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Giving Ground : Another Step in the Wide Green World

Chapter Text

I – Spring

 

Fawn looked up from her sewing as she heard the outer door open. Arkady’s unmistakeable groan of relief on reaching the warmth of the house brought a smile to her lips, but the thump of boots coming off was delayed and after a moment he stuck his head round the kitchen door, frowning.

“Where’s Dag? I thought he’d have got back an hour ago.”

“He did, Arkady. He’s gone down to the creek.”

“In this weather?”

Fawn rolled her eyes. Two years had not reconciled Arkady to the Oleana climate ; what he’d have to say if he ever wintered further north she hated to think. “It’s not that cold today.”

“It’s snowing, Fawn.”

“Barely. Dag said he wanted to look at water.” She dimpled at him. “You could go tell him food’ll be on the table in half-an-hour.” And find out what the man was up to now. “He had his thinking look on.”

Arkady gave a long-suffering sigh. “To become a messenger-boy at my age. In a snowstorm. I swear my brain’s turned to plunkin.”

 

* * * * *

 

The falling flakes were few and far between, and the walk back from Ma Burrell’s had warmed Arkady nicely, so it wasn’t really much hardship to walk the four hundred yards down to Berry’s dock. Arkady had to admit, if only to himself, that the Luthlian furs Sumac had given him were marvellously warm, but how Dag endured sitting still in only his old patroller’s jacket was a mystery. He was at the end of the dock, feet dangling perilously close to the swift current of the creek, and doing something peculiar with his groundsense — again. He seemed to have extended himself in a shimmering cloud that crossed the creek. Unwilling to dangle his own feet any closer to the freezing current than necessary, or risk sitting on damp boards, Arkady squatted beside him and considered the structure that stretched from Dag’s arms into the water.

“That looks … cold.”

“It’s not so bad.” Dag’s voice was blurry, his concentration on his groundsense profound. “I’m looking at the water’s ground.”

Arkady raised his eyebrows, not that Dag would notice. The ground of water was so faint it could barely be perceived even by the most sensitive makers. “Why?”

“Because …  watch.”

Dag’s magery shows were never to be missed and despite the cold Arkady opened himself fully, extending his groundsense into the creek. Ignoring the bright, swirling shapes of small fish, the speckle of sessile crustaceans, and the flowing soup of tiny life even in this crystal water, he let his awareness drop to the level where the faint ground of the water twisted in its flow, like loose spiderweb in a breeze. Dag, he saw, had made his ghost hands — ground projections, blight it — into a net, impossibly fine, extending across the whole stream. And the net was contracting, slowly but surely, drawing the soup of life — no, not that, pulling ground from the water, spiderweb strands sticking to Dag’s intricately woven ghost fingers. As he drew it in snagged waterground thickened, becoming more perceptible. Where fish darted through Dag’s net, unaware of it, waterground was shaken loose, dissipating back into the current, but his catch was nevertheless substantial. By the time his ghost hands were cupped around a bucket’s worth of water immediately below his feet the waterground within it was palpable to Arkady, and even moderate groundsense might have perceived it.

Dag blinked, looking at Arkady as if his eyes too were underwater. “You wouldn’t have a jar or bowl, would you?”

Arkady fished in an inner pocket and produced a stoppered glass phial. “Only a small one.”

“So much the better. Hold it out?”

“Dag, you can’t …” Telling Dag what he couldn’t do was rarely useful and often misguided, as Arkady had repeatedly discovered. Wordlessly he unstoppered the phial and held it at arm’s length beneath Dag’s hand and hook, unsurprised despite its impossibility to see his extended ground contract still further, gathering the bucketload into a fraction of its volume and lifting it into the phial. Dag blinked again, withdrawing his own ground from the sparkling concentrate in Arkady’s hand and shivered with a satisfied look.

“Stopper that, and let’s get some food.”

“Fawn sent me to get you because it would soon be on the table.”

“Good.” Dag rose and stretched as Arkady put the stoppered phial carefully upright in his inner pocket. “It’s been a long day.”

“Yes. Ma Burrell’s not the easiest patient.” The old woman was more oppressed in spirit than body but the one took its toll on the other. Her only child, a daughter, had died in a bad malice outbreak the previous year only thirty miles outside Tripoint, and her granddaughter and son-in-law were still missing. Believing them alive in defiance of reason, she kept a candle burning in her window, and bedrooms prepared ; sleepless as often as not, she had managed to trip on her hearthrug one night and broken her wrist — in itself not that serious, but so disrupting her obsessive routines that her mourning ground had failed of repairing it in her turmoil. Arkady and Dag had been giving her reinforcements and urging the bone to knit for weeks. “Were you thinking of her?”

“Sort of.” Dag shoved his hand into his pocket. “I was wondering about making a ground tonic she could accept. We work on her wrist and arm but it leaks away into her sadness. But then I thought about where else I’ve seen something like that.”

Arkady controlled himself for a dozen paces. “Which was?”

