Tadie was having night terrors again when father kicked the cot and dragged her into waking. Like pulled leeches, the dreams had left their circular bite marks along her back and arms. Tadie hoped father couldn’t see them in the low light. Terror marks were always a bad Say. Terror usually meant the Itch was coming.
Father’s voice was low, “Roope’s gone and run. We’re going after.”
Roope, her older brother. Tadie had known he wanted to run, she didn’t think he’d do it.
When Tadie didn’t react fast enough, father grabbed her arm and pulled her out of bed. The packed clay was cold to her toes. “Didn’t I Say Roope’s gone run?” he repeated; “we’re going after, and you’re coming with.”
Master Hathery—that was what she ought to call father now, as she was almost-grown—had given a command. Commands were to be obeyed without question. She should have been quiet, but she couldn’t help but ask.
The word slipped out, “Why?”
He didn’t hit her. Instead, his big hand wrapped around her face. Master’s words were little hard things, like his squinted eyes. “Because you kept secret his sin.” He let go of her face. “Get dressed.”
Shivering from the autumn cold, Tadie got dressed. She was sixteen, an almost-woman, and that meant wearing the heavier clothes of a grownup. She missed the light shift she used to wear. Once dressed, Tadie met Master in the kitchen. He wasn’t the only one waiting.
There was Mother filling a goat bladder with pickled berries. There was oldest brother Jessen, almost the mirror image of Master Hathery except beardless. He had a stone knife. There was Loyd Podger, Tadie’s promised master, the seventeen-year-old boy from the next plot. He wasn’t holding any weapon; no one could trust his clumsy hands with as much as a spoon. Then there was someone else Tadie didn’t know well, an old man with a lean face carrying a thick stick. She knew him after a second—Old Master Nathit. He was Delson Nathit’s grandpappy. Or had been, anyway. You couldn’t be grandpappy to someone as had been Unsaid.
“We’re going out into the Wilderthere, after Roope,” Master said, now as everyone was gathered.
No one spoke a word back, but Tadie could see the fear in Loyd and Old Nathit’s eyes. Nobody ever went out into the Wilderthere at night.
In the following hush, little bodies wriggled in the thatching overhead, loosening a few shoots of straw that fell onto Tadie’s hair. It was Mother’s neverborn: the miscarried siblings of Tadie’s, Roope’s, and Jessen’s who’d had nowhere else to go when neither life nor death wanted them.
“And she’s to come with?” Old Nathit asked, pointing at Tadie.
“That a problem?” Master asked.
Old Nathit didn’t return Master’s stare. Instead he looked at Tadie. Something in his eye, she thought—was it pity?
As for Jessen, he seemed annoyed that Tadie was coming along. Of course, he didn’t dare speak it.
While Mother finished packing the skins and bladders with food and water, Master told Tadie to pack a few lanterns. She hated packing lanterns, because it meant reaching into the pot of dirt where they kept their fireworms, pulling the slimy blind things out and dumping them into jars. Once in the jars, a few hard shakes scared the worms into shining. It was bright blue, the wormlight: the gleam of little dying things.
Tadie was scared, no way about it. When they got outside, it was a cold but not frosty night. The bigger moonpiece was at the top of the sky and pale white, while the smaller piece was low over the treetops and pink.
“Clouds brooding with sin,” Master remarked as they left the faint glow of the cottage’s window. In his hand he had Chopper, his prized weapon and tool—part axe, part shovel, the biggest piece of hammered iron in the Stead affixed to a thick blackwood branch.
“Brooding,” Jessen echoed.
As the Say required, Tadie held her promised’s hand. Loyd’s hand was always clammy. He had the nervous look of a chicken, but he wasn’t ugly. Not exactly. They’d been promised each other on a year now, but she’d known him as far back as she could know anything.
“Master Hathery, your blessing, I’d appreciate if you told me what we’re doing,” Loyd said.
“We do as the Say demands,” Master said, not looking back. “My sinful seed gone run, so we’ll fetch him to the Fold.”
The Fold. Loyd had been to the Fold with his master for an Unsaying once; Tadie knew this, as he’d told her of it, though women were not to know these things. What he’d described was a meeting of all the Stead’s masters, all standing in a circle, wearing their hoods, pointing fingers and spitting at the bound heretic huddled under their shadows. The heretic had been unmade with the chant of Unsaying: “We Say you gone, we Say you gone...”
