Read The Skeleth Online

Authors: Matthew Jobin

The Skeleth

BOOK: The Skeleth


The Nethergrim

My heartfelt thanks to Timothy King and to Melodie Yen for their invaluable assistance in the creation of the Dhanic language and the other languages in the series.


an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014

Copyright © 2016 by Matthew Jobin. Map copyright © 2016 by David Elliot.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Philomel Books is a registered trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.

eBook ISBN 978-0-698-17253-1

Edited by Michael Green.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Jacket art © 2016 by Bart Bus

Jacket design by Kristin Smith


For my father

for a larger version of this map.

All truly wise thoughts have been thought before; what is necessary is only to try to think them again.

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


atherine. Wake up, child.”

Katherine opened her eyes. “I'm awake, Papa.”

Her father let go of her shoulder. “It's started.” He turned and strode from her tiny bedroom.

“Has she broken?” Katherine sat up in the twisted mess of her blankets. Her rag-doll horse tumbled out onto the floor.

“Not yet.” Her father leaned over the fire in the hearth, in the room just past her bedroom door. He held out his hands to the warmth—deep orange light traced every line of his palm. “She's down on her side, though. It won't be long.”

Katherine reached for her boots and pulled them on over her breeches. “Who was that man, Papa, the one who came by just after dark? I've never seen him before.”

Her father made no answer. She watched him through the narrow, crooked doorway of her bedroom. The fire did no more than edge the shadows of the walls around him. He plucked out something from his belt and turned it over on his palm: a
worn old silver penny marked with cuts and slashes on both sides.

She got to her feet. “Papa?”

He shut his hand over the coin. “Soot's been up and down three times, child—pawed at the bedding, had her lip back.” He turned from the hearth. “She's ready. We shouldn't leave her alone for long.”

Katherine rolled up her blankets in a ball and stepped from her bedroom. She turfed down the embers of the fire, then turned to find her father holding out her thickest cloak.

“Every time you stand up, you're taller.” He placed the cloak around her shoulders. “You'll pass me before you're done.”

“I don't want to get much taller, Papa.”

“It's your mother in you. She never minded it.” He pushed back the door and she followed him out.

Katherine's back drew in tight against the cold outside. A late frost crunched underfoot. Clouds spindled out in strips beneath the stars. The wind blew sharp from the mountains—it took loose locks of her long dark hair and whipped them in her eyes.

She took a few jogging strides to come level with her father on the path down to the stables. “When did we breed her, Papa?”

“The last full moon before the planting.”

“She's early. Especially for a colt.”

“I know. You're right again, Katherine—you always are about these things.” Her father pulled his cloak around his arms. “Five fillies in a row, child, five new mares for breeding but not a single warhorse. Lord Aelfric will not be pleased.”

Katherine stepped into the stable behind him and tucked her wind-thrown hair behind her ears. Pigeons flapped between the rafters above. Two rows of heads poked out over the doors of the stalls along the central passage of the stable—not a single horse slept despite the lateness and the dark. Yarrow whickered, seeking for a pet on the nose. Butterburr looked to want the same, but Katherine knew that she would try to nip. Poor old Clover could not rest with all the stirring; she let out a snort, ears cocked toward the birthing stall at the far end of the stable.

Katherine's father took up the lantern from the door. Its glow picked out the gray from the brown in his beard and showed her a face creased with the sort of look he got when he stared at the wall all night, lost somewhere she could not follow.

Katherine hated it when he got that look. “Papa, what is it?”

“It's a big foal. Very big.” He drew back the door to the birthing stall, and there within lay Soot, a horse as black as the gaps between the stars, down on her side in the straw with her legs out and rigid, hooves twitching with every breath.

Katherine dropped to her knees in the straw of the stall, her stomach sinking. She had started helping her father with the foalings when she was seven and had come to know a hard one when she saw it. Soot jerked her head up and back in time with her grunts. Her coat had taken on a sheen of sweat—the stall smelled of it, smelled of fear. The swelling in her belly looked all wrong.

Katherine's father hung up the lantern and plunged his hands into the bucket of water in the corner; it made Katherine
shiver just to see it. He crouched down by Soot's hindquarters. Soot twitched—her next grunt was a groan.

“Hush. Hush now, all is well.” Katherine put a hand to Soot's cheek. “Papa, she's hurting.”

Her father sat back. He put his clean hand to his forehead.


