We live in the Bone House, Father and I, in the shade of the ironwood trees, beside a river that is never still, never silent.
Somewhere, far to the south, a war is being fought, a war that began many years before I was conceived and has been fought with growing ferocity ever since. At night I sit on the banks of the river and look to where the great fires burn, lighting up the horizon as if to challenge the stars themselves, and imagine that I can hear the clash of armies, steel upon steel.
In the morning there are bodies in the water—men, women, children, horses, oxen—and it is these that sustain our lonely life here. The river is wide and deep, a quarter of a mile from one bank to the other. Sometimes it roars like an animal in pain as it rushes towards the sea. At other times, when the tide is low and the stinking mud of the shore is exposed, the water swirls and gurgles and sings a discordant tune.
On such musical mornings I walk two miles to where the riverbank dips. I take my hook, wade out as far as I am able, and use the big, sharp blade to grab at the flotsam.
By noon, when the water is rising again, I take stock of what the river has given us, laying out bodies on the bank, collecting rings and trinkets, scraps of paper, anything that is useful, and stripping away their clothing to expose fish-belly white flesh. Then I return some of the bodies to the river to continue their journey north.
Some. But not all.
I like to carve. I like to sculpt. But the ironwood trees in the forest shatter even the finest blades. Father says that the war has changed them, that the magic of the battlemages has infected the land, and I have no cause to doubt him—he has been my educator and my window on the world.
Bone is easier to shape.
Our home is decorated with an abundance of carvings—fairy folk made from fingerbones, a blossoming tree formed from the thighbone of a soldier, a dragon carved from the spine of a horse—even Father’s drinking cup was fashioned from the shattered skull of a southron knight.
“You have made this poor place a bone house, Mikulas,” Father told me once, and there was a touch of wonder in his gravelly voice.
But he has never seen the pride of my collection.
Hidden in the deep, dark of the ironwood trees, a mile or more from the Bone House is a statue—chipped away flake by flake from a fused mass of human and animal bone.
It is a statue of my mother, her features copied as best I can, taking as my guide the tiny portrait carved into the jade cameo I wear around my neck.
She was beautiful, and so my statue is beautiful too.
I am an ugly thing of flesh and stone. My eyes, like glittering points of quartz, peer out from beneath the ridges, dark as coal, that protrude from my cheeks and forehead. I am my father’s son, poisoned by the same rituals that have turned his flesh to rock and that have already begun to do the same to me. It is my inheritance, the thing that, save for some miracle, I will carry to my grave. A condition as inescapable as breathing.
“You were cursed before you ever left the womb,” Father once said, and little harsh, sandy tears had fallen from his eyes. “I never realized the harm that I was doing to my flesh, to her flesh. And for what? A pointless war that can never be won.”
“Everything must end eventually,” I said.
“Ah, my beautiful Mikulas, you are wise beyond your years, but not as wise as you wish. The war will continue forever because of fools like me.”
I was little more than a babe in arms when we fled the southern cities and came to the ironwood forest, but I remember the flames and the screams and the vast armies that trudged night and day across the plains. I remember how my father pored over ancient books by the light of a guttering candle, searching for spells and rituals that would bring peace to the world but only finding the Terrible Words of Destruction.
He was a fool, of course he was, allowing himself to believe that what he was doing was right and just, allowing the Earl of the South to manipulate him, just as the other Earls manipulated their own court mages to the same ends. We need more weapons, they said, more rituals, more soldiers, enough to strike one final, shattering blow that will finish the war. But one shattering blow was met with another shattering blow and the killing continued.
The price my father paid for his naïve compliance was terrible—his flesh poisoned, his son deformed, and his beloved wife dead.
It was her passing that finally opened his eyes. The sorcerous poison worked quickly on her, carried in his kisses, in the very stuff of him, destroying her from the inside out.
She was in her tomb by my second birthday. She was soft and pale, a fragile creature even before the trauma of my birth, or so Father tells me. He does not blame me for her death, nor do I blame myself; I know that she died—as have so many—on the altar of the Earls’ ambition.
But in that mass of bone—blended together by fire, enchantment and a quart of my own thick blood—she lives again. And so I chip, I pare, I shape.
