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House of Bones

TALEN WOKE ON the stone floor of a small, dark shed that smelled of blood and hanging meat. His ankles and wrists were lashed together. His head pounded like someone had been at it with a mallet.

He brought his bound hands up and felt for damage. One side of his head was tender, but there wasn’t any blood. Nor was the bone broken underneath. So he still had his brains, the little good they did him.

He pushed himself up into a sitting position against one of the walls and felt a stab of pain shoot down his left side. Then the image of River on the forest floor came to him. Grief welled up again. Tears sprang to his eyes. He sat for some time thinking of her and the creature he’d tried to protect her from.

He knew that beast wasn’t a woodikin. It was far too tall. And no woodikin he’d ever heard of built sheds. They lived in great trees or burrowed in the ground. Which meant the creature had to be Harnock. Or was it something else that lived in the Wilds?

Either way, he had to get out of this shed. He had to find her. He explored the darkness and found the skinned and headless carcass of a large animal hanging by its hind quarters on the other side. He ran his bound hands along its length, felt the hooves at the top, and confirmed it was a deer. The carcass explained the smell. It also suggested exactly what was going to happen to Talen in the not too distant future.

The image of his own carcass skinned and hanging next to the deer’s set his heart beating a little faster. There had to be a way out of here. He felt his way to a door and carefully tried it, but it was barred from the outside. He pushed harder. The door gave just a little, but the bar was solid and held fast. Maybe there was a window. He felt about for one, but the shed was wattle and daub from top to bottom. And it was thick wattle, which meant it wasn’t going to be an easy thing to kick through. The floor was made out of slabs of stone cemented together with mortar. Such a floor was a good defense against animals wanting to dig their way in. It was also good against young men with nothing but their fingernails to use as pry bars.

The beating of Talen’s heart kicked up a notch.

He took a breath to calm himself and realized that even if he did get out, he wouldn’t be running far with his ankles and wrists bound. So he went to work on the lashing around his wrists, picking and pulling with his teeth. The knots were tight, but they weren’t impossible, and he finally succeeded in loosening one of them. It took only a few minutes longer to defeat the lash completely and wriggle his swollen hands free. He rubbed them, then went to work on the lashings around his ankles. When his legs were free, he stood, and realized that not only was it quite possible he’d missed something feeling about in the dark, but also that he had the eyes to see despite the blackness about him.

He concentrated and tried to separate the part of himself he’d used to attack River and escape the dreadmen, but his other part eluded him. He thought back to when he was by the dreadmen’s campfire, tried to remember what he’d done, and felt for that part of himself again. This time he felt the odd shift, and a part of himself detached. A moment later the interior of the shed revealed itself in a dim yellow light. And then, to his surprise, two more parts of himself joined the first.

He suddenly perceived the shed from three different angles, and the competing views disoriented him, made him dizzy.

He let out a cry and pulled his parts back in and was once again plunged into darkness.

Regrets eyes! What kind of a freak was he?

He felt a panic rising inside, then told himself that running about like a chicken wouldn’t do anyone any good. Whatever his affliction, it wouldn’t go away by him setting his hair on fire. Besides, his freakish parts had allowed him to escape Nashrud and those dreadmen. Whatever he was becoming, he would deal with it later. Right now he needed to see.

He calmed his breathing, sent his parts back out. Again, the dizzying view of the yellow world rushed upon him, but this time he tried to relax. When he did, he realized he could focus on the view seen by just one of these parts. It was like bringing your thumb up in front of you and switching your gaze between it, something a few feet away, and a scene in the distance beyond—when focusing on one of the views, the others faded into his periphery.

Talen settled on the view closest to his body and gazed at the other two parts of himself. They were long and eel-like. They reminded him, to his horror, of the shining eel-like creatures that had surrounded the Mother down in her cave. Then his anger rose, and he told himself he didn’t rotting care what they were or what he was. If some cursed creature had twisted him, he would use that power to his advantage. He could see in the darkness with these things. Could attack and spy. In time, he might be able to do more.

He looked about the shed and saw nothing that would help him dig through the floor. Saw no easy way through the roof. So it was back to the door. It had given a little; maybe he could force it. If he was multiplied, he was sure he could.

Talen prepared to multiply himself, then remembered the king’s collar about his neck. He yanked on it, tried to break it by brute force, but the metal was strong and resisted him. He thought a moment. Maybe the weave could be broken by Fire. After all, that’s how he’d destroyed the monster in the cave. He tried to multiply himself, to pour forth a flood of Fire, but the surge only flowed away from him. He tried again, but it was like trying to hold the wind in your hand, and it was clear that if there was a lore for breaking the bond, this wasn’t it. He’d have to break the door down unaided.

However, it would do little good to start banging around with his captor right outside, so he held still and listened for what might be there. He stilled his breathing, focused on sound, and heard nothing outside the shed.

