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Keeper of the Bones
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ISBN-10: 1-77115-177-3
ISBN-13: 
Genre: Fantasy/SF/Dark Fantasy
eBook Length: 179 Pages
Published: June 2014



From inside the flap

Keeper Ormund is in charge of bringing the bones of dead soldiers who died in battle home to Kettle Hill for proper burial. When a Bone Whisperer, a cleric with the power to read the lives of the dead in their bones, joins him, Ormund fears what the readings will reveal of his own sins. The cost of his guilt will be his soul.

As Ormund and the Whisperer make their way to Kettle Hill, each of the fallen soldiers gets their own story told through their own eyes. In their stories, an evil forest spirit, an agent of the enemy, seduces members of the army. Her charms and the assignments she gives them threaten not only the sanity of the Kettle Hill soldiers, but also their lives. With each reading, the Whisperer draws closer to discovering Ormund's involvement and the more determined Ormund becomes to keep his secrets hidden.

Keeper of the Bones (Excerpt)


CHAPTER ONE

Keeper Ormund stood silent and still before his fire, watching the flames lick at the bodies and eat away at the flesh, popping and sizzling. The sweet leerine oil dulled the stench to a degree, but the bodies of the Kettle Hill men had festered under the hot sun all day long. All along the barren yellow ridge, the fires crackled beneath the low summer moon. The thick smoke swirled up into the night sky, curled about the stars, and wrapped the moon in a red haze.

"Pardons Keeper," a friendly voice called Ormund out of the shifting labyrinth of flames. "Found another one."

Ormund turned slowly, pointing his jagged elbows out to help cool his underarms. It was no good. The heat had drenched his black robes in sweat at the collar and down the sides. The worn, thread-sprung wool had become heavy and itchy.

"I couldn't find anyone that knew him," the soldier grunted between breaths as he dragged the corpse closer through the night on the white, bloodstained death sheet. The same man had been bringing Kettle Hill men to Ormund since dusk. Ormund had not bothered to memorize his name. "Took up donations though, to pay his way. Poor lad was robbed clean but for his britches, before I gots to him. Shame it was one of us. Had to been. Them skel'tins do not care for the loots. Loot is loot, I say, but show some decency and leave enough to pay for the rites."

The soldier heaved at the long edge of the sheet with a final grunt and the corpse rolled out to the dusty ground. Flame shadows played eagerly about the body, as if the pyre itself was reaching out for a taste of its next bit of meat.

"Under whose command was he?" Ormund asked. "Are you certain he's a Kettle Hill man?" He eyed the solider. Ormund did not want to look at another corpse. He had sent five to his pyre this night.

The soldier scratched at the back of his neck. The shadows shrouded his face in a starkness that matched his grim duties.

"Can't say that I am, Keeper. Didn't have no patch on him. As I said, all they left him was his britches. If its all the same to you, I'd like to get him a proper burial. Died in battle, he did. Methinks he deserves the ride, same as any man gone and died out there today. I think you'll find the tribute is well worth more than the oil, ride, and shovel, Keeper."

A bribe? Ormund puzzled. Could it be? Why? Did it matter? Ormund held out a hand and the soldier placed a dozen coins there, half-bowing several times like a chicken. Everyone deserved a proper burial. Ormund closed his fist, felt the pointed corners of a couple ladies amongst the small round shields. It wasn't his place to decide who passes by anyways. Still ... why was this so important to the soldier?

"Thank you for your kindness to this stranger," Ormund told him.

"No good deed should be flaunted about, Keeper," the soldier said.

Ormund stuffed the coins into his pocket and felt an eyebrow inch up in curiosity. Now that he had the coins, he could ask his questions. "No patch, you say? What if he were a spy? Has this been reported?"

"Now that's not something you need worry about, Keeper," the soldier said. The shadows scowled across his face. "Doubt we'll ever know who he was. Not like he'll be worth no Whisperer, eh?"

There was something in the way he said that, that made Ormund tremble inside.

"Bah! Doesn't much matter I suppose," the soldier was muttering. "He's dead now, like so many. You take care of him, Keeper. You take care of them all, you hear? One more will not matter to you, but it will to someone. Like you said, kindness of a stranger. Nothing more. Here's a little something extra for you, Keeper. For your kindness."

