It’s been five hundred years since the end of the world and society has rebuilt itself anew. The old Norse gods are no longer revered. Their tales have been banned. Magic is outlawed, and a new religion – the Order – has taken its place.
In a remote valley in the north, fourteen-year-old Maddy Smith is shunned for the ruinmark on her hand – a sign associated with the Bad Old Days. But what the villagers don’t know is that Maddy has skills. According to One-Eye, the secretive Outlander who is Maddy’s only real friend, her ruinmark – or runemark, as he calls it – is a sign of Chaos blood, magical powers and gods know what else…
Now, as the Order moves further north, threatening all the Worlds with conquest and Cleansing, Maddy must finally learn the truth to some unanswered questions about herself, her parentage, and her powers.
Read the previous excerpt from Runemarks over at http://anarmchairbythesea.blogspot.co.uk/
Maddy was startled. She had made no sound; and as far as she could tell, he had not once looked in her direction. She stood up, feeling rather foolish, and stared at him defiantly. ‘I’m not afraid of you,’ she said.
‘No?’ said the stranger. ‘Perhaps you should be.’
Maddy decided she could outrun him if need be. She sat down again, just out of reach on the springy grass. His book, she now saw, was a collection of scraps, bound together with strips of leather, the pages hedged with thorny script. Maddy, of course, could not read – few villagers could, except for the parson and his prentices, who read the Good Book, and nothing else.
‘Are you a priest?’ she said at last.
The stranger laughed, not pleasantly.
‘A soldier, then?’
The man said nothing.
‘A pirate? A mercenary?’
Again, nothing. The stranger continued to make marks in his little book, pausing occasionally to study the Horse.
But Maddy’s curiosity had been fired. ‘What happened to your face?’ she said. ‘How were you wounded? Was it a war?’ Now the stranger looked at her with a trace of impatience. ‘This happened,’ he said, and took off his patch.
For a moment Maddy stared at him. But it was not the scarred ruin of his eye that held her thus. It was the bluish mark that began just above his brow and extended right down onto his left cheekbone.
It was not the same shape as her own ruinmark, but it was recognizably of the same substance; and it was certainly the first time that Maddy had ever seen such a thing on someone other than herself.
‘Satisfied?’ said the stranger.
But a great excitement had seized hold of Maddy. ‘What’s that?’ she said. ‘How did you get it? Is it woad? Is it a tattoo? Were you born with it? Do all Outlanders have them?’
He gave her a small and chilly smile. ‘Didn’t your mamma ever tell you that curiosity killed the kitty-cat?’
‘My mamma died when I was born.’
‘I see. What’s your name?’
‘Maddy. What’s yours?’
‘You can call me One-Eye’, he said. ‘And what makes you think I’m an Outlander?’
And then Maddy uncurled her fist, still grubby from her climb up the big beech tree, and showed him the ruinmark on her hand.
For a moment the stranger’s good eye widened beneath the brim of his hat. On Maddy’s palm, the ruinmark stood out sharper than usual, still rust-coloured but now flaring bright orange at the edges, and Maddy could feel the burn of it – a tingling sensation, not unpleasant, but definitely there, as if she had grasped something hot a few minutes before.
He looked at it for a long time. ‘D’you know what you’ve got there, girl?’
‘Witch’s Ruin,’ said Maddy promptly. ‘My sister thinks I should wear mittens.’
One-Eye spat. ‘Witch rhymes with bitch. A dirty word for dirty-minded folk. Besides, it was never a Witch’s Ruin,’ he said, ‘but a Witch’s Rune: the runemark of the Fiery.’
‘Don’t you mean the Faërie?’ said Maddy, intrigued.
‘Faërie, Fiery, it’s all the same. This rune’ – he looked at it closely – ‘this mark of yours . . . do you know what it is?’
‘Nat Parson says it’s the devil’s mark.’
‘Nat Parson’s a gobshite,’ One-Eye said.
Maddy was torn between a natural feeling of sacrilege and a deep admiration of anyone who dared call a parson gobshite.
