They clattered across the rocks beside the river, Will dragging the frame and Marell carrying four pouches.
“Nerve!” shouted Will.
Nerve stood waist-deep in the river. Emma hissed and squirmed against his grip. He spared a glance at Will and Marrell.
“I’ll set the frames,” called Will over the noises of river and child. “Bring her once I’ve laid the River.”
Marrell proved a capable helper. Will carried the frames to their positions, but the boy set them into the careful alignment required to ensure that the Bridges crossed the Rivers without a break. Will thumped the wooden troughs into place underneath. Marrell shook his head and tugged at the trough in the middle. Will studied the trough, his eyes flicking towards the boy, who pulled at the thing more insistently. Will reached out hesitantly to adjust its placement, but withdrew and turned to face the river instead.
“Marell doesn’t like the Cataract,” he said.
“He wants you to fill it up,” said Nerve, who had nearly reached the bank. Emma lay moaning and twisting weakly in his arms, her strength sapped by the river’s steady current.
Will dragged the trough down the bank and lay it in the current on its side. Nerve waded towards him with Emma. The girl strained against her uncle, and the big man was hard-pressed to hold her. Will righted the trough, which floated, half-full. He held it steady against the current as Nerve wrestled with Emma, finally pinning her in the box.
“You brought flint?” asked Nerve.
“Your boy has the powders and the sparks,” replied Will. “Is she…?”
“She will be steady,” said Nerve, “even if it takes my other hand to make her so.”
“No!” said Marrell.
“It won’t come to that, Marrell,” said Nerve. “I’ve got helpers this time.”
Will stared at the man, eyes fixed on the other’s ruined face. After a moment, he looked down at the girl, who lay surprisingly still in the water, her small form half-covered despite the trough’s shallowness.
“Can you take her?” asked Nerve.
Will stepped out into the stream, put his lips close to Emma’s ear and began to murmur a song. Her eyes cleared. She pulled herself tight against the big man and pressed a cheek to his. Her song joined his, though her small voice quavered and she shook with the effort.
“We’ll need to drag the whole works back up,” said Nerve, pointing towards the frames. “Have you set the powders?” he asked Marell.
The boy nodded vigorously and pointed at lines of coloured dust running shaky lines above the sides of the trough of water. Nerve inspected the handiwork quickly, laying a finger beside the powders, shaky edges straightening as he worked. He hoisted the Eastern Bridge, sparing a glance back towards the man and the girl in the river.
“Is she steady?” asked Nerve.
“Steady enough,” Will said, then returned to his song.
Nerve dragged the wooden works back up onto the rocks and looked for a clear patch. He set his son to carrying mud and sand up from the river bed. Marrell’s little-boy grunts soon filled the spaces between Will’s song and the steady trickles and thrum of the river.
Meanwhile Nerve set the Frame aside and began to build himself a patch of level ground. With his blackened hand he swept the larger stones out of the middle, then with his good he arranged them into lines at the edge of a space only he could see. Every so often he would take the bucket from Marrell and pour the mud and sand out, filling in the holes that small rocks could not. The Footing took shape before him.
As the sun crawled across the sky, the mud began to dry and harden. Cracks showed, and Nerve patched them, sometimes with mud and sand, sometimes with a little powder from the bags his son had brought. The little space became a big one, and the brown was crisscrossed with streaks of orange, green, silver and gold.
All the while William of Parsh held Emma Unseven steady in the current. The sun held no comfort for him; the Thrum beat its rhythm against his legs and its cold drew out his strength slowly, slowly. He pinned Emma in the water whenever she became unsteady, and he sang to her when she quieted. After a while he could not help shivering, and as the tremors grew he changed his songs to match. By the time the Frame was set and Nerve climbed back down towards him he was simply ululating in a voice like some nightmare bird, sinking low in his chest to well above his eyes and back again, over and over, a sound full of pain and effort and a note of panic.
“Need to carry her up,” said Nerve, taking an end of the trough.
Will changed his song once more, forcing his voice low and steady. His hands ceased to shake.
The men lifted the girl, water, and trough, stepping carefully up the rocky slope. Will’s voice began to strain as they climbed. Nerve stared up the hill and kept a tight grip on his end.
“Stop,” said Nerve, then gestured to put the trough down.
Will’s voice broke, then, and his hands failed. Water spilled out, and the Wild rushed in, its presence nearly palpable. Nerve strained to right the trough even as his niece scrabbled towards him. For the second time that day, Will recoiled from the sound of the Wild screeching out of a human breast.
A song spilled over the bank then. Marrell played his mother’s Bending, his small eyes wide but his hands steady. Emma turned away from Nerve and began to hurl the sound back up the bank, her voice twisting the notes into awful shapes. Marrell stepped back and stumbled to the ground.
