“Where We Are Bound” by Kate Dollarhyde
Terese crouches low among the midnight ivy and nocks an arrow. She sights down its length and out into the clotted darkness beyond her hiding place. The forest is thick with ghost girls tonight; the one she stalks is but one among many.
Her mind skitters past the memory of a ghost girl’s teeth sinking into the soft, dark skin below Pia’s jaw and the sound of it slurping at the blood that fountained from her throat. Terese bites into her lip and suppresses the urge to vomit. Maybe the pain will envelop the yawning, empty feeling that swallowed her up when Pia died.
The ghost girls hunt on cloven hooves in glimmering packs, their translucent, spotted hides flashing with opal flame. They are only visible in the dark, but they always haunt the forest paths, their tongues snaking out from long mouths to taste for prey on the wind. They follow the scent of hot blood pulsing in living bodies and scream when they’ve made a kill. The forest echoes with their moans and sobs.
Beneath a ghost girl’s skin grows a binding in the shape of an acorn but with a heart of light. Not Terese nor any of the other coursers, who hunt them, know why they form. Perhaps the bindings are a kernel of pain a ghost girl carries from one life to the next, because some ghost girls are born with bindings already shining brighter than the others’. With every kill the binding swells, and when it can grow no more, the ghost girl explodes. Its fire takes a part of the forest with it, and in its ashes sprout new, hungry trees.
For so long as Terese, her mother, and her grandmother have lived, that has been the way of things: the ghost girls renew the forest, the forest protects the village, and the village survives.
Terese finds her mark. Pia’s ghost girl is her chosen quarry, one of the oldest still living in the forest. Its teeth are long with age, its hooves ragged, and the binding in its chest burns so brightly its vivid snarl pulses beneath the creature’s skin. Terese lets the arrow fly, and it leaves her bow like a long-held breath. The ghost girl she once called sister falls with only a rustle of leaves to mark its end. There is no mourning. Terese feels no pain and no regret. The first Pia died long ago.
As Terese crashes through the ivy toward her kill, she wonders after Orpha. They split up before the hunt began, and Terese hasn’t seen her since. Her erstwhile rival hasn’t looked well lately; when Terese last kissed behind her ear in their bower beside the river, Orpha’s eyes were too wet and set behind dark bags that made her look twice her age. Has she made her kill yet? There’s no whisper of her among the trees. Worry makes Terese work faster.
She unshutters the glowfly lantern tied at her hip and hangs it in a tree’s low branches. Alone in the pool of the lantern’s dim, blue light, she guts the ghost girl with expedience. A slit in the beast’s belly, and out slide mushrooms slick with cool well water and a damp cake of frass where a liver might live. The crepe-paper skin she peels from the ghost girl’s rotted log muscles and scrapes clean of soil. The long coils of earthworm intestine she washes in the forest stream. All of these treasures Terese sets aside to later sell to Jeanne, the village doctor, who keeps the coursers alive and safe from the forest’s song. But the skin she keeps for herself.
With practiced hands she reaches up into the beast’s chest cavity, shoves aside its swamp and ire, and plucks the binding from its breastbone. She pulls a folded paper sigil box from her belt kit and whistles the gibbous moon song—the one Pia used to sing when they drew water from the village well—to keep the forest’s whispers at bay.
Terese turns her nose to the wind and takes her lantern in hand. Pia’s binding tree must be close. Though the forest is vast and the trees widely spaced, it doesn’t take Terese long to find it—there is only one tree in the forest that smells like burning charcoal and hot iron, and Pia was the blacksmith’s only daughter.
Terese nails the folded paper box to the trunk of the tree, drops Pia’s binding inside, and shutters her lantern. She strikes a match and sets the paper box alight. Pia’s binding burns, and cradled by her binding tree, her spirit, her light, the heat of her is free.
All across the forest the coursers’ lanterns wink out and the same sigil glow spreads in a constellation shape, ten paper boxes filled with ten blazing bindings nailed to ten binding trees. In the sigil box flames, she sees the faces of her hunting sisters, all of them performing the same ritual to release their fallen friends, all of them watching each other, counting to be certain each courser has done her part.
They realize in unison that the eleventh and twelfth of them, Orpha and Elspet, are missing.
