Pelufer in the Hauntwood

An excerpt from The Binder’s Road.

Pelufer listened long at the edge before she stepped into the bonefolk’s wood. Names would come off her, too many to muffle with the tattered kerchief she held bunched by her mouth. She had to be sure no one living was around to hear.

Her heart was pounding too hard to count beats. Her breaths came almost as fast. She couldn’t gauge time that way. So she sat amid the rustling whisper of dying trees until her heart slowed, and her breath slowed, and some inner sense told her it was safe.

The trees were alive the last time she’d been here. Old-growth stands of yews and pale-barked, silver-leafed bonewood. The forest had been a lush, dark greenness, redolent of resins and rich earth, alive with the trills and flutter of nightbirds. There had been no names before that. The last time she’d been here was when the names had first come. It was the night her mother died.

She could feel the border. If she leaned forward, bubbles roiled and expanded in her belly, in her veins. If she leaned back, the pressure eased. She’d come the long way round, avoiding the logging track where keepers might be carting bodies. She’d crept up the path beaten by countless feet avoiding the straight route through. You were supposed to say benisons if you went through the spirit wood. You were supposed to honor the dead. If you were in a hurry, or if the forest scared you, you had to go around. If the forest would make you spout names like a poisoned fountain, you really had to go around.

Now it was time to go in.

She rose from her crouch and took a step.

Unease expanded inside her. She remembered this feeling. She had been six years old. That was five years ago. It felt as if no time had passed at all. The pressure inside, increasing, as if she were a small cask being filled by a stream. If she kept walking forward, the stream would become a river. Stay put or advance, either way she would overflow.

“I’m stronger now,” she whispered, to hear regular words come out. “I’m older and stronger now.”

There was no moon behind the haze above the trees. These were the spirit days. Her night-sight was good, but useless here in the pitch dark of a clouded, moonless midnight; she had to go slow, using her shape-sense to keep from blundering into trees.

She took another step, and the names began to come.

“Melledor,” she said. “Amtreor. Ofrander. Jimni. Morlor.”

Local names. She forced them down to a whisper, muffling them behind the cloth. Barely on the verge, and already so many that she had trouble snatching breaths between them. But she wasn’t even nearly far enough yet. The spirit wood was a wide band of trees around a glade. The glade was up ahead somewhere. Three ninesteps? Four?

“Aifrin, Nomulor, Bardor, Donfa,” she said, gasping. “Jimurin, Ofalador, Feraille, Andorlin…” She had known some of these people, they had been shopkeepers and traders—one a friend of her mother’s, she thought, one a trading acquaintance of her father’s, but she couldn’t hang on long enough to be sure, more kept coming, there were too many— “Anondry, Nemolle, Belu, Noluorin…Valenya, Erileka, Herik, Fesalyn…”

Their lives eddied in her mind like mists, rolling and merging. Cobblers and coppersmiths and fullers and tinkers and bakers, herders and wheelwrights and hillwomen and chandlers, publicans and ironsmiths and carters. Too many lives, too many to hold. So many waysiders crowding in, so much unfamiliar. Snatches of attitudes and customs she could barely understand.

Run. She didn’t think the word, there was no room for it in her bursting mind, but the impulse went through her limbs like a thread of lightning. Her legs and arms twitched, then jerked her around. She gritted her teeth and turned back and made herself take another step. The third step.

The rush of names came on so strong that she went to her knees in the hard bracken. This was why she ran. She always ran before it got like this. She dragged in air and was still saying names on the inbreath. It was almost funny, she used to make her baby sister laugh by talking this way except it always ended up making her feel faint and burpy and she’d have to stop because her head was spinning and her chest hurt. Her head was spinning now. Her chest hurt.

She could go on. There was no one to hear. No one to learn the secret. She dropped forward and crawled. Leaves crumbled and twigs broke under her palms, bracken crackled. Names gasped out of her and sobbed in. She was getting breath. She was dizzy but she was getting enough breath to go on.

