Emyn’s screams sliced through the quiet of the night. Iomat calmed and shushed her as the rest of the household grumbled. A nightmare, they all agreed, and not the first.
She was sent outside the next morning as the headman listened and talked. It was a silly ruse; she heard the grownups clearly from outside. No one bothered to lower their voices.
“The girl talks half the night, Volio,” shouted one man.
“Or sings,” said another. “All hours!”
Emyn kicked at the dirt. She didn’t sing. She hummed, and it was as quiet as she could make it. The others would hum too if ghosts chattered at them night and day.
“She’s not the only person with nightmares,” Volio’s son said. “The dead creep in to all our dreams since she came to live here!”
“You can’t blame the child for your bad dreams!” Iomat snapped.
How far would Iomat go to defend her? Maybe Emyn would be sent back to A’er’s house. That wouldn’t be so bad; Iomat could come too.
Emyn did not hear Volio’s wife, even though she could shout as loudly as any of the men when provoked. Two days ago, Emyn had seen her grandmother standing by the woman as she cooked. “She likes the smell,” Emyn told her. “She’s always right there when you cook.”
Why didn’t Volio’s wife join Iomat in defending Emyn? Didn’t people want to hear from their grandparents?
“Men arrive.” The dead king interrupted her thoughts. “Men of importance.”
Emyn stepped away from the house so she could look down the path. The sky was a brighter blue than ever before. The trees were shorter, the grass disappeared, and a road made of stone stretched before her.
The overly bright sky reminded her of the nightmare. But she was not dreaming now, and roads were not made of stone. It could not be real. If Emyn was seeing things that weren’t real, the ghosts were to blame.
Her grandfather wouldn’t think much of a girl that cried over something that wasn’t even there. He had returned home months ago, but his lessons remained. Emyn was brave; she was half Nervian.
She stepped onto the stone road and took a few steps. The rocks felt smooth beneath her feet. The air was heavy with the scent of sweet and unfamiliar flowers but she caught a whiff of something unpleasant as well. She knew the smell.
Throughout the summer, a piglet and a pup from each litter born was tossed into a pit to rot until Samhain when they were brought up, mixed with other offerings, and fed to the fields. The children dared each other to look into the pit at the dead animals. On hot days the stench soaked into their skin and made Emyn sick. Decaying flesh; that was the smell that flowers couldn’t disguise.
The dirt on either side of the stone road was dry and covered with stubby bushes. A beam of wood sprouted from the ground as if it had been planted there.
“Look up,” ordered the dead king, and she did.
High above, another beam crossed the first, like two thick branches sticking out on either side of a trunk. Emyn used every bit of courage she owned to hold back a scream.
A dead man hung from the beam, held there by nails and ropes. His clothes, streaked with dried blood, were as ragged as his flesh. Blonde hair sparkled in the sun the way Nonicos’ hair did. The man’s arms stretched over the crossbeam and were tied so that his wrists hid behind the wood. His shoulders and head leaned out, right over her.
Emyn didn’t scream but she couldn’t stop herself from vomiting. She turned and ran. Another post rose before her but she stared straight ahead, refusing to look up. That didn’t help; right in front of her eyes, iron spikes drove through a dead man’s ankles, one on each side of the trunk, nailing them to the wood.
“Crassus did this,” the dead king said. “Pray he never comes here.”
Emyn threw her arms over her eyes and ears and ran until she hit something hard. Her mouth exploded; she wondered if the ghosts could throw rocks. Arms held her up. A’er spoke and Iomat pressed a cool, wet cloth against her mouth.
“Open your eyes.”
She wouldn’t. She mumbled into the cloth, trying to tell them that dead men hung from trees.
“That was a dream, child,” Iomat reminded her.
“No,” Emyn shrieked. “They’re here!”
They promised there were no dead men but Emyn couldn’t trust their words. They didn’t know. Finally, she squinted at the ground with one eye, saw dirt instead of stone, and looked at her father. The sky above him was white, not blue.