After a few minutes, he decided there was no reason to delay further. He tested the door again, then shoved it hard with his shoulder. He thought he felt it give just a little, and his hopes rose. He shoved again, but failed to move it more. He squared himself to the door and kicked it as hard as he could, and the thinnest of cracks of light appeared around the side and bottom. He kicked again and saw the cracks of light widen.

He pulled himself up and prepared to kick one more time with all his might when the bar scraped up and the door flew open. The creature that had throttled him in the piney wood stood there, the sun silhouetting its massive frame.

The light rushed in and gave Talen a fourth pair of eyes—the eyes of his three roaming parts and the eyes of his flesh. The quadruple vision turned everything into a terrifying sight. In reflex, Talen struck at the beast with his roamlings.

And with that strike, the scent of the creature’s soul shot through Talen, and his hunger for it sharpened. The creature smelled delicious.

The creature snarled and bared its fangs. “That tells the whole story,” it growled.

It was the height and build of a tall man. Its body was covered in a short-haired fur that lightened toward its belly and loins but darkened and lengthened along its back and legs. As for clothing, it wore nothing but a loincloth below and a cord around its neck above. A small bone that looked like it belonged to a human finger hung from the cord. Above the cord, its face was strange, feline with a nose that was a little too broad. And seeing all of this in the yellow and blue worlds at the same time made it even stranger.

Talen stepped back into the wall behind him. His roamlings prepared to attack. The scent of soul was right there in reach. “Please,” he said. “I’m a friend.”

“Who are you?” the creature snarled. “Who sent you?”

This had to be Harnock.

“Speak!” it shouted and grabbed Talen’s face. Its hand was strong, its claws sharp. And its touch only intensified the smell of its soul.

“Harnock,” Talen said.

The creature slammed Talen’s head into the wall. “Answer my question!” it growled.

“River,” Talen said in alarm. “She wanted to ask for your aid. She brought us here. I’m part of the Grove. I’m her brother.”

“You weren’t with any Grove,” it said. “You were with Mokad.” Its claws dug into Talen’s cheek.

“No,” Talen said. “The dreadmen poisoned River. They took me.”

Harnock leaned in close and sniffed. Then he dragged his rough tongue up Talen’s cheek, and the smell of Harnock’s soul mixed with the odor of fish on his breath.

“Not nearly enough fat,” Harnock said, “but you’ll hang and ripen nicely.”

“We need help,” Talen pleaded.

“I don’t help thralls,” Harnock said. “I kill them.” He leaned in close to Talen’s ear. “Do you hear me? Send who you will, they’ll all meet the same fate. I will not be taken.”

“I didn’t send anybody; I’m not a thrall.”

“I’m not talking to you,” Harnock said, then he turned Talen’s head to look into his eyes. “You don’t have to worry anymore, brother. I know how it is, being on their tether. It’s no life at all. Which is why I’m going to set you free.” Then he forced Talen around and shoved him up against the wall. With one hand he grabbed Talen by the hair and pulled his head back to expose his throat.

“Travel safely,” Harnock said.

“No,” Talen said.

Harnock drew his knife.

Talen tried to twist free, but it was like trying to pull free of iron fetters. “Harnock!” he cried.

“Quiet,” Harnock said and raised the knife.

Talen’s panic rose, and he lashed out, striking Harnock with all three roamlings, looking for a way to bite into his soul.

Harnock flinched. “Oh, but they’ve turned you into a vile thing,” he growled, then slammed Talen into the wall again.

“No!” Talen shouted. He struck again with his roamlings, but Harnock just gritted his teeth, hunched his shoulders against the attack, and brought his knife to Talen’s throat.

At that moment, a cabbage flew through the open door, struck Harnock in the head, and thumped to the floor.

Another flew in and struck Harnock in the shoulder.

Harnock turned and snarled, his knife still at Talen’s throat.

“Harnock!” a woman yelled.

Cabbages? Talen surely must be dreaming. Which meant the situation would probably soon shift, and he’d be listening to a group of singing pigs or standing naked and mortified in some impossible public situation.

“Let him be!” the woman commanded.

That voice—

“I know a creature of the Divines when I smell one,” Harnock said, “and this one has their filthy fingers all over him.”

“He’s our weapon,” said the woman. “Not theirs. Let him go!”

“He will never be our weapon. He’s designed for their hand, just as I am.”

“River?” Talen asked, not daring to hope.

He turned his head to see out the door. River stood outside the shed, holding a formidable turnip. She cocked her arm.

It was impossible! “River!” Talen shouted.

“Release him!” River commanded. “You’re better than this.”

Harnock wrinkled his broad, catlike nose. He growled in frustration, pressed the knife closer, and for a moment Talen thought Harnock was going to pull it across and slice through.