A tower of fire blooms between the distant trees, and before Terese has a chance to shout she’s knocked off her feet by a fist of wind and punched into the dirt.
She breathes in short, stabbing gasps. She climbs to her feet and staggers toward the flames. Don’t be her. Don’t be her. Don’t be her. She begs the forest for this one favor, the only sincere one she’s ever asked of it. Let Orpha live.
Globules of still-burning flesh splattered across the trees and earth cast dim and twisting shadows. Terese’s foot sinks into something soft and warm. She swallows bile and shakes it off her boot. She holds her lantern high.
At the center of the explosion is a shallow, black-burnt crater and little else. No human flesh nor bones, no translucent ghost-girl skin or shard of cloven riverstone hoof. The ghost girl is gone, and so is the courser she took with her.
Orpha isn’t here. Terese prays it was Elspet the ghost girl killed. Elspet is a dynamo, the best of them, and still Terese hopes it’s her. Disgust is a fire that burns up her bones. She should be hanged for wishing another courser dead—especially one they cannot afford to lose.
She closes her eyes to better hear the wind. She stills her own breath, and after a long, tortured moment, hears faint and feeble gasping from another’s lungs. She swings around, heart in her throat. Her lantern paints the forest in a wide, blue arc of light.
There, to the left. She tears through the underbrush, slips and falls in a smear of something wet, and does not stop to wipe her hands. Pokebush branches tear shallow gashes across her arms and the midnight ivy ensnares her legs. Still, she scrambles forward.
She doesn’t have to go far before she finds the source of the sound: a lump of person sprawled on her side, whimpering into the damp oak leaves among a storm of feebly burning branches. She turns the girl over with rough hands and shoves the lantern in her face.
Orpha’s face shines ghost-girl-pale in the glowfly light, except where it’s stained red from the blood that sheets from a deep gash on her brow. Terese wipes at the blood with her dirty hands, and Orpha’s face screws up in a grimace. Relief blooms in Terese’s chest.
When she stands to call the others, Orpha’s hand snakes out to grip hers.
Terese pushes sticky hair from Orpha’s eyes. “There was little left,” she whispers. “Not enough to change.”
Orpha squeezes her eyes shut and nods. As the other coursers crash through the forest toward them, hot tears roll down her cheeks.
Jeanne’s workshop is thick with smoke and the medicinal stench of rosemary. Terese pushes a pile of tools and bundled herbs aside and unloads her pack on the shop’s front counter. The ghost girl’s liver frass is crumbled and its gut mushrooms slightly crushed, but both are still salable. She hadn’t been able to salvage the earthworms.
When she and the other coursers trudged out of the forest the night before, Orpha clung warm and heavy on her back. Remembering, Terese’s chest tightens—she would give the spoils from her every kill to Jeanne forever free of charge if it meant she would never have to experience the gut-churning terror she felt when she feared Orpha was dead.
“Leave it all there and come help me,” Jeanne shouts from the back room.
Terese finds her levering a squat black pot out of the pit fire with wool-wrapped hands.
Jeanne nods toward another pair of thick mitts on a nearby stool. “Grab some for yourself.”
Twelve thin-necked, green glass bottles sit in a row on Jeanne’s fabrication table.
“I need you to hold these bottles steady while I pour,” she says.
Terese slides the mitts on and takes position. Jeanne produces a funnel and says nothing while she pours, her tongue sticking half out her mouth in concentration. The liquid is thick and brown and smells like moss and stemrot. The memory of its taste turns Terese’s stomach.
When she’s done pouring, Jeanne hands Terese a fistful of corks for the bottles and leaves to wash the sweat from her face. She returns dabbing a ragged square of linen on her brow. Wrinkles carve her face, and the skin beneath her eyes sags, bruised a deep purple with exhaustion.
What Jeanne must think of her—still stained with the sweat and dirt of the night before, still reeking of the ghost girl’s slick viscera and Orpha’s blood—Terese hopes never to learn. Coursers are little better than animals, she thinks. But not nearly so lucky. Animals, at least, need only fear death—they’re bound to nothing more lasting than the wind.
“Can I trust you to deliver these to the others once they’ve cooled?”
Terese stares at the twelfth bottle in silence. The dark liquid swirls behind the glass. Jeanne knits her eyebrows, grimaces, exhales.
