The boy’s name was Nicholas, though it took Gert some days to learn it. At first he was just a shadow in her garden, watched by the spiders who strummed their webs as he passed them, vibrating intelligence on the invader: he touches leaves, he watches you. Only as it grew colder did he start dawdling in the doorway, then sitting by the hearth when she left the door open. Like a stray cat learning to trust.
His name was Nicholas, he finally told her one day between spoonfuls of her soup, stuffing them in his mouth so quickly he spluttered while he talked. So thin he seemed at certain angles all bone; the mice paused in their transits to eye him, recognizing a fellow scavenger. His father, he said, was a builder on the tower. He had two sisters and his mother had iron in her stomach so she couldn’t work. He wasn’t yet old enough to help with the tower, though he would be in a year or two. But his mother was so sick now...
“Ah,” Gert said, watching drops of soup soak into her tablecloth. Silently she filled in what he left unsaid. His father was one of the dozens of men building the new watchtower, their half-starved families living in tents and the children wild. At first the villagers had welcomed the tower and its implied protections, but their welcome soured when the builders arrived. They said it was because the builders were dirty and uncouth, sheltering thieves and whores in their number; but in truth it was because they had expected to be offered the work, and instead they were forced to provide food and share the river. A belligerent anger had slowly accumulated, souring every interaction; the moreso when guards appeared on the river bridge. Not that the villagers had cause to cross the river, before or now; but the conspicuous prohibition had only nettled them further, sharpening the tang in the air.
But there was one thing Nicholas described that was new to Gert. “Iron in her stomach?” she asked, wincing at how her accent mangled the words.
Nicholas explained, as easily as if she had perfect diction: bits of iron got in their food and water, and when you swallowed too much iron it made your vomit brown.
“Ah,” Gert said again. This, too, was familiar, at least in its bones. She remembered when Ned Chandless was alive; how years of running the smokehouse had made him wheeze even in fresh air. And women who worked looms for Polly Steveson sometimes vomited threads of wool or little feathers from the bedding she sold all through the duchy.
“I cannot cure her,” she said, forming the words with care. “But I can make it hurt less. Would you like that?”
His eyes shone at her words. They worked all that afternoon, choosing the best leaves from the plants, Gert guiding his hands around the mortar to grind, grind. Heating the paste and loosening it with oil to ease digestion. Only once did she have to admonish him, when he made to kill the spider that had dropped onto the table. She caught his hand swiftly, shaking her head at him.
“No,” she said. “Not them. Never them.”
He looked surprised. “But they bite you and make you sick.” He showed her the livid red circles on his arm, laced by scratch marks.
Again Gert shook her head. “You must never antagonize them,” she said. And then, at his uneasy expression, “they only injure those who threaten them.” It wasn’t a lie; more a careful kind of truth. She coaxed the spider into her cupped palm and carefully returned it to the beams where the others lived, aware of the boy’s wide eyes watching her. His simple acceptance—of her words, her accent, of her—warmed her in a way she had forgotten was possible.
The shadows were lengthening when at last Gert handed him the little jar with its wax seal. He took it reverently, then suddenly burst into tears; she took him in her arms and held him.
More children came after that first day. Little mouths big bellies the spiders sneered at her, the air shimmering with their derision. Each small face grim and wary until presented with hot food; her tomcat Matty was driven to the furthest corner of her bed by the sudden invasion, his grumbling noisy brats soothed by their enthusiastic petting. Three, four, sometimes as many as seven children, Nicholas directing them like a general. They cleaned Gert’s house and raked her garden in exchange for food and medicine and the warmth of her fire. Sometimes one would stay the night, Nicholas explaining in a whisper about an angry parent or too many sick siblings. The small restless body huddled against Gert’s for warmth; that sweet regular breath in her ear all night.
Her house had never been so clean—everywhere, that was, save for the rafters, which remained swathed in their cobwebs. For she had told the children not them, never them, and they had protested as Nicholas had, then accepted her injunction as Nicholas had. Stopping everything to coax an errant spider to safety, as if it were perfectly natural. Each act of protection winning them a grudging silence from the spiders that Gert knew signaled acceptance.
The village women still came each day, looking for lotions and remedies; anything to ease their stiff bodies, anything to ease this life. Bone-hard, the village women, worn down by the uncertainties of a life on the border far from the safety and comforts of the cities; they had frightened Gert when she first arrived, their faces burnished and their hands laced with scars from tanning and loom-work. They curled their lips at the children, and a few said unpleasant things to Gert about taking sides, about her past tainting her, but when had Gert ever not been tainted among them? She was other, to them. She would be always be other.
They curled their lips, and a few said things, but soon Gert began finding bundles on her doorstep: castoff clothes and extra food, a doll or a carved animal worn from old love. Regular enough that she began to anticipate them; would sometimes hurry from her bed to see what was there, perhaps a sweater for the little girl whose own was threadbare or a doll to comfort the boy whose father was sick.
Which was how Gert found herself face-to-face with Henry Chandless on a bright cool morning, his scarred eye livid against his tanned skin, his wiry grey hair neatly shorn as always. She was astonished, not only at finding him suddenly there but at how familiar he still was. Even the spot on her path was precisely where he would stand when he had courted her; his hands in his coat pockets as now, his gaze as steady.