“Are they gonna Unsay him?” Loyd asked, gulping.
Did it hurt, being Unsaid? Did it hurt to disappear and stop existing? Tadie hoped never to know.
“Course they’ll Unsay him,” Jessen snapped. “Hist’s teeth, how stupid are you?”
“Watch your mouth, son,” Master said.
Tadie felt a bite in her gut. Roope was her blood; Roope was her kin—how could Master even think of bringing him to the Fold?
They walked all in a line, their three wormlight lanterns bobbing through the dark. Master and Old Nathit up front, Jessen behind them in the tween with his knife and a lantern, and Tadie and Loyd lagging at the back. They were moving a way Tadie had never gone—toward the Wilderthere and the rim of the world.
After they passed the last dark cottage, they came to the row of shabby trees that marked the bounds of Altenfor Stead. With Master leading, they pushed right through. Now they were in the softland. In the softland everything stunk. Like a world gone rotten, fingers of nasty steam rose from the mucky holes their feetwraps dug. Tadie felt the fringed hem of her grownup dress dragging through the slime, and once or twice she almost fell into the muck, but Loyd held her up. Nobody went out in the softland at night, nor any part of the Wilderthere. Once, the people of the Stead had harvested the precious iron from the Ironvein, but that was before the witchspawn had made their nest there. There were no people in the Wilderthere; people lived in the Stead or not at all.
Not long after entering the softland, Jessen found a set of prints the same size as Roope’s feet. That Roope had run to the Wilderthere, Tadie only half believed. There were safer places to hide. If they found him, Tadie hoped she’d see Roope first. If she did, maybe she could warn him, scream and give him a head start...
Tadie hadn’t told Master about what Roope had been up to with Delson. She’d known. She’d seen. Ever since Roope’s friend Delson got Unsaid, Roope had been up in the late hours, looking out the window, whispering to nothing. But it wasn’t to nothing—it was to Delson’s casting. A casting was the leftovers of the Unsaid. To speak with a casting was heresy; to nourish it with living breath or blood was the highest heresy of all, or so Master had told his children. For this, Roope had run. The day before, Jessen had caught him at the edge of the Stead cutting his hand and holding it out to nothing. Master had beaten him and bound him in bands of leather, but somehow Roope had escaped.
As they moved together in the dark and mist, Tadie heard the rustle of bloodbird wings deeper in the dimness.
Master heard them too. “Bloodbirds near,” he said; “witchspawn can’t be far.”
Tadie had never seen witchspawn, but she had heard their hunting screeches beyond the trees; sounds like children in pain. Master had told her that witchspawn were children once, girls like her who felt the Itch and gave in. The Itch that made clothing unbearable, that made children scratch themselves bloody, that made them ravenously hungry. Last harvest, it had been Kyla, a girl three seasons her elder, who’d gotten the Itch and ran away. Usually the Fold spotted it before that—usually children with the Itch were taken and Unsaid before they could turn.
A whisper fluttered to Tadie’s ear from out beyond the trees. “Girl, come here.”
Tadie ignored it.
“Girl, come here.”
Tadie hugged the wormlight jar to her chest and pushed forward through the muck.
The whispers stopped when the hard rain started falling.
The hard rain didn’t fall over the Stead, only in the Wilderthere, so Tadie wasn’t ready when the first drop hit her in the eye hard as a pebble. But the pain wasn’t the danger with a hard rain. In the Wilderthere, water was a disastrous thing, unreliable and dangerous.
“Stay together!” Master yelled, and Jessen rushed toward her and Loyd to close the gap before the ground could open up.
Already cracks were forming, getting bigger with each stride Jessen took. He’d reach them in a moment.
Unless Tadie didn’t let him. Still holding Loyd’s hand, she stepped a pace back and pulled Loyd with her, away from Jessen.
That was all it took.
The hard rain deformed and reformed the very earth, splitting open gaps in the softland, creating huge veins of moving water where there had been only stagnant trickles before. As a great, gushing river roared into being, Tadie saw Jessen become a very small thing on the new river’s far bank, then a dull shimmer of wormlight behind mist, then nothing. And she and Loyd were alone.