“I forgot,” she says at last. “I forgot, and I shouldn’t have.” She drops the twelfth bottle into her pocket. “Forgive me, Terese. I didn’t intend—”
Terese waves off her apologies and watches the liquid move in the remaining eleven bottles. It’s a poor distraction from her thoughts of Elspet and the miserable, familiar way she died.
Elspet, the dyer’s daughter. How would they hunt without her? She was one of the cleverest among them and the most fleet of foot. She was a friend, and, more importantly, a fine courser. To miss her mark, especially on such a dangerous kill—it was unlike her. That was a mistake Terese might expect from moon-eyed Maite or loud, thoughtless Honora. Elspet did not often make mistakes.
At least her death was swift.
But it doesn’t matter what Elspet didn’t often do. She screwed up once, let her mark get the better of her, and that was all it took to end her life. At least she didn’t end up a ghost girl. At least she didn’t take Orpha with her. Terese might forgive Elspet the loss of her own life, but she could not have forgiven her the loss of Orpha’s.
Jeanne hops onto the counter beside her, careful not to jostle the cooling bottles. “You’ve already forgiven me, I hope.”
Terese gives her a half-mouthed frown. “Of course.”
“Who will you call on to take her place?”
Terese plays with the bottle nearest her, turning it on its edge and spinning it slowly beneath her finger like a solstice dancer. “Anja, probably.”
Jeanne raises her brows. “She isn’t too young, you don’t think?”
Terese stops the bottle’s dancing. It’s only been a week since her last dose, and already she can hear the crackle and whine of the forest’s song. It used to take a month. When the medicine no longer works, they will be at the forest’s mercy, and the ghost girls will be waiting to receive them.
She should drink it right there, get it over with. But Orpha will take hers more easily if Terese is there to take it with her. The forest’s song will grow more insistent, but she can wait a few more hours.
“Hm?” Terese answers, still watching the bottle.
“Anja—she’s very young. I doubt she weighs more than a large cat.”
“She’ll move silently, then—that will serve us well, for a while.”
Jeanne makes fists in her lap.
Terese shrugs. “The forest took her sister, Hennie, not three weeks ago. Someone has to catch her beast and burn its binding, or we leave the forest in danger. Why not Anja?”
“I don’t understand why you coursers do it that way. Would be better to have a stranger put them down. Less misery for both, I’d think.”
Jeanne is a doctor, a researcher. She is kind and she treats the coursers with dignity, but she is not their confidante, and anyway, Terese should not need another beside Orpha. But the forest’s howl is endless, and Pia’s death so raw, that Terese can’t help but worry the edges of a different life.
“How do you kill beasts in the north? In the governor’s valley?” she asks in a rush.
“We don’t have forests like yours. The governor’s forebears overran our land long ago.” Jeanne hops off the counter and sets to cleaning up the mess she’d made brewing the medicine.
A land with no forests is a wound on the world. “Your villages would be defenseless.” Terese shakes her head. “What happens to girls there?”
“Some have children and grow old with knitting in their hands. Others take up swords and guns and join the governor’s army. Or they flee for the coast and find freedom on merchant ships. Maybe they fall in love.”
“And there aren’t beasts?”
“None like yours.”
Terese puts the stoppered bottle she’d been toying with in her satchel along with the ten others. It is a fairytale place, the north. No more real than dreaming.
“I should go,” she says. “Orpha needs hers.” She starts toward the front of the stop, then slows. One question more. She can suffer that. “How do they die?”
“Childbirth, mostly. Fevers. Drink. Farming accidents. My mother fell down a mineshaft.”
“Did she trip?”
Jeanne’s answering smile is small and pinched. “The north might not have ghost girls, but it does not lack for beasts of other kinds.”
Orpha’s home is on the edge of town, perched on a low hillock beside the small fields she and her father tend. The forest looms just beyond, its neat rows of trees like teeth in a gaping mouth.
Somewhere in there, hiding from midday heat in the cool dark beneath broad and twisting boughs, waits a pack of ghost girls. The prickle of their beetle eyes assesses her, but she pays them no mind. They will not breach the day.