Only then he’d had both eyes, and for that Gert could never forgive herself.
“They said you’re caring for the builders’ little ones,” he said without preamble. His hand flicked out from his coat pocket to indicate the fat sack on the ground beside him. “They can’t have much meat over there.”
Gert realized she was wiping her hands on her apron, over and over. “Thank you,” she mumbled.
Still he just stood there, his good eye fixed on her. “I never did say thank you for coming to Jane’s funeral. It was appreciated.”
More words than he had spoken to her in years. Why now? What else had Nicholas disrupted, by coming to her? For the first time Gert felt a twinge of fear; it was all she could do to keep from looking nervously at the woods behind her cottage. She made herself smile brightly and nod, made herself hold out one hand for the sack.
He caught it up easily and crossed the distance between them, blocking out the sun as he stood before her. Careful, the birds cried out. Careful, careful. And then, in vibrations more like a breeze than speech: she sees you, daughter.
At the latter Gert twitched. “Well,” she said, taking the sack. The meat inside was so heavy she nearly dropped it. How much had he given her? How much more was she costing him?
“If you need anything,” Henry said. He touched her arm, just the slightest pressure.
From the road came a shout, and they both turned to see Nicholas walking up, leading a little boy by the hand. “I must go,” Gert said quickly, and again, “thank you.”
She hurried inside, swinging the meat bodily onto her table: a large slab of cured pork, as rare as diamonds. How much was she costing him yet again? He had wanted to go to the city and study, but the eye had ended that; ended too his prospects with most women in the area. His marriage to Jane had seemed an empty thing, two children sent away to school and Henry hardly seen with her. All because of Gert.
From the window she watched as he passed Nicholas, paused to speak to him and tousle his hair. “Please don’t hurt him again,” she said aloud. “He won’t come back.”
Above her head the cobwebs shivered, but there was no other response; not from the spiders or the birds, the mice or the wind, not from the trees in the forest or what lay in the darkness within.
The children kept coming, and Henry Chandless did not return, and the forest stayed still and quiet. The days took on an unnerving silence, as if the world was holding its breath; though in anticipation of what, Gert could not say. The sky remained an icy blue; the brutal rhythm of falling trees gave way to a staccato murmur of tools; the elk began their passage despite the tower work. Soon a party of tanners left for the city, their carts laden with barrels of meat and the first cured skins. The only blight upon it all were the hints of sickness she now saw in the children: their chesty coughs announcing their arrival from well up the road, their dark sputum staining her handkerchiefs. Her garden picked raw as she tried to ease their discomfort; the sink full of jars as they brought back the empty ones to refill, begging for more for their parents, their siblings, themselves.
When Nicholas brought yet another to her, the little girl’s eyes watery from coughing, Gert shook her head. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Why don’t you move your tents further away from the blacksmiths?”
For the first time Nicholas wouldn’t meet her eyes. “It’s not that,” he mumbled to the ground. “It’s the dirt.” When she tried to turn him to face her he twisted away. “I can’t say any more,” he said, his voice tight with fear.
“If I knew, I could help...”
But he remained silent no matter how she pressed him, and at last she let it go. When he left that evening, his thin shoulders hunching as he herded the children away, it was without his customary farewell hug. She watched him walk away from her, unable to shake the feeling that, somehow, she had just made a terrible mistake.
Though she had little to barter with, the next day Gert went to the market, to see if she could find something to cheer Nicholas up. Something to relax him; perhaps get him to speak more about the dirt. Had the sky turning red affected something? But that was weeks ago and the children only sickening now.
The market stalls were patchy. Winter was coming and people were being cagey, weighing out a few last profits against their own potential needs. But Gert had three jars of her liniment, popular among those with tanners in their family, and she had the spiders and the mice. In the basket, they would vibrate from the nearby trees, or she would hear the squeaking beneath the table before it was drowned out by the women’s shrieks. Each time she had found something special: the last of the dried berries, candies from the city, a hat knit of soft southern wool. The latter made Gert reach out to touch the familiar texture. She had played with balls of such yarns at her mother’s feet—
A hush fell over the marketplace, and she turned with the others to see a knot of men walking up the road, dressed in dull homespun but wearing armbands showing the duke’s colors. In the middle was a lanky figure seemingly cocooned in furs, and Gert thought Nicholas but then she saw: not Nicholas but a young man, his face pale and his eyes shadowed.
“That’s that Overseer,” the seller said, her voice low. “Come to answer about the river, I expect.”
“The river?” Gert formed the words carefully. She hated speaking to the women; hated how they flinched at her accent and whispered behind her back.
“Haven’t you seen?” another woman put in. “The water’s all dirty now. Did my washing last week and my good sheets got stained brown. Who’s going to replace them, I’d like to know.”
“Who’s going to make sure they don’t steal our well-water,” a third woman said, and the other two nodded in agreement.
The Overseer and his men passed them without so much as a glance, but Gert saw him. Saw the sheen of sweat on his face despite the chill air; saw how he scratched at a white-capped swelling on his neck. An insect bite but badly infected; for a moment it wasn’t the Overseer before her but Henry Chandless, clutching at his face and screaming while spiders cascaded from the trees above and the echoing voice whispered little daughter what is he worth?
