Read The Bone Queen Online

Authors: Alison Croggon

The Bone Queen (30 page)

“Aye, kitten. Old lovers, as it happens, and then deep friends. That was long, long ago, although I suppose it wasn’t so long ago for Nelac, Bards being what they are. I often wonder what time means to them.”

Selmana politely hid her surprise, but it didn’t escape Larla’s shrewd gaze. “I was never pretty, but I had a charm all my own,” she said. “As do you, my love. You’ll never be beautiful in the way of your cousin, but there are many kinds of beauty.”

Selmana blushed, discomforted by Larla’s direct gaze, and changed the subject. “So if you have the Sight, maybe you know if Nelac will return?”

“There are things I can’t see,” Larla said, and for a moment Selmana saw how anxious she really was. “There are knots that must untie themselves as they will.”

A new blast of wind drowned out her words as she spoke. Dernhil was right, Selmana thought; there was more to this tempest than the accidental weather of the world. The creeping dread, briefly forgotten, returned worse than before. There was an afternoon to get through, and then the night: and if the others weren’t back by morning, she was ordered to ride, by herself, all the way to Pellinor. She pushed the thought away, twisting the ring on her finger. They would come back. They must.

Larla was clearly someone who always liked to be busy. She pulled a pile of yarn from a basket underneath the table and began to roll a thread into a ball, inviting Selmana to help. The rhythm of the work was comforting. Selmana had no idea if it was still morning, or how long it was since the other Bards had left the house. Time seemed to have stopped altogether; she had the odd feeling that she’d always been in this warm, colourful haven, winding yarn in calm yellow lamplight, while the unreal storm howled over their heads.

Then, for no reason that Selmana could see, Larla’s head jerked up, snapping to attention. For the first time that day she looked frightened. “Is something wrong?” asked Selmana.

Larla couldn’t hear what she said, but she caught Selmana’s meaning and nodded, her face tight. She leaned forward and spoke into Selmana’s ear, so close that her whiskers tickled. “Listen,” she said. “Listen so I can see.”

Selmana had kept her listening closed because of the cacophony; to open it was to be bruised and battered. Cautiously she sent out her senses, questing for clues, her blood pulsing loudly in her ears. Everywhere was the deafening noise of wrongness, but she couldn’t discover why Larla was suddenly so agitated; everything seemed the same as before. She shook her head.

“Something is opening, kitten. Something I don’t understand. A door is opening, and behind it is something terrible, something that waits to devour us…”

Selmana stared at her stupidly. “I don’t know what…”

“Not in the storm,” said Larla impatiently. “It’s not in the storm. Don’t listen to that. Beyond it. Beyond the World. Outside everything.”

With intense relief, Selmana shut her listening against the tumult outside. She wants me to listen in another way, she thought. But how? And then, as if something clicked, she understood. Of course there was another way. She had always known, without quite being aware of it. It was a way of looking
between
… She closed her eyes and concentrated, attempting to unfocus her mind; and there, on the edge of things, she sensed a cold and terrifying presence, a broken flutter like wings of delirium. She snapped open her eyes, staring at Larla.

“That’s it, my kitten. What is it?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered.

“Try and see. It is closer, it is closer all the time… Something is calling it in…”

The last thing Selmana wanted to do was to look closely at whatever it was she had glimpsed, but she obediently tried again. This time it was clearer, but the sense of horror that filled her was almost intolerable. It wasn’t so much a presence as an absence, a consciousness that was so beyond her knowledge that she couldn’t comprehend it. She screamed without knowing that she screamed. Even at this distance, it was an affliction like madness. There were huge wings, or something like wings, which beat in a rhythm that had nothing to do with the pulse of warm blood. She tried to snap her mind closed but somehow she couldn’t, and she met Larla’s eyes, pleading to be released. But Larla wasn’t looking at her: she was staring, fear naked in her face, at something beyond Selmana. Selmana turned to look and saw nothing: and then terror obliterated everything else. The next thing she knew, she was curled in a ball underneath the table, her head wrapped in her arms, and Larla was pulling her arm, trying to drag her out.

“I can’t,” she sobbed. “I can’t stop it.”

“I’m sorry, kitten, I wanted to see and I couldn’t by myself,” said Larla. “Come out, there is nothing here. Oh, that was a bad mistake. I’m so sorry. Come out now, come out.”

