I got a story to tell you. I’ve been meaning to make a start for a long while now, and this is me doing it, but I’m warning you it might be a bumpy road. I never done nothing like this before, so I got no map, as it were, and I can’t figure how much of what happened to me is worth telling. Monono says I’m like a man trying to cut his hair without a mirror. Too long and you might as well not bother. Too short and you’re probably going to be sorry. And either road, you got to find some way to make the two sides match.
The two sides is this: I went away, and then I come home again. But there’s more to the story than that, as you might expect. It was a hard journey, both ways. I was tried and I was tested, lots of times. You could say I failed, though what I brung back with me changed the world for ever. I met the shunned men and their messianic, Senlas, who looked into me with his hundreds of eyes. I crossed the ruins of Birmagen, where the army of the Peacemaker was ranged against me. I found the Sword of Albion, though it was not what I was looking for and it brung me as much harm as good. I fought a bitter fight against them I loved, and broke the walls that sheltered me so they’d never stand again.
All this I done for love, and for what I seen as the best, but that doesn’t mean it was right. And it still leaves out the reason why, which is the heart of it and the needful thing to make you know me.
I am aiming to do that – to make you know me, I mean – but it’s not an easy thing. The heft of a man’s life, or a woman’s life, is more than the heft of a shovelful of earth or a cord of timber. Head and heart and limbs and all, they got their weight. Dreams, even, got their weight. Dreams most of all, maybe. For me, it seems dreams was the hardest to carry, even when they was sweet ones.
Anyway, I mean to tell it, the good and the bad of it all together. The bad more than the good, maybe. Not so you can be my judge, though I know you will. Judging is what them that listen does for them that tell, whether it’s wanted or not. But the truth is I don’t mainly tell it for me. It’s rather for the people who won’t never tell it for themselves. It’s so their names won’t fall out of the world and be forgotten. I owe them better, and so you do. If that sounds strange, listen and I’ll make it good.
My name is Koli and I come from Mythen Rood. Being from there, it never troubled me as a child that I was ignorant what that name meant. There is people who will tell you the rood was the name of the tree where they broke the dead god, but I don’t think that’s to the purpose. Where I growed up, there wasn’t many as was swore to the dead god or recked his teaching. There was more that cleaved to Dandrake and his seven hard lessons, and more still that was like me, and had no creed at all. So why would they name a village after something they paid so little mind to?
My mother said it was just a misspeaking for Mythen Road, because there was a big road that runned right past us. Not a road you could walk on, being all pitted stone with holes so big you could lose a sheep in them, but a road of old times that reminds us what we used to be when the world was our belonging.
That’s the heart of my story, now I think of it. The old times haunt us still. The things they left behind save us and hobble us in ways that are past any counting. They was ever the sift and substance of my life, and the journey I made starts and ends with them. I will speak on that score in its place, but I will speak of Mythen Rood first, for it’s the place that makes sense of me if there’s any sense to be found.
It is, or was, a village of more than two hundred souls. It’s set into the side of a valley, the valley of the Calder River, in the north of a place called Ingland. I learned later that Ingland had a mess of other names, including Briton and Albion and Yewkay, but Ingland was the one I was told when I was a child.
With so many people, you can imagine the village was a terrible big place, with a fence all round it that was as high as one man on another man’s shoulders. There was a main street, called the Middle, and two side streets that crossed it called the Span and the Yard. On top of that, there was a score of little paths that led to this door or that, all laid with small stones trod down until they was even. None of the houses was built within fifty strides of the fence. That was Rampart law, and never broke.
I’m Koli, like I already said. Koli Woodsmith first, then Koli Waiting, Koli Rampart, Koli Faceless. What I am now don’t really have a name to it, so just Koli. My mother was Jemiu Woodsmith, that was Bassaw’s daughter and had the sawmill over by Old Big-Hand stream. I was raised up to that work, trained by Jemiu how to catch wood from a live tree without getting myself killed, how to dry it out and then steep it in the poisonous soup called stop-mix until it was safe, and how to turn and trim it.
My father was a maker of locks and keys. I am dark brown of skin, like he was, not light like my mother and my sibs. I don’t know what my father’s name was, and I don’t think my mother knowed it either, or if she did she never told me. He journeyed all the way from Half-Ax to put new locks on the doors of Rampart Hold, and he was billeted for the night in my mother’s mill. Two things come of that night. One of them was a brand-new lock on our workshop door that would stand against the end of the world. The other one was me. And there’s at least one of the two my mother never had no cause to regret.
So my mother and my father had just the one night of sweetness together, and then he went back home. Half-Ax being so far away, the news of what he had left behind him probably never got there. Or if it did, it didn’t prompt him to return. I come along nine months after that, dropping out of Jemiu’s belly into a big, loud, quarrelsome family and a house where sawdust settled on everything. The sound of the saw turning was my nursery song, you could say, and my alarum too. The fresh-cut wood was stacked in the yard outside the house so it could dry, and the stacks was so high they shut out the sun at noon-day. We wasn’t allowed to go near the piles of fresh wood, or the wood that was steeping in the killing shed: the first could strike you down and the second could poison you. Rampart law said you couldn’t build nothing out of wood unless the planks had steeped in stop-mix for a month and was dead for sure. Last thing you wanted was for the walls of your house to wake up and get to being alive again, which green wood always will.
My mother had herself five children that lived to be born, a thing she managed without ever being married. I heard her say once that though many a man was worth a tumble, there wasn’t one in a hundred was worth living with. I think it was mostly her pride, though, that got in the way of her marrying. She never liked much to pull her elbows in, or bow to another’s will. She was a fierce woman in all ways: fierce hard that she showed on the outside; fierce loving underneath that she mostly hid.
Well, the mill did well enough but it was not a Summer-dance and there was times when Jemiu was somewhat pressed to keep us fed. We got by though, one way and another, all six of us bumping and arguing our way along. Seven of us, sometimes, for Jemiu had a brother, Bax, who lived with us a while. I just barely remember him. When I was maybe three or four Summers old, he was tasked by the Ramparts to take a message to Half-Ax. He never come back, and after that nobody tried again to reopen that road.
Then my oldest sister Leten left us too. She was married to three women of Todmort who was smiths and cutlers. We didn’t get to see her very much after that, Todmort being six miles distant from Mythen Rood even if you walk it straight, but I hoped she was happy and I knowed for sure she was loved.
And the last to leave was my brother Jud. He went out on a hunting trip before he was even old enough to go Waiting, which he done by slipping in among the hunters with his head down, pretending like he belonged. Our mother had no idea he was gone. The party was took in the deep woods – ambushed and overwhelmed by shunned men who either would of et them or else made shunned men out of them. We got to know of it because one woman run away, in spite of getting three arrows in her, and made it back to the village gates alive. That was Alice, who they called Scar Alice after. They was not referring to the scars left by the arrows.
So after that there was only me, my sisters Athen and Mull, and our mother. I missed Leten and Jud very much, especially Jud because I didn’t know if he was still alive and in the world. He had been gentle and kind, and sung to me on nights when we went hungry to take my mind away from it. To think of him being et or eating other people made me cry sometimes at night. Mother never cried. She did look sad a while, but all she said was one less mouth to feed. And we did eat a little better after Jud was gone, which in some ways made his being gone worse, at least for me.