“My Paul tried to cross the bridge yesterday,” the seller said in a low voice. “They took his name before turning him back. Said we’re harassing the builders, they’re going to start reporting us.”
“Harassing them?” The second woman laughed derisively. “They’re the ones harassing us, driving their carts through in the dead of night.”
“Makes you wonder what’s in those carts,” the third woman said, and the three nodded again.
The Overseer passed, and Gert found herself looking at Henry Chandless in his stall at the far side of the market, his useless eye as white as the infected bite. She had understood, instinctively, that Henry’s eye was a warning: she was not to leave with him as he wanted. Three years of study, he had explained, his hands deep in his coat pockets, his steady gaze warm. We would have to live simply, just a couple of rooms. And Gert had looked up to the heavens, alight with emotion, with promise—and watched as spiders rained down like some dread snowfall.
Little daughter, remember your promise.
She pushed the memory away, taking deep breaths to steady herself. A warning, one that she had heeded every day since. What then of the Overseer, nibbled and sickened, being played with like a hunter with its prey? What then of Nicholas and the children, their bodies dotted with bites? What were they warning of?
Across the market Henry watched the party pass, then spat in their wake before turning back to his customer. As he worked he glanced up, catching Gert’s eye. His smile truncated by the feathering scar tissue that ran down his cheek: her promise writ into his very flesh. Gert looked away only to find the women watching her, their expressions both sly and wary. Hunters with their prey. She knew the inn would be whispering about her tonight; how she had shown up at the market and stared at Henry Chandless. No one had ever called her witch or blamed her outright, but they had been colder in their dealings after he lost his eye, and she could not in turn blame them for it. Her face was burning as she hurried from the village, fleeing their disapprobation, fleeing what she had done.
At first Gert told herself Nicholas was needed at home, or perhaps was ill; told herself too that without his leadership the other children were too shy to come. But two, three days passed without any word, and by the fourth she knew it had been another mistake to wait for him.
Thus she bundled herself against the cold clear day and left Matty dozing by the banked fire in the hearth. She walked not through the village but to the south, where the river became shallow; where there were no guards to ask her name or wonder at her accent, a hundred leagues from where it belonged.
She picked her way across the stones, her breath a steady rasp in her throat. In the spring the river swelled far above the rocks, but in winter it came in choked rivulets that did little more than splash her shoes. As she reached the opposite bank, though, she understood what had aroused the women’s concern. The drying splashes left rust-colored stains on her shoes and stockings, and when she let the water run into her hand it had a reddish, cloudy look to it.
Past the trees dotting the rise was the skeletal framework of the tower, its upper reaches colonized by crows calling hurt hurt hurt. So many birds that they seemed the black fester of some monstrous wound, and it was a wound, she saw as soon as she reached the top of the rise. They had cleared more than just the land at the tower’s base; they had gouged deep into the forest, large swaths cut to still-raw stumps. It was as if some god’s hand had smote the earth, crushing everything beneath. The sparse grass beneath her feet was withered all the way to the site; the apple trees she remembered seemed to have twisted upon themselves.
From the river to the forest edge the ground was dotted with little flags. Different colored scraps of fabric fluttered in the slight breeze, their tiny spots of color like some kind of perverse flowers. She inspected one, wondering at the strange letters and numbers inscribed on the fabric. A kind of code. Carefully she drew up the flag’s stem; it turned out to be a long, thin metal rod.
The moist dirt clinging to the bottom was rust-red.
Gert looked from the rod to the watchtower. The oblong base was nearly finished, the hewn stones spiked with wood framing whose rough edges gleamed raw in the sunlight. Mortar still oozed from between the uppermost layers. One long side was oriented east, where their enemies resided, held in check only by the treaty; only now, looking at the tower, did she realize the other face would look west—
—she followed the tower’s sight-line across the river to the village and the start of the city road.
A watchtower that could watch its own people. A soil rich with some kind of ore. The villagers had never settled on this side of the river; planting had proven useless, and the bridge became precarious in the spring. And what use were ores for a people dependent on meat? It wasn’t as if they could be sold on. The treaty had specifically forbidden the further creation of armaments, and to enforce it the duchy had taxed iron, copper, and tin beyond reckoning. Every ounce of the metals was accounted for.
But the duchy itself was here now, building the watchtower.
Gert slid the rod back into place, pushing the dirt to make it look undisturbed, and continued on.
Between her and the tower were dozens of tents glittering with frost, a single large fire burning in their midst. Far more than she had realized. The camp was still and silent save for a few hunched figures tending the blaze; all activity was at the tower and a long wooden overhang that sheltered three roaring furnaces, with cut trees stacked nearby like a giant’s woodpile. Further in the distance they had dug a deep gouge in the earth, red water running in troughs away from its opening, the lip framed by stones piled like so many cairns...
But Gert did not like to think about cairns, or what lay beneath them.
Even in the cold they were working vigorously. Figures climbed in and out of the hole, emerging dusted red like carcasses; some cradling baskets of rocks, some with buckets of water that they poured into the troughs. Others carted larger stones from the piles to the tower to be hacked at with chisels. As she descended the rise she saw more clearly the furnaces’ orange mouths and shadows flitting before them; heard the endless ringing of metal on metal, so pointed a sound it made her head ache. A strange odor clung to the air, metallic and bloody.
