Where did she begin?
The ghosts were the only reason anyone noticed Emyn. Her story began with them.
When Emyn was six, she followed her brother Esmios and his friend Almer as they hiked to higher ground west of their village. Weeds but no grass grew there, and pits and rocks were scorched. She picked up a stick and dug a few exploratory pocks into the ground, exposing charred earth below.
The boys found charms here. They said they found bones once, but quickly covered them with dirt. All children knew better than to disturb the honored dead or any spirit that guarded their remains.
As Emyn crouched and scratched the loose dirt with her stick, Esmios whispered to his friend of a place beyond this one, a place with ruined and smashed huts where metal had been worked over fires and hammered into knives.
“This was a road.” Esmios led Emyn and Almer down a slope and away from the dead earth. A long stone marker lay between clumps of dandelions, carved on one side with a horse. Flecks of white paint still clung to it. “That means that our people lived here,” her brother said. “Viromandui. They put that up. Then enemies came and shoved it down.”
“And they killed the people who lived here. Slit them open and burned them.” Almer swung an imaginary sword at Emyn. “I bet there’s more bones around. You’re probably standing on some now. Are you scared?”
“No.” Emyn meant it. Why should she be afraid of bones, when she hadn’t stolen from them?
Disappointed, the boy pivoted from her, jabbing and grunting. Emyn looked up at her brother. “Don’t take charms off the bones. Or they’ll come after you—“
“I know that,” Esmios scowled. “Everyone does. But I want to find out who attacked this place. Was it the Ambiani? It was a long time ago. Maybe there’s an enemy we don’t know about.”
Almer menaced them again, this time with an invisible ax. “Maybe they’re still around.”
Esmios rolled his eyes. “Iomat probably knows.”
Iomat was a tall woman who gathered plants and brewed potions for people when they were sick. That Esmios named her confused Emyn; their father was the person who answered their questions. “Did you ask A’er?”
“He doesn’t know. Will you ask Iomat for us?”
Emyn blinked at him. “Why don’t you just ask her?”
“You’re the one who’ll be staying with her.”
“I’m not going to stay with her,” Emyn protested.
“Yes, you are. A’er said so.”
“In three nights, he said.”
“Liar!” She’d never lived anywhere but with her own Ater. Where would she sleep? Who would feed her and sing to her? Esmios and his friend laughed and called her a baby, so she threw rocks at them and ran away.
She wasn’t a baby. If she were big or a boy, they wouldn’t mock her. They wouldn’t dare.
Another path branched away from the old road and wound into shadows. Emyn followed it, watching the ground carefully so she wouldn’t trip on roots or rocks. The boys’ voices faded. They stopped laughing and began yelling her name, but she didn’t answer. Because now she knew: people waited for her at the top of the hill.
How Emyn knew that, she could never say. As far as she remembered, that afternoon was the first time she stood among the oak trees of the sacred grove; the first time she’d seen the dead king and the white ladies. She felt she knew them and they certainly knew her, so maybe they had met in dreams. She sat and listened as they told her wonderful stories and showed her pretty things, magical things that she could never quite describe or make sense of later.
“We will stay with you,” a silvery woman said. “We will sing you songs.”
Emyn rubbed her eyes. “I want to go home now.”
The ladies giggled and began to dance. Emyn dozed and when she woke, she was alone.
The sun had set and no moon was out as she stumbled back down the path in darkness. Little sparks of light danced before her, showing the way; the display seemed funny, but not impossible. She wondered if the new month had begun. That happened when the moon rose too late for her to see. Esmios said the month was unlucky.
Emyn heard her brothers and neighbors call her name and ran toward the sound. Someone scooped her up; by the light of a torch she recognized her oldest brother. “Tell my father!” Nonicos called out as he squeezed Emyn tight. Water filled his eyes. “He’s at the river—“
His voice broke. “You brat,” he muttered into her ear. She giggled at the hot air from his mouth and the tickles of the little hairs of his new, golden moustache. “You worried us all! Where have you been?”
Emyn stopped giggling. “Between the trees. I fell asleep.”
“We’ve been calling and calling.”
She hadn’t heard. More people joined them; Emyn had never seen so many torches except on holidays. Everyone seemed anxious to give her a hug or a pat and then scold her. She and Nonicos were almost home before her Ater pushed through the group.
“She says she fell asleep in the trees,” Nonicos told him.
“In the trees?” A’er’s voice grew loud. “Little girl, you know how dangerous that is! There are wolves—did you think of that? You don’t go off alone!”
“The ladies said I could.”
“Prettiness . . . . “ Her father buried his face in her hair. “Don’t ever run off like that again.”
Emyn’s father pulled a cask of ale around to the front of his house, and all the men and women who’d been out looking for her—everyone she knew and some she didn’t—drank heartily from bowls and cups. The moon smiled as it rose in the dotted sky. The fire pit outside was filled with branches and split logs and the flames danced up to touch the stars, sending out little red, glowing stars of their own. She and Esmios sat leaning against the house as it grew late.
