“Why would you sing your own Breaking when we need them?” demanded Eliza.
Will returned her stare, his face tight.
“They are my people, Eliza, and -”
“Mine too!” she said. “But I didn’t sing my mother’s Bending at them!”
“They were mine long after your father took you across,” said Will. “I know that you count this place home, but you sevened in the Crosslands. I sevened here. I nearly stayed.”
“Hard to imagine,” said Verick, who was carving a sigil into a horse’s stall door. The horse behind the door whickered nervously.
“I haven’t always been the man you know, Verick.”
“Thanks be to harmony for that,” said Verick, folding his knife’s blade away. He turned to Eliza. “It’s ready.”
“You needn’t do this -” Will began.
“Shut up,” said Eliza, already in motion. Her feet thudded in the dirt, sending up tendrils of brown dust. The tendrils crept upwards and began to drift outwards, filling the air around her.
Verick reached a gloved hand into one of his pouches and drew out a pinch of fine grey dust. He held his breath and moved his fingers slowly, carefully, until they hovered before his lips. Then, with a puff of breath, he sent the grey to join the brown.
Eliza whirled, sending the dust curling through space. Verick shouted and backed away as she laughed. Some trick of her movement kept the two colours twisting about one another without intermixing.
“This would work better if you gave a song,” whispered Verick.
“It will have to work without one,” said Will, stepping away from the spreading clouds.
“Verick!” Eliza said, moving towards a stall door.
The thin man unclasped his knife once more and cut away a strip of his shirt. He held the cloth against his nose and mouth as he stepped towards his companion.
Eliza moved within the eye of a dervish of grey and brown dust. Her breath and her fists punched holes in the cyclone, sending dust curling towards the horses. The beasts stamped and snuffled, but held their places as the dust encircled them.
Verick waited by the stall door, his eyes fixed on Eliza as she turned and turned again, with each step drawing nearer, and with her the laden air.
Eliza turned once more, then stopped. The dust continued its corkscrew around her. She stretched a hand towards the thin man.
Verick slashed through the cloud and carved a line across the palm that faced him. Eliza turned with the cut and slammed the blooded hand against the sigil. With her other hand, she punched the air above the stall door. The dust enveloped the head of the horse within, and the creature screamed. The sound cut through the cloud, and Eliza whipped another tendril, turning and pulling as if she worked a lasso. Still the horse’s screams cut through the air.
“It ain’t workin,” said Verick, “You got to sing!”
Will shook his head. “I’ll have no part.”
James’ and Balenn’s voices sounded outside the barn.
“Will,” hissed Eliza, “we need your voice, now!”
James shouted across the yard. “All well?”
Verick stood very still, his still-wet blade slowly accumulating a grey and brown coating. He held his cloth against his face and blinked against the dust. He followed Will as the big man retreated to the door, his knife held in a killing grip.
“Nervous horses, James! No doubt offended by strange and awful odours!” shouted Will.
“I can calm ’em if you can’t,” called James, closer still.
The horses screamed.
Father John was a fine old soul
and a man both good and strong
but he fell unwell and was forced to sell
all he owned for curing-songs
His lamp and his knife, his boots and his wife, and his seven children besides
And when he heard those curing-songs he wished that he had died
Father lay by the singer-man
his head full of shame and doubt
he drove his hand through the singer-man
and he tore his heart right out
The heart and the lungs, the eyes and the tongue, and the man’s golden tooth besides
But when he saw just what he’d done, he wished that he had died
Eliza danced, and the clouds coalesced and dispersed around her in turn, pulsing in time with the song. Eliza again lashed her hands out, hammering the door and the air.
The horse screamed, or at least it seemed to, but its voice no longer carried through the sludgy air.
“All’s well,” called Verick, head poked out between door and frame, knife held behind his back. “They needed a bed song, it seems.”
James stood halfway between house and barn.
“Are you certain?” he asked.
“As the Groaning Road,” said Verick.
James turned again, gesturing at his wife as he walked towards her. The two disappeared into the house once more.
A soft rustle in the hay loft disappeared beneath the whispered noises of recrimination that flew between the three crossers.