Then Harnock pulled the knife away and spun Talen around so they were standing nose to nose. “You try to enter me again,” he growled, his breath still thick with fish, “and I’ll gut you and string your innards out for the crows.” Then he gave Talen a shove that sent him reeling into the hanging deer and strode out of the meat shed.

Talen detangled himself from the deer and turned.

Outside, Harnock stormed past River. “Sooner or later he’s going to need killing,” he called back. “Better to get it over with now.” Then he crossed the yard and entered his house.

Talen rushed to the door. “You were dead!” he said. “I myself felt for your pulse. There was no breath.”

“No,” said River.

The lurid vision of both the yellow and blue worlds together sent a wave of dizziness over him, so he pulled his roamlings back. They retreated through his wrists, and suddenly the multiple views of the yellow world winked out, and the scene became normal again. And there stood River in the blue world, a bit pale, but looking far better than the last time he’d seen her. He thought he’d known how much he valued her when she died. But the joy of seeing her now went beyond even that clear insight. He ran to her, hugged her tight, pulled her off her feet, and swung her around.

Underneath it all was the smell of her soul and his desire, but he ignored it.

“Careful,” she said.

He put her down. “How?”

“Harnock found me,” she said. “He brought me here and revived me.”

“From the dead? He brought you back from the dead?” It was astonishing. “Did you see anything? Lords, was Da there?”

“He didn’t revive me from the dead,” River explained. “I never died. There was still breath and pulse in me, but very slow. Exceedingly slow. I told you I was diminishing.”

“Well, yes, but there was nothing there. Why didn’t you respond to me?”

“Just as you can multiply your Fire and powers to the very brink, so you can diminish them until the Fire is but an ember, almost a memory. I had to go that far to slow the workings of the poison. But when you do that, you go into a place that’s difficult to leave. Harnock found me and called me back.”

“Then bless him,” Talen said. He turned to the open door of Harnock’s house and raised his voice. “Bless you!” he called.

“I’m thirsty,” River said. “And I’m not quite a hundred percent. Give me your arm.”

Talen did not want the desire that came with the touch, but he stuck his elbow out anyway. She took it and kept her balance. Then he helped her over to a well that stood in the yard. He tried to focus on the bucket and well instead of his hunger for her soul. It was a relief when she let him go. He dropped the bucket, let it sink and fill, then cranked it back up. While she drank, he looked about the little farm.

It was small and tidy in Koramite style. It lay in a small clearing. There was a main house, a few outbuildings, including a small stone shrine for the dead with flowering vines that had grown up the sides and were blooming white. Across the way stood a garden with a high fence to keep deer out. Next to it were some goats in a pen. Talen had expected a larger garden, but perhaps Harnock was more lion than man and just needed meat.

Everything was made with quality construction. It was exactly what you’d expect from a home on the coast, except for one thing: all along the eaves of the main house and sheds hung cords to which had been tied all manner of bones. There were dozens and dozens of lines hanging at different levels. Hundreds of bones. It was like some odd festival decoration. Some of the bones were tiny, those of a bird’s wing or a mouse’s rib cage. Others were larger, the thigh bone of a deer or the jaw of what looked like a bear. The bones were of varying ages; some were old, bleached by the sun and white as snow. Others were still yellow. A few had tufts of flesh and fur yet clinging to them. The multitude of bones turned in the breeze, some of them knocking together like wooden wind chimes. Then Talen noticed the human skulls at the peak of the main house.

“That’s a lot of bones,” Talen said.

“They’re special to Harnock,” River said.

“Trophies?” Talen asked.

“These are from creatures he’s killed and eaten,” she said.

Talen looked at the human skulls again. “All of them?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Goh,” he said and pitched his voice low. “You didn’t tell me he was a cannibal.”

“I don’t know if ‘cannibal’ is technically correct,” River said. “He’s only part human.”

“Right,” said Talen. “What was I thinking? I feel so much better now.”

“He’s not going to eat you, Talen.”

“No, first he’s going to fatten me up. Then he’s going to eat me.”

“He’s going to help us,” River said.

“He said that?”

“Not yet.” She looked at the king’s collar about his neck. “We need to get that off.”

“I can’t break it.”

“It was secured by lore, and requires lore to remove it.” She moved around in front of him and studied it for a moment, then reached up and took hold of the thick part that acted as a clasp. “There are a variety of designs, but most are variations of the same pattern.” She concentrated. “Yes, there it is.”

A moment later, Talen felt a prick of pain, and then River removed the collar from his neck. “You’re free,” she said.

Except Talen didn’t feel any different. And when he tried to reach out to his Fire, it didn’t respond. “Are you sure it’s gone?” Talen asked.

She held up the weave like one might a dead rat. “It’s gone,” she said.

