By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Henry Holt, 2005.
This page contains the prologue, first chapter, and third chapter from By These Ten Bones.
"Best if you was dead."
The two of them sat at a small fire far away from dwellings, and the night wind was cold. Trees creaked and rustled in the darkness, unseen and alarming. The man was old, with tough skin and greasy gray hair. He wiped his streaming eyes on his sleeve and threw a stick into the fire with savage ferocity, sending up a shower of sparks. "Best if you was dead and with your folks," he sobbed. "You'd beg me if you knew."
The little boy stared into the flames, his face white and pinched. He didn't know what he was doing there. He didn't know who the man was. His life had become a terrifying riddle, and he was too young to make sense of it all.
"It's the only kind thing," insisted the man brokenly. "But I ain't got the guts. You'd kill me. I don't know how, but you'd do it. You're hell spawn now, that's what you be. I got to keep you alive."
The child huddled in a tunic that was much too big for him. Faint stains marked his arms and hands. They hadn't cleaned it all off. Black lines under his fingernails. Blood looked black at night. He raised frightened green eyes to the man.
"Nay, don't look on me!" was the frenzied response. "I can't bear it, I tell you! You're cursed now, understand me? Don't look on no one again. Don't be getting fond of me 'cause I keeps you, neither. You're the kind that kills them they love."
The wind rose, flattening the lonely little fire and whipping the invisible branches of the trees. Wet leaves stirred and flopped on the ground, too heavy to fly away. The boy wrapped his thin arms around himself and tried to understand. How could I kill anyone? he wanted to ask. I didn't kill them. I saw what did. But he wasn't supposed to speak.
"Don't tell me about 'em. Not a word. I don't want to know. I can't change nothing. I can't help 'em now. Don't cry for 'em, neither, hear me? Don't go whimpering after your dam." The man collapsed, weeping noisily onto his soiled and bloody fists.
But the little boy didn't cry for his mother. He didn't shed a tear. He was in such pain of so many different kinds that he felt only bewildered surprise. He held his grandfather's woodcarving tools in their beautiful leather holder, clutching the solid form close against the torment that he felt. Only one thing was clear to him in the whirling chaos of his life. Yesterday they had belonged to his father. Today they were his.
In the far northern hills of Scotland, a gray castle stood by a narrow lake, or a loch, as it is properly called. Some castles are grand and beautiful, but this one was not. It was too small to be grand, for one thing, being the simplest type of castle. It had no moat, although its builders knew it had a natural defense: the waters of the loch at its back and swampy ground to the front. It had no palisade enclosing a fortified courtyard or lofty battlements. It was merely a large, rectangular stone building three floors high, with narrow windows through which an archer could safely shoot his foes. Carved into the rock floor of the lowest level was a primitive dungeon cell, no more than a hole, and resting above the highest level was a wooden roof that no longer kept out all the rain. A round tower clung to one corner, housing a rough spiral stair.
The wide doorway that opened into this tower lacked a door. No guards stood there, and no watchdogs barked. A clan chief had once lived here with his family and warriors, but he had lost this valley in battle long years before. A strange old woman occupied his castle now, to the disgust of those few of his distant kin who still farmed the fields nearby.
A girl just old enough to be thought a young woman stood inside the tower doorway and wished that the castle still had a door to close. She was dressed in the plainest of blouses, a drab skirt that tied with a lace, and a voluminous woolen wrap that looked like a long, narrow blanket. This blanket, looped around the waist and pulled over one shoulder, was the most important clothing of the day. Hers was checked and crossed by lines and squares of yellow, gray, and brown. If it was somewhat better made than the blankets her neighbors wore, this showed only that the local weaver had his preferences. Maddie could be considered a strong favorite of his: she was his only child.
Maddie herself was not particularly striking, neither tall nor short, thin nor heavy. Her straight brown hair and brown eyes did not attract attention, and if her round face was not ugly, it also was not beautiful. At least, it was not beautiful at the moment. When she smiled or laughed, her whole appearance changed. But Maddie wasn't smiling now. She was anxious and afraid.
She had almost stepped out of the shelter of the castle tower before she saw the strangers. Four men she didn't know were walking along the gravel shore of the loch, leading two pack ponies. The first two men were small and dark, dressed as her own men dressed, wearing knee-length shirts, wrapped in blankets checked white and black, their legs bare down to their sandals. The last two men were foreigners in tunics, breeches, and boots. One of them was old, and the other was young.
Maddie shrank back into the gloom of the tower. She saw strangers very rarely. Once or twice a year, summer Travelers came through, selling or trading their craft goods. These men might be Travelers, or they might be wandering bandits, and their arrival frightened the girl. Four men were enough to do great harm in a settlement as small as hers.
