The strange war down south—with its rumors of gods and monsters—is over. And while sixteen-year-old Hallie and her sister wait to see who will return from the distant battlefield, they struggle to maintain their family farm. When Hallie hires a veteran to help them, the war comes home in ways no one could have imagined, and soon Hallie is taking dangerous risks—and keeping desperate secrets. But even as she slowly learns more about the war and the men who fought it, ugly truths about Hallie’s own family are emerging. And while monsters and armies are converging on the small farm, the greatest threat to her home may be Hallie herself.
About the Author
The bookseller, editor, and author Leah Bobet lives in Toronto. Visit her website at www.leahbobet.com.
Read an Excerpt
THE BARLEY WAS IN. THE STUBBLE OF IT LAY BENT-BROKE IN the fields as far as the eye could see, rows of golden soldiers, endlessly falling, from the river to the blacktop road. On a clear evening, with the harvesting done, you could see both river and road from the farmhouse porch: every acre, lined in sunset light, of Roadstead Farm.
So I was the first to see him. Everyone claimed a sighting in the stories that grew up later: a dark man, with a dark walk, striding bravely through the dying grainfields. But it wasn't like that. I was the first to see the stranger when he came to the lakelands, and he stumped up the road like a scarecrow stuffed with stones. Marthe's chimney smoke drifted to meet him, a thin taste of home fires. He caught its scent, his head tilted into the breeze, and hesitated at the weathered signpost where our farm began.
It can't be, I thought, breathless, and then he straightened — and strode up the gravel path to our door.
For a moment I forgot the argument Marthe and I had just had: every vicious thing I'd said to my sister. I leaned forward, fingers wrapped around the porch rail, and squinted at the silhouette ghosting through our fields: The fields Thom and I had planted together before the men marched off to war. The fields I'd harvested alone — and was still working alone, plowing them under for the winter, when I wasn't having pointless, nasty arguments with Marthe over nothing more than a heel of bread.
No, I told myself. It was about more than the stupid bread.
It was about ... everything.
I'd known right away that asking was a mistake. Marthe had been wrestling with the autumn canning since sunrise, as behind on our winter stores as I was on the woodpile, and the second the word bread came out of my mouth, her face fell into put-upon fatigue. And suddenly I couldn't bear to hear her tell me for the thousandth time — like I was a slow child and not half owner of Roadstead Farm — Hallie, I need you to try harder."
One more chore before I could taste a bite of supper, because Thom was gone and the war had killed half our harvest. Because of the November wind outside, the woodpile that wouldn't get us past January, the snarled hole in the chicken coop that let the foxes in. Every time she said it, I could see the disappointment in her eyes: self-centered, childish, useless Hallie. Hallie, not strong enough.
"I'm trying, okay?" I pleaded, exhausted, hungry, cold. Marthe stared down at me, sweat-smeared and impatient; no mud on her boots and no sympathy in her eyes. She doesn't understand, I realized, and then it hit me: She doesn't care.
"It's easy for you to say," I shouted, wild with hurt. "It's not you out there, working yourself dead."
Marthe stiffened. Put down her cheesecloth, slow. She didn't say anything; she didn't have to. She was just in the kitchen working herself dead, seven months round with Thom Clarlund's child. The doorway stood deadly quiet between us, as wide as the wound of Thom's missingness. And then my sister did something she never had in the six years since Papa's funeral: she shut the door in my face.
I stared at that door a full minute before it sank in: You've finally gone too far.
It had been eight years since the fight that ended things between Papa and Uncle Matthias; eight years since my uncle went his lonely way. Marthe and I — at this rate we wouldn't even make it to my seventeenth birthday.
But none of that — none of it — mattered if Thom was finally home.
The wind stirred my hair, stirred the edges of that ragged silhouette in the broken barley fields. Please, I thought, be Thom. Not some man two inches too tall who walked all wrong, who didn't wave to me —
I let myself believe it for thirty delicious seconds before I let the truth in: It wasn't Thom. Just another veteran coming up the road, with a family who was waiting and wouldn't have to wait much longer. Just another stranger.
