My name’s Zilda Trueshake and I’m big for twelve, or so Dad Bray is always like to tell with big pride. Momma Londie tells the same but with disapproval, like it’s bad for a girl to be big, as if the rest of Bolnbroke Stead is funning on her for her tall daughter with the wide shoulders and the big, puddlemaking feet. And maybe they are, I don’t know. All I know is I care more about what’s out there to see than what people talk about, and I love venturing. I love it even more now as I’m cooped indoors as punishment for getting lost and getting my daddy sick with the longsniffle from all the cold he suffered finding me.
My daddy, Dad Bray Trueshake, used to venture too, before he turned grown and wedded Momma Londie. Somewhen back he even walked up the Big Hills to the tippytops of both of them and then came back to Bolnbroke Stead to tell the other Steadfolks what the sun looked like from close by. Or maybe that’s just a story. Dad Bray likes stories, much more than Momma Londie. Momma Londie thinks I ought to be more useful, ought to help her more in the house and not go off venturing in the Wilderthere.
“Anything and all can happen out There,” Momma Londie always says. Momma Londie’s right about that—she’s always right, smart as she is—but it’s why I go. I venture because life’s a flower as can bloom every whichway and every color, if you show it to the sun and rain.
When I shirk my chores to go venturing, Momma Londie’s always mad as all, and Dad Bray tuts and clucks when he sees me come home all muddy and with burrs in my hair, and he takes up the whomping stick and looks all hardeyed as a father ought to when he’s setting his seed right, but then there’s us gone down to the root cellar, him hitting the wall with the stick and me squeaking an Ow every once and somewhen to fool Momma Londie. He don’t whomp me so long as I got a good story for him. I tell him what I seen and he likes that fine, maybe as it’s the only way he can be that brave venturing boy again.
Out in the Wilderthere I seen flowers as crawl the ground like lizards, and I seen shellbirds trying to fly—like watching stones throw themselves. Out where the woods give over to the swamp I once met the Puddlehag, who’s tall as Dad Bray but hides herself in toedeep puddles. An old woman with froggy skin and gray hair, she is, naked as a toad and just as warty. She promised me lots of fun if I followed her into her puddle, but I told her Momma Londie would whoop me if I got all muddy. She didn’t like that, and I ain’t seen her since. I seen the Rootchild plenty, though, and they’re a friend of me. I’ll get to telling about the Rootchild, by and by.
I seen pretty things and ugly things both. The Pretty People I once peeped through the brush at the edge of the Wide Field under the shadow of the Big Hills. That’s what folk call them, but I don’t know anyone’s ever asked what they like to call themselves. I seen them on their horses, with their bows and spears, hunting woolcows. They didn’t look like the folks in Bolnbroke—they were too pretty, with their shimmery hair long and straight, not thick and wooly like Steadfolk hair. One of them had a thing like a spear that he pointed at a woolcow, and the spearthing made a terrible thunder that must have scared the woolcow dead. It near to scared me dead too, but I did love the sight of those men with their hair like black ribbons.
Yeah, I’ve had ventures going back years now. But my latest venture takes it all. It came last moon. It was a morning in Cold Spring, that time when the Stranglecold is done and the world’s green comes toeing out of winter’s gash like a newborn horse trying its legs. I was supposed to gather up the blisterblue mushrooms growing in the wood behind the house, but that was no fun at all. That wood is just a wood, tame as the house or the road or any part of the Stead, nothing like the Wilderthere. I picked a few mushrooms and got bored and kept walking till I was out of the wood and to the neighbors’ plot, and from there I kept going till I passed the ditch that marks the end of the Stead and the start of the rest of the world.
I walked toward the shadow shapes of the Big Hills. Momma Londie tells the edge of the world is called the horizon, and you can never reach it. Maybe I walked toward that horizon to show her wrong.
I wasn’t too far, not even out of sight of the Stead, when I heard Dad Bray hollering for me.
“You oughta go back when you’re called,” said a squeak of a voice.
I turned and seen my friend as I already told about, the Rootchild. The Rootchild had popped their head out from the turf, and it was hard to tell their face from the dirt and grass and roots around it. The Rootchild looks like a child as ain’t quite boy or girl, but I think they’re not really a child but something older. They even told once they were around for the Foreworld, that long ago time when the two moonpieces were just the one round moon in the sky and people could do anything and all, like flying in the air and bringing the dead back to life. I don’t know about that; all I know is the Rootchild always sounds like they ain’t slept enough. Some things you meet out in the Wilderthere are nice, like shellbirds and air-eels. Some are mean, like howls and the Puddlehag. But the Rootchild, well, they’re just grumpy.