I growed up a mite wild, it’s got to be said. Jud used to temper me somewhat, but after he was gone there wasn’t nobody else to take up that particular job. Certainly my mother didn’t have no time or mind for it. She loved us, but it was all she could do to keep the saw turning and kill the wood she cut. She didn’t catch all the wood herself, of course. There was four catchers who went out for her from November all the way through to March, or even into Abril if the clouds stayed thick. This was not a share-work ordered by the Ramparts, but an agreement the five of them made among themselves. The catchers was paid in finished cords, one for every day’s work, and Jemiu paid them whether the day’s catch was good or bad. It was the right thing to do, since they couldn’t tell from looking which wood was safe and which was not, but if the catch was bad, that was a little more of our wood gone and nothing to show for it.
Anyway, Jemiu was kept busy with that. And my growed-up sisters Athen and Mull helped her with it – Athen with good grace; Mull with a sullen scowl and a rebel heart. I was supposed to do everything else that had got to be done, which is to say the cooking and the cleaning, fetching water and tending the vegetables in our little glasshouse. And I did do those things, for love and for fear of Jemiu’s blame, which was a harder hurt than her forbearing hand.
But there was time, around those things, to just be a child and do the exciting, stupid, wilful things children are bound to do. My best friends was Haijon Vennastin, whose mother was Rampart Fire, and Molo Tanhide’s daughter that we all called Spinner though her given name was Demar. The three of us run all over Mythen Rood and up the hills as far as we could go. Sometimes we even went into the half-outside, which was the place between the fence and the ring of hidden pits we called the stake-blind.
It wasn’t always just the three of us. Sometimes Veso Shepherd run with us, or Haijon’s sister Lari and his cousin Mardew, or Gilly’s Ban, or some of the Frostfend Farm boys that was deaf and dumb like their whole family and was all just called Frostfend, for they made their given names with movements of their hands. We was a posse of variable size, though we seemed always to make the same amount of noise and trouble whether we was few or many.
We was chased away by growers in the greensheds, shepherds on the forward slope, guards on the lookout and wakers at the edge of the wold. We treated all those places as our own, in spite of scoldings, and if worse than scoldings come we took that too. Nobody cut us no slack rope on account of Haijon’s family, or Demar’s being maimed.
You would think that Haijon, being who he was and born to who he was, might have put some swagger on himself, but he never done it. He had other reasons for swaggering, besides. He was the strongest for his age I ever seen. One time Veso Shepherd started up a row with him – over the stone game, I think it was, and whether he moved such-and-such a piece when he said he didn’t – and the row become a fight. I don’t know how I got into it, but somehow I did. It was Veso and me both piling onto Haijon, and him giving it back as good as he got, until we was all three of us bloodied. Nobody won, as such, but Haijon held his own against the two of us. And the first thing he said, when we was too out of breath and too sore to fight any more, was “Are we going to finish this game, or what?”
My boast was I was fastest out of all of us, but even there Haijon took some beating. One of the things we used to do, right up until we went Waiting and even once or twice after, was to run a race all round the village walls, starting at the gate. Most times I won, by a step or a straw as they say, but sometimes not. And if I won, Haijon always held up my hand and shouted, “The champion!” He never was angry or hurt to lose, as many would of been.
But of course, you might say, there was a bigger race where his coming first was mostly just assumed. For Haijon was Vennastin.
And Vennastins was Ramparts.
And Ramparts, as you may or may not know, was synced.
That’s what the name signified, give or take. If you was made a Rampart, it was because the old tech waked when you touched it. Ramparts got to live in Rampart Hold and to miss their turn on most of the share-works that was going on. But we relied on them and their tech for defending ourselves against the world, so it seemed like that was a fair thing. Besides, everyone got a chance to try out for Rampart, didn’t they? Somehow, though, it was always Vennastins the old tech waked for and answered to. Except for one time, which I’ll tell you of in its place. But the next thing I’ll tell is how Demar come to be Spinner.
From when I was ten Summers old to when I was twelve, Lari Vennastin had a needle that she kept as a pet. She fed it on stoneberries and rats taken out of traps. She even give it a name, which was Lightning. She shouldn’t of been let to do it, and certainly nobody else would of been, but Ramparts made the law in Mythen Rood or in this case kind of forgot to.
The needle was only a kitten when Lari found it, and crippled besides. Something had bitten it and took off most of its foreleg. Then the same something must of spit it out or flung it away, so it fell inside the fence. You might of thought it had fell out of a tree except of course that was all cleared ground up there by the fence and any trees that tried to root in would of been burned.
The needle was just lying there, not moving at all except that you could see its chest going up and down as it breathed. Haijon lifted up his boot to tread on it, but Lari called out to him to let it be. She carried it home and tended to it, and somehow it lived. And it kept right on living, though there was plenty of arguments in the Count and Seal to put it down. Ramparts was hard to argue against, and Lari was the sweet and savour of her mother’s life.
Anyway, after a while we got so used to having that needle around that we kind of forgot what it was. Maybe it was on account of Lightning having only the three legs, and hopping around in a funny-looking way. But it also had, like all its kind do, a mouth with rings of teeth that pointed backwards and inwards and a jaw that hooked and unhooked like a ratchet so when it hunted it could eat whatever it catched. Maybe we figured if Lightning ever turned mean we’d be able to outrun it. Only that’s not how it happened.
One day a gang of us was playing bolt-the-door on the gather-ground. We was running around like we was crazy people, and Lightning was running with us, getting more and more excited. Demar made a run from one end of the ground to the other, dodging round three or four that tried to catch her. When she got to the mark, she jumped up high and waved her arms around, yelling free-come. And we all come, laughing and cheering her.
Then suddenly Lari’s needle was on the end of Demar’s arm. It just jumped up, gaped its mouth wider than a water bucket and closed it again around Demar’s wrist.
We didn’t know what to do. Some of us was screaming and crying out, standing there like we was frozen. Demar didn’t make a sound, though her teeth was clenched tight. Her legs give way under her and she went down slowly onto her knees. Her face was white as choker-blossom.
Haijon and me come running, from the two sides of her. But when I got there, I didn’t have nothing I could do. I just kneeled down next to Demar and grabbed a hold of her other hand, gripping it tight, like I could draw some of her pain from out of her by touching her.
“Your father,” Haijon said to her. “Your father’s knives.” He said it like the words was being squeezed out of him. Like the needle was biting on him too, and words was spurting up out of him the way blood comes out of a wound. I seen right away that it was a good thought, but it needed more than just the thinking; it needed us to take her, fast. And out of the two of us, he was the stronger.
“Lift her up,” I said. “I’ll take Lightning.”
Demar seen what we was thinking to do, and she give herself up to it. When Haijon scooped her up in his arms, she let herself go all soft and limp. I grabbed the needle, holding it gentle as a baby though right then I hated it like the dead god’s hell.
We run together across the gather-ground and down the hill to Molo Tanhide’s drying shed, which was where he would surely be on a day as hot as that one was. And I suppose he heard the shouts and screams because he come out to meet us, stepping out of the dark heat of the shed with his face red and his hand wiping across his brow.
He took it all in, right in that moment – the needle hanging off of Demar’s arm, and us carrying her. Demar was his onliest child, and he brung her up all on his own after his wife, Casra, died. She was everything in his life that mattered. He stepped back inside for about a half of a heartbeat and come out again with a knife in his hand. It was his finest knife, ground so fine you couldn’t hardly see the blade edge-on.
We laid Demar down in front of him, and he went to work. Haijon held her, and I held Lightning, as hard and fast as we could.
Knives and wild beasts was Molo’s study. He knowed to slice down through the needle’s throat and then work in a circle, too fast for it to shift its grip or bite down harder. He peeled it off Demar’s right hand like a glove, and he done it near perfect.
But near’s as much as saying not. He took Demar’s first finger, her pointing finger, with it.
