FLOWERS AND BONES
Ryder woke to the sound of clattering bones. A red curtain separated the sleeping area from the main room of the cottage, and he could see the faint flickering of candles through the fabric.
“Skyla,” he whispered.
Even in his sleep he’d known there was something wrong. A feeling of dread lay heavy in his stomach. Next to him in the long bed, Ryder’s two younger sisters were quiet. Pima, the little one, lay diagonally with the covers bunched up around her. Her mouth was open, and she was snoring gently. Skyla was pressed into the corner.
“Sky . . . ,” he began again.
“I know,” she said. There was nothing sleepy about her voice. He wondered how long she’d been awake.
“Why didn’t you do something?” Ryder flung off the bit of tattered blanket that covered his legs. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
The dirt floor was cold under his bare feet. He’d grown tall in the past year, too tall for the low door frame that led to the main part of the cottage, and he hunched a little as he peered around the red curtain.
Mabis, his mother, was squatting on the floor, picking up bones. A goat’s femur, a horse’s rib. They were dark with age and etched with thin lines. She placed each one into a wooden bowl as large as the wheel of a donkey cart.
“Tell me who it is,” she murmured. “Tell me.” Smoke from the fire hung around the room, making rings around the candles.
Skyla slipped in beside Ryder, and together they watched as their mother rose from the floor. Mabis looked furtively around, squinting toward the sleeping area, but they were well hidden in the shadows. She seemed to satisfy herself that she was alone, and staggered to the lit fireplace, grabbing an iron poker.
“Did you check the fireplace?” Ryder whispered. “I told you to check the fireplace.”
“I did,” Skyla insisted.
Mabis climbed onto a wooden chair and up onto the large table their father had made. She was wearing her reds. It was the traditional costume of the mountain witches—loose-fitting pants and a quilted tunic with embroidery along the edge. Ryder had seen his mother wear reds only a few times before. They had a dramatic effect on people that Mabis liked to keep in reserve. Usually they were packed carefully at the bottom of a wooden blanket chest; now the tunic was buttoned up wrong, and there was a greasy stain down the side of her leg.
Her sleeves slid down her brown arms as she reached up with the poker. From the rafters fell a cloth bag tied with string. Ryder cursed inwardly. He’d thought he knew all her hiding places.
Mabis knelt on the tabletop and set down the poker. Greedily she opened the bag. A shower of black flowers, each the size of a baby’s fist, fell to the table.
“Maiden’s woe,” Skyla breathed.
Ryder nodded, noticing the black stain on his mother’s lips; it wasn’t the first she’d had that night. Maiden’s woe was a river plant whose flowers bloomed in the shallows. Ryder had pulled up all he could find, but the plants grew like weeds this time of year; if he missed even the smallest bit of root, they came back twice as thick. As he watched, his mother pushed two of the black flowers into her mouth and grimaced.
“She promised,” Skyla whispered.
“Promised,” Ryder muttered as if the word were a curse. He started forward, but Skyla grabbed him by the arm.
“Wait!” she said. “Just . . . wait.” Ryder frowned but held back. His first impulse was to confront his mother, but Skyla’s judgment was usually sound; perhaps she had some reason to suspect a second hiding place.
Mabis had left the table now and was kneeling over the great bowl, shaking it with both hands. She could do this half the night, Ryder knew: stir the bones, shake them, mumble at them, then pour them out onto the floor and pretend to read like some ancient witch doing a casting.
When Ryder’s father was alive, Mabis threw the bones only for customers. Telling the future was something she did for money. Of course, the villagers in the valley knew that she was not a real witch, not anymore. She didn’t live in the mountain coven, devoting her life to the Goddess and studying the teachings of Aata and Aayse; she had given that up long ago. But real witches didn’t concern themselves with the daily problems of the village, and Mabis’s prophecies were full of common sense, if vague, and so she had a tidy business.
What villagers never saw was how Ryder’s father would frown when the door closed behind them, how Mabis would laugh, jingling their coins in her hand. Any fool who believed a pile of bones could tell the future didn’t deserve to keep his money—that was what she used to say.
Yet here she was—holding a bowl of bones over her head. She shook it one, two, three times, then spilled its contents onto the floor with a loud clatter. The room fell silent. Mabis looked toward the sleeping area and cocked her head, listening, but Ryder and Skyla stayed quiet. Ryder glanced back at Pima, but his littlest sister was still asleep.