Lives tumbled over each other inside her, knowledge she didn’t want, couldn’t contain, until she couldn’t have told which snatches of memory went with which names. The feel of a baby’s hair. A dazzle of polished copper in sunshine. Burning heat, fevers, retching, agony. Jagged lances of heartbreak at leaving the world behind crossed spikes of ecstasy she couldn’t comprehend. Triumph and despair. Highlit glimpses, like dapples of sunshine through the nodding canopy of a living forest. Here a perfect golden droplet of joy, there a setting stain of guilt. The dead were all shreds and flutters, little bits left over of the most intense moments in their lives, and ordinary moments that lingered for no good reason, the damp beaded coolness of a tankard of ale on a hot day, a puff of choking dust along a roadside, that time the kiln cracked and the sound it made, the way he gazed out over the water with sunrise pink and gold in his hair, the reek of a bad oyster. “Beoni Luander Altreille,” she said, the names running together into one name, then coming so fast and hard and insistent that she couldn’t get a whole name out or absorb a vision before the next came. The names were only impulses stacked one atop another but none of them able to come forth whole, and she was choking on them, her mind a shifting wash of sensation and memory—

The names stopped.

She dragged in a long searing breath and coughed out mist. She raised her head into a deafening silence.

Her hands and knees were bleeding. Cold particles of water brushed her face, fog rolling through the woods. She blinked drops from her eyelashes. Her hair was plastered to her head. She breathed again, her throat burning, and coughed until she retched. Her lungs hurt. Her heart hurt. Her belly cramped, then eased.

She got to her feet, reaching to steady herself on the trunk of a yew. No rough bark came under her hand. There was nothing to hold on to but mist. Disoriented, she stumbled. Her heart took a dip. Where had the trees gone? There was nothing but tumbling gray going to white. The way the mist moved suggested open space. She had come full into the bonefolk’s glade. Lost in the roil of names and lives, she had crossed the distance between without knowing it.

Without turning, to stay oriented, she made herself take a step back the way she had come, to see if the whole thing started again. It didn’t. No names. No lives. No memories, no other-selves. Just the slow drip of condensed fog. But another step back, and another, did not bring her to the edge of the trees.

All right. She was in the middle of the glade, that was all. She could cross it in any direction and find the periphery. It would be hard to find the path she’d come in by, but the logging track was wide and clear and it ran right past the glade. She’d never been in so thick a fog, but eventually it would lift, the mists were always fickle. And if it didn’t, how much harder could it be to feel her way in mist than in dark? Why should fog make her feel lost when night didn’t?

Night. It was no longer night. The mist was too pale for that. A bolt shot through her gut: her sisters would miss her when she didn’t return at dawn. How late was she? How far out of the night had she come while the names and selves were roiling inside her?

She couldn’t waste more time wondering. There was work to do. She got back to her hands and knees, grunting in denial of small pains, and began to feel her way through the bark and leaf mold. There were small things growing here. Things that could root shallow in the fog-damped bracken, things that didn’t need the deep watering of rain or poisoned streams but could live on mist, in the clean topcover of what had fallen. Mosses and mushrooms. Little greennesses, tiny living viny stems and leaves.

And between them, down in among them, metal things.

The bonefolk consumed flesh and fibers. Here were all the things they left: stones and buckles, knives and chisels, the oddments folk carried in their pockets and stuffed in their belts, the kind of oddments she and her sisters made a trade of. She had to take care with the blades—most were rusted, and a rusty cut would make you ill. She found entire collections of stones, scattered near each other when some player’s pouch dissolved in a boneman’s arms. Pairs of shoe buckles. A whole set of artisan’s tools. Something metallic and strangely warm, a sinuous rounded weave that after several breaths she recognized as the pendant of a person of light.

She stuffed her belt and pouches, filled her pockets. It was an unthinkable bounty, far more than she’d imagined. Other pendants. A ring with a graven face. Rings with cut stones set in them and braided metals. Waysider things that keepers would have confiscated if they’d found them. She should have come to this glade long ago.

There were no dead here. Only dry, drifted remnants of memory, like the dead leaves she was crawling around in. Leftover mists, that clung to her for a while and then burned off. She could brush them off, like stray hairs or lint.

The fog was thinning, rolling off townward. She planted one foot in the forest’s detritus and pushed herself up with the other, rising victorious, laden with riches. She’d come battered but triumphant through her night of struggle. She’d faced the worst and bested it. She could see the trees now, see where they went sparse between the glade and the logging track. She sauntered toward the track, shaking the stiffness from her limbs, even whistling a little, low at first and then stronger. Whistling was forbidden, and added a delicious thrill to her victory. At the trees’ edge, she kicked up drifted leaves in a gleeful flouting of sound, reckless and free. She whirled to scatter them with her foot so she could watch them flutter back to earth, harmless.