“You’re going to have quite a bruise.”
Emyn realized that the cloth was full of blood, and then she cried. Only a little, only until her A’er held her.
“Are they still mad at me?” she asked Iomat.
“Who? Oh, them.” Iomat waved her hand toward the headman’s house. “Nothing is decided. Volio has visitors.”
Men of importance, the ghost had said. Emyn knew without being told that she had to talk to them. If the visitors had come yesterday, the vision would have happened yesterday.
She wiped her face clean with the cloth then stood with her father until the headman’s door opened. The visitors emerged: two men wearing fine, striped cloaks.
Every family in Samarnum owned sheep and spun wool. Emyn knew these cloaks were costly. The thread was tightly woven and dyed in bright colors. She liked the way the stripes rippled as they draped and fell.
“Speak!” the dead king roared.
She ran forward and bowed. Before anyone could stop her, she described the rock road with wooden trees and the corpses hanging from them.
No one interrupted. The dead king whispered more words and Emyn repeated them: a Roman named Crassus had tortured thousands of men this way.
“Thousands?” One man turned to the other, as if he might make sense of this. He did not sound angry but hurt—as if her news were painful. “Thousands?”
“Tell us the name again,” said the other visitor. “The name of the leader.”
“Little girl,” said the second man sternly, “who told you these tales?”
“The dead king.”
“She hears voices,” the headman began as Emyn’s father pulled her away. The dead king whipped up a flurry of pale, tiny petals from the ground.
“Isminos!” Volio called to her father.
A’er pushed her toward Iomat and walked back to the men.
“If you want to keep what you have, keep it to yourself,” Iomat muttered as Emyn woke.
The headman snorted at her. “Women’s fears . . . .”
“Never mind,” Iomat said when Emyn asked about her words. “Too late for that, anyway.”
For once, most whispers around Emyn came from real people, not ghosts, but they were no easier to understand. She spent her time outside in the sun as A’er and Nonicos worked behind the headman’s house for three days.
“Do not fret,” cooed the white ladies but Emyn had learned over the past year how silly their advice was. One by one they began to chant. “Men will come.”
“They’ll bring you pretty gifts.”
“They’ll sing songs.”
Emyn waved at them the same way she waved at buzzing insects.
“It’s settled. We’ll have our own hearth,” Iomat announced at the end of the third day. “You and I. Your father built real walls around the shelter in back of Volio’s house and we’ve swept out the geese and their smell. The roof is new; it’ll be a fine place.”
“I’m sorry,” Emyn mumbled
Emyn looked at her small pile of clothes next to Iomat’s pots and baskets. “It’s my fault. They don’t want me here, so you have to leave too.”
“Leave? We’ll be behind his house. He even thinks it was his idea.” Iomat’s voice was low but cheerful; she kept her eyes on the thread she spun. “We’ll still be eating from his pot, if you want to know. And we won’t have to listen to his snoring. This is a gift.”
“A’er has room for us—”
“Your A’er isn’t the headman. Volio wants you under his protection, just as he does me. Even if you do scare his sons. I’ve scared his sons, too, you know.”
Emyn watched the spindle twirl as it hovered over the ground. Did Iomat mean last winter when everyone whispered about her prediction? Emyn knew the words so well they sat like a memory in her head.
“None of you here assembled will die in your homes. Samarnum will perish before any one of you.”
Emyn hadn’t really heard the words; she’d fallen asleep after the story of her great grandmother. Nonicos had carried her home as the sun rose, home to A’er who was sick and could not leave his own hearth, not even for the solstice feast.
Iomat set down her spinning and made Emyn look at her. She was more than a healer and midwife. She saw the future in quick peeks and could read the signs left by magical beings.
Her face was stern. “We have a quiet little home to ourselves. This is a gift but there’s a warning too. Listen to me: men hate what scares them.”
Emyn was confused. “Should I be afraid of the ghosts?”
“When you see them every day? Of course not. Neither should anyone else. A life lived afraid is no life.”
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