaned to his feet and took it in hand. The lamp was the first he had ever held, and it was heavy.

Sors led him back through the corridor to the front room, around the table, to a particular grimthistle on one side, and he put his hands to Tad’s middle and lifted him above the flower.

“Do you see the center of the bloom?” he asked.

The flower was enormous, as long across as Tad’s whole arm. Short, thin, tender vines ringed the outside, tilted in unison toward a nearby shaft of light..

“Look deep in,” said Sors, hoisting him higher with a grunt.

Tad held the lamp out as far as he dared, so the glass brushed the ring of vines, and peered in.

Around the bottom and slowly spiraling in and up was a slender cord that started blue, went purple and then red, and at the middle high and wide it exploded in a ball of rainbow fuzz.

Sors set him down. “That,” he said, “is something I’d wager your man has never seen.”

 

27

The Grimthistle looked Tad long in the eyes, the glowing orange from the brazier reflected in his enormous pupils.

“Tell me again the number, Taddil,” he said.

“Three,” said Tad, and sipped his water.

“And again, Taddil. It is sweet to my ears.” The Grimthistle leaned forward even further, so close Tad could smell the stink of his breath. It was roses compared to Daps.

“Three,” said Tad. “And first among them was a man called Sors. The others were big and had knives, but they didn’t speak. Actually Sors was big too—well, tall, not big—with a voice like thunder.”

The Grimthistle rubbed his cheek and squinted his eyes. “And tell me of the house, my man Taddil. Tell me of the house.”

“It is…” said Tad. “It has…” He drank more water. “There are two rooms. The first is large and has many grimthistles and many holes in the ceiling. The floor is wood, and it ends before the wall. The second room is small. It has a table, and there is food.”

“Is there a door in the second room?” asked The Grimthistle, cocking his head to the side and probing his jaw with his fingers.

Tad thought. He looked The Grimthistle in the eyes and saw no contempt there, no contempt but impatience and something else, something he had never seen before and did not recognize.

“No,” said Tad.

“Are there windows? Anywhere?”

“Nnnnnno,” said Tad. “There is the blue door, and there are holes in the ceiling, and that is all. Your house is much nicer.”

The Grimthistle cracked a smile, and a web of saliva joined his wooden teeth.

 

28

The rains began to slow. They started later, finished earlier, and lost their fury day by day. Tad could stand in the downpour and keep his feet with ease. The casks filled less and less until they stood half, less and less until they stood a quarter full.

Pensly began consolidating water from all the assorted containers into the casks and buckets that held it best. It was for drinking only, the games and bathing done. Tad drank as much as he needed, gave Daps as much as he needed, and by degrees the supply began to come up short.

The ponds in the streets were slow to shrink; cast in shade most of the day from the houses or from the Twinhill, they did not shrivel in the heat. What had started as ponds had turned to lakes as the rains continued.

The water was no deeper—mid-thigh at its highest, as before—but now each lake began twice as close and ended thrice as far, and each stretched so far toward the next that they nearly met. He could look in every direction from the center of an intersection and see nothing but water, stretching without end down all the streets.

As Tad’s hands dried rough and his lips cracked small and the familiar taste of thick spit rose in his mouth, as thirst set in and the headaches and the fatigue returned, he was tempted, almost, to drink. It reminded him of that spider so long ago, that spider in the woods: so close, so sure to bring relief—and across a gap he could not traverse. Sometimes he crouched down by the edge, or stopped in the middle while on his way to The Grimthistle’s, and he put his mouth achingly close to the wetness of the water, to the sweetness of the water, to the life that sang its melody to the cracks in his skin, so close he could feel the heat wick from his lips. And then he would inhale the stink, he would hear the buzzing of the flies and the whine of the bumpbugs, he would remember the low water and high mud washed in from the alleys, and he would straighten and go on. He saw no one drink the water, and he would not be the first.

Eventually these lakes began to dry, retreating slowly at first and then quicker and quicker by the day. Before he knew it, the water ended within sight and rose only to his knees, his calves, his ankles. The cyclones of flies and bumpbugs turned to clouds, the clouds to less.

Tad would wake late and spend the hour before sun-top tending to Daps and scratching bumpbug bites and bites from flies and scabs from both until his legs and chest and half-arm were nothing but varying shades of blood, new and old and clotted whole, and he fizzed with pain and itch. His back and arm did not escape—where fingernails could not reach, he rubbed bloody against the rough stones of the forge.

