Read The Bone Queen Online

Authors: Alison Croggon

The Bone Queen (2 page)

  I  
I

I
T
was towards sundown when they felt it: a shudder beneath them, as if the earth had twitched its skin. Afterwards some said that the light had flickered and briefly darkened, but what they saw was the shadow in their minds, a sudden knowledge that made their hearts stop beating for an endless moment before they started running.

One man, who was cobbling a boot on the porch outside his house in the spring sunshine, didn’t run. He slowly stood up and watched the villagers racing past. He didn’t stop anyone to ask what had happened: instead, he looked as if he were listening intently. He was a stranger in the village, so no one thought to pause and speak to him, but he bore them no resentment for that. Carefully, without hurry, he packed away his tools, and walked the half mile to the mine.

This man, who the villagers knew only as Cadvan, had arrived in Jouan, a small, unbeautiful mining settlement in the shadow of the northern mountains, almost three months before. He was tall and dark-haired like most of the Lirhan natives, and although he was young, perhaps in his early twenties, his manner made him seem much older. After enquiring politely whether there was need for a cobbler, and negotiating the right to live in an abandoned house on the edge of the village, he had quietly begun work. Most villagers looked at Cadvan askance as a foreigner, but they allowed that his boots were cheap and well made, and that it was useful to have a cobbler local-like, for quick repairs. His accent betrayed that he was from Lirigon, and they felt no need to question further. He in turn asked no impertinent questions of them.

Strangers were not unusual in Jouan but, unless they came seeking work in the mine, there was little reason for them to stay, and few attractions. The most common visitors were the traders who made their way to the north on carts pulled by oxen or heavy-limbed horses, to buy the coal that was piled in black heaps near the mine. As well as news from the outside world, they brought woollen cloth, leather, iron and luxuries for those who could afford them: spices from the south or a length of Thoroldian silk for a wedding dress. Coal was rarely used in Annar: it was useless for smelting ore, as its impurities spoiled the metal, but was highly prized by smiths. Jouan coal ended up in forges in Pellinor or Lirigon, or even as far afield as Baladh. For the traders, Jouan was the end of the road: the only thing north of the village was the Osidh Elanor, the high mountain range that bordered Annar. It was as far away from the world of Barding as anyone could get.

When Cadvan had first arrived, he had been appalled that people should live as the Jouains did, although he quickly found they bristled at any suggestion that they were to be pitied. The mine was a living – nobody starved, and, by their lights, the families of the best hewers were wealthy – but there was no argument that it came at a high price. Almost everyone in the hamlet worked at the mine, beginning as soon as they could climb a ladder and pull a basket. Cadvan saw very few villagers who were older than about forty years: if miners escaped the ill-chance of accidents, they were killed by lung disease and the toll of decades of back-breaking labour.

Cadvan had grown up in a place where Barding, the magery of the Light which sought knowledge in all things, was taken for granted, where illness or injury was always attended by a healer, and where human justice tempered the harsh necessities of survival. Until he left Lirigon, he had thought such customs general throughout Annar. Jouan, far from the great centres of learning, knew little of Barding, and cared less: its people had their own rites and traditions, which were nobody else’s business. Ashamed of his ignorance, Cadvan was wise enough to keep his thoughts to himself. The village needed a cobbler: and so Cadvan had stayed.

As Cadvan walked up the long, bare slope to the minehead, he could see the mountains clearly before him, seeming closer than they were because of the clarity of the air. The lowering sun cast long shadows ahead. It had been a beautiful day, the first real sunshine of spring, and crocuses and daffodils were pushing up through the tussocks. A rabbit startled, and he watched its white tail bobbing up and down as it raced for its burrow. Rooks circled to their roosts and wrens called and squabbled in the hawthorn and blackberry bushes. It seemed too peaceful for catastrophe.

A few dozen onlookers were already gathered: women with babies on their hips, small children, miners who had been on the dawn shift, the tavern keeper and the smith, above-ground workers like the scramblers and pilers. They stared at the smoke that billowed out of the shaft and mounted high above them in a thick cloud, and at the broken windlass above the shaft, which creaked sadly as the terrified horse stamped and blew in its yoke, until someone unharnessed it and led it away. Some people were gathered in knots, talking urgently of what they might do now, but most stood staring at the mineshaft, waiting.