A ghost girl is a raw-edged nerve, sparking with the heat of old emotion, twitching on the hook of memory. Their strategies are inconstant. They are creatures of impulse, responsible to no one; they are the fetid afterbirth of the forest that protects the village, and they are each shackled by the tree that roots them there. They are fast and lean and furious, and they have forgotten cruelty. That is why the ghost girls outnumber the village’s coursers three to one, and why the ghost girls will win.
Terese enters the small home to find Orpha lying on a cot pushed against the kitchen wall, a rag across her eyes. Piles of strange twig and tinder contraptions surround her bed like a dam. She works one silently in her lap, tying twine and testing her knots with care. If she were not a courser, she might have been a tinkerer.
She sits up with a start when Terese closes the door.
Terese toes the twigs aside and sits on the edge of the cot. “Move a bit,” she says, and nudges Orpha’s legs with her hip.
Orpha obliges. Her hand finds Terese’s in the blankets.
They stay that way, unspeaking, for a length of time Terese is careful not to count, even as the forest roars in her head and her feet itch to run to it. If they never left this room, they could pretend they do not need to hunt the ghost girls, or fear becoming one themselves. Though she knows the moment for a fantasy, Terese is taken in by it all the same.
Orpha coughs, then, catches a rattling breath, and their soap-bubble world pops and is gone.
Terese reaches into her satchel. “Here,” she says, and removes the cork of Orpha’s medicine.
Orpha grits her teeth and struggles slowly to sit. Terese doesn’t help her; Orpha rarely wants a hand, especially when she needs it.
Terese would never say so, but it was Orpha’s need that first caught her eye. She needs help, yes, but also attention, someone to look after her, to wash her scrapes, to braid her hair, to tell her made-up stories of the world beyond the valley more fanciful even than Jeanne’s own. Orpha’s weaknesses make Terese feel necessary, purposeful, strong—and guilty, too, for the strength they give her.
Orpha takes the bottle and holds it in front of her to catch the thin ray of light sneaking through the room’s one shuttered window. The bottle throws a slice of shimmering green on the floor.
She dances the light across the hard-packed earth, then corks the bottle and hands it back to Terese. “I won’t take it anymore.”
“You know you have to.”
Orpha places the bottle gently in her lap. She watches it as another might a snake.
Terese puts her hand on the other girl’s knee. “I’ll drink it with you. I can hear the song again. I’m due.”
Orpha averts her eyes. “I can’t.”
Terese begins to speak, but Orpha squeezes her hand to stop her.
“I have to quit the coursers,” she says in a voice almost too small to hear.
Terese bites her tongue to keep from laughing. They can hunt the ghost girls and return their fellow coursers’ bindings to their trees, or they can wait for the forest to call until they become ghost girls themselves. There is no third option.
“Stop being ridiculous.”
Orpha pulls her hand from Terese’s grip. “When you hear the forest’s song, what does it sound like?” Orpha asks.
“The grind of steel against steel. The hue and cry of war. Why, how does it sound to you?”
“Like bells,” Orpha breathes. “Bells and the rhythm of solstice dancing. And it never goes away.”
She meets Terese’s eyes. A thrill of cold plays up Terese’s spine.
“But, Jeanne’s medicine—”
Orpha only looks at her hands.
Panic, long suppressed, begins to crush the air from Terese’s lungs. “When did it stop working?” She can barely whisper the words, can even less believe them.
“Months ago,” Orpha admits. “Their songs are all I hear. You sit right beside me, just a hands-breadth away, and still I struggle to make out your words.” Her voice breaks. “I can’t go back. I’m—I’m so scared, I don’t want to become—” But she can’t finish the thought and covers her mouth with her hands.
“Jeanne will make you something stronger—”
Orpha only shakes her head in her hands.
“We can stop your ears with wax. Then you won’t have to hear them.”
Orpha begins to cry, fat tears leaking between her long fingers.
“We can leave. Leave the whole valley. Jeanne says—she says in the north they don’t have ghost girls. You’ll be safe.” Even as Terese says it, she knows it for a lie. Where is there to go? They can’t leave their bodies behind. They belong to the forest. Those who have tried to leave… the ghost girls follow.
Terese reaches for Orpha, but she shrinks into herself.