“I ain’t got a story yet,” I said. “I can’t go back till I got a story.”
“Fool child,” they said, making slits of their yellow eyes. “Storm’s coming, can’t you see the clouds? Best get back before it gets here.”
True as tree, there were angry clouds gathering. But they were far away, and it wouldn’t take me long to find a story, even if just a small one.
“Zilda!” Dad Bray hollered, and I could tell he was close. Maybe he’d even come past the ditch to stand at the Wilderthere’s edge. “Zilda, come back or you gonna get yours, True-Say!”
Dad Bray always sounds mean when it’s for other ears than mine. That big voice of his is like a snail’s shell, hard and tough, but I know there’s a cuddly snail underneath. I kept walking.
“Fool child,” the Rootchild hissed at me, but they didn’t try to stop me.
I didn’t mean to go far, maybe just to the edge of the Wide Field on the chance to glimpse the Pretty People again. But the rain started up before I’d even made it to the brush, and I was still mucking through the turfy field the Rootchild calls home.
Rain’s different in the Wilderthere. It don’t just splash, it makes holes in the earth. Sometimes it tears the world up and rearranges it in new ways. The rain went from whispering to shouting so fast I didn’t have the chance to turn for home, so I ran to the nearest steady tree and threw my arms around it as if I were hugging Dad Bray. Water lashed down and already the world was moving, the land breaking open and new waters rising up, churning mud and muck. Through the rain’s shout I heard Dad Bray call out, closer now but still so far away. And now I was twice scared, scared for myself and for him. I tried hollering back, but my voice got stolen by the wind and rain. All I could do was hug the tree and wait for the storm to pass.
But that was too big a hope. The land drowned and I was on a little island of treeroot, water licking at my toes. I don’t know how I held on as long as I did, but it didn’t matter. The water, an angry river now, pried me loose from my tree, and I fell into the wet.
I don’t know how long I tumbled in the soup of mud and rain. Must have hit my head on something, because one blink I was tumbling and trying to keep my nose above water, and then the next blink I was on dry soil and my head hurting something terrible.
There were a few trees, dewy and greenleafed and shimmery in the dawnshine, where I woke up. That was my first hint I was somewhere wrong—leaves hadn’t come in yet around Bolnbroke, only the little green shoots on the branches. I got up and looked around. I was in a field that went on forever one way and ended in a forest the other, and beyond that forest was the great rise of the Big Hills. I’d seen them before, but these looked off, different, green instead of gray and rocky. My gut twisted up when I come to reckon I was on the wrong side of those hills.
Now, you might expect a little girl to fret and cry, but I didn’t. Whatever quit and sad and fear was in me, I shoved it all down. It was a bright day, warm sun, cool breeze; perfect venturing weather. I knew how to get my directions from where the morning sun was, and I knew which way Bolnbroke was—just over the Big Hills. It’d take a day and most a night, I reckoned, to climb the nearest hill and get back to the Stead, plenty time to gather up the seeds of the greatest story I’d ever tell Dad Bray. And I’d need a great story, for as great as his anger would be.
So there was me, walking cross that field calm and happy as all. There was beauty. Always there’s beauty if you look for it, but sometimes and someplaces beauty looks for you, takes you by your eyes and tells you Here I am, look! So it was with the flowers in that field. I’d tell you every color I seen except I ain’t got the names for all them. There’s more colors than there are words, and that’s Say’s truth.
I crossed the field and reached the edge of the wood where many more green trees waited. It was in the woods that things got bad. Not at first. Fear and awfulness always creep up, never come at once. I found mushrooms and sweet berries in the woods, and I ate my fill of them. There was the good. Then the bad started. It was when the going was getting steeper—maybe I was coming up on the slope of the Big Hill—that I first heard the crinklecrunch of someone’s heavy foot behind me. Didn’t see nothing when I turned, but the sound started up soon as I kept moving, like an echo of my own steps.
Anyway, that was the first hint of bad, but I was still fine. My feet were only bleeding a little, and I only got sick once from the berries, and I kept most of my meal inside me.
Dark came as dark does but earlier than it ought’ve for spring. I felt I’d barely started up the slope when it got too dark to go further. And it got cold. Bone cold. There was me, alone in the dark, scrunched up into the hollow of a big dead blackwood tree, safe from the wind but still bone cold. There was me crying. Bawling, even. There was me calling to Dad Bray, even calling to Momma Londie, which I never do.
