Following her showdown with Elizabeth Bathory, Jackdaw Hammond is running from her past, hiding from her future, and hoping to contain her newfound thirst for blood. Buying an overgrown home in the middle of nowhere seems like the perfect place to escape…at least until she finds herself in the sights of a murderous family with a terrible secret and a penchant for dark magic. Meanwhile, her old ally Felix Guichard has gone to New Orleans to conduct his own investigation into the nature of blood magic, but is soon sucked into the intrigues of the city’s occult underworld. But Jack will need Felix more than she knows, for the battle for her soul is set to begin.
Her only salvation may lie with the secrets of 16th century master occultist Edward Kelley, and a dangerous mission he undertook in Venice to confront the Inquisition, the darkest deeds of his own past, and the fearsome power of Elizabeth Bathory.
|Publisher:||Crown Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||7.90(w) x 5.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
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Present day: Bee Cottage, near Hawkshead, Lake District
The garden has forgotten what it waits for and guards against; it waits and guards anyway. It twitches out a few lime nettle shoots and uncoils brambles to search for unwary rabbits.
Paths wind between shrubs and trees, some unknown to modern science. A lone rhododendron has been chased into the shadow of the wall, harried by native plants, its branches defending itself against attacks by blackthorns and a spiteful dog rose.
And everywhere the elder trees, children of the great elder mother, who sits in the middle of the walled acre. She is defended by her progeny, and sheds fat, berried tears for the loss of the witch.
The stench of charred flesh hung over the cottage. Jackdaw Hammond had forced the door, swollen with damp, to enter Ellen’s house. She couldn’t walk much farther than the bottom of the stairs because there were piles of rubbish stacked almost to the ceiling.
“This is the worst house in the world.” Fourteen-year-old Sadie took two steps into the hall and stopped. “We can’t live here.”
Barricades of newspapers were still damp from the soaking by the fire brigade. Some mounds leaned against the wall, others had toppled over. The hall had one door straight ahead and one on each side, with stairs barely passable up the middle, rubbish heaped onto each tread. Jack pushed on the left-hand door but could hardly get it open halfway. Peering in, she realized it was tightly packed with boxes, packing cases and more papers.
“Ugh. It stinks.” Sadie seemed reluctant to risk her new trainers on the slimy floor. She covered her mouth while she gagged. “We can’t live here, it’s horrible.”
Jack almost agreed with her as her nose gradually distinguished the stench of putrefying flesh from scorched wood, charred meat and moldy rubbish. She pushed against the right-hand door, which swung open easily.
It was a well-proportioned room. Light gleamed in slivers across bare walls, sneaking in between the boards over the windows. It had high ceilings, a square bay in the front, and was empty of furniture. The walls were barely smoke damaged below about a meter high where the blackening really started, building up to a dense sooty layer across the top of the room. It hung in greasy droplets from the ceiling, and even Jack was nauseated at the reek of seared flesh. An oval on the floor had burned down into the boards, breaching a couple of joists in the middle.
A scream from Sadie made her dart back into the hall.
“There are rats in there!” The girl pointed at the other door, open a few inches. She wrapped her arms around herself, and shuddered. “I’m going to sit in the car. And I am not living here. My mum would go mad if she knew what this place is like.” She stalked toward the front door.
“It will be better once it’s cleaned up.” Jack looked around the hall, seeing the old electrical fittings and cracks in the plaster, the bare wooden laths visible in places. “You won’t recognize it, once it’s been . . .” She realized Sadie had already gone, and added “. . . bulldozed” under her breath. She tucked her fair hair into her collar in case it touched anything.
Trying to stop her coat from brushing the rubbish, she squeezed down the passageway and pushed at the door at the back of the hall. It was swollen shut and Jack pushed harder until it creaked, then gave way.
The room was different in style, with two deep-set windows glazed with small panes of cracked glass and a door barely six feet high. The ceiling was only a few inches higher. One side wall was mostly taken up with a wide fireplace, with a pile of rusty pans sitting on what looked like a Victorian range. Under the window ran a work surface, swollen open with the damp, the layers peeling back like a wet paperback. In the middle of it sat a ceramic sink, a white deposit of limescale sitting under a dripping tap. Beside the central door an old enamel electric cooker squatted, covered with opened tins, some topped with mold or half filled with greasy water.