“Do you ever wonder where you’re bound?” Orpha asks, suddenly fierce, more earnest than Terese’s ever seen her. “Which, of all the trees, is yours?”
Realization consumes Terese like a strangling vine. Orpha, lying burned and unconscious on the ground. Elspet, exploded into nothingness, what little left of her burning like the lanterns in the trees.
“Is that what you were doing when Elspet died?”
Orpha doesn’t say anything for a moment. Then, “It wasn’t Elspet’s mark that killed her. It was mine.
“I smelled—it was sun-warmed dirt and radish spice, the way my father smells after working the fields. But how could that be when it was night and we were so deep in the forest? I thought… It could have been my tree. It could have been where I was bound. I had to find it. Destroy it. But Elspet— she was hunting beside me. I let my quarry slip away to go look.”
“You made your mark her responsibility.” Terese bites her knuckles to stop from shouting.
“It’s my fault she died, Téa. Next time, it might be you.” Orpha sobs into her hands. The force of it shakes the bed beneath them.
Slowly, she gathers herself. Breathes. She locks her eyes on Terese’s own. “What if we could be free?” she asks. “What if we didn’t have to hunt them anymore? If we didn’t have to become them? What if we could find our binding trees and destroy them? Wouldn’t that be worth anything?”
“Even the death of another courser?”
“Help me destroy the forest.”
Terese recoils. “It’s not possible. You’ll get yourself and the rest of us killed, like you did Elspet. And the village— we’d be helpless! Think of your father, the coursers, the—the solstice dancers! I won’t sacrifice all that for nothing!”
Orpha’s face falls slack. A hard edge glints in her eyes. “Then leave.”
Terese doesn’t need an awl to pierce a ghost girl’s flesh. Thin as spider silk, the translucent hide dissolves beneath her needle’s point like soap bubbles. With careful stitches, she binds one ghost-girl hide to another. She runs her hand beneath the cloak and watches with satisfaction as its shape distorts and disappears.
She sighs, relieved: the hide she collected on their previous hunt will be the last one she needs.
For any other courser, it might be too large, but for Orpha, tall as a beanpole, it will be the perfect length to keep her hidden. If the skins work as Terese thinks, the ghost-girl cloak will help Orpha conceal herself, will confuse the ghost girls into ignoring her—at least for a while. Though she can’t condone Orpha’s foolish quest to find her binding tree, she can do her best to keep Orpha safe if she’s so determined to try.
After their argument, Terese stormed out of Orpha’s house and down to the riverbed. There, her thoughts raced in silent sisterhood with the water. Though its endless rushing often soothes her, it didn’t then; instead of peace, she recalled the small black crater that had been Elspet, and the cold steel in Orpha’s eyes.
She’d sat there for hours, the boom and the splatter and the tears repeating in her mind, and she sits there still.
None of them know to which tree they’re bound. In the village, they are born and raised, and if they’re unlucky, they’re called to the forest, and in the end the forest claims them. All they can do to stem the tide of the forest’s pull is hunt and kill the ghost girls that threaten it. It was worse in her mother’s day, and in her grandmother’s. At least now they can drink down Jeanne’s dark medicine and persist another day.
The forest hadn’t always spread across their valley’s floor. Once, their valley was nearly barren of trees, and from edge to edge spread nodding fields of grain, more than the villagers themselves could ever eat.
Their valley fed the province, and the provincial governor took all he could—every sack of flour, every gnarled turnip—until the villagers had so little left for themselves their children grew stunted and thin.
Still he coveted the valley’s rich dirt, and when there was no longer any food to take, he came for their land with steel and black powder, and men and women from hungry lands followed at his heel. They wore his colors and shouted his songs. They left blood and fire in their wake.
The villagers had only scythes and bows to protect them and knew it would never be enough. So they razed their own fields and planted a forest to stand in the governor’s path. They raised their young trees fast and fat on blood and iron shavings, and they tempered them with poison, made them cruel. The threat of the forest, of that old magic, was all that kept the governor away.
The governor’s successor tried to retake the valley only once, in Terese’s childhood. He brought again that black powder and those rows of uniformed soldiers. But he didn’t bring enough of either, and the ghost girls rent his soldiers limb from limb.