Footsteps again, crinklecrunch on dead twigs. Both moonpieces were up high, the little pink one and the big blue one giving enough light that I seen what had followed me.
It was dumb to think it could be Dad Bray, I know that now. But hope smudges what you see and hear. I wanted it so badly to be Dad Bray that I did the stupidest thing I could do.
“Dad Bray?” I called out to that tall spindly manshape standing out in the clearing.
The thing was tall as Dad Bray and just as skinny, but when it turned its head and I seen moonglimmer on the long spikes coming off its back and skull, and the silvery drool dripping from its big jaws, I knew it wasn’t even halfway a person.
I’d never seen the Skinnyman, but I knew him just the same.
The Skinnyman’s worse than witchspawn or the Puddlehag; worse than howls, worse than anything in the Wilderthere. Lizardy gray skin, big teeth, spines all the way up his scrawny back. He looked starved, just like the stories always told, but I knew he was deadly strong.
And worse, he was fast. Even with a head start—I bolted soon as I knew my mistake, soon as his pus-yellow cat eyes fixed on me—the Skinnyman near to ran me down. It was only a branch, low enough for me to duck under but high enough to catch the Skinnyman’s throat, that stopped him and kept him from snatching me in his claws. Even as the branch slowed him up, the Skinnyman spat and hollered, his voice almost manspeak but closer to pigsqueal, and he reached and his claws cut right through my dress and skin and meat. I felt blood drip-dripping from my back, felt dizzy and cold all at once, but I kept on my feet, kept running, even though the slope was getting steeper, even though the brush was getting thicker.
He’d have caught me then. I know this. I’m shaking even now thinking on what he’d have done. Eat me, sure, but what else before that? The Skinnyman’s true cruel, or so the stories tell, cruel enough to eat a child one toe, one finger, one ear at a time, and leave the rest to bawl and bleed. But he didn’t catch me. He didn’t catch me because just as I tripped on a low root and fell on my face and heard those big feet thumpthumping closer, there came a sound bigger and meaner than any thunderclap.
I’d heard that sound before but never from close. It was the spearthing, like what the Pretty People use to kill a woolcow. Now it had been turned on the Skinnyman, and the Skinnyman ran off as fast as get can go.
“Aww Hist’s teeth,” said a voice over me. It was rough and raspy, and I figured it a man’s, before I lifted my head and seen a woman looking down. “You must be the dumbest little girl in all the world.”
She was pretty. Big red scar zigged down her cheek under her left eye, but it didn’t spoil her handsomeness much. She had no hair, just the stubble on her head like what’s on a man’s cheek after Harvesttime shave. I thought that strange. Not as strange as her eyes though: green, same as mine, same as Momma Londie’s. She was tall and built strong, and she wore manclothes, padded trousers and rope suspenders as come from Gallowbraid Stead. Sturdy Gallowbraid feetwraps too. The spearthing had a little snakemouth at the end of it, and from that snakemouth a whisker of white smoke spun. The smell was nasty, like rotten eggs burnt.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“What is that thing?” I asked, pointing at her spearthing.
“It’s called a gun,” she said. “I believe I asked you a question, little girl.”
“I’m no one,” I said, because I remembered you ought not give your name out in the Wilderthere, not even to such a one as seems kindly.
She looked long and hard at me. “No one? No, you’re someone, if ever I met a someone.” She smiled some and slung her gun over her shoulder and offered me a hand. I took it; it was firm and rockrough, a working hand, a hunter’s hand. I asked after her own name, but she was smart too; she didn’t tell me either.
I was hurting from where the Skinnyman had clawed me, but not so much I couldn’t walk some. She asked me what I was doing out in the Wilderthere so far from any Stead—I might have asked her the same—and I told her I was venturing. She laughed at that, but her face didn’t look tickled. She had a camp not far off, and she’d come looking for me when I started bawling, but she hadn’t found me until after the Skinnyman had started chasing. When I asked her if the Skinnyman was dead, she didn’t answer, and that told me he was still out and about.
I got to thinking of her as Springeyes, as her eyes were tender green like spring leaves, and even though it was too gentle a name for a gal like her, it stuck in me.
Springeyes had a neat camp. She was a proper venturer. She had a big fire waiting for us, and dead squirrels roasting on a spit over that fire. She had a tent too, made from deerskins. She made me get down on my belly on the blanket laid out by the tent opening, and once I done that, she rubbed some awful smelly salve into my cuts that stung worse than bees.
