4:1: “Bonefields”, by Margaret Ronald

4:1: “Bonefields”, by Margaret Ronald

Rhode had been born with a thick web of skin between the first and second fingers of his right hand. In the outlying lands, such a deformity signified bad blood; even in a market town like this one, people shied away from him. They didn’t do so any more, as the crush of people around him testified. That hadn’t been why he’d cut the hand off, but it was a passable reason if he had to give one.

“That’s not what you said last time,” said the girl as she pushed her way through the crowd beside him. “Last time you said —” she paused to duck under the arm of a man carrying three plucked chickens, “— you’d had to cut it off after a member of the Goldmark brotherhood recognized your clan tattoo.” Two women shoved past her, and she grabbed Rhode’s cloak to keep from getting crushed.

“Did I?” He must have been feeling imaginative. That was getting rarer. “Well, then that’s what happened.” The merchants didn’t bother him; not many people bothered a man a foot taller than most and with a face like stone.

“And the time before that you said you’d lost it as the penalty for robbing a wizard.”

“Ah.” Rhode let his gaze slide past her to the closest market stall, where a woman sold bundles of fresh bluestalk. People passed in bright blobs, their identities reduced to a haze of garbled sound and smell.

The girl elbowed him — gently, though; she’d learned that, at least. “So which is it?”

He shrugged. “Pick one.”

She sighed and threw up her hands in a theatrical gesture, undoubtedly learned from the traveling sideshow they’d been with until yesterday. “You’re hopeless.”

He nodded. It was a good word.

This was about as small a market town as it was possible to find on the main roads. Rural country, “cow-screwing country,” so Bronze Michel had called it, old-gods country. Stheutes’ country, where the white stones rose from the bonefields. The fragments of speech he bothered to hear had a guttural accent; he supposed he had one as well, even after his years in the city.

His sister Linnet had tried to erase her accent, wanting to sound more authoritative. Their father had laughed, saying it didn’t matter what she sounded like, since Rhode would be the one following in his footsteps. Rhode had always been careful not to respond to that.

The girl tugged his elbow again. “We could pick up some silver here.”

He stared down at her, and for a moment saw Linnet in her place, and the chill in him could not for once be attributed to his own affliction.

“I could juggle,” she went on. “You could lift a few cows one-handed. Well, of course one-handed; what I meant was —”

“No.”

“Think about it. These hicks probably haven’t seen a decent show since the moon was in its egg. Just a ten-minute performance?”

“I said no.”

The girl sighed again. Her gaze shifted to over his shoulder, and she went pale beneath her olive skin. “Damn. Look, can we get moving? Forget the show, let’s just get on out of here.”

A man’s voice, wheedling and high, rang out over the market, and Rhode’s skin went cold — well, colder. “— four silver for a lesser resurrection, and the blessing of Stheutes is yours, preserved forever by the god’s bounty! Stint not, friends, lest your departed loved ones sigh at your miserable parsimony!”

Was it Ranulph? He raised his head to look, remembering in time to pull up the hood of his cloak. No, the shouting man was Egaron, one of Ranulph’s old friends. His face warmed with a dull flush of relief. He hadn’t planned on meeting Ranulph away from the shrine; to meet him now would have meant a change in plans. And Rhode wasn’t sure he still had the flexibility for that.

But Egaron was here, and it was all too obvious who had hired him. His stall was too well-built to be temporary. Posts had been sunk into foundation stones, and the ceiling was sloped to shunt rain onto the sagging slats of the next stall. Egaron harangued the crowd from a little dais, the white skull-mask of Stheutes painted on a purple banner behind him. To either side stood statues of the recent dead, half the height of the people they represented. Stheutes’ bounty. Rhode closed his hand into a fist.

The girl shook his arm, then cursed and tried to hide behind him. It did no good; a hand shot past Rhode and grabbed her by the wrist. “So this is where you’ve got to, Mongoose!” a voice boomed.

“Let go of me!” She twisted, sank her teeth into the hand, and tried to pull away. “Block, help me out here!”

“Block?” The man who’d caught the girl — Mongoose? No, that wasn’t her name — took a step forward to face Rhode. “Damn. Didn’t expect you.”