The rain was done, and the rivers were shrinking again. Loyd was calling out to Master and Jessen, but no one answered, and he gave up. Tadie was glad he did; there were other things in the Wilderthere with ears.
“It’s all right,” Loyd said, squeezing her hand. The gesture was supposed to reassure, but his hand was trembling.
He wasn’t asking about her stepping away from Jessen. Had he not noticed that little act of resistance?
“We gotta find Roope,” Tadie said, “before Master and—”
But Loyd cut her off. “Tadie-sweet, listen you me, we gotta find our way Stead-ward.”
The bump in Loyd’s throat bobbed up and down as he looked each whichway. They had a wormlight jar, at least, but no weapon, nor telling how far they were from Altenfor. “The little moonpiece,” he said, pointing; “it was away from the Stead and we walked toward it. So we needs turn the other way and walk with our backs to it.”
“Yeah,” he said, with so much No in his voice.
She knew Loyd. He didn’t have much sure in him—it was one of his nicest traits, in truth.
“You’re sure?” she asked again.
He blinked. The bump in his throat bobbed. “Well...”
She took his other hand. Looked him in the eye. “Trust you me?”
“Then follow,” she said.
Holding her promised’s hand, Tadie turned toward the little moonpiece and away from the direction of the Stead.
This part of the Wilderthere looked different from the softland. The ground was firm but slippery, covered in crawling vines with spongy leaves. There were hills on the horizon and outlines of trees on those hills. Maybe those trees would make a good hiding place for Roope.
“I see torchlight over that hill,” Loyd said; “it must be the Stead.”
Tadie squinted; there was faint yellow light on the hill. He slipped out of her hand and ran forward, ahead of her.
“Wait,” she tried to say.
It couldn’t be the Stead. The Stead was the other way.
Tadie ran after Loyd, tried calling after him, but a wind came up from the hills and threw her warnings back at her. With the wind also came whispers.
“Yeah yeah girl.” “Come you here girl.” “Come bring you and your nearly-man.”
“Wait, Loyd,” Tadie hollered as she reached the bottom of the hill—Loyd was already scrambling up—; “I hear whispers.”
Loyd called down from high on the grassy slope. “What?”
“I hear whispers!” Tadie said, louder; “there’s danger up near.”
But Loyd didn’t listen. She caught up to him just as he reached the crest of the hill. In the gully below, they found the source of the light. It wasn’t a natural fire; its flames too yellow, with oily swirls of darkness swimming in the fire as reminded Tadie of bird-grease in a boiling soup. Hunkered around the fire were things like people but not people. Things like children but not children.
Tadie had never imagined the witchspawn as beautiful, but they were. Their beauty was a spider’s beauty, their limbs long and thin like spiders’ legs, and they hunched with their bumpy spines curved like bows, their long wide hands splayed out on the grass. Their skin was silverygray and shone in the firelight. Their faces, the ones Tadie could make out from under long unkempt hair, looked like little pretty girl’s faces. The Say told that witchspawn ate the meat of good Say-listening folks.
She thought she’d scream seeing them. She didn’t; it was Loyd who screamed.
And it was Tadie who pulled Loyd away from the ridge. Down the hill they scrambled, the witchspawn after them, their horrible girly screeching halfway between laughter and the sound of murder.
At the foot of the hill they took a hard turn, Loyd now taking the lead again, pulling Tadie along. The spongy vines gave way to soft stinky dirt like in the softland. Witchspawn hands and feet slapped the wet ground. Tadie dropped the wormlight jar and couldn’t stop to pick it up.
Her chest squeezed hard and her lungs burnt with terror and she felt her one bare foot cut on little thorny branches buried in the mud, and she knew she couldn’t stop running but she wanted to stop and fall over and disappear but Loyd kept pulling her onward.
Then she stumbled. Her face smacked the mud, and she heard the witchspawn scurrying closer and closer.
“Back!” Loyd was there, putting himself between her and the witchspawn. “Stay away!”
He had no weapon. Nothing but his own hands and courage as he faced down a half-dozen onrushing witchspawn.
