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The Bone Houses
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THE GRAVEDIGGER’S CHILDREN were troublemakers.
They chased chickens through the neighbors’ yards, brandishing sticks like swords, claiming that the fowl were monsters in disguise. They went to the fields and returned with berry-stained lips, crunching seeds between their teeth. They tumbled through the house, slamming into walls and breaking one of the wooden love spoons their father had carved. And once they’d tied a small wagon to a pig and raced through the village, screaming with mingled fear and joy. It was widely thought that the eldest, the only daughter at that time, was filled with mischief, and her younger brother trailed in her wake.
They would settle down, said Enid, the innkeeper. Children raised so close to Annwvyn were bound to have a spark of wildness in them. Their parents were both considered decent folk. The children would follow.
And if they didn’t, said Hywel, the girl would make a fine recruit for the cantref’s armies.
Their father dug graves and when he came home at night, his fingernails were stained with dirt and his boots were muddy. When there were no deaths in the village, he would vanish into the woods, reemerging with plump mushrooms, wood sorrel, and all sorts of berries. They were never rich, but their table was laden with good food. Their mother kept account of their bookkeeping, talked with the mourners, and planted fresh gorse along the edges of their graveyard as a protection against magic.
For all their freedoms, the children had one rule: They were not to follow their father into the forest. They would trail after him until the shadows of the trees fell over the rocky ground—and then the father would lift his hand, fingers splayed: “farewell” and “no farther,” conveyed in a single gesture.
The children obeyed—at first.
“What are you doing?” asked the brother, when the girl stepped beneath the tree boughs.
“I want to see the forest.”
The brother tugged at her arm, but she shook him off. “You can’t,” he said. “We aren’t allowed.”
But the girl ignored him.
The forest was beautiful—lush with ferns and thick with moss. At first, all was well. She picked wildflowers and wove them into her tangled hair. She tried to catch small fish from a stream. She laughed and played until evening fell.
With the creeping darkness, things came awake.
A figure stood nearby, watching her. For one moment, she thought it was her father. The man was tall and broad-shouldered, but too thin around the waist and wrists.
And when the man walked closer, she realized it was not a man at all.
It could not be. Not with a face of raw bone, with bared teeth and hollow eye sockets. She had seen bodies before, but they were always gently wrapped in clean cloths and then lowered into the ground. They were peaceful. This thing moved slowly under the weight of armor, and a sword jutted from a belt. And it stank.
The girl had a vague idea of picking up a fallen branch to defend herself, but she was frozen with fear.
The dead creature came so close that she could see the fine pockmarks and cracks in its bones, and the places where its teeth had fallen out. It knelt before her, its empty gaze fixed on her face. It pulled her close.
And then it inhaled. Sucked a rattling breath through its teeth, as if it were trying to taste the very air.
She quaked with terror. Every gasp was raw with it.
The dead thing drew back, tilting its head in a silent question. Then it rose to its feet and looked beyond her. Heartbeat hammering, the girl glanced over her shoulder.
Her father stood a few strides away. In one hand, he held a basket of forest greens, and in the other he wielded an axe. The threat was unspoken but heard nonetheless.
The dead thing retreated, and the girl shook so hard she could not speak. The father knelt beside her, checking her for injuries. “I told you not to follow.”
Tears welled in her eyes.
“Death is not to be feared,” he said. “But nor can it be forsaken. One must be mindful.”
“What was that?” she asked. “Was it truly death?”
The father placed his hand on her shoulder. “A bone house,” he replied. “They linger beyond death. It is why the villagers do not disturb the forest.”
“But you come here,” she said.
“Yes,” he replied. “Those of us who deal in the trade of death are familiar with it. I don’t fear them—and as long as you know how to navigate the forest, nor should you.”
She looked at the trees—their tangled branches wreathed in fog, the chill of the night settling all around them. And she was not afraid—rather, something like excitement unfurled within her.
“Teach me?” she asked.
Her father smiled. He took her hand. “I’ll show you. But hold on, and do not let go.”
For two years, he showed her how to find paths through the trees, where rabbits made their warrens, how to tell between the sweet berries and the poisonous ones. And always, he carried his axe with him. On the days when they did not go to the forest, he brought her to the graveyard. She learned how to break up rocky topsoil, how to wrap a body, and how to pay last respects to the dead.