Block. Who was Block? Yes. They’d called him the Block in the sideshow. Ranulph had sometimes called him as thick as a block. And Linnet had called him a fool, when their father couldn’t hear. He looked away from Egaron’s stall and focused on the man. Ophit, the head of the sideshow. “What do you want?”

Ophit reddened. “Well, it’s not so much what I want, as what the rest of the show wants. See, Mongoose here —”

“My name isn’t Mongoose!” the girl spat. “It’s Wist!”

“Mongoose stole our payroll,” Ophit continued smoothly. “Of course, I had no idea you were working with her…” He tried a smile.

Rhode glanced from him to the girl — what was her name? She’d just said it; his memory was slowing, like the rest of him — and then to Egaron’s stall. Egaron hadn’t noticed him, though he might if this went on.

He laid his hand on the girl’s shoulder in the grip Skald Six-Bladed had taught him, the one that didn’t hurt but promised pain. “Give me the money.”

Not-Mongoose glared up at him, black hair falling across her eyes. He could see her think about lying, but instead she swore and produced a thick packet from under her tunic.

“Thank you.” He took the packet from her and turned away. Something skittered on the back of his neck, and he heard the girl gasp. He looked to see her backing away, a broken knife dangling from her hand. “Stop that.”

Ophit chuckled. “Mongoose, you’re a fool. Did you think the blades we broke on his belly every show were fakes? Why do you think we billed him as the Human Stone?”

“Name’s not Mongoose,” she mumbled, still staring at the shattered blade.

Rhode unrolled the packet. “These are for me,” he said, taking out three gold coins, then three more. “These are for her.”

“The little fool’s not worth half that,” Ophit sneered.

Rhode looked at him, and the sneer wilted. He took another three gold pieces from the packet and tossed the rest to Ophit. “These are for the end of her apprenticeship.”

Ophit looked like he might argue, but Rhode turned, so that the broken bits of knife caught in his cloak sparkled. “Er. Thanks, Block. Be seeing you.”

The girl was still glaring, though shaken, when he turned back to her. She was alert, he remembered, and smart, and he could use some help for part of the way. He tossed her six gold coins, then held up the last three. “I’m hiring you.”

“For what?”

He handed her one of his coins. “Go buy three lanterns. Good ones. And —” he paused a moment to calculate, “— two of the red jars of oil, with the blue stamp.”

She looked at the coin in her hand. “If you’re hiring me for your doxy,” she said in a rush, “I won’t do it. I had enough of that in the sideshow, and I’m not going back.”

“I’m not.” He waited until she looked up at him. “I’m hiring you to keep me awake.”

She gave him a baffled look, but nodded anyway. Once she was gone, he turned his glacial gaze to Egaron’s stall. Egaron had gone inside, probably to bilk another mourner.

Rhode’s father would have torn down the stall, trampled the banner underfoot, and proclaimed Egaron exile from the bonefields, excommunicate for selling what should be free to all. Rhode only gazed at the skull-mask banner and thought of his sister and the shrine.

Had it just been Ranulph’s influence that brought the whole thing down? Ranulph hadn’t had many scruples, it was true, but a younger Rhode hadn’t thought him capable of murder. Could the shrine really have been so much of a prize? What sort of fight would Linnet have put up in his absence?

The girl had to tug on his sleeve several times before he noticed her. “I got you the lanterns,” she said sullenly.

“Thanks,” he said, inspecting what she’d brought him. Two were plain bronze and glass. The third was pierced iron, wrought so that the wick and oil floated in the middle of the lantern and would shine out of the bottom as well as the sides. On one side of the lantern was a crudely hammered skull. He held it up so that iron mask and painted mask faced each other.

“Now what?” Not-Mongoose said. “Got any more shopping?”

“No.” He wrenched the symbol of Stheutes off and tossed it onto the boards of Egaron’s stall. Let him find it and think it an omen. “Come on.”

She followed, but kept talking. It seemed to be a permanent feature. “What was that place? You kept staring at it, and you didn’t even notice when I poked you. What do they sell there, statues?”

“He is selling use of the bonefields,” he said.

“Oh. You mean like buying a graveyard plot?”