Finally Mabis turned back to the bones, circling them like an animal stalking prey. Skyla seemed to hold her breath; she lifted herself up on her toes, craning her neck. Ryder could see his sister was trying to make out the pattern the bones made on the floor, but what did she think was there? After a while, Mabis moved back to the table and popped two more of the dark blooms into her mouth.
“I’ve seen enough.” Ryder stepped forward again, and again Skyla pulled him back. “What in Aata’s name is wrong with you?” he hissed. “There’s always another hiding place, Skyla. We can’t just watch . . .”
His sister looked up at him with somber eyes. Her pale eyebrows stood out against her brown face, and even in the dim light, her hair glinted like polished metal.
“You can’t go now. You’re not supposed to interrupt a witch’s reading once the bones are thrown.”
“What witch? What reading?”
Those eyes again. His sister looked like Fa sometimes with that wise look. “Maybe . . . maybe she really can see the future. Maybe something bad is going to happen. Shouldn’t we know?”
Ryder swallowed his annoyance. He knew all he needed to know: Throwing the bones was just his mother’s excuse for taking the flowers, and the mad visions she had afterward were not the future, just the inside of her own bewildered mind.
“You really are getting gullible, Sky,” he said, and before she could stop him again, he strode into the main room of the cottage.
Mabis’s head snapped up when he entered. In spite of himself, Ryder was taken aback. Her yellow hair was loose and tangled, and her eyes glittered strangely in the firelight. His recriminations died on his lips.
“Do you see it?” she asked, gesturing to the casting. Her voice had a kind of fragile hope, as if pleading to be believed. “Someone has arrived. There’s a stranger in the mountains.”
“Go to bed now,” he said. “Please.” His mother just stood there, swaying slightly.
The walls of the cramped cottage seemed to lean in on him. No one had put the cheese away, he noticed—good market cheese he’d bought for a treat, not their own homemade. Dirty wooden plates were stacked by the door, waiting to be washed in the river. Mabis had sent her children to bed insisting she would clean up, and Ryder had been so tired from his other chores that he’d decided to believe her.
“Mabis,” he said firmly. “Listen to me—we need you now. The hicca will freeze on the stalks if we don’t get it harvested.” He crossed toward her. “I can’t do everything. The chilling could come any day.”
“Watch your feet!” Mabis took his elbow. “Watch out for the bones.” She gestured to the floor. “Try to see it, Ryder. Just try. Start with the anchor bone—the small one—that’s the key. See how it touches the shadow man? Place the pattern in your mind and the vision will come.”
“Mabis, you’re talking gibberish.” She never did this, never tried to teach her children how to read, though Skyla had often asked to learn. Mabis had always said the witches made it all up, so why bother to pass it on? “Don’t you understand? If you don’t help with the harvest, we might not have enough to eat this winter.”
“The stranger in the mountains is just the beginning. Terrible things are coming.”
“Stop it! Stop it now. You sound like a madwoman.”
She turned away from him in disgust. “Your father would have believed.”
Ryder frowned, stung by the bitterness in her voice, as if he were the one disappointing her. Could it be that she really saw something? He let himself consider the idea for just a moment before shaking his head.
“No,” he said firmly. “If throwing the bones were real—which it isn’t, you’ve told me a hundred times—but if it were, then there would be witches in the coven doing it right now, doing it better than you. And if there was something terrible coming, they’d tell us—they’d have told us already. Isn’t that why they’re up there? Isn’t that why we pay our tithes? So they can guard the border and keep us safe?” Mabis had stopped listening to his argument and was looking blankly into space. “Mabis?”
Her eyes startled him when she looked up; they were so bright and blue and wild. “I see the future,” she whispered. “I’m seeing it right now.”
“You’re not.” His voice quavered a little. “Stop it. You’re not even looking at the casting.”
“A great witch doesn’t need bones. I can see the future written in the flecks of your eyes.” She touched his face with cold hands, holding him by the chin. “Stay still. I almost have it all.”
Worry stabbed through him. She was like a feral creature gazing out at him from a deep wood, seeing and not seeing. It frightened him. He should have gone to the river every day and made sure every bit of that weed was gone.