At times, when Father sleeps and even the great fires of battle have dimmed somewhat, I come to her and sit for hours, staring at the half-formed lines of her face, her body. Even in the near total darkness her beauty lights up the night.
It was in the summer that Isoria came into my solitary life.
That morning the river was in full voice and I found myself singing in counterpoint to the tumbling melody, adding my rumbling bass tones to the high soprano of the water. The fighting had been fierce in the preceding months, as if the Earls had acknowledged that magic offered no solution and were attempting to end their war through simple brute force.
As ever, it was the innocents who suffered most—for every figure in blue or red or green livery that floated through the water, a dozen more wore rough homespun cloth. If I had chosen to do so I could have walked from one bank to the other on the backs of the dead.
I had long since grown indifferent to the sight of corpses, no matter how horrific their mutilation. Their humanity had been taken from them at the moment of death—stolen by sword, spear and arrow—and I had no tears to shed for them.
By mid-morning twenty silent, bloated forms lay on the bank, together with the waterlogged carcass of a black dog and the shapeless bulk of a headless warhorse. One of the dead men, a scribe judging by his dress, clutched a small leather-bound book, the pages sodden but still readable. I took it as a present for Father, then began my morning’s work.
I had just begun to strip the livery from a dead soldier when I heard a soft moan from the water behind me, so feeble that at first I took it for a discordant note in the river’s music.
I heard it again and turned to look. It was a woman, dressed in torn and filthy livery. The coat and breeches were purple—the colors of the Earl of the South.
“Help me,” she said, her voice made harsh by pain and exhaustion. “In the name of Mullitu, help me.” She lay in the oozing mud like a floundering fish, her limbs moving pathetically as she tried to drag herself onto the bank. The broken shaft of an arrow protruded from her left shoulder, another from her side and a third from her right thigh. Her face was contorted, her hazel eyes bright and her teeth glittering whitely in her mud-splattered features.
The wounded have never been my concern—they come with the river, they belong to the water and will live or die by its graces.
But for a moment our gazes locked. She had my mother’s eyes.
“Help me,” she said again, then the strength went from her and she flopped forward. The water swirled around her, threatening to drag her back into the current.
My body made the decision to save her moments before my mind concurred. I waded out and lifted her. Even with her sodden clothing she was surprisingly light, but then again my strength is great.
I carried her onto the bank and placed her on the grass away from the pile of corpses. Despite the arrow wounds her breathing and heartbeat were strong, and although her flesh was as cold as ice there was no tinge of death about it.
She was the first living woman I had seen since we came to the ironwood forest. Her face was oval, the features delicate, framed by long tresses of hair, bright gold that shone even through the thick coating of mud. A long-bladed knife hung at her right hip but the sword scabbard on her left was empty. The river had washed her wounds clean, though they bled again as soon as I dug the arrowheads from her flesh.
She moaned at the touch of the knife but did not wake.
As soon as I had washed her and tended to her wounds I built a fire and squatted beside it, staring at her. Then I took the cameo from around my neck and looked at it.
She had my mother’s face. My own two hands were not more alike.
She moaned again and her eyes opened.
“Am I in Hell?” she said. There was no fear in her voice, she was too exhausted for that.
“No. Nor Heaven either.”
“Then you are not a demon?”
“No, I merely have the appearance of one. I assure you that I am human.”
She smiled weakly. “Do you have a name?”
“Mikulas. And you?”
“Isoria.” Her eyelids closed again as if the very effort of speaking those few words had drained her, and she slept.
With a few of the Beautiful Words, Father had fashioned our home. But the words and rituals hurt him terribly—the fingers of his left hand merged together in a dark brittle mass—and he swore he would never speak them again.
The Bone House is small but elegant, fitting enough for two exiles and their meager possessions. The largest of the five rooms is the one that serves as Father’s library and study. Other than the clothes on our backs and the food in our bellies, the only things we took with us when we left the southlands were Father’s books.