The man set down his pack five feet from the porch rail, in the soft gravel and dust. He was full-grown, but not long to it: twenty-three or four and long with muscle, his brown forearms three shades paler than Thom ever got. He huddled before me in a red-checked flannel work shirt worn threadbare, useless against the chill November breeze. My breath puffed out. It was plain what he wanted. He had a soldier's sleevebuttons, and his boots were in ribbons.
"We've nothing to spare," I muttered, too distracted to say it louder. He wasn't Thom, Marthe was still furious, and I was still in trouble. I stared into the dirt at his feet: Please, please go away. "You might try the Masons down the road."
He neglected to pick up his pack immediately, turn around, and never be seen again.
Instead, he took off his cap. There was a shock of black hair under it, pulled back in a cattleman's tail. "Thank you," he said, quiet for such a big-shouldered man, "but I'm actually hoping to hire on."
I blinked. The barley was in. Anyone could see that.
"I'm quick with my fingers," he kept on. He had an accent more suited to the wild country northward than our lakeland farmsteads and ruins. "And I don't eat much."
My hands tightened on the rail. "You're come from the war."
The man tucked his chin with a passable country respect.
"You by any chance pass a man on the road, shorter than you by a few inches?" I worked to keep my voice casual. "Twenty-seven, dark skin, brown eyes, name of Thomas Clarlund?"
The stranger pressed his lips together, a hair's-width, no farther. "I'm afraid I've not passed any travelers in some weeks."
A tiny shudder moved through me, from the rib cage down. I shut my eyes against it: against the empty road and the ruin I'd made of the farm Thom, Marthe, and I had built up together.
"We don't take on help past harvest," I said hollowly. His starved face emptied like a water bucket. All I could see inside it was some black-haired mother or sister pacing behind wood walls, weeks north, her door left unlatched past midnight in case he arrived before dawn. "Look, I can spare some apples. I'll give you apples if you just go home." Frustration beat hollow fists against my temples. Thom, if you've hired on somewhere — "Your people don't know if you're alive or dead. You can't do that to them."
His smile twisted like a scar. "Don't worry," he said crisply. "No one's waiting for me to turn life normal again."
I flinched. That wasn't why I wanted Thom home. That wasn't it at all.
Something in his eyes flinched back. That anti-smile faltered. "I'm sorry," he said, humbler. "You're being kind and I was just snide."
I blinked. "Kind?" I'd done everything but run him off.
He lifted his chin and regarded me: a girl too sunburned to be pretty and too small to throw him bodily off the kitchen porch. "You looked at this" — and he gestured down, from that soft north country accent to tattered shirtsleeves and the reek of sweat — "and saw a man someone might wait for."
I'd done everything but run him off. I hadn't run him off. And for that —
No one had ever called me kind before.
"So if it's too late for harvest," he finished, oblivious to my surprise, "I'll help however I can."
I bit back the automatic response: I can do this, the ugly chorus of every fight Marthe and I ever had, with the ghosts of Papa and Uncle Matthias hovering over our shoulders. I can run this farm. I can earn my keep if you just give me a little more time. I had to, so Thom had somewhere to come home to. So Marthe and I could laugh again, could build pillow forts under the table like we did when I was young. So we could raise her almost-child together in our own house — a house where everybody knew the younger Hoffmann sister was still half owner of Roadstead Farm.
I looked down across the soft, gray fields, to the thick green of the changeable river that cradled us in its hand. Between them the cherry trees flung their branches stark against the sunset and the goats lay in their paddock, curled around each other to sleep. You could see every speck of Hoffmann land from this spot; on a clear night, you could see all the way to the stars. You could see the half-full woodpile; you could see the broken wagon wheel, sunk in mud, and one stranger, strong and grateful just for shelter — the kind who would just move on to the next town if Roadstead Farm blew away into dust.