“Eh? Oh, sorry. I meant blighted patrollers — those who’ve just killed a malice but not without taking hurt. Like Rase was on the Trace. You can’t reinforce their grounds — it’s not any one bit that’s damaged but all of it at once. I wondered if water … well, it’s taken up in everything, running in the blood. And reinforced, concentrated water …”

Despite the snowflake melting on his nose Arkady marvelled, knowing afresh why he had left his warm and privileged life at New Moon Cutoff. Not that Clear Creek wasn’t good living too, with Fawn in charge of it. They didn’t have the hands to farm Berry’s land properly, but Fawn’s kitchen-garden was a wonder, and their livestock had expanded to five cows, a dozen goats, any number of chickens with some turkeys thrown in, and pigs, so there were always fresh milk and eggs as well as meat for the table. Once his still had arrived with the rest of his goods, courtesy of Tavia and a small wagon, he’d also found himself making much more liquor than he’d used to, not so much for themselves and their guests, welcome as it was, but for sale in the valley and to the river-trade, at prices that had deeply surprised him, but not Fawn. A tithe of the extra coin had bought new apple, pear, and cherry saplings for Fawn’s orchard, as well as berry bushes for her garden that were already contributing to memorable tarts and pies, and a whole lot more. So even without the marvel of Sumac he had no real complaints, and if he did still sometimes resent the cold, he wouldn’t miss the excitement of seeing magery even for mild southern winters. Dag had been giving it to him ever since that first meeting at the rawpole gate, and here was yet more. He turned what he knew in his mind.

“Tonics have many ingredients. Could the concentrated water be enriched with … I’m not sure. Live ground from seeds and small fruits, maybe? I’m astonished you could gather the waterground without absorbing it. Could you rip a seed’s ground in the same way?”

“Yes. I found that out early on.” Dag frowned. “With the water, it’s like … remember Tawa Killdeer? When you told me to let my projection pass through her placenta?” Arkady could hardly forget such a triumph against the odds. “Your ground is pressing the flesh through its ground, and then you let it become porous to flesh and ground both? Half-way you touch the ground alone. That’s what I was doing to the water — touching its ground, but it’s movin’ all the time and some catches on my ghost fingers.”

Arkady thought about it. “Most people — most groundsetters, even — can’t really sense waterground at all, you know. It’s too tenuous and faint. As for touching it …”

“Oh, I don’t know. I bet they’re mostly trying lake- or well-water, not a good stream or river.”

“There’s a difference?”

“Surely. A lake’s not stagnant, exactly, but the shallow shores and smaller ones are pretty still. And full of distracting life. The creek, though, that’s another story, and the Grace even more so. It’s almost a making, and it does the work of making on the land itself.” He gestured with his hook at the low hills on either side. “The ground of the valley speaks of the water that carved it out, and the water remembers, in its way.” He fell silent until they were on the porch. “I’ve seen a lot of blight, new and old enough to be recovering, and I reckon water plays a main part in that. If the upper Gray was blighted the way they say in the First Great War, it recovered a lot faster than the Barrens, and the first growth on old blight is always where a river runs. Seems to me it’s mostly rain that’s healing the Barrens, and if we had enough of what’s in that jar, maybe we could even speed it along. Meantime, a little might help Ma Burrell over her blight. Worth trying, anyway.”

Arkady marvelled yet again at Dag’s propensity to confuse — or just fuse — saving one patient and saving the wide green world, even the bits of it already blighted. He shivered, remembering how the Barrens had sapped his groundsense, filling him with a constant unease at the denuded landscape ; all he had wanted was to be off such ground, but Dag saw it as a patient. Madness! But a madness that might yet ease Ma Burrell and many more. Shaking his head he followed Dag in, brightening as he heard Sumac’s laughter joining Fawn’s in the warm and fragrant kitchen.

 

* * * * *

 

More than four hundred miles north, not far from the eastern shore of the Dead Lake, a patrol leader lifted his head, nostrils flaring.

“Smoke. A campfire somewhere. Doni?”

The patroller with the longest groundsense range, a stocky woman in her sixties, stood slightly in her stirrups, head turning. “Nothin’ in my range, Bearfoot, but I smell it. Wind’s south-east.”

Doni’s range was a good mile but woodsmoke carried, especially in winter. It was a mile-and-a-half at least before she stood in her stirrups again and signalled to her captain. “Two men. Farmers. There’s a dog too, but no horses.”

“Up here on foot?” Bearfoot shook his head. “Wolfbait. Or malice food. We’d best run them south of the Line. Trappers, I suppose.”

“Fools.” Doni scowled. “Trappers would have mules. Can’t haul traps in or skins out on foot. And I can’t say I like their grounds, Bearfoot.”

“How so?”

“Dark. Muddy. I’m thinkin’ fugitives, maybe. We’d best take care.”

“Surely.”

What they found, advancing cautiously on three sides with weapons ready, was scarcely a camp — just a lean-to made of branches and the small campfire for warmth. Thin strips of meat — opossum, maybe — were curing on a frame of lashed branches but there was no sign of anything cooking. The two Farmers, unshaven and wild-eyed, scrambled up at Bearfoot’s challenge, staring tensely as they saw the patrol closed in around them. A skinny mutt crouched between them, showing its teeth.

“What are you Farmers doing up here?”

“What’s it to you, Lakewalker?”

“This is my patrol area.” Bearfoot looked unfavourably at the men, a younger blond and an older, dark-haired man. Not much older, though, and both had a look that stirred hackles on his neck. Doni was right about their grounds too. “And it’s a long way north of the Cleared Line. There’s good reasons folks don’t live up here.”

“If the wolves get us, that’s our look-out.” The younger man sounded sullen. “We’re doing no harm.”