“I should have destroyed them a long time ago,” Father said one spring evening. “These words have caused so much suffering that perhaps it would be best if the world never hears them again.” He held one of the ancient tomes up to the dying light. It was a beautiful book—bound in calfskin, edged with gold and every word within painstakingly placed on the paper so that each page was a work of art in itself. “But then, perhaps it is the use to which men put their words that causes pain rather than the words themselves.”
Or perhaps it was that, despite everything, Father’s memories were locked within the tomes as surely as mine were locked within the statue in the ironwood forest.
I did not take Isoria to the Bone House. I knew that Father would not understand my act of kindness, particularly towards one of the Earl of the South’s soldiers. He is a gentle man, but like all gentle men his anger can be terrible—during our flight to the north the city guard tried to stop us and he killed twenty of them with a single syllable of one of the Terrible Words, uttered with all the fury of a paternal wolf.
Instead I carried her to the shelter of a small glade some distance away and left her there, while I went back to the Bone House to fetch food and medicine.
Father was awake when I returned. The early part of the day was difficult for him—his blood cooled in the night, running sluggishly through his veins like silt-clogged water.
He stirred and sat up in his bed. “How was the foraging today, Mikulas?”
“Rich enough.” I held the skull goblet to his lips and he drank a few mouthfuls of honey-sweetened water.
“You found trinkets then?”
“Trinkets... and more.” I placed the book into his cold, stiff hand. He drew it close to his mildewed eyes and peered at it. His lips moved slowly as they formed the words of the title.
“Liber simplicis medicinae. The Simple Book of Medicine.” Then he chuckled, the sound rattling from his throat like a pebble in a cup. “A pretty present, my son, and I thank you for it.”
“A book of medicine?”
He held up his hand to silence me before I could speak again. “A simple book of medicine, and not one that can offer succor for either of us.”
“No cure, then?”
He shook his heavy head. “Not for such as you and I. We are cursed creatures and shall remain so.”
I had not expected him to say otherwise, but the bright flower of hope had bloomed within me for an instant. I had asked him the same question countless times before—almost from the very moment I could speak and understand what I was—and his reply had always been the same. We were incurable.
“Perhaps one day,” I said.
“No,” he replied. What other answer could he give? Hope is a cruel thing in a world where the wars are endless and life is fleeting.
After I had fed father, helped him from his bed to the library and placed his favorite books and carvings close to hand, I returned to the glade.
The sun was high, slanting through the trees and glistening red-gold against the bracken. No birds sang for there were no birds here, but small, malformed creatures scampered through the undergrowth, hissing angrily at my approach.
Isoria was still asleep, but the color had already begun to return to her cheeks.
As I bent down to her, her eyes flicked open.
“Mikulas? I thought you a dream.”
“Or a nightmare, perhaps.”
“You saved my life,” she said. “No nightmare would do that.”
“No, I do not believe that it would.” I smiled, but the look in her eyes wiped the expression from my face. She glanced away quickly, her attention focused on a blade of grass. I unwrapped the small parcel of food and watched her while she ate.
When she had finished I passed her a small pot of healing balm. “Your wounds,” I said. “How are they?”
“Painful, but not too bad. I don’t think the arrows penetrated too deeply.” She touched her bandaged thigh, and I noticed for the first time that her fingertips were stained black. “The Easterners are fierce fighters but aren’t good archers, thank Mullitu.”
“You were in battle, then.”
“It was more slaughter than battle. I don’t remember much about it, to be truthful. There was blood and there were swords and there were arrows. But we made the Easterners pay for every inch of ground, and I’d have doubled the price if my rituals had lasted.” She shoved her fingers into the earth, the gesture full of anger and frustration.
“Rituals? So you’re a battlemage?” The reason for stains on her hands was suddenly clear—arcane power had blackened them.
“An acolyte—but the situation was so bad that we needed every fighter we could get. They overran us and we had no choice but to retreat.” Her lips tightened into a thin line at the memory. “I made it as far as the river before the Eastern troops caught up with me. It was death by steel or death by water.... I chose the water.”
“And the water brought you here.”
Isoria sat up, brushing her hair away from her face. “Now you know my story, Mikulas. What is yours?” She picked up a crust of bread and nibbled at it.
I had no idea where to begin, or how much I dared tell her.
“I live here,” I said.