Those who had escaped the pit gathered a little distance away. They were mainly women and children, haulers who had been near the bottom of the shaft at the time of the explosion and had been able to climb out. Their eyes, the only part of them unblackened by coal dust, were shocked, blank holes in their faces. Some were injured, and the blood ran brightly, red rivers in the black grime on their skin. One man was being restrained by two others from climbing back down the shaft: he was shouting that his friends were down there, that he had to go down and get them. The others were soothing him, not attempting to argue: it was clearly impossible to enter the mine until the dust and gases had cleared.

Every detail seemed terribly sharp, outlined in the clarity of disaster. When he recalled it later, Cadvan remembered no sound: he knew that people were talking and shouting and weeping, but in his memory there was only a dreadful silence.

He turned to the man who limped up next to him, a hewer called Taran who had injured his foot a couple of days beforehand, and so had not been down the pit. Cadvan had helped him clean and bandage the deep cut, techniques that needed no magery, and had advised him to stay at home until the wound closed, or else he would face almost certain infection and the possible loss of his foot. Taran had screwed up his face at the advice, but Cadvan was glad to see that he had taken it.

“How many were down there?” he asked.

“Maybe three dozens,” said Taran. His face was tight and pale. “Inshi and Hal went down this morning. Hal forgot her lunch.” His expression crumpled for a moment, and Cadvan grasped his hand in sudden sympathy. Inshi and Hal were Taran’s younger brother and sister. They worked as haulers, dragging the coal from the face in baskets so it could be winched up to the surface by the windlass: dirty, dangerous, body-breaking work at the best of times. If they hadn’t come up by now, Cadvan thought, there was little hope that they were still alive.

Even Cadvan knew about the dangers of explosions. Gases in mines were a constant peril, but it was the firedamp that coal miners feared most. Any naked flame – even the spark of a metal tool on stone – could make it explode. That in turn could ignite the coal dust that hung thick in the air, driving a blast of fire through the pit. Deadly as that was, more people died of the bad air, the afterdamp, that followed. Cadvan thought of the people suffocating underground in the dark without hope of rescue, and shuddered.

“Maybe I can help?” said Cadvan diffidently. “At least, with those who are out. I have a few healing skills…”

Taran glanced at him, and nodded. “There’s no healers here,” he said. “Even a little is better than nothing.”

Taking that as permission, Cadvan went to those who had escaped the mine. They were gathered together near a shed, surrounded by other villagers. He paused, suddenly shy of intruding, and approached a man who lay at the edge of the group, coughing violently.

“Can I help?” he asked the woman who held him. “I might ease the cough…”

The woman looked up at Cadvan. “You’re that cobbler,” she said.

“Yes,” he said. “I know a bit about healing…”

The woman gave him a long, calculating look, but it was free of hostility. Then she shrugged and moved aside.

“I doubt you’ll stop the coughing,” she said. “When he sets off like this, it goes on and on.” Cadvan knelt down and put his hand against the man’s chest; underneath the convulsing coughs, he felt the rumble of diseased lungs struggling for breath. There were so many in the village like this man, withering away from the illness caused by breathing in coal dust. It killed most miners in the end. Many kept on working until they were unable to. The lucky ones found jobs overground before it was too late.

“Is he your husband?” Cadvan asked.

“Aye,” she said, pushing back her hair. “Ten years we been together, Ald and me. The smoke set him off, I reckon.”

Cadvan could find no injury, so he closed his eyes, sending out his Gift, trying to find the health in the blackened lungs beneath his hands. The disease was beyond his helping, beyond anyone’s help; but he could ease the immediate crisis. Gradually Ald stopped coughing, and he sat up, looking at Cadvan narrowly.

“You’re that cobbler,” he said, echoing his wife.

“I am,” said Cadvan. “But I know some other things too.”

“He was sort of shining,” said the woman, her voice high. “Shining, he was. It’s witchcraft, that’s what that is.”