The newcomers paused on the path by the grim old castle, but they didn't come toward it. The place was obviously abandoned. The path to its gaping doorway was overgrown with weeds, and the big war galley moldered on the shore nearby, its sides staved in so that it couldn't be sailed. Instead, they followed the path through boggy ground toward the low, humped houses of the settlement. Maddie could see her relatives there pointing and calling each other. A crowd began to gather. The men unstrapped their packs and started taking out their wares. They were Travelers after all. There would be new things to see, and no one would die this day.
The last stranger lingered on the stepping stones through the bog, studying the neglected castle. Maddie stared at his odd clothing and wondered where he came from. He was tall, and his face was lean and beardless—probably, she decided with feminine disdain, because he was too young to grow a beard. He looked, however, as if he might be somewhat handsome, and he had the appeal of being completely unknown. Curious and interested, she stepped into view, but as soon as the young man saw her, he turned away.
Feeling slightly disappointed, the girl retraced her steps. She hurried up the steep, uneven stones of the spiral stairway and darted through the tower landing into the great room beyond. "Lady Mary," she called, "Travelers are here."
In the far corner of the dusty hall, gloomy with its few slit windows, a tall, bent old woman pushed away her embroidery frame and looked up from her work. Lady Mary inhabited one small part of the place just as a hen might nest in a tumbledown barn. Throughout the three floors of the castle were cobwebs, emptiness, and whispering echoes, but here in one corner of this great room were a gentlewoman's bed and furniture.
Leaving Lady Mary to consider these unexpected tidings, Maddie hurried back down the stairs, pulling a fold of her checkered blanket loose from her waist. She draped it around herself as a shawl and brought one long edge up to veil her hair. Picking her way across the stepping stones, she followed the path the strangers had taken through the swampy ground by the loch.
On either side of the girl rose two lines of high hills, great, green undulating walls that defined the narrow valley. Just now their steep slopes were swathed in misty tatters of cloud. Trapped between those hills, like a long silver knife blade, lay the quiet waters of the loch, with the gray castle on its gravel shore and the flat, waterlogged bog land at its head.
The settlement lay beyond this bog on slightly higher ground, its fields spreading out around it and climbing the knees of the nearest hills. A small, shallow stream ran along its edge before vanishing into the bog and filtering into the loch. A dozen low turf houses, some longer and some shorter, were scattered across the muddy ground without any apparent pattern. Sheep and chickens wandered in and out of them, seeking their daily bread, and a few shaggy cattle grazed nearby.
Just now the little community was in a state of high excitement. The townspeople thronged the open land close to the bog to see what the Travelers had brought. Hooped milking buckets and harness ropes lay on the ground along with fine silver knives and horn spoons. The old foreigner in breeches stood over a display of wooden ware: two-handled cups, butter makers, and small chests and boxes, their surfaces carved with complex patterns. Some diminutive saints stood on the grass beside them, their wooden faces serene.
Maddie spotted the beardless stranger again. He had unslung his own pack and laid it by his feet, but he was carving rather than selling. He sat on a boulder a little distance away from the crowd, ignoring it completely. He was fashioning a figure with a thin, curved knife, shaving off a bit here and there.
The woodcarver was grown to a man's height, and his shoulders were broad, but Maddie doubted he could be much above her own age. There was a fragile quality to his hands as they turned the wood. They were bone-white, the fingers long and slender. There was a fragile quality, too, to the hunch of his lanky shoulders. Shaggy black hair fell into his face as he bent over his work. Maddie watched him for a long minute, but he never looked up.
A quiet belch at her elbow recalled the girl to her surroundings, and she glanced back to find the old man watching her indifferently. His wrinkled face was none too clean, and his cloth cap was unspeakable, but it was perhaps better than the long, grimy gray hair that it hid. "You don't see what you want," he proffered in a thick accent, "tell me, and the boy can make it."
Lady Mary was by Maddie's side now. The old woman had taken a few moments to augment her attire. A fine damask overdress covered her plain linen dress now, and her white hair was tucked into a dusty black velvet coif. Elegant in a way that their chief's own family had never been elegant and dressed in a style that the local people had never understood, she commanded immediate attention from the strangers.
"And what would my Lady like to see?" inquired the old man, leaning forward, his faded blue eyes suddenly greedy.
"This carving work," observed the woman. "It seems quite unusual."
"It is, it is," agreed the foreigner, stooping and retrieving a little box with alacrity. "He does handsome work, the boy does, whatever your heart can wish. This here," and he ran his greasy finger over the interlacing pattern on the box top, "this is the finest style. Tapestries ain't the taste anymore, carved paneling is the thing. Last year we worked for the Archbishop of Glasgow, carving panels to his study. He begged us not to leave, says he can't find any to match the work."
The regal woman considered this unlikely tale, her eyes, like Maddie's, on the young man in question. The woodcarver didn't look up to acknowledge their interest. He kept right on carving his figure as if he were the block of wood.