But for this protection the forest asks a price: daughters of the blood that first fed its trees. They’re called to the forest, and there they die and are formed again. There they become ghost girls, the village’s guards and jailers. But they yearn, always, for the tree that bore them, to beat themselves against it and to die in flame.
Old magic always exacts its price.
The breeze off the river cools the anxious fire roiling beneath Terese’s skin. Orpha knows the tale as well as she. The forest won’t let itself be destroyed. If they stand against it, it will destroy them instead. History proves as much. What could she be thinking?
Terese sets her needle, thread, and cloak aside. She kicks off her boots and wades out into the water. The silt and muck are thick and slippery between her toes. The cool of summer evening rises with the moon. She cups water in her hands and splashes her face, dampens her hair.
Across the river, the sun falls into a muted sea of red. The trees line the opposite shore like crooked sentinels, bent and warped with age. Soon night will come creeping across the valley, and she’ll have to set Orpha’s gift aside. She and the other coursers will take up their bows and once more venture in among the trees to keep the ghost girls from their bindings. And if Orpha’s word is truth, if she can no longer hide from the forest’s song, then she will not join them.
Terese presses her nails into her palm and stops just short of drawing blood. Orpha has to come back. The coursers need her.
Terese returns to the shore and takes up her sewing again. The shape of her fingers is hazy beneath the ghost-girl skin. She holds the cloak up and admires the soft way the waning sun shines through it. It should suit Orpha well once she realizes her mistake and returns. Maybe it’ll even help her forgive Terese her refusal to surrender.
Orpha doesn’t join the coursers that night. The others notice, but no one knows why, and Terese doesn’t tell them. She may yet convince Orpha to change her mind, and then there’ll be nothing to explain.
Though they’re one short, they make it through all right. Terese works twice as hard to make sure.
The next morning, she arrives at Orpha’s home before dawn has chased the mist and dew from the young grasses beside the road. She hasn’t yet slept, and fatigue from last night’s hunt drags behind her like a millstone. She replays their earlier argument in her mind and holds the ghost-girl cloak close to her chest.
When she gets to the door, she turns the handle, but the door yanks out of her hand. Suddenly, there is Orpha.
Terese smiles wide to see her out of bed and walking. “You must be feeling better…?”
Orpha doesn’t return her smile. She is clad neck to toe in a heavy black cloak and carries an overstuffed satchel on each shoulder. Peeking beneath the flap of one is the same twig and twine contraption she’d been fiddling with the day before.
Orpha shoulders past her without a word. Terese grabs for her sleeve, but she yanks it away and starts down the dirt path toward the road.
“Orpha!” Terese runs after her, but she doesn’t turn around. “Where are you going?” The words leave her mouth harder than she’d meant them and edged with a plaintive whine. “Orpha, please!”
How weak I sound, she thinks, even as her feet beat into the dirt. How needy. Orpha is the one who needs her. That’s how it’s always been between them.
Orpha slows her march and turns. The look on her face, hard and brittle, stops Terese dead in the road.
“I’m going to the forest,” Orpha says. “I told you yesterday. Or did you not believe me?”
“But you can’t!” Terese could kick herself for how like a child she sounds. Her heart is in her throat and she can barely catch her breath. Orpha can’t leave. “You’ll become one of them.”
“I’ll become one of them whether I stay or go.” Orpha screws up her face, her eyes red-rimmed. “I knew when I asked you that you wouldn’t come with me. But I never thought you wouldn’t take me at my word.”
“I never thought you’d throw your life away on a child’s fantasy!”
Orpha closes the distance between them in two steps and shoves Terese backward, hard, with both hands. “My life does not belong to you.”
Terese grabs at her, but Orpha shakes her off.
“I can destroy the forest. I’ve figured out how.”
“With what, your follies? Your toys?” She shouldn’t say it. She shouldn’t, but she can’t stop.
Orpha shoves her again, and Terese windmills backward into the dirt.
“I don’t want this life. Not for me, or you, or any of us.”
“I would rather die knowing I tried to end this than live and wonder if my next hunt will be my last.”
Terese flashes through a dozen memories, each of them newly empty of Orpha, and is drowned in panic. “All right, Orpha, I’ll help you, please just—just don’t leave!”
“I don’t want your begrudging help! I wanted you to believe me.” Orpha turns on her heel and starts back toward the road.