Winters came harsh and cold, and their provisions of food dwindled. Soup was watered down, and the memory of plump blackberries and buttered greens kept the children awake at night. The village became smaller; farmers packed up their families and went elsewhere, leaving empty homes and barren fields. And fewer people required the services of a gravedigger.
The mother became pregnant a third time, and when the father was offered a job as a scout, he accepted. The local cantref lord wished to investigate a collapsed mine, and the only way to get there was through the forest. And so he asked the man who did not fear the woods.
The daughter begged to go with him, but the father refused. When she protested, he gave her half of a wooden love spoon. He had carved several for their mother during their courtship—and this one had been broken when the sister and brother were tussling in the kitchen. The whorls of dark wood were smooth against her fingers, and she traced the overlapping hearts and flowers. “Here,” he said, cupping his larger hands around hers, pressing the spoon gently. “You take this half, and I’ll take the other. So long as you have it, you’ll know I’ll find you.”
She clutched it to her chest and nodded. The father kissed his children and his pregnant wife, and he went into the forest.
He never returned.
By night, the daughter slept with her half of the spoon beneath her pillow, and by day, she carried it in her pocket. He will come back, she said, when anyone asked.
Some days, the daughter went back to the woods. She stood in the forest, beneath the shadow of the mountains and waited. She waited to see another dead man.
The forest did not scare her; rather, she wanted to be like it: ageless and impervious, cruel and beautiful.
Death could not touch it.
THE EVENING AIR smelled pleasantly of a fresh grave.
Ryn breathed it in—the sweetness of overturned sod, mists rising from the green grass, and the woodsmoke drifting from the village. The spade felt comfortable in her hands, slotted in amidst familiar calluses. She hacked at the damp earth, dislodging rocks and thin roots. She’d marked the outline of the grave with twine and nails, and now it was just a matter of cutting through greenery and topsoil.
Her spade glanced off the edge of a rock, ringing high in her ears. She grimaced, grasped at the rock with her bare hands, and yanked it free. A worm came with it, squirming with the discomfort of a creature unused to sunlight. She picked it up between thumb and forefinger, and then she tossed it over her shoulder.
Someone made a noise behind her.
Ryn looked up.
Her brother stood over her, the worm caught in his ink-stained fingers.
“Sorry,” said Ryn. “I didn’t hear you coming.”
Gareth gave her a flat stare, walked a few steps to her left, and dropped the worm into the grass. “It never occurred to you to put the worm back, did it?”
“Usually if something crawls out of a grave, I take an axe to it,” said Ryn. “That worm should be grateful.”
His frown cut fresh lines around his mouth. Despite being the younger of the two, he carried the weariness of an old man. “You needn’t bother with the digging, Ryn.”
A snort escaped her. “Because you’re going to do it?”
Gareth’s clothes were impeccable. Not a smudge of dirt upon his tunic, nor a stray blade of grass on his boots.
“Because,” he said, and his voice was heavier, “Master Turner came by this morning and informed us that our services will not be needed for Mistress Turner. They’ve decided to burn the body.”
For a heartbeat, she remained in place—caught between her task and the knowledge that it was no longer necessary. Her hands yearned to return to the digging.
She rocked back on her heels and began rubbing her dirty hands on her leggings. Gareth made a pained noise at the streaks of grime, but she didn’t pay him any mind. “Well, that’s unfortunate.”
“That grave was our last hope.” Gareth took a step back. “We were counting on Turner’s ball-penny to get us through the winter.” A breath rattled through his clenched teeth. “Come on. Ceridwen will be finished making supper by now.”
Ryn rose to her full height. She was as tall as her brother, something that had always made her smile and him frown. Tall and lanky as a sapling, her mam had once said. And as graceful as a drunken colt, her father had added fondly. “I saw a bone house this morning,” she said. “Caught a glimpse of it. I went for my axe, but the sun was up before I returned. It must have fallen in the tall grass, because I couldn’t find it.” She shrugged. “I’ll wait for nightfall. Let it find me.”
“A bone house?” A crease appeared between Gareth’s heavy brows.
“Yes,” she said. “I know, I know. You’re going to tell me that bone houses don’t leave the forest. That I’ll probably just scare a vagrant half to death.”
Gareth frowned. “No,” he said. “I—I believe you. It’s just that’s the second one.” He had their mother’s eyes—the brown of healthy earth. And he had a way of looking through a person that made Ryn want to hold her secrets tightly to her chest. “They never used to leave the forest,” he said.
