August 8, 2023
Your Blood and Bones sample: First scene
The slushy snow burned the girl’s bare feet. The rough volcanic rocks beneath the thin moss cut them. She closed her eyes against the sting and tripped. Icy pain bloomed on her palms as she sought to catch herself. She managed to protect her face but jarred her shoulder on something solid. She didn’t get up.
The boy crashed on ahead through the darkness and she thought he would leave her. He cursed, and stopped.
“Get up,” he called. “We have to keep moving.”
The girl curled into a ball and lay on her side, bitter cold soaking her nightgown. The numbing wet and the radiating pain in her hands and feet distracted from the deep ache in her joints. “No.”
Exhaustion sought to claim her. She was bone weary from hiding for so long only to be found out in the middle of the damp spring night. The urge to give up—to simply stop and be done—warred with the bite of the ice against her.
“I didn’t save you so you could quit on me—”
“You haven’t saved me from anything,” she said. “I’m still going to die.”
She had been warm and secure in her bed an hour ago. In a home that had always felt safe, until she realised what she was. Her family was wealthy, settled in the community. Her parents and brothers had loved her. Something she would never have doubted before this night.
She had been far better off than most in the village until the transformation began. She should have had an easy life. Should have been allowed to grow up. To live long. But not anymore. That hadn’t been guaranteed to her for years.
The darkness was quiet for a moment. Then she felt the boy’s hands on her arms. He lifted her easily, strong from work on the farm. His grip withdrew and she remained on her feet.
“You have to do this much yourself. I can’t carry you and still get away.”
His breath frosted the air and his black hair reflected the weak moonlight. Steam rose from his shoulders. The girl looked at the ground. Maybe he could see her face in this light. She couldn’t see his.
“We can slow down,” he said. “But we can’t stop. They’ll be busy enough with that fire not to have left yet but when they do they’ll move fast.”
He turned away—all his words spoken—and in the end she followed.
His form ahead of her was a void of deeper blackness in the night. She was dressed for bed—almost naked in the melting snow. He was better dressed—strangely overdressed for bed, in a long-sleeved shirt and pants—but probably still freezing, the fabric thin and worn. He wore boots, while her feet were bare. She wished he had put on a coat.
What had he been thinking, saving her? They wouldn’t survive the night like this. She would die regardless, had been about to die—she flinched away from the memories—but he’d chosen to doom himself with her. Even without the cold he was marked for having helped her. For saving her from the fate that befell all like her. Did he understand what he had done?
Behind them, the night grew bright. The girl saw the boy’s face clearly in the red glow when he turned back to the village. She did the same, looking back at their home. At what was once their home but never would be again. The fire had spread to the brush around the houses. The sight disturbed her. How could it burn the damp spring bushes? It shouldn’t even have burned the houses—slick with melting snow and ice. An evil fire. The girl understood why the villagers had been so afraid when the boy set it.
He turned away from the light and continued across the heath. The girl followed. Her hands and feet were fully numb now, rendering her clumsy but strangely comfortable. When the boy stopped she stood on the frozen soil without flinching.
He waded into a stand of gnarled birch, just visible in the pale silver light—tangled limbs growing close to the thawing ground to ward against the whipping wind—and ducked under their branches, still naked since the winter.
“What’s this?” the girl asked, words slurred and quieter than she had meant them to be. The skin on her face felt stiff, her lips as clumsy as her feet.
Dead leaves rustled as the boy pulled aside a mess of twisted branches to reveal a trench dug in the ground. Shadowed shapes covered in the folds of fabric filled it.
“I gathered everything I could through the winter. I have enough for you, though I doubt any of it will fit. I didn’t expect to leave like this so we’re going to have to wear as much as we can. You can help me carry the rest.”
A shiver ran through the girl, and she was afraid because she should have shivered more. If she was cold enough to stop shivering she was in trouble. The boy handed her a long-sleeved man’s shirt and a threadbare coat. She took them with fumbling fingers. She turned away from him to put them on, edging her frosted nightgown down her body. It would be wet when it thawed, and the clothes were dry. She avoided looking at her own exposed skin.
A vivid memory of her mother grabbing her arm intruded in the dark, flashing across the blackness before her. The look on her mother’s face at the sight of the girl’s skin… She closed her eyes tight and awkwardly pulled the shirt on, little dexterity left in her hands. She held them against the back of her neck to warm for a moment then squeezed them under her arms.
The boy made an impatient sound and she went back to the clothes, covering herself with the coat, trying to seal in any remaining heat. When she turned back to him he had piled more at her feet. Why did he have this? She put the rest of the clothing on as if in a dream. She barely registered the touch of the cloth against her skin, feeling only the core of her limbs now, her senses retreating to where it was warmer.
Everything the boy gave her was much too big, but with some adjustments she could stop it from falling off. She was grateful for the coverage, finally able to hide her problematic skin. The boy dressed similarly, in bulky layers, but the clothing actually fit him. He handed her a second, newer coat and a heavy bag to strap on her back.
“Less for me to carry alone, at least.”
“Why do you have this ready?” the girl asked. “Like you were going to flee the village into the night.”
“I wouldn’t have fled into the night.” He ducked out of the birch copse, leaving the empty cache revealed, and walked past her. “If things had gone as planned I would have left in broad daylight, without anyone chasing me.”
She began to shiver violently as the clothing held the remaining heat in her body against her. Heat that would keep her alive. Until the villagers caught them.
“Don’t you know what I am?” she shouted at his back.
He had to know. There could be no other reason to have to save a girl from her deranged family, in a frenzy of madness, about to cut her to pieces and burn the remains. If he hadn’t known before he would know now. He must have seen her skin.
The boy looked back, and suddenly the night just beyond him was full of red light. It reflected on his face. Fire. The air reverberated with the first slow beat of a drum.
“They’re coming now,” he said. “You’re going to have to run with me.”
They ran. The heavy bag knocked against the girl’s back and the overly large boots thudded on the rocks and threatened to trip her. She hadn’t run in a year, at least. Not since she’d grown too afraid of any injury that might expose her. The exertion was unexpected and extreme. Her breath burned her frozen lungs and the inside of her throat.
The boy ran towards the sea. The girl struggled to follow. The slush of spring slid under her feet. Sucking mud slowed her steps. It almost took the boots. The boy staggered ahead of her as the land trended downwards, but kept his footing.
Why run to the water? There was no boat on the island that would be unattended. There was no wood to make their own. And they wouldn’t have time. The sound of the drum rose behind them. There would be no escape.
Then the girl remembered the boy’s father might have access to a boat. They were farmers, his family, and dirt poor as far as she knew. Before the boy’s mother had died she had sometimes done the washing for the girl’s mother, for extra food, maybe with a penny on the side. But his father went on supply trips to the mainland for the village. No one from the island would travel the sea in winter but the season changed. It was almost time. There could be a boat on the beach.
The boy fell when they got to the bottom of the rocky, mossy slope, his speed propelling him onto his hands and knees against the earth. The girl slid down the last bit of the slope and sat beside him, exhausted, on the broken ice.
“Come on,” he said, getting to his feet. “We can’t stop now.”
The girl was about to protest when she realised there was no point in arguing. Either they would die running or they’d die sitting. It wasn’t really up to the boy where she died. She didn’t have to get up. He wouldn’t wait for her. He wouldn’t choose to die sitting, or he wouldn’t have rescued her in the first place. She met his eyes in the dim light. There was no reason for her to run except that he had saved her. He had chosen to save her and really, to die with her. Maybe she owed him a fight.
And maybe there was a boat.
She stood. The boy ran towards the shore, scuffing the untouched black silt of the field before the beach. The girl looked back across the heath and saw points of light in the night. Torches. Her heart felt like it was going to explode.
Ahead, the boy dropped out of sight behind the great bulwark of moss and grass that marked the beginning of the beach proper, where the high tide waves carved out the lower beach and the seabirds nested. The girl caught up and started to lower herself down as competently as she could, but when the wind from the sea hit her face she was rocked by the stench of death.
The moon broke through the clouds and the boy was revealed clearly below. He stood on a carpet of dead creatures. Feathers and bones and matted fur, clotted blood and white or rotted-away eyes. There were no seabirds nesting in the tunnels under the overhang edge, only more bodies, spilling out of the earth like a waterfall of gore. Snapped necks. Broken limbs and wings.
“What is this?” The girl backed away from the overhang towards the villagers’ torches, gaining on them across the field.
“No time,” the boy said, reaching up the slope to take her hand. “They’ve almost got us.”
She let him pull her down into the mass of dead animals, cringing as the thawing carcases squelched under her too-large boots. Her head swung wildly towards the sea. The waves rolled in under the bright moonlight and there was no break in them. Nothing on the black beach. No boat. The tiny bones of the creatures cracked as she shifted her weight. At head height someone looked back at her with dead white eyes. Human eyes. She screamed. The boy pulled her against his chest and she let him.
There was nowhere to go if there was no boat. Why had the boy brought her to this place? Who was the man who hung out of the seabird houses like a scarecrow missing its stuffing?
She looked over the boy’s shoulder and this time she studied the dead man, lit up in the silvery light of the moon. “That’s the blacksmith.”
Their blacksmith had been missing from the village for a month. Ran away to the mainland in the middle of winter, someone said, but they all knew it was just as likely he had been wandering drunk on the heath and gotten lost in one of the heavy snows. They’d searched for a few days before abruptly stopping. After that everyone knew he was out of reach or dead. The girl’s father had planned to send for a new one come spring. He would do that soon. The previous blacksmith’s body must have been preserved by the cold. All of this must have been.
“I’m going to set a fire.” The boy held her in front of him with both hands on her shoulders. He looked into her eyes. “You hear the drum. You see the torches. You know they’re coming. They will kill us.”
“What happened to the blacksmith?” she asked. “Why is his body here?”
He let her go and she slumped down amongst the corpses. The drum beat a steady thumping, nearer and nearer. Smoke curled before the girl’s eyes and she turned to see the boy with a handful of hay, gently burning. He placed it on the ground between the remains and rolled up his sleeves. Her eyes widened.
The fitful light of the small fire illuminated him, and there, in his snow-pale skin, were the shadows of grey feathers. A ridge ran up each of his arms from his wrists, jutting bone almost breaking the skin. She smoothed a hand over her own wrist, just starting to show the same pattern. Now she knew why he had saved her.
But that meant he was a monster. Just like she was. And she knew what must have happened to the blacksmith.
The boy pressed hard on the growing ridge of bone and the skin that concealed it split. Blood spilled out, hard to see in the dim light but the girl knew it would be darker than it should be, almost purple. It gushed into the growing fire and black smoke billowed around them. The boy pushed the severed skin aside and dug into his flesh. The girl watched in horror. She had done the same before, but it was worse to see it done to someone else.
The boy must have done it before too. He barely flinched. The girl turned away to be sick and found herself staring into the rotted eyes of a rabbit. Smoke swirled against her cheek and stung her throat. Reality shifted. The rabbit moved.
The choking smoke filled the lee of the bulwark. The boy breathed it in deeply and coughed. The girl covered her nose and mouth with her sleeve but the smoke was impossible to escape. She remembered the unstoppable fire the boy had set in the village. She stood straight and looked back over the ridge towards their burning home and the mountain behind it. Their people were coming. Close enough to be seen clearly now, despite the dark.
Bodies shifted under her feet. The dead things began to move and as they did they screamed. The boy breathed loudly. He coughed and laughed. The girl felt him there, not just the warmth of his body near hers, but the haze of his mind. And the minds of the animals. And of the blacksmith. Frenetic, nonsensical thoughts assaulted her. The decomposing thoughts of the dead.
The boy dug something out of his arm, long and flexible, his blood still dripping into the smoking fire. It was a feather, the barbs weighed down with gore. He dropped it into the small flame and the smoke grew to cover them.
The village people charging towards them slowed. The silver moonlight grew grey. The dead animals under the girl writhed away, dragging their broken bodies haltingly across the black sand, towards the sea. The boy called after them, urging them on, commanding them to enter the water. The film of their minds stayed with the girl, clung to her. The blacksmith’s decaying body arched its back and dragged itself after them.
The boy knelt in the space as they left. He smothered the small flames and scraped the white ash into his hands, gathering it into a wax paper bag and putting it in the pack he carried. Then he stood and moved to follow his dead subjects.
The girl’s eyes wouldn’t focus. She tried to watch the boy but flares of false light distracted her. Her focus was drawn to the island instead. The black sand the boy walked onto was made of crushed bones and dead fish and the rock of the island. The rock of the island was suffused with the remains of those who had lived there and those who had visited, never to leave. The girl felt them all.
She looked back over the ridge at the advancing mob. Behind them, past the heath, past the village, the mountain reared up. The smoke in the girl’s lungs let her feel the fire deep beneath the earth. Molten rock. Molten death. Death was in the earth and in the sky and in the sea. The mountain was lit with it. Unearthly voices spoke to the girl as her vision faded, tunnelled, and locked onto the summit. The fire could burst from the mountain and come down to sweep the villagers away. Join their bodies to the bodies of their predecessors. The fire only needed to be freed and it could remove their rotten false love from the earth. Just because someone was becoming a monster, did that mean you could forget they were also a person? Your neighbour? Your sister?
The girl’s mind filled with images of her family’s faces as they attacked her. Mother rushing into her room in the night, wrenching the sheets away to reveal her changing flesh. Grabbing the girl’s arm as she roused from sleep and pulling her near to reveal the shadows under her skin. Mother’s face contracting into a rictus of hate and fear. Screaming to bring the girl’s brothers bursting through the door behind her. Father, standing back, more disappointed than anything. Did the girl see a tear in his eye or had she imagined it? He didn’t stop them, and quickly she was in the square, thrown on the ground in front of the others. Then the boy had come. He was big for his age—a full adult really, at eighteen—but he shouldn’t have been able to fight them. Not all of them at once. But they had been afraid. First of the boy, then of the fire.
The boy called to her and she was freed of the memory. She turned away from the mountain. The dead things had made it to the water. They grasped at each other as they entered the surf, forming a seething, floating carpet of living death. She ran towards them. Towards the boy.
The world seemed to slow again as their eyes met. Without words she showed him the mountain and its promise of revenge. The molten fire that was available to them with the power they shared. Power over the dead. Power over life and death, which were one and the same. Both looked upon the approaching villagers and thought for a frozen moment. In the end they left the fire where it was.
The girl stepped into the water and took the boy’s offered hand, climbing onto the writhing mass of bodies. They were drawn away from the shore by the dead’s grasping feet, their paddling beneath the surface. There was a wolf’s head by the girl’s thigh, partially submerged, half its face rotted off and the desiccated fur floating around its bones. It gargled in the water, one broken foreleg rising and falling, trying to push the boat out, out into the blue. Away.
Cold water crashed over the girl from behind as they entered the waves. The villagers arrived on the shore and milled there, visible in the moonlight and by the light of the torches they carried. Shouting. Drumming. A flaming arrow flew past the girl’s head, seeming to slow as it slipped by. She watched the current it made in the dark air. But she wasn’t afraid.
The boy lay flat on his back on the boat made of bodies, unmoving when cold water splashed him. As the smoke left her lungs the girl became more aware of what she was kneeling on. She opened her mouth to speak but found she couldn’t. Instead she joined the boy and watched the blacker shadow of the island disappear in the darkness until the rhythmic motion of the waves lulled her to sleep.
Release date: August 27, 2023