He dumped the dead needle, inside out, on the steps of Rampart Hold, like he was giving back to the Ramparts what was theirs. Lari come out to fetch it. She was rocking the dead beast like a baby in her arms, and crying like a baby herself, and cursing Molo for a lawless and a shunned man and Dandrake knows what else. But Catrin Vennastin, that was Rampart Fire, had the sense to see what was what. She dragged the bloody thing out of her daughter’s arms and flung it back down on the ground. “Should of drowned it when she brung it in,” she muttered. And to Molo Tanhide she said, “Bring your daughter inside, and I’ll sew her up.”
“Thank you, Dam Catrin,” Molo says, “but I’ll sew her my own self.” And he did, careful enough that you could barely see the scar. Only a little pucker where the missing finger used to be. The rest of Demar’s hand healed up well enough, though it had a kind of a stippled look to it, like sacking-cloth, where all them thin, sharp teeth had bit into her.
A year passed, without any apology or make-right to the Tanhides from Rampart Hold, nor no public check for Lari. Then one day when we was out playing we passed a little stoneberry bush that had rooted inside the fence and not been burned out yet. “Them berries is all but ripe,” Lari says. “Lightning would of et the lot of them.” Then she gives Demar a look, and says, “If your daddy hadn’t of killed him.”
Demar only shrugged her shoulders, but Haijon was red-faced. “Her daddy done what had got to be done,” he told his sister, looking as solemn-stern as their mother in that moment.
“He could of cut her hand off,” Lari said, “and left Lightning alive. A maimed hand’s not good for nothing anyway.”
Lari was knowed to be mean from time to time, but it was probably being checked by Haijon in front of all of us that made her so stupid mean that day. Haijon took a step towards her, like he was going to hit her, but Demar got in first. She drawed back her right hand, the one with just the three fingers on it, and she smacked Lari Vennastin in the head so hard that Lari spun round before she fell down.
“Well now,” she says. “It seems like a maimed hand is still good for one thing, Lari. It’s good for to play spinning top.”
After that, we called Demar Spinner. And she liked the name, and took it to herself, though her father’s name being Tanhide chimed kind of strange with it. “I won’t have that name for long,” she said, when Veso Shepherd tried to make a joke out of it. “I’ll be Spinner Waiting soon enough.”
For our fourteenth year was upon us. It was almost time for us to be who we was going to be. Which I’ll tell right soon, I promise, after only one more stepping sideways to talk about how we lived. It was a long time ago after all, and you might not have the sense of it.
Everything that lives hates us, it sometimes seems. Or at least they come after us like they hate us. Things we want to eat fight back, hard as they can, and oftentimes win. Things that want to eat us is thousands strong, so many of them that we only got names for the ones that live closest to us. And the trees got their own ways to hurt us, blunt or subtle according to their several natures.
There’s shunned men too, that live in the deep forest and catch and kill us when they can. Nobody knowed back then who they was, whether they was just the faceless that had been throwed out of other villages or if they had got a village of their own that was hid somewhere, but they were monstrous cruel and worse than any beast.
Against these things, we of Mythen Rood, like every settlement of humankind, put up walls, hollowed out stake-blinds, set sentries, tried every way we could to pitch our own hate against the world’s hate, giving back as good or bad as we got. We digged ourselves in and weathered it, for what else was there to do?
Each season brung its own terrors down on us. In Winter, the cold could freeze your fingers off if you weren’t wary, and snow fell on top of snow until you couldn’t make your way without web-spreads or walkers. The snow was mostly just water set hard, but sometimes it had silver in it and that was dangerous. If you drunk snow-melt and didn’t sieve out the silver first, it could make you sick in your stomach. Old ones and babies could even die of it.
In Spring the snow thawed, which was a mercy, but sometimes – maybe one time in four or five – it would be a choker Spring, and you would get something else coming alongside the thaw. Of all our mortal threats, I was most mightily afraid of the choker seeds, because they attacked so fast and was so hard to fight. If a seed fell on your skin, you had only got a few seconds to dig it out again before the roots went in too deep. After that there wasn’t nothing anyone could do for you save to kill you right away before the seedling hollowed you out.
In Mythen Rood, our answer to that was to try to stop the seeds from falling in the first place. As soon as the warmer weather come, Rampart Fire (which in my day, like I told you, was Catrin Vennastin) would send out runners to check the choker trees for blossom. If they found any, she would strap on the firethrower and walk the forest. Rampart Remember would plot her route and ten strong spearmen would journey at her side while she burned out the blossoms before the trees could seed. The spearmen was to kill or fend off any beasts that might come, watching Catrin’s back and her two sides while she played the firethrower across the branches and seared the seeds inside their pods. Against the choker trees themselves there wasn’t any protecting that would avail, so Catrin and her spearmen only went out on days when the clouds was thick and heavy, and if the sun gun to show through they run as fast as they could for the clear ground.
Summer was hardest, because most things was woke and walking then. Knifestrikes flying straight down out of the sun so you couldn’t see them coming, molesnakes out of the ground, rats and wild dogs and needles out of the forest. Anything that was big and come by its own lonely self was give to Fer Vennastin to deal with. Fer was Rampart Arrow. She would take the creature down with one of her smart bolts. And if it was a drone that come, dropping out of the sky and throwing out its scary warning, one of Fer’s bolts would oftentimes do for that too. But she only just had the three of them, which meant someone always had to go out to bring the bolt back afterwards. We couldn’t afford to lose none.
If wild dogs or rats or knifestrike swarms come, we had a different way, which was Rampart Knife. Loop Vennastin had that name when I was younger, then Mardew passed the test and it was give to him when Loop died. When a swarm attacked, Rampart Knife would stand up on the fence or the lookout and carve the beasts into pieces as they come. Then we would cook and eat the meat as long as there was no worms or melters in it. Wormed meat or melted meat we kept well clear of, for even if you digged out what you could see there was always more you couldn’t.
I got to say, our fights against the rats was far between. Mostly it was hunters that seen them, a pack of ours crossing paths with a bunch of theirs in the deep woods and both going on their way, but watching each other out of sight with spears all up on our side and teeth and claws out on theirs.
Lots of people wondered how the rats could come through the forest even in the warmest weather, for it was plain they didn’t fear the sun. Then one time Perliu Vennastin, Rampart Remember, talked to the database about it. The database said the rats had got something inside them that sweated out onto their skin when the sun come out and kind of stopped the choker trees from closing tight on them, or choker seeds from breaking open on them and growing down into their bodies.
I guess I don’t need to tell you how wonderful a thing that would of been for us, to be able to walk through the forest without fear. Trees was our biggest problem, always, and the reason why we lived the way we did. The reason why there was a clear space inside the fence, fifty strides wide, that we burned with fire and sowed with salt. The reason why we never went out to hunt except on days when there was rain or overcast, and why the dog days of Summer meant dried meat if you was lucky, root mash and hard tack if you wasn’t. The reason why we seen the world as being made up out of three parts, which was the village, the little strip between the fence and the stake-blind that we called the half-outside, and everything else beyond.
Choker trees growed fast and tall, and they growed in any ground. The onliest way to keep them back was to uproot or burn out every seed that fell. If a seed landed in the ground, and no one seen it, it would be three feet high by lock-tide and taller than a man come morning.
I know it wasn’t always like that. If you’re going to tell a story about the world that was lost, you’ll most likely start it with “In the old times, when trees was slow as treacle…” But our trees wasn’t like that at all. Our trees was fast as a whip.
If you come across one tree by itself, that didn’t matter so much. You might get a whack, but you could pick yourself up from that. If you was out in the forest though, and the clouds peeled off and the sun come through with no clearing close by, then Dandrake help you. The trees would commence to lean in on you from every side, and pretty soon there’d be no room for you to move between them. Then they’d close in all the way and crush you dead.