If the man in front of me could help this farm work right, things might be good between Marthe and me again — even if he was two inches too tall to be Thom. And then it wouldn't matter if Marthe didn't understand me, because I'd never let her down again.
"You understand we can't pay you," I said.
"Room and board is all I'd ask."
"Right, then." I spun on my heel and stepped into the kitchen.
"I thought I told you to stay outside," Marthe snapped. She was baking bread after all: the air was sweet and dusty with yeast, and the dough sounded, slap-thump, against her good block table. You didn't tell me anything, I thought at her, smart enough, at least this time, not to say it aloud. We'd lived in the same house for sixteen years. She hadn't had to tell me to not dare cross this doorstep until she invited me back in.
My sister turned, and her brown hair slid out of its messy twist. Marthe was pretty, when she wasn't coiled with anger. And Marthe had been throwing grown men off our property since before I could walk. I bit down on a river of resentment, of curdled love. "There's a man wanting hire."
"Barley's done," she said, as if I hadn't noticed.
"He's a veteran," I added, and watched her arms stutter: slap-trip-thump.
She untangled her fingers from the dough and peered out the kitchen window. "Not much to look at." I winced. It was true: tall or not, he was thin to the ribs, a scarecrow with a beard like spilled ink and a nose that had definitely been broken.
"He said," I added reluctantly, "he's not passed anyone in weeks."
Marthe's hand grasped air; landed on the stewpot spoon. "What are you saying?"
I bit my lip. My sister was infuriating, condescending, endlessly moody, but — there were our fights and then there was this. "I want to take him on," I said, and waited for the storm to break.
Her rounded cheeks paled; her mouth set into a thin, hard line. "Why?" she said finally, too controlled by far.
"For the poultry barn." I swallowed. "With someone else around I could fix it and start the malting, and not worry about the woodpile or cleaning the goat pen or the fields, and then I could even get to dry-docking the boat and all the chores in town —"
The words ran out. Marthe stared at me with a compressed hurt that was worse than any rage. We'd lived in the same house for sixteen years. She could hear what I really meant: Because I'm not strong enough to keep this farm or this family alive while we pretend Thom's coming home.
"I thought it might be good," I whispered, "with the baby coming."
Marthe's hand drifted to her belly, dusting the old apron with flour. Unspoken words flitted across her face: linens, lifetimes, rations of small brown eggs, and it all added up to no, no, no.
"I know we can't pay him," I said quickly. "He just wants a place to be overwinter. Marthe, I have to. He's barely got boots."
"Charity, then?" she said, surprised: a flicker of the sister I knew — who saw me, who cared about me. Who still, sometimes, smiled.
It's just he said, I thought wonderingly, that I was kind. "It'd get us through the winter," I said. "And I'd want someone to, if it was —"
Marthe threw the wooden spoon clean across the kitchen. It clattered against the crockery shelf, smacked a blue clay mug, and rattled, dishes ringing, to the floor. The mug wobbled. I didn't dare steady it. Marthe's damp hair curtained down her cheek, over sheer, gutshot pain.
Marthe stared at the spoon. Her right hand worked, and then she scrubbed it across her face as if she was very tired. "Put a pallet in the old smokehouse. At least with the stove he won't freeze," she said, and bowed her head over the squashed bread.
"All right," I whispered, through the sudden roar of my own heartbeat. I shoved shaking hands into my pockets and went back outside.
The soldier stood at attention five feet off the porch, as wary of the line between the house's shadow and the sun as I was of Marthe's kitchen doorway. He didn't even twitch: better at keeping a plain face, plain hands than I would ever be.
"You're to have a pallet in the smokehouse," I forced out. In a soot-stained junkyard we'd meant to clean out for six years. "My sister will give you spare linens." My hands were still trembling. I'd won the argument, but Marthe's grief, Marthe's frustration —
This didn't feel like winning.
"It's her farm?"
