Emyn missed her A’er, but people said that it was not fitting for a girl to grow up in a house full of men. Someone had to teach her the things a girl must know; Iomat needed to pass on her skills as well.
On their walks Iomat taught Emyn how the moon told roots to grow deep on certain days, how new leaves were favored at other times, and what words to say as she cut or dug up plants. At night, if they felt like staying up late, Iomat explained the stars.
Once that summer Iomat woke Emyn, wrapped a shawl around her, and led the half-awake girl down the road and through unfamiliar pastures to a house. There a suffering woman poured curses on her husband and all his ancestors while Emyn dozed until Iomat shook het roughly. “Stand up and learn!”
Emyn saw a baby born that morning. The creature emerged from an impossible location, becoming an infant out of blood and ugliness as Emyn watched, amazed. Days passed before she recalled that her own mother had died giving birth but it wasn’t hard to believe that such an ordeal could kill.
As summer passed and dampness crept back into the air, an old man came to the village and stayed with A’er. Emyn was summoned and introduced to her grandfather.
He studied her face in the afternoon light, peering at her from up and down and both sides before grunting, “You don’t look much like your mother.”
He nodded at A’er. “Pretty girl. Don’t spoil her.”
The old man had masses of hair the color of rain clouds on his head and face. His pale, runny eyes fixed on her for a moment. Then with a snort, he rose and walked out of the house.
What had she done? Nonicos, her oldest brother, touched her shoulder and said quietly, “Your grandfather came a long way to see your mother. He didn’t know she was dead.”
Emyn’s mind tripped over “your grandfather.” Hers, not Nonicos’. She’d always known that her brothers had a different mother. Now she realized they must have different grandfathers and maybe other cousins and aunts and uncles as well.
The next day her grandfather asked Iomat if Emyn could walk with him. He did the same thing the following day and whenever the weather was dry.
Her grandfather didn’t talk much, so Emyn recited some of the stories she’d heard from A’er and from the ghosts—tales about brave men who died and were brought back to life by magic, or about loyal sons who were cheated out of their birthright and forced to live as outlaws without home or clan.
“He wasn’t really alive,” she mused after telling of a warrior who had been decapitated and whose head continued to entertain and sing to his companions for many years. “He never got to be a grandfather.”
“Heroes live faster than farmers,” the old man grunted. “You never heard that?”
“The blood runs hotter. It’s a better life.”
Emyn thought about that. Grandfather came from another tribe, the Nervii, and they were supposed to be very brave. “Do you know heroes?”
Maybe not everything people said was true. She’d heard that Nervians didn’t drink ale, but Grandfather was more than happy to share a cup with A’er or the headman in the evening.
One day Emyn sang with the white ladies and another spirit who played a lyre and said he was a bard. Grandfather was surprised but not afraid. “You hear ghosts, do you?”
“My grandfather used to hear ghosts. They told him where to find game.”
Emyn thought of how the headman’s dogs whimpered and crawled away whenever she passed. No dogs came near her lately. Iomat said they feared the dead.
“Were dogs afraid of your grandfather?”
“Ha! Of all the things to ask. . . . they were, they were. I remember.”
Grandfather taught her Nervian songs after that, saying that the words to the white ladies’ tunes were foolish. His songs were mostly about courage and never giving ground.
Once he told her about the time her mother had fallen and skinned her knees and how she’d walked all the way home without shedding a tear. He was very proud of her that day; she wasn’t any older than Emyn. She asked if he missed his daughter.
“Her choice. She knew it would be a long time between visits.”
A spring fed the wood-lined well in the center of Samarnum, which was what people called the village when they needed to name it. The source of water was important; Samarnum would not be where it stood if the water gurgled up in a different spot. The well filled with rainwater daily so no one noticed its lowering at first.
One day, the water nearly disappeared.
Buckets and basins appeared outside every house to catch the rain. Folks gathered in small groups and walked through the fields, tracing barely-discernable paths of water on the muddy ground. The river was close, but if the well went dry, Iomat told Emyn, they’d have to accept it and move.
“The ancestors will show us, one way or the other.”
Emyn was still six. The ice and storms of winter kept her grandfather from returning home but he no longer called on her to walk with him. It was too cold.
When the rain paused, Emyn played outside with Cesua and Sinia, sisters who were her best friends. They chased white-faced black ducks and dangled worms to tease Sinia, who hated crawly things.
Cesua nodded toward the headman’s house. Two figures crouched outside the door. “Bet he’s hungry.”
Emyn looked closer and saw a third person. A toddler rested in Almer’s lap as he sat next to his father. Last summer the man had helped A’er build a cart. . . Hentios, that was his name. He was a cousin to her brothers, though not to her.
“Why is he hungry?” Sinia asked while Emyn was puzzling this out.
“He can’t eat.”
“He can’t eat because he’s doing troscad. Troscad means you can’t eat till you get justice.”
“Can Almer eat?”
“Of course. So can Micco.” Cesua, a year older than Emyn, knew almost as much as Iomat about the goings-on in the village.
“It’s simple, goose.” Her tone made Emyn glad she’d kept silent and let Sinia ask the questions. “Headman Volio took Hentios’ mallet and tools because he owed him work that he never finished. So Hentios can’t work even if he wants to, because he’s got no tools. Now Hentios sits at the headman’s door all day. He won’t leave and won’t eat until the headman says he’ll do what a judge says. That’s troscad.” Cesua took a deep breath.
“A’er says Hentios is a drunk and wouldn’t be working anyway,” said Sinia.
“That doesn’t matter. Troscad is sacred.”
Emyn stared above Hentios where three skulls sat on a shelf over the door of the headman’s house. One whispered to her, “Your people need water.”
“What are you looking at?”
Emyn shrugged. “Who gets to be the judge?”
“A druid, silly. He has to come from far away. What are you looking at?”
Iomat spoke of druids as skilled healers; Emyn didn’t realize they were also judges.
“The well has nothing left to give,” said another skull.
“They’re ugly, aren’t they?” Cesua followed Emyn’s gaze towards the skulls but Emyn knew she couldn’t hear them. It began to rain again, hard, and everyone ran to their homes.
Hentios grinned up at Emyn as she passed. “Tell the headman I am still here.”
Inside, women talked and rain pattered on the thatch. Ghosts murmured too. Iomat put Emyn to work shaking and thumping thick stalks, coaxing the seeds in them to fall on a cloth spread out before her.
“I wait to be asked,” the dead king announced suddenly.
Emyn straightened; she could see his outline before her. “For what?”
“For help. Your people need water.” The image wavered though his voice remained strong. “I am a king. The chief must ask.”
Did he mean the headman? “But he can’t see you.”
“You will tell him. I wish a sacrifice. He has several bulls. One of them will serve.”
Emyn giggled. “You can’t eat a bull!”
“The aroma is mine, insolent child. The meat may be shared.”
He faded as Emyn said, “I have to ask Iomat.”
“Ask me what?”
Emyn jumped. She’d spoken too loud; men and women stared at her. Some looked angry.
“Ask me what?” Iomat left the cookfire and took the dried branch out of Emyn’s hand. “Tell me what you heard. You’ll have no peace till you do.”
Emyn repeated what the ghost wanted.
Iomat seemed unimpressed. “Is he listening, this king?”
Emyn looked around as the women at the cookfire turned away. “I don’t know.”
“No headman is going to butcher a good bull on the word of a little girl.” Iomat spoke loudly, her hands on her hips. “If your ghost was a king, he should know that. A headman is no different.”
Women gasped when Iomat said the word ghost; she ignored them.
“No one else sees or hears him. When he was a living king, did he listen to children?” Iomat shook her head. “If he wants a sacrifice, he’ll have to prove himself first. Tell him to refill the well or find us a new one and he’ll get his bull.”
The ghost was angry; Emyn could feel it. Shadows grew and pressed around Iomat, pulling darkness from the corners and roof beams. Emyn held her breath . . . but the shadows did nothing.
“I won’t be shamed by a drunk!” The door flew open and the headman stomped toward the fire.
“If you’ll let me—“ Volio’s sons huddled close and their voices dropped.
Iomat exchanged looks with the other women.
“Don’t!” Volio’s voice cracked through the house like the snap of a whip. “I tell you: no. You touch Hentios and I’ll be blamed.”
“Petty fools,” the dead king whispered, suddenly very close. “Tell him now!”
Emyn looked up at Iomat. “The dead king–”
There was no question of whom to obey. Iomat was solid; the dead king a noisy shadow. Emyn hummed softly to drown out his voice.
“He’s gone,” Emyn said in the morning as she followed Iomat out of the house. Emyn held a basket for the mushrooms they hoped to find while the sun shone.
“Hentios? He got his tools back,” Iomat said. “Volio is too smart to let that troscad go on.”
“Hentios can eat now?”
“Eat and drink and wasting no time about it, either. Look at him, laughing like a crazy man. . . .”
Hentios stood in the doorway of Cesua’s house, inviting two other men inside as they passed. Iomat sighed. “I’ll tell headman Volio what your ghost said today.”
Hentios was often at Cesua’s house. Cesua’s parents brewed ale and called Hentios a drunk. It made sense in an unpleasant way.
The headman’s big voice startled Emyn. “So you talk to ghosts?”
“Do you see them?”
Emyn had been dozing by fire and jumped to her feet. “Sometimes.”
“What does this ghost say?”
Emyn knew better than to announce he wanted a bull sacrificed. “He says there is water that moves in the rock. He will show us where.”
“If . . .” The headman raised his eyebrows and winked at Iomat.
“Lead him,” the dead king commanded. “Toward the white horse.”
“He’ll show us now!” Emyn ran to the door and pushed it open. The rain drizzled beyond the overhanging thatch.
The only white horse Emyn knew of was the fallen marker near the ruins, so she pointed in that direction “That road behind Cesua’s house—“
“Sonios’ house,” Iomat corrected, naming Cesua’s father.
“There’s water that way?” The headman squinted. “How far?”
The land sloped gently behind Cesua’s house and wound eventually to the ruined and burned iron works.
“Water flows along it all,” said the king.
White shapes beckoned from Cesua’s doorway. Emyn’s legs propelled her forward before Iomat could holler, “Wait!” She kept going, then huddled under the thatch outside Cesua’s home until the headman and Iomat caught her.
Iomat started to scold just as the rain surged and began to pound.
Cesua’s mother opened her door and looked at them all, confused. “Where’s Hentios?”
“Hentios?” Iomat sounded puzzled.
“Hentios. He said he—“
A long, wailing cry rose over the noise of the rain. They all turned in time to see Hentios slide off the thatched roof as if he were trying to fly like a bird. A mallet and knife flew out of his hands as he slammed onto the ground.
Iomat’s fingers dug into Emyn’s shoulder and held her as she tried to run forward. Cesua’s mother screamed; Hentios did not move.
The headman said a word Emyn did not expect as they all stared. “Now I’ll be blamed for his murder,” he muttered, pulling his cloak over his head.
He shouted for help and plunged into the downpour. Cesua’s father and uncle burst forward; the three men carried Hentios by the shoulders and legs back into Cesua’s house.
“Drunken fool,” Sonios growled as he passed.
Iomat followed the men inside. Left alone, Emyn peered through the rain to where Hentios’ mallet had flown. In spite of the wetness, light paler than fire shone at the spot.
Emyn walked toward it, her feet sinking deep into the mud. The mallet had broken into several pieces after striking a large rock.
“Here,” the dead king boomed.
She bent to look at the mark left by the mallet and smiled. Above her the sky spilled out enough water to fill a well.
“Here,” the ghost said again.
She was hoisted and carried into the house. Cesua’s mother pulled Emyn’s dress away, wrapped her in a dry blanket, and set her by the fire, flanked by the two sisters. Across the flames, the adults clustered around Hentios, now awake. Their voices made Emyn think of honking geese.
“Hentios said he would fix the roof,” Sinia whispered.
“Where it dips,” Cesua added and leaned very close. “A’er wouldn’t give him any more ale so he said he’d earn it.” The girl shook with laughter. “Now A’er says he won’t be able to sit on his butt for a month!”
For this afternoon, at least, Hentios got his ale. Sonios filled and refilled a large cup as it passed from hand to hand. As the scolding voices softened and everyone—even Hentios—began to make jokes, Emyn held the blanket tight around her and stood.
“I know right where the well should be,” she told the headman.
Hentios’ troscad was forgotten and the new well dug by the time a druid arrived. He’d come to judge a troscad; instead he presided over the slaughter of the headman’s bull. Everyone told him their version of how the well was found and why the water was so sweet. Time and ale turned it into a tale of marvels that Emyn barely recognized.
After that, druids visited the small village regularly.