Blood and Bone: Book Excerpt

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In the third moon of the third year of the Great Drought, we put out to sea from the estuary of Holy Ubaryd. On the fifteenth day of the third moon we arrived at an island of the barbarian Falarese. From then on, we were harassed by contrary winds, which delayed our arrival. Further, we encountered treacherous fields of ice that could only be navigated with the greatest care. It was not until the eleventh moon when we finally dropped anchor at the mouth of a great river. Certain it is that so short a visit cannot encompass all the customs and peculiarities of this country, yet we may at least outline its principal characteristics.
—Ular Takeq
Customs of Ancient Jakal-Uku

GHOSTS RULED THE jungles of Jacuruku. Saeng remembered staying awake through the night as she strained to understand their whispered calls. Somehow their murmuring beckoned so much more seductively than her own dreams. One of her earliest memories was of walking alone through moonlit leaves hunting for the source of the jungle’s voice. She’d been utterly self-composed and without fear—as only a child could be. Long into her wandering she distinctly recalled a hand taking hers and guiding her through the dense fronds and stands of damp grasses back to the village. Her mother swept up then, her face wet with tears, to squeeze her to her bony chest while Saeng calmly explained that everything was all right. That there was no need to cry. That a friend had brought her back.

And of course later everyone swore to seeing her wander in from the dark alone.

Since then the leagues of impenetrable jungle surrounding the village had held no fear for her. A dangerous and, she could admit, rather reckless attitude in a land where flower garlands and prayer scarves festooned trees in honour of countless spirits, restless dead, ghosts, lost forgotten gods, and far too many missing children and adults.

Growing up she continued to steal away into the woods whenever she could. And there among the hanging vines and leaves dripping night-mist the old spirits of the land came to her and she learned many forgotten things. In the morning she would return from her wanderings through the jungle tracks, her legs and feet sheathed in mud and grass and webs tangled in her hair. At first her mother beat her and twisted her ears. ‘You are no low-bred farmer’s daughter!’ she would screech. ‘We come from an ancient family of priestesses and seers!’

And often, during the midday meal, her mother would take her hands and always it would be the same story: ‘Saeng,’ she would begin, as if so disappointed in her. ‘Our family has kept the old faith. Not like these ignorant fools surrounding us with their grovelling to idols, charms and amulets. All these superstitious mouthings to earth goddesses, or beast gods, or the cursed God-King, or the Witch—all of these empty words. Or worse. Our family, we women, we descend from the original priestesses of the Sky and the Sun! We worship Light. Remember that! The Light that gives all life!’

Her mother would try to capture her gaze as if pleading with her to understand but she would glance away, mouthing, ‘Yes, Mother.’ Eventually her mother gave up even these exhortations and she was allowed to continue her wanderings in pursuit of the voices that whispered from the great green labyrinth that surrounded them.

As she grew older, and her mastery of the whispered teachings grew more assured, she found she could summon these ghosts, which she now knew as the dreaded land and ancestor spirits, the Nak-ta. And as her skills advanced these spirits and shades came to her from ever further into the ancient gulf of the land’s past. And each commanded greater and greater puissance in the manipulation of their talents. In the murmurings of these restless dead she learned how to bind the will of animals, how to interpret the voices of the wind, how to trick the senses, and how to tease knowledge from the earth itself. As she drifted, half asleep, it seemed to her that they stole close to her ears where they whispered of darker secrets. Of ancient forbidden charms, of lost deadly wards, and how to dominate the recesses of the human mind.

At first she thought nothing of this, even as the shades crowded ever nearer and proved ever more difficult for her to dismiss. Until one night the tenebrous clawed hand of one clutched her arm. Its voice was no more than the sighing of the wind through the leaves as it hissed, ‘The High King will be well pleased with you.’

She remembered her shock at its frigid touch. ‘All that was dust ages ago.’

Nay, ’tis of the moment. No more foolishness from you.’ It began to sink into the wet ground, yanking her down by the arm.

A yell shocked her even more then as a branch swung through the shade, dispersing it. She lay staring up at her elder brother, Hanu, while he glared about, branch readied. Strangely, all she felt was outrage. ‘What are you doing here?’ she demanded.

He pulled her up. ‘You’re welcome. I’ve been following you. And thank the ancestors for it, too.’

What?‘ She danced away from him. ‘˜For how long?’

He shrugged his broad shoulders in the shadowed darkness. ‘Whenever I can. Someone has to keep an eye out while you offer yourself up to these feral spirits.’

‘˜I can control them.’

‘Clearly not.’

‘That one surprised me, that’s all.’ A sudden thought occurred to her and she drew closer, biting her lip. ‘You’re not…’ you’re not going to tell Mother, are you?’