Terese chokes on unshed tears. “They’ll kill you, and your second death will fall to me. I won’t do it, I can’t, and then, and then—”
Orpha spits on the ground at Terese’s feet. “You’re just a coward.”
“Go home, coward.”
Terese scrambles to her feet. She follows Orpha down the road. She begs her to stop, to wait, to reconsider. But shouts and tears won’t stop her; she is already gone.
They reach the forest. The path into the woods is thick with grasping pokebush, and the spread of branches above casts the narrow trail in mogshade. Here, on the edge between spaces wild and tame, the forest’s song screams from the mouth of everything. Even her own breath sounds like screaming.
Orpha unclips a glowfly lantern from her waist. She looks back over her shoulder and meets Terese’s eyes. Already, they seem to shine with a different light.
If she could conjure the right words in the right order, she might convince Orpha to stay. But she has none of that old magic, just the forest singing in her ears and a chasm where her spine should be.
Orpha reaches for Terese’s hand and squeezes it once. Her palm is warm and dry. Tinder, waiting to ignite. “If I fail, don’t sell my parts to Jeanne. Bury me where I’m bound.”
She fades into the dark between the trees. She doesn’t look back.
Terese starts forward, reflexively grasping for Orpha’s receding shape. She wills herself to walk, to follow, to commit to a better dream, but she cannot. She is the coward Orpha named her to be.
She holds to her mouth the hand Orpha clasped in hers. She remembers, then, what she’s holding. She never got to give Orpha the ghost-girl cloak, and now she never will.
The night comes too quickly. Terese sits beside the river again, ungifted ghost-girl cloak held tight to her chest, and watches as the sun walks its path across the sky. When twilight comes on, mist rises in the grasses across the water and rolls into the forest on a sigh of wind. Frogs take up their sunfall shouting. Terese feels a hand on her shoulder, and turns to find small Anja behind her.
“Jeanne says it’s getting late.”
Terese shrugs off Anja’s hand. “Did she give you the scouts’ report before you left?”
Anja chews her lip. Too young to hide the shape of the fears turning behind her eyes means she should be too young yet to hunt, but the coursers have grown so few… even if Jeanne does not approve, they have no other way to replenish their ranks than to conscript the youngest among them who hear the song.
Anja’s silence is response enough. Still she wants the girl to speak the words—the hard, impossible words—that she’ll have to say too many times before, one day, someone will speak them about her.
Anja kicks at a clump of young rush. “Forty-three ghost girls, the scouts counted.”
“One more than last night.”
“Yeah.” Anja looks at the river, not at her face. “Jeanne said she heard Orpha went into the forest this morning.”
“And she didn’t come out.”
Terese stands and gives the girl a curt nod. Together they begin the walk back to the village to meet with the other coursers.
Halfway there, Anja stops her. “Why do we have to kill them? Can’t we just leave them alone?”
“Hungry things don’t hold to maps and boundaries,” Terese tells Anja. “They want their trees. If we let them be, eventually they’ll find them.” She drives her fists together and explodes them like a bomb.
“Has anyone ever tried to stop them? Not just hold them off, but kill them all for good?”
Terese starts walking again. “Yes.” She remembers the warmth of Orpha’s hand in hers, the number forty-three. “But it’s never worked.”
The coursers fan out into the forest in silent formation, each armed with a bow, a knife, and the name of their mark. The moon is high, and its eerie shine limns the trees in blue-gray shadow. Terese is glad for the light—not for how it guides her feet, but for how it glows in the faces of her sisters. Seen, she can count them and know that none have fallen.
Nearest her is Anja, who scales a binding tree like a barn cat and perches in its rafters. A whistle comes to them on the wind, mimicking the rise-fall-rise-again cry of a whippoorwill. ‘Get ready’, the whistle says. ‘They come, they come, they come.’
Terese holds her breath and listens. Beneath the snap of twigs and the rustle of fallen leaves is a clanging, the crash and screech of distant fighting. The forest’s song beats in her blood, and Orpha is one of its singers tonight. In that knowledge, Terese is cleaved by a spear of grief so sharp and wretched she has to close her eyes until the pain passes between her teeth.