It had the ring of an accusation and Ryn crossed her arms. “I haven’t gone into the forest.” The words were sharp. “Well, only the outskirts.” Part of her wanted to remind him that the reason they still had food in their larder was because of her willingness to flirt with the edges of the forest.
“All right,” he said. “Take care of the bone house. But when Ceri cries because I’m not good at telling her bedtime stories, that’s on you.”
“Just read her your accounts ledger,” said Ryn. “That’ll put her right to sleep.” She softened the words with a grin and a clap on the arm.
Gareth winced, his eyes on where she had dirtied his shirt. “Just don’t get yourself killed, all right?” He began to walk away, but he called over his shoulder: “And if you do die, that’s still no excuse to be late for breakfast.”
Colbren’s graveyard was set outside the village proper. When Ryn was young, she’d asked her father why they buried the dead so far from the living. She still remembered his broad fingers carding through her hair, a smile on his mouth as he answered. “Death’s something of a frightening thing to most people. They like a bit of distance between them and eternity. And besides, the dead deserve a spot of privacy.”
The graveyard had been built before the Otherking fled the isles. As such, the old protections remained: Gorse grew at the edges of the graveyard, thick with yellow flowers. The thorny shrubs hid iron rods that had been driven into the ground. Gorse and iron. It would not stop a human from entering the graveyard, but it would stop other things.
The light faded from the sky, falling behind mist-shrouded mountains.
Ryn saw the familiar form of a man walking along the road leading from the village. His shoulders were bent by years of hard labor, and he carried a rusty sword. The damp, overgrown grass brushed at her fingertips as she approached him. “That looks a bit heavy for you, Mr. Hywel.”
Old Hywel snorted. “Been carrying heavier things than this since before your parents were born, Ryn. Leave well enough alone.” He spoke with a gruff fondness.
“Why does a miller need a sword?” she asked.
He grunted, and there was a shrewd edge to his words. “You know why.”
She grimaced. “They haven’t been at your chickens, have they?”
“No, no.” Hywel huffed. “My chickens can fend for themselves.” He slid her a look. “Your brother went past here a few minutes ago,” he said. “Looked a bit out of sorts, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“If Gareth weren’t worrying about something, he wouldn’t be my brother.”
Hywel nodded. “Any word from your uncle?”
It was a question folded into another question, a worry that neither of them would say aloud.
Ryn shook her head. “We haven’t heard from Uncle. But you know how travel is from here to the city.”
The loose skin around Hywel’s mouth sagged in disapproval. “Never been, myself. Don’t trust those city types.”
There were those in Colbren who had never left the village. They might as well have grown up from the rocky soil like trees; they seemed to draw their lifeblood from the land, and they would not be uprooted.
“How is your sister?” Hywel asked.
“Likely baking something that would shame the finest cooks.” When she’d left the house that morning, Ceri had already been up to her elbows in flour.
Hywel smiled, showing a missing tooth. “Those rowanberry preserves she made… there wouldn’t happen to be any of those left, would there?”
There were, in fact. Ryn thought of the berries spread over sweet grilled cakes, and her stomach cramped with hunger.
“Our roof has a leak,” she said. “Would be a shame to see all my sister’s fine baking go to waste the next time it rains.”
Hywel’s grin widened. “Ah, that’s how it is. You’re a sharp one, Ryn. All right—two jars of preserves for the roof repairs and you’ve got yourself a deal.”
She nodded, not precisely pleased so much as satisfied. Trading food for favors had become something rather common of late. She let out a breath and pressed her fingers to her temple. She could feel a headache building, stress forming a knot behind her jaw.
“You should be getting back,” said Hywel, breaking into Ryn’s thoughts.
Ryn inclined her head toward the fields of tall grasses. “I saw one of them. I need to take care of it before I return home.”
Hywel gave her a despairing sort of look. “Listen, girl. How about we both head back to the village, stop by the Red Mare. I can spare an hour before returning to the mill. A drink on me.”
“No.” A hesitation, then, “Thank you. You shouldn’t walk home in the dark, not tonight.”
“Your family needs you,” he said, more gently than she expected.
She stood a little straighter. The sun was all but set, casting a golden glow across the fields. Shadows crept in along the trees, and a cool breeze whispered through Ryn’s loose shirt.
She thought of the grave mounds. Of the sleeping bones warm and safe beneath the earth.