“No!” cried Will, but Emma was already gone, her youth lending dexterity to the Wild within her.
The girl crashed into Marell, who was younger and smaller than her, and tumbled him farther from the bank. He pulled the harp to his lips, but she knocked the instrument away. It flew out of his hands and rattled across the rocks.
Emma hissed against the boy’s ear, and he screamed. She sang into him, her voice a staccato of sharp notes. Marrell rocked and thrashed under her. She squeezed hard against him and her voice seemed to split, each note seeking a place within him.
The men, hands over their ears, scrambled clumsily up the bank. Nerve came first, slowed by the girl’s Wildsong and the avalanches of mud and stone dislodged by each step and by the inability to balance while protecting his ears from the noises which assaulted them. Will followed, slower, still shivering, still gasping for breath, his limbs stiffened by his long ministration in the river.
“Sing!” shouted Nerve, flicking a hot glare over his shoulder. Will stopped climbing and shook his head, his hands held firmly in place.
“Won’t help,” he rasped. “She’s too far gone. Him too.”
Nerve shot a look of hate at the bigger man, and gave up on shielding his ears. He hauled himself up the river bank, calling his son’s name.
Marrell, his eyes like mirrored gold, shot over the rim of the bank and into his father. Nerve caught the boy and wrapped his good arm under Marrell’s jaw, stifling his Wild-sounds. Marrell kicked and grunted and clawed, but Nerve held on and wrestled the child towards the Frame.
Will heaved himself up the bank after them. He stopped just below the rim and scanned the top. Emma was nowhere to be seen. He closed his eyes and lowered his head, and he stilled his still-rasping breath for a moment.
A rock clacked behind him, and he turned, but Emma was already upon him. He threw his weight down the slope. The girl’s head slammed against the embankment, and the pair tumbled into the river once more.
Nerve, meanwhile, had dragged his son, twisting and spitting, towards the waiting Frame.
“Will,” called Nerve.
“Will of Parsh!”
Only the steady sound of the river broke the silence.
Nerve, his burned hand nearly useless, fumbled with the bags of powders his son had set out for him. He poured more shaky lines along the edges of the wood. Marrell had fallen silent and still. Nerve held his son tightly, careful to leave the boy a little breath.
He finished the lines and paused a moment, surveying his work. Small clouds of dust drifted around the frame, and powder had slipped off of the wood into the air and onto the rocks beneath. He cursed his clumsiness.
Will sang then, his voice a rough-edged ghost.
Lay the line
O’er the Bridge
Clear your mind
Make your pledge
Light the flame
Draw the Wild
Burn the Frame
Cure the child
He lurched up the bank, Emma in his arms. Her hair was matted, wet, dark. Will’s arms, his face, his tunic showed red stains all over. He hove himself up, and his voice broke again and again as he carried the too-still child towards Nerve, who stood, shaking, tears coursing tracks through the dirt streaking his face.
“She’s no breath in her,” said Will, laying the little girl gently on the ground. “We must see to the boy.”
Marrell came to life. His father lost hold of him, and the boy twisted away and ran at Will, who still stared Emma’s unmoving body. The boy scrambled towards them, sinuous sound building in the air before him.
Will looked up. He held his hands before him, and only some reflex born of his long time Across let him bark a Turning. The boy, tumbled forward and landed on Emma’s still form. He began to speak into it.
Will covered his ears and drew breath.
The girl moved.
Nerve made a short sharp sound.
Emma sat up and began to sing. Her voice carried the wrong, ugly notes of a Bending, but they wove harmony through Marrell’s discordant noises. Will and Nerve glanced at one another, eyes wide. Marrell stepped off of the girl, and stood meekly beside her, offering her a hand. She took it, and the children stood facing the two men.
“Light the flame,” said Emma. Her voice had become two, one the Unseven girl’s voice she had always carried, the other a new sound.
Nerve stepped away from the girl.
“She’s Wild,” he said.
“No,” said Will, “Not Wild. Something else.”
Emma paused in her song. Marrell’s eyes went gold and he began to rumble. The girl sang again, and the boy quieted, his eyes showing black once more.
“Her eyes – silver,” said Nerve in a hushed voice.
Will knelt to look at the girl. Her eyes, once green, now shone with a grey so light and vivid that indeed they appeared to be made of silver.
“Emma Unseven?” Will said.
“Hi,” said Emma.
“Are you well?” said Will.
“I’m ok,” said Emma, “but it’s hard to sing and talk, ok?”
“Ok,” said Will. He stood and nodded at Nerve.
Nerve took his son’s hand and lead the boy to the Frame, then lifted him up onto the wood. The boy shook.
“I don’t want to burn,” he sobbed.