The camp, at least, didn’t add to the cacophony, the only sounds soft conversations and coughing from behind the tent flaps. Every tent was hemmed in by half-full barrels of rainwater skimmed with ice; so they too were avoiding the river water. The fire was tended by three women guiding stewpots on and off the heat.
Gert had thought it would somehow be clear where Nicholas’s family resided. Now, faced with dozens of featureless tents, she felt foolish. As if they would hang out signs identifying themselves, or helpfully direct her. She wasn’t even a villager; she was something else, something from faraway that should have stayed there. As she approached the fire the women flinched and looked about warily; when she spoke, the consonants softened by her accent, they replied to the ground. But she remembered the fear in Nicholas’s voice, and she continued to ask, speaking politely outside any tent that seemed to contain life.
At last she found his family’s tent, but when she eagerly raised the flap there were only his two little sisters, playing with one of the village dolls. When Gert asked them where their brother was, they shrugged; when she asked where their mother was, they pointed solemnly at the sky. Gert considered joining them and waiting for their father to come back, but a hand touched her arm, and when she turned it was to face a woman as old as herself.
“He’s gone,” she said flatly. “You shouldn’t be here.”
Gert was startled, both by her words and her age. Everyone else she had seen was markedly younger. “Where did he go?” she asked; at the woman’s confused look she repeated the question, enunciating the words as best she could.
The woman’s expression became curious. “You’re the one they talk about. The one who pretends she survived the Hundred.”
That terrible phrase, stated so casually, left Gert speechless.
“I met someone once, one of the ones they made watch. He said they counted off as they killed those people, and there’s exactly one hundred bodies in that pit. One hundred beneath a twelvefoot of stone.” She looked at Gert thoughtfully. “Yet here you are, on the other side of the duchy. Three wars fought because of that day and you’re, what? Making salves for northern thickheads?” She shook her head. “Either you’re a liar or you’re a living, breathing miracle. Which is it?”
It filled Gert, strong and swift: the feel of dirt and flesh wet with blood, the raw panic as falling rocks pummeled her deeper... She swallowed bile and let herself feel angry, told herself to feel angry. Who was this woman to speak of it? “It’s whatever you want it to be,” she spat out.
“What I want, you crazy cow, is for you to stay on your side of the river,” the woman retorted. “The boy’s gone. He’s not coming back and neither should you. You’ll only endanger the other children.”
“He’s dead?” Gert whispered.
“He’s gone. Are you deaf as well? Nicholas is gone. He signed a contract just like the rest of us, to keep his fool mouth shut. The Overseer doesn’t tolerate—”
The old woman’s eyes flashed to something over Gert’s shoulder; she shoved Gert backwards, so hard Gert nearly fell. “Get away,” she said loudly. “Crazy old woman! We don’t want you here. Get away, now!”
Gert looked over her shoulder. Two men carrying rifles were coming towards them, their expressions grim, their legs stretching into long, rapid strides.
She left as fast as she dared on the icy ground, her knees aching from the effort. Only when she was halfway up the rise again did she look back. The woman was framed by the two men looming over her from either side; she looked small and frail between them.
He signed a contract. Gert knew it was a kind of answer, though perhaps to a different question. As if in agreement the crows took flight from the tower, circling wider and wider until they coursed over her head, singing their chorus of hurt; they were so close she hunched over to avoid them, and in doing so she saw the small black shape on the ground before her. A dead chick, stubbled with unformed feathers, its blue eyes half-lidded. Thrown from a nest, though to a one the branches around her were bare and it was not the season for births.
There was a world between gone and dead, a world Gert could remember when she let herself: dark and thick with the debris of the living world, as if all the bodies and trees and stones and dirt had been forced into a smaller space, like so many goods in a closet. Was that where Nicholas was? The thought made her stomach clench in a way it had not done for years.
Signed a contract to keep his fool mouth shut. But he had never told her anything, not really. The whole village knew there was sickness here, just as they knew the river was tainted. Surely no one blamed Nicholas for speaking of what was so apparent.
Unless they thought he’d spoken of something else. Her fingertips were still stained from the dirt. Iron mining, carts in the dead of night; what was the Overseer’s true mandate, and what of the village if that mandate became known? Too, the coughing sickness might cross the river, and dirty water in winter would mean no fish in spring, and if the wells dried up...
Signed a contract. Fool mouth shut. The words circled in her mind, dancing around the memory of the tent’s billowing emptiness save for those two small faces inside. Now she remembered nests of blankets where other bodies had slept; a crumpled shirt that Nicholas had worn often.
Gone, dead... but which was it? She had to know. It was a need inside her, as strong as any craving she had ever felt; as strong as the day of the bodies and the rocks, when all she had wanted in the world was to die.
She had to know, and she knew how she could find out.
Gert had not lied to the villagers, but she had been careful in what she told them. She had to tell them something; young women didn’t just walk out of the woods at midday, a hundred leagues from all they knew. So Gert told them of the light in the pit, and of how when she awoke in the woods she had heard a chorus sing out live, daughter, live! A story not unlike older tales of godly voices and guiding lights; it had won her a grudging acceptance, and oh, how she had needed acceptance then. A roof to sleep under, a market for what she could not grow, time to try and make sense of what had happened. Even the hope, for a little while, of love, perhaps a family—but that was another thing she didn’t like to remember.