One moment he stood between her and the witchspawn, and the next they were on him. Two pinned him with their long limbs, another two attacked him with their teeth. The other two, who could have pounced on Tadie, didn’t pounce; instead they shuddered and skittered back as if frightened of Tadie.
Tadie rushed forward, to throw herself at the witchspawn and protect Loyd, this nearly-man, this boy she’d known all her days, gangly and twitchy and nervous and kind, but a firm grip seized her by the back of her dress. Then a cold hand closed around Tadie’s mouth. She smelled and tasted bitter herbs. Her whole body went limp. The world fell away to darkness.
Her head still ached when her eyes opened. Tadie was sitting on a soft cushion, her back resting against a crude wall of wicker and mudbrick. There was a good smell in the air. A fire crackled; a pot bubbled; the old woman leaning over her clucked her tongue.
“Bless be your eyes are opening now,” the woman said. “You seemed near to dead.”
“Who’re you?” Tadie asked; “where’s Loyd?”
The woman clucked her tongue again and shook her head. She had a face like a treestump, but her eyes were pretty and as blue as dawnstars. “If Loyd was your nearly-man, then I’m afraid Loyd’s gone.”
She’d known of course—she’d seen the witchspawn on him—but it still hurt to know it true and sure. She’d never loved him, not as a girl should love her promised, but he was kind. Tadie started crying. The woman put a rough hand on her cheek and wiped the salt. A strange thing happened when the woman’s hand touched her—not only did she stop crying, but the sadness in her smoothed down, its edges blunted.
She remembered the hands now—the one that seized her, the one smeared in the strange paste that sent her into the dark.
“I’m true sorry,” the woman said. “But you’re alive. That’s not nothing.”
“What did you do?” Tadie asked. “Why’d stop you me from helping Loyd?”
The woman shook her head. “He was already near as dead. If only I’d found you two sooner.”
The anger in Tadie settled some. There was a kindness in the woman’s eyes that dulled Tadie’s suspicions.
The woman was crooked and short, gray hair done up in a bun and pinned together with what looked like a chicken bone. Her clothes were thick and the color of leaves in autumn. The woman’s dwelling was a small hovel about the same size as Tadie’s bedroom. It was made from wicker and mud and shaped like a cone with a hole at the top for the smoke. There were bits of a home in the hovel—a chair, some cushions, vegetables and salted swamp-hares hanging from lines, a little bedroll...
On the wall, carved into the mud were strange markings. Lines and shapes. They looked intentionally made.
“What’s that?” Tadie asked, pointing to the symbols.
The woman smiled. “Letters.”
“Yeah, words shaped for eyes instead of ears,” the woman said; “words as don’t die with breath.”
Tadie wasn’t sure she knew what that meant.
“How come the witchspawn didn’t chase you?” Tadie asked her. “Did you scare them off?”
“Ain’t nothing as scares them,” the woman said; “but they know me.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means you’re lucky I found you when I did,” the woman said. “My name’s Rosemary, by the by. Who’re you?”
“Rosemary,” Tadie repeated. “I’m just Tadie.”
“Tadie’s a good name,” Rosemary said. “Mine’s an old name. Rosemary was a plant as don’t grow no more.”
“Was it a pretty plant?”
“I don’t know, but it smelled nice.”
“How do you know it smelled nice if you never seen it?”
Rosemary ignored the question. “You’re from Altenfor?”
Tadie nodded. “And you’re not?”
Tadie had never heard of a person from outside Altenfor. Master said there weren’t any; he’d even taught her a song about it: “Ain’t no Steads but Altenfor, once were others way before, sinful Steads as ain’t no more.”
Rosemary smiled. “I don’t hold with the Stead, nor its Fold. But I know where it is. I could show you back.”
Tadie almost said yes. But then she remembered Roope. Poor Loyd might have been gone, but there might be hope yet for her brother.
“No,” Tadie said. “I needs find someone. My brother, Roope.”
“You think he’s out here?”
“It’s why we came.”
Tadie told her the full Say, starting a year back when Roope first asked her to fib for him so he and Delson could go off to the trees, ending with the moment the hard rain separated her and Loyd from the others. As she told her Say, Rosemary served her some of the stew from the pot in a cracked clay bowl. It was delicious, the best of any food she’d had since the last harvest feast. Rosemary said it was goose liver as made the stew taste so good.