“An assassin is coming.” She seemed alarmed now, afraid. “An assassin in the mountains. Right across the border. He mustn’t succeed!” His mother’s gaze left his face and slid to the table by the fire. “Just one more flower and I’ll know everything.”
“No,” Ryder said, stepping away from her. “No. This is nonsense.” In three long strides he crossed the room and gathered up every one of the black blooms.
“What are you doing?” Mabis stumbled forward and bones scattered. Ryder looked around the small room, flowers in his hands. His eyes lighted on the fireplace.
“Don’t!” she shouted. Lunging forward, she lost her balance, bones under her feet. She fell heavily onto one knee. Ryder seized the opportunity and tossed the maiden’s woe into the fire. The black trumpets hissed and popped, sending sparks up the chimney.
Mabis struggled to her feet and ran toward him. “I need them!” she pleaded, sounding desperate. Just in time, Ryder grabbed her wrist and stopped her from plunging her hand into the flames. Mabis turned on him. Her face, lit by firelight, was twisted with rage. Before Ryder could do anything, she slapped him across the cheek. Hard.
Skyla rushed in from behind the curtain. “Mabis, stop it!” she cried. But by then there was nothing to stop. Mabis was leaning against the fireplace, avoiding their gaze, her breath coming in shallow gasps.
“Do you see?” Ryder hissed at Skyla. “This has nothing to do with the bones, with the future.”
His sister’s eyes were wide with fright. From the sleeping area, Pima’s voice came loud and shrill.
“Maba, I want Maba!”
“Just go help Pima, will you?” Ryder told his sister.
“I’ll go,” said his mother. Her voice was small, and she still didn’t meet his eyes.
“No! Pima can’t see you like this.”
His mother winced. Skyla took a breath and nodded, then went off to comfort the crying four-year-old. When she was gone, Ryder turned to his mother. “This has got to stop.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said. She sank to the floor with her back against the wall.
“Sorry,” he repeated, putting his hand to his cheek.
He dropped down next to her on the floor, and for a while neither of them spoke. Outside, trees creaked in the wind. The stones of the fireplace were warm against his back. He tried to hold on to his anger, but as he sat there he felt it slipping away from him, leaving a hollowness in his chest. Skyla was singing softly to Pima in the other room—a lullaby of Fa’s—and without warning, a feeling of loss pierced him. He’d become used to it since Fa died, surprise attacks of emotions that came out of nowhere, left him breathless. But he realized it wasn’t his father that he was missing so painfully at this moment. It was his mother. His mother as she used to be. Mabis had been like iron once. She’d been like stone. Nothing could break her. And he’d felt entirely safe.
Slowly Mabis got to her knees and reached for something under the table. One of her bones, the smallest one, had skittered there in the scuffle. She tossed it into his lap before sitting heavily back down.
“What’s this?” he said.
“You’re right. It’s got to stop.” Her eyes were already beginning to clear. Maiden’s woe gave Mabis a burst of frenzied vision, but the effect soon dissipated, leaving her moody and tired—until she took more and it all started again.
Ryder picked up the fragment of black bone. Unlike the others in the set, this one had no marks scratched into it. It was a piece of vertebra most likely, but it was so worn he couldn’t tell from what animal it had come. He’d never noticed it before, had never cared enough about his mother’s bones to distinguish one from the other, though they’d sat on the high shelf above the kitchen pots all his life. His mother had always been so quick to deride them, to belittle anyone who believed they had something to reveal. “I don’t understand. Why are you giving this to me?”
“It’s the anchor bone,” Mabis explained. “It’s very old. A casting wouldn’t work without it.” She pressed his hands around the small black knob. “You keep it for me. Without it, I won’t be tempted.”
The meaning of his mother’s words began to dawn on him. Could it be that simple? Could hiding this little thing really keep his mother away from the maiden’s woe? He should have thought of it before. He would have tossed the whole set of bones into the river if he thought it would stop her from taking the flower.
“And you were right about something else,” she said. “The witches in my coven, they must see the assassin too. I’ve got to speak to them about it. Ryder, we’ve got to build a firecall.”
“Please, I won’t be able to stop thinking about it. . . .”