Rampart Remember had the knowing of this, but like all things he got out of the database, it was told partly in the old words that we couldn’t figure no more. He said there was a time, long ago, when there wasn’t hardly no trees at all. They had all died, because the earth wouldn’t nourish them nor the rain wouldn’t fall. So the men and women of that time made some trees of their own. Or, as it might be, they made the trees that was there already change their habits. Made them grow faster, for one thing. And made them take their nourishment in different ways, so they could live even in places where the soil was thin, which by that time was most places.
When the trees first took it on themselves to move, they wasn’t hunting. They was just reaching for the sun, which was the most of their meat and drink. But as soon as they moved, creatures of all kinds got trapped between them and crushed. And the trees liked the taste of the dead beasts and the dead men and women. They relished the nourishment them dead things brung with them. There was already plants and flowers a-plenty that had that craving, sundews and flytrappers and such. Now the trees got it too. And being changed so much already, by the hand of human kind, they took it on their own selves to change some more.
They got better at knowing where the beasts was. Better at trapping them, and killing them, and feeding on what was left. And by then the learning that had unlocked the changes in the first place was lost, so it was not easy to stop what had been started. People had got to live with it, and they have lived with it ever since.
When I heard these things for the first time, they made my head spin. It was hard to fathom that the men and women of the old times had such knowing and such power. They was lords of trees, is what they was. They could say “grow” and then “stop growing”, and the trees would do as they was told, like you can make a dog or a horse do. It wasn’t with words that they done it, Rampart Remember said. They done it with things called genetic triggers. Nobody in Mythen Rood knowed what them things was, but most agreed they could of been put to less reckless use.
But I have gone a long way about to get to my point, which is that the story the database told about the rats, and how their sweat stayed on their skins and stopped the trees from coming too close, was big news to us. When Rampart Remember told it in the Count and Seal, there was a plan put together and voted on to make cloaks out of dead rats’ skins so hunters could go into the forest even on sunny days. It got so far as Molo Tanhide making one of these cloaks with skins some hunters took after a fight. But he refused flat-out to put it on and try it.
So Catrin asked for volunteers, offering double rations for a month, then for two months and in the end for three. Ulli Trethor, as was crippled and on lowest share, put up his hand at last and said he would go, but Catrin changed her mind then. I think she seen how it would look if Ulli died, and she didn’t want to have no part in it after all.
For a while after that we had trouble with the rats. They knowed we killed some of theirs, and would attack our hunters in the woods every time they seen them. Nobody died, that I remember, but men and women would come back with rat bites on their arms or shoulders, or their legs gashed with rat claws. It got so fresh meat was scarce for a year or more until Catrin bought peace at last with a gift of cured hides and glasshouse onions.
Summer was like a siege, it sometimes seemed. Hunting was hardest then, and shunned men was hungriest and most desperate. The fences made a difference, and so did the stake-blind, and Ramparts made the biggest difference of all, but whenever you was outside your house you felt like something was about to jump on you and bear you down or bear you away. And if you went outside the gates, then Dandrake watch your back.
So it was in the days of best weather that we stayed inside the most. Sometimes we played in what was called the broken house, which was a ruin on the south side of the village right up by the wall. There was lots of houses left empty in the village, which I think was because we was fewer than we used to be, but the broken house was the biggest, having been a worship place either for the dead god or more likely for Dandrake. It was tall enough that it could of been used as another lookout, except that the floors was somewhat fallen in and it didn’t look out on nothing except the side of a hill. The walls was part-way broke and tumble-down, which meant they was good for climbing. We would scramble up them, turn and turn about, and scratch lines on the stone to show how far we got.
Or we would sneak into the Underhold sometimes, which was as inside as you could get. There was a little window round the back of Rampart Hold that was loose in its frame, so you could lift the whole thing out and slip inside, if you was small enough. I think Dam Catrin and them knowed it was there, but they never minded enough to fix it. There was never any prisoners stowed down there, though there was places for them, and the stores was locked away in rooms we couldn’t get to apart from a big bushel of apricots that had been soaked and baked and set out to dry for Winter. We run through the tunnels and corridors and played hide and go seek or blind man’s touch for hours and hours.
One time when we was playing in the Underhold, I hid somewhere I wasn’t supposed to. There was a door that was really two doors, one set right behind the other. The outside one was just bolted shut but the inside one had a lock plate on it the size of a man’s head. I unbolted the outside door, slipped inside and drawed it closed again.
Haijon was really mad when he finally found me. “If my ma seen you there, she’d smack you till your head rang,” he said. “And we’d none of us get to play down here no more.”
“Why’s that then?” Spinner asked. “Is there something bad behind that door?”
Haijon shrugged, trying to turn it. “There’s nothing special,” he said. “It’s more stores, is all. Honey and curd, and dry biscuit. But she’d think we was trying to raid the larder.”
Spinner looked at me and rolled her eyes. Haijon was never a good liar, especially when it was about something that mattered. I think we both knowed what was in that storeroom, though we never spoke about it. And I knowed one thing more – a secret thing, that I seen when I looked at the second, inside door. But something made me keep that secret to myself, thinking there might be trouble if I spoke it loud. In the end the trouble come anyway, but that telling will have to wait for now.
Oftentimes I come home late from these games. Jemiu would be all in a rage with me then, and we would argue, her saying I should stay home and do the work that had got to be done, me saying I was close enough to Waiting, and thence to man, that I could do as I liked. I should of knowed better. Jemiu’s rage wasn’t because I was slacking; it was because when I stayed out so long she didn’t know but what something bad might have fallen on me. She always showed her love in a hard way, like I said.
And then the days drawed in at last and Summer ended. Falling Time was a time for rebuilding the fences, catching wood for building and laying in as much food as we could against the lean days to come. We marked the end of Summer with the Summer-dance, and the end of Falling Time with the Salt Feast. Both of them days was greatly looked forward to.
So that was our life, and it seemed like nothing would ever happen to change it. But it’s when you think such thoughts that change is most like to come. You let your guard down, almost, and life comes running at you on your blind side. Because life is nothing but change, even when it seems to stand still. Standing still is a human thing, like a defiance we throw, but we can never do it for long.
I got to be fifteen at last, which is a time in a boy or girl’s life when everything changes. In Mythen Rood it worked like this: from your fifteenth year-day to the next Midsummer, you lost your family name and took the name of Waiting in place of it. Until that time was passed, you left your family and went to live in the Waiting House, which was to the setting side of the gather-ground, right next door to Rampart Hold. I guess it was put there to say that any of them that went Waiting might be Ramparts themselves after they took the test.
The Waiting House was enormous. There was twelve beds in the boys’ sleep room and twelve more for girls. Maybe if I had thought about that I might of come to some conclusions about how many people there used to be in Mythen Rood in times past and how few was left now. But a boy of fifteen Summers doesn’t have no sense that what’s passed has got a bearing on what’s still here. For me, that thinking come later, in a very different place, and it didn’t come for free.
In my year, anyway, there was just the three of us. Veso Shepherd would of been the fourth, but because he wouldn’t agree to go Waiting under the girl’s name his mother put on him, Rampart law said he couldn’t go. Veso said he was happy for it. Rampart law at least let him stay what he was, though it didn’t seem to allow him much respect. His mother was somewhat crueller, being a believer in Dandrake’s hard lessons.