“Gall from air eels,” she said. “Best stuff for cuts and scrapes.”
I called her some names, but she didn’t mind. She gave me a blanket to wrap around myself, but even between that and the fire I was still bone cold. But I didn’t let the cold get me, didn’t let the chatter show in my teeth. I was in the company of a true venturer, and I wasn’t going to look like some tenderfoot baby.
She ate the first squirrel without offering me any. There were three squirrels, but the way she tore up that first one made me think she’d leave none for me. Wasn’t until after she’d thrown away the first gnawn carcass that she took up the second one and passed it to me.
I ate in little bites. There was still some little clumps of fur here and there, and so many itty-bitty bones as could splinter and skewer my cheek. I ate careful while Springeyes ate like a hog. She was so wrapped up in her second squirrel that she didn’t notice when a big knife fell out from the sheath on her suspender rope. I’d never seen such pretty silverwhite metal. Nothing like what the ironbeaters in Bolnbroke, or any Stead, could forge. No hammer marks, just glassy smoothness like water, if water could hold an edge. I seen my own face in that knife—my own bigeyed face gawking at something pretty and deadly all at once.
Springeyes let out a belch so loud I almost jumped. Then I laughed. She laughed too.
“You like knives?”
I said I liked all pretty and useful things, and knives were both.
“That they are. And this one’s special; made of a thing called titanium.”
“Where’d you get it?”
“Same as I got my gun.”
“From the Pretty People?”
She looked at me funny, but then she smiled like knowing had come by and by. “Them as I knew called themselves the One Nation. And, yeah, I guess they are pretty...some prettier than others. But they’re funny in their way—civilized, they are. I never did fit in amongst them; too much backward Stead-dirt in me.”
I wanted to ask more about the “One Nation,” but she got tight lipped, like it was a sore spot to scratch.
“You’re from Bolnbroke Stead,” Springeyes said after a stretch. “Ain’t you? Morning comes, I’ll take you there.”
Someway that made me sad. Sure, I wanted to get back home and see Dad Bray again, but there was so much of me as wanted to stay with Springeyes, to follow her on all the great venturing she was sure to do.
I told her so, and she got mad. Not shouting mad, sliteye mad.
“Fool child,” she grumbled, just like the Rootchild. “You got no idea. Hist’s teeth, you got no idea. This ain’t any kind of life.”
That hurt me. “Venturing’s the only life,” I said. “What’s no kind of life is setting down like a log in the Stead, just getting older and gathering moss.”
I thought about Dad Bray, who’d once been something and was now just bored and tired all the time. About Momma Londie, who just cooked and cleaned and fretted all the days. All the people in the Stead just doing the same things each day, each season. Sowing in the springtime, weeding in the summer, harvesting in the fall, and hiding from the Stranglecold in winter. That was no life for me. I told her so.
“I thunk like you once,” she said. “A whole lot like you. Didn’t care for what happened, long as I found something new and felt something wild and true. Just like you. I did what I wanted, heedless of all consequence. Just like you. Got my own daddy killed that way. Momma wouldn’t look at me no more. I’m not out here because this is any kind of life, girl, I’m here on account I’m rootless. Unwanted, cast out to wander like a tumbleweed.”
I didn’t know what all that meant, but I trembled at the thought of anyone killing their own daddy. She might have been ready to speak more, but there was a crinklecrunch in the trees and she sat up straight.
Her hand reached for her gun rightaway, and before I could ask what was what, she put a finger to her lips.
“Stay here,” she whispered. “Don’t follow me. Stay in the tent and be very quiet. If I ain’t back soon, stay where you are and be quiet as you can till sunup.”
And she left me there. She left her knife too. Forgot it, I guess. I heard her feetwraps crunchcrunch on the ground, and then there was just the crackle of the fire and my own breathing. Further out came little crinklecrunches. Two sets of feet circling. He was out there, the Skinnyman was. He was looking for Springeyes in the dark, and Springeyes was looking for him. I begged for the Say to let her find him before he found her.
I seen a glimmer of fire on the knife, and I caught my own eyes looking at me. For all the shudder and quiver in my body, my eyes looked steady back at me. Rocksteady and boneready. I wasn’t some scared girl—I was a Venturer. Why wait for trouble to find me? Why let Springeyes wrangle danger on her ownsome?
I took up that knife and went out into the cold.