‘Listen to me, girlie,’ he said. ‘Your man Nat Parson has every reason to fear that mark. Aye, and envy it too.’ Once more he studied the design on Maddy’s palm, with interest and – Maddy thought – some wistfulness. ‘A curious thing,’ he said at last. ‘I never thought to see it here.’
‘But what is it?’ said Maddy. ‘If the Book isn’t true—’
‘Oh, there’s truth in the book,’ said One-Eye, and shrugged.
‘But it’s buried deep under legends and lies. The End of the World, for instance . . .’
‘Tribulation,’ said Maddy helpfully.
‘Aye, if you like, or Ragnarók. Remember, it’s the winners write the history books, and the losers get the leavings. If the Æsir had won—’
‘Seer-folk, I dare say you’d call ’em here. Well, if they’d won that war – and it was close, mind you – then the Elder Age would not have ended, and your Good Book would have turned out very different, or maybe never been written at all.’
Maddy’s ears pricked up at once. ‘The Elder Age? You mean before Tribulation?’
One-Eye laughed. ‘Aye. If you like. Before that, Order reigned. The Æsir kept it, believe it or not, though there were no Seers among them in those days, and it was the Vanir, from the borders of Chaos – the Faërie, your folk’d call ’em – that were the keepers of the Fire.’
‘The Fire?’ said Maddy, thinking of her father’s smithy.
‘Glam. Glám-sýni, they called it. Rune-caster’s glam. Shapechanger’s magic. The Vanir had it, and the children of Chaos. The Æsir only got it later.’
‘How?’ said Maddy.
‘Trickery – and theft, of course. They stole it, and remade the Worlds. And such was the power of the runes that even after the Winter War, the fire lay sleeping underground, as fire may sleep for weeks, months – years. And sometimes even now it rekindles itself – in a living creature, even a child—’
‘Me?’ said Maddy.
‘Much joy may it bring you.’ He turned away and, frowning, seemed once more absorbed in his book.
But Maddy had been listening with too much interest to allow One-Eye to stop now. Until then she had heard only fragments of tales – and the scrambled versions from the Book of Tribulation, in which the Seer-folk were mentioned only in warnings against their demonic powers or in an attempt to ridicule those long-dead impostors who called themselves gods.
‘So – how do you know these stories?’ she said.
The Outlander smiled. ‘You might say I’m a collector.’ Maddy’s heart beat faster at the thought of a man who might
collect tales in the way another might collect penknives, or butterflies, or stones. ‘Tell me more,’ she said eagerly. ‘Tell me about the Æsir.’
‘I said a collector, not a storyteller.’
But Maddy was not to be put off . ‘What happened to them?’ she said. ‘Did they all die? Did the Nameless One hurl them into the Black Fortress of Netherworld, with the snakes and demons?’
‘Is that what they say?’
‘Nat Parson does.’
He made a sharp sound of contempt. ‘Some died; some vanished; some fell; some were lost. New gods emerged to suit a new age, and the old ones were forgotten. Maybe that proves they weren’t gods at all.’
‘Then what were they?’
‘They were the Æsir. What else do you need?’
Once again he turned away, but this time Maddy caught at him. ‘Tell me more about the Æsir.’
‘There is no more,’ One-Eye said. ‘There’s me. There’s you. And there’s our cousins under the Hill. The dregs, girlie, that’s what we are. The wine’s long gone.’
‘Cousins,’ said Maddy wistfully. ‘Then you and I must be cousins too.’ It was a strangely attractive thought. That Maddy and One-Eye might both belong to the same secret tribe of travelling folk, both of them marked with Faërie fire . . .
‘Oh, teach me how to use it,’ she begged, holding out her palm. ‘I know I can do it. I want to learn—’
But One-Eye had lost patience at last. He snapped his book shut and stood up, shaking the grass stems from his cloak ‘I’m no teacher, little girl. Go play with your friends and leave me alone.’
‘I have no friends, Outlander,’ she said. ‘Teach me.’
The final excerpt of this phenomenal story will be up tomorrow at http://www.bookaholicbabe.co.uk/
RUNEMARKS by Joanne M Harris is out now in hardback from Gollancz buy a copy here: http://bit.ly/RunemarksJoanneMHarris