“I know,” she said. Hywel shook his head, but he didn’t protest. He gave her one last nod before walking away from the village, toward the nearby creek and mill. The sword dragged, a little too heavy for the old man.
The village would be preparing for nightfall. Latches on all the doors locked. Gareth would blow out the candles, and the scent of burnt tallow would linger in the kitchen. Ceri would be getting ready for bed.
Ryn reached into her pack. She’d brought a bundle of hard bread and cheese and, lastly, her axe. She liked eating out here, amid the wilds and the graves. She felt more comfortable here than she did in the village. When she returned home, the weight of her life would settle upon her once again. There would be unpaid rent, food stores that should be filled for winter, an anxious brother, and a future that needed sorting out. The other young women of Colbren were finding spouses, joining the cantref armies, or taking up a socially acceptable trade. When she tried to imagine doing the same, she could not. She was a half-wild creature that loved a graveyard, the first taste of misty night air, and the heft of a shovel.
She knew how things died.
And in her darkest moments, she feared she did not know how to live.
So she sat at the edge of the graveyard and watched as the sun vanished behind the trees. A silvery half-light fell across the fields, and Ryn’s heartbeat quickened. It was not truly dark, but it was dark enough for magic.
The sound of shuffling feet made her stand up. It was not the gait of an animal—but of a two-legged creature, one who could not walk properly.
Ryn rose and gripped her axe in one hand.
“Come on,” she murmured. “I know you’re out there.”
And she did know. She’d seen the figure in the wee hours of the morning: a half-broken thing that had vanished into the tall grasses.
She heard the approach. It was slow—a staggering gait.
Thump. Shuffle. Thump.
The creature rose with the night.
It looked like something out of the tales that her father used to tell—a spindly creature of rotted flesh and tattered clothing. It was having trouble walking and every other step made the figure stagger.
It had been a woman: A long dress trailed behind it, dragging in the dirt. Ryn didn’t recognize her, but she must have died recently. Perhaps a traveler. A turned ankle could kill a person in the wilds, if they were alone.
“Good evening,” said Ryn.
The creature went still. Its neck gave a sickening pop as it turned to look at her. Ryn wasn’t sure how it could see—the eyes were always the first bits to go.
The bone house did not speak. They never did.
But still, Ryn felt obligated to say something.
“Sorry about this,” said Ryn. And then she swung the axe at the dead woman’s knees.
The first time, she’d gone for the head. Turned out, the dead were like chickens. They didn’t need heads to blunder about. Knees were a much more practical target.
The blade bit into bone.
The woman staggered, reaching out for Ryn. Ryn ducked back, but the woman’s brittle fingers caught her on the shoulder. She felt the rake of nails, the fingers stiffened in death. Ryn tore the axe free, and there was another nauseating wrenching sound, like tissues being rent apart. The dead woman fell to the ground. It rolled over, dug its bony fingers into the earth, and began to crawl toward Colbren.
“Would you please stop that?” Ryn brought the axe down a second time, and then a third. Finally, the creature went still.
Ryn pulled on a pair of leather gloves and set about searching the body. No coin purse, no valuables. She exhaled sharply, trying to hold back a sinking disappointment. She wasn’t a grave robber—and she didn’t take coin from the dead she was paid to bury. But these creatures that haunted the forest were fair game. After all, the cursed dead cared little for money. Only the living had need of it.
And Ryn did have need.
She’d gather up what was left of the woman, place the parts in a burlap sack, and bring them into the village for burning. Only the forge burned hot enough for bone.
It was the only peace she could offer the woman.
Ryn clenched her teeth as she hauled the burlap sack to the graveyard. She tied it shut, just to make sure no parts escaped. Her muscles burned with exertion. Despite the chill of the night, a sweat had soaked through her shirt.
The sack gave a twitch. “Stop that,” said Ryn.
Ryn crouched, settling on the ground beside the sack. She gave it an awkward sort of pat, the way she might try to calm her little sister. “If you’d stayed in the forest, you would have been fine. Want to tell me why death suddenly has an urge to wander?”
The sack went still.
Ryn pulled her gloves off and ate a few mouthfuls of bara brith. The dark bread was sweet and studded with dried fruit. The food eased the hollow feeling in her stomach. She looked at the sack and had the sudden urge to offer it a piece of bread. She tilted her head back and closed her eyes.