When Tadie finished, Rosemary asked why she thought Roope was still alive.
“I’m not sure of any or all,” Tadie said. “But he’s my brother. I got to help him.”
“And if you find him, what then?” Rosemary asked. “Your pappy and all the Stead want him Unsaid.”
“I don’t know,” Tadie said; “but maybe you can help?”
“Help how?” Rosemary asked. “I’m just an old woman.”
Tadie didn’t believe that, and her face must have told Rosemary so.
Rosemary clucked her tongue. “Oh, fine, child. You find your brother and bring him here. Nobody in the Stead will find him.”
Rosemary gave her new feetwraps and a small wormlight jar. And there was something else. Rosemary took a little wooden box from inside her big wooden chest and opened it for Tadie. To Tadie’s surprise, a fat bumblebee buzzed out of it and landed on her arm. The bee crawled along Tadie’s wrist, buzzed, and wiggled its bottom.
“Aww, she likes you,” Rosemary said. “That’s good. She’s a good bee—she’ll help you find your kin.”
As if sensing a challenge to her worth, the bee flew off Tadie’s wrist and started buzzing toward the hovel’s entrance.
“Oh, I think she’s found a trail,” Rosemary said. “If you give her some trust, she’ll show you to what you want to find. Go, child, go and find your brother before your pappy does.”
”Why are you doing all this?” Tadie asked.
Rosemary pulled back the collar of her dress to show old scars, memories of fingernails digging at an unscratchable itch many years ago. “I was a scared, lost almost-woman once.”
Tadie stared at the scars and felt her own skin prickle. It was horrible, but Rosemary had survived. In the long red tracks of those scars was a way out of the Wilderthere.
The wormlight jar plied the dark, while Tadie’s bee cheerfully tumbled through the air. The buzz of her wings was friendly and did to Tadie’s fear and hurt what the wormlight did to the gloom. The bee was a pretty little thing, plump with a white tuft of fuzz on her back and a shiny black bottom that wiggled joyfully.
Tadie still felt the hurt of what had happened to Loyd, still the terror of what might happen to Roope, but she felt better now, safer. Food in her stomach and Rosemary’s kindness softened the edges of the Wilderthere.
The trees here were stunted and twisted, their black bark studded with fungus that swelled and pulsed like breathing things. The bee was leading Tadie away from the softland and into hillier ground thicker and thicker with these trees, some of them even alive. The bee’s buzzing stopped when they came close to a big fallen tree—she didn’t stop moving her wings, but her wings stopped making noise. Tadie knew why a moment later when she heard the deep growl from under the broken trunk.
Treading softly, Tadie edged around the big tree. There was a burrow dug out of the soil beneath the fallen tree’s span, and inside of the burrow were four sleeping howls. She’d never seen a howl before, but they looked like what she expected—stocky, muscular things more head and jaw than leg or tail, covered in glossy black fur. They were smaller than she’d expected. When Loyd told his tall tales about how he and his Master killed a howl mother and her pup, he’d claimed the mother was bigger than a horse. These sleeping beasts were small enough for Tadie to gather in her arms—not that she’d want to.
After leaving behind the howl den, the bee buzzed once again, and Tadie was grateful for it, as the hurt in her had started bubbling up and the dark had begun to press in closer on her little shell of wormlight in the buzzing’s absence. Then the buzzing got louder, more insistent, and the bee sped off. Tadie broke into a run to keep up with her. The bee led her to another huge dead tree, its thick roots exposed from the earth. Under the canopy of these roots was a little cavern.
Tadie knelt at the edge of the cavern and held out her wormlight. The blue glow glutted into a pair of scared brown eyes. Roope had only been gone a day, but Tadie barely recognized him. His face was sunken and thin, his hair wild and strewn with moss and leaves.
The bee darned the air happily.
Roope looked at her, his mouth hanging open, his nose dripping with snot. He looked to his side, as if someone were crouched next to him in the little treeroot shelter.
“It’s just Tadie,” Roope said to nobody; “I dunno how she’s here, though.”
