Read The Bone Queen Online

Authors: Alison Croggon

The Bone Queen (10 page)

“I think you’ve been travelling too hard,” he said abruptly. “Have you stopped to rest?”

Dernhil shrugged. “Does it matter?”

“You look as if you’re about to collapse.”

“If so, it’s my business.”

“Not if I am to travel with you,” said Cadvan. “I hardly want to be responsible for dealing you more injury.”

At this Dernhil frowned, and then he looked up and met Cadvan’s eyes, and reluctantly smiled.

“I see your point. Yes, the wound pains me still when I am tired. But I will not collapse, I promise you.”

Cadvan nodded. “I need to make arrangements before I leave Jouan,” he said. “That will take some days, I think. You should rest while you can, and then I will be in your hands.”

Dernhil looked scornfully at his hands, which trembled slightly as they held the mug. “They are poor things to put trust in, I fear,” he said. “But I thank you.”

“There’s no call for thanks,” Cadvan said harshly.

“But there is. You need not have answered as you have.”

“Like you, I have no choice.”

“There is always a choice,” said Dernhil.

For a moment it seemed as if the two Bards were about to argue, but then Dernhil laughed. “By the Light, if I have to fight even to show you gratitude, it will be a hard journey, Cadvan. Be less full of spikes, I beg you.”

Cadvan met Dernhil’s eyes and laughed, despite himself. His smile transformed his face: suddenly he seemed much younger, carefree and reckless.

“No spikes, then,” he said. “At the worst, the odd prickle.”

“Is that a promise?” said Dernhil.

“As good a promise as you’ll get, which isn’t much,” said Cadvan. “Sadly, I seem to be made of spikes.”

It was more than a week before Cadvan was ready to travel, although in truth it could have taken him a couple of days to dispose of his few possessions. When it came to the point, he found himself dragging his feet. He gave his house and furniture back to Taran, refusing payment, and he asked Hal to take Stubborn. He kept his cobbling tools, which had belonged to him since he was a child, and bought a horse and some supplies for the journey. The rest of his belongings scarcely filled a pack. He made his farewells, completed his unfinished cobbling orders and cleaned his house for the last time.

“We all knew that you would leave one day,” Taran said, on Cadvan’s final night in Jouan. They had just had another long argument about payment for the house, which Taran had again lost, and were sealing the deal with a drink in the tavern. “You’re not the kind of man who would stay in a place like this.”

“I’m sorry to leave,” said Cadvan. “Jouan has been good to me.”

“It went both ways,” said Taran. “We’ve needed a healer here. And I think there would have been murder done over that business about Jorvil, if you had not been here.”

“I can’t say he loves me for it,” said Cadvan, grimacing. Jorvil, the leader who had cheated his gang, still bore Cadvan a heavy grudge for his part in the negotiations.

“That one, he was born sour,” said Taran. “Most are not like him.”

Cadvan thought of the miners he knew. They were hardened by their lives, and were often harsh in their dealings, but Taran was right: Jorvil’s bitterness and capacity for spite was unusual. “I hope you can keep an eye on his wife…”

“I will,” said Taran. “We all will. Some things have changed since you arrived, and for the better. It hasn’t done us any harm having a Bard around.”

“I’m not a Bard,” said Cadvan quickly. “Not any more…”

“I don’t know why you’re not a Bard, and I won’t ask, because it’s none of my business,” said Taran, giving Cadvan a shrewd glance. “But whatever important people say in their stone castles, we make our own judgements about the worth of a man. You’re a Bard to us. Our Bard.”

At this, something lurched in Cadvan’s chest. He turned away to hide his unexpected emotion. To cover the moment, Taran called for more drinks.

“You’re very different from your friend,” Taran said thoughtfully, putting full mugs on the table. “He’s more…”

“More Bard-like?” said Cadvan, smiling.

“Aye, more like a Bard. Not that you don’t seem like a Bard, you understand, but you also seem like one of us, somehow. He’s a bit more … above us. More distant, like. Friendly and all, he’s been nothing but courtesy since he’s been here, I don’t mean that he holds himself up…”

“He was born into Barding,” said Cadvan. “I’m the son of a cobbler, and there are no other Bards in my family. Maybe it’s just that.”

