The Wretched of Muirwood Page 2

In the calm of silence that followed, Pasqua replied, “There is no use yelling, Aldermaston, I can hear you very well. You may think me deaf, by the tone of your voice. Loaves you shall have then. Grouchy old niffler, coming into my kitchen to yell at me. A fine way to treat your cook.”

At that moment, the kitchen opened with a gusty wind and a man slogged in, spraying mud from his boots with every step. His hair was dripping, his beard dripping, his nose dripping. Grime covered him from head to foot. He clenched something in his hand against his chest.

“And who do you think you are to come in like that, Jon Hunter!” Pasqua said, rounding on him. “Kicking mud like that! Tell me that a wretched is found half-drowned at the Abbey gate, or I will beat you with my broom for barging into my kitchen. Filthy as a cur, look at you.”

Jon Hunter looked like a wild thing, a mess of soaked, sodden cloak, tangled hair with twigs and bits of leaves, and a gladius blade belted to his waist. “Aldermaston,” he said in a breathless voice. He mopped his beard and pitched his voice lower. “The graveyard. It flooded. Landslide.”

There was quiet, then more blinding lightning followed by billows of thunder. The Aldermaston said nothing. He only waited.

Jon Hunter seemed to be struggling to find his voice again. Lia peeked further from the ladder steps, her long curly hair tickling the sides of her face. Sowe tried to pull her back, to get her out of the light, but Lia pushed her away.

Jon Hunter pressed his forehead against his arm, staring down at the floor. “The lower slope gave way, spilling part of the cemetery downhill. Gravemarkers are strewn about and many…” He stopped, choking on the words, “Many ossuaries were burst. They were…my lord…they were…they were all empty, save for muddy linens…and…and… wedding bands made of gold.”

Jon put his hand on the cutting table. His other still clenched something. “As I searched the ruins and collected the bands, the part of the hill I was on collapsed. I thought…I thought I was going to die. I fell. I cannot say how far, not in all the dark, but I fell on stone. A shelf of rock, I thought. Knocked the wind out of me. But when the lightning flashed again, I realized it was…in the air. Do you understand me? Hanging in the air. A giant block of chiseled stone. But there was nothing below it. Nothing holding it up. I was trapped and shouted for help. But then the lightning flashed anew, and I saw the hillside above and the roots of a withered oak exposed. There is nothing but a tangle of oaks in that part of the grounds. So I leapt and climbed and came.”

The Aldermaston said nothing, chewing on the moment as if it were some bitter tasting thing. His eyes closed. His shoulders drooped. “Who else is about tonight? Who may have seen it?”

“Only I,” Jon Hunter said, holding out his hand, his mud-caked hand. There were several smeared rings in his filthy palm. “Aldermaston, why were there no bones in the ossuaries? Why leave the rings? I do not understand what I beheld tonight.”

The Aldermaston took the rings, looking at them in the flickering lamplight. Then his fingers tightened around the gold bands and a furious look kindled his cheeks.

“There is much labor to fulfill before dawn. The cemetery grounds are forbidden now. Be certain that no one trespasses. Take two mules and a cart and gather the gravemarkers and ossuaries and move them to where I shall tell you. I will help. I do not want learners to discover what you did. The entire Abbey is forbidden that ground. Have I spoken clearly? Can there be any doubt as to my orders?”

“None, Aldermaston. The storm is raging still. I will work alone. Do not risk your health to the elements. Tell me what must be done and I will do it.”

“The rains have plagued us quite enough. They will cease. Now.” He held up his hand, as if to calm a thrashing stallion in front of him.

Either by the words or the gesture or both, the rain ceased and only the water sluicing through the gutters and the plop and drip from a thousand shingles and countless shuddering oak branches could be heard. A tingle in the air sizzled, and Lia’s heart went hot with a blushing giddiness. All her life she had heard whispers of the power of the Medium. That it was strong enough to master storms, to tame fire or sea, or restore that which was lost. Even to bring the dead back alive again.

Now she knew it was real. Empty ossuaries could mean only one thing. The dead bones had been restored to the flesh of their masters, the bodies reborn and new. When the revived ones had left Muirwood was a mystery. Lia was eager to explore the forbidden grounds – to see the floating stone, to search for rings in the mud herself.

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