Carefully she slid down the rim of the hole and came to crouch beside Roope, who scooted aside himself, as if there was someone else in the hole to accommodate.
“She don’t see you,” Roope whispered. Roope made a smile at Tadie; his teeth chattered. “You can’t see him, I guess, but I see him fine.”
Tadie looked to the empty space Roope pointed to and reached out. Roope let out a weak giggle. “Can’t touch him neither. Only someone as loves someone Unsaid can see or touch a casting.”
It was at that moment that Tadie noticed the many scars on her brother’s wrists. They were fresh scars, and straight and uniform, not the markings of animal’s claws or thorns but deliberate cuts with a knife.
Before she could ask, Roope anticipated her question. “Tadie, it’s no big thing,” he said, “I ain’t lost much blood, I’ve been smart—feeding Delson drip by drop.”
Tadie said nothing; what could she say?
“You think I’m a heretic?” Roope asked; “how’s it heresy to love? How’s it heresy to Unsay an Unsaying?”
“How could you come out here?” Tadie asked. “There’s witchspawn and—”
“The witchspawn aren’t so dangerous,” Roope said. “They don’t come after you, they only protect themselves.”
Tadie said nothing to that. She didn’t know what to think about heresy, the Say, or any of it; all she knew was she’d come here to find her brother and help him.
“Listen, Roope,” she said, “I’ve got something to tell you.”
She told him what happened, about getting separated, about Loyd, about Rosemary finding her, and about Rosemary’s promise to help.
“She can keep you safe, Roope,” Tadie said at the end; “maybe she could even help Delson.”
Roope looked at her as if her hair was on fire, a funny thing to do considering he’d been jawing at empty air, but he shivered and nodded. Just the idea of a warm fire could get a person going. Tadie offered him her hand. He looked weak, but she could help him walk. Roope took it.
Before she could pull him up, Rosemary’s bee started buzzing loud and frantic. Tadie looked up just as a bright flash of wormlight from a much bigger jar than Tadie’s gushed into the burrow. A shadow passed over the light. Two men were looking down into the burrow, one gaunt and long-nosed, the other bearded and squinty-eyed. Old Nathit and Master.
Master’s long, hairy arm reached into the hole and caught Roope by his collar, as it had every time Roope had ever talked out of turn or shirked chores or just looked up at the wrong time. As Master dragged Roope out of the hole, Tadie tried to pull Roope back, but Old Nathit’s bony fingers closed around her shoulders and dragged her out the other way.
“Sin begets sin,” Master said, pinning Roope under his heel as Nathit held Tadie back.
Master’s anger was the calm, smoldering sort until he saw the cuts on Roope’s wrists. Tadie had rarely seen the whites of Master’s small, always-squinting eyes, but now she saw them as Master beheld the proof of his son’s sin. “Say forbid it,” Master said, spitting; “Say forbid it.”
First, he kicked Roope in the ribs. Tadie shrieked for him to stop, but Master kicked Roope again, then took a fistful of Roope’s hair and lifted him up to strike him in the gut. Surprising Old Nathit and herself, Tadie broke out of his grip and launched herself at Master.
Master, who’d not even noticed her to this point, seemed at first so surprised to be attacked—none of his children, not Roope or Jessen and certainly not Tadie, had ever attacked him—that he left himself open and Tadie felt the satisfaction of her nails clawing through the skin and meat of his cheek.
But Master’s shock lasted only the instant, for in the next moment his big hairy fist hammered down onto Tadie’s head, and she fell back.
Rosemary’s bee buzzed angrily, and from the ground where she lay Tadie saw her dive at Master. Master let out a howl and reached for the small of his back, and seeing it felt good to Tadie, but then all that good turned to awful hurt as Master plucked something from his back—the bee, curling up and shivering, dying already—and crushed her between his thumb and finger.
Old Nathit grabbed Tadie and hauled her up—she was so full of hurt she couldn’t even struggle now—and Master kicked Roope another time, but he stopped his whomping then, like he’d gotten tired.
Master’s eyes flickered over to Chopper, lying on the ground to the side, and it looked like for a second he thought of lopping his own boy’s head off right there. But he didn’t touch Chopper; Master could never come between the Fold and its duty.