“Maybe,” said Taran. “Maybe it’s something else, that’s nothing to do with being a Bard or not, and is just about who you are.” He paused, and then gave Cadvan a measuring glance. “Hal said that you think she should set up as a healer on her own. Did you mean that?”

“I did,” Cadvan said.

“She won’t go down the pit any more,” said Taran. “I can’t say as I blame her. You can scarce move in the house these days, for all the herbs she’s drying and messes she’s making…”

“She’s already a brave healer,” said Cadvan. “She has more of a talent for it than I have, and she knows the basics. She could set up in my house, so she won’t crowd yours.”

“We could use the extra coin, for sure. But it’s a big responsibility, for one so young. If things go wrong, she’ll be blamed for it.” He hesitated. “I hear that some are already calling her a witch.”

Cadvan studied Taran’s troubled face. “I suppose you mean that Jorvil is,” he said. “He’s wrong, anyway. A witch is one with a little of the Speech, and Hal has none of it. I think you’ll find that more are speaking well of her, for the help she’s giving them.”

Taran nodded, but he still looked worried. “Aye. Aye. I hope you’re right. She’ll miss you sorely, will Hal. You saved her, after Inshi died. She was that cast down, I had never seen her like that before…”

Cadvan cleared his throat. “If she is honest about what she can do, she should avoid most problems,” he said. “Hal has much quickness, but she also has a deal of common sense, and that will see her straight. And as you said, you need a healer here.”

“I’ll let her do it, then. As if I could stop her, anyway.”

“If all goes well, I’ll come back and see how she fares. How you all fare.”

“Aye, she told me that,” said Taran. “She says that you’re not allowed to die.”

Cadvan smiled, and a long silence fell between them. At last Taran looked up, meeting Cadvan’s gaze. “I don’t mind telling you, my friend, my heart is heavy. Something is amiss, in the middle of things. I don’t know what it is. I just feel it, as if there’s a shadow in the sunlight, and it’s growing. Since before the accident, since even before you came here, but more after…”

Cadvan looked up, surprised. “What makes you say that?” he asked.

Taran shrugged, slightly embarrassed. “Maybe it’s just foolishness,” he said.

“No,” said Cadvan. “If I’ve learned one thing while I’ve been in Jouan, it’s that you’re not a foolish man.”

Taran grinned, but his eyes remained troubled. “Anyway, I know you probably can’t say, Bard’s business and all, but I can’t help wondering… Maybe it’s just nightmares.”

“You’ve been having odd dreams?” Cadvan asked abruptly.

There was a short silence. “I dreamed of the explosion before it happened,” Taran said. “I didn’t tell no one before, because it would have been bad luck, and I didn’t after, because there was no point. And there have been others, bad dreams. Forests dying. The sky on fire.”

Cadvan studied the man beside him. It didn’t surprise him that Taran had such sharp intuitions – since they had become friends, he had grown to respect his insight – but he was astonished by his dreams.

“Why I’m leaving is to do with that … shadow,” he said at last.

“Rather you than me, then,” said Taran. “I don’t want to know any more, even if you would tell me, which I warrant you won’t.”

“It’s more can’t than won’t,” said Cadvan. “We scarce understand what it is we have to do. I don’t know if I can be of any use, anyway. But I have to go, whether it makes any difference or not.”

Taran finished his drink. “Time for home,” he said. The two men paid and left the tavern. They lingered outside for a while, looking up at the starry sky, as Cadvan searched for words. He wanted to say, without embarrassing him, how important Taran’s friendship had been; how much Taran’s tactful kindness had mattered when he had arrived, utterly without hope, in Jouan; how deeply he had grown to respect him. In the end, he said nothing. He grasped Taran’s hand and they embraced.

“Farewell, my friend,” he said.

“May the Light protect you,” said Taran. It was an odd thing for a miner to say: this was the blessing of Bards. He studied Cadvan with a deep, wordless compassion. “I don’t know what you have to face out there, but I’m with Hal. You’re not allowed to die. Make sure you come back one day.”

“I will,” said Cadvan. “If I can, I will.”

  II  
IX

S
ELMANA
sat up abruptly in her bed, sniffing the night uneasily like a startled animal. Something had wrenched her out of sleep: her heart was jumping in her chest, and the hair stood up on the back of her neck. She listened intently in the dark, and at last breathed out, telling herself that she was imagining things. And then she heard it again: a noise on the edge of hearing, a groaning that made her skin tighten with some unidentifiable horror.