“In the forest?”
“Yes.” I looked away as I spoke, certain that she would recognize the lie.
We sat in uncomfortable silence for a while. From time to time I glanced up at her. She was young, I realized, hardly much older than myself, but there was a hardness to her features as if she had seen too many terrible things in her short life.
Finally Isoria said: “Why did you take me from the river, Mikulas?”
I stood up and held my hand out to her. “Can you walk?”
She climbed to her feet and tested her weight on her injured leg. “Yes,” she said. “But not far.”
“Come with me, I wish to show you something.”
She placed her hand in mine. Her flesh was soft and warm, and when she leaned against me for support I felt a strange, unfamiliar thrill run through me.
I led her through the bracken and the slanting sunlight towards the gloom of the forest proper. Before long we came to the small clearing where the statue of my mother stood.
“This is why I took you from the water,” I said.
She stepped forward and stared at the statue. For a moment her face was blank—small rivulets of sweat ran down from her hairline and she wiped them away with an annoyed gesture—then something like understanding dawned on her.
“Who is she?” Isoria said.
“Her name was Dalila. She was my mother.”
Isoria frowned slightly, as if the name was familiar. “She has my face.”
“Now do you understand why I took you from the water?”
She shook her head.
I walked to the statue and stroked its cold surface. “She died when I was very young. My memories of her are incomplete at best, certainly not enough to finish her statue. Not enough to do her justice.”
The stillness of the forest was broken by a small, musical sound. It was Isoria’s laughter.
“I never took you for an artist, Mikulas,” she said.
I turned to look at her and she was smiling.
“You want me to be your model,” she said. “So that you can finish her statue.”
She reached out and took my hand. The roughen tips of her fingers grated slightly against my hard skin.
“You saved my life, Mikulas. How could I say no?”
Time passed, as time will. By day I scavenged the river and tended to Father’s needs. In the evenings I brought food and medicine to Isoria and worked upon my statue, marveling as its hitherto coarse features gradually smoothed out beneath my chisel.
Isoria sat patiently as I shaped and pared, smiling at those times when I stared too intently at her as I tried to recreate some intricate detail of her features.
And the more I stared at her, the more I became familiar with her face, the more I realized that she and my long-dead mother were utterly unalike. The physical resemblance between them was almost exact, of course, but where my mother had been wan and delicate, Isoria had an underlying strength that belied her dainty features. And where my mother had been kind and gentle Isoria was filled with fury and violence. Often she spoke of the war, and when she did her eyes flashed with a feral brilliance.
Her wounds healed well and within weeks she was talking about leaving the ironwood forest.
“My comrades will need me,” she said one evening close to sunset. “There will be new campaigns in the autumn—the Easterners hurt us this time around but the wheels of war will turn against them.” She took her long knife from its scabbard and began to hone its edge on a flat stone.
“Why do you wish to go back to the war?” I asked.
She looked up at me. “Because the war needs to be won.” And the way she said those words brooked no argument.
“You make it sound easy.”
“War is easy. The strong win, the weak lose. We will have peace only when our enemies are dead.”
“Peace is worth any price. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a Draken-cursed coward.”
And with those simple words she broke my heart in two.
“What do you know of Draken?” I said.
“He was a traitor. Not just to his liege lord but to all of us, friend and foe alike. A man who could have brought peace but chose to run instead.” She made a small, arcane sign with her left hand and a little spark hopped between her thumb and forefinger. “He was a coward who was too weak to use his power. I hope Mullitu has a special hell for him.”
The light was fading, moving from red to black. The little sharp-toothed creatures of the forest were stirring in the undergrowth, and in the distance I could hear the surge of water as the river powered its way inexorably towards the sea.
“I’m sure She does,” I said.
I returned to the Bone House as quickly as I could. Previously, I had taken circuitous routes through the ironwood trees, carefully covering my tracks so that Isoria could not follow. But on that night I gave little or no thought to caution.
There was a pain in my chest, sharp as a dagger, and my stomach churned every time I recalled her words. I had never believed my father to be a bad man, or that he had been wrong to flee from the southlands, but equally I had never understood what the true cost of his flight had been.
