Read The Bone Queen Online

Authors: Alison Croggon

The Bone Queen (4 page)

And so, thought Cadvan, began the brilliant career of Cadvan of Lirigon. He had heard this story told so many times that he no longer knew whether it was true. It was part of the myth he had constructed around himself: even as an untutored boy, he had outwitted the Dark! He now wondered at his own vanity, his transparent folly. What troubled him most of all was that he couldn’t really remember, from the inside. He could see the boy that he had been, but he seemed a mere puppet; it was as if those things had happened to another person, in another age of the world. He no longer remembered what that boy had felt; he could remember the colour of sunlight but not its warmth on his skin. His memories were like pictures in a book, that someone else had written to pass the time.

III

I
N
the days after the accident, Cadvan spent his waking hours attending to the injured. He drove himself pitilessly, answering every request made of him; it was two days before he had any sleep at all. He was discomforted to find himself acting as a counsellor and comforter to the bereaved: it was a role to which he felt deeply unsuited. Words wouldn’t rise to his tongue: easy comfort in such a time felt like a lie. His taciturn sympathy suited the villagers, who, although he didn’t realize it, respected him for it as much as for his unstinting care of the injured.

He bitterly felt his inadequacy in the face of what was needed: he saw only the pain he couldn’t remove, the infection he couldn’t entirely cleanse, the burns that he couldn’t heal. Healing hadn’t been among the first of his interests at Lirigon, and he cursed the shallowness and limitations of his knowledge. He thought the silence of those he cared for was a courteous cover for the same harsh criticisms he made of himself, but it was simply that the Jouains were not given to effusive gratitude. Instead, when he finally took himself to bed and slept for sixteen hours, he woke up to find on his doorstep four eggs, a meat pastry and six golden apples hoarded from the previous year’s harvest, the first of many anonymous offerings. He couldn’t have borne to be thanked for a task he thought botched and poor, but he was grateful for the food and the delicacy of the villagers’ tact.

The damps began to clear two days later, defying the bleakest predictions that the mine would be forced to close. After the windlass was repaired and a makeshift ventilator erected, a party cautiously went down to explore the mine, and to begin the melancholy task of bringing out the bodies. The remains were winched up on a canvas sling, to be returned to those who gathered, with a patient, silent dignity, by the minehead. Cadvan joined the whole village there when the first party went down, in case he might be needed; but when it was clear that the miners rescued only the dead, he didn’t return. His work was with the living.

Most of all, he couldn’t bear to witness the stunned grief that hit when all hope of hope collapsed. Many Jouains, no matter how grim the chances, no matter how rationally they knew there was no possibility of survival, clung to a secret belief that those missing were still alive, until the moment they saw the body come out of the shaft. To make things worse, the waterlogged corpses were sometimes unrecognizable: a few still kept hoping until twenty-one bodies made twenty-one deaths unarguable.

The first to be brought up was Taran’s brother, Inshi: laid out on a bier, his corpse seemed tiny, like a broken bird. Taran, his face expressionless, went up to claim the body. Cadvan watched him walking beside the bier as two miners carried it down the hill to the village, and wished passionately that there was some comfort he could offer; but seeing Taran’s rigid shoulders, braced against pain, speech died in his throat.

He liked Taran, who lived next door with his siblings: he was a tall, heavily muscled man with a deep fund of kindness. When Cadvan had first arrived in Jouan, he had dealt with Taran to buy the house, which had belonged to Taran’s childless uncle, who had lately died from the lung disease. Although he hadn’t been asked, Taran had helped Cadvan to patch its walls and roof so it was weatherproof, laughingly brushing aside offers of payment. Although he had only recently reached manhood, he was a skilled hewer, the leader of his gang and the main breadwinner for his family. Both his parents were dead, his father the year before from a rockfall in the mine, his mother from a wasting sickness shortly afterwards.

Later, after Inshi’s burial, Cadvan haltingly gave his condolences. Taran grasped Cadvan’s hand, his eyes lit with sorrow. “Poor lad,” he said. “Nine summers was all he had. An imp, he was. I’ll miss him.” His voice caught.