She had not lied, just as she hadn’t with Nicholas. Instead she had buried the memories deep in her belly, until she had all but forgotten how the lacework of corpses had looked at her with black faceted eyes. How that echoing voice had asked are you my daughter? How the light had not been warm and beckoning but cold as a winter moon, and the chorus she heard upon emerging was no divine voice but the vibrations of a thousand webs all shuddering in unison, all from the vastness that was her.
Now she had to remember, for Nicholas’s sake.
She did not eat. As with all her arts, it was her grandmother who had taught Gert this: only an empty belly and empty heart could receive. The preparation itself took longer than she remembered, but she had only made it the once before, in the first months after the pit, when she did not think she could live with unanswered questions.
Gert had learned to live with a lot since then, but she could not live with this. And she was no young woman anymore; she would not be so easily taken in by answers. She knew all too well how they could give the truth but from one side; how they could answer the words of a question but not the whole of it, for hadn’t she so dissembled every day since the pit?
The preparation took longer, and then she botched the first batch and had to start again, Matty meowing hungry hungry are you listening as she hurried from table to shelf to pantry and back, why hadn’t she written it down? All these years assuming her mind would never change, that nothing would ever change.
At last the liquid was ready, the smell making her queasy. She had not thought it would come to this again, but the past was always present, written into her hands still clutching dirt and flesh, her lips still speaking in the cadences of her youth.
She took care to dress heavily, for the cloudless sky promised a cold night. She laid out food for Matty and made sure the fire was low but glowing, the lamp had a full supply of oil, and her bed was ready to receive her.
Only then did she drink the foul liquid down and go out to find her answer.
On the threshold she paused to stare at the brightness of the stars against that rich purpling black. So bright—! It still took her breath away, made her feel small and soft. So many of the women who came to her were hard with grief and worry; at times she thought they needed not some remedy but to have a moment like this, when the world was so perfectly clear and beautiful that existence itself was a joy.
An owl flew overhead, calling fool, fool. Oh she was, she was, but what else could she do?
In the forest the trees arched overhead like the beams of a church and the air seemed to thicken as if fogged, though she could see clearly. There was a particular clearing she sought; in the summer it was a sweet hollow of wildflowers ringed with pines, but now the ground would be bare and stony. A platform for asking.
As she walked the branches stroked her face and teased her clothes, like the men in the village when she first settled here. In the silence she fancied she heard whispers repeating other questions she had asked, questions that still hurt her heart to think on. Why the first war, the second, the third? Why our village the first to be invaded, why we hundred?
Why me, and not another?
Every phrase punctuated by that old sickening ache, but she knew better than to repeat any aloud. She would only get one chance to ask.
At last she reached the clearing. The pines were taller than she remembered, standing straight and true with high branches feathering the sky, a texture not unlike the blankets the women sometimes gave as payment. Without the wildflowers she saw that the clearing rose to a little hillock in its center, as if made for her asking. She sat carefully upon it, tucking her legs as best she could and gritting her teeth against the cold earth. So very cold! The sensation entered her, she felt tendrils sliding through her cunt and filling her belly with its terrible dead darkness, why why why—
But that wasn’t the question she was here to ask. Instead she said, raising her voice and enunciating each word, “What happened to Nicholas?”
From nowhere, the wind. Swift and brutally cold, it rattled the trees and set the fallen pine needles into a swirling mass that lashed her hands and face. She clenched her eyes shut and raised her arms to block their stings.
And when it stopped and she opened her eyes again, she was staring at Nicholas’s face, molded in dead white flesh, with black faceted eyes that slid one way and another as they regarded her.
Gert opened her mouth, but no scream would come. There was only a dull recognition: of the drink turned leaden inside her, of the sickening familiarity of this moment. How in the pit every corpse had looked at her with those same eyes.
He took a step back with legs that bent at wrong angles, crammed two apiece in the homespun trousers she had patched for him, her own neat stitching over the obscenely bending joint where his knee should have been. Beneath the rolled cuffs were furred paws from which pairs of claws jutted; they dragged at the dirt, leaving red lines in the earth that she could not stop looking at, for anything was better than looking at that sweet, sickening face.
“What happened to Nicholas?” Gert repeated, the words thick with sorrow and terror both, so much inside her, a torpor of grief with a hundred faces.
Daughter. The voice was at once Nicholas’s and something else, something vast and hollow. More clawed paws swam before her, jutting from shirtsleeves, and when they laid themselves on her face they were cold and wet like the corpses had been, everything cold and wet and smelling of death.
She raised her eyes and stared into the swollen black ones bulging from the boy’s face.
Daughter, you’ve returned at last, he repeated in a mouth stuffed with chelicerae, his face glowing with moonlight. Sooner or later, we all come back.
“What happened to Nicholas?” she whispered.
What is the knowing worth? The chelicerae clicked and scraped, yet she understood the sounds as clearly as if they were her own language. One mere boy: what is he worth? Neither son nor lover nor brother: what is this boy worth to you?
Gert was weeping, weeping, but she could not speak for her full throat and fuller heart.