“Roope, from me I cast you, from my name and from my Say,” Master said, panting, rubbing his back where the bee had stung him. He turned his little dark eyes on Tadie now. “And you, daughter-mine, the Fold will decide what’s done to a sinful child as claws her Master.”
As when she’d set out, Tadie was moving in a line through the Wilderthere, huddled in the lit sphere of wormlight. Only this time there was no space between her and Old Nathit, nor between Roope and Master. Master had bound Roope’s hands with rawhide strips and tied Roope to himself with hemp rope, while Old Nathit attended to Tadie, moving her along with nudges from his cudgel.
They were walking toward where Jessen had set up a camp at the Wilderthere’s edge.
Roope and Master were up ahead and Tadie couldn’t see much of her brother, but every so often his face turned to the side and his eyes strayed as if someone else—Delson’s casting—were matching them stride for stride, marking them.
Master growled and groused about the Say and about sin and about heresy and about what the Fold must do to all dark things. However much his words made her shiver, there was one thing that gave her hope: Master had begun to limp.
Slower and slower he was moving, until Old Nathit and Tadie caught up to him, then passed him by. Master was rubbing his back and trudging forward, leaning now on Chopper. When Tadie glanced back she saw something bubbling—a fine pink froth—on his lips and in the bristles of his beard. A growl in Master’s chest, and he stopped moving.
“Nathit,” he called.
Old Nathit stopped, a hand on Tadie’s shoulder. “Yeah, Hathery?”
“You go on and fetch Jessen, while I attend the sinners.”
Old Nathit looked at him hard. “Is that the wisest—?”
Master growled at him and coughed something pink into his palm, and Old Nathit didn’t argue more. Nathit pushed Tadie into Master’s hands and then turned around.
“I’ll fetch Jessen like you Say,” Old Nathit said, and started moving off.
Master fell onto his backside and sat up on the ground, holding Tadie by her hair with one hand and holding Roope with his other hand hooked around the boy’s neck.
“When Jessen comes, we walk on,” Master said, his voice heavy and labored now.
He was getting weaker but not near weak enough for Tadie to hope to break free. Roope meanwhile, started talking. Not to Master, not to Tadie—to Delson.
“Yeah, I think he is,” Roope said.
“Hist, boy, shut up,” Master said, and that he’d spoke it instead of striking Roope told how deeply the bee’s venom had bit him.
Maybe she couldn’t break out of Master’s grasp, but she could make it so that he’d have bigger problems than holding down his children.
She sucked in a deep breath, and maybe Master knew what she was about to do because she saw the rare whites of his eyes again the instant before she let out the loudest, wildest scream she’d ever screamed. Five, maybe six seconds she held the shrill note before Master’s fist grabbed her by her throat. It didn’t matter. Other shrieks, louder and shriller than hers answered.
The sudden fear in Master from hearing the cries of the witchspawn made him loosen his grasp on her, just enough for her to kick him and pry herself free. She scrambled away from his swiping paws, and maybe he’d have gotten her if Roope hadn’t wriggled out from the rope that bound him and took off the other way. Master howled, but his voice was drowned out by the approaching shrieks of the witchspawn.
Tadie was on her feet now, running one way while Roope ran the other. Master could only chase one. Which would he choose?
Tadie had her answer when heavy feet started thumping after her, breaking twigs and crushing leaves. Tadie ran harder, cursing her skirt for making her stumble and wishing she could still run the way she’d run when she was a small child in her girl shift. Master might have been poisoned, but he was still fast from anger.
Then Tadie came to a small stream. Water was unreliable and dangerous in the Wilderthere.
Tadie leapt over the narrow rill, which was crossed over by a fallen log—like a stitch in a wound, the log was holding the two sides of the earth together. Behind, Tadie saw Master shambling toward her, dragging Chopper behind him. Far behind him but getting bigger and closer by the second was maybe a dozen pale witchspawn, skittering like spiders on their long limbs.
Tadie kicked the log into the water, and the water broke wide open, flinging the land apart. Breathe in, breathe out. By the time Tadie’s breath went out, Master was a little figure on the far shore of what looked more lake than river, and the witchspawn were upon him. Master turned to face them, swinging Chopper. His first swing took the head right off one, but with his second wild swing his weapon snagged in the ground, and that was that. Just as it had been for poor Loyd; Master had his time now.