Ryder was about to refuse. He knew the witches wouldn’t come, wouldn’t allow themselves to be summoned by the village fortune-teller. But then, maybe being ignored by the witches was just what his mother needed to bring her back to herself. He glanced at the shuttered window for any sign of light slipping in between the cracks. As yet, dawn hadn’t reached them, but he was beginning to suspect he wouldn’t sleep again that night.
“And if we build this call and the witches don’t come, will you promise to stop all this? Will you face the fact you can’t see any visions in the bones?”
Mabis smiled, and Ryder could see the black stains on her teeth. “I’ll promise anything you like,” she said. She pulled herself up from the floor, brushing the dust off her dirty reds. “But the witches won’t ignore a call from me.”
* * *
On the other side of the border, Falpian Caraxus watched the column of greenish smoke rise up over the shoulder of the mountain. Dawn was breaking. Behind him, his father’s men hovered around cooking fires, rolling up blankets or talking softly over last cups of steaming tea, careful not to disturb his thoughts. Some had already taken their leave with a nod or a silent bow and were leading their horses down the steep path.
Falpian stood in the dewy grass on the edge of the plateau. The mountains were a stunning sight. The zanthia trees had changed their color, turning every peak to crimson.
“The witches are in their reds,” he said to himself. Here, so close to the border, it was easy to see how the Witchlanders could believe in Aata and Aayse, the witch prophets. Even the red trees seemed to honor their customs.
Bron, his father’s kennel master, came up quietly beside him, his great shadow spilling over the lip of the plateau. “Firecall,” he grunted, frowning up at jagged peaks.
Falpian hadn’t considered that. At first he’d thought the rising smoke must be a funeral pyre, but then he remembered that Witchlanders didn’t burn their dead; they buried them in the ground, or worse, preserved them in dank catacombs.
“Black for war, green to gather, red when the coven is under attack,” Falpian recited. He turned to Bron. “Some witch calls for a gathering with that smoke. Do you think they know something?”
Bron took a moment to answer. “What is there to know?”
“I’m not a fool.”
After another pause the kennel master said quietly, “It’s always best to assume the witches know every move we make. And every move we’re going to make.” He turned to Falpian now, as if to use his face to make the point. Falpian was used to the cruel scars that slashed from left to right across Bron’s features—souvenirs of war—but seeing them now made him flinch. Witchlanders were a vicious people.
“Maybe I should just go home with you,” Falpian suggested hopefully. “These are dangerous times.”
Behind them on the plateau, some of the others had noticed the smoke and were murmuring and pointing. They were young men mostly, too young to be veterans of the war like Bron, too young to remember when the fire-calls all burned black.
“It’s all right!” Bron shouted, but his words were for Falpian as much as for them. “I expect a call’s a common enough thing in these parts!” In a lower voice he went on, “There’s nothing to fear. The witches won’t break the treaty.”
“I don’t want to go back because I’m afraid,” Falpian snapped. Bron raised an eyebrow at Falpian’s tone. Although a servant of Falpian’s father, he demanded respect from someone so young. “I’m sorry, Bron. It’s just . . . I should be home. I should be training with the others.”
“Why do you pretend not to know what I’m talking about? There wasn’t a spare bed the day we left—there were even boys sleeping in the stables.”
“Men have always sent their sons to your father to learn their battle skills.”
“Never so many sons as this year.”
Bron pursed his lips and stared out at the scarlet mountains as if he enjoyed the view. He must be under orders, Falpian thought. He’d tell me if he could.
“We’ll await you in the gorge,” someone said to Bron, and the last of the men and horses began to make their way down the path.
Falpian watched the last horse disappear and felt a weight settle over him. Soon Bron would leave as well, and Falpian would be alone, alone at Stonehouse for a hundred days with only the dog for company—and even Bo’s company couldn’t be counted on. He was off chasing rabbits now, enamored of his new freedom.
Of course, Falpian would want for nothing during his stay. His father had sent crates of poetry, bags of flour, jars of honey, barrel after barrel of dried fish—everything he’d need and plenty of things he wouldn’t. Somehow the man could make even bounty seem like a slap in the face. In the old days he would have told his son to live by his wits, that hardship would make him strong; he would have scoffed at the idea of reading poetry and insisted Falpian study logic or military history. Now he didn’t seem to care.