“It’s not wolves that worry me.” Bearfoot dropped into his patrol captain’s voice, flat with authority. “You folks have to go south of the Line again. Pack up your stuff.” The effect wasn’t what he’d expected.

“You’ll have to take us by force, Lakewalker, and we’ll come right back.” The older man’s voice was as flat as his own. “And if you’re worried we’ll meet a malice, we already done that back south of your precious Line.”

Bearfoot’s brows snapped down. “Which malice? Where?” Belatedly he realised the Farmer hadn’t said ‘bogle’.

“Near Tripoint last year.”

Bearfoot nodded. “Heard about that one. Sounded bad.” He hesitated, remembering what else he’d been hearing. “You had some of those shields that medicine maker invented, maybe?”

“No, Lakewalker. We only heard about them after. We were mind-slaved until the malice was killed. That’s why we’re here.”

“Ah.” Bearfoot knew the complicated expressions on his patrollers’ faces were mirrored on his own. To survive mind-slaving could be worse than being groundripped. “Were you asked to leave?”

“No. We exiled ourselves from what we couldn’t stand no more.”

Bearfoot doubted it. What they mostly couldn’t stand would be themselves. He came to a decision, and dismounted. “If you can bear it, I’d be glad of your tale. It might help us sometime, when there’s another malice that gets that advanced. We’ll trade you food for seats at your fire, and see where we’re at in the mornin’.”

He saw the surprise on their faces. The younger man still looked sullen, but the older man squinted, then nodded.

“Alright. I wouldn’t wish my fate on anyone and I can’t deny it was Lakewalkers stopped the malice. We’ll build up the fire while you see to your horses.”

 

 

When Bearfoot eventually found his bedroll he lay awake for a long time. Much of the Farmers’ story had been more-or-less what he’d expected from the patrol report he’d read, and though neither had said it flat out it was clear that while mind-slaved they’d both done something — or many things — it made them gutsick to remember. Soulsick, too. They were here, without hope, only because they hadn’t killed themselves — and that might come yet. But they also knew a surprising amount about malices and sharing knives — Bearfoot’s first encounter with what must be the effects of that shield-making medicine maker, or mage, some said, who clearly had been spreading knowledge as well as making things. Even the grotesque story of a public bonding and priming, executing a renegade, seemed to be true.

The younger man — neither had offered names — had been the better informant about that, having had the tale from a riverman who’d been there. He’d been clear on who the renegade was, a Crane from Log Hollow, the source of the blank knife among Crane’s booty, and its rebonding and priming by the hook-handed medicine maker, helped by his Farmer wife. Everyone had been disturbed by the details, and more so when Bearfoot reminded them of the other patrol report concerning the use of that so oddly primed knife — cut down as a crossbow bolt, to kill the bat-malice of the Tripoint Trace the next year ; its use by a Farmer.

Both men had known something of that story too, but not the connection with the tale of the knife’s making, and the older man had looked more than thoughtful. He’d also given, flat-voiced, a startling account of being mind-slaved and of what the more recent Tripoint malice had wanted done. Ripping trappers as a sessile, its mindset had been to lay snares and ambushes, as the first Lakewalker patrol had discovered to its cost, but it had also appreciated very quickly that mudmen’s crude strength and the intelligent dexterity of mind-slaved men had complementary uses ; as it had understood its mudmen’s greater need for food and its mind-slaves’ for rest. All the women and children it had caught had been immediately groundripped, but after its initial feast of trappers, few of the men. And given its stolen impulses to trap and ambush, it had seemed to prefer enslaving to making mudmen, taking the whole village where these two had lived in a disturbingly skilled assault.

How they had escaped being among the many Farmer casualties that had accompanied the malice’s death wasn’t entirely clear, though they said they’d been posted as sentries in the right — or wrong — direction. But what was clear was that when memory had hit them as the malice died, they’d run, and never again stopped. Bearfoot and all the Lakewalkers could guess why, and none had said anything : that fate could come to any of them, as several of the most haunting ballads reported. And it left him with a problem, for he was loath to hogtie the Farmers and tote them better than two hundred miles south to company they didn’t want, but equally unwilling to leave them wandering these woods. True, they’d survived so far, in what had been a mild winter, but they’d been going hungry and he doubted they’d survive another. The dog had disturbed him too, sitting by the older man and, Bearfoot would swear, trying to assuage his pain with its loyalty.

More to the point, the tale of Crane’s sharing and its fate was a sore puzzle, and the role of Farmers in the making and use of the same primed knife smelt to him of more than chance. He suspected his camp captain would agree, and be glad to hear these men for himself. Eagle Creek camp received and read its patrol circulars right enough, but it was sufficiently isolated not to get much more news except from exchange patrollers ; and, all too clearly, things were happening in the wide green world. That was a decision of sorts, too — the Farmers went to Eagle Creek, and wiser heads than his could tackle the problem.

 

* * * * *

 

It took Dag most of a week to produce something he felt safe to try on one of the animals. Fruit had turned out to be a bad idea, and the resulting loss of concentrated waterground a salutary lesson, but the living spark of seeds, without any of their deeper ground, added sparkle to the little jars. Plunkin ears worked too, and Arkady suggested adding traces of salt and sugar. To his profound annoyance and Dag’s practical concern he couldn’t get the knack of transferring ground without taking it in, and had only given up when Dag and everyone else was ringed in mauve as he hit his absorption limit. Sumac’s quizzical regard had kept him from overdoing it again, but she as much as Dag was excited by the idea of a treatment for blightsickness and disappointed that it might prove impossible to make in any quantity.