Esmios, she noted with satisfaction, was subdued and pale. But he hadn’t been lying. The ladies had told her that she was going to live with Iomat at the headman’s house, and Iomat would show her how to make medicine and read the stars.
“I know the name,” she said to Esmios. He’d been crying earlier and his eyes were red. “Sadonu, the place we went. Men made swords there. They made swords for kings. I saw some of them.”
Esmios wiped his eyes. “That’s wicked, Emyn. You’re telling lies and teasing me.”
“I am not. You wanted to know—“
“You are too.”
“Can’t you two sit together without fighting?” Ater pushed himself between them. He tried to glower, but the firelight danced in his eyes as he smiled. People would tell Emyn later that she had her father’s eyes, large and quick to express emotion.
“Emyn’s making up stories,” Esmios said.
“I’m not. It’s true. I saw the king’s sword, and I saw where they made it.”
“And where was that, prettiness?” her father asked.
“At the forge, but it’s all broken now.”
“Then how did you see it?” Esmios demanded.
“The ladies showed it to me when I was between the trees.”
“You were dreaming, then, if you’re not lying.”
She opened her mouth to answer, but her father shushed her. “You should be dreaming, both of you. That’s enough for one night. To sleep, now.”
Within three days, Emyn traveled with her father to stand on planks over the river. They said prayers as A’er tossed two offerings into the water: a carved cup and a smooth rock with designs cut into it. One to bless her new life with the healer and one to thank the gods for letting her stay in this world a little longer. It was sad for a child to die too young to earn a place of honor in the next world.
Emyn lived with Iomat in the headman’s large house after that. She followed Iomat on walks in sunlight and darkness, reciting after her the names of flowers that they passed. The woman showed her paths and hidden shrines that Esmios probably never dreamed of, swearing Emyn to secrecy. Iomat chopped up plants and Emyn washed down the wooden boards afterwards. Her hands were busy and her head full.
Her father’s home was near, and no one made a fuss if she picked up her softest fur and walked back to A’er’s when darkness fell. Maybe they half-expected it; she was still very young.
Before the moon got full again, all the grownups went off to shear sheep. Those not old enough to help were ordered out of the way. Esmios tried to follow their father to the sheds but was sent back, so he wandered by the headman’s house. Emyn brought him inside and pointed out the boxes and pots that held Iomat’s plants. The drying branches that hung from the rafters were mostly hers as well. Her brother grinned when she whispered that the headman snored.
“I wasn’t lying about Sadonu,” she told Esmios very seriously. “That’s what it was called and you said you wanted to know. Robbers came down the river in ships. The robbers burned the houses and workshops seven generations ago.”
Esmios rolled his eyes, but before he could say anything, Iomat’s voice rang out from the other side of the half-open door. “Where did you hear that?”
“Now you’re in trouble,” hissed Esmios.
Emyn bunched up her skirt with her fist. “I’m not lying.”
“I didn’t say you were,” said Iomat. “Where did you hear that?”
“The ladies told me. When I was between the trees.”
“When she was sleeping between the trees,” Esmios corrected. “When everyone was looking for her.”
“Well, I want you to tell me about that. What trees, to start with?”
Emyn described the tall oaks that ringed the top of a hillock beyond the dead town where she’d run from her brother. Iomat asked Esmios if he knew the place, then took him to the door and sent him home. Before he left, Iomat warned the boy in a hushed voice to stay away from the hill with the tall trees on it.
“Is it a bad place?” Emyn asked when Iomat came back.
“For some. Not for you, apparently.” Iomat leaned against a post. The distaff that held her wool was tucked in her belt as always.
“So.” The woman began to spin thread. “Tell me about those ladies. What did they say?”
Iomat’s face bounced between amusement and concern as Emyn talked and the spindle whirled. She told of the ladies and their sad sighs, and the embroidered edges of their gowns that sometimes hung in tatters. “They had shiny metal circles. The ladies held them in their hands, and I could see their faces, like water.”
“Mirrors.” Iomat gave the spindle a flick. “They made mirrors there as well as blades.”
Emyn spoke of the king who commanded the town and the forge. She jerked in surprise when the king appeared beside her, but Iomat didn’t seem alarmed. The king whispered the names of tribes who sent emissaries and reminded her of the ships that brought metal from the islands down the river to the forge.
“Tell her this, too,” he ordered.
“Why don’t you tell her?” Emyn could see right through him to the sunshine outside the door.
“You are my voice. You must do as I say. Tell her that soon this village will need help. I will provide that help so that all will know my power.”
Emyn repeated the words to Iomat: when the village needed help, he would tell them what to do.
“Oh, indeed?” Iomat sounded skeptical. The king didn’t argue or scold; he simply vanished.
Emyn wondered what else she should say. “They were very nice, but they didn’t have any food.”
“Of course not,” said Iomat, leaning down to catch up her spindle and wind the new thread. “Dead people don’t eat.”
And that was when she began, really: the day she learned that she could speak to and for the dead. That gift would carry her far from home to speak before the wise and the foolish alike. After that day, Emyn heard the word Gutumaros whispered when she passed: Death Speaker.