“No.” He quickened his pace. “The graveyards — the kind you have in the cities — are poor imitations of the bonefields. You city folk play at planting your dead, and raise a stone above them… If a skeleton is planted in the bonefields, the earth will devour it and return in its place an unbreakable statue of the person, bone made stone.”

The girl was silent a moment. “You know,” she said finally, “I still can’t tell when you’re telling the truth and when you’re deliberately confusing me.”

“Yes.” Most city folk preferred to scoff at the bonefields, even if they bothered to learn about them. The first time he’d seen a graveyard, a week after losing his hand, he’d thought someone had planted the bones wrong. So he’d gone in with a chisel to fix them. That had earned him a night in the lockup, which was where he’d met Skald Six-Bladed, who’d eventually introduced him to Bronze Michel. Bronze Michel had some assassins after him, and it had amused him to have a one-handed bodyguard to thwart them, even if said guard was a little naïve about the city.

He struck the stump of his right hand against his thigh. In those days he’d worn a boiled leather cap over that stump, set with three short blades. It had always baffled the assassins to be confronted by a one-handed man using two weapons.

But it had been good work. Certainly it was good for a former devotee of Stheutes used only to tending the bonefields. Rhode had even enjoyed the unfamiliarity of it; only his strength and skill mattered, not what he’d learned, not who worked the fields. Not who was firstborn, and therefore would be priest after their father.

He glanced back at the girl, realized he was comparing her to Linnet, and looked away again.

———•———

The sun’s glow had almost disappeared before they stopped, and then they paused only to fill the lanterns. “You walk behind me,” he said, “and keep the light on my back. I’ll carry this one up front.”

“That’ll tell any bandits we’re here.”

He glanced at her. “You’re worried about them?”

It was almost a joke, unusual for him, and it startled her into smiling. She had a nice smile, he thought. It was too bad they hadn’t met earlier. Not that it would have changed things.

“When were you planning on stopping?” she asked.

“We’re not.” He tapped the side of his lantern and adjusted its wick.

The girl gave him a skeptical look. “We didn’t stop last night either. You’re not tired?”

“No.” Weariness was only another burden among many.

“Ah. Then I’m not either.”

He got to his feet and winced as a thin line of pain twined up his ankle. “One moment. I’ll catch up.”

In the light of the bonefields lantern, it looked as bad as it felt: a faint smudge of white under the hard flesh of his leg, just where the anklebone pressed against the skin. He didn’t have much time left.

He turned down the cuff of his trouser and stood back up, muscles grinding like millstones. The girl looked at him askance. “What’s the matter, Block?”

“Don’t call me Block.” The thought knocked up against an associated one. “Your name’s not Mongoose.”

“Very good, Block.” She tried for sarcasm, but the nervousness in her voice undercut it. “It’s Wist. That’s the sixth time in two days.”

“Ah. Wist.” He raised his lantern, checked the wick, and started down the road.

“Why do we even need these things? There’s a full moon, and the road’s pretty clear.”

“Light slows it,” he said without thinking. “Sunlight’s best, but lamplight works… ‘Dig by day, don’t walk by night,’ that was the proverb… There’s no darker place than under the ground.”

He glanced back after a moment’s silence to see a look of fascinated horror on her face. It made her look younger, closer to her real age. “Keep walking.”

“You’re sick, aren’t you, Block?”

He didn’t answer. Sick wasn’t the word for it.

“Will I get sick now?”

“No.” He knew that much. “Keep the light on me.”

The road was flat and monotonous, enough that it was easy to doze off even in full sun. However, there were roots and ruts that waited to trip up sleepwalkers, and one of these caught the girl some time after moonset. Rhode felt the chill of the light off his back before he heard the clatter and curse. When he turned, she was crumpled on the road where she’d fallen, lamps to either side.

He gazed at her for a long moment, then flexed the fingers of his left hand. They still moved, but not well. He had time for a delay, not time for sleep.

It took a few minutes’ work to attach one of the lamps to his belt, so that it shone its inadequate light over one side of him. By that time the girl was almost on her feet again. Against her protests, he picked her up and balanced the bonefields lantern on her chest, tucked so it wouldn’t scorch her, and kept walking.