The paws stroked her face, claws catching in her tangled hair. Daughter: drink. He opened his mouth, and between the chelicerae formed a single fat drop of shimmering, viscous liquid. It slid slowly downwards, where it hung for a moment on the tip of a fang. Reflected in its surface were not only the pine trees and the night sky but Gert’s own cottage, only reduced to a charred framework; beyond were the smoking ruins of the village and the shimmering black river and the tower as it would look finished, its top studded with armed, pacing soldiers—
The drop fell onto Gert’s lips, and she drank it down.
Gert saw: a hazy, distorted world, massive shapes moving in and out of view. A swaying landscape of interwoven corpses, the sickening lurch as she tumbled forward into a void of dirt and flesh and rocks. She was as insignificant and vulnerable as a mote of dust; she was nothing, she was dying...
Until at last she began to parse out shape and sound; recognized the form of leaves as large as her cottage, the sound of thudding feet louder than falling trees. The colossal forms that fell upon her, sometimes shattering every bone in her body, sometimes merely knocking her senseless, were not the rocks from the pit but monstrously large hands. “Kill the fucking things” a godlike voice bellowed, and a palm crushed her into painful nothingness.
Gert was: crouched low on the ground, hiding as feet moved past her, first two small bare ones and then others heavily booted. The sounds of whispered pleading as soft as the wind, or was it praying?
Gert was: in a tree, watching several men pass beneath her pushing before them a lanky boy who made her tremble in recognition.
Daughter, they hate us so, the Nicholas-spider sighed in her ear.
Gert was: on a branch, swaying in a suddenly gusting wind, looking over a plain she did not know. Were they on the far side of the forest? Nothing but flat scrubby land to the horizon beneath a scrim of frost; the eastern plains, it had to be. Nicholas was crying, and Gert wept too, for this boy hugging himself against the cold and more.
One of the men pointed to the empty land, and Nicholas flinched as if struck. “I didn’t say anything!” His wail so plaintive it made Gert lurch forward, to hold him close, to comfort him. “I didn’t tell anyone!”
“Then how did the old woman know to make it?” The Overseer held up a jar that made her cringe in recognition. “Not once but many times, many trips.”
“I only said my mother was sick—”
“Iron in her stomach.” The words came out in a sigh. “No one crosses the river without permission, Nicholas. Those were the terms: no one leaves, no one arouses scrutiny.” He tapped the jar with a fingertip. “And this, young man, is scrutiny.”
Nicholas turned and began trudging across the plains, stumbling on feet that were surely numb, his shoulders shaking as he took each plodding step. Time slowed as he walked, becoming smaller against the expanse, the only sounds the faint crunching of frost and his weeping and the panting breaths of the men watching, as if the sight aroused them.
Gert was straining to shake off the drink and return. Nicholas was in the plains; he might still be alive. A day’s walk, she would bring blankets, some kind of sledge—
Then one of the men raised a rifle and shot Nicholas in the back. They waited a moment, but the little heap on the ground was still. Two began walking towards his corpse, shovels easy on their shoulders; the others turned back to the forest. As they passed her a man raised his hand and brought it down on Gert, plunging her into darkness.
Daughter, they hate us. The white spider as vast as the sky, all pretense gone now. They hate us all, air and earth and all who live between, they bleed the very soil in their hatred. Her black eyes bottomless. But they will learn to fear us.
Her furred legs glowed cool and pale as they encircled Gert, casting the world in white light. Daughter, you came back, the spider cooed in her ear. Daughter, we shall weave their bones and bodies, a boy’s worth we shall weave.
Gert looked up at the enormous chelicerae, the two flat black eyes. “What are you?” she asked hoarsely.
I am myself, the spider replied, amused. I am everything, and I am one of everything. And I have many children, as many as the stars.
“But—but then why save me?” As plaintive as Nicholas’s voice had been, born of the same anguished why.
The spider laughed, shuddering in her amusement, and they were no longer in the forest but the pit, the dark stuffed space now a web without end. A web made not from silk but corpses, all the bodies from that day twined and knotted together, all of them as familiar as Gert’s own face. Her slaughtered village. One hundred killed in broad daylight, their bodies a gauntlet thrown down from which came all the wars and towers and contracts made of silence.
One hundred, minus one.
Oh my daughter! Still the spider was breathless with laughter, her fur tickling Gert’s skin. Don’t you remember? I saved you so that you might one day serve me. She gathered Gert close like an infant. I saved you because you said yes.
The bite of fangs in Gert’s flesh as sweet as her mother’s kiss, though her mother was but a strand of the web, a corpse watching them with black faceted eyes.
At dawn Gert walked slowly out of the woods, her every step ponderous, taking care to keep her footing solid before swinging each leg forward. Beneath her heavy clothes her body was a mass of swellings, limbs and belly soft and tender and pushing not unpleasantly at the rough fabrics. When she wiped her mouth her spittle was a creamy white. Around her the very air vibrated in ecstasy Gert Gert Gert! And beneath the chorus, distant and echoing: one of everything, as many children as the stars.
She emerged not to her own clearing but to the far side of the tower site, behind the mine, and a rising sunlight that made her squint. To a one the people working stopped and looked at her in astonishment above red-crusted handkerchiefs tied over their noses and mouths. One yelled for the guards to come. None of them moved close to Gert; when she took a few lumbering steps in the direction of one the woman backpedaled quickly, holding up her hands as if Gert was making to shoot her.