Probing as carefully as they could with every sense but taste, neither Dag nor Arkady could sense anything potentially harmful in the tonic, and Verel, arriving on one of his regular visits from Pearl Riffle, stared at the unexplained jar with bemusement.

“I’ve never seen so much ground in a liquid. What is it?”

“Would you drink it?”

Verel sniffed, peered, and scrutinised. “I don’t see why not. The ground seems healthy enough, and has a … I don’t know, a shimmer, deep in it. What have you two been up to now?” Dag explained and Verel whistled. “Waterground? Concentrated with seedground?”

“And some salt and sugar. We’ve a patient — Farmer — who might benefit, but we were thinking of blightsick patrollers too, or survivors of near groundrip.”

“Dag was.” Arkady shared a look with Verel. “This one’s magery, not groundsetting.”

“So what do you want to try it on, Dag?” Fawn looked pensive as she chopped vegetables. “I don’t see there can be much wrong with it, but you say it’s very concentrated. Would you feel like you drank all the water that ground came from?”

“I hope not. Absent gods, you’d be trying to piss for a fortnight.”

Hope not? You’d best start with a drop, then.”

Dag’s brow wrinkled. “Right you are, Spark. And an animal that’s … run down. A big one, maybe. Do we have any worn-out horses, Sumac? They piss pretty well when they need to.”

Sumac didn’t look altogether amused, though Fawn and Verel clapped hands to mouths, Fawn’s eyes dancing, and Berry’s widowed Aunt Bess, stitching a new tablecloth by the fire, gave her gap-toothed grin.

“No.” Sumac cleared her throat. “Copper’s the oldest we have, and it’s not like he needs any peppering up.” There were more grins. “But there is Cap’n No-Rats. He’s surely run-down, and really not much use. I don’t begrudge him his food or a place in the hay-loft, but he’s what comes to mind.”

The elderly tomcat had spent a lifetime keeping Berry’s house and barn free of rats and mice — an undemanding task, as a flatboat-family had little business with horses or hay while several of his offspring patrolled the house and gardens. But the arrival of Bluefields and Redwings had made the stables a centre of horseflesh and reopened rooms unused for several generations ; the increased workload had coincided with Cap’n No-Rats’s retirement. The name was Whit’s, inevitably, and the tom’s age and evident joint-pains made it one of rueful affection rather than genuine exasperation ; but still.

“Now there’s a thought.” Dag looked at his wife. “Fawn?”

“He’s not very big. And if he has to piss everywhere you’re cleaning it up. No sudden one-handed helplessness.”

Dag grinned. “Fair enough. Can you summon him, Sumac?”

“Maybe. If he’s awake.” Her eyes lost focus. “Arkady?”

Across the table Verel blinked. “My word. What are they doing?”

“Sumac has patroller range, Arkady has groundsetter strength.” Dag shrugged. “They’ve found a way to … boost one another? I’m guessing Sumac can find Cap’n No-Rats and Arkady’s planting the persuasion.”

“That’s … alarming, actually. And wonderful. Could he groundset at a distance?”

“Uh-huh. They figured it out when young Omba was feverish and Arkady was stuck in snow half-a-mile away. Sumac reached him and he dumped a ground-reinforcement into Omba through her. I think it helps to be bloodbound so it’s not going to be a problem, I don’t suppose.”

“Cap’n’s coming.” Sumac grinned at Verel. “If it was a horse I could do it myself, but Cap’n No-Rats needs some of Arkady’s oomph. And Dag’s right — bloodbinding matters. If Pearl Riffle has any patroller–maker couples they could try, but we needed a reason beyond reason. Omba was really howling and I wasn’t sure what the fever was.”

“Huh.” Verel looked thoughtful. “Like Dag becoming a groundsetter when he had cause to reach beyond himself, maybe.”

“Pretty much.” Dag shrugged ruefully. “Spark taught me to care for the world again, and there’s not much of anything I wouldn’t do for Sparkle and little Omba. Nor Arkady.”

Verel hesitated but took the plunge. “I wondered partly because it chimes with some of the talk there’s been about your brother Dar. Folk hear what you’re managing to do, and they know he’s a powerful maker.” He swallowed. “The tale about what happened to your camp credit — well, Fairbolt’s patrollers have spread that far and wide, so Dar Redwing Hickory’s not a well-liked man around campfires these days. But folk wonder what he could do if he wanted.”

Dag frowned uneasily, as did Fawn.

“Dar’s no Dag, Verel, but he’d reach beyond himself for his family.”

“Would he, Spark?” Dag shrugged. “I’m sorry to say it, Sumac, but he didn’t for me, or for you. We’re both what Cumbia made us, one way or the other, but he’s rarely fought her, and not for a long while that I know of. I don’t doubt he could have become a groundsetter, Verel, but I don’t think he has it in him to be a mage, and it’s all water under the bridge now. He’s rising seventy.”

“He avoids conflict with grandmama at any cost, including conflict with everyone else.” Sumac’s voice was flat, not bitter, but her hand sought Arkady’s. “And that means agreeing he’s the finest knife maker in seven hinterlands even though he’s riddled with doubts, especially since Uncle Dag turned into a mage and all kinds of maker. When his bad name gets back to him he’ll be mortified, but not enough.”

