The Clatter-Wheel

Balenn stood across the gate when they rounded the corner of the field. William set Emma on her feet and told her to go find her father straight away. The girl slipped through the fence, and Will watched her go. When she passed between the first rows of unharvested corn, he turned and walked to where Balenn stood.

“You found no home for her, then?” said Balenn, more statement than question, already heading for the stables.

“I did not. I thought old times might give Anna of Jodeen cause to take her, but it seems my credit has run out in the time I’ve been Across.”

“Come on, then,” said Balenn, offering him his saddle. “I’ll not waste another day suspended like this if I needn’t. My sister will take her, of that I’m certain. She owes me some for raising her little one when he was suckling and she took the Wild.”

William held his face blank at that, but his hands shook as he accepted the leather.

“No need to be afraid, man. The Wild is only a fever on this side of the river.” Balenn gathered the rest of the tack and opened the stall to let the beast walk out, clucking softly and keeping one eye on the man beside her, whose face had lost its ruddiness.

“Balenn, I know I am asking a great deal of your family. It is not without cause. There should have been at least nine choruses coming back across with us, a full choir or more. Enough to keep anyone safe from the encroaching Wild. Your chorus might be stronger – “

“William of Parsh, shut your awful mouth before your lovely voice gets you in trouble.” Balenn dumped the leather traces on the hay and walked out of the stable.

“I suppose I had that coming,” said William to his horse, who snorted and shook its head. He combed the big beast and fitted it for riding, humming softly all the while.

Balenn lifted Emma up when he rode out. He laid the child gently on the mane in front of him.

“Where are the others?” he asked, eyes searching the fields.

“Never you mind, Parsh’s son. Over the rise and over again, and then down the lane with the clatter-wheel. My sister’s house has four burnt places by its door.” said Balenn, and then, seeing his look, “And do not waste time nor energy worrying how they got there. They got there the usual way.”

“Balenn, the Wild is crossing -” began William

“I’ve told you once to shut your mouth, Will. Don’t make me do it a third time. Emma, you’re off to your aunt Rose’s place. She will have you for now. You’ll be good for her, and you’ll sing when asked, no more than that.”

“Does Rose need any more instruction than that?” asked William.

“No,” said Balenn, and lifted two sacks. “One for the price, and one for the girl.”

“A price for family?”

“Don’t ask stupid questions, William. You’ve little enough time, as you tell it.”

Emma had watched this exchange silently and now sat still as the bags were hung from the saddle hooks. But as Will brought the horse around and trotted them out the gate and down the road, she could no longer hold herself back. She tucked herself flat against the horse and sang the beast a child’s song, wordless and wavering.

“Are you sound, then, child?” asked Will, starting at her sudden change in demeanor.

“Can I play the clatter-wheel!” she begged.

Will laughed. “We’ll see. We’ll see.”

The clatter-wheel, as it turned out, was broken. Emma leapt to the ground before they even reached the thing and cranked the handle, unleashing a horrible sound. Will tried not to let his worry show as he hunched over the rusty mechanism.

“See here, miss Unseven,” he said, pointing at Wild-knew-what. “The clatterer is all despoken. I’ve not seen one the like.” Which was true, as far as it went, since he’d never seen a broken clatter-wheel before. The big instrument had many uses, but mainly it was the best way to build the thrum, the sound which had so been so effective in quieting the square the night before,

Usually, that meant they were kept in good repair.

“I want to go home,” said Emma Unseven, frowning and rubbing her hands together.

“I’m taking you there, child,” said Will.

“NO!” she screamed, then ran past him and back the way they’d come.

Will pounded after her, but he was not built to chase. “Emma!” he gasped. “Come back here!”

As Emma reached the main road, however, she stopped, then backpedaled as two huge brown field horses rounded the corner of the field towing a rattling cart. On the bench behind the animals sat a massive man with a fire-scarred face and a hand to match.

“Emma! Here!” shouted Will. The girl scampered back to him and tucked herself behind his bulk.

“Why is that man melted?” she asked in a whisper.

“Don’t be unkind, girl,” said Will. The burned man stopped his cart and stared at Will with his unburned eye.

“You’ll be looking for Rose, then?” asked the man.

“If she is the Rose of Meiram, I am.”

“And that would be Emma of Balenn, would it?”