Her eye was drawn up by a differentness in the tree-shapes across from her.

There was a man standing in the yews and bonewood, a third of the way around the glade’s edge.

He stood very still, but hipshot, relaxed, ready to move in any direction on a breath. His face was shaped like a hatchet, more severe for his long hair pulled tight and bound behind his head. She could not gauge intent from the cant of his body; he intended everything, and nothing.

He was the dangerous man who’d stood in front of her on the water queue. He’d claimed to be a healer, but he wasn’t wearing mender’s white, and now she saw a hint of grip and crossguard to one side of his head—a longblade strapped to his back.

She stood frozen in surprise for one breath too many. Fog billowed in and obscured him, and in the next moment he wasn’t there. He’d moved silently in rustling, crackling underbrush that did not allow silence.

Pelufer bolted. The fog had come around her now, it flowed and ebbed in waves, but she had a beeline on the logging track. She thought she’d have a jump on him—

He was standing in the grooved ruts of the track. He lunged into an impact that drove the breath from her. He bore her back into the clearing, pushed her down onto her rear. Bubbles were rising inside her. Her limbs were nerveless as she waited for air to come back into her. It felt as though it never would. The pressure was an agony with no breath in her to vent it. A sore spot bloomed on her breastbone, and her eyes rolled up, caught sight of what she’d crashed into—a sheathed knife at his belt. She wanted to reach for it, but she couldn’t move for lack of breath.

Suddenly she was dragging in air, and on the outgasp came “Deilyn, Niseil, Astael, Sowryn.” Sharpness, agony, rage…She swayed back, and the man crouched before her and took her by the shoulders and shook her, and “Vaen, Coenn, Daeriel” spewed out, and none of these were the glade’s names, they were names she’d never heard before, alien names, and he was shaking her and saying, “What are you?,” and she said “Yours, they’re yours, they’re yours,” babbling, insensible with horror, the shrieking pain of all those violent deaths.

The glade went abruptly cold. Pelufer could feel it in her skin. The living heat had been leached right out. The man flowed upright, drawing his knife in a silken whisper, eyes scanning the clearing, the trees. Pelufer crimped away from him, pushing with the heels of her hands and feet. “Stay put,” he snapped.

It was a deep, dangerous command that compelled her to obey. But a queer warmth was growing inside her, offsetting the deathly chill. A profound sense of safety. It was the feeling her insides got when her father’s arms enfolded her. She felt the cold now as a kind of embrace, and the dangerous man and his wicked blade seemed to recede, moving out and away into a periphery of danger that couldn’t touch her, held warm and safe at its center.

An illusion, something told her. In moments he would grab her, he was just at arms’ reach and he was faster than anyone had a right to be, she wasn’t safe yet, but she could be—she was free to run, and what cupped her in its warming hands was the potential of escape, a pause in time, a breath of space in which options lay open to her in every direction, a sphere of possibility.

Go, you foolish child, she thought, a thought that couldn’t be her own, and she flipped over and scrabbled up into a tripping run. The man barked at her to stop. It carried such hard authority that she faltered, and turned, and saw him engulfed in a bank of cold fog that condensed impossibly from the thinning mists, an unnatural thing, thick and blinding.

Keeping him from chasing her.

Father, she thought, the voice of her own heart, as she fled from the glade the way she had come, bore down until she found the trampled trail, slipslid around its dew-muddy curves, skirted its sinkholes on hard tufts of poisoned yellow grass. Father! she thought, a wail of separation now, as the otherworldly cold and mist passed away behind her. She burst out onto the main road, barely dodging the hooves of mules, running back past a driver’s curse and a brake’s screech and rumbling cartwheels, back down the rutted road, toward town, safety, her sisters.

Father, she thought, slowing to a winded trot, then a walk as the shakes came on, the energy of flight drained. Of all the names she had said during the night, none had been her father’s, none had been her mother’s, though the spirit wood had them both. Her pains flared up, her scraped hands and knees, her bruised chest, her rasped throat, and there was no one to soothe them, no warmth of comfort at her core anymore, and for one moment she wanted to turn, go back, find again that touch of her father in the forest of the dead.



Cover of the book The Binder's Road