Chapter Two: The Thing in the Corn
There were three of them: Otter, Kestrel, and Cricket, who was the only boy. They were not related by blood, but they were close in age, and they’d grown up together like wolf pups. Now they were the oldest children of Westmost, they made a solid little pack.
On that day, they’d been given the work of pulling up last year’s cornstalks — muddy, messy, hard work — and they’d done quite a bit of it. But the gardens of Westmost were large, and the day was lovely: earliest spring, the Sap-Running Moon. There was a warm breeze and the sun was soft as a blessing, though snow still clung in the shadows under the pine trees. After the long winter in the lodges, such a day tempted them.
Kestrel had started it. There had been one thrown mudball, and then another —and then a storm of them, and a broken rake. And now they were facing down the cold and careful judgments of —
“Who started it?” asked Thistle.
Otter would never betray one of her pack to one of the stiff, serious adults of Westmost—particularly not this adult. Thistle was the chief of Westmost’s rangers, one of the most powerful women in the pinch, and the person who had given them the work in the first place. And, though Otter rarely thought of her so, she was Willow’s mother, Otter’s grandmother. There was something old and broken between Thistle and Willow. Otter did not know what had happened, but without even wondering, she took her mother’s side.
She would not turn in Kestrel. And even if she had, Thistle would not have believed her. Kestrel started it? Kestrel was dutiful and upright. Only Otter and Cricket knew how mischief would slip out of that sober exterior like a turtle poking out of its shell. Only Otter and Cricket knew: Yes, Kestrel started it.
“Well?” said the ranger captain. “Speak. Cover your eyes and speak.”
The three of them each covered their eyes. Otter saw Cricket sneak a sidelong look behind his lifted hand — over Kestrel’s head, his gaze met Otter’s. His eyes were dark and bright as a chickadee’s and he had mud streaked across his nose. Otter had to swallow her grin. “Lady Ranger,” she said, “I don’t know what you mean.” A clump of mud chose that moment to slide down the front of her shirt and plop at Thistle’s feet.
“Binder’s daughter,” said Thistle, “I mean there is a hoe broken. There is a field half-done.”
“I tripped,” said Otter. Cricket was trembling with silent laughter. Kestrel dipped her dutiful head and appeared to study the knots in the yarn that wrapped the foot of Thistle’s staff.
“You tripped,” said Thistle. “And your friends?”
“Helped me up,” said Otter sturdily. It was quite true. She left out that her friends had also knocked her down. Thistle put up both eyebrows. Otter, Kestrel, and Cricket stood united in their silence. Mud dripped from them, incriminatingly.
“Do it without the tools, then,” said Thistle. She took the broken hoe from Kestrel; Otter and Cricket surrendered their digging sticks. “These come from the forest. Such things are not without cost.”
And off she strode.
The three of them watched her go.
“There are tales,” said Cricket, tugging on one ear, “of a woman who was never young. I think I now believe them.”
“Are there stories you do not believe?” asked Kestrel as they walked back into the squelching corn. “I didn’t know.” Cricket was in love with storytelling. He’d been known to spin the wildest ones with a perfectly straight face.
“There’s one about a binder’s daughter,” said Cricket. “She tripped.”
Kestrel laughed her sweet and secret laugh, the one she used for them alone.
“It’s only a stick,” said Otter. She spun her yarn bracelets, making sure the mud hadn’t snagged them — a somewhat sulky gesture, in a place where yarn meant safety. Cornstalks, even the half-rotted ones of the end of winter, had a sullen grip on the earth. Clearing them without their digging sticks and rakes would not be easy. “A rake is bit of wood and a bit of bone. How costly can it be?”
Experimentally, Otter tugged at a cornstalk. It didn’t budge. It was lifted on its little roots, standing above a small cage of shadow, and it looked fragile, but it was going nowhere without a fight. Otter braced her foot against the corn hill and pulled hard. The stalk, of course, gave way suddenly, and Otter stumbled backward.
Cricket caught her. “Clearly, Otter, you are growing into a woman of grace and power.”
“There is still mud to throw, Cricket.” Kestrel was tugging at her own cornstalk, and she too was struggling. “I side with Otter,” she said. “Sticks” —tug— “are not” —tug— “so scarce.”
“Thistle is thinking only of your safety,” said Cricket. “I was planning a devastating surprise attack.”
Otter’s second stalk gave way then, and she fell again. The clots of earth tumbled down the little hill around her.