He looked up at her. “It's a breech. The foal's backward.”

Katherine cradled Soot's head. “Is it alive?”

“Tried to bite me, just now.”

“Can you turn it, Papa? Can you get it out?”

“I don't know,” said her father. “Biggest foal I've ever felt in a mare her size, and it's an awful tangle in there. I can't work out where to start.”

Soot's back bunched, the whole of her pulsed in an effort to push out the foal. She strained and contracted, strained again, then released. Katherine's father tensed and tried to turn the foal, set his shoulders and tried again. He breathed out a snort through his nose; so did Soot. He let go.

“Papa, her water's broken.” Katherine felt along Soot's flank—a big foal, huge, kicking and struggling; helpless, all wrong. “We've got to birth the foal soon or we'll lose it. We might lose them both.”

“Curse me for the worst of fools,” said her father. “I knew we shouldn't have bred her to Break-spear for her first—but Lord Aelfric wants his great warhorses, wants his new blood. Curse me for a fool and him for a knave.”

Katherine ran a hand through the mare's sodden mane. “You can do it, Soot. You can. Please don't give up.”

“Yes, come, girl. Come, Soot. We'll do it together.” Her father
got up on his knees and strained with careful effort for a long, long time, pulling, shifting and pulling again. The other horses whickered and stamped. One of the barn cats paced by the stall, looked in on the proceedings, then kept on with his nightly rounds.

Soot let out another groan, softer than before. Her contractions slowed and weakened. She sank exhausted in the straw, her gaze withdrawn from the world.

“Please keep trying.” Katherine rubbed under Soot's chin. “You can do it, keep trying. Please.”

“Katherine.” Her father kept his head low. “Please go and get the slaughter mallet.”

Katherine's belly gave a lurch. “Papa, no!”

“We can't let this go on, child. We cannot let them suffer.” Her father sucked in a breath and tried again, but his voice spoke defeat.

“Please, Papa!”

“Get the mallet, Katherine. You don't have to stay.”

“No!” Katherine got up and ran from the stable. The wind greeted her face with a slap. She sank down on an old stump by the wall and wrapped her arms around her middle.

Clouds slid hissing through the sky. Night proceeded in its fall toward the moment of its deepest chill. The moon rose in a slow arc at the horizon, the first crescent of spring.

Katherine's father stepped out into the cold. Blood traced in runnels down his hands, dripping from the ends of his fingers. “Come inside, child.”

“No, Papa, please. I can't.”

“Come.” He led her inside and down the passage. It felt like
some appointed cruelty, some hard lesson about hope, about death. He opened the door to the birthing stall.

The foal raised its head, its ears pricked up high, slick with the fluids of its birth.

“Papa!” Katherine seized her father's hand, bloody though it was. “Papa, you did it!”

“They did it.” Her father leaned against the door. “I don't even know if I helped. All of a sudden, it just happened.”

Soot stood up, snapping the cord between her belly and the foal. She turned and bent her head to lick its dark fur.

“You were wrong, Katherine.” There was a note of teasing triumph in her father's voice. “A colt, a boy—and a big, strong one. He's bound to be a warhorse of the first rank or I'm the Duke of Westry. Lord Aelfric will be pleased with us after all.”

Soot licked her foal clean with careful vigor, then she lowered her head and gave him a nudge with her nose. The foal let out an indignant snort, but his mother persisted, so after a few more pushes he made an attempt to stand. He cranked his untested muscles and propped up his rump on his gangly hind legs—then looked at a loss for what to do next. He scrabbled his forelegs through the straw and tried to lever himself to all fours, but succeeded only in collapsing the lean-to he had made for his rear end and crashing back to the ground. Katherine laughed—her father laughed.

The foal shook his head, blew hard through his nose, and got his hind legs raised again with such speed that the motion seemed powered by embarrassment. Then, with his mother supporting him, he stood up on all four of his tiny hooves. His
mother turned around, and with sure swiftness he found a teat and began to feed.

“I'll never get tired of seeing that,” said Katherine's father. “Not if I see it a thousand times.”

The foal tottered over to Katherine with his mother close behind. The lantern wavered, deepening the coaly darkness of his coat, gray falling to black through a shadowed hint of blue. He looked up at Katherine, tiny and frail—and bold, springing upon the world as though a blast of trumpets had announced him. She felt a shiver; from the ground, from her feet to her eyes.

She reached out her hand. “Your name is

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