Cadvan cleared his throat, thinking of the mischievous boy he had glimpsed running past his door. “At least Hal got out,” he said at last. Hal, a quicksilver girl a few years older than Inshi, had barely suffered a scratch.

“Aye. Aye. The best of friends, those two were, Inshi and Hal. You’d have thought they sprang from the same egg.” Taran’s face darkened with memory, and then he looked up, his mouth set firmly against his grief. “Truth be told, we were much luckier than some. If I hadn’t cut my foot, I’d have been down there too. And how I cursed my luck at the time! Indira Huna lost her whole family, father, mother, brothers…”

Indira was blind, and had never worked in the mine. Cadvan had seen her walking around the village, feeling her way with a stick, although he had never had the occasion to speak to her. She was startlingly fair, her unseeing eyes dark and blank in her thin face, and was delicately built compared to most Jouains. Without a family to support her, she would find it difficult to survive. Taran looked sideways at Cadvan, and said, as if confessing something shameful, that he had asked Indira to live with his family.

“She is good with her hands, and a famous cook,” he said. “So it would benefit both of us.”

Cadvan met his eyes. “It’s a kindness, too.”

“Nay, I could do with the help in the house,” he said. “The baby is walking now, and getting into all sorts of trouble…”

Cadvan smiled, and clasped Taran’s shoulder briefly before moving off. All the furniture in Taran’s main room had been shifted out of the front door to make space for the funeral meal, but despite this, the house was so crowded that exiting was difficult. On his way out, Cadvan glimpsed Hal, curled up at the top of the stairway, her dark head propped on her knees, broodingly watching the throng. She looked up and by chance met his eye: the desolation he saw in her face made Cadvan’s breath rush out of him. She flinched, and Cadvan was abashed that he had unwittingly caught her in such private feeling. To cover his embarrassment, he gave her a brief, formal nod, and after a pause, she nodded back, her expression veiled.

Cadvan paid his respects at every burial, although he didn’t know most of the dead and stood among the mourners as the stranger that he was. It seemed as if the burials would never stop, although in truth they were all over in a few days. Once the wakes and blessings were done, the village began to return to its normal rhythm.

There was a meeting among the gang leaders, who constituted the informal council that ran the mine. The miners had found no trace of firedamp, and they concluded that they had hit an unlucky pocket of gas. After much discussion, they decided to close the tunnel where the explosion had happened, and to follow another seam. The main problem they now faced was a much-reduced workforce. The only reason the toll hadn’t been higher was because mining occurred in two shifts, morning and afternoon, to allow the miners some daylight hours in which to cultivate the gardens which produced most of their food.

After some impassioned argument – the rights to a mine were jealously guarded – the council decided to send news to Akmil and Shodarin, nearby mining settlements where some of them had relatives or associates, that there was room for five new teams. Jouan produced the highest quality coal in the region, the hard, black anthracite that was most sought by smiths, and that would attract interest. There would soon be newcomers in Jouan.

It seemed to Cadvan that routine asserted itself with astonishing rapidity. Once the mine was working again, it was as if nothing had changed. Only the twenty-three raw graves in the cemetery remained to tell of the catastrophe; and by summer even they were gentled by new grass.

The accident marked a sharp change in the villagers’ attitude towards Cadvan: although he would always be regarded as a stranger, it was as if the village had breathed out and accepted him. It was nothing very obvious, but it made him realize, not without an inner sneer at his weakness, how much he had missed being part of a community. People who had previously given him the barest nod in passing now greeted him by name; when he went to the local tavern, his entrance no longer caused a brief silence. Sometimes the miners would invite him to drink with them, and he accepted out of courtesy, although he preferred to drink alone.

The Jouains were too polite to question him directly, but after the revelation of his powers, Cadvan became the object of lively curiosity. He was for a time the major topic of discussion in the hamlet, an interest only made sharper by his deep reserve. They judged that he could be no more than twenty years of age (in truth he was nearer thirty, but their work burned youth from the Jouains early, and men of Cadvan’s age already looked old). Despite his youth, he carried the gravity of a much older man. He seldom smiled, and almost never laughed. It was generally agreed that he would be off one day, but for the moment he showed no sign of moving on.