“Grace,” sighed Cricket, shaking his head, “and power.”
There was a clot the size of a snowball right by Otter’s hand. She threw it. It splatted against Cricket’s heart and slid goopily down the already-mud-slicked deerskin of his shirt.
“Tsha!” he said. “My hand was out to help you!”
“Grace and power, you say,” she said, rising to her knees among the clots.
Cricket’s eyes widened and he dodged backward, tripping and landing on his tailbone in the sticky mud. Otter was laughing even as she stood up, armed.
“Otter!” Kestrel’s voice was stretched between delight and caution. “Oh, Otter, don’t…”
Cricket was a pole’s length away, and the low spot gave him shelter. He stretched a hand behind him, seeking a clump of dirt.
Otter was laughing so hard it was bending her up like grief. She was hiccupping. Cricket fumbled, reaching — and in the place he was reaching toward, Otter saw something.
Something was resting in the nest of shadows under a cornstalk, something stirring as Cricket’s hand came near. Something gawk-stretched and ugly as a new-hatched bird with no feathers and skin over its eyes. Something that moved subtly, like the earth moving above something buried. Something struggling and starving. Cricket reached backward, fumbling toward the shadowcage, and the dark thing opened its dark mouth like a baby bird, like a snake. It opened so wide that if it had had a jaw, its jaw would have broken. Suddenly it was all mouth, and it was reaching.
There was one heartbeat in which Otter couldn’t move.
She was still hiccupping, though her heart had nearly stopped with horror. Kestrel shouted: “Cricket!”
Cricket grinned up at Kestrel, groping unknowing toward the shadow — and Otter dove to save him.
Anyone in the pinch would have counted her as a child. But it never occurred to her that most people would have dived the other way.
“Ware!” shouted Kestrel.
Cricket’s smile froze, his head whipped toward the warning. He was halfway to his feet by the time Otter hit him. She’d meantto knock him sideways, but because he was twisting she hit him wrong. He fell full backward, into the corn.
Onto the dead thing.
It vanished under him for a moment, and in the next heartbeat it was coming out of the muddy trail over his breastbone, where Otter’s latest mudball had hit him. It had pushed up through him like a shoot breaking free of a seed.
“Ware!” shouted Kestrel, her voice cracking then ringing out: “Ware the dead!”
Otter, meanwhile, had thrown herself backward, out of range of the uncoiling darkness. She fell into the cold, sticky mud — and Cricket gave a single raw scream.
A shadow fell across Otter and her heart lurched —but it was Kestrel, yanking her to her feet.
Cricket was thrashing. He managed to roll over onto his stomach, but the dead thing only moved with him, rolling him as a wolf rolls a deer, breaking now out of his back.
Kestrel’s fingers dug savagely into Otter’s arm.
Otter yanked free, pulling at the yarn that wound her wrists. In three drumbeats, she had the long loop hooked around her spread fingers and was making a pattern of crossed strings in the air.
Cricket pushed himself up on his hands for just a moment — and then fell, his face in the mud. By then, Kestrel had her bracelets free too. “Not the cradle,” said Otter, looking at the pattern Kestrel was casting. It was a cradle-star, the simplest of casts; done well, with intention and power, it could both detect and repel the dead. “Not the cradle — we have to pull it out.”
If they repelled the thing, it might only seep back down into Cricket’s body.
The fallen boy was gulping in panic, swallowing earth.
“I can’t cast anything else,” said Kestrel.
Very few could.
There was an instant when they simply stared at each other. Kestrel shot a look at the ring of earthlodges. From the ring, and from the river and from the ward gates, there came shouting and movement. Ware the dead, Kestrel had called. It would bring help running. But the garden was big and they were on the far side of it, just a pine’s length from the ward itself. Even Thistle had long since left them. It would be a hundred heartbeats before they had help. And Cricket did not have that many heartbeats left.
“Is there only one?” said Kestrel.
“I only saw one.”
That meant nothing. The dead were drawn together like raindrops into greater drops. There was never only one. Kestrel looked down at Cricket, at the shadows he was lying in, the little pockets and knots of shadow cast by the jumbled earth. Any one of them might have contained something hungry and nearly invisible, something deadly. And yet Kestrel dropped her bracelets, which were her only defense, went to her knees in those shadows. She lifted Cricket by the shoulders, jerking his head into her lap so he wouldn’t drown in mud. She took both his hands. She looked up at Otter.
And she said: “Pull it out.”