“I can’t be completely useless,” Falpian said to Bron. “Surely there’s something I can learn to do.” He pointed to the smoke over the mountain. “I hate them as much as everyone else. If there’s another attack planned. If it’s war—”
“Shh!” Bron warned. The men were gone now, but he looked to the mountain’s crooked peak as if, from their high covens, red witches were listening. “You are in mourning, child. This is a time of grief for you—a time of meditation and prayer.”
Falpian waved his words away. “There are a dozen retreats where I could spend my mourning season. But Father sends me as far as he can, for as long as he can. Am I being banished?” He bit his lip, remembering how cold his father had been when they parted, barely taking the time to say good-bye. “You don’t have any magic in you either, but at least my father can stand to look at you.” This was the heart of the matter, Falpian knew. His lack of magic. “All those men and boys back home, how many of them will have the gift? One or two, if any? But he doesn’t treat the others as if they’ve disappointed him just by being alive. He puts a sword in their hands and teaches them how to use it.”
“I seem to recall your father giving you many lessons in swordcraft.”
Falpian blushed hotly. Neither he nor his brother had ever excelled with weapons. “I thought,” he stammered, “I thought I would have other skills.” He paused, steadying his breath. The last thing he wanted was for Bron to see him cry, and report what he had seen to his father. “I shouldn’t have assumed.”
The kennel master set a thick hand on his shoulder. Falpian shrugged away his touch, but at least Bron wasn’t like his mother, constantly telling him that he was a late bloomer, that his magic would come. Falpian was grateful for that.
“Perhaps your father has a reason,” Bron said, still speaking in hushed tones. “Did you think of that? A reason for sending you so close to the border, in these . . . uncertain times.”
“What do you mean?”
Bron’s eyes were suddenly brighter, and the torn corners of his mouth turned upward to a grin. There was a leather pack at his side, and from it he pulled a metal cylinder that glinted dully in the sunlight. Falpian recognized it as a container for a scroll.
“I was supposed to wait until the last moment to give this to you,” Bron said, “and I suppose that time has come.”
All at once, Falpian was reminded of a day years earlier—the day he’d been given his dog, Bo. He remembered the kennel master holding the trembling ball of fur cupped in both his hands, that same glad brightness in his eyes: It was something special, this scroll. Falpian looked again at the cylinder. He’d never seen it before, but he recognized the Caraxus family mark etched over its surface: the words DUTY, HONOR, SACRIFICE coiled together in the ancient Baen script.
“Is it . . . from my father?” Something like hope fluttered in his chest. “But if he had a message—”
“Not a message,” Bron interrupted. “A mission.” He smiled again. “I wish you could have heard him. Your father did not confide everything in me, but he did say your presence here was very important, that you were very important.”
“Very important? Me?” Try as he might, Falpian couldn’t picture his father saying the words. “Important for what?”
“For what’s to come.”
Later, when Bron too had gone, Falpian stood at the edge of the plateau clutching the metal cylinder tightly in one hand, delaying for a moment the pleasure of opening it. He had a mission. A reason to be here. His father had not banished him after all. The red mountains had been just a pretty picture before; now they were strangely thrilling, as if his destiny were hidden somewhere amid the rocky crags.
Nearby, a stand of zanthias shook their branches, and a cloud of seedpods floated down on him like fat red snow-flakes. Without thinking, Falpian pulled one out of the air. It was soft and feathery. He’d read somewhere that Witchlanders made wishes on them.
“Let me do this well,” he whispered, “whatever it is. Don’t let me disappoint him again.”
Falpian blew a soft breath over his palm, and the seed-pod floated down on a current of air, disappearing into the gorge.
He’d rather die than disappoint his father again.
© 2011 Cathleen Coakley
It’s all a fake.
At least, that’s what Ryder thinks. He doubts the witches really deserve their tithes—one quarter of all the crops his village can produce. And even if they can predict the future, what danger is there to foretell, now that his people’s old enemy, the Baen, has been defeated?
But when a terrifying new magic threatens both his village and the coven, Ryder must confront the beautiful and silent witch who holds all the secrets. Everything he’s ever believed about witches, the Baen, magic and about himself will change, when he discovers that the prophecies he’s always scorned—
Are about him.
- Atheneum Books for Young Readers |
- 416 pages |
- ISBN 9781442420045 |
- August 2011 |
- Grades 7 and up