Cadvan’s black moods made the villagers wary of him, but they also earned him a curious respect. They treated him as one of their own afflicted, like Mad Truwy, who had to be avoided in his fits but otherwise was a good man. These moods happened every few weeks. In their grip, Cadvan didn’t leave his house for days on end. The first time he didn’t appear, it was thought he might have died in his sleep, and Taran, as his known friend, was sent in to check. He emerged quickly, and afterwards wouldn’t say what he had seen, aside from roughly telling the inquisitive to leave Cadvan alone. Several children, daring each other, climbed the apple tree next to his house and peeped through his bedroom window to see what he was doing. They all reported the same thing: he was lying in his bed like a dead man, staring at the ceiling.

Cadvan emerged from these seclusions pale and haggard, and headed straight for the tavern. There he stood for hours in the corner, drinking mug after mug of the harsh apple spirit without showing any sign of drunkenness. The tavern keeper, Jonalan, said that in those moments he feared to speak to him: he looked like a man haunted by death. The next day he would be normal again.

It would have been considered the height of bad manners to pry into Cadvan’s affairs when he clearly wished them to remain private, so the villagers were forced to shrewd guesses. It was clear that Cadvan was, or had been, a Bard, now fallen on hard times. The mean-minded thought that he had a Dark Past, and suggested that a terrible crime had exiled him from his kind; but general sympathy endowed him with Tragedy. Others, making the sign against evil, ventured that he was cursed. None of these guesses was so far from the truth, but the rumours gave him an unlikely glamour. Some of the local girls noted how handsome he was, and would greet him prettily in the road as he passed.

Fortunately for his peace of mind, Cadvan was oblivious to this speculation: if he had known how keenly he was discussed, he would have been deeply embarrassed. But the village gossip moved on after a month or so. Five new gangs from Shodarin, six families in all, provided plenty of new material; and then the talk died away altogether in the flare of a scandal that dominated the village all summer. It was discovered that Jorvil, whom everybody knew beat his wife, had been cheating his team, selling his coal for a higher price than he told his gangers and keeping the difference. He was lucky not to be murdered for it: such behaviour betrayed the core of the miners’ code of honour. The verbal bargains struck with a gang leader were considered sacred.

Using his authority as a disinterested outsider, Cadvan arbitrated the dispute without bloodshed, hammering out a settlement that everyone (except Jorvil, who smarted under a sense of ill-usage) agreed was just. Cadvan privately considered that the most important part of his judgement was the condition which stipulated that if Jorvil hit his wife again, he would be run out of the village. Such violence was uncommon in Jouan, and the villagers considered it shameful and unmanly; but for all that, men were seldom punished for it, as it was considered a private matter. Perhaps, thought Cadvan, that might change. He hoped so. The previous week he had treated Jorvil’s wife for a broken nose and bruises, and the fear in her eyes had set a cold anger in his bones.

By now, Cadvan the Bard in Exile was old news. He was an unremarkable, if slightly odd, part of the village landscape. His days were undemanding, but surprisingly full: like everyone else, he grew much of the food he ate, and there was the cobbling, and villagers routinely came to him for healing. He flatly refused payment for the healing, and so was often paid, anonymously, in kind. One memorable morning he woke up to find a nanny goat tethered to his porch, ruminatively chewing on some valuable leather he had unaccountably left out the night before.

Cadvan, who felt no need for a goat, sighed heavily, untied her from the porch and told her sternly in the Speech that she was not to eat his leather. She stared at him through her slotted eyes, and pointed out that if there were proper eating in reach, she would have no need for leather. He and the goat, whom he named Stubborn, struck a bargain: and thereafter she remained both untethered and (to the rest of the villagers, who were well-used to the depredations of goats) a mysteriously virtuous model of ovine behaviour. Certainly, although Stubborn occasionally lapsed and forced her way through a fence into a neighbour’s garden, Cadvan’s unprotected leeks and turnips remained untouched.

To stave off an encroaching boredom, Cadvan began to teach the village midwife, Eka, some healing techniques that needed no magery, and which would help her arts. Then somehow, towards the end of summer, he was teaching Hal as well. She had an innate talent, and she told him she would far rather be a healer than work down the mine. As autumn slid into winter, and then winter lifted into another spring, he realized, not without a grim humour, that despite himself he had begun to put down roots.

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