At that moment Harnock walked back out of his house with a burlap sack and a waterskin. “You two are going to leave now. Here’s some food and water. If you hurry, you might make it out before the sun sets.”

River slipped the king’s collar into a leather pouch at her waist, then turned to Harnock. “We need your help,” she said.

“I already told Argoth—I’m not interested in your little war.”

“It’s not a little war. And that’s not my whole purpose in coming here.”

He held out the sack. “That poison will give your joints some trouble, but it will eventually work its way out. I’ve put some herbs in the sack that will speed the healing.”

Talen thought about Nashrud’s crows and dog and wondered where they were. He didn’t think he and River would get far with them on their tail. He said, “You need to know the men that took me, they’re not just dreadmen. Their leader is some sort of Divine.”

Harnock’s brow furrowed in anger, and he turned on River. “You brought a Divine to my door?”

“I didn’t know,” she said.

“We can ambush them when night falls,” Talen said. “It’s clear you can see in the dark. I can as well. We could—”

“I don’t care what perversion the Divines have worked in you,” said Harnock. “My answer’s no.” He held out the sack. “Leave. Now.”

“It will be easy pickings,” Talen said. “We can take them.”

“You didn’t hear me, boy. I want you out of here. You bring a Divine to my door, and poison is going to be the least of your worries.”

River looked up at the sky. “I think it’s too late,” she said.

Talen followed her gaze and saw two hooded crows fly over the little farm, then circle round to see it again. He swallowed.

Harnock narrowed his eyes. “What are those?”

Talen knew he was not going to be pleased. “I think they’re Nashrud’s, the Divine’s.”

Harnock looked back down at Talen. “I should just give you to them. Pay them off.”

“Harnock,” River said.

“You stay out of this. You knew better.”

“It wasn’t our intent.”

“Intent?” he bellowed. “These last years I finally found some measure of peace. And now you’ve destroyed it.”

“Then I am more sorry than you can imagine,” she said.

“I won’t fight a Divine.”

“I’m not asking you to.”

“Yes, you are,” he said. “Nobody can know about this vale. But now they do. Which means I will have to kill them. But I can’t kill a Divine.”

“I would say you could probably kill whomever you pleased,” said Talen.

Harnock ignored him.

“Help us escape these dreadmen,” River said. “Then come with us. It’s time, well past time. Time to open the Book. Time to come out in the open. We need your help. You need help.”

“There is no helping me,” he said.

“You don’t know that,” said River.

“I know it,” he said. “I know it in my bones. It’s all written in the bones.”

“The Book holds wisdom we cannot imagine,” she said. “And the Grove is about to rise. You cannot give up hope now.”

“Argoth is a fool. He was always rash. And now that Hogan is gone, there is none to speak reason. I do not want to pay for your mistakes. You should have never let the Grove come out of hiding.”

“All we need is time,” said River. “If we can make it through the winter, we will have an army the likes of which has not been seen since the ancient days.”

“The armies of the righteous failed before.”

“Better to die trying, than to never try at all.”

“That’s a load of glib pap,” said Harnock.

Every moment they delayed put them in more danger. “If you won’t guide us,” Talen said, “then tell us where to go.”

“It would do you no good,” said Harnock. “Even if you knew the Wilds, you’re not going to get past the woodikin. You will never make it.”

“Harnock,” River pleaded. “I’m begging you. What would Moon do?”

“Don’t bring her into this.”

“You know what she would say—draw these hunters in; they don’t know the dangers of the Wilds. Lead them on a path that will take them to their deaths.”

“She wouldn’t say that.”

“Oh, really?”

Harnock growled in frustration.

“You can’t let them have Talen.”

“Why not?”

“He was bred to be a Glory. Do you want to give them that?”

Harnock looked at Talen. “I could kill him now, put him beyond their reach.”

“That doesn’t save the Grove. It doesn’t help the Koramite women and children. We’ve never had a better opportunity to strike those who twisted you. This is your moment, Harnock. Your time to deal out justice.”

Harnock looked back up at the crows. Then he came to a decision and let out a long frustrated sigh of resignation. “Fine. I’ll get you through the woodikin. But I won’t promise one bit more.”

Relief flooded Talen. “Ancestors bless you. We’re in your debt.”

“Boy, if you bless me one more time, I promise I will kill and eat you.”

Talen shut his mouth and blinked.

Harnock looked Talen from head to toe and shook his head. “They want to make that into a Glory?”

“Yes,” said River.

“What did they do? Run out of the regulars and turn to the droolers and halfwits?”

“Something like that,” said River.

Harnock turned back to Talen. “Well, Glory, I hope you know how to deal with a Divine, because I’ve never been able to beat one.”

Talen cleared his throat. “I find that hard to believe.”

“Believe it,” said Harnock. “If that Divine you brought to my door gets a hold of me, then you’re all done for.”

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