Above her, Anja’s breath hitches. “Is that what they sound like?” Her voice is soft with wonder and fear.
“What do you hear?” Terese asks.
“Do you remember the year the river flooded?”
Anja is so young—the flash flood that destroyed their seedling crops three springs ago was likely the first time she felt animal terror. Terese glances up at her, still perched in the tree, and nods, acknowledging her memory.
As she does, a familiar shape catches her eye. Tied high to the trunk of Anja’s perch is a trap of twig and twine and tinder. Terese examines the tree she’s crouched beside and finds the same thing tied to its trunk, too. She peers into the forest. Nearly every tree within her view is adorned with the same small object, hugging their trunks like tumors.
She gasps. Orpha’s toys.
Terese scrambles up the nearest tree to get a better look. Up close, the contraption resembles a courser’s sigil box, the little paper boxes they nail to binding trees, fill with a ghost girl’s binding seed, and set alight.
But there is something newly strange about it. Terese unties it from the tree and brings it close to her nose. An unforgettable smell: the governor’s black powder.
When the governor’s successor tried to retake the village’s land, the boom of explosives echoed from one end of the valley to the other. Its scent hung heavy in the air for days on end, blanketing the valley in a haze of smoke and fire. Only a child at the time, it had seemed to Terese the whole world was burning. But the governor’s troops receded, and the fires eventually faded. But the memory of that smell did not.
What use could Orpha have for so much powder? Terese tastes the answer like ash on her tongue. She really means to destroy it all. Every binding tree, every ghost girl. Orpha would destroy the forest—and the coursers, too. She would set the forest alight with them in it.
Terese slides down the tree and sits heavy in the dirt.
Above her, Anja gives a small repeating whistle, the answer to the whippoorwill’s cry. She’s sighted the pack. They must be coming this way.
Terese unslings her bow and stumbles to her feet.
A glow builds in the distance.
The ghost girls streak between the trees like comets. At the head of the pack runs a ghost girl longer and taller than the others. Its antlers are little more than stubs, so new the beast is yet, but in its chest burns a binding brighter than all the others running beside it.
Orpha runs with a mindless, wild grace—long limbs and split hooves devouring the earth in boundless strides, serpent tongue dangling half out its mouth and dripping long strings of bright saliva in the dirt.
Orpha drives the ghost girls in a swiftly tightening circle. Terese realizes Orpha’s game too late. Anja sees it, too. She draws in a sharp, strangled breath. Orpha means to trap the coursers among the ghost girls and her tinder boxes. She means to bring them to the light.
She has to die.
Terese bursts from her hiding place and dashes through the trees. The ghost girls’ clangor grows and they give chase. When she runs, Terese is a child again, and the smell of black powder burns her nose and the cries of fearful animals ring cacophonous in her ears.
She’ll draw the ghost girls off. She will die, but— Maite might still kiss the weaver’s boy, and Honora will wear the solstice crown, and Anja might know childhood.
But Orpha knows her, and she breaks away from the other ghost girls and leaps to match Terese’s frantic pace. Terese redoubles her efforts, thighs burning. She casts one last glance back to the coursers behind her and sees—
She’s too late. The ghost girl pack churns and writhes around them. To the last, the coursers’ faces reflect moonlit fear, but fierce determination, too. Even little Anja refuses to die without a fight.
Orpha is too fast for Terese. She overtakes her on a straightaway and scrabbles in the ivy to face her. Orpha’s beast chest heaves with the contractions of its rhizomatic heart. Her binding shimmers incandescent beneath her opaline skin. Her beetle eyes gleam with that same cold steel. On her breath are the smells of spring mornings and young green grass, of Terese’s sweat and radish spice.
She is beautiful, and free.
Behind Terese, the coursers scream. It is the forest’s song. It always has been.
It’s easier to stop running than she thought it would be. It’s not so easy to have faith.
Orpha’s binding shines midday-bright, so bright that it’s all Terese can see. Distant explosions shake the ground. A shuddering roar devours her. Then, a heat for which she knows no word. And beneath it all, the sound of bells—ringing, ringing, ringing.
|Kate Dollarhyde is a Nebula Award-winning game designer and writer of speculative fiction. Her stories have been published in Fireside Fiction, Lackington’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other magazines. She lives in California.|