Anyway, Haijon went Waiting first, and he had the house to himself. By the time I come along in Abril and Spinner in May, he had changed the place around to his liking. There was a stone-game board drawed out across the floor of the boys’ sleep room, and pictures of eagles and tree-cats on the walls. Haijon drawed in chalk that someone – I think it was his aunt Fer – had brung back from a hunt. Drawing was another thing he was good at. Seeing the size of him, and the size of his hands in particular, you wouldn’t of thought he could have such a skill. He just had the one colour of chalk, which was white, but he made it look different by drawing the lines various ways, so you got the sense of an eagle’s feathers or a tree-cat’s fur.
“Thank Dandrake you come,” he says to me the day I walked into the house with my bedroll under my arm. “I was like to die from the boredom.” But he said it with a grin on his face. The first thing he done – after we give each other our secret sign, which was the thumb of one hand hooked into the thumb of the other hand – was to show me everything in the house from top to bottom like it was a big adventure we was sharing, which I guess is how I seen it too.
Jemiu had not been so happy to see me go. She held me hard and told me to take good care of myself and do as I was bid. There was tears in her voice. I remembered how she never cried for Jud when the shunned men took him, but she almost cried for me when I went Waiting, even though I was the fourth of her children to go (and should of been the fifth, only Jud didn’t live long enough).
“I just got a fear on me,” she said. “A bad thought. I hate to let you go, Koli, and that’s the truth of it.” She give me some nuts and an apple wrapped in an oil-leaf, and kissed me on my cheek. It was the only time she ever kissed me that I can remember. It made me want to cry too, though being growed to Waiting age I would of been ashamed.
My sisters, Athen and Mull, took turns to hug me and wish me luck. Athen said it was nothing and would be over soon, which of course it had been for her, but at the back of everyone’s mind was: what if I was a Rampart, not a Woodsmith, and never come home at all? And I’m shamed to say that thought excited me. I seen myself in my mind’s eye with old tech in my hand, standing on the outside fence with shunned men lying dead around my feet. And I seen Spinner watching me, her eyes all bright with love she was too shy to speak. She was the furnishing of a lot of my thoughts back then. I was a boy of fifteen after all.
So I said goodbye, with something of sadness and something of hunger, and walked to the Waiting House. It was no more than five hundred steps but it felt like I was going into another world. In a way I was, for younger children never got to set foot inside the house. It was a thing forbid.
I hadn’t never seen anything like the inside of the Waiting House. I had been in Rampart Hold for public meetings – in the Count and Seal, I mean, not in the residence – and the Waiting House was not so big as that. But then we was only two boys, not a whole village, and for two boys to have such a space all to themselves was a new and wonderful thing. It must of been strange even for Haijon, who lived in Rampart Hold. For me, it was like a dream that stayed with me even when I was awake.
We was spared from all share-works, and our food – the same meals as was served to the Ramparts – was brung to us at sunrise and lock-tide. We didn’t have nothing to do but play games, make up songs and stories and run mad through the place. Mostly we played the stone game, of course, but sometimes also we would do make-believe stuff. We pretended the house was a wilderness we was exploring, or we played forest-wake, where all the chairs and tables was trees and if we touched them they would wake and whelm us. It was a good time, and I remember it with wonder now. It’s hard to credit how little I thought about things back then. About the test I was going to face, and what it might mean. About Haijon, and who he was besides being my friend. About the Ramparts, and what their expectations might be for their son. Must be, I should say.
And though I said we was alone, there wasn’t no rule forbidding family visits – except for little ones, who wasn’t allowed to set foot in the Waiting House until they went Waiting themselves. My mother was mostly too busy with her work, but she come once or twice a week and she brung me news of the village. She brung me presents too: raspberry curd that she laid down the year before and only just opened, and a whistle that she carved out of cherry wood. Athen and Mull come too, as often as they could, but they never stayed for long. I think the Waiting House brung back too many memories for them.
Then Spinner went Waiting, and we didn’t have the house to ourselves no more. For as soon as there was boys and girls together, of course there had got to be someone set to watch us. So on the day Spinner walked in through the door, Shirew Makewell come to live in what was called the turn-key room, just inside the door of the Waiting House. She trusted us though, and besides she was oftentimes busy with work that mattered more than making us behave, so we was still left alone together a lot of the time. Nor our pastimes didn’t change much, Spinner being as much for games and songs and stories as either of us. More, maybe.
She had a knack for music too, and she showed me how to play the whistle my mother give to me. How to hold it, and coax the notes from it, and how to cut or strike the sound with a little shift of my fingers. When I had picked it up before, I only just blowed on it and set it down again, but Spinner teached me to draw tunes out of it, which was an amazing thing to me.
I think that time, when she was teaching me, was when I first come to love her. What she done with Lari after she lost her finger had made me admire her something keen, and besides that the shape of her face and her body’s gracefulness had made their way long before from my eye to my inside longings. But that’s not love, though it’s sometimes mistaken for it. Living with Spinner so close, for so long, I got to see who she was, and I liked what I seen more than I could ever tell you.
Most of all I liked to hear her tell stories. These weren’t stories like Rampart Remember told in the Count and Seal, but things she made in her own head, all crazy and without a shape. They had monsters in them, and places and things from the old times, and her and me and Haijon as the heroes of them. Oftentimes they started with us getting out of the village somehow to rescue a child as had gone missing or it might be to explore or to find something that was lost. One time she told about how we went to Half-Ax and found my brother Jud living there. Another time it was her father, Molo, as had been pinned by a choker tree and couldn’t get home. Then there was one where we went and crossed the Fathom and the Curtain, and got took by the wizard Stannabanna, the lord of all shunned men and faceless, that lived under the ground of Skullfield and only come up to waylay travellers and eat their eyes and tongues. The odds was always fearful and we come close to losing every time, but at the last moment we would always make it good by some trick or other.
And sometimes she told tales of London, and of London’s heroes, that was the Parley Men. They was the guards that was set on the treasure house of London, the Palace Westernmost, where the riches of the king was piled high. Them riches included a great store of tech, and they was never broke into because the Parley Men was the fiercest fighters you ever seen. Their ghosts guard the treasure still, and they’ll kill any that come to take it.
When Spinner was telling, Haijon and me would listen without a word. Sometimes Shirew Makewell would walk by the door and hear her, and linger to see how the tale come out. When the story was done, the two of us boys would whoop and slap the floor to show we liked it. Shirew didn’t go in for that kind of display, but oftentimes she nodded and once she said bravo. That means a good story in a language of the old times.
I think Spinner liked me too. Well, I knowed she did, but I was far from knowing if it was as much as I liked her. Certainly I didn’t dream of telling her I loved her. I thought of telling Haijon, since I told him everything else that went through my head, but whenever I was close to saying it, I held back somehow. It was a secret thing that I folded down into my heart and kept a watch on. And like the secret about the door in Rampart Hold, it had a big bearing on how my life went.
Anyway, the time went by fast and soon it was time for our testing. It’s not likely you’ll remember what that was, or what it meant, so I will say it straight.
It meant your name and your fate, for the rest of your life.
We had an abundance of old tech in Mythen Rood, but most of it wouldn’t wake or work for us. The few things that did work we took good care of, seeing they made such a difference to whether we lived or died.
There was the firethrower. This was a thing like a musical instrument that you held in both your hands, only instead of making music it made a kind of long rope of fire that crawled through the air like a snake. The fire-snake burned whatever it touched, and clung to it so it would keep on burning for the longest time. You couldn’t even put the flames out with water, though you could smother them with earth if you had enough of it to hand. The heat of the flames was so great you could feel it from a hundred paces off.
Whoever held the firethrower was Rampart Fire.