The uncomfortable conversation was cut short as Sumac rose to let Cap’n No-Rats in. No persuasion was needed to have him twining about Dag’s feet, and he didn’t object to being scooped up one-handed and deposited on a lap, especially when clever fingers scritched his jaw. Extending his groundsense Dag considered the elderly cat carefully, seeing the signs of age in the stiffened joints and that slight thinning or clouding of ground that came with physical frailty. Ma Burrell’s grief was something quite else, but she too had that feel to her ground, and he nodded.

“He’s a good test. Pour some of that tonic out, Arkady? And is there any meat fat in the cold store, Spark? Something salty?”

A plate with a scrape of mutton-fat on it was well-received, and after some face-licking and paw-swiping Cap’n No-Rats was set down before a small bowl half-filled with the tonic. He began to lap, indifferent to the intent concentration of four Lakewalkers on his ground ; the denseness of the tonic could be followed as the cat swallowed, and after a moment Dag and Arkady both smiled.

“It is being taken up — see the sparkle flowing out from his gut?”

“And his ground’s already losing some of that thinness.” The bowl was emptied. “Are the joints easing too?”

“Some, maybe. That’ll take more time, I think.”

Even Fawn could see that Cap’n No-Rats was looking livelier, and after licking his face dry trotted to Sumac, stretched up, and hopped onto her lap, purring.

Aunt Bess blinked. “I haven’t seen him do that without squeaking in a while, so something’s working.”

“It surely is, Bess. And his ground is already better than it was.” Sumac stroked the old tom affectionately. “How long will it last, Dag?”

“No idea. A few days, maybe longer. Keep an eye on him and see if you notice it fading.”

“Gladly. How soon will you write to Fairbolt about this?”

“I’m not sure, Sumac. I can’t say I find it hard to make the tonic, exactly, but concentrating the waterground is time-consuming. Making enough for patrols would be a full-time job for half-a-dozen people.”

“I’ve been thinking about that, Dag. I don’t think it’s conceit to say that if I can’t learn to do it — or not quickly — not many will be able to. You should watch Dag at it, Verel, and have a go yourself. But I think what we need is a groundtrap — a muslin bag, maybe, with a very fine … groundnet, I suppose, set in it, like an open involution, to put in a freshet. Or better, in that little fall at the bank in the upper field.”

“There’s a thought.” Dag’s face scrunched in thought. “Making the net would be like making shields, then, so some wouldn’t be keen but I can’t see why it couldn’t be done, especially with muslin as a pattern. Nothing Lakewalkers weave would be fine enough. Have you tried?”

“No, but I will.”

“And I’ll watch, if I may.” Verel was still letting his groundsense play over Cap’n No-Rats. “Amma will be as interested as Fairbolt.”

“Of course.” Arkady shook his head, but he was grinning, as were Sumac and Fawn. “I’d like to see her face when you tell her you stayed to make nets for waterground, though.”

“Oh, we’re getting used to crazy things happening in Clear Creek, Arkady. We’re even getting to like them.”

 

* * * * *

 

The older Farmer’s questions at the end of a long camp-council meeting took everyone by surprise. The things both men had had to say had impressed even those initially deeply suspicious of any Farmer tale, and unless Bearfoot missed his guess badly Ando Woodpecker would be crafting a ballad of Renegade Crane’s sharing sooner rather than later. Mori Raven, the senior knife maker, had been the most openly disapproving, though even he’d conceded, shuddering, that a flying malice — and absent gods but Bearfoot hoped he never met one of those — justified a sharing bolt ; but it was to Mori that the Farmer turned, eyes hard.

“I’ve a question, Mister Knife Maker. A Farmer can help prime a knife and carve one down, and if a primed knife gets stuck in a malice it don’t matter who’s holding it or firing it. But the medicine maker who helped Crane share said only a Lakewalker’s death would do. Why is that? Don’t Farmers die the same as everyone else?”

Mori blinked. “Of course you do, but it’s not just the death. You lack affinity.”

“So how do I get it?”

“You can’t. Lakewalkers have it the same way we have groundsense. A knife might capture a Farmer death, I suppose, but it would be useless. The involution wouldn’t break open when it entered a malice.”

One of the medicine makers flashed her ground from among the listening crowd and Mori looked up.

“What about that business down in Raintree, though? That was a Captain Dag Redwing — another Dag, or the same one who’s stirrin’ everything up? The second knife there had been accidentally primed with a Farmer death, accordin’ to Maker Hoharie’s circular, and he added affinity to break the involution.”

“If you believe that.” Mori plainly didn’t. “And even then, that knife was supposed to have been stuck in him, while he was trapped in a dead malice’s survivin’ involution.”

“You couldn’t add this affinity for me, then, if I shared?”

The older Farmer’s words shocked everyone, and Mori recoiled.

“No, I couldn’t, and I wouldn’t if I could.”

“Why not?”

“It’s not right. And I tell you I couldn’t anyway. That circular made no sense.”

“And what about my bones?” The younger Farmer made a strangled noise of protest but the older man cut him off. “Could you use my bones to make a knife? Knives?”

Mori looked horror-struck. “Certainly not.”

You won’t? Or they won’t work?”