This was the problem with being a gravedigger in Colbren.
Nothing stayed buried forever.
ELLIS HAD A fondness for travel.
When he first left the castle of Caer Aberhen, he had spent some time in the southern port cities. He had considered sailing to the continent on one of the sleek vessels brimming with freshly caught pollock and eels. He worked on a map of the docks for a harbormaster while he contemplated the course his life should take. He’d enjoyed a comfortable bed in the manor house, far from the bustle and noise of the city, and thought himself worldly for leaving Caer Aberhen so far behind.
But now he stood at the edge of a forest, utterly alone, and realized his own mistake.
He loved new places—but the travel involved was a nightmare.
His tent was sunken.
Strung between two small trees, it should have looked sturdy and warm, but instead appeared like a loaf of fallen bread. He frowned, tried to adjust the way the canvas draped, but pain flared beneath his left collarbone.
The cold night air aggravated his old injury. He was always leaning toward fires, hovering near wood stoves, and seeking out stray patches of sunlight. It was only when he was tucked amid the library stacks at Caer Aberhen that he’d forced himself to endure the chill that would settle into his joints. Even so, his hands remained deft. They had to be, if he were to make a living as a mapmaker.
With a resigned sigh, he reached for his pack. Rolls of parchment peeked out of the top. He plucked one from the cluster. The maps were old friends, speaking to him in lines and etchings as clearly as people spoke with words. He looked down at this particular map; it was smaller than the others, smudged with dirt and fingerprints. Yet there were flourishes of whimsy—small, shadowed creatures peeked through the branches of a forest, and a dragon perched atop a mountain. It reminded him of the maps he’d seen sailors use, where the edges of the parchment were marked with serpents. Here be dragons.
Ellis had never believed in monsters. And even if he had, this map wouldn’t have made him turn back. For one thing, whomever had crafted it had done a laughable job with the distance markers. If this map were accurate, he would have arrived at Colbren in the afternoon and been cozily asleep under some tavern’s roof.
Instead of spending the night on the fringes of a forest, under a crooked tent.
He balled up his cloak as a pillow and closed his eyes. Insects chirped and the wind whispered through the trees. He tried to focus on each sound, directing his mind away from his own discomfort.
And then everything went silent. There were no animal sounds, no rustling of wind through the trees.
The change kindled to life some instinct he had not known he had—an animal reaction of raw fear, of pounding pulse and shortened breath.
In the flickering light of his lantern, it took him a heartbeat to see the man. He knelt over Ellis, having entered the tent in perfect silence.
Cold fingers wrapped around Ellis’s throat, so lightly at first it was almost a caress. The man’s hand was as slick as a freshly landed fish, as cold as rainwater. And then the grip went tight.
Panic burned through Ellis. He reached for the only weapon he possessed: a walking stick. He jabbed it toward the man, trying to hit him around the shoulders and head. But it was little use. His heartbeat throbbed with an ever-rising pressure and his sight blurred at the edges.
Ellis could do little more than flail his arms and legs when the man began dragging him out of his tent. It took a moment for Ellis to realize that he was being pulled away from his camp, away from the cheery lantern light and the few trappings of civilization.
He was being dragged into the shadow of the forest.
Ellis was going to die. He was going to die alone, outside a village he could not find because someone had put incorrect distance markers on their map.
Desperation gave him new strength, and he threw a punch at the man’s face. A cut opened up on the man’s forehead, but there was no blood. He seemed more startled than injured; his fingers went slack. The man’s wounded forehead sagged oddly, and revulsion crawled up Ellis’s throat even as he broke free and skittered back into the circle of his small camp. The lantern light cast odd shadows upon the man’s face—there were hollows where cheeks should have been, and his eyes were strangely blank.
He took a step toward Ellis, his fingers outstretched.
That was when the young woman appeared.
She looked at Ellis, then to the man. She was dressed in a loose tunic, her leggings worn and dirty at the knees. Her dark hair was bound in a tangled braid, and in one hand she carried an axe.
“Get out of here!” Ellis rasped, unsure if he was speaking to himself or the girl.
She didn’t listen. When the man staggered toward her, she whirled once, as if to pick up speed, and then she swung the axe with more strength than Ellis could have mustered. The blade sank into the man’s chest, collapsing part of his rib cage. The man fell, twitching, to the ground.
- Praise for The Bone Houses:
- On Sale
- Sep 29, 2020
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers