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Winter is a dangerous time in the wyrmeweald. Once a magnificent wilderness, the home of the dragon-like wyrmes has become an icy wasteland. Brutal battles rage between the evil kith, intent on ravaging all that they can, and the wyrme-friendly/b>
From the creators of the Edge Chronicles comes the second installment in the fantastic tale of Wyrmeweald!
Winter is a dangerous time in the wyrmeweald. Once a magnificent wilderness, the home of the dragon-like wyrmes has become an icy wasteland. Brutal battles rage between the evil kith, intent on ravaging all that they can, and the wyrme-friendly kin.
Young Micah is safe in a winter den, sheltered from the intense cold, with kin Eli and the beautiful, dangerous wryme-rider Thrace. Thrace aches to leave the den and fly through the skies on her whitewyrme, but Micah knows they are safer indoors.
Meanwhile, a brutal assassin approaches, fueled by the invigorating liquor known as bloodhoney and seeking vengeance. Micah and his friends are being hunted—and nowhere in the wyrmeweald is truly safe.
The thud thud of heavy footfalls came drumbeat steady from the far side of the ridge. A pair of foraging skitterwyrmes paused. The footfalls crunched and squeaked in the freshfall snow. They did not falter.
They were getting nearer ...
The skitterwyrmes stood up on their hindlegs and peered around jerkily through the driving snow, heads cocked and fluted crests fluttering. Beneath their feet, the ground trembled. They eyed one another for an instant, then with short barked shrieks darted for a crevice in the snowcrusted rocks close by and disappeared.
The thudding grew louder, anchoring the freeform wail of the wind with its relentless rhythm ...
The hissing of the falling snow softened abruptly as the wind dropped. Above, yellow-grey clouds curdled and thinned, and a pale sun broke through. It set the dwindling display of snowflakes to sparkling and sent long shadows off across the snowdrifts. Yet there was no warmth to it.
A cowled head rose up from behind a snowcapped ridge, the face lost in shadow beneath a heavy hood; then broad shoulders, with an immense backpack strapped to them. A white lakewyrmeskin cape creaked as it flapped to reveal legs like tree trunks, and heavy boots that were toecapped and laced ladderwise to the shins.
The winter caller paused at the top of the ridge and surveyed the rocky snowscene ahead. A gloved hand emerged from the folds of the cape. It reached up and pushed the hood back, and the cold sun fell upon a bone mask that covered the face. It gleamed on the yellowed cheekbones and eyesockets and glinted in the darting black eyes beneath.
With a gruff snort, the hulking figure pulled a piece of rag from a back pocket and, with unlikely delicacy, cupped it to the mask and breathed deeply, eyes closed.
It was fainter now, the smell. But it was still there. A telltale mix of wyrmeoil and pitchsmoke, and sweat soured by fear and disgust. It was a unique smell, unmistakable, and leading him inexorably on to his quarry.
Find them. Dig them out. Dispatch them ... slowly.
The words of the keld mistress echoed inside his head. Ever since he had left the underground cavern he had heard them, urging him on through the weald of fullwinter in pursuit of the murderers.
The winter caller lowered the cloth and sniffed at the air, then snorted again. Twists of mist coiled out of the bone nostrils.
He rummaged in another pocket and drew out a handful of dried meat, which he shoved through the mouth hole in the bone mask. He chewed mechanically, turning the meat to pulp – till his molars clamped down on something that jarred his jaws. He probed around his mouth with his tongue, seeking and finding a small hard object, then spat it out.
It was a milk tooth. It lay on the surface of the snow for a moment, pearly and unblemished, before fresh snowflakes hid it from view.
He pulled the hood back over his masked face and lurched forward. The thudding drumbeat resumed.
It was as he crested the next ridge that he saw them. He did not stop, nor break his stride. There were two of them, one taller than the other, the pair of them brown against the white, standing beside a tattered awning and broken staves. Then they saw him.
The shorter one waved.
It wasn't his quarry, he knew that much. They both smelled of damp buckhide and something metallic. And, as the waving grew more agitated, he noticed that the shorter one's odour was laced with buttermilk. Kithtang.
A man and a girl ...
They started towards him. The girl was up front, wading thighdeep through the drifts of snow as fast as she could manage, her walking staff raised above her head. The man hurried after her, shouting out for her to watch her step, to probe for hidden cracks and crevasses that might swallow her up, but ignoring his own advice. They were grinning, the both of them, their gaunt faces flushed.
The twitter and chirp of their eager voices grew shrill as the gap between him and them closed up. And as they approached, the man extended a hand in greeting.
'How do, stranger,' he said. 'I am truly pleased to make your acquaintance.'
The winter caller stared down at the man from the shadows of the hood. He noted the raggedy beard, the sunken sparkle to his eyes, the broken crossbow at his shoulder. He said nothing, nor made a move to shake the proffered hand.
The man pulled back awkwardly and brushed snowflakes from his beard. 'Like I say, I ... I can't tell you what a relief it is for us that our paths have crossed,' he told him, though his voice lacked conviction.
'We got separated from the convoy,' the girl chipped in. 'Daddy and me. On account of the bellyache I got from that bad meat ...'
'Then the snow set in,' the man added. He shook his head. 'And a mountain still to climb before we make our winter lay-up. The winds destroyed the makeshift,' he said, nodding back at the flapping wyrmeskin canopy and splintered wood. 'And ... and our provisions are woeful low.' He eyed the bulging backpack at the stranger's shoulders. 'If you maybe had something to barter, friend. Something to share with me and my little girl here ...?'
The figure grunted, seemingly in response, then swept back his gleaming grey cloak. He reached out with his huge gloved hands and clamped them gently to the sides of the man's head. The man looked up at him, smiling warily, trying not to react badly to this hulking stranger's unusual greeting. Beside him, his daughter stepped back uneasily.
'Daddy?' she said.
'It's all right, angel,' the man told her. 'He don't mean no harm, do you, stranger?'
The winter caller said nothing, but steadily increased the pressure on the man's head as if he were testing a fruit for ripeness.
'You let go of him!' the girl shrieked, fear gripping her as she saw her daddy's eyes bulge and turn bloodshot. 'Let him go!'
The winter caller knocked her aside with a casual shrug that sent her sprawling to the snow-covered ground, and his hood fell back. The girl looked up and gasped at the sight of the bone mask.
'Daddy! Daddy ...'
There was a splintering sound. Blood started to ooze between the fingers of the wyrmeskin gloves. It spattered down onto the snow, red on white, turning pink, like cherry blossom. The lifeless body slumped down upon it with a dull thump.
The hooded figure turned to the girl, and she shook uncontrollably beneath the emotionless gaze of the glittering black eyes behind the bone mask. Stirring herself, the girl scrambled backwards, struggling to climb to her feet, the worn soles of her boots slipping on the snow.
She began pleading, begging the stranger to spare her life. Her anguished voice rose and fell, words spilling from spitfleck lips.
Twitter twitter. Chirp chirp chirp.
The winter caller remained motionless.
The keld mistress and her colleagues would certainly appreciate the girl, he knew that. She was small, but looked strong, and Cutter Daniel had a thing for plaited braids. She would make a good slave. Then again, he had other business to attend to, didn't he? The little matter of his quarry. She'd only get in his way, and if he tied her up and left her till he was done, she would be dead and useless by the time he returned.
He reached down and grabbed a hold of her. He lifted her off the ground and the twittering and chirping grew louder and uglier and higher in pitch, till it was screeching inside his head.
Twitter twitter. Chirp chirp chirp.
He started to shake the girl, his gloved hands gripping her bony shoulders, shaking and shaking and shaking until she fell limp. And silent. Her head lolled back on her broken neck.
The winter caller released his grip on the body and it crumpled in a heap at his feet. He stepped over it and continued up the mountainside.
The words of the keld mistress returned.
Find them. Dig them out. Dispatch them ... slowly.
