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.