The crossers insisted that their hosts accompany them to the commons to receive the news with their friends and neighbours. The promise of word from the Crosslands had filled the space slightly more than usual, but still the three looked around them with clenched jaws and tight eyes.
“Are there more coming, do you think James?” asked William.
“Those as are interested are here, William. It is past time to share what it is you’ve come to say.”
William nodded at his companions and they moved together to the centre of the space. They faced inwards, three sides to one centre, and began to sing. Their voices made not words but terrible sounds, terrifying sounds, sounds out of joint with the world their listeners knew.
The lady began to dance. She stared blankly at those in the square as she moved, but her body began to do things no body should do, shuddering and contorting itself into ugly, broken shapes, shapes that offended the eye, shapes wholly unnatural.
The thin man reached into secret pockets and pulled out a pouch and a firestick. He poured the contents of his pouch into his mouth and struck the firestick alight against his saddle. He positioned its flame before his mouth and carefully blew into it. The flame danced and billowed and exploded as he sprayed his concoction through it. Suddenly the air was filled with the scent of death and unspeakable things.
The crowd erupted.
“What foulness have you brought here?”
“Darkness and death are for the Crosslands!”
“You’ll call the fever!”
The furor took time to quell. Eventually, the crowd began to quiet itself, turning its attention to the three crossers, now mounted at the gate to the commons, and the four folk who stood behind them.
“This is what we came here to show you,” said Eliza, her voice harsh and loud.
“There should have been others before us,” added Verick.
“What are you talking about?” asked James.
“The source itself is in danger,” said William of Parsh. Then, seeing confusion on the faces nearest him, he continued “The source of the Thrum, where the power of the world itself resides, the thing against which we are tested, the thing which allows the Homelands to exist at all.”
“The Crosslands, too,” muttered Verick.
“That doesn’t matter to these people,” said Eliza under her breath.
At the mention of testing those gathered began to murmur and stir.
“It’s me and mine they want tested,” shouted James of Kent. “Not all of us.”
A relieved whisper ran through the gathering.
“It’s true, we’ve come here for James and Balenn, Mary and Emma Unseven,” said William. The mention of the unseven girl elicited a burst of noises. “I know this is strange, but we are pressed for voices, and we are more pressed for time. If any amongst you would cross with us when we go and test, step forward. Already our numbers grow fewer – there should have been seven more pass through -”
“Nine,” said Verick.
“Nine passed through before us, then.”
“Nine crossers lost?” Balenn asked Eliza quietly.
“Nine choruses, each at least three strong,” said Eliza.
“Nine lost choruses?” asked Mary, her voice rising.
Word of lost choruses sent the crowd spiraling. Shouted questions filled the air. The noise quickly reached the edges of the town, and when it did a new sound rose above the cacophony, an irresistable low clattering sound, less heard than felt as a vibration in the flesh and bones of those assembled. It built and roared through the space, its tempo quickening in accordance with the cycle known everywhere simply as the thrum. The eldest amongst the crowd wept, transported suddenly back to a time, unknown by the mere adults around them, when this rhythm kept the people safe from half-remembered horrors. The younger ones simply gave themselves to the sound, listening and responding with what works they could manage, as they had been taught to do nearly from birth.
When the thrum was finished, Eliza of Alan edged her mount forward and spoke once more.
“Some of you remember something, at least. If you do nothing else but add your voices when the Wild comes to your homes, that may still be enough. But we will need voices to keep it on the far side, to preserve the Homelands. If they do not come from here then they must come from another place. None are safe until all have sacrificed.”
Balenn of Meiram turned to face her family and raised her voice to fill the space.
“We will test. None of you need make the same choice. Preserve our lands, for one day we may return.” She looked at Eliza. “Will that be enough for you?”
“I ask no more than is necessary,” said Eliza.
“You’ll not have my last born.”
“We-” began Eliza.
“That is your decision, Balenn,” said William of Parsh quickly.
“I must find her a place here before we can leave.”
“I believe I may have one,” said William. “Allow me til tomorrow evening to try.”