The girl complained, but not enough to stay awake. He gazed down at her when he could spare his attention from the road. There were scars in her hairline that he hadn’t seen before, scars like the kind Skald Six-Bladed’s wire tools left. For a moment he was sorry he hadn’t killed Ophit, but there was no point in it. No point in liking her now. Perhaps if he’d been younger. If he hadn’t worked under Bronze Michel so long. If the frost beneath his skin had stayed away.

At first, he’d thought it was just the price to pay for his ageless face and unyielding strength. Then he’d remembered his hand, how he’d had to cut a second time on seeing the white smears rising in his flesh, and he’d gone to look for help.

He remembered countless hours in the circles of the city’s wizards while they consulted each other and argued and tested him with spell after spell. He gave them so much blood he thought he’d turn translucent, and one even asked for a toe-bone. In the end, all they could tell him was that it was a fascinating malady, worthy of years of speculation and study, that it had never happened before, and that it was irreversible.

Harsh words for a god’s bounty.

He’d tried to get a time estimate from them and failed. He’d pressured them (this was when he still wore the blades) and learned that they really had no idea how much time he had. One wizard, a weedy and twitchy type, had offered a few speculations to make up for his lack of knowledge. Before the end, the wizard told him, his entire being, including his thoughts, would slow as he petrified from the ground up. The last image he saw would remain in his stone eyes for a very long time. Maybe for eternity.

That was when he’d begun to plan. And those plans had led him to travel with the sideshow and meet this parcel of thievery.

He could tell himself he was going back for Linnet, who must have been cast out once Ranulph had his hands on the bonefields. But she’d always been strange to him, too avid in her studies of the bonefields in a way that had chilled him. Memories of coming upon her in the fields while she examined the bones rose to the surface of his mind and were pushed down again. There had been something cold about her, ever since they were children.

He wasn’t going back to claim the fields. He no longer had any tie there.

He wasn’t angry that Ranulph had tried to kill him. He’d been so once, but time had scoured it away.

No, he was going back for what else had been done to him. For his burial in the bonefields. For the white patches on his chest, the hardening of his skin. For the dreams in which he tasted sour earth, clawed at the dirt filling his eyes, and just before waking, he would always have his hand back, and he would always feel the slow prickle as the earth — Stheutes’ bounty — began to devour him.

For that, he wanted revenge. He shifted the girl’s weight and kept walking.

———•———

When the sun rose, he was halfway up a hill, still carrying the girl. He hadn’t even fallen, only stopped in his tracks like a weary ox.

The girl woke before him, and it was her gasp that brought him out of sleep. She stared up at him. “Block, what’s wrong with you?”

He set her down and touched the nerveless patch on his neck, where the light hadn’t reached. “A lot of things.” He unhitched the last lantern, pinched out the guttering wick, and handed it to her with the last two coins. “Go. I don’t need you any more.”

“That’s a lie. I was with Ophit longer than you, Block; I know lying.”

He didn’t answer, just walked on. When he heard her light footsteps behind him, he paused. “Rhode,” he said. “My name is Rhode. Remember it if you’re coming. If anyone says it, tell me.”

“I will,” she said, but her voice quavered.

The first townsfolk recognized him as he passed the common fields. Children watching after their family’s one cow glanced up and away incuriously, but the old women with them stared in disbelief. “They’re talking about you, Block,” said the girl. “I mean, Rhode.”

“I hear.” He tried to remember her name again and only came up with Polecat or Ferret, neither of which could be right. “Keep walking.”

They walked on, drawing near to the bonefields, and so he was prepared for her yelp and stumble; though not for how she treaded on his feet in regaining her balance. “What the hell is that?”

He raised his eyes to the fields, unnaturally bright green speckled with white, like a sheep pasture seen from far away. She was quick; she’d figure it out.

And she did, shivering and forking her fingers at the fragments poking through the turf. “Rhode, I know they’re supposed to be sacred, but they give me the cold shivers.”

“Yes.” He remembered walking among those statues, the white faces and hands reaching for the sky. Remembered hours spent with his father, learning a history and a duty believed sacred. How to care for the bone and stone, how to survive if he had to be in the fields after sundown, how to nurture the changing statues. All the rites of Stheutes, of memory, the same rites Ranulph now used to wring money from weeping families.