Ormund took the gift and rubbed his thumb along the dried, worn-smooth wooden disc. A meal chip. He found himself struggling to hold up a frown of disappointment. It seemed the soldier was clear out of bribes. Kindness or not, Ormund supposed it was the right thing to do to give this fellow his burial.

"Ah ... well," the soldier shrunk away. "You enjoy yourself a good soldier's meal before you go. No more stale bread and watery broth for you. Take a good meal tonight. My treat. Before you leave. Perhaps I'll see you there."

Like that would not draw attention, Ormund scoffed. Though he waited until the soldier had balled up the death sheet and marched away before flinging the meal chip into the flames. An eel stuffed with crispy bread, apples, and walnuts would have been nice. He could almost taste it.

For the sixth time that night, Ormund began the rituals. He worked numbly and methodically through the paces, as if he'd been doing them all his life, when in fact he had not prepared his first corpse but a few months past.

When finished, he hooked his forearms under the corpse's arms and dragged it over to the pyre where he rolled it up the low, wobbly reed ramp with a grunt. He took a breath and wiped the sweat from his brow.

It wasn't until he was about to roll the corpse into the fire that the glow cast across the man, revealing calloused hands and the gash, deep and dark, across his chest. The glow flickered over the man's face and it was then that Ormund saw that he knew this corpse.

"No," he sputtered and he toppled off the side of the ramp, landing in a scuffle of limbs next to the fire. A flame caught the sleeve of his robe and he pounded it out in the yellow dust that was the ground. Ormund pawed his way up from the dirt and pulled himself up to stand aside the ramp. He grasped the man's cheeks between his hands.

The skin was warm.

The man was alive!

A dreaded coldness rose in his guts, splintering its way up his spine. He caught his breath only when that moment passed, when he realized the warmth was only from the fire. "The sky have you," Ormund whispered.

He grabbed the man's shoulders firmly and rolled the body in. The fire roared with delight. Ormund hadn't shed a tear before and he refused to now.

No one knew. No one knew. Or did he? Did that soldier know to whose pyre he had brought this corpse? Was the soldier playing some twisted game with him? Did he know what Ormund had done?

Ormund threw another bundle of reeds atop the fire's new meal and tossed a jar of leerine in too, shattering it off the corpse's skull. The oil seared up in a plume of bright orange and red smoke, hissing madly.

Ormund's robe chaffed irritably against his sweat-soaked flesh. He gasped for air, wheezing as the smoke burned his throat and chest. He scratched fretfully, retreating deep down beneath his robe, digging at his clammy skin until his nails were wet with blood.

It was done, he assured himself repeatedly. The soldier knew nothing, otherwise why pay him? Why bribe him? If the soldier had known anything, surely he would have reported it, not help Ormund cover it up and certainly not bribe him to do so. If the soldier wanted in on the scheme, he would have said so, not simply given the corpse over and wandered away.

Ormund would bury the bones and that would be the end of it. No one would be the wiser.

He tossed another bundle of reeds on the pyre and another. He nearly tossed another jar of oil too, but caught himself. Another jar and the fire would be too hot and too quick. A slow burn cleared the flesh from the bones. Too hot and it would burn the reeds away too quickly and the fire would die down before it finished its meal.

The meal token. Maybe the soldier wanted to meet Ormund at meal. Maybe it was there that he planned to extract his dour deeds and convince Ormund to let him in on the scheme. No, no. Better not to go.

No. The corpse was just another dead man for the fire. Ormund would deny knowing him. He gathered himself as the last of the flames took the body, licked clean its bones. When the fire settled, he saw that the leerine had done its job, for the bones laid white and glistening in the embers beneath the reeds.

Ormund considered mixing the bones with the others, but decided against it. If the soldier did reconsider and reported the unknown body, Ormund could not afford to draw suspicion in having misplaced the bones. No. He would have to keep them separate and hold to the plan. The innocent hide nothing.

That was it. Hide nothing. That was it, he decided. Report the unknown body. It was the only way. He tried to shake off the irritable itches, but it was of no use. Wiggling beneath his robe, he made from the pyre.