She gestured and made a magelight, staring about the bedchamber. Everything looked the same as it always did. She had come home to visit her mother in Kien, as she did every fortnight or so, and this house was as familiar as her own hands: she had grown up here with her two brothers. Now both of her brothers were married and gone to their own houses, Selmana was learning to be a Bard in Lirigon, and her mother, long widowed, lived alone.

She waited for her heart to stop beating so fast, but the crawling sense of horror only seemed to intensify. She sent out her Bard senses in an agony of listening, so her whole body seemed a straining ear. She told herself that the noise must have been the tail end of a bad dream, but she knew she hadn’t imagined it. At last she couldn’t bear sitting there any more; she had to find out what was wrong. Snapping out the magelight, she scrambled silently out of bed, wrapping a soft woollen cloak around her against the night chill, and crept to the kitchen. She could hear her mother breathing in her bedroom, and the rustle of mice in the walls, and the sigh of the summer wind through the trees, and the rafters creaking: nothing more than the normal night noises. Yet the feeling was getting worse by the moment. Something was out there.

She stood uncertainly in the darkened kitchen, letting her eyes adjust. I’m a Bard, she thought. A Bard of Lirigon. She saw the kitchen knife and picked it up. Then she drew a deep, trembling breath, attempting to steady herself, and made a shield. It was one of the simplest transformations in magery, something every Minor Bard learned early, but her powers felt shaky and weak. She tested the barrier, found it wanting and tried again. This time it worked, and she felt a little better: at least now she should have some protection. She silently unlatched the door and, holding her breath lest the hinges creak and betray her, pushed it open and stepped out into the night.

The feeling of wrongness hit her like a blow. High above, a pale sliver of moon sailed through wisps of cloud, its slender illumination falling on the fields before her. The shadows under the eaves of the house were very black, but she dared make no light. She thought of running back indoors and slamming down the bar, but she firmly put that thought aside. I’m a Bard, she told herself again. I shouldn’t be afraid. She could hear something breathing in heavy, shuddering grunts. She focused her perceptions: whatever was wrong was coming from the orchard, among the darkest shadows thrown by the trees. The ground there was stippled, grey and black and silver. Step by step, wincing at the smallest rustle made by her bare feet, she crept towards it.

She was almost at the orchard when she heard the groan again. It was much louder out here in the open: she stopped mid-step, her stomach flipping over with terror. What was it? It sounded like an animal in an extremity of distress: or perhaps a human, driven past the limits of speech by terrible pain. It was there, at the far end of the orchard. She could see where the shadows thickened on the ground into a figure. Slowly she put her foot down, feeling carefully so she wouldn’t snap a twig, and drew closer. Among the trees she felt trapped, as if she were entering a closed room: a silence seemed to have fallen around her, as if every living thing were holding its breath, hiding from some great predator.

Selmana tested her shield again, and strengthened it. The kitchen knife felt cold in her hand, and sadly inadequate. It was good steel, sharp enough to cut bone. It was all she had. She paused, and changed her grip so she was holding it clamped in her fist, ready to drive into anything that attacked her. Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness now, and she could see the tangle of shadow branches on the grass and the faint glimmer of the trunks under the leaves, but the clot of shadow before her resolved into no certain shape.

She had never been so afraid. She thought again about turning back. Even though she was a Bard, she was only a Minor Bard, and there was so much she didn’t know. But she didn’t turn back. She had come this far, and she would despise herself if she ran away now. She ran through the words of power in her mind, readying herself, and crept on, keeping to the shelter of the trees.

She could see it more clearly now, but she still couldn’t make out what it was, although she could smell it. A rank scent, an animal. Then it seemed to twist and fall over, letting out the horrible groan again, and a cloud lifted from the moon, and the form condensed into something recognizable. It was a wild pig, a boar. It was trembling violently, and its flanks heaved in and out as it drew breath after shuddering breath. Its jaws were slathered with foam, and she could see the whites of its eyes. The grass beneath it was violently churned up: it had been in the same place for some time. She had never seen an animal in such agony. It was unbearable even to witness.

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