 

29

From sun-top to sun-down, The Grimthistle filled his days.

At first he was tasked to help with chores around the house. Dolya and Ulya used him in the kitchen, mostly to scrub iron pots or keep the cookfire going or stir the stew as it boiled. A couple of times toward the beginning they forgot his missing hand and asked him to cut and to peel, and he was game to try; half the beans jumped on the floor or in the fire as he chopped them, and he gave Ulya a nasty gash on her side when the knife slipped suddenly from the peel. They remembered after that.

Tad hated the scrubbing—it reminded him of whetting blades, oh so long ago in that dark hot room with Mumma, and his arm ached fierce the next day—but it was better than feeding the cookfire. Anything was better than that.

The chimney was too small, and the smoke boiled up in a cloud around the fireplace. Keeping the fire fed and fanned put him right at a height where the smoke pushed out into his face, and it made him dizzy and out of breath. Sitting seemed to help, but whenever Dolya or Ulya saw him they would frown and shake their heads and hoist him to his feet. The smoke did not seem to touch them.

Other times he was set to sweep the floors, to clean the ashes from the fireplace, to check stacks of grassweave squares for holes and sharp bits.

When The Grimthistle was around, he watched Tad work with a smirk and with deep contempt in his eyes. Tad would ask if there was something else that needed doing, and The Grimthistle would make no sign and give no word and slowly turn and walk away.

 

30

Finally, after weeks and weeks of this, when Tad asked the question The Grimthistle nodded and motioned for him to follow. They left the kitchen for the table on the landing, and The Grimthistle leaned forward with his elbows next to the brazier, eyes glistening with disdain.

“Do you have pockets?” he asked.

“I have one,” said Tad.

“Show it to me,” said The Grimthistle.

Tad stood and thumbed at the opening.

The Grimthistle made a sound in his throat, a hrmmm, and smiled a lascivious smile. “Pull it out,” he said, “from the in-side to the out.”

Tad did, and The Grimthistle stretched himself over the table and took it between his fingers, rubbing it and darting his fingers here and there into the enormous gaps in the knit.

“Resla!” he bellowed, and sat back and put his hand over the brazier, rubbing his fingers together with seeming distaste.

Resla loped in through the inner door, scowl growing deeper as her eyes met Tad’s.

“Resla, you will—”

“I won’t,” she said, and stuck her tongue out at The Grimthistle.

The Grimthistle snapped his fingers several times and then wiped them on the tabletop, not looking at his daughter.

“Resla, you will—”

“I won’t,” she said.

“…speak that way to me,” said The Grimthistle, swooping in. He licked his lips and gave her a wolfish grin. “And now that we are agreed on that, you will fix Taddil’s pocket.”

Resla walked like a ponderous crane around the table, feet slapping the floor, grabbed Tad’s pocket and gave it a tug.

“It’s useless,” she announced, and promptly elbowed Tad out of the way and threw herself down in his chair.

“The pocket can be saved. And darning is a useful skill,” murmured The Grimthistle.

It’s useless,” she said, looking up with narrowed eyes at Tad.

“Only until you have fixed its pocket,” said The Grimthistle. “Then it can carry coin.”

Resla sniffed at her hand and wrinkled her nose. “I will burn his pocket, and the rest of his damned clothes, and give him new.”

“You will—”

“I won’t,” she said,

“…disobey me,” finished The Grimthistle.

Resla stuck her tongue out at The Grimthistle, and then she stood and pushed her chair over and yanked Tad’s trousers down to his ankles.

 

31

Tad winced as Dolya scrubbed hard with rough wet linen against his arm, tearing off scabs along the way. Blood welled in thick drops to cap the inflamed bites, but she paid no mind. She had moved on.

All it had taken was one glance of Tad’s bare bottom against the chair. She dragged him into the kitchen, stripped him of his shirt as well, and was back in but a moment with linen to wash him clean. Water went on the cookfire, but she did not wait for it to heat.

She wrinkled her nose at him as she worked, and shook her head as she wrung and wrung and wrung the linen and finally went and found more. Dolya must have spent two moons on his dangly bits and his low parts, none too gently and muttering the whole time.

Finally she stopped scrubbing and began collecting the bits of linen. Tad mooned around looking at food until a hard smack on his bottom sent him scampering back to the landing, wiggly worm wobbling.