There was the bolt gun. This was like the firethrower only a lot smaller, and you just held it in one hand, not two. The way of it was a lot harder to figure, at least for them as was watching from far off. The bolt gun fired bolts that was like little stubby arrows of shiny metal, with no fletches to them. Somehow you was able to tell the gun before you fired it which thing the bolt should kill, and the bolt went to that thing and killed it. There wasn’t no question of missing your shot, nor of wounding. The thing that got struck by the bolt was dead, sure enough. But if the thing run away between you telling the gun and firing it, the bolt would fly on after them until it hit. Then you had got to chase it down and find it, for otherwise the bolt would be lost, and the bolts was too precious to lose. We only had but the three of them.
Whoever held the bolt gun was Rampart Arrow.
There was the cutter. In my thinking this was the most fearsome weapon of the three. It wasn’t like a knife at all, though it seemed to work a little bit like one, as though it had a knife in its family somewhere and had learned the way of it. To look at, though, it was a glove you put on your hand, with a flat bar across the knuckles. The bar was dull metal when you put the glove on, but it commenced to shine soon after, and once it was shining you could use it. You pointed at the thing you wanted to cut, and it got cut. It might be small like a bug or a knifestrike or big like a young tree. Either way, it got cut right through. The only thing you could see when this was happening was a kind of a ripple in the air, like the ripples you get in water when you drop a stone in. The ripple went from the glove all the way to the thing that was cut, and sometimes a good way beyond it.
Whoever held the cutter was Rampart Knife.
Last of all there was the database. This was a little thing like a stick, black and very shiny. It didn’t look like nothing at all, but there was something inside it that was alive and knowed a lot of stuff. You could ask it questions and it would answer you, though oftentimes it used ancient words that no one knowed the meaning of.
Whoever held the database was Rampart Remember.
It was just them four, but there could be more than four Ramparts at a time. The old tech either knowed you or it didn’t, and that was all there was to it. If it knowed you, and would answer to you, then you was said to be synced and you went to live in Rampart Hold. At the time I’m telling of, all our Ramparts was Vennastins except for Gendel, that was Fer Vennastin’s husband and had the family name of Stepjack. Gendel was synced to the bolt gun, but Fer was Rampart Arrow for she tested before him – just like Haijon’s cousin Mardew didn’t get to be Rampart Knife until Loop Vennastin, that was Perliu’s brother and Fer and Catrin’s uncle, died.
If you’re thinking it’s strange that being a Vennastin and being synced with the tech should chime together so much, well, you would not be the onliest one. It was a thing that was oftentimes thought and sometimes said out loud. But no, Perliu said, it was not strange at all. The database told of times when there was other Ramparts. He said most of the families in the village had been Ramparts at one time or another, some of them using tech we didn’t even have now on account of it got lost, or using the tech that don’t wake no more for anyone. Those things all got names, so they must of worked at least once. They was called things like the light-and-dark, the wise doctor, the farsight, the swallow, the music, the mask, the signal. But nobody in Mythen Rood knowed what it was they used to do.
And back in the world that was lost, Perliu said, everyone was synced. Tech was wherever you went, in everyone’s houses or in their stow-sacks or even just out on the street. People was like trees in them days, taller than anything and striding over the world. They was so big and so strong, nothing could of brung them down excepting only their own selves, which was what done it in the end. Either that or the dead god or Dandrake struck them down for sinfulness, if you got faith in things of that kind.
So it was just hap and stance that all our Ramparts was Vennastins, Perliu said. It was different once, and would be again. In the meantime, he said, we had got to be thankful there was Ramparts at all, given how bad a thing it would be if there wasn’t none. Everyone got a try at waking the tech, and there wasn’t nobody had a better chance than anyone else. The testing was right in front of everyone and we all could see it was fair.
That much was true. What was also true, though Perliu didn’t say it, was this: Vennastins had got all the power in their hands, so why would you want them to be riled with you? Better to keep your head down, when all was said. Better to let things roll on in the direction they was going, since if you got in their way they was like to roll on anyway and leave you broke behind.
The testing was done in the Count and Seal, in Rampart Hold. At least, that was how it was in my year. When I was younger, I remember it happening outside, on the gather-ground. But then there was a time when a big horn-headed thing, one of the unlisted, got inside the fence and run into the crowd. Rampart Arrow brung the beast down before it killed anyone, but Deeley Pureheart got gored and two other people was hurt fending it off of him. Afterwards everyone said it was foolish for the whole village to meet out in the open, and we moved the testing indoors. We didn’t stop holding the Summer-dance or the Salt Feast though. There would of been great unrest if anyone had said to do that.
When testing day come, Haijon and me waked up to find our white testing shirts laid out beside our bunks. We put them on and went into the kitchen, where Spinner was already sitting down in her own white shirt, eating a plate of pancakes and honey piled up higher than I ever seen. There was twice as many left on the platter, along with bread and warm milk and duck eggs and slices of pink-white meat, hot and steaming off the stove-top.
“I started without you, sleepyheads,” Spinner said, through a mouthful of something. “You gonna have to race to catch up.”
“No need to race,” Shirew Makewell said. She was at the stove, frying up more meat. “You can have anything you want, and as much as you want. This is your day, remember.”
“Well then,” Haijon said, sitting down. “I think I’m gonna have some of everything, Shirew. Starting with this bread, which smells like it’s got spike-seed in it.” I sat down too. Haijon had took the seat next to Spinner, so I was opposite. That was okay though. It meant I got to look at her face while I was eating.
The bread did have spike-seed in it, and it tasted so good it kind of made you sigh through your nose when it was in your mouth. The meat was good too. I was thinking it would be chicken but it was pig. Pig was a Salt Feast thing, for at Salt Feast they cooked a whole pig in the firepit and everyone got to eat as much of it as they could hold. So the taste of pig was a holiday taste to me in any case, but somehow this was even better. The meat had been sweetened, kind of, in some way I never knowed before.
“Did you taste this?” I asked Haijon. “It’s god-food.”
“It’s just bacon,” Haijon said. “Spinner, did you get one of these eggs? You can dip your bread in it, look.”
He showed her how to do it and she copied him, the two of them laughing when she spilled the yolk on her fingers and licked it up so as not to waste it. “You can be Rampart Breakfast,” Spinner said to Haijon, “since you know so much about it.” Then she said eggs used to be all white inside until the people of the old times used their tech to put gold inside them. “See, that’s why you Vennastins always pass the test. You eat eggs every day, and all that metal builds up inside you. The tech’s just recognising its own self.”
Haijon bridled a little. It was a joke that kind of had an edge to it. Leastways, it pricked him a little. “We don’t always pass,” he said. “My uncle Vergil didn’t.” Which was true. Vergil had lost an arm to a choker seed just before his fifteenth year-day. He was as close to dying as a word is to a whisper, and couldn’t go into the Waiting House. The next year, being on his feet again and supposed to be well, he went Waiting and was tested, but nobody thought he could be a Rampart. He was like the ghost of himself, pale-faced and solemn-quiet and almost not there at all. When he failed his test, people was sorry for him but also mostly relieved. Ramparts is meant to be strong, and that terrible wound had washed Vergil halfway out of the world. He didn’t have no strength that anyone could get a glimpse of.
But he was the onliest Vennastin to fail the test. And though Perliu said other folks had been Ramparts, as far back as anyone could figure it was Vennastins and more Vennastins and occasionally their wedded kindred. Like I said already, Spinner was not the onliest one by any means to wonder why that might be.
“So that’s one against all the rest,” she said now. “I’d still put odds on you to pass, Jon, if anyone would fade the wager. I’m gonna watch what you do and see if there’s a trick to it.”