"But what am I to do," sighed Lady Mary, "an old woman in my rustic hermit's cell? I have no place for paneled walls."
"You have a chest that he can carve for you?" suggested the seller. "Or a box that he could work?" She nodded, her thin cheeks flushed, and the pair walked away from the crowd to make the bargain.
Maddie stood where they had left her, feeling jealous. A weaver's family was far from rich, and she couldn't even dream of owning carved chests. Then she saw something strange.
Sensing the pair's departure, or perhaps seeing their shadows move by him on the grass, the silent woodcarver glanced up quickly to study Lady Mary. His lean face was the color of bones, and his eyes were the clearest, brightest green. There was caution in those eyes; intelligence, too, and he stared after the old woman hungrily, as if he were learning her by heart. One long penetrating glance, and he was working at his carving again as if he had never stopped.
The display of wooden ware was unattended, and the curious Maddie stepped close. "I can give you a linen kerchief for this one," she offered, pointing to a small, two-handled drinking cup. The peculiar young man didn't look at her. "Or maybe fifty," she continued, but he didn't appear to have heard.
"Can I see what you're making now?" she asked, walking over and stopping in front of him. "A tree? Why a tree? What is it for?" He didn't slow his work, the small, pale curls of wood falling onto his knees.
"Let me look at it," Maddie demanded, reaching down to take the carving from him. He didn't let it go, but he didn't look up, either. All she could see of him was black hair. "I want to buy it," she said stubbornly, trying to pull it away, but those white fingers had a firm grip on the little trunk.
"He don't ever speak, miss," warned a matter-of-fact voice, and she turned, blushing deeply, to find the disheveled old man by her side.
"Oh, I'm sorry," she exclaimed and started to step away, but those long fingers released the carving and left it in her hands. She turned it and stared at the intricate detail and lyrical expression that could make even a tiny fruit tree seem a beautiful, wonderful thing.
"You want that carving, miss?" asked the old man. He took it in his own hand and studied it dubiously. "A farthing for it, or its worth in goods." Maddie shook her head. She had no farthing or goods. A weaver's daughter couldn't come home with a useless statue. But what a canny little thing it was, to be sure. The regret showed on her face.
"Ah, now," he grunted, relenting, "tell me this. Who brews a strong drink here?"
"Little Ian makes the water of life."
"That's fine. Here's a groat. Just take this empty flask to him and have him fill it for me, and you can have the carving."
Maddie started off with a will, but curiosity overcame her. She quickly turned and looked back. The woodcarver was staring at her. She caught a swift impression of that extraordinary white face and those piercing green eyes before he dropped his head to stare at his hands. All that talent, and so sadly afflicted. What a tragedy. She walked off to find Little Ian.
The old man took advantage of a lull in the crowd's attention to turn to his prized craftsman.
"You carving trees out of trees now?" he asked perplexedly. "What's wrong with you, boy, you gone daft?"
But the strange woodcarver didn't answer a word. His attention was elsewhere. He was watching the girl make her way through the bystanders until she disappeared.
[Omitted from this set of sample chapters.]
Maddie had just taken supper to Lady Mary in the castle, and now she was looking forward to her own meal. She stepped out of the tower into the clear light of a summer evening, studying the silhouettes of the great birds flying down to the loch.
"Madeleine!" called a low voice. She turned to find the woodcarver standing there. He was staring straight at her with those piercing green eyes, and her heart skipped a beat.
"I didn't know you could talk!" she said in delight. "It's Maddie, though; only Father Mac calls me Madeleine."
The carver looked around cautiously and stepped closer. "Help me find Ned," he said in a husky whisper. "I've searched for him everywhere."
"The old man's chained up with Mad Angus. He and Black Ewan had a fight."
"Chained up!" exclaimed the young man. "He can't be chained up! When will he be free?"
"Probably in a few weeks," Maddie answered. "Dad said Black Ewan said after the harvest."
"But what am I going to do?" he asked, looking stunned. "Can we free him somehow?"
"What, take the key from Black Ewan?" She laughed. "It's a little beyond us, I'd say. He'd knock me silly, for a start, and it's more than your life's even worth."
"More than my life's worth," muttered the young man. "That's not much." He stood for a minute looking around at the castle, the loch, the far hills. If he sought inspiration, he didn't find any. He looked at her again, hopeless and frustrated. Then he walked away.
"Where are you going?" demanded the mystified girl, but he didn't answer. By the time she could follow, he was well ahead of her. She watched him walk off into the distance, taking the path along the shore of the loch.
Maddie fell asleep thinking of the good-looking carver boy. If he had been remarkable before, he was close to perfect now. His speech wasn't foreign, like that of the drunken Englishman. He spoke just like she did. Maybe he'd been stolen from his cradle by the wandering Travelers, and that was why he wasn't like Ned. He might be a nobleman by birth. He might even be the son of a chief.