Cadvan turned to her, forcing himself to smile. “It’s not witchcraft, but a Gift I have,” he said. “He should breathe easy now.”

“Shut your face, woman,” said Ald. “He’s a proper healer, he is. You should be thanking this gentleman here. I ain’t felt this easy since I can remember.”

A few people had gathered around to watch, and a buzz rose among those near by, drawing further attention. Cadvan studied the crowd, wondering if they would turn against him.

“Is there anyone else who needs healing?” he asked.

There was a visible hesitation; then a woman came forward.

“My Breta is cut bad,” she said. “And she’s burned by the fire.”

Cadvan breathed out, realizing that in the moments before the woman stepped towards him, his whole body had clenched with anxiety. There was no reason why these people should accept him. Revealing his power here was risking suspicion and mistrust, perhaps even violence; but it ran against the grain not to help when there was such need. He nodded, and followed the woman, and began work.

Cadvan of Lirigon, Bard of Annar. Cadvan the cobbler, taking what business the miners could afford in an ugly mining settlement which had barely heard of the Light. I cannot marry these two things, thought Cadvan. And I cannot kill the Bard in me either. Unless, of course, I kill myself. And I have neither the courage nor the vanity to do such a thing. I have the despair, of course. I have plenty of that… Unconsciously, his lip curled with contempt.

He lay on his pallet in the small, patched house he now called his home and stared at the ceiling. It was very late the night after the explosion, so late that the first intimations of dawn glimmered on the horizon. He had driven himself to an exhaustion past sleep; all evening and into the night he had worked with the injured, and had comforted their families as best he could. The count was twenty-one missing and two dead. Fifteen of the missing and both the dead were hewers, all of them the main breadwinners in their families, because hewers were skilled craftsmen and bargained for the highest rates. The other six were haulers, five of them children under ten.

Sixteen had escaped the mine, and of those, eleven were injured. Healing broken limbs and superficial burns was straightforward; the sickness caused by gas and smoke was less simple but still treatable. But there were two among the survivors who had suffered a great deal worse, who had somehow used a last animal strength to climb the long ladder out of the shaft and spill onto the ground, despite serious burns that blackened their skin. Without salves or medicines, or even a modicum of hygiene, Cadvan had felt helpless: he knew that their injuries were beyond the help of healing, and that the most he could do, all he could do, was to alleviate their agony. And even that was not enough: magery could only do so much. When he first assessed the severity of their wounds, he had expected these two men to die quickly. But they had lingered on for hours, dying in the small hours of the night, before Cadvan had stumbled back to his hut, barely able to stand from weariness.

They were tough people, the Jouains: tough, proud and unruly. He had already learned to respect their stoicism; today had taught him how deep that went. The explosion was a numbing catastrophe: it meant not only deaths in almost every house in the village, but the possible destruction of their livelihoods.

The smoke had cleared from the shaft after nightfall, and the chief colliers had sent down caged finches on a rope to check the air. The birds had fallen off their perches at only one fathom. The colliers checked every hour after that, with the same result. Older miners shook their heads. Jouan had always been a safe mine, with no history of firedamp, but perhaps that had changed now. Perhaps the adits that ventilated the mine had collapsed in the blast. Perhaps the hewers had struck a large pocket of gas – firedamp or even blackdamp – that had made the entire pit noxious. Perhaps, they said, the mine would have to be abandoned altogether. Only time would tell.

Beyond listing the missing, nobody talked about the miners who were still below. There was nothing to say. They all knew that it was possible, just possible, that some had survived the blast and the poisonous airs that followed. Mining lore was full of these stories, of a desperate scramble to a lucky pocket of air, of heroic rescue against the odds, of the miracle that cheated their daily enemy, death. Every man, woman and child knew every morning that they might not return at nightfall. You could be knocked off a ladder, or just fall, as sometimes children did after a day of hauling, their hands too tired to clasp the rungs that led up to the daylight world; or a collapse of rock could stave in your head, as had happened only last month to one of the hewers; or any one of a hundred other mischances.

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