Standing back, she could see the reason for the lack of light. Plastered against each surviving pane were wet leaves. Broken glass had allowed the ingress of ivy branches, which had spread across the walls, almost reaching the inner door frame. Brambles thicker than her thumb carpeted the tiled floor, squeezed under the old door as if searching for something. Mushrooms sprouted along the damp edge of the window frame and seeds were germinating on the threshold to the garden.
Jack stepped over the brambles, avoiding piles of rubbish, and found bolts on the door at top and bottom. They were rusted almost solid and she hit them with one of the heavy pots from the range. In a shower of rust, she managed to get the bolts moving, working them up and down before trying to drag them back. The top one wasn’t too bad, but she was sweating by the time she forced the bottom one. The door sprang inward as soon as it was released, and opening it farther she realized why.
A wall of green was pushing against the door, climbers toppling onto the threshold, shrubs leaning against the wood. Branches of an elder tree must have been bent against the handle as leaves had been torn off when she opened the door. Squinting along the outside wall, brambles reaching for her hair, Jack could see the greenery had grown up the building almost to the roof, and embedded itself into the lime render. It was completely impassable. Jack had to put her whole weight against the door to get it shut enough to ram the top bolt home.
The smell in the room was getting worse: mold certainly, and the smoke from the fire, but under it all was the stink of decomposition. Jack nudged the brambles on the floor away from what seemed to be the source of the stench.
It was a pile of oily slime, recognizable as previously a cat from the fineness of the brown and black hair. A white skull was emerging from a mass of maggots and the slick of fur, the canines stretched apart in a defiant last snarl. In the middle of the forehead was a round cavity, which looked exactly like a bullet hole.
Walnut Grove, the bed and breakfast, had been organized by Maggie, Jack’s foster mother. The twin-bedded room had stripped floorboards and a large shower room. The landlord looked curiously at Sadie’s white skin and lips and offered the teenager a hot chocolate to warm her up. Jack had been looking after Sadie for a few months now, and was always surprised at how friendly and open she was with strangers. Not today, though. She folded herself onto one of the beds, and even let Jack undo her trainers.
When the landlady brought up the chocolate and a mug of tea for Jack, she looked at the collapsed teenager with concern.
“Is she all right?”
“She’s been ill. She’s in remission now, but she’s very tired and we had a seven-hour drive up.”
“And you’re going to do up Bee Cottage. Now, there’s a job. Old Ellen went a bit senile at the end: it’s a mess. Such a tragic way to go, though. Call me if you need anything.” She paused at the door, looking down at the huddled girl before she left. “Poor little thing.”
Jack opened her rucksack and rummaged for a bottle of colloidal silver solution and an artist’s paintbrush. The ceiling was a bit high to reach without a chair, but the floor was a perfect surface to paint on. Jack started by pulling the beds away from the wall, and drew a complete circle enclosing both. She put a compass down to determine north, and began drawing the symbols in the almost invisible ink. By the time she had finished the second circle, within the first, Sadie was stirring, a little color in her lips.
She sat up and reached for the hot chocolate, wrapping the quilt over her legs. “Thank God for the circles. That’s better. What is that stuff? Invisible ink?”
“Felix suggested it,” Jack said. The professor had theorized that, as well as being more discreet, silver would be more effective than ink at creating the sixteenth-century magic circles that helped “borrowed timers” survive. The sorcery that had caught both Jack and Sadie and suspended them on the edge of death relied on sixty-six sigils, inscribed in protective circles. Jack had them tattooed onto her skin, Sadie’s were drawn on every few days. “I didn’t think the landlady would be keen on permanent markers all over her nice floorboards.”
Sadie sipped the chocolate, sighing. “I was getting so cold.”
Jack lifted her bag onto the bed. “You’re able to survive out of the circle better than I did at first. Here, put a jumper on.”
Sadie put her drink down and buried herself in a knitted jacket. “Talking about Felix . . .”
“We aren’t.” Jack unloaded the contents of her bag into several drawers. “That’s all over.”
Sadie cupped the warm drink again, catching Jack’s gaze for a second. She sipped the froth off the top. “Mm. They have a telly here. I bet they even have broadband and satellite.”
Jack handed her the remote, and for a few minutes the girl seemed occupied with swapping channels.
“So, what do we do about the cottage?” Sadie looked up, swamped by the jacket, looking more like twelve than nearly fifteen, she had lost so much weight.
“Maggie’s the new owner, legally, and she’s made me her agent. Ellen was her mother’s younger sister, I think. I have to organize getting the place cleaned up and habitable so we can decide whether to sell it or live in it. We’re booked in here for a week, but it may take a lot longer.” She started sorting through Sadie’s clothes from another bag. “We don’t have to do all the work ourselves. We can get people in to help.”
“I know that.” Sadie turned the television off. “I was just wondering how Ellen died? I mean, was she dead when the house caught fire?”
“I don’t know. I think so.” Jack sat on the other bed and looked at the girl. “We have a lot to do at the cottage, but we’ll have time to do other things as well. I know it was too dangerous to let you go out in Devon in case someone recognized you, but you should be OK here. I thought we’d get you to a hairdresser. All the pictures in the press have you with black hair, and you look different now it’s growing out.”
“Maybe get some new clothes?” The girl had added a note of pleading. “It’s my birthday in a few weeks.”
“I know, your mum told me.” Jack kicked off her boots and stretched back on the pillows. “We have to get the house habitable because she’s coming up to visit in the summer. Angie’s been telling friends she’s going on a retreat to grieve for you.”
“Only, I’m not actually dead.” Sadie dragged a music player from her rucksack. “Well, I won’t be if you pass me some of that herbal stuff.”
Jack passed over a bottle of the decoction they both used to maintain their energy. “I’ll go back tomorrow and start clearing the worst of the debris from the kitchen. The smell, by the way, was from a dead cat.”
“That’s horrible.” Sadie screwed up her face as she measured out a few tablespoons into a glass and swigged it back. “I thought it was--you know, Ellen’s body.”
Jack wondered how frank she could be with Sadie but the girl was bright and, so far, had survived the nightmare of being hunted by a sadistic predator. Not to mention two brushes with death. “Well, that was probably part of it.” Jack looked at Sadie, whose eyes promptly narrowed. “The smell of burning, anyway.”
“What’s bothering you?” Sadie put her head on one side, staring at Jack through long lashes. She was a pretty girl, with a heart-shaped face and vivid blue eyes. She was very thin after months of illness.
“The cat, I thought--it had a hole in its head. Perfectly round.”
Sadie stared into the dregs of the drink. “Like a bullet hole? Who would shoot a cat?”
“I don’t know. Maggie said Ellen used to do what I do, supply things for magic, but in recent years she only had one customer."
Sadie put the glass down and picked up the remote again. “Well, we need to find out if Ellen was shot before she was incinerated, then. Or burned alive.” Sadie shuddered.
Jack nodded. “I thought I would go to the inquest next month. She was old; I’m sure she died before the fire.” She didn’t sound convincing even in her own ears.
Before Sadie switched the television back on she paused, bit her lip and looked toward Jack. The expression on her face was troubled, as if she weren’t sure how Jack would react.
“The garden’s overgrown,” the girl said. “Ten feet high overgrown.”
“Completely. It’s worse at the back, right up to the roof in places. It’s even growing into the house.”
Sadie studied the back of her hand; the skin on her fingers was loose and dry. “I thought--you’re going to laugh at me.”
“I thought the garden was--sort of whispering. I can’t explain it. Not words, just--” She looked toward the window and scowled. “I know it sounds mad. But it seemed like it was watching us.”
Before Jack said anything, she remembered the feeling of the garden pressing back against the door. “I felt a bit the same.” The presence wasn’t oppressive, just enormous, as if she were being scrutinized by an elephant, or a whale.
“I think we ought to be careful, that’s all.” Sadie switched the television on and Jack retrieved the bottle of herbal medicine for herself.
Sadie’s energy recharged inside the circles; she slept well and bounced out of bed the next day, ready to go back to the house.
“I thought you hated the cottage?” grumbled Jack, who was slow to wake up these days.
“You’re such a grump.” Sadie, dressed in pale blue pajamas decorated with penguins, beat her into the bathroom. “You said we could go shopping after we’ve made lists in the house.”
Jack laid her head back on the pillow and looked at the ceiling. The top circle of sigils was almost invisible, painted by Jack standing on a wobbly chair. Her body, which she had ignored for most of her thirty-one years, ached. Her breasts were uncomfortable, and when she felt them they seemed bigger. She ran her hands over her hips, feeling the slight padding that had developed over the last few months with the resurgence of her appetite. She was losing her childish figure.
Excerpted from "The Secrets of Blood and Bone"
Copyright © 2015 Rebecca Alexander.
Excerpted by permission of Crown/Archetype.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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