I won’t.”

“But they would work?”

Mori grimaced. “I suppose so. The affinity’s in the priming and the caught ground. But whoever was giving the heart’s death would have to choose your bone, and why should they?”

“Do you have so many bones available you can spurn some?”

“Enough. It’s primings we need, and you can’t do that.” Mori’s face worked. “And why you’d want to I can’t imagine.”

The Farmer’s face was bleak and defeated. “Be glad of that, Mister Knife Maker. From what I gather, you’ll never have seen a malice, will you? Well, I was closer to one than I am to you now, and I can still smell it. And its mudmen. One minute I’m living a normal life and happy with it, and three days later I wake up to a nightmare that’ll never stop, knowing I’ve done things no man should do and live. And you sit there, as ignorant as you are skilled, and look down your nose at me with horror for wanting to give all I have left to the war against malices.” He looked as if he might spit but restrained himself. “It’d be enough to make me wish you’d lose that war if I didn’t know what you’d lose it to.”

Whether Mori’s frozen features concealed rage, shame, or distress Bearfoot wasn’t sure, but his camp captain’s voice was gentle.

“I’m not lookin’ down my nose at you for that, Mister Farmer, nor for anything else in your tale. But I’m sorry — Mori’s right, so far as we know, and you’ll understand why we won’t risk a knife that might not work.” Both Farmers nodded, the younger man looking more relieved than disappointed. “Still, whatever Mori or anyone else thought of the reports and circulars about what happened in Raintree, and on the Trace, it’s plain enough that things are happenin’ in Oleana we need to understand. Even before it was mentioned I’d been wonderin’ if the company captain in Raintree was the same man who’s stringbound to a Farmer and settin’ up as a mage and groundsetter. And if he is, a one-handed company captain puts me in mind of another tale that may connect.” He paused, frowning. “But however that is, seems to me he might be the one you need to talk to.”

The Farmer nodded, face bleak again. “Maybe so, but he’s in Clear Creek, and that’s a place I’m never going, Captain. Not alive, not no how.”

“Ah. That’s a problem, then. But let’s see what morning brings. You’ve brought us a lot of useful news and we’ll not begrudge you food and a place for your bedrolls for a day or two.”

 

* * * * *

 

Cap’n No-Rats showed no greater than usual need to piss, and his increased vigour was still evident after three days. Arkady was experimenting with nets, and Verel had managed to wheedle a piece of muslin from Fawn, promising to continue his own attempts at Pearl Riffle, so it fell to Dag to take the first bottle of tonic to Ma Burrell. He would have liked to have had Fawn with him, but that would mean taking Nattie-Mari, now a fearless and exhausting toddler, as well as little Omba, a champion crawler, and the old woman knew and liked him well enough by now. Probably.

Up-and-down temperatures were settling into the spring thaw, and the rushing burble of the creek followed Dag up the hillside. Berry’s house and land were on the first rise, handily for the creekside building of flatboats in summer, and other rivertrade families had built houses at that level. But the planting and grazing farmsteads were scattered along the valley, most on the broad slope of the second rise, a patchwork of cornfields, and some on the rounded height of the third with sheep-dotted fields running into the vale beyond. Today the grey tatters of cloud had cleared and the sky was a high, pale blue, with a blustery wind that still had a nip to it. Neither the spring birds nor the return of Berry, Whit, and the crew were to be looked for just yet, but it wouldn’t be long and Berry’s sisterly presence would be a joy to Fawn.

Ma Burrell’s house was an oddity, a sort of townhouse with a stables and kitchen-garden stuck between two farmhouses on the second rise. It was a feature of the Clear Creek farms — a sensible one, to Dag’s mind — that they came in pairs, one with its land to the left, the other with land to the right, and usually only a single field between them, so families could visit. Burrell had been a Tripoint man who’d set up, forty years before, as a merchant at the mouth of the creek, and his shrewd sense of the available trade had made him both the main factor for Tripoint steelwork coming in — domestic goods, but more importantly ploughshares, scythes, and other tools — and the dominant middleman in the goods Clearcreek sent downriver beyond the capacity of its own flatboats, including corn and corn whisky. He’d also created what was still the best general store between Pearl Riffle and Tripoint, and a neighbourly attitude to credit had made him the nearest thing there was to a town banker — hence the out-of-town townhouse where his widow still lived. All his enterprises were now hers too, and until the loss of daughter and granddaughter, both latecome only children, she’d been an active overseer of her interests, presiding over the store with genial shrewdness of her own. Since then she’d mislaid the heart for it, and though all continued well under experienced clerks there’d been a deal of speculation about what might and should happen. Farmer views of inheritance were for Dag a fascinating study in the complications of being sessile, and in this case, with no obvious heir and the whole community feeling something important to them all was at stake, gossip had been vigorous and prolonged.

Most folk seemed to expect store and warehouses to be sold separately as what they called ‘going concerns’, an idea that gave Dag a headache. He could understand buying the material goods, the stock, and for the buyer to go into business for him- or herself selling them, but buying the ‘concern’ as such seemed very odd. Burrell had had a good reputation, surely, but that couldn’t be bought by anyone else any more than one person could be trustworthy in another’s place. Besides, the folks in Clear Creek wanted the store and the trading to carry on as they were, so why should a buyer pay extra for what his future customers would do anyway, of their own will? But it all seemed unexceptionable to most, despite gloomy predictions that the buyers would be some grasping fellows, also Tripointers likely, but with none of Burrell’s shrewdness or kindness, so everything was certain to cost more and pay less.