Behind him, the two skitterwyrmes appeared from the crack in the rock, and were joined by half a dozen more. They scurried over the snow, which was already crusting up with the intense cold. They lapped at the blood. They probed the bodies with greedy curiosity, then sank their fangs into the still warm flesh. If they were to benefit from this unexpected feast before the carrionwyrmes arrived, they would have to be quick.CHAPTER 2
'Make a wish, Thrace?' said Micah. He wiped the grease from his lips on the back of his hand and held up the wishbone.
Eli Halfwinter was over on the far side of the chamber, clattering pots and pans as he scoured them with sand and sluiced them clean in the water pail. The cragclimber didn't hold with foolish superstitions and Micah hoped he wasn't listening – though not enough to stop him from asking.
'Thrace?' he persisted. 'A wish?'
The kingirl made no move. She was staring down at the wooden bowl in her lap. Micah watched her glumly.
The winter den that Eli had brought them to was far larger than Micah had first thought. As well as the low-ceilinged store chamber he'd seen first, with its boxes and sacks and barrels and sides of salted meat hanging from hooks, there were three other chambers besides, connected one to the other.
The first of them was large and airy, and with a ceiling high enough that even Eli did not have to stoop. The floor was scattered with dozens of nubbed wyrmepelts that warmed and softened the cold, hard stone floor, apart from a large indentation at the centre of the chamber which contained the fire upon which they cooked. Eli had rigged up a kind of flue above it. Beaten from rustfleck metal, the broad funnel tapered to a long pipe that led to the chimney hole in the cave ceiling high above, and carried the smoke away. The second chamber was long and narrow, with grooves in the floor where they slept, each one lined with rag and straw bedding. There was a wedge-shaped hole in the end wall, which offered a natural vent for air. The last chamber was much smaller, and there was a pit in the corner, a heap of sandsalt beside it, where the three of them went to relieve themselves.
Back on the plains, Micah had grown up in a cramped shack with five others. Compared to that, the winter den was spacious, and despite the ebb and flow of the howling wind outside, it felt cosy. Leastways, that was what Micah thought.
Thrace did not agree. Could not agree. To her, the place was a prison and, like a wyrme in a cage, she paced about listlessly, aware of her confines, unable to escape, unable to fly ...
'Thrace?' he whispered gently.
This time, the kingirl looked up. She was beautiful; snatch your breath away beautiful, with her ashgold hair and dark grey eyes. But even in the dim lampglow of the chamber Micah could see that Thrace had lost weight. Too much weight. Her face was a shadow and gleam of hollowed cheeks and jutting cheekbones, while the suit of soulskin, that once had hugged her body, hung loose like a hand-me-down from some bigger sister.
'A wish, Thrace,' Micah repeated. He held up the wishbone.
Thrace looked at it blankly.
Trouble was, thought Micah, Thrace wasn't eating enough. According to the sand that had trickled through the hourglass, Eli and he had spent nigh on three hours chopping dried roots and pickled vegetables, slicing and dicing the smoked squabwyrme and boiling it up into a thick stew which, if it didn't sound too boastful, had tasted pretty damn fine. Thrace, though, had barely touched it.
'Hunger, I have,' she'd said when he urged her to eat. 'Yet no appetite for food.' She'd pushed the bowl away.
Micah stared into her eyes. Once, they had glittered slatedark and pooldeep. But now? It was like the life in them had been drained away, leaving behind two dull grey stones ...
With a start, Micah realized that Thrace's gaze had shifted from the wishbone, and that she was staring directly into his own eyes. He swallowed, then smiled at her.
'Pull the wishbone with me, Thrace,' he encouraged her. 'Maybe it'll come true.'
'My wish?' Thrace said wearily. She shrugged. 'Maybe you would be happier if it did not.'
A cold shiver pinched the nape of Micah's neck and tingled at his scalp. He swallowed again, and hoped once more that the cragclimber wasn't listening. 'That's foolish talk, Thrace, and you know it,' he told her. 'Whatsoever you might wish for yourself, I would wish it too.' He smiled again, leaned forward and took her by the wrist. 'There is nothing I want more in this world than for you to be happy.'
Micah raised her hand, brought it to his lips and was about to kiss it, but Thrace pulled away. Micah feared he'd angered her – he hated angering her – but when she looked away, it was not anger he saw in those empty grey eyes, but an unhappiness that was desolate and intense. And that grieved him.