Gently, as if she were a frightened animal, Larla coaxed Selmana out from underneath the table, and at last she stood in the kitchen, staring wildly around her, shaking from head to foot. Selmana was surprised that she could see the kitchen at all: her inner eye told her that everything was pitch-black, and in that blackness was a shadow darker even than that, which now seemed to beat with the rhythm of her own heart. She no longer knew who she was, the boundaries of her skin dissolved and she bled into the darkness, and the darkness was her. The only mooring was Larla’s warm, living hand: it was the one solid point in a universe that spun around her. Selmana held on as if she were drowning.

“She’s here,” Selmana said. “I can feel her here. I can’t keep her away, oh, Larla, what will I do, what will I do?”

“Don’t let go, my dear. The wings have gone away, I think the door is closed.”

“It’s not the wings.” Selmana could scarcely speak through her chattering teeth. “It’s not the wings. It’s her. She’s here. She’s me. She wants me…”

Larla put her arms tightly around her. “No, my lovely, you are you. She has no part in you. She has no right to you. She wants to trick you, yes, she does, but it’s only trickery… She’s gone now, she’s not here. Come, my kitten. You are here, not there. I’m sorry I asked, I was so afraid, but it’s all right now. Come, my love…”

“I opened to see and I saw her and I can’t stop seeing her and she wants to eat me alive,” said Selmana, through choking sobs. “I can’t stop her. She’s here now, she’s here and everywhere…”

Larla kept talking, a soft, gentle monologue as she stroked Selmana’s hair. And gradually, so slowly that at first it was scarcely perceptible, the horror that had opened within Selmana began to dispel. She became aware of her body again, warm and real in the soft yellow lamplight of Larla’s kitchen. She felt the tears on her cheeks and her hair tangled over her face and the bruises on her knees from when she had thrown herself underneath the table. And then, quite suddenly, a shutter within her blinked and closed, and the terrible sense of unbeing was gone, and she was just herself.

She unclenched her hands, becoming conscious that she was holding Larla hard enough to hurt, and stood up straight, wiping her hair out of her eyes. She realized, with embarrassment, that she had wet herself in her terror.

“I’ll get some cloths and dry clothes,” said Larla. “We’ll have to clean you up now. I’m so, so sorry, that was something I shouldn’t have asked. I didn’t know. Sometimes I am just a silly old woman…”

“It’s gone,” said Selmana, wonder in her voice. “I thought it would never go, that I was going to be like that for ever…”

Larla stroked her cheek and kissed her. “I told you it was trickery,” she said. “We’ll talk about it later. It’s too close now.” Then she smiled and cocked her head. “Listen.”

At first Selmana didn’t understand, and then she realized that it was quiet. Larla unlatched the shutters and threw them back and daylight flooded into the room. Selmana blinked.

“Blessed peace,” said Larla. “I thought I’d go deaf with all that hammering. We’ll see the other Bards soon, I expect. They’ve done what they had to do. So let’s get you respectable.”

XXIII

G
LAD
of something concrete to do, Selmana washed herself and changed into the woollen breeches and thick silk underclothes she had stowed in her pack. She rinsed out her soiled clothes, fending off Larla, who insisted that she should do it. After some argument, Larla gave her a wooden tub and heated some water, and had to be content with instructing Selmana on how best to scrub woollens. Selmana listened with half an ear, squeezing the fabric until the water ran clean, and hung her clothes in Larla’s tiny paved courtyard. Larla tutted over her plants, sadly shredded and bruised by the storm, and began to sweep up the litter, a sludge of grey, unmelted hail and torn branches and leaves. Selmana looked up at the clearing sky, feeling the clean wind like a blessing.

Alone in the kitchen while Larla busied herself about her garden, Selmana found that she was very content to wait. A deep tiredness, as if she had laboured all day in a forge, had settled in her very bones. She listened for the return of the other Bards, hoping that Larla’s confidence wasn’t misplaced. She realized she trusted that the old woman was right, that the crisis had passed with the storm and that Nelac, Cadvan and Dernhil were unscathed, and she wondered why. Was it that Larla made her judgements with emphatic confidence? And yet on reflection they were, perhaps, little more than an expression of hope… She remembered then with a shudder how lost she had been, and how Larla had held her and brought her back, and thought that there was something more at work.