I hadn’t made it ten paces before there came that sound of thunder, that big shout to send the world into hiding. It echoed and growled over the hillside, and when it passed I heard a scrambling and a grunting somewhere twenty, thirty paces off.
I ran for the sound of trouble, and when I broke through the brush I seen them in the clearing, Springeyes on her back on the ground and the Skinnyman bent over her, trying to get at her with his teeth. Springeyes had her gun pressed up against the Skinnyman’s chest, holding him back with it, but his arms were on her shoulders and I seen how his claws hooked into her flesh. She could hold him off her for a span, but only for a span, and then he’d get his teeth around her throat and it’d be over.
I did what any true venturer would do. I threw myself at the Skinnyman.
He heard and seen me coming. I got one stab in, jammed that silvery knife into his back between two ribs. I don’t know how good I got him, how deep I cut, because before I could even hear him scream, he swept me to the ground with a slap. My head spun, my cheek burned—hot then cold—and my eyes went dark in the corners like I was blinking to sleep.
But Springeye’s gun barked, and then a big weight fell onto the dirt next to me, and I smelt the Skinnyman’s nasty blood leaking out.
Springeyes was scraped and cut a dozen places over, but she didn’t care none for her own sake, only mine. She helped me sit up and she looked at my face like something was wrong—or maybe something was too right—and then she laughed and shook her head.
“How’d I forget?” she said, more to herself than me. “Oh me oh my, I forgot how I used to keep my hair, how I used to dress. But how’d I forget a night like this? You sweet, tenderfoot little thing, you’ve no idea what’s coming for you.”
I didn’t know what she was jawing about, until she wiped the black muck off her knife’s blade and held it up and showed me my own face and I saw the fresh red, dripping scar zigging under my eye. Same as her scar.
I think I was done by then. I couldn’t even walk from there, too hurt and tired and confused. Springeyes, cut up like she was, still managed to carry me back to the camp, and then she fell on her face. I roused some, and I found that gunk she rubbed into my cuts and I returned the kindness on hers. She yowled just like I done, and it was scary to know that hurt was still hurt no matter how big I might get.
I fell asleep next to her. The forest was safe now as the Skinnyman was dead.
When I opened my eyes next, I wasn’t on the Big Hill anymore. I wasn’t in the woods either. I woke up in muck, under the shadow of a tree just breaking into bud, with the Rootchild shaking their head at me and calling me a twice snakebit fool.
I heard Dad Bray calling my name somewhere near. He was tired, and he sounded like he was in a bad way, but I called back, and he came running. I expected Dad Bray might be angry, but he wasn’t anything like that. He was crying. No lie. He trembled and tried to pick me up in his arms, but he wasn’t strong enough for that and near to fell down. But we helped each other up; helped each other walk back home.
Momma Londie fed me spuds and squash, and I told her and Dad Bray all about my big venture. Dad Bray smiled, and I don’t know how much he believed or if he even heard one word from me. He just looked tired and glad.
Momma Londie fretted, as is her way; told how no man would take me when it came time to tie me off, not with the ugly scrape on my cheek. I was so tired and so glad to be home I didn’t stir the soup by telling her I’d never want to get tied off to some boring Stead man anyway.
That was one moon ago.
I think about what Springeyes told, about how she killed her own daddy. That scares me. I don’t know how it is I came to meet her, but I guess the Wilderthere is a strange place, and if any and all can happen there, why can’t a girl meet her older self?
Dad Bray started getting sick the next day after he found me. Too much time in the muck and cold and wind, or so Momma Londie tells. Too much time out looking for me. He’s had the longsniffle for a whole moon now. I think he’ll get better soon. I tell him about my ventures every evening, and though they ain’t much more than the little bits of ash I see floating over the hearth—I’m shut here in the house, so I can’t get out and cause more trouble—he smiles when I tell him. Or, I think he smiles; it’s hard to tell. He’s asleep most of the time, and when his eyes are open, they look like someone’s poured milk over them. But Dad Bray’ll pull through. Someone as once and somewhen seen the sun from close by can’t die from something dumb like the longsniffle, a common sick as barely kills little babies. Hist’s teeth, I got longsniffle once and I came out of it fine as a vine in the summertime.
I think all the time about Springeyes, about that woman I could become. I don’t know if she is what I’ll be or just what I might be. I don’t really know anything at all, except that I love my daddy, and that we’ve got plenty of venturing left in both of us, and that when he gets better we’ll both of us walk up the biggest of the Big Hills together, and at the tippytop we’ll see how the sun looks from close.