'Thrace ...' he began.
But the kingirl had climbed to her feet, the bowl of uneaten stew clasped to her chest, and was heading for the adjacent sleeping chamber.
'I could heat it up for you,' Micah offered, jumping up from the floor.
'That won't be necessary,' said Thrace, and was gone.
Micah slumped back down with a sigh. He'd hoped so much that, holed up together in the underground den for the long months of fullwinter, they might find contentment in each other's company. But that was not the way it had turned out. Despite their physical closeness, Thrace seemed further away from him than ever.
Oh, she loved him, in her own way, and as best she could, Micah knew that. But as for being content ... It was like she just wouldn't allow herself to be. Worse than that, it seemed there was nothing that he could do to make it otherwise.
Micah stared down at the wishbone. He'd saved it specially from the smoked carcass of the squabwyrme.It was broad and graceful, and maybe three times the size of a large turkey's.
'Eli,' he said, looking up. 'Would you care to pull the wishbone with me. I have a wish for Thrace that I would surely like to come true.'
'Can't make a wish on someone else's behalf,' came the cragclimber's gruff response. 'Besides,' he added, 'wyrmebone's too tough to snap by mere pulling.'
Eli did not look round. He didn't need to. Micah knew from his words that he'd overheard him and Thrace talking after all, and he blushed at that.
'Bring me over them dirty things when you're done,' Eli told him.
Micah observed Eli's back tense and flex as he scrubbed away at a stubborn patch of burnt grease on the roasting pan. Time in the winter den was measured out with minor chores – potwalloping, knifegrinding and suchlike – and Eli filled his days with them. When he wasn't cleaning or repairing kit, like as not he'd be planning and preparing their meals, meticulously eking out the provisions in the store chamber, where he seemed to be most often.
With a small sigh, Micah gathered up his and Eli's wooden bowls, mugs and spoons, the liquor jug, and the large dish that had contained honey-sweetened barley mash, but now was empty. He piled everything into a stack, lay the wishbone across the top bowl and carried the whole lot over to Eli.
'Set it down there, lad,' said Eli, nodding towards a flat block of stone. His gaze fell upon the wishbone. 'Wishes,' he said, and snorted. 'You're too old for such nonsense, Micah,' he observed, then added, 'Besides, that fine wishbone could be turned to something useful.'
Micah frowned. He picked up the bone and turned it over in his hands. 'It could?'
'Look at it close,' said Eli, wiping his wet hands on the back of his breeches and turning to Micah. 'Does its shape not bring something to mind?'
Micah shrugged. Eli took the wishbone from him and, holding it in one hand, stroked the pitted surface with the other.
'See, Micah,' he said, 'unlike you or me or any other human being that ever lived, wyrmes have fused collarbones. Like birds.' He traced a finger lightly down each of the curved lengths of bone, pausing at the ridged nub where they joined. 'It strengthens it. Makes the creatures capable of flight.'
Eli gripped the wishbone by the thick shaft, and turned it over so that the two curved lengths were uppermost. He looked at Micah, his mouth twisted into a half smile and his pale blue eyes questioning.
'Remind you of anything now?'
Micah frowned. 'The letter Y?' he suggested.
Eli switched the wishbone to his left hand and mimed a pulling-back motion behind it with his right.
'A catapult!' Micah exclaimed.
'Maker be praised,' Eli chuckled, 'there's something going on inside that head of yours after all. I swear I was beginning to doubt it.' He nodded earnestly. 'But you got there in the end, lad. A catapult.'
He held up the wishbone and Micah appraised it afresh through eager eyes.
Excerpted from Bloodhoney by Paul Stewart, Chris Riddell. Copyright © 2012 Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Paul Stewart is a highly acclaimed author of books for young readers. Chris Riddell is a renowned political cartoonist and illustrator of children’s books. Together, Stewart and Riddell have formed an award-winning partnership and created the bestselling Edge Chronicles series, which has sold more than two million copies and is now available in more than thirty languages.
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