Resla glanced at him over the bone needle as she drew it up through the knit. “You must be very proud of that,” she said.

Tad did not understand. He slipped past her and wriggled into a chair.

“Dolya!” called The Grimthistle. “Do not improve his shirt!”

There was no answer. After a moment Dolya appeared with a bowl of stew, delivered it to Tad, and continued on to the interior of the house. She did not look at her father.

 

32

Pocket fixed, Tad was sent to pick up coin—sometimes from hiding spots, sometimes from people, never with a reason given.

Pickups from people were worse. He was given no advice on who to look for, only told two points—“the rowdy house in Crookback with the red door, and the nearest dice den toward the wing” was a set The Grimthistle gave him—and expected to walk between them, back and forth and back and forth and back and forth, begging for food or pissing in the alley or hobbling through the gutters, whatever would make him “look natural,” until someone slipped up beside him and thrust a bag of coin in his pocket.

When he had returned from his first pickup, hand stuck fast in his pocket and wrapped tight around the coins, hobbling stiff-legged quick and watching hard all around, The Grimthistle had grinned a grin that cooled and did not touch his eyes.

“Is that the water gem of the Grand Highman Grentamptin?” asked The Grimthistle as Tad topped the stairs.

Tad did not know what to answer. He did not know what that was.

“Is it the legendary levitating lewseye of Jumpsy Jav?”

Tad understood Jumpsy Jav, but not the rest. He withdrew the bag of coin from his pocket and showed it to The Grimthistle.

“Ah!” said The Grimthistle. “It is the coin you have been tasked to bring me.” He beckoned Tad closer.

Tad walked around the table and offered the bag of coin to The Grimthistle.

The Grimthistle did not take it. He looked Tad in the eyes. “How is it, Taddil, that I have tasked you to bring me coin? Is it because you are so big, so fearsome that no man would dare to share your shade? Is it because you spin your dark little daggers like a whirlwind, and cut away all greedy hands?”

In one swift motion, he took the coin with his left hand and tugged at the hilt of one of Tad’s daggers with his right—but the dagger did not pull free. Tad was jerked forward onto The Grimthistle’s lap.

Above him, the man giggled and then tittered and then guffawed and finally shook with laughter as he tugged and tugged and tugged at the dagger and it would not pull free. Finally he grabbed Tad’s half-arm and grabbed the dagger’s rough hilt and worked it side-to-side, round and round, back and forth until it slid and then jumped from the leather.

The Grimthistle put his fingers to the blade and rubbed off a tiny bit of crusted black. “Ah,” he said, “yes.”

He gently pushed Tad off his lap and back a pace, meeting his gaze with those mud-brown eyes, and for now the contempt was gone. “You are tasked with coin because you have nothing. You are trusted with coin because you have nothing. You are safe with coin because you have nothing.”

The Grimthistle cut the tie on the bag and put the dagger back in Tad’s sheath. He took a small silver coin and pressed it into Tad’s hand.

 

33

The coins were a delight, a frustration, a confusion, a madness.

With that first piece of silver—silver!—he went straightaway to a vendor selling a pungent pot of yellow mess, and he reached up and slapped that coin as hard as he could on the plank, and with his fingers he signaled “two.”

He and Daps delighted in lunch that day, and he was left an iron coin in change to boot. After they’d licked the earthenware clean and rubbed their bellies and belched and farted their fill, Tad flung the bowls as far as he could over the fence and pulled out that coin to show Dapper. They both had a good grin, and then Tad went and wedged it in a crevice by the shacks.

Other vendors gave him back a bit more, a bit less. He discovered that keeping the earthenware or the grassweave or the tin or the knit and bringing it back when he bought again would get him more change.

And then there was the stickmeat vendor over near Thirs, who gave him nothing at all—not even the food. Tad signaled with his fingers, waved his arms, shouted “two” as loudly as he could, but the vendor was stone. Thinking he may not have seen the coin, Tad threw his hand up to the plank and plastered it around. Nothing.

He took a step back and eyed the vendor, a winkled, wiry fellow, bald with a fringe of grey and a sour smirk. “Two!” he shouted.

No reaction. The vendor idly turned a few of his wares, roasting over burnrock.

“I’ll get a stomper!” shouted Tad.

And he had, from the nearest Guild dispensary. He’d had to insist and plead and wheedle till his throat dried up, but finally the stomper had come along, cudgel bouncing along at his shoulder.