Fluctuation in the value of Silver Shoals crays and other coinage was another mystery to Dag, but he could see why folk got so worked up about it. If some strange shortage of horses had meant his camp credit — while he’d still had it — had suddenly been worth only twenty animals rather than forty he’d likely have taken notice too, not that there’d have been much he could do about it. But the real fear was that in her grieving, obsessive belief in the dead Ma Burrell wouldn’t make it clear what she wanted to happen before she was carried off by some winter chill, leaving everyone at the mercy of strange claimants who were sure to appear, thick as flies on a carcase. The Farmer way in which relatives nobody knew could arrive to claim a house — or a warehouse, with its stock and customers thrown in — without paying a cray, except for some stamped papers, was stranger still to the Lakewalker mind, but that the threat was real Dag had been left in no doubt. Ma Burrell’s fall had attracted many nervous enquiries, and both he and Arkady had found the privacy they owed any patient pushed to the limit as it became clear to all that her wrist was not healing as broken bones treated by the Lakewalker medicine makers usually did. Fortunately, the groundtruth of the matter was as evident as the old woman’s grief and understood well enough anyway, if not in those terms.

Row Blacksmith let him into the house — a sturdy girl of fifteen who earned her family useful coin by coming up daily to make sure the old woman was washed, fed, and entertained ; or at least, not alone with her thoughts.

“How is she today, Row?”

“No different that I can tell, Dag.” It had taken him a while to persuade her to his name, but he’d won her over easing a nasty burn-blister on her arm where cooking-fat had spat. “Too tired with grieving to heal and hurting too much to sleep well. Not that old folks often do. Granda’s for ever up in the night.”

“When the body shrinks, what makes for a good meal or a good night shrinks too.”

“Is that you, Dag Lakewalker?” The old voice was thin but still audible from the parlour, and didn’t wait for an answer. “Bring him on in, Row, and put a kettle on, there’s a dear.”

Row’s eyes rolled good-naturedly. “I already did, Ma, when I saw him coming up the hill. I’ll be along in a tick.” She made a shooing gesture at Dag. “Go on through and I’ll bring some tea.”

“And a clean glass, please, Row. I’ll want you too, to listen to something.”

“Me? Alright, then. Go on, now, or she’ll fret.”

Tapping gently on the doorframe with his hook Dag went in. Ma Burrell was in her favourite chair by the fire, which Row kept stoked, and looked as wan as ever. She lifted her good hand slightly in greeting.

“How de, Dag. You’ll forgive me not rising — I’ve no strength in my bones this morning.”

“You’ve little enough any morning, Ma. Fawn sends her best, and Sumac. How’s your wrist feeling?”

“Aches. My own fault for being so silly as to trip on my own rug.”

“Anyone can trip, Ma, but it’s true you’re not helping yourself heal. It’s your grief eating your energy, though, not a broken bone.”

“And why shouldn’t it, with all I’ve lost?” Her eyes were haunted. “If only they could find Annie and her da. Even if it was finding them dead, at least I’d know. They can’t just have vanished, stands to reason. They have to be somewhere.”

Dag had been here before, Arkady too, and he’d tried to explain that in the chaos of a malice attack — and the Tripoint malice, emerging in a patch of swampland used by trappers, had achieved a fair number of mudmen — more than bodies could disappear. He’d stopped short, though, of explaining that Annie had in all likelihood been eaten ; there’d been children’s bones recovered from a mudmen’s feast, and their burial reported, though no identifications, of course. The missing son-in-law was more of a mystery, but if he’d been mind-slaved he might have excellent reason to keep himself far away even if he’d kept himself above ground.

“Can’t agree with you on that, Ma. It’s a big world and people vanish in it often enough, even without a blight bogle about. But I do agree it’s hard not knowing what happened. A bogle makes for some powerful confusion, though, and that one more than many.”

“So you’ve told me.” Her thin, heavily veined hand cupped her splints. “And I knew it anyway. Saw what bogles do to land years back, down towards Silver Shoals, when Burrell and I were first wed. All grey and slumped looking, and the ground all about pocked with holes, like it had gone rotten.”

Dag had heard her mention that malice outbreak once before, but not this detail, and reflected that people should know what they had seen, even thirty years on. “That’d be where the bogle made its mudmen, Ma. They grow them, from animals they plant like roots. The blight there would have been the worst because it’d be where the bogle hatched out.”

“Planting animals makes no sense.”

“It does to bogles, Ma. They can’t make life, only take it and change it, and mostwise animals is what they catch to change. The urge to human shape seems to be in them as soon as they hatch, mostly.”

“Mostly?”

“Well, that bat-malice Whit killed wasn’t man-shaped, nor its mudbats, but it had to fly to get out of the cave it hatched in, I reckon, and from what Whit and Fawn say, and my niece, its face was human, even so. Mostwise, anyway.”

“Huh. Do they change people into animals too?”

“Not in shape, or not that I’ve ever seen or heard tell of. In other ways — well, no, not animals, but those a bogle enslaves become less than people, and survivors often can’t deal with their memories.” It was as close as he’d come to her missing son’s fate, and suspected she knew in her heart what the truth might be, but if so she blinked the thought away.