“Shh, now,” said Nerve. “You shan’t burn today.”
Will hauled the trough up the bank. He and Nerve began to heave it under the Bridge, but Nerve dropped his end and pointed.
“It’s cracked, Will. It won’t hold.”
“Patch it?” asked Will.
“Not a River-trough. They must be whole. We’ll have to do it dry.”
“Will that work?” asked Will.
“No idea,” said Nerve, already tending to the rest of the device, then, to Emma, “Keep singing, child, for the boy’s sake and mine as well.”
Emma held her song as the men worked. The effort showed on the girl, and the day’s strain on the men. Only Marrell, laid atop a wooden pyre, remained peaceful. All signs of his earlier distress seemed to have disappeared into the girl’s song.
Soon Nerve stepped over to stand near his son’s head. He kissed the boy’s brow.
“I’m going to light the Frame now,” he said.
Marrell whimpered then. Will tried to match Emma’s song, to lend his strength to hers, but the trick of it escaped him. Marrell began to snarl, and his eyes darkened. Will gave up and sang a countermelody instead. His bright notes surged against Emma’s dark ones, and her broken-heart-beat rhythm seemed almost to mend itself a little with his steady cadence. Marrell quieted once more.
Nerve cracked his sparker near the tinder at the base of the two Banks and stepped away, his body tight, poised for movement.
Flame licked up the legs of the Bridge. Marrell again began to make noise. His small voice swelled into many, and each burst into a screeching, growling chorus. Emma and Will strained to match the din. The flames twisted with the boy, wavered with his breath, surged and subsided with each fresh burst of noise.
The fire reached the tops of the Banks and began to creep towards Marrell, whose assault of sound redoubled. Emma’s voice cracked. She fell silent. Will, already hoarse, tried to carry the weight alone, but his voice failed him.
Marrell rolled then, too quickly for his father to react. He reached for the blaze, which met him in eager embrace. The boy’s movements pushed a line of powder into the Bank, and the frame exploded beneath him, dropping him into the heart of the fire.
Nerve, closest, got there first. A cry tore from his throat as he thrust his good hand and bad alike into the fire to pull his son out. The boy glowed in places, and cords of flesh hung between his father’s fingers.
Nerve thumped across the stones and skidded down the river bank into the water. Will ran after him, wheezing a warning. Nerve pushed his son under the water and steam billowed around them.
“Nerve-” said Will.
“Not a discordant word Will Parsh!” shouted Nerve, his voice trembling.
Emma screamed, and Will turned to find her. The girl had collapsed, her face pressed down, dangerously close to the burning wreck of the frame. Will wrapped his head with his still-wet shirt and ran towards the fire.
As he turned the girl over, Will cursed. Emma had landed with one side of her face against a still-glowing board. The skin of her cheek had burned through in places, and her brow and lash had disappeared. One eyelid hung loose, clear jelly squeezing out from under it.
“Ah, girl,” said Will.
Emma opened her good eye. The silver shone through for a moment, piercing and strange, but then gold rolled inwards, and she began to spit misshapen words. Her ruined cheek leaked air. The
Wildspeech gave Will an itch, but hardly more than that.
He carried the girl, still spitting and hissing, down to where her uncle held his son in the cold waters of the Thrum. The big farmer’s shoulders shook, and he paid no mind to Will or Emma.
“How is the boy?” asked Will as he immersed Emma in the water, careful to keep her nose above the surface. The girl stirred more strongly and began to cough and make wet drowning noises. Will lifted her until only her feet still dangled in the water. She coughed and cried against his shoulder, whispering ruined Wildsounds. Will stood, shivering and watching.
Marrell lay in the water suspended in his father’s hands. The boy’s burns blended into the father’s. Already the child’s flesh had taken on the blue of death. Nerve had removed the ruins of his son’s clothing, and strands of skin trailed away gently in the current. Nerve’s breath came in wracking sobs. He stared into his son’s sightless eyes.
“Nerve?” said Will. The other man offered no response.
“Uncle Nerve,” slurred Emma in several voices. Will held the girl away from himself. Her irises shifted from black to silver to gold as he watched. Will shook his head and pressed the girl against his chest once more, stroking her ruined hair.
“Uncle Nerve,” said Emma, in a voice momentarily her own.
“What, girl?” cried Nerve, turning away from his son at last. His eyes bulged, heavy with tears, red with broken vessels.
“Lay him on the bank, please.”
“He’s all burned up, Emma,” said Will quietly.
“Let me down, please.”
“I can’t let you down right now Emma. You aren’t steady.”
“You have to let me down!” she squealed, her voice shattering into a chorus of shrieks. Her eyes shone gold, but she did not struggle. Will considered his options.