“Ye takes ‘his boy coin?” asked the stomper.

The vendor fingered his skewers. “Boy like ‘is with silver’ll come to no goods end,” he said. “I’s takes it ‘a help‘im.”

The stomper peremptorily stuck out his hand, and the vendor dipped the silver in.

A heartbeat.

The stomper flipped the silver back to the vendor and took to heel. “No’ Guild coin,” he said, “means’t hain’t Guild concern.” He strode off down the street.

The vendor pinched the coin and shook it small at Tad. “No’ doin’ nothin’ proper ta’ve sich like ‘his a’ yer age. Le’s i’ be a less’n ta sets y’self arights.”

“It’s my Dapper’s!” said Tad.

“’en lets yer Daps come claims’t back, arghm?”

Tad put his hand to a dagger.

The vendor picked up a rusty cutting knife. “Ye’ve yerself a cow ‘n skallins, ye come at me. Till ‘en, I’s takes wha’s mine.”

 

34

The Grimthistle had laughed, and laughed and laughed and laughed, until tears wet his cheeks and he nearly choked on his wood teeth. Resla had not been in the room. Tad had sipped his water in bewildered silence, in offended silence, in furious silence.

“You never told me it wasn’t Guild coin!” he said, as the other wound down. “You have to tell someone if it isn’t Guild coin!”

“Oh?” said The Grimthistle, wiping at his cheeks, “Why is that?”

“’Cause all coin is Guild coin,” said Tad. “And everybody wants Guild coin. And if it’s not then you should say!”

“Did the others take your coin?” asked The Grimthistle, carefully reseating his teeth.

“The other what?” asked Tad.

“The other vendors. Taddil, did the other vendors take your coin?”

“Yes,” said Tad. “So what?”

“So not everyone wants Guild coin. Or, not everyone wants only Guild coin.” The Grimthistle showed his teeth. “In fact, this is nearly the tenth coin, and it was the first the vendor would not take.” He shivered and shuddered and shook and then his wide face shattered with glee. “Oh,” he gasped, “no. That—that’s not…true!”

When The Grimthistle finally recovered his composure once more, Tad stared him cold in the eye, arms crossed. “Only Guild coin is protected.”

“That is true,” said The Grimthistle. “It is protected. If you can poke a stomper to move his feet. And if the man on the other side is not larger and does not have a quicker blade.”

Tad emptied the last of his water down his gullet.

“You will get a bit more for Guild coin,” said The Grimthistle, “but you will pay more than that to change. Better to use silver and be done with it, even for a boy with nothing to his name. Men will take silver.” He guffawed. “And men will take silver, especially from a boy with nothing to his name.”

“That’s why I want Guild coin,” said Tad.

“The problem is not the coin,” said The Grimthistle. “The problem is that you are a boy with nothing to his name.”

Tad slumped forward and put his chin on the table. “One of ten,” he said, “One of ten I shall have no food.”

He watched the brazier. The steady heat sapped the moisture from his eyes.

The Grimthistle, tongue perched thoughtfully atop his lips, leaned his head until he blocked the view of the brazier and met Tad’s gaze.

“So Taddil, you must take something, or you must make a name,” he said.

 

35

The grassweave sheets, the bits of knit, the tins and the earthenware bowls piled up. Tad did his best to reuse them to get more coin back, but most days hunger overwhelmed him as he passed the smoke and scents of stalls on his way back to the yard. The silver was warm in his hand.

Anyway, he and Daps were like chickens in the seedbox. Silver fed him in the afternoon, Pensly fed him in the evening, and more than that he did not need. So the iron coin piled up too, though not as quick nor as high as it might have.

Pensly seemed oblivious to it all. Tad had at first chucked his earthenware and tins and the rest over the fence to hide his meals from the old man—he felt he should at least buy a portion for Pensly since Pensly always bought a portion for him, but he did not want to spend his meager coin on the old man when the old man had coin enough. More acutely, he had worried that Pensly would stop feeding him if he thought he could feed himself.

One day he had forgot, pure and simple, and Pensly had not said a thing. So he had kept more, and experimented, and discovered their worth, and finally let them pile up and up, and still Pensly did not say a thing. They were heaped in a jumble beside one of the less-used tables of stone, and with the rains done they were not washed and crawled with flies.

Even so, Pensly seemed not to notice. Tad did not know if it was because he came back after sun-down and could not see, or because he was full up with drink, or because he did not care. None would have surprised him.