What did they see; what was she to them? Run, run, the crows called, warning now. But there was nowhere for her to go; there had never been anyplace for her to go.
Mama, they hate us so, Nicholas whispered in her ear, and it was truly his voice, not that echoing mockery of it. But we will weave their bones.
Two guards appeared; one trained a rifle on her while the other seized her swollen arm, only to drop it when her skin rippled beneath his touch, his expression a mirror of the shock on Henry Chandless’ face all those years ago. What is the knowing worth? the voice had whispered in her ear, and she understood, then and now: everything had a price; even her questions, even her very life.
Beneath her skin she felt dozens of points of pleasant stroking, as if to soothe her, or perhaps simply to agree.
“Something’s wrong with her,” the guard said to his fellow. “She’s—look! There, do you see?”
The other guard took a step forward, squinting at her over the rifle. Gert felt her forehead wiggle, and his face blanched. “You,” he barked, a tremor of nervousness in his voice. “Start walking.” He jerked the rifle muzzle towards the tower.
We shall weave their bones, shan’t we? Nicholas’s voice trembling with excitement. Oh we shall, we shall!
Obediently Gert took a waddling step forward, and another. What is the knowing worth? Oh, it all had a price, even her long-ago yes.
The world doubled in her vision, then flashed yellow and purple; her saliva tasted sour, like curdled milk. She started to aim for the tower, but one of the guards nudged her away, towards a square tent tucked behind the furnaces, and when she nodded her head swung in strange directions and she nearly fell over. Her body not one but many foreign entities, each moving independent of the others. “Weave their bones,” she whispered aloud, and was answered with a rush of sensation that cascaded over her from head to toe, so pleasurable she nearly cried aloud.
Little mother, it is nearly time. Everywhere Gert felt eyes upon her, a thousand pairs of such; a breeze caressed her face with something fine and sticky, and when she wiped it away her fingers were tangled with cobwebs. They blew over the whole of the encampment in gauzy clouds, wrapping around tents and catching on clothing, snapping before the heat of the furnaces.
The tent’s entrance was framed by a tattered canopy beneath which a mass of shadows crowded, guards and villagers alike, the latter in their best coats. A parley? She tried to back away but one of the guards barked, “What’s this?”
From behind the guard another man stepped forward, only to be restrained. “Gert?” Henry Chandless said. “Gertie, are you all right?”
No, Gert tried to say, but her voice would not come.
Oh, the daughter-thief! The Nicholas-voice giggled in her ear, and as if in agreement Gert felt a rippling frisson from breast to thigh. All his promises, and never asking for yours. Though he fed us well.
Gert tried again to speak, to warn him, she was the warning now. But she could not make the words come. From her open mouth issued another sound, high and grating like the scrape of a blade on catgut.
“I think she’s from the village,” one of her guards said. “Something’s wrong with her, she keeps making these sounds, and her skin...”
“Is she the one who was making that concoction?” The Overseer appeared, still wrapped in his furs. “I would speak with her.”
At last, the Nicholas-spider whispered. Weave. His. Bones. Something began walking up Gert’s throat with slim, featherlight touches.
No, she said silently, and then to Henry: I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry for everything.
“Wait!” Henry cried as a guard shoved him back. “Sometimes Gertie has... episodes. Please. I need to take her home.”
The Overseer stepped close to Gert, so close she could touch him. His young face was haggard, his throat blooming with fresh bites atop a field of rash. His eyes were those of an old man; too many decisions made too young. “You made something that eased my workers’ symptoms,” he said. “Can you cure them? I’m losing more every day, it’s interfering with our schedule.”
Run, she said, though she knew it was no use. Everything has a price. Around them the very air vibrated, every movement of villager and guard making it vibrate, as if the world was an immense web and they were all prey.
From somewhere above a torn shred of cobweb drifted silently down. “These damn spiders,” the Overseer murmured, watching it cling to his furs. “The sooner we level these woods the better.”
Gert’s throat was suddenly full. She was choking, clawing at her own neck; all her wind was gone, she could not breathe. Something pushed at her mouth from within, forcing it open wide, wide, her jaws were going to rip her face apart, she was gagging and heaving and she thought she might faint—
Out of her mouth two white, hairy legs emerged, and a spider vaulted forward and landed on the Overseer’s face.
He began screaming, but the sounds were muffled. She was alight in sensations, bright pains of tearing skin, sudden icy needles of air stabbing her raw flesh. Everywhere was blurring motion, everywhere filling with gossamer threads; she tried to call out to Henry, to anyone, but silken lines tangled her tongue as dozens of legs skittered across her palate.
From everywhere on her person the spiders poured forth, large and small, slim and fatly furred, rushing from her body to swarm over the Overseer. Weave his bones! a thousand voices shrieked in frenzied delight. Weave his bones and bleed him dry!
The guards rushed to his side, swatting the spiders away and stepping on them only to find themselves covered, for the spiders were cascading forth in great waves of legs, moving with single-minded purpose. The village party tore at the tent fabric, trying to escape; only Henry stayed, gaping at Gert with his one good eye open wide and his hands in fists.