“Emma Unseven!” came a squeaky voice from behind Will.

“Oh is that so now? Has she not sevened even yet? Sure, it’s three years or more since I tossed her up the haystacks!” The man’s face split itself into a misshapen grin.

“Uncle Nerve?” asked Emma, stepping out into view, one hand still on Will’s sleeve.

“Didn’t even know me girl?” he said. “I didn’t know I was that changed!”

Emma laughed and ran past the horses, clambering up the cart and onto her uncle’s thick thighs. “What happened? You melted!”

“Aye, Emma, I melted. Your aunt took the Wild, so I took the flame. I did not do it well, and so here I am.”

“You’re a brave man, Nerve,” said Will.

“Had to be done. Saul wasn’t going to do it, whatever they might say about the needle and the flame.”

“Has he never taken it?” asked Will.

“Not once that I know.”

“Your clatter-wheel is broken,” said Will.

“It is.” Nerve looked at the wheel a moment. “Has been since Rose got well.”

“Are you not worried?”

Nerve lifted his niece onto the bench and climbed down. He moved to the wheel and beckoned Will to approach.

“Do you know wheels, Will?”

“I took the song. Wheels are mysterious to me.”

Nerve pulled out two long wooden spokes and struck them together.

“Hear that?”

“Sounds a bit wrong…” said Will, scratching the back of his skull.

“That twinge you feel is Wild. They’re polluted,” said Nerve.

Will backed up a step.

“Why would you draw it down on yourself?”

“Superstition, Will. A clatter-wheel isn’t alive. Not til we play it. But if you played this one now, well, it might be a bad idea.”

Will’s glance drifted to Emma, who was rubbing her hands again.

“The girl cranked the handle. I don’t suppose…?”

Nerve was already running.

“The river!” he shouted as he leapt up to grab Emma, who had begun to shake and whimper. He turned to Will. “Bring my powders and a frame! I’ve left some in the stable.” Then he was gone, pounding towards the river.

Will grabbed the yoke and tried to pull the horses into motion. The massive animals balked, then ignored him, stamping and chuffing.

“Oh,” said Will, and began to sing.

He chose a buzzing note to tweak the big beasts’ ears and set their tails to flicking. He climbed onto the cart, careful not to interrupt the sound. The horses swatted at imaginary flies and then slowly, slowly began to step forward. Will changed the tune slightly, turning his fly into a growling creature. The cart began to roll faster up the lane. Will strained not to lose the song as he bounced against the hard, grey wooden bench. He snapped the reins and the horses took the yoke in earnest.

The cart lurched and rattled down the dirt track past harvest-ready wheat and corn. Will’s growl several times broke, but the song had done its work, and the horses groaned and screamed and surged to escape it. They passed one low, decrepit farmhouse, then another, and then the scent of charred ground filled the air.

Ahead, Will spied four black patches of ground and a small house beside a large stable.

He pulled the reins hard and altered his song once more, his guttural noises subsiding to slow, steady thrumming. The horses turned of their own accord towards the house, cutting a wide arc around the black spots. Will slid off the bench and stumbled towards the house. The wagon creaked to a halt as he climbed onto the porch and called out.

A wild-eyed woman with a tangled mane of grey-speckled blonde hair opened the door.

“Flame! Go!” she shrieked at him.

“Rose?” asked Will, stepping away.

The woman’s eyes cleared for a moment, changing from shining gold to black. Her cheeks softened and she pursed her mouth as if to offer pleasing words. As quickly as the look came, it went again. Her eyes filled up with gold again, and she spat and sputtered and lashed clawed hands towards Will’s face.

He stepped away and grabbed the woman’s arms. The tips of the woman’s fingers showed the bruised hues of wildfever. Will shifted and pushed her back inside, then shut the door and pressed a shoulder against it. She slammed against it from the far side. Only the difference in their sizes allowed Will to hold her in. The door thumped and creaked as Rose hurled herself against it, Wild-driven, screeching for release.

Will scanned the porch, searching for a means to bar the door. His eyes lit on a rain barrel brimming with green-tinged water, and on a weathered rocking-crib, both out of reach unless he let go of the door. But the crib gave him a notion.

“Hallo-,” he bellowed, but was cut short by another crashing blow from the far side of the door. He allowed himself a glance at the four burned patches. In the middle of the four, nearly invisible against the surrounding blackness, lay a scorched-wood door. Will pressed hard against the door, silently counted a bar’s worth of screeches, then pulled it open suddenly and shoved Rose backwards hard. He turned and charged across the ground towards the blackened door.

“Open! She’s coming!” he shouted, his eyes fixed on the door. Behind him he heard Rose’s unnaturally loud steps on the porch-wood.

The door opened a crack and two gold-ringed black eyes shone inside the shadow.

Wild child, thought Will, but there was no more time. He slid towards the door, raising it enough to slide his bulk inside. The child bounced away, crying.

Then Rose was upon them and it was all Will could do to hold her away while he tried to close the door against her. He glanced at the child and then at his belt. The child seemed not to notice at first, but then Will, still fighting with the Wild-driven woman, turned to let the light hit his mouth-harp.

The golden eyes widened and then little hands pressed the instrument against a little mouth. The woman outside screeched and backed away as notes piled upon one another in the fast, ugly way of a Bending. Will pull the door closed and slumped against the side of the steady-hollow.

“You must be the child Balenn spoke of,” he said when he’d caught his breath.

“Hello,” said the boy.

“Thank you for that. Did your father teach you that song?”

The boy’s clothes rustled and he made a sound of negation, then began to cry. He pressed the harp to Will’s chest.

“Oh, child. Of course, your mother. Can you see in the dark, then?” Will asked, grabbing the little hand in his own.

“No,” sniffed the boy.

“You may keep the harp, on one condition,” said Will. The sniffing ceased. “Play the Bending a little more. I need to bring your father a frame.”

“Is someone getting burned?” asked the boy.

“No!” Will barked. “Only cured.”

Will released the boy’s hand and pressed the harp into it. The Bending filled the hollow again. Will lifted the door, spilling the ugly song out into the air. Rose was nowhere in sight.

“Follow me, and keep playing,” said Will, pushing the door away.

The big man clambered out of the hole and then lifted the boy out. The boy’s eyes widened, and Will turned to see what was behind him.

Rose’s tiny form slammed into him, knocking him backwards.

“PLAY!” Will screamed, but the boy stood frozen, the harp in his hand forgotten.

Will smacked the woman’s hands away, but with the Wild to lend her strength she proved more than his match. She slammed him hard against the ground, and Will wheezed, trying desperately to catch his breath. Rose began to speak.

Her voice crackled and slithered against him, crawling up his spine into his mind without seeming to pass through his ears at all. His bones shuddered with the sounds. His flesh churned and spasmed and strained against his skin. Animal panic overtook him and he tore gouges in his arms to relieve the sensations.

Rose bent closer and began to whisper, and Will felt his mind responding to her noises. He summoned the songs that had kept him safe for so long on the far side of the Thrum. He began to hum.

The sound broke the spell for a moment. Rose’s eyes cleared. Beautiful, thought William.

But the bright gold shot through her irises as suddenly as it had gone, and she smashed a hand into his chest, driving his breath out. She pressed into him and began to speak again, faster. Will closed his eyes and summoned his promises.

Ugly music split the air, and Rose turned towards her son. She kicked a foot into Will’s belly, launching herself towards the child. Will, still gasping, flailed and managed to grab the foot buried in his midsection. The woman tumbled to the ground.

The big man dragged her back towards him. The Bending’s ugly resonance drove away her strength, and Will took advantage. He wrestled her into the steady-hollow, wincing as she scraped along his gouged arms, and then pulled the door back into place. He lay atop the wood until her scratching ceased.

“Is she dead?” asked the boy.

“Only steady,” said Will, his breath still coming in ragged gasps. “And only for now.”

He raised his head to peer at the boy, who still clutched the harp near his mouth as if expecting at any moment his mother to rise again and hurl the door and man away.

“What’s your name?” asked Will.

“Marell Unseven,” said the boy with a tight frown.

Will sat up.

“I knew a Marell, once,” he said. “In the Crosslands.”

“Yeah?” said the boy, his frown wavering.

“A good player, much like yourself.”

Marell looked down at the harp in his hand, then stepped forward and offered the instrument.

“Keep it,” said Will. “We may need it again. Now come help me find your father’s frames.”