“There’s no trick,” Haijon says, mightily put out now. “Why would you say that?”
“There’s always a trick,” Spinner says to him. “Look at this.”
She lifted up her knife and passed her hand over it a few times with the fingers all spread out. “Idowak, bidowak,” she says in a really low voice like as it was a man speaking. “Ansum, bansum.” She brung the knife down so it touched her fork, then when she lifted it up again the fork was stuck to it. Not stuck like glue, because it slid a little as she moved the knife this way and that way, but it didn’t drop.
Haijon and me was sitting there with our mouths wide open, like two jump-frocks. Shirew turned round and seen it too, and she near to dropped the pan and all the bacon in it, which would of been a shame.
“How you doing that?” I says to Spinner.
“I got magic in my hands,” she tells us. “Didn’t you know?” She was putting a grave face on, but she couldn’t keep it up no more and a laugh burst out of her. “It’s not old tech or nothing. It’s just a thing metal does, sometimes, if you stroke it or smack it against other metal. My father showed me. It happens to his knives when he strops them. For a while after he’s finished, if he puts them down close together they find each other and latch on. Not every time, but oftentimes.”
She put her hand on Haijon’s arm. “I’m sorry I said the testing was a trick,” she said. “That’s near to saying your family is dishonest, which I didn’t mean and wouldn’t ever think.”
It was a sweet apology, and furthermore I seen now how Spinner did the thing with the knife and the fork to turn Haijon’s thoughts away from the hurt she done him. I admired her cleverness in that, which was not a sly cleverness but a thoughtful and a gentle one. That Spinner could be gentle or fierce by turns whenever there was need for one or for the other was part of who she was, and part of why I loved her.
Haijon said he knowed she never meant it, and went back to eating.
“And I’m gonna be soulful sorry,” Spinner went on, “when I go to live in Rampart Hold and they throw you out for failing your test.”
She timed it just right. Haijon had his mouth full of bread and bacon and he spluttered it all over the table in laughing. That made the two of us laugh like fools too, and even Shirew, though she said we was ungovernable and that Haijon was going to have to clean the table when we was done even if it meant going late to the Count and Seal.
She was only joking, of course. Nobody ever come late to their testing, or left it early. It was fixed like a star in the sky, if anything that’s only human could be said to be like that.
The Count and Seal was a room that didn’t have no corners to it. It was shaped like a circle. If that sounds strange, it’s because you’re imagining the Hold to be a wooden house with beams and timbers. That’s my fault, for I never said no different.
Rampart Hold wasn’t made out of wood; it was made out of stone. It was one of three buildings from the old times that was still standing in Mythen Rood, the other two being the lookout and the broken house. Rampart Hold stood three floors above the ground, and went down a considerable way under it. Its walls was grey, and grey slates made up the roof, that was long enough to fit four chimneys all in a line. You could tell it was a house from the old times because of all the windows it had, letting light into every room. Perliu said it was called the Little Stub once, which you might think was said as a joke because it’s so much bigger than any other house in the village. But I been to Birmagen and London and Baron Furnace, and I seen how big we used to build before we lost the knowing of it. Rampart Hold wouldn’t of been anything much at all in the old times.
To us, though, it was as big as big could get. It looked like part of a mountain got broke off and made into a house. There was a room you went into right away when you come in the door. It was all shiny wood that had got patterns in it, squares inside squares, and it had wooden stairs like the stairs up to the lookout, except that this wood had such a high shine to it you could see your face inside it looking back at you like in a mirror.
Only Ramparts and their kindred was supposed to go up those stairs. The top part of the house was family rooms, and it was called the residence. Even Vergil lived in the residence, for though he was no Rampart he was still Perliu’s son, Catrin and Fer’s brother. He was still Vennastin, and this at a time when Rampart and Vennastin had almost come to be like two ways of saying the same thing.
For the rest of us, when we come into Rampart Hold we would go on past them stairs, along a long, low corridor and into the Count and Seal. It was a room in the shape of a circle, like I already said, and it was bigger than you can imagine. There was rows of seats that was in circles too, and a round window in the ceiling. It was like whoever built the room had spun himself round and round for a long time beforehand and couldn’t see nothing but circles any more.
Also there was more of the shiny wood here, but with years and years of meet-days and testing days it was all scuffed and the shine wore away so you could only see it in a few places like on the edges of things or high up on the walls.
But the main thing was that the room went down as it went into the middle. I don’t know how to say it better than that. The seats went higher and higher around the sides, almost up to the ceiling, but the middle dropped away so it was below where you come into the room. That kind of made it be the natural place where you looked, no matter where you was sit. Your eye was drawed to it. There was a platform there that we called the middle round. It was another place where only Ramparts got to stand, at least on meet-days. In a testing it was different, because it was where the testing got to happen.
On meet-days there wasn’t no furniture in the middle round. On testing days there was three tables stood there, kind of like three sides of a square, only the sides wasn’t flat but opened out a little ways. The middle table had the tech that was already woke up and working: the firethrower, the bolt gun, the cutter and the database. The other two tables had all the things, more than you could count, that was old tech but didn’t never do nothing no matter who touched it.
I seen this lots of times when other people was testing. In fact I seen it fourteen times exactly, once for every Summer up to this one, only the earliest times I was too young to remember it. So I knowed what was going to happen, right down to the last, least thing. Shirew Makewell had coached us in what to say, but we had all the words solid in our heads before we ever started so she didn’t waste too much time on that. Mostly she told us how to look and how to be once we was in the Count and Seal.
“There’ll be more than two hundred people there, all looking at you,” she says to the three of us, “but don’t you be minding that. Don’t you look at them at all, or think about them. They’re there for you, not the other way round. When Rampart Fire speaks to you, you say your part the way you learned it and you come forward when she bids you. After that, it’s all just doing what you’re told to and keeping a hold on yourself after.”
It was good advice, and kindly meant, but on the day of my testing it went out of my head as soon as I stepped in the room. Actually it didn’t stay even that long. When we was walking along the corridor toward the big doors (there was two doors to the Count and Seal) and hearing all the people inside, my whole head emptied out like a downturned bucket. I stumbled along behind Haijon, through the doors and into the room, and I bumped into his back when he stopped.
It’s the testing, I thought. This is the time. This is the test. And my legs sort of losed their strength so I all but fell down.
Haijon stepped to the side so we was all in a line like we was supposed to be. The Ramparts was in the middle round, all in a line too except that Catrin was out in front a little way. On testing day, Rampart Fire spoke for the village.
“Who is it comes into this chamber?” she asks us.
I risked a look up at the faces all around. That was just what Shirew told us not to do, and she was right. So many people! Everyone I knowed. Everyone as had ever been in my life from before I even knowed my own name right down to the here and now. I seen my mother there, and Athen and Mull to either side of her. It was like my eyes knowed how to find them, even in all that great, breathing, shifting press of life. And I got some strength from seeing them, though also a kind of dizzy strangeness as though I was there with them looking down on my own self as well as being where I was.
It was only then I realised how come I could hear everyone breathing. It was because there was stone silence in the room. I don’t think I was the only one thinking Haijon would answer first, but he never done it. I looked at Spinner and Spinner looked at me. Haijon didn’t look at either of us. He was standing with his head down and his hands all clenched in fists. If I had to say what he looked like, he looked like he was afraid, only I never knowed Haijon to be afraid of anything.
“It’s me,” Spinner says, finding her voice first. “Demar Waiting, come to be tested.”
“It’s me,” I says, and barely got my name out. “Koli Waiting. I come to be tested.”
“It’s me, Haijon Waiting,” Haijon says at last. “Come to be tested.”