“And what are they, Dag Lakewalker, huh? Can you tell me that? What kind of a thing is a bogle that it does such wrong?”

“I don’t know I can, Ma, except to say they’re something that shouldn’t be, and that won’t let anything else be.” The opening was useful. “Remember what Arkady and I have told you about ground, and how there’s ground in everything, beyond the matter we can all see? Well, a bogle is made of ground, and nothing but ground. It steals matter to make itself a body, same as it steals ground to feed on and learn from, so it can become mobile. But in itself it’s ground without matter, and it hungers for everything. When Arkady or I give you a ground reinforcement, there’s a bit of give and take, remember, though you can’t feel it. But a bogle just takes, live ground and then all ground, trying to complete itself, I suppose.”

“But it never does.”

“No, not until we share a death with it, one it didn’t cause. And when it is complete, it’s nothing, only the loss and blight it leaves behind.

“Huh.” She looked more thoughtful than distressed. “I liked that tale of yours about your knives, and sharing a death. Burrell always said when you was dead you couldn’t be of use to anyone, so you’d best get to it while you was alive. But killing a bogle — that’d be some use to a whole heap of folks.”

“That’s how Lakewalkers think of it, Ma. We hope to share our deaths as we share our lives.”

A step at the door announced Row, bearing a tray laden with cups and a steaming teapot, and Dag hastened to pull over the small table. The girl poured, and Dag gestured her to sit with them.

“I’m asking Row to stay, Ma, because I’ve something new to try and I’d not want anyone saying I didn’t explain it to you right.” He took out the tonic and set it next to the teapot. “I know you and Row can’t see but a bottle of water, but with groundsense you’d see it all dense and sparkling. It’s a tonic for ground, but you need to understand it’s a new thing, Ma. We tried it on that old tom cat of Berry’s and he took no harm, and I’ve tried it myself, so I’m pretty sure it’ll do you none. But I can’t be sure it’ll do you the good we hope.”

“Sounds fair.” The old woman peered. “I trust you to mean well, Dag Lakewalker, and you’ve helped me, I know. What’s in it?”

“Only concentrated ground — from water and seeds.”

Row was peering too. “Did it do the cat and you any good?”

“The cat, yes. With me it didn’t make much odds, but my ground is … well, dense, I guess. It comes with being a medicine maker. But what we’re hoping isn’t just that it’ll help, but that it’ll help enough for you to accept another direct healing, Ma — like Arkady gave you when he first saw you after you fell. If you’re willing That’s another reason I wanted Row here, in case I get groundlocked.”

“That’s when you stay in too long and I’m supposed to hit you to get your attention?”

“That’s right. Flesh and bone are right closely woven, more than the finest cloth you can think of, and when you’re healing strand by strand you can get lost in it. I’m not expecting it, but it’s always best to have someone watch.”

“And how long’s too long?”

“An hour, maybe. It shouldn’t take longer than that.” With Sparkle to watch growing Dag wasn’t sure he could groundlock himself these days, but bone, like nerves, had a ground quality all of its own, and he suspected he’d used up a lifetime of luck already.

“So I just drink it?”

“About a third of it, Ma, so I can see if it’s helping.”

“Alright, then. Pour it out, Row.”

Dag was able to see the invigorating absorption of the tonic and the immediate brightening of the old woman’s ground. As with Cap’n No-Rats it took longer for the infusion to reach bone, and he tried to report what he sensed, fascinating Row as much as Ma Burrell, before dropping in and down to the ugly fractures in both the lower bones of the arm. Were it not for Arkady’s initial work in rejoining the broken ends he thought they might yet be sundered, for very little natural healing had followed, and all their subsequent ground reinforcements had only stopped things getting worse. But as the tonic penetrated the tired blood vessels and diffused into the bones on both sides, lighting their grounds as laughter lights a face, he was able first to trace over Arkady’s work, feeling activity renew in his wake, and to see a carefully shaped reinforcement covering both fractures swiftly and gladly absorbed. Checking and sometimes delicately reinforcing grosser layers of muscle, larger vessels, and the slackened tendons he pulled up and out, finding Row intent upon him with a candle burned down to a stub at her side.

“You’re alright, then?” Her voice was a whisper. “I was about thinking I’d best hit you awake. It’s been almost an hour. Ma dozed off a while back.”

Dag rotated his head and arched his back, feeling muscles unkink. “Best thing. Healing does that, most often.” He rose, following Row out with cautious steps.

“Did it work, then?”

“I think so. One of us will come by tomorrow to see how she’s going on. She shouldn’t need any more tonic before then, but another dose in a few days might be right.” He hesitated. “She might wake livelier, and with more appetite. Can you stay up here this evening, if I let your ma know you’ll be late back? Make sure she doesn’t overreach herself if she is feeling better?”

“Surely.” Row looked at him with an odd expression. “You’re a good man, Dag Lakewalker, and it was a good day for Clear Creek when you and Fawn met Boss Berry.”

“Well, she got a husband out of it.” Dag smiled, then regarded the girl more seriously. “It was a good day for us too, Row, but we’re only doing what we should have been doing all along, only we’d forgotten how.”

“Some more to it than that, I reckon.”

Suddenly more woman than girl she smiled and turned away towards the kitchen, leaving Dag to let himself out into the chill noon.