But if Maddie's thoughts were pleasant ones, her dreams were dark and grim. She wandered through her town as thunder rumbled in the swollen clouds above, and not one living person did she find. The houses were silent and abandoned, their belongings tossed about. Filth covered the dirt floors, and some of the roofs had fallen in. Everywhere was the smell of decay.
Strewn across the weedy ground between the houses lay an untidy mosaic of bones. They glimmered white and phosphorescent in the dim twilight of the storm. Flesh still clung to some, dried and blackened. So many were underfoot that she couldn't help stepping on them.
The little parish church was completely destroyed, the rock walls torn apart. Gravestones were tossed aside and graves dug open, to let something in—or to let it out. Not a single creature moved in that ghastly land of death. The only sound was the sighing of the wind and the ominous growling of the thunder.
The girl stood bewildered in the middle of her town. What could have accomplished this destruction? Human raiders would never have dug up the churchyard. Animals wouldn't have left the bones behind. Some evil of the ancient world had descended upon this place, a thing that kept both people and animals away. Maddie froze, caught by an abrupt foreboding. That thing was still here.
An enemy stalked the vacant houses and corpse-littered ground, hunting her as its prey. She saw nothing, heard nothing beyond the empty rush of wind. But the air grew cold, and then very cold. A black shadow fell over her.
Maddie sat bolt upright in the box bed, her heart pounding wildly. Her mother and father slept peacefully beside her, and her town was not a welter of bones. Bright moonlight poured into the room through the open doorway, and perfect stillness reigned outside. But the room was freezing cold, colder than the bitter nights of winter, and Maddie felt a hideous presence. The enemy had not stayed behind in her nightmare. It had followed her here.
A low murmuring came to her, a hissing, bubbling, muttering sound from the back wall of the house. Slowly it passed along the windowless wall, and she followed the noise to the storeroom. The muttering thing was moving around the end of the house. It was coming toward the open doorway.
Teeth chattering, Maddie made the sign of the cross and knelt by the hearth in the middle of the room. Shutting the door wouldn't help. It was nothing but a wickerwork panel covered with hide. Waking her parents wouldn't help, either. The thing was almost here.
She scraped the ashes of the hearth, hoping to find a friendly spark underneath, but the peat coals had been bedded for the night and would need coaxing to come back to life. Like a hare in a trap, she stared at the moonlit square of the open doorway, the only way out of the house. Her hands fumbled over the hearthstones and found her mother's bannock spade.
Colin the Smith had made his sister a spatula of iron to turn the oatcakes on the hearth. Its wooden handle felt solid in Maddie's hand, and its thin, heart-shaped wedge came to a point. It wasn't a knife, but it was a weapon of sorts, and Maddie felt glad of it. She clutched it and listened as the bubbling sounds came nearer.
The square of moonlight vanished into inky blackness as a shape moved in front of the door. Maddie prayed for her life and hurled the iron weapon. A sound burst from the thing, a loud whistling shriek. When she opened her eyes, that great black shape was gone.
"What is it?" demanded her father, scrambling up from the bed, and then Fair Sarah's arms were around her.
"Something outside," she whimpered, hugging her mother. "Something big at the door. It hissed."
"I'll go see," decided James Weaver, reaching for his knife. Then he froze right where he was. Maddie stopped in the middle of a word, and her mother's arms gripped her tightly.
A weeping, worrying sound rose into the night from somewhere very close. It keened and whined, gaining strength, until it became a scream, wavering in the air while time stood still. As it faded away, the three huddled together, clinging to one another for support.
"I'll just—just—go see," stammered her father, holding the knife in trembling hands.
"Jamie," sobbed his wife, "oh, Jamie, don't go out there."
A shadow fell across the doorway again, and Maddie gave a gasp. "James," called Black Ewan's voice, "is all well with you?"
"Yes," answered the weaver, shaking off his family. He wrapped his woolen blanket around his waist and shoulders, and he and the farmer walked away into the moonlight. Maddie and her mother heard the voices of neighbors calling from house to house, the bawling of cattle, and the wailing of children.
Fair Sarah knelt by the hearth and built the fire, whispering over the spent coals the morning prayer to the Trinity. The frightened girl followed her lead, starting her chores, and the night began to brighten into the dim gray of early dawn.
They heard the men coming back, talking loudly, their voices strained and excited. "Did you find it?" demanded Fair Sarah anxiously, going to the door. "What was it? Did it get away?"
The men came up the house. Black Ewan and Colin the Smith were carrying something heavy, but Maddie couldn't see what it was.
"It got away," said her father. "We don't know where it went. But it found that young woodcarver on the path near the castle, and we don't know if he's going to live."
Copyright 2005 by Clare B. Dunkle. Text courtesy of Henry Holt & Co.