And yet there was always the sour taste of earth and the prickling in his right hand.

“There’s nothing sacred about them,” he said, harsher than he’d meant. “Nothing.”

The home he’d grown up in was now much bigger and prettier, with a second story built on. The shrine of Stheutes had been repaired a little, but not nearly as much as the house. New gilding limned the door, but the pillars sagged and leaned toward each other.

“Wait here,” he told the girl — what was her name? Thist? She nodded, uncharacteristically quiet.

As Rhode stepped over the boundary between house and shrine, the door opened, and Ranulph emerged, whistling, with a bundle of sticks under one arm. The merry tune died with a hiss, and Ranulph paled to the color of the statues. “Rhode?”

“Yes.” Rhode didn’t stop. If he stopped moving now, he’d never start again. “You tried to kill me.”

Ranulph blinked, then glanced at the shrine and seemed to come to a decision. “Yes. Yes, I did. Rhode, I thought you were dead —”

“I hope so.” He took another step — Ranulph hadn’t even tried to flee — and laid his hand on Ranulph’s shoulder, like a friend offering comfort. “Do you know what happens to a living body in the bonefields, Ranulph? A body under the ground, away from the light? It isn’t just bone that changes down there. Stheutes will take flesh too.”

As if summoned by his speech, daggers of cold sank into his feet and worked their way up. White patches blossomed over his still-hidden skin; soon they would be visible. Ranulph backed away, but too late; he’d given himself no room, and Rhode was too close.

Rhode flexed his fingers, bones audibly creaking, and laced them around Ranulph’s throat. Ranulph squeaked, but Rhode’s grasp was set. This is what I wanted to see, he thought, what I wanted fixed in my eyes as I die. “Do you know what happens?” he repeated.

“I do,” a woman’s voice said behind him.. Not the girl’s.

He forced his muscles to turn as stone crept through his veins. The girl was almost within arm’s reach, at the edge of the garden, and behind her stood a woman he would have known no matter how many lines time wrote on her face. Linnet. His sister.

She wore the gray surcoat of Stheutes’ anointed, their father’s surcoat, but the horn-handled knife she held to the girl’s throat was no tool of the priesthood. “I’ve had time to wonder, and time to find out. We found your hand, but never the rest of you. I’d wondered how far you could go with the bonefields in you, but I’d never have guessed you could go twenty years.” She smiled, and it was the same cold smile, stripped of any innocence. “Now we can place your statue beside Father’s.”

“Linnet —”

She didn’t hear him. “Now let go of my husband, or I cut your doxy. And believe me, I’ll bury her still breathing if he comes to harm.”

He drew a deep breath and released Ranulph, who sank to his knees. “Linnet — you —”

He lurched backward blindly, twisting to reach her. But the stone had worked its way too far into him, and his bones gave first. Something snapped as his knees ground themselves to splinters. He roared and fell as far as the stone would let him, crumpled over his petrifying limbs.

Linnet shook her head. “You’re still a fool, Rhode.”

The girl — Twisp? Quis? — snarled and wrenched his sister’s arm away. “Don’t you call him that! Block and me are no fools!”

She twisted out of Linnet’s grasp in a move that was definitely learned in the sideshow, and her foot caught the back of Linnet’s knee.

Off balance, Linnet stumbled and fell. He dragged his leaden arms to catch her, expending his last moments of mobility. She shrieked as he grabbed her by the wrist, and the knife tumbled to the earth. White blooms rose to the surface of his skin and spread, his fingers a loose shackle that could not be undone now even if he had wanted to let go. “The stone of Stheutes is unbreakable,” he murmured, just loud enough for her to hear. “You can get away from me, Linnet, but you’ll have to lose what I lost.”

Her eyes widened, and her screams grew even more shrill.

Craven, he thought; compared to his fate, her punishment was much lighter.

“Rhode!” Wist cried.

The muscles of his neck creaked and protested, but he forced them to move till he could see her. Wist knelt in front of the garden, a stricken look on her face. He tried to smile, to reassure her, but the stone reached his face as his lips formed the barest curve. Then sight froze forever, leaving him the image of her trying to smile back.

It was, the last spark in his mind told him, not such a bad vision to have for eternity.

—THE END—



Leave a Reply