“Stand forward on your name, and come down,” Rampart Fire told us. Then to the whole room she says, “These who are Waiting will be known, by your will and with your blessing.” She didn’t say knowed, she said known, just like she’d said chamber instead of room. It was how they said those things in the old times, and it made her words seem heavier somehow. Like they was hard, solid things and kept right on standing there in the air after she was done saying them.
There was a murmur as everyone said yes or aye or yay or I bless it, after their fashion. Some of them made the Dandrake sign of two fingers folded. I seen Jarter Shepherd, Veso’s mother, make it, and I seen Veso turn away like he didn’t want to look at that. He had good reason.
Catrin bowed her head like she took all them ayes and yays solemn serious.
“Demar Waiting,” she says. “Come to the Count and Seal.”
Demar walked down into the circle and stood right dead in the middle of it, facing Catrin. She had her arms at her sides and her back was straight. She didn’t seem to be shaking at all, nor she didn’t look at nobody except Catrin.
“What do you see here?” Catrin asks.
Spinner give the looked-for answer. “I see the tech of the old times.”
“Will it wake for you?”
“I do not know, but mean to try.”
“And if it wake for you?”
“Use it for the good of all.”
That was all the speaking. And for the choosing, Shirew told us to decide before we come there. “You don’t want to freeze when Rampart Fire invites you and make her have to say it twice. Nobody will blame you for it, but you’ll look foolish in front of everyone and you’ll blame yourself after.”
Spinner picked up the firethrower. It was a bold choice, but lots of people done the same before her. It was the biggest of the waked tech by far, and there was something about it that drawed the eye and kept it. The sleekness of the metal was a part of it, dark green except for the grip which had an edge of shiny grey. Not silver, for it wasn’t bright: it was grey metal that was as lustrous as silver. On its side there was a name in old-times writing. Nobody in Mythen Rood could read it, but Rampart Remember had learned it from the database. The word was Phoenix, with some numbers after it. It was hard to figure what the database said oftentimes, for it speaked at great length in strange words of the world that was lost, but the gist of it was that Phoenix was a place a long way away, a village bigger than Mythen Rood, that got burned down lots of times but always builded itself up again afterwards.
Spinner lifted the firethrower the way you might lift a newborn baby, with one hand on the grip and the other under it, cradling the weight. The weight seemed to be less than she was expecting, for she bent her knees a little when she first picked it up, but then straightened again. Her face was lit up with the wonder of it. Everyone I ever seen take the test got that look as soon as the tech was in their hands.
“Acknowledge,” Spinner said. She might of waited a while to savour that feeling, but again most of them that was tested went at once to the word. They needed to know.
The firethrower didn’t say nothing.
“Accept command,” Spinner said, which was the second ancient word. And still the firethrower was silent.
“New user,” Spinner said. The firethrower didn’t wake, and didn’t answer her. Her back was to me, so I couldn’t see what was in her face right then. I seen in the set of her shoulders, though, that putting the firethrower down was going to be harder and heavier than picking it up.
Catrin seen it too, and took it from her as gentle as anything. “Demar Waiting,” she said. “Wait no more. Woman of Mythen Rood you are, and will be, under what name you choose.”
“Spinner Tanhide,” Spinner said.
“Spinner Tanhide,” said everyone in the room all at the same time.
Spinner stepped off to the side a little way to make room for me, and Catrin called me in the same words she used before.
“Koli Waiting, come to the Count and Seal.”
I come to her, looking at my feet the whole way in case I tripped over them. Even when I was standing right in front of her, I didn’t seem able to look up.
“What do you see here?”
“I see the tech of the old times,” I answered her.
“Will it wake for you?”
“I do not know, but mean to try.”
“And if it wake for you?”
“Use it for the good of all.”
I had told Shirew I meant to choose the firethrower, but now that Spinner had done it I changed my mind. I picked up the bolt gun instead. The handle of it fitted to my hand so snug I wanted to laugh, almost, which there was no law said you couldn’t but would of been a shocking thing and not soon forgived. The metal felt cold like snow against my skin, though the room was warm from all the people that was in there. And it was smoother than anything I’d ever held. Like a shiny pebble dipped in water, but smoother even than that.
I lifted it up high, like as it was a lit torch at lock-tide, and me standing at the gate. I said, “Acknowledge,” just as loud as I could. Then I waited.
Nothing happened, though I give it a good long time. I heard one of the seats creak, and someone made a noise in their throat like they wanted to cough but couldn’t because of the seriousness of it. Rampart Fire looked at me, expectant, and after a few seconds more she nodded. Meaning I should get to it.
“Accept command,” I said.
What followed was more of that same nothing. I made myself believe I could feel the gun moving, waking up, but it was only my hand getting sweaty and slipping on the grip because of the smoothness of it.
“New user,” I whispered. I only just could get the words out.
I realised something then that I never knowed before, though I’ve proved it many times since. The world isn’t nothing next to the stories we tell ourselves. It bends to any shape we want it to. I seen this moment in my thoughts a thousand times before my testing day finally come, and there wasn’t one of those times where the tech didn’t wake for me. I had heard Catrin hail me a Rampart, in dreams and wakeful wondering every day and every night since I first went into the Waiting House, as though she said it so loud I had heard the echoes before the words was ever said.
But if the world bends easy, which it does, sometimes it will whip back like a green branch and hit you in the face. That’s what it done to me then, so I was left standing like a fool with no ideas in my head, not even the idea of where I was and what come next.
You might wonder at this. After all, I told you enough times already that all our Ramparts was Vennastins, save for one man, Gendel, that was closest kin to them. Who was I to think I might beget a miracle? No one, is the answer. I was the smallest speck of dust in a world that was a thousand thousand times bigger than I even knowed it was, and I didn’t have no right to be treated like anything bigger than that.
But it’s when we’re smallest, when we’re young, that we most have the thought of ourselves as mightily important. A child – any child, I think – believes he stands plum in the middle of everything, and the sun at noon-day seeks him out so it will know where the zenith is.
Or if it’s not so for every child, at least it was so for me.
“Koli Waiting,” Catrin Vennastin said. “Wait no more. Man of Mythen Rood you are, and will be, under what name you choose.”
I was like to forget my name for a moment.
“Koli Woodsmith,” I said.
“Koli Woodsmith,” said everyone else, and I felt the sorrowing burden of it fall heavy across my shoulders. The burden of being nothing very much after all, and having no part to play in the larger doings of the world.
Spinner took my hand and pulled me back to take my place next to her. Otherwise I would of kept on standing there at the table, blocking Haijon’s way to it. She give my hand a squeeze, for solace, no doubt seeing my sadness on my face. And it did solace me, her being one of the onliest things outside my silly dreams that was real to me right then (though in truth I built other, sillier dreams on her).
Haijon was speaking his piece. His mother was asking him to choose.
He choosed the cutter, slipping his right hand into it even though when he played the stone game he throwed with his left.
“Acknowledge,” he told it.
The bar of metal that sit over his clenched fingers went from dull grey to shiny silver. The cutter made a sweet chiming noise, like a bell.
“Haijon Rampart,” Catrin said, “wait no more.”
Spinner was the first to cheer, but she was only a second or so ahead of the rest of the people in the room. A new Rampart was good news for everyone. The best news, because the tech was only ours as long as there was someone it would wake for, and without the tech we would not thrive.
I cheered too, for the same reason and for one more on top of that. Haijon was my friend and I was truly happy for him, even while I was still grieving on my own account.
That happiness wouldn’t last though. And nor would our friendship. I hold myself to blame for both those things, though not for the worse things that come after.