In a daze Gert stretched out her arms to him, only to watch as the skin rose and split like so many pustules, revealing masses of white spiders tumbling free. The horror in his face. She opened her mouth to scream but instead found her tongue suddenly loosened. “What is the knowing worth?” she cried, and the words tasted like bile.
I saved you so that you might one day serve me. But not like this; she had never imagined it would be like this.
The guards were screaming, the Overseer was screaming; everywhere she heard shrieks and cries of terror and it was her, it was all her. Within the circle of his guards the Overseer collapsed in a heap of furs and writhing bodies, and her teeth snapped and ground as if she were biting into his flesh. Ropes of saliva dripped from her mouth, her body was shuddering in a strange ecstasy, her very guts twisting with still more bodies struggling to emerge. Helplessly she threw her head back and wailed “kill the fucking things!”, and when Henry reached for her she pushed him away. She was the warning; she had been the warning since the day she walked into the village, all those years ago.
She tried to run then, somewhere, anywhere, but it was as if all her joints had been severed; instead she fell to her knees and began crawling back to the woods. “Daughter,” she screamed, “daughter they hate us!” The spiders continued to tumble from her as she dragged herself towards the welcoming darkness of the trees, her clothes sticking to her bloodied flesh. “What is one boy worth?” she screamed at the trees. “One mere boy?”
Everything, she answered, and wept at her own silence.
Above her the crows circled and dove, but their bodies tangled in the grey swaths of webbing that hung from the branches and they cawed help help in terrified entrapment. Blood spattered the leaves and faces peered at her from between the branches, watching her with black faceted eyes.
“Serve me,” she gasped. Her bloodied palms caked with leaves and dirt. “Serve me.”
Serve, serve, the voices echoed, bird and mouse and vibrating spider alike, in joy and sorrow and acceptance.
The sun gave way to shadow, the cold deepening into Gert’s bones and smoothing out the pain of her wounds. Still she crawled, her body a heavy, lumbering thing. Little mother. But there was no more movement inside her, no sense of life desperate to emerge, and she found herself weeping for all her lost families. What price knowing?
Everything, she answered again, her silence laced with grief.
When she finally emerged onto the eastern plains the sky was reddening. The pit yawned before her, opening into an unending darkness that she knew would be cold and wet and crowded with decay. Faceless soldiers were barking orders, counting off each person as they lined them up in neat, even rows. Seventy-three they pointed at Gert and she wailed and pleaded with the others, their cacophony no better than silence. And then the shots came like thunder and her mother fell atop her and they tumbled into the pit, with Gert crushed beneath her warm bloody weight and the stones pummeling them both into the darkness.
Her mother opened her arms daughter you’ve come at last and her father reached for her sooner or later we all come back and she sank into a sea of bodies with black faceted eyes, limbs tangling around her like icy webs. Gasping for air and only inhaling death. The dim white light and the voice whispering are you my daughter? and Gert shook her head no, no more. Small, icy fingers twined with hers and a boy’s voice said earnestly Mama it’s all right now.
“Gertie,” Henry said in her ear. “It’s all right now. It’s going to be all right.”
She was tangled in his coat and wrapped in his arms and he was holding her. Not death but smoked meat in her nostrils, not cold but warm, he was so warm, it was her that was cold inside. Gently he untangled her fingers from the grey, dead ones jutting out of the soil, the blood and dirt crumbling away.
“Is that the boy?” he asked in a low voice, nodding at the little hand just barely exposed.
Gert found herself crying in response, and he held her tighter. “We’ll do right by him,” he said, his voice as warm as his body. “I promise, Gertie. We’ll do right by all of them. Only you need to come home with me. Just for a little while. Just until you heal.”
He was blotting her scabbing wounds with his scarf. Over his shoulder she saw through watery eyes the woods and the skeleton of the tower beyond, the whole draped in cobwebs thick as damask.
“The tower,” she whispered, her voice raspy.
“Not any more.” He turned her face to his and wiped the clotting spittle from her lips, his brown eye focused on her mouth, his dead eye seeing nothing. “You can’t even get in the woods now, those webs are like walls. Overseer won’t survive, either, and word’s getting out. Poll’s talking to the builders about a delegation to the capitol—”
But Gert was weeping again. So much harm. Would there never be an end to harm? Perhaps there would be no burning now, no soldiers in the tower, as she had been shown—but Nicholas, the sickness, Henry...
She touched the scars on his face, tracing them as if she could somehow erase them and return his smile to wholeness. “Oh Gertie,” he said. “It was a long time ago. I should never—I don’t know what I was thinking. I should never have left you alone with this thing. I’m so sorry.”
Still she could not stop weeping. He settled her in the crook of his arm and dabbed at the sticky ruptures on her forearm. “My boy has a farm,” he said to her lap. “Out west. Plenty of land there, good water. Far from all this, if it comes to it.”
The air was still, not a hint of vibration.
“There are worse places,” Henry whispered.
“Yes,” Gert said. “Yes.”
Behind them a flock of birds suddenly rushed upwards and she jerked about with a cry, but their song was only noises now. Henry’s fingers twined with hers, warm and alive, strong as an anchor. “South for the winter,” he murmured. “They’ll be back with the spring rains.” And Gert understood that too was a kind of answer. Together they watched as the birds circled and dove, rippling the sheaths of cobwebs with their passing before they vanished into the dark horizon, not once looking back.