The more she knew of Larla, the stranger she seemed. Selmana knew that it wasn’t uncommon for people to be born with aspects of the Gift, but without the Speech that defined a Bard; she had long suspected that her father, who was a famous smith, had something of the Gift in his hands, and had passed it on to her. She had at first assumed that Larla was a wise woman, like the midwife in her village. But now she wondered if Larla’s eccentricity concealed another kind of power. Of all the places Nelac might have taken refuge in Lirigon, where almost every building was thick with charms and wards, he had chosen Larla’s house. And she had been notably unworried that the storm’s violence, even at its height, might damage her home. Who was she?

Selmana studied the bunches of dried herbs hanging from the ceiling, the basket spilling over with undyed yarn, the pine table scrubbed to whiteness, the shelves that lined every wall, packed with brightly glazed pots and curios and glowing jars of preserves. Everything spoke of unwearying and meticulous domesticity; Selmana couldn’t pick up one sniff of magery. If Larla had powers – and now Selmana was certain that she was, in her own mysterious way, very powerful indeed – it had very little to do with the magery of Bards. Whatever it was, it was deeper than Speech, and followed its own rules, living closer to the heartbeat of things. Remembering Inghalt and his priggish definitions of Bardic lore, she thought with a sudden irritation that the Light could do with more of Larla’s kind of wisdom. Selmana loved the Light, but sometimes Bards could be blind…

Her meditations were interrupted when Larla came bustling through the kitchen and hurried to the front of the house. Selmana looked up in surprise – she had heard no sounds of arrival – and followed Larla into her tiny hallway as she pulled open the door. All three Bards stood outside, Nelac supported between the other two, and Larla all but hauled them inside, agitated with her news; but when he saw Nelac she bit her lip and was silent. Selmana was shocked at their faces; all of them were pale, but Nelac seemed to have aged a decade since she had last seen him. She took his arm to support him, asking what had happened, but Larla stopped her with a fierce glare.

“Enough now. There’ll be time enough to talk,” Larla said. “You all look like ghosts of yourselves. And I mean you too, kitten.” Before they spoke about anything, Larla insisted that the Bards eat the stew she had made, and she brewed a tea of peppermint and camomile, explaining that it would steady their nerves. When everyone had eaten to her satisfaction she sat forward in her chair, her chin on her hands, and studied her guests.

“You all came back, and for all your raggedness, none of you is hurt, and that’s a blessing,” she said. “But, my dears, something very strange happened while you were gone, and I can’t read it.”

Selmana shuddered. “First there were those wings, which made me so afraid,” she said. “I don’t know what they were…”

“We do,” said Cadvan grimly. “They were the Shika.”

“I’m sure I don’t know who the Shika are, and I’m sure I don’t want to know,” said Larla. “But listen: just as I heard them, there on the edge howling like they were going to tear everything to pieces, I saw the Bone Queen in her black armour. She came with the wings.”

The Bards looked stunned. “Kansabur?” said Cadvan at last. “Are you sure? I mean, how do you know?”

Larla hesitated, and her gaze turned inward. “I just knew, like she’d said her name out loud,” she said at last. “When I felt the… I asked Selmana to listen, because I couldn’t see with my own eyes, so I thought to look through her senses. And I saw the wings, and nothing has frightened me more in this life. I knew they were drawing closer and closer. But then they were gone as if they were never there. And then I saw the Bone Queen.”

“I saw her too. It was her, I know it was her,” said Selmana, her voice trembling.

“Where?” asked Cadvan urgently.

“I don’t know where I was,” said Selmana. “But I saw her, first like a shadow, like I saw her in the Shadowplains and with the boar, and then it was like … all the shadows ran together with the wings and she became … solid… And I knew she was hunting me, that she might see me, and that the wings were hunting with her, and there was no escape…” She gestured impatiently. “I was so afraid. I don’t know how to say it.”

“I think I know what happened,” said Cadvan grimly. “It was that other sorcery…”

“What other sorcery?” Dernhil looked surprised. “Surely there was just the summoning?”

“There was another spell wound through the summoning. It seems to me that Likod was intending more than the destruction of Lirigon,” Cadvan said. “Maybe the Shika were called to bring their potencies to Kansabur, to knit the Bone Queen’s shadowflesh so that she might step into the World. It was often said that during the Great Silence she made the Shika part of her being.”

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