"Ours." Papa's snarl peaked, banked, and faded. "Our father willed it to the both of us."
If he was surprised, he feigned well enough; he nodded and shouldered his brown leather pack. "Thank you, miss."
"It's Hallie," I said. "My sister's Marthe. From Roadstead Farm, in the lakelands."
"Heron," he offered, and tilted his head with something finer, deeper than lakeland manners.
"Heron, from the war," I said bitterly.
His lips pressed shut for a moment. "From the war," he agreed.
"So," I asked, "did you see it?"
No reason to say what it was. The war was won when John Balsam, a man simple and small, lifted his dagger and cut out the Wicked God Southward's dark heart. Tyler Blakely had carried the tale home three weeks past midsummer, limping on a leg once hale and thick, his eyes blasted pale with the sight of it. We'd already realized a change, though, here on the river: Birds not known on the riverbanks since Opa's generation washed up dead and open-mouthed each sunrise. The stars rumbled nightly, too low and regular for thunder. Greta Chaudhry's hives failed, and Berkhardt Mason's orchards. By the time the Twisted Things staggered, wounded, through our fields, we couldn't tell if the war was won or lost. Half our crops had burned at the touch of their acrid wings: a whole winter's provisions gone up in noise and smoke. We shoveled their bodies into bonfires by night and prayed, among the cinders, for news.
We didn't know what it meant, then. Those three weeks, we held our breaths.
"I didn't see it," my new hired man said softly, and closed his hand around his satchel strap. "I turned my face away."
I opened my mouth. Shut it. I hadn't expected a real answer, and now I didn't know what to say. Not one lakelands man who went to battle with the Wicked God Southward would speak a word about how he fell, but they all saw it. You could tell it from their eyes: newly guarded, and dark as pits. They all saw.
The stranger's own eyes had abruptly lost their kindness. They shuttered, chilly as river ice. They made me feel young, and ignorant, and small.
"I'll show you where you're bunking," I said, unsettled, and wrapped my fingers in the dusty flannel of my shirtsleeve. There was more to a farm than a kindly face, and you still didn't shake with hired men.CHAPTER 2
HE CHOPPED WOOD FOR A WEEK. HE SAID PLEASE, AND thank you, and fixed our rotting fences.
No one shouted for seven days, but I never stopped expecting it: when thunder kicked me awake on the eighth day, it almost felt like coming home.
My bedroom window clattered in its frame, loud enough to scruff me out of sleep. Half awake, I caught my breath and held it; closed my eyes tighter and listened for the inevitable nightmare steps. If I pretended to sleep, maybe it would be all right: maybe his furious muttered swears, his heavy boots would pass my closed door by —
I swallowed hard. I was sixteen, not six, and my father was dead.
A bird called, harsh and frightened, and I dared open my eyes. Dawn light pried through my thick-paned window. The sky above it was as blue and fine as my faded bedroom walls. The thunder rattled weaker, wet leaves on glass. My heart wouldn't stop its frightened stutter. "He's dead," I muttered sternly, padded across the green rag rug and opened the window.
The yard stretched before me, brown and empty; the air smelled of woodsmoke and frost. I shoved my head into the chilly dawn outside, and the bare branches of trees, the barns, the gray river unscrolled sleepily into the sky. From below, from the leaf-clogged gutters, something let out a whimpered cheep. I reached down —
— and a small shape exploded in a fury of wings.
It staggered and shrieked right back at me, a harsh, uncertain caw. Battered brown wings struggled for purchase on the sill; tiny claws scrabbled closer. I grabbed the window handles and jerked them down between us. The thin cry muffled as wood and glass slammed down — and then it rose to a scream. A dark smear fluttered between the thick panes and the white sill: the wing. It was nothing more than a stunned bird, and I'd just crushed its wing.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "An Inheritance of Ashes"
Copyright © 2015 Leah Bobet.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Eight Years Before, Midsummer,
THE QUIET PLACE,
About the Author,