Nerve pulled his shirt off clumsily and wrapped Marrell up. He lay the boy on the mud just above the water line.
“Let her go, Will,” he said.
Nerve punched Will then, doubling the fat man over, and the river swept Will’s feet from under him. Nerve pulled Emma out of the water. Her eyes stopped shifting and they filled up with gold. She bubbled over with sounds. Nerve lay her beside his son. Air puffed out of her ruined cheek, but she was already learning to shape the sounds. Nerve scratched his head and stepped back into the water.
Emma turned and leaned in to whisper in Marrell’s ear. Her voice became a slither of breath punctuated by clicks and spit-sounds.
Will regained his feet.
“Nerve, you don’t know what this is.”
Nerve raised red-rimmed eyes.
“It isn’t death, Will. That’s enough.”
The men stood apart for a moment listening to Emma speak. Marrell lay still, blood oozing out of his wounds.
“I’ve seen many a strange thing in the Crosslands. I’ve seen a ghost of a man sing to bring a wolf to tears and then wander away with the thing. I’ve heard what might seem like every Bending that could be sung by a man outside of a tale. I have done things -”
“It doesn’t matter, Will,” said Nerve, his eyes locked on his son’s face. “None of it matters now.”
Emma poured song into the boy as the sun swept another arc above them. She writhed and cackled. Her voice crept into everything and seemed to resound, so that the men had to lower themselves fully into the water to still the serpent slithering under their skins.
Still the boy did not move.
They grew cold there, though it had seemed they might never be cold again. The Flame Cure vanished into memory, and the cold began to scrub it away even from that dark space.
Finally Will slogged forward, his eyes fixed on Nerve. The other man gave him no notice. Will stumbled past him, out of the water.
“Will, the Wild-”
Will shot a glance back at Nerve, who fell silent.
The girl stopped, turned, her eye showing pure darkness, though tears glistened around both sockets.
Will drew breath, and he sang.
Weary day’s work is done,
All come home.
Now the harvest is won,
All come home.
Nerve stifled a sob and joined in the Mourning.
No more we’ll see the sun,
All come home.
Weary day’s work is done,
All come home.
The men staggered towards the children lying on the bank. Will lay a hand on Emma’s shoulder. She looked up at him, eyes once more the color of silver, and began to sob.
“Why didn’t it work?” she gasped between snuffling sounds.
“I don’t know, Emma,” said Will. “I don’t understand anything that has happened today.”
Nerve sat beside his son and buried his head between his knees. His shoulders heaved.
Rose exploded over the bank and into her husband.
Will grabbed Emma’s hand and pulled her with him into the river. He waded past the shallows into the current. The girl, catching his intent, struggled.
“We can’t leave uncle Nerve!” she shouted, her words slurred by her wounds.
“I’m sorry, girl,” said Will. “We can’t save him.”
“We have to try!” said Emma.
“I truly am sorry, Emma, but we have to go.”
Will pushed off the bottom then, arm tight around Emma’s waist. They bobbed and drifted, then a curling tendril of current took hold of them, and they were pulled out of the shallows. The water carried them quickly away from where Nerve and Rose still fought. The bank rose to cut off the sight, and Will released a breath.
“He moved!” said Emma.
“The little boy moved! I saw him! We have to go back!”
“Emma, Marrell is gone. I am sorry. We can’t go back. Nerve will be Wild soon. Your aunt is too far gone.”
Emma seemed shocked for a moment.
“But you’re tested! You can beat the Wild!”
Will wept, and the girl stopped talking. Her eyes grew wide as the man flailed against the water, fighting their way back to the bank. Finally they reached the shallows, and Will stumbled the rest of the way to shore. He pushed Emma away from him and sat heavily in the mud, spluttering and snorting.
“What’s wrong? Why are you sad? Why did you leave my uncle Nerve all alone?” asked Emma.
Will covered his ears with his hands and wheezed, rocking back and forth, his eyes fixed on the muddy river bank. His wheeze became a hum, and then a song.
Three under the ground
Three times he made no sound
Three times to wildness bound
Fear kept him alive
Feared, betrayed, survived
Fear his testing shrived
F’fear he skived
Two thoughts in his head
To live or to be dead
Two words he had said
T’Wild he pled
Cease your weary voice
Cease your weary mind
Cease to make the choice
Cease, then bind
One now e’er askew
One who’ll ne’er be true
An err begets his due
One bore through
Wild upon his soul
Wild and broken whole
Wildness takes its hold
Wild but whole
“You’re a Shatter?” said Emma in a whisper.
“I’m neither tested nor broken child. I’m like you, something else.”
“You aren’t like me!” shouted Emma. She ran up the bank and slipped through a fence. Will remained where he was, shivering.