Tadie turned away. She didn’t want to see it, not even if Master deserved it.
And she saw Old Nathit’s lean face staring down at her from a rise ten paces off.
He walked over to her calm and steady and she didn’t try to run; there was no run left in her legs. “You saw?” she asked.
“I saw,” he said. “A very sad thing, that. Master Hathery stumbling on a root, with witchspawn after him.”
Tadie opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
Old Nathit smiled. It was a strange thing on his grim old face. “I watched the Fold Unsay Delson,” he said. “Your pappy was who brung him in. And he brung me along tonight, as he figured I was too fearful to do him a harm—he liked feeling powerful that way. He figured right, but he never figured you.”
Tadie opened her mouth again to speak, perhaps to thank him, but Old Nathit covered her mouth. “No Say,” he said; “hear me?”
Old Nathit led Tadie to the camp where Jessen was waiting by a fire. Her stomach twisted at the sight of Roope bound up again. Maybe Jessen had heard him running and caught him—or maybe Roope had run right into him.
“Old Master Nathit, Tadie,” Jessen said, smiling. “Where’s Master?”
Old Nathit took off his hat and held it over his heart. “Great my sorrow to Say, Master Hathery’s dead. Tripped on a root. Witchspawn got him.”
Never once had Jessen felt Master’s violence. The perfect son, he’d been. But hearing of Master’s death, his expression was unmoved.
“And Chopper?” he asked after a bit. “Where’s Chopper?”
“Lost to the Wilderthere,” Old Nathit said.
“A shame,” Jessen said, and now there was a glimmer of sadness in his eyes. “Oh well.” He looked to Tadie. “Great my sorrow, sister-mine, for your promised. Loyd was a good man, but we’ll find you a new promised.”
“What about Roope?” Tadie asked, pointing to him, who had a new bruise on his face Master hadn’t given him.
Jessen side-eyed his brother. “We do as Say requires. To the Fold he’ll go, and for his heresies he’ll be Unsaid.”
“No, you can’t,” Tadie said.
The back of Jessen’s hand caught her across the face. Her cheek burned.
“I’m Master Hathery now, and you’ll do as Master Hathery Says.”
Tadie looked to Old Nathit, but he looked away. Like everyone did; like everyone would. No one would come between her and her brother, her new Master.
Five days gone by. Tadie, in her bed, cradles her wormlight. She must muffle it soon, place the second lid that takes the air away and kills the worms and their light. Soon, or Jessen—Master Hathery—will get angry.
Three days now it’s been since the Fold took in Roope and Unsaid him for heresy. Today Tadie met her new promised for the first time. An older man from the other side of the Stead. He smells like onions; he has a big gut and big hands. She misses Loyd.
Heavy feet pad outside her door, and Tadie finds the lid and closes it over the wormlight jar. The worms die quick—burning takes so much air—but their light dims slowly.
Blue glow gives over to dull dark. Tadie feels the itch again. Soon she won’t be able to bear having bedsheets over her—won’t be able to even bear the thinnest shift on her skin. When the hunger takes her, they’ll all know, and she’ll finally see who the Fold are, and what happens when one is Unsaid.
Tadie starts crying in the dark.
And then a hand touches her cheek and wipes the salt. She opens her eyes. What she sees is something that’s both there and not—like dew on spiderline, the stitched outline of a boy’s face. Her brother’s face. Roope. Or his casting, anyway.
Say tells that when a casting comes, one must cast it back, Say it away.
Tadie stops crying. She knows what to do now. She knows what needs done. She won’t let the Fold have her. She’ll run first. She’ll run to Rosemary, or to the witchspawn. But she won’t become like them. Tadie will keep her own self, she’ll fight as hard as she must to keep it, like Rosemary did. But she won’t just hide like Rosemary. She’ll show the witchspawn the ironvein, teach them what can be made of iron. Too many weak and cruel men in the Stead, and she’ll show them all the mercy they showed her.
But that is all to do, now’s what’s now. Roope’s casting: wordless, fleshless, staring at her. Tadie carves a line in her wrist with the sharp edge of her nail and holds the glut of red life to her brother.