He planned to march right up to the Keeper Eminence, tell him about the unknown body, and hand over all the tribute. No one would be the wiser. The more he hid every little thing, the more likely it was to draw suspicion onto himself. Suspicion he could not afford.

Instead of marching nobly and fearlessly up to the Keeper Eminence, Ormund found himself wandering aimlessly from tent to tent beneath the red moon. In the camp, down below the ridge, the warm scent of roasting sausages, steaming pots of earthy tea, and spiced wine replaced the stink of leerine and death. Everywhere soldiers, battered and bloody, weary and downtrodden, loomed in the night shadows. It had been a costly victory and no one seemed much like celebrating. The war was over though, wasn't it? That should warrant some small amount of joy, Ormund believed. Soon, they could all go home to their families.

"They're calling this the Battle of Golden Ridge, now."

Ormund overheard as he came upon a trio of soldiers, their long faces lit by a small, but bright, fire.

"Yesterday it was 'that barren yellow ridge yonder.' Today it's a Golden Ridge," said another, smiling as he turned a plump sausage on a stick over the flames.

"Right makes for a better telling," said the first soldier and he took a slosh from his wetskin. His quilted jacket and his badge, an arched bow set with a red-tipped arrow, marked him as an archer. The prized Tesba archers had done little against the advance of Baan Lual's mass of skeletons and Ormund wondered how much of the battle these men had actually seen.

"Still just a dusty ridge overgrown with dead plains grass," the sausage soldier said, "as far as I can see."

"Well, that may be so, but someday all that will be remembered will be the gold, not all that blood. Mark my words. We'll go home and tell our little ones it's Golden Ridge ... right make a good story of it all. No sense in telling it all ... "

Ormund passed them by and their voices faded into the clamor of the camp; a horse stomping at its stake, other soldiers talking, others moaning in pain, the rumblings of carts being loaded, canvas tents thundering in the hot winds blowing in from the south. All the noises jumbled together into a muffled yet maddening confusion. Ormund could not think clearly through it all.

His hands felt so dry and stale, his arms achy and his shoulders heavy. It was hard work preparing the bodies for the flame, but he suspected there was more to his ails than that. Behind every cookfire flame, peering out from every pocket of night, he saw soldiers leering at him. Not soldiers. One soldier. Every empty face, masked in shadow or distorted by long orange flames, became the soldier that had brought him the dead. It could be anyone. If he knew what Ormund had done, would he try to extort a prize from him? Worse, would he turn him in? Just what was his game? He had not given any hint that he knew. No, it was more as he was the one trying to hide something. Strange that.

By the time Ormund reached the Keepers' compound, a circle of coned black tents arranged around the Keeper Eminence's tall, circular pavilion, he was numb of mind and in body. His robe no longer chafed or scratched at his skin. His mind was straight to the path set before him. It was all he could do but to count his footsteps as one foot went before the other.

"Keeper Ormund," a voice summoned him back. It was a pleasant, soft voice. The Keeper Eminence was always so pleasant, so calm and in control. "Keeper?"

"Yes?" Ormund heard his own voice as if he stood beside himself, watching himself.

"Why have you abandoned your duties? Keeper Soern is looking for you."

"Pardons, Keeper Eminence. I have come to report an unknown corpse. The soldier who found him paid his tribute. It is here."

"Did the soldier report this to his Lord?" the Keeper Eminence asked, taking the coins in his large, meaty hands. He was older, but not aged, with a full red beard and a sturdy build.

"I'm afraid I do not know," Ormund said. "I did my duty and burned the corpse. There is enough coin there for all the proper rituals. I will bury him at Kettle Hill, with your permission, Keeper Eminence."

"Kettle Hill indeed. A popular place this night, that."

"Sir?" For a moment, Ormund felt as if he had leapt back into his own skin. A wave of worry pressed at him and his brow rimmed in a cold sweat.

"Nothing," the Keeper Eminence said, jiggling the coins in his hand for a moment before clenching his fist about them tight. He scooped his hand about as if he'd caught the lot of them in mid-air. "Nothing for you to fret about. Back to your duties then, Keeper. And thank you for the information. Add this tribute to your bone cart for the morrow." He handed all the coins back to Ormund.