In any case, Tad decided to tell the old man, to alleviate the uncomfortable itch that came with hiding a secret. Since he had started getting his silver there had been little talk and no fun at all—no games and no jigs and no singing; Tad’s tension leached out and poisoned the air. Even when he offered to work the bellows and jumped and squatted and hopped like an enormous popfrog, there was little more than a polite grin shared between them.

If it meant fending for himself in the evenings or buying another portion in the afternoons, so be it. He would haggle and he would use his iron coins.

“T’a’ so?” said Pensly, when Tad was done explaining his work and his reward. “Goo’ on ya. I’s nis pay fa ay-seh wors.”

Tad waited, jaw tense and teeth grinding, for demands of inclusion or a warning that it was time to stand on his own.

None came. Pensly belched and winked and tousled his hair.

“You can use my tins or my grassweave, if you want,” said Tad.

“F’wha’?” asked Pensly.

“Stalls will give you more, if you bring your own. Charge you less, I mean.”

The old man gummed a genial smile, and Tad led him to his stash of bowls and tins and food wraps. He showed him his iron coins, stuck in crevices and wedged in slots all around the shacks and back fence, even overflowing to a space he’d found between the stones on an unused table.

Pensly nodded sagely at it all, and his eyes were bright and kind. Afterward, he danced a jig of such fervor and with so many crazy faces that Tad could not stop laughing, not stop laughing, not stop laughing till his sides cramped and he could barely breathe.

 

36

The iron coins were gone the next morning. Tad stood rolling a square of grassweave as he prepared to leave for The Grimthistle’s, looking idly over toward the shacks, and it struck him with a jolt and a shiver that something was off.

He toddled over, mouth hanging open, and surveyed the coinless crevices and the empty slots and the bare space in the stones of the table.

So. That was the cost.

The old man came back drunker than ever that night.

Tad tried hiding the coins in the shacks, in gaps in other tables and in chinks in the forge’s chimney. He dug a divot by the fence.

It did not matter. They always disappeared, if not the first day then the fourth.

He tried places outside the yard. A void in a short stone wall in Tumbleton lasted three days; a half-rotted cask in the thin space between two narrow houses in Thirs lasted five days. Tad tried the space under his old room in High Wail where he had used to keep his daggers; it lasted eight full days.

Each time his first thought was of Pensly, though he knew that was not right.

 

37

Tad hesitated to go to The Grimthistle with his problem because the last time he had been unkind. He thought of the Westwing highman, but he knew the highman would not approve. There was no one else.

This time The Grimthistle listened solemnly and nodded solemnly and rose as soon as Tad finished and left the room. Tad slurped at his thin stew and waited. He did not wait long.

The Grimthistle returned with a linen scroll, a stick sharpened to a dull point and a tiny earthenware jar filled with tar, which he carefully pushed into the brazier among the hot burnrock and ash.

He waited, now and then poking into the jar until it finally came out tipped with black. The Grimthistle carefully unrolled the scroll to the last entry, drew a line and made several characters—Tad twisted in his chair and craned his neck to confirm it was his name.

“Now then, Taddil,” said The Grimthistle, “what is a word you like?”

Tad licked his spoon. “Daps.”

The Grimthistle shook his head. “What is a special word that only you would know, and others couldn’t guess?”

Tad stirred the stew. “Grimthistle?” he said.

The Grimthistle smiled and set down his writing stick, leaning in over the book. “Pay no mind to it. I will make the choice. And here is what I will do: I will take the silver each day and I will give you six of ten, and I will give four of ten to the Guild in your name. It will be safe with the Guild, as you know. Should you wish to use this coin, there will be a word you need to speak. Come to me when you are in need, and I will tell you this word.”

“No more silver?” asked Tad.

“You will have enough iron coin for two portions of whatever you like,” said The Grimthistle. “With none left over to lose. The part you now lose will be safe and will grow large in time—it will be silver, and even gold. And it will be yours just as surely as the coin in your pocket.” He smiled. “Yes, that is the way. The Guild is your pocket—a big pocket with ugly, sweaty men who will strike away with a cudgel any hand but yours.”

“My pocket has holes,” said Tad.

The Grimthistle guffawed and thumbed at his wooden teeth and gave Tad an appraising look. “Do you agree to this, Taddil?”

Tad shrugged. He took a slow spoon of stew. “When I take it,” he said, “will it be Guild coin?”

The Grimthistle stuck his tongue out at Tad. “Yes,” he said.

“Then I agree,” said Tad.

 

38

The Grimthistle was right about the portions. The iron coin Tad was handed each time got him two, with either no change or a single tiny coin that always seemed to get lost.

Pensly continued to bring the evening meal as before. He said nothing about the iron coins, asked nothing about the iron coins, and made no demands. With the tension gone between them, he and Tad joked and danced and worked the forge as before.

 

39

The rains quickly became nothing but a memory, all their remnants gone. Everything was dry again. Things moved again. The watgons creaked their morning rounds, and food, though never plentiful, was again enough to fill most mouths.

Water was not cheap. Pensly brought it in the evenings, and Tad had it at The Grimthistle’s each morning, but he missed it in the afternoons—and Daps missed it most of the day.

Free now to roam and sent by The Grimthistle to collect coin across the town, he saw more of life. He saw more of what was possible.

Plenty of mornings he had seen men and women catching their piss in broken casks and tin cups, and he had thought them desperate enough to drink it.

He saw the truth of it when he was sent to Westwing just before sun-top. Movement above caught his eye, and he raised his head to watch a middle-aged woman, bare to the waist, set a small metal pyramid out on a platform. A moment later she returned with a broken cask, lifted off the top of the pyramid, and poured dark yellow piss carefully down in. Back went the top, and she disappeared from view, shuttering the window behind her.

The sun was just beginning to crest over the Twinhill, and soon Westwing would be ablaze. Heat was rising, the streets were emptying.

As he walked, Tad kept watch above. There were more of those metal pyramids—nearly every other house had one set out on a tiny platform, or on a fat windowsill, or balanced precariously atop the roof. They were tin, from the look of them.

Thinking back to his watgon days, he considered that they might be a new type of room bucket—or a revenge scheme. He avoided passing directly under them, and even then he hunched his shoulders and clenched his jaw, waiting for piss to rain down.

Nothing happened. They sat, gleaming and baking in the sun, and they did exactly nothing.

He humped along back and forth between a stickmeat vendor and a rowdy house with a faded red door until the coin came. The coin sat in his pocket like a stone, packed so tight in its linen that it could not clink together.

Tad thought for a long moment, feeling that weight rest on his thigh, tasting the sheen of sweat round his lips, sun burning into his brittle hair, and then he turned and dragged himself deeper into Westwing.

 

40

The highman was glad to see him, but made him wait just as always all the same. Tad sat quiet on the bench, looking idly from across the room at the highman’s animal bones and iron implements and jars filled with the unknown.

He waited behind a middle-aged man with a weeping abscess in his leg, a young woman with a black eye and her forearm hanging limply the wrong way, and a child with its mumma. The man moaned, the woman whimpered, the child blubbered and screamed. They all smelled of old sweat and piss and vomit.

Tad worried at his cracked lips and felt full the heavy coins on his thigh, and he awaited his turn in silence.

When it finally came, he asked the highman straight away about the mysterious pyramids of tin: “What are the…three-points…that people put up on their roofs here?”

“Three-points?” asked the highman.

Tad drew a triangle in the air. “They put piss in them,” he said.

Light dawned in the highman’s eyes, and he slapped his knee. “You mean the pyramids? Made of tin?”

Tad nodded.

The highman glanced at the clouded glass window, clapped his hands and rose to his feet. “Follow me, Taddil.”

They went out through the waiting room, newly full, and the highman pulled open a rickety door and stomped up the stairs beyond. Tad followed him, squinting in the dark and hefting his weight with unpracticed legs, until they emerged panting into a single large room at the top, hot and dusty but mostly dark.

There was only a single large, clouded window, and the highman headed for it. Tad caught his foot in a pile of knits—the highman’s bed?—and nearly tripped, but the highman paid no heed. He pulled open the shutters, and there on its own small landing was a pyramid made of tin.

Wrapping his hands in knit rags, the highman brought it just inside the dark of the room and set it gently on the floor. From somewhere came a tin cup. He blew the dust out.

Tad crouched by the pyramid, leaning forward. The entire room smelled of piss.

The highman carefully lifted the top from the pyramid—just the very top, a tiny version of the whole—and the stink of piss grew overpowering. Tad gagged but did not move.

The highman slowly turned the tiny pyramid in one hand, holding the tin cup below it with the other, and then tilted it back upright. A thin tr