Wars without end. Killing without cease.
“A man who could have brought peace but chose to run instead.”
By the time I reached the Bone House my breath was coming in great, ragged gasps and my eyes stung with salty, gritty tears.
Father was awake and in his study, his lips moving laboriously as he studied a text by the light of a greasy tallow candle.
“Mikulas.” His voice was slow and low, as ponderous as his movements. “What is the matter, my child?”
He rose and made his way towards me. The candlelight fell upon his face and cast his features into deep relief—his eyes were like two glittering points of quartz, peering out from beneath the ridges, dark as coal, that protruded from his cheeks and forehead.
The face of Oskar Draken.
“You could have brought them peace,” I said. “Your words could have ended the killing.”
His face displayed no sign of surprise, as if he had been waiting for my accusation for a long time.
“Yes,” he said. “I could have ended the war, if I had chosen to. I could have unleashed the Terrible Words that destroy flesh and blood and stone and steel. True, a world without life would be a world at peace, but the cost would be too much.
“Words do not end wars, Mikulas, no matter how powerful they are. Only men can end them when they choose to lay down their swords.”
“You are a fool if you believe that, Draken.”
I turned and saw Isoria standing in the doorway. Her face glistened with sweat, her eyes shone with hatred and the long knife glittered in her hand.
“Force alone will end the war,” she said. “There are others with the will to use it if you will not.”
“Dalila? No, not Dalila, merely a trick of the fates. Who are you, girl?”
“Isoria Vargha of the Order of the Flame.”
“Another little mage who would destroy the world,” Father said, and there was a bone-deep weariness in his voice. “Go home, little girl. Fight your wars if you must.”
Isoria advanced into the room, her blade held at the ready. “They told us about you,” she said. “We learned to curse your name from the moment we could speak and we learned to envy your power.”
“What is there to envy? The only thing of value here is my son, nothing else.”
“There are the books, the words. You took them from us but I can take them back.”
“Father,” I said. “I’m sorry. I saved her from the water, but I did not mean to bring her here. She must have followed me. I did not know....”
Father looked at me and there was forgiveness and compassion in his smile.
“Of course I followed you, Mikulas,” Isoria said. “Did you really think I would not know you as Draken’s son? You have his features and his curse.” She turned towards Father. “If you will not use your power, Draken, then pass it on to someone who will.”
“I am a Mage of the Flame,” she said. “And worthy.”
“You are a child who would only destroy. Go away—there is nothing for you here.”
“Then there will be nothing here for you either, Draken.” She leaped forward, knife raised. The long silver blade gleamed in the candlelight.
The blade struck my chest with the sound of a hammer striking an anvil. Every ounce of her hatred and fury was behind the blow, her savagery enough to penetrate my hardened skin. Hot, thick blood spurted onto my shirt. I staggered back and fell heavily as she pulled the knife free, raising it to strike again.
Then father uttered a fragment of a Terrible Word. Its effects were instantaneous and awful.
The knife melted in Isoria’s hand and burned the flesh from her bones. She had time to utter a tiny screech before her blood boiled inside her. She was dead a moment later.
I clambered to my feet and embraced my father, sobbing my sorrow and regret against his shoulder.
He did not move. His skin was cold to the touch, as smooth as granite.
He did not move or reply. He stood before me, a man of stone, his mouth half opened and a single tear, hard and bright as a diamond, on his cheek. In saving me he had destroyed himself and allowed the arcane poison in his veins to do the last of its work.
I held on to him for a long time. Until my rage dried my tears.
We live in the Bone House, Father and I, in the shade of the ironwood trees, beside a river that is never still, never silent.
By day I scavenge the river, and in the evenings I work upon my statue, softening its lines, removing Isoria’s hardness from it so that my mother’s beauty can shine again. By night I sit in the light of tallow candles and pore over the pages of exquisite books, searching for words and rituals.
One day I will find the words I seek and upon that day I will leave the Bone House and journey south. I will have my revenge upon those who took my mother and father from me. I will stand upon the battlefields and utter the Terrible Words that that destroy flesh and blood and stone and steel. My